Yesterday Microsoft had it’s big Xbox reveal and pulled the cover off of the Xbox One, the next generation of — well, the actual classification is seemingly causing some confusion and concern in Internetland (honestly, someone forgets an apostrophe and it’s a cause for catastrophe in Internetland).
What We Know
The presentation was an hour long, and the talking heads were few. The subjects were concise: the reveal, a feature demo, tech specs, partnerships, and closing.
Much of the focus was on the new Kinect and how it was used to interact with the system, including gestures and voice commands. They spent some time on the technical specifications of the console, Kinect, and the controller. They also talked a lot about how the Xbox can be used in conjunction with live TV, and also about their other media offerings, including an upcoming live action show set in the Halo universe. Sports was a big topic, and appeared many times in other segments. They showed footage from a new Forza game, and a new Call of Duty game.
What We Don’t Know
Price, for one, but price is rarely mentioned this far out. Availability was left at a vague “later this year”. There’s been a lot of questions surrounding how the XB1 will actually work with live TV, but the current explanation is that the XB1 sits between the TV and your cable box, a la Google TV. There’s some murky and conflicting information out there regarding how the Xbox will handle used games. And, of course, we know practically nothing concrete about upcoming games.
What We Think We Know
Microsoft is abandoning gaming via the Xbox because they only showed two games, and then only briefly. They spent a lot of time talking about TV and sports. Overall, the pitch worked very hard to promote non-gaming activities as the primary focus of the XB1.
The prevailing wave seems to carry a resounding “meh” from the middle-of-the-road crowd, a silence from folks who haven’t heard about it, and a concerted groan of anger from the “hardcore” gaming community. None of that is good, although being an Xbox, you’d think that the anguish of the gaming community would be the worst of it, but it’s not.
What Microsoft Would Like You To Know
I personally think that MS did a good job with their presentation. These reveals are never about in-depth discussions of each and ever feature, but yet people always go into them with personal expectations. Usually those expectations aren’t met, and people leave disappointed, but when you make a decision to judge on the merits of what is there, things are what they are, and they’re not that bad.
Despite the usual hijinks that we get from these dog and pony shows, I think that Microsoft treated the crowd like adults. It’s a given that the XB1plays games, so they didn’t spend a lot of time talking about them because, you know, it was obvious, being that it’s an Xbox. They felt it wasn’t necessary to explain absolutely everything in their short amount of time, like adults do to children who don’t yet have the capacity to grasp without repetition. Instead, they promised that a dedicated discussion of games would happen later at E3.
Instead, MS opted to focus on what the XB1 does beyond games. The 360 started out as a pure games console, and over the years has had a lot of additional stuff tacked on like scaffolding on the superstructure, present, but not part of the DNA. The presentation was about letting people know that in addition to doing what is expected of it — playing games — it will bring value to your living room when you’re not playing games. They tried very hard to tell people that the XB1 doesn’t need to be put away when the gaming is done; it can be used by anyone at any time, for almost any entertainment purpose.
What Gamers Heard
Hell hath no fury like a community of gamers who think they’re getting a raw deal. The problem isn’t necessarily in what gamers heard, but in what they did not hear, and what they did not hear was about gaming on the XB1. We saw a Forza sizzle reel, and something about CoD (I had shut down the stream at this point, as they said they were pretty much done), and that was about it. There were no names dropped when they mentioned the 15 or so first party titles, and they didn’t go into depth about the 8 or so new IPs included therein. Only a single utterance was made that we’d “hear more about the games at E3″, but I think the nerd rage was too strong by that point for anything other than “we’re sorry” to have registered.
For many, this presentation translated into the belief that Microsoft thinks that console gaming is dead. They want nothing to do with gaming as a focus of the XB1. Your mom is more important to the Xbox brand now, with her reality TV shows. Your dad and dudebro brother are more important to the Xbox brand now, with their need to consume as much sports as they can fit into their faces. Thanks for supporting us all these years and making us the #1 home console brand, gamers…now get out.
What Others Heard
In a particularly hypocritical editorial, Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra believes that Microsoft is stuck in a time warp where increased graphical face-lifts on tired franchises played on the archaic medium like TVs passes for newsworthy. Her proof? Her own self-satisfaction with mobile and tablets and hipster-on-the-go culture as being “where it’s at”. It is an editorial, and at it’s core there may be truth there, but the vehicle used to reach that truth is about as out of touch as the post claims of Microsoft.
Then there’s the general Microsoft haters who are cackling in selfish glee with every dismissive post they read about XB1. Xbox was the shining jewel in Microsoft’s otherwise corroded crown, and with this lukewarm-to-outright-hostile reception, these haters see the Obliteration of Microsoft on the horizon. Nothing short of an announcement that the XB1 would provide an endless supply of weed and hookers would have made these people feel otherwise, though.
What matters is perception, and this post has been about presenting perceptions of the XB1 based on Microsoft’s single presentation. It doesn’t really matter what was said — I can’t even recall the specs on the device, myself — but how it made you feel when it was over. Were you satisfied? Let down? Angry? Indifferent?
The feeling I’m getting from the wider Internet is that the whole of the next generation of consoles is generating indifference. The XB1 was the last potential saving grace of the console revolution. As the current console champ, there was a lot riding on Microsoft’s presentation from the gamer’s point of view. As the term “video game” has become a stand in for “console game”, not only is people’s interest on the line, but also the potential fate of the gaming industry as a whole (as they count numbers today). Interest in the PS4 hasn’t been awe inspiring either, and with the opinions on XB1 starting at “meh” and trending downward, “video games” are screwed.
But things change. There’s a lot of variables not yet in play as far as the XB1 and PS4 are concerned. Price, for one. Game lineup for another. Gamers can talk a good game, but when it comes to following through with their promises not to buy into something for “moral reasons”, they lose their high-minded resolve as soon as they see something that they want. At this point in time, no one is under any illusion that the XB1 or PS4 will blow away the sales figures of the previous generations, but we’ll have to wait and see — something gamers aren’t well known for being able to do — how things shake out before truly calling the game.
The Real Winner
If we had to look ahead a year and point the finger at a winning platform, it has to the PC.
Yeah, the dying, dying, dying, dead platform that was killed off by consoles, then handhelds, then phones and tablets, yet still seems to be ignoring those claims to keep chugging along and satisfying it’s fan base. I’ve seen more people re-affirm their commitment to the PC as a gaming platform in the wake of the PS4 and XB1 reveals than ever before.
I don’t buy into the “mobile and tablets as the future of gaming” rhetoric. Right now, the sales charts and figures support the growth of phablet gaming over other forms, much in the same way that sales charts and figures once supported the growth of console gaming over other forms. Now look where we are. Consoles are seemingly on the wane. What we’ve seen at the crest of these “revolutions” were periods of extraordinary growth and revenue on other platforms, which attracted the companies who want to “strike it rich” in these brave new markets. This massive aggregation of attention merely cast a shadow on the slow-but-steady PC gaming scene, but didn’t smother it. If the console bubble is close to bursting, what does that bode for the phablet gaming bubble?
We’re all poorer for having fewer choices, and platform partisanship aside, no one wins if the XB1 or PS4 fail to find an audience sizable enough to call the video game industry “healthy”. Ideally, analysts would get their heads out of their asses and start pushing for PC digital download sales to be added to the industry overview, because I have a sneaking (and biased) suspicion that the “video game industry” is healthier than is thought, if only we’d count the whole of the video game industry, and not just consoles and mobile.
But losing the choice is what hurts. Having more opportunity to do more with more is never a bad thing. Damning the XB1 because one presentation talked a lot about TV and said practically nothing about games doesn’t mean squat unless you are clinically allergic to television. You may never use a lot of the features included, and hell, you may never even buy one, but come on…admit it…you’d try it if you had it in front of you. You might even like it.
I’d suggest we at least try to like it, because the alternative is a world where we have to pick between Angry Birds and Temple Run clones, and that’s a world I know I don’t want to live in, and I suspect that any gamer who’s angry at the lack of games mentioned in the XB1 presentation will agree with me on that.
When you get a bunch of people together in a room, and ask them to identify “the best” of something, you’ll wish you spent your time looking at funny cat videos instead. There really is no “the best”, especially on the Internet, because everyone’s needs and wants are different, and as a consequence the things that fit their needs and wants will differ. Instead, we have to look at a larger picture, tally the columns from a set list of features, and declare the ones with the most votes as “the best”. Then we need to shut off the comments because we’re going to catch hell for our decisions.
But screw that: this is my blog, and here are my top examples of things that some games do that every game really should do.
5. Screw Combat
Listen, I’m under no illusions that a good amount of people — maybe the majority, maybe the SUPER majority — enjoy the hell out of hitting things with swords or shooting them with laser guns. Making combat THE reason and THE driver for these games goes way back into human history because in combat, there’s one clear winner, and one clear loser. It’s easy to determine when to give rewards, and when to give punishment, and as sad as it may sound, a lot of gamers need this kind of ambiguity to feel accomplished.
And while I’ve got your ear, we need to acknowledge that video games aren’t just niche hobbies any longer. Yeah, the “hardcore” squeal about the influx of “posers” who play casual games, but gaming isn’t a gated community any longer. With so many MMOs out there, and so many more gamers coming online every day, it’s time that developers started looking at non-combat systems as first class citizens that can stand on their own, without the need to engage in combat.
Crafting is the old standby because so long as a player can avoid combat, he can gather materials and work his magic. But crafting has lost it’s way, having become push-button simple, and requiring us to grind out copies of useless vendor trash ad nauseum. Housing used to be “a thing” until Blizzard decided it got in the way of killing things, and everyone else followed suit. And you would not BELIEVE how much time people put into dressing up their characters in The Secret World.
Best Examples: Everquest 2, The Secret World, Vanguard
4. Account Presence
Nothing bugs me more than having to re-build my friends list with every alt I make. Why are my characters treated as different accounts when I have to log in to access them all with ONE account? Just because I make a new character doesn’t mean I want to create new associations with totally new people, and leave my friends and guild members behind. And we have to face facts: people still mule, and so moving items between alts should be a lot easier than it generally is.
It’s really a weight off my shoulders when I log into a game with a new character and see all of my friends in the list, or even find that I’m already in my guild. It’s a lot less housekeeping that I have to while wading through the tutorial for the hojillionth time. Shared bank space is right up there as well.
Best Examples: Cryptic gets a gold star for porting friends and chat channels across GAMES, not just alts, and Guild Wars 2 for their account-centric guilding.
3. Make Guilds Matter
Guilds at their most basic implementation are private chat channels. Even in 2013, developers seem at a loss for what to do with guilds, if they even consider there to be a room for improvement at all.
People join with others in a guild for two reasons. First, they’re already friends, and want that private chat channel. Second, they want a regular stable of bodies at their beck and call. It’s easier to get people together when you have some kind of shared allegiance than it is to run with PUGs all the time. But guild mechanics have been almost as stagnant in the MMO space as crafting has.
We need to make BEING IN A GUILD matter. How about a real guild project? Not just “do what you would be doing anyway, and earn guild levels and buffs”. That’s not community. Maybe give guilds an instance where they have to work together to build and maintain their own guild hall and adventure zone. The more people you have in the guild, the harder the tasks get, but the bigger the reward. Guilds need a reason to BE a guild beyond huddling together for warmth.
Best Examples: None that I can really think of, although EverQuest 2′s guild halls are pretty impressive
2. Concurrent/Complimentary/Ah Fuck It Leveling
A sage once said that “time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happeneing at once”. Leveling, therefor, is gaming’s way of preventing everyone from having access to all content from day one. Levels are nice triggers that developers can use to tell a player “you’re not ready” or “you really should move on”. They’re also great ways for players to measure their progression
But levels striate the population. When areas are “level appropriate”, that means that everywhere you AREN”T is “level innapropriate”. If your friends are of lower level, or of higher level, playing together is pretty damn difficult. Some games have tried to put a bandage on this by allowing limited de- or up-leveling to match party members, but it’s not a solution. Most games are content to say “ah fuck it”, let players rolls alts, and form spoken leveling pacts with their friends and guild members. We can do better than this.
Best Examples: Guild Wars 2, EVE Online
1. ONE FUCKING SHARD!
We’ve been told for years that the reason people play MMOs is (or should be) for the social aspect, and yet in 2013, we still see games being released that divide the population by shards/servers. The best offenders (though still offenders) allow players to move or temporarily move to a friend’s server, but the worst offenders don’t offer anything of the sort (or make you pay for it).
There are several games which use one server/shard technology, or can fake it well enough that we don’t notice the difference. As complex as online multiplayer games are, you mean to tell me that this is one irritation that developers and engineers can’t eradicate?
Best Examples: EVE Online, Star Trek Online, The Secret World
Despite their relatively youthful status, MMOs end up with some of the lamest, most overused bitch-fests this side of a console FPS. The really sad part is that for as long as there have been MMOs, there have been similar arguments and complaints that seem to be “baked in” to each and every game, standard and free of charge. The latest trend towards free to play is generating a whole new bumper crop of asinine sentiment, so now’s as good a time to break ourselves of these habits, and re-learn how to enjoy our entertainment.
5. This Game Will Be Closed in [Insert Random Number of Months]
No armchair pundit has the insight to make this statement with the actual certainty with which it’s typically presented, yet it always appears on the forums within the first week after launch. I think that the majority of us read this and understand that it’s really born out of the writer’s frustration and dissapointment, but I’m sure that at least one poster, somewhere, and possibly ALL people who post these kinds of posts, actually believe in their abilities to prodict the future.
Here in the West, companies aren’t actually that quick to shutter their MMOs. Yes, it’s happened. Yes, it’s happened quickly, There are scads of games which have suffered horrible setbacks, some technical, some financial, but those games are still operational. Many of them are so low level you might not have heard of them, leading you to wonder how they survive at all. For large companies like EA, it’s easier to close doors because their eggs are in many baskets, but for many companies, their game represents their entire reason for being. They’ll sell their children before they close the servers, and at that point you know it has nothing to do with how Johnny Gamer feels about his avatar’s running animation.
4. Cash Shops Are All About Greed
Free to play is a great innovation that was pretty much a swear word less than five years ago here in the West, mainly because “F2P” was synonomous with “cash shop”. Why the hate against cash shops? For one, we were still in the grip of the “subscription buffet” model where people believed that $15/month was a small price to pay for everything under the sun. Having to pay incremental amounts for what, in many people’s opinion should be standard was an affront to common decency. Companies that implemented cash shops were purposefully trying to scam players out of cash by forcing us to buy our games piecemeal.
With 500,000 subscribers at $15/month, that company makes $7.5 MILLION dollars a month to keep the servers running and their employees paid. With 500,000 subscribers and no monthly fee, a company makes exactly $0 a month, which means they need to fire their employees and shut down their servers. I’m no accountant, but I think that in order for an online game to operate, for bugs to get fixed, for new content to appear, we need to accept that while we like the idea of having something for free, it’s not really free as in beer. It’s free as in if you really like it, support it by buying some cosmetic items.
3. Cash Shops Are P2W
This one has always baffled me because the majority of MMOs are PvE. Saying that a cash shop is all about “paying to win” implies that there is something to win, and that the cash shop offers items that give one player an advantage over another.
If Western games were organized like some Eastern games, then sure: spending your way to victory would be problematic, as we’d have to pump money into the game on a regular basis just to stay alive. Who wants to do that? (*cough*real life*cough*) Most Western cash shop content is focused on cosmetic and vanity items, services, and convieniences. The only time your buying an item in a cash shop helps you “win” would be if the shop was selling an item that could be used in PvP, but no legitimate Western operator believes that it’s a good idea to unbalanace their game like that, except when you have an avenue to earn that same item just through normal game play (Tribes: Ascend and Planetside 2, for example).
2. F2P Games Attract Asshats
Whenever a new F2P game launches, or especially when a previously subscription-only game makes the switch, current players get all uppity about the impending influx of dirty, uncouth know-nothings that will descend on their pristine, happy family, crap on it’s lawn, trample it’s flowers, and set it’s guild houses on fire before departing to the next game they intend to ruin.
While F2P removes barriers and allows those who were wary or unable to pay a monthly fee to try the game, I’d be willing to bet that for an older game making the transition, the majority of players who show up were players who had left the game. Not everyone leaves out of boredom, having reached the cap in the first week, crapping on the lawn, and setting fire to the guild houses before they flipped the game the bird and moved on. Some folks just burned out, or couldn’t afford the monthly fee any more. Now, having had their vacation, and being invited back for the low price of free, why wouldn’t they return?
Besides, jerks ALSO have credit cards, too. Credible studies show that many of them are elitist as well.
1. Arguing About World of Warcraft in General Chat
Like Godwin’s Law, the Law of General Chat states that “no General Chat channel in any MMO can go more than 30 minutes without someone arguing about World of Warcraft”. WoW is as obiquitous as oxygen. No matter hor hard, how fast, or in what direction we run, we’ll never emerge from WoW’s monumental shadow, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the General Chat of any MMO-that-is-not-World-of-Warcraft.
We’ve got people comparing this game to WoW. People who bitch about WoW. People who tell stories meant to let people know how awesome they were in WoW. Makes you wonder why these people and WoW don’t get a room…a room that isn’t the General Chat room.
The thing about video games that makes them different from books or movies is that each person’s experience is different, but more importantly that each game allows players to have different experiences. Why ruin your potential and future experience in this new game by concluding every undertaking with “That was fun, but in World of Warcraft…” It is the opinion of this blog that every game deserves to be experienced, judged, and enjoyed on it’s own merits, and not based on how it stacks up to World of Warcraft. If all you can do in a new game is to talk about ANOTHER game, then maybe you’re not ready to move on to another game quite yet.
One of the benefits of the Internet is that it brings together groups of people that would never had “rubbed elbows” before we could all sit in front of our glowing rectangle and insert ourselves into other people’s conversations with relative impunity. At the beginning of the public Internet, we didn’t have the concept of “web logs”, or “social media”, but we did have websites, and I suppose the way some people used them paved the way for the future. At some point since the inception of the Modern Web, video game consumers and game producers met at these rest-stops along the Information Superhighway, usually as a consequence of a producer writing a post, and the consumers writing comments.
But that changed as soon as the mystery of web development and hosting was removed, everyone could have a web page, and post whatever they wanted. Getting the word out was still kind of difficult for the up-and-coming bloggers since there was no such thing as Twitter or Facebook, and in the grand scheme of things, no on aside from their friends knew who these bloggers were. Attempts were made to solve this using “web rings”, link-sharing widgets that each blogger would post at the bottom of their sites for folks to find similar sites, and RSS was the the up and coming method for collecting your favorite bloggers into one easy interface. Now that we have a whole host of advertising avenues, and the difficulty in setting up a blog ranks just below blowing your nose, there are practically zero barriers for someone — anyone — to hang out a shingle and dump their brain onto the sidewalk of the Internet.
You can’t deny that this is a good thing. We’ve become exposed to people from places that were once only names on a map to us, and thoughts and ideas that are both like our own, and horrifyingly dissimilar. What it’s really done is to tear down the wall between the masses and the few, or in keeping with the theme of this blog, the gamers and the game producers. Overall, I think this is going OK. Both the Internet and the games industry have become Big Business, and it’s not uncommon for interaction between consumers and producers to skew heavily in favor of the producers who are often kept on a short leash by the marketing department, but there are those in the industry who are outside or even above that. Those folks who we call “indies”, or the producers who have been around long enough, or who have become so respected that they’re free to say what they want, when they want, how they want.
But we’re all human, right? Even those that we respect can say stupid things, and the modern Internet allows them to pretty much say it to a wide audience. For those who only play video games, this probably doesn’t matter much, but for those of us for whom gaming is our primary hobby, there comes a time when we need more than just what we get from sites like IGN or GiantBomb. We want to worm our way further into the psyche of the industry, to learn about how these ideas start, how they’re put into motion, and even find that we might wonder what these industry insiders talk about in the lunchroom. Consuming the game is still our primay interest, but we also want to know what makes the industry tick. Thankfully, a lot of folks post their own blogs, writing about the creative process, or about high-level theories that go into “making a good game”. Those folks are insightful, and make huge contributions to understanding that video games are more than just shooting pixels. Sadly, there are also those who seem to have let their station go to their heads, and with the openness of the Internet and people’s need to “speak out” being as important to some as breathing is to all, everyone gets to hear about it.
I’ve run into several cases over the years of people who could be considered to be “in the industry” coming down on video game bloggers. I’ve seen us compared to gnats, brushed off as unwashed, as wannabes, as a loud crowd who piggy-backs on the hard work of others to satisfy our own urge to navel-gaze. That’s a phrase that really gets me: navel-gazing. It’s a two-fold slam. First, it insinuates that we’re not looking forward, up, or out, that we’re averting our gaze from the wonders of the rest of the world. Second, it implies that we’re only interested in our own thoughts, to the exclusion of anything that might be coming our way. Originally it was used pretty heavily during the early days of Twitter. “Twitter is all about navel-gazing and posting pictures of what you’re eating for lunch. Do you really think you’re so important that anyone cares?”
Do you really think you’re so important that anyone cares? That’s what I hear when I hear the term “navel-gazing”. It’s a backhanded, shortened phrase that means the same thing. When used by someone who considers themselves to be on one side of the line to describe the people on the other side of the line, it sets up the classic “us versus them” paradigm.
Why do we blog about games? Plainly, we love them. We love the visuals, the mechanics, the similarities and differences between them, the sharing of strategy to beat them, and the shared commiseration of defeat within them. Replace “video games” with “baseball” and there’s absolutely no difference in the explanation, but to some within the industry, video game bloggers are just people talking about things they know nothing about. To them, we’re making shit up, guessing at how things are with no rational basis for those guesses, and are so enamored with the sound of our voices that we’re content to pass along rumor, speculation, lies, and other fabricated and patently incorrect information in the pursuit of trying to make our blogs household names within the gaming community. The sense, then, is that these kinds of industry folks view game bloggers as social climbers who want to take the path of least resistance to rub shoulders with them, ”The Industry”.
Blogging is part ego; that’s a given, but it doesn’t have to be the driving reason. I doubt it is for the majority, but I’m sure it is for some. Most of us like nothing more than to write. If the monocle-and-top-hat set could look in on our lives, they’d see that we’re avid readers, writers of all kinds, cinephiles, and that story does matter to us in the games we play. We may not be video-game-creating smart, but we’re smart in many, many ways and blogging is like stretching our legs. Seeing words in front of us forces us to put our thoughts in order, to test and hone our linguistic abilities in ways that stay, and to codify our understanding — right or wrong — for our own posterity, if not for anyone else’s.
More than anything else, though, it’s to engage with the people on our level. Most bloggers aren’t trying to catch the eye of someone they admire in the games industry. We’re trying to start or continue a conversation with the community. Social networks are generally very limiting for that, and don’t even mention game-related forums. Ye gawds. I remember the days when being a geek was isolating; now that we can quickly dig up dozens and dozens of like-minded folks, you damn well better believe we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it because it’s important to us. The message is the carrier, but the need could just as well piggy-back on discussions about classic cars, gardening, or pet care. We happen to love video games, and it’s what we want to talk about with other people.
So to those of you who are “inside the industry” and are apt to dismiss the gaming bloggers as a noisy by-product: you’re welcome. Especially you indies, and the ones who think highly of your own opinions. If we didn’t exist, the only outlet you’d have would be insular trade communities in which you’d have to fight with others of your kind for the kind of exposure you enjoy among the consumers, or you’d be left to deal with the paid blogs that truly have their own agenda, and who would paint you as a baby-eating psychopath if it helped them get page views.
We do this because we love what you do. You provide us with hours of entertainment after a long day of work, or help pick us up when we’re feeling down. We think about your work when we’re doing other things. We suspend our disbelief to entertain your vision of fantasy, and we even accept the nth iteration of the blockbuster franchise, or Yet Another Artistically Presented Indie Platformer or Indie Retro 8-Bit Homage. We write and postulate and yes, we have to guess because no one in your circles wants to or is allowed to spill the beans, and we offer our ideas of how things could be improved, even though we don’t know jack shit about the specifics of what went into making the games we play, and we criticize, probably too often and for some, too violently. We do live in our own little worlds of self-importance because quite honestly, we are important. We’re the ones who buy and promote your games to our readers. It’s nice that you’ve found a place inside this industry that we (and you, certainly) love enough to devote so many hours to, both in and out of the game. We’ll continue to promote your Kickstarters and your Humble Bundles, and we’ll continue to beg the Old Guard to not fade away in this hour of rampant Sequelitis. It’s what we bloggers do, because of what you do, for us.
The reboot of Tomb Raider was always on my radar. I don’t have a particular loyalty to the IP, but since having played and enjoyed the heck out of the Uncharted series on the PS3, having a similar game on the PC (my platform of choice) was something I looked forward to. But as with a lot of things, my budget in cash and time only stretches so far, and Lady Croft had to sit on the sidelines until such time as my dance card freed up, or the game went on sale. Which it did, this weekend. For 50% off. And after having played for a while, I admit that I’m sorry I waited so long. It’s well worth the full price, and any commentary I may have had to offer during the whole initial crap-storm is rendered less important now that it’s passed through the steel sieve that is the “gamer’s collective memory”.
Still, the controversies were always in mind as I was playing. I had seen the breadth of the so-called “attempted rape scene” cinematic, and read the tear-down by PAR and came away feeling that the context did matter. A lot. Maybe now it’s all hindsight, but I didn’t actually feel that there was anything obtuse in that scene: Other ship members were being man-handled, beaten, shot and killed. Lara is trying to escape by sneaking from wall to wall until she’s discovered in a niche by the thug, who had been shown earlier to take pleasure in the act of torturing people, and who showed no remorse in killing. His act in that scene was to ensure that Lara knew that her attempts to escape meant that her life was over — which is what happens if you fail the subsequent quick-time event. There is no rape. It doesn’t trend that way when you see the bigger picture (especially the failure), although to some may deem it as the “obvious” conclusion because the thug is a male, and Lara is a female.
What really kept me up at night, though, was the comments that players will “want to protect [the new] Lara”.
I freely admit that this is the feeling I had when playing this game. I will also freely admit that it’s the same feeling I have when I play Pac Man, or Sonic the Hedgehog or pretty much any other game where what happens to my avatar is a direct result of my actions controlling that avatar.
I don’t think that we can argue that the point of playing a game is “not to lose”, which isn’t always the same as “to win”. Losing means we made a bad decision, or that someone else made a better decision than we did: we don’t reach our goals, and we pay for it in resources, and more importantly, time. Thankfully in video games we have the luxury of a do-over where we can remedy our past mistakes, but the real feeling of success comes from not failing the first time, to get it right despite the benefit that hindsight would grant us, to be justified that our hunches were correct, and that we have the skills to pull off a stunt that allows us to continue without interruption towards our goal. So yes, I want to keep Lara safe because when she dies, the guy at the desk failed. It has nothing to do with how “vulnerable” she is designed.
Actually, scratch that…Lara’s design actually makes me want her to succeed the fuck out of the situation. Knowing the destiny of the character, I felt like I was more along for the ride than being the one who has to take care of her in any way. When she fails, it’s my fault, because that’s when the game reveals itself as “a game”, but when she succeeds it’s totally the bad-ass Lara we know trying to emerge. It has absolutely nothing with any “player knows best” attitude. Even when the game attempts to present Lara at her most vulnerable, I recognize that she’s enduring a hell of a lot more than I suspect I could in a similar situation, and when she does succeed, I am excited for her, not for my own skills or decisions. So in that, I think that Crystal Dynamics has done something remarkable in creating a character presentation that does elicit empathy. It hurts a lot when Lara is hurt, and it’s absolutely fantastic when she succeeds. My participation in the process is nothing more than a convenient interloper.
Disclaimer – I am not a Foundry Expert. I’ve only poked my head into the Neverwinter version twice, and have given the Star Trek Online version some half-assed attempts (I don’t know the ST lore well enough to feel comfortable making something of worth). However, I have spent hours working with the Neverwinter Nights Aurora toolset which, while totally different from The Foundry tools, adheres to many of the same goals: ease of use, powerful, and comprehensive. This is a brief overview, and a preface to my 1:30 minute video presentation.
Game development is a Dark Art, or so it would seem. There are many gamers, but only a relatively few game creators, and those with the know-how to even put the most rudimentary avatar under user control have probably heard someone exclaim “I wish I knew how to make games” at some point in their professional lives.
The problem with giving players control to make content is that the general public is often ill equipped to be in public. The Penis Correlation states that the time between tool set availability and the point at which the first virtual genitals are seen in the game is directly related to…something something something. I don’t know. I just wanted to make a point that players can’t always be trusted to use good judgement when given the opportunity to show off in front of their fellow gamers.
But tools like The Foundry allow players to create content with restrictions, but with restrictions far enough out that they don’t hamper the creativity that players can express. The toolset itself looks horribly complex until you understand a few things, which help creators, and gives a pretty frank look into the process of actually creating content for games, in some cases.
A Foundry project starts with a timeline. This is a flowchart of things that happen, and the things that need to happen for things to happen. It’s a really big road-map of cause and effect, starting with a motivator, and ending with a reward. It can be as complex as Game of Thrones, spread out over several adventures, or as a simple as a three-act play involving a single player, and a single NPC.
Players can create maps by picking one from the existing roster used in the game itself, or they can create new ones room by room. The editor takes care of mundane tasks like creating doors, and minimizes the complexities of setting up lights and ambient audio by presenting options through dropdowns and pick lists complete with descriptive tool-tips. Once the layout is complete, rooms can be populated with details like tables, crates, tombstones, trees, and other decor. Finally, add in NPCs or packaged encounters, and voila! You’re well on your way.
For the more complex examples, the Foundry allows for the creation of complex dialog trees that include objective or item gating, triggers, and rewards. While not as robust as the dialog editor in the Aurora tools, I was pleased with the depth of what can be accomplished with this tool.
NPCs can be picked from stock examples that players will be familiar with from the game proper, but for a personal touch, each NPC can have his or her outfit customized in a near dizzying array of options. You’re not stuck with the standard studded leather thug; you can put that bruiser in a priest’s robe and wildly inappropriate pauldrons, if you’re so inclined.
You can even create flavor items. Sometimes your story will call for an item to be retrieved (it’s the bread and butter of MMOs, after all!), and you can create whatever item you need to fit into your story. You’re only limited by the fact that you can’t create usable tems: no armor or weapons or buffing items. The Foundry is for adventure, not twinking.
The last step is to put it all together on the Story tab, the place where you link the maps and the NPCs and the dialog together to create the flow of the story. This is where A + B = C, and where all the disparate pieces are put together to make a coherent experience for the players. All the triggers and conditions coalesce into your narrative and action-packed vision, and when you’re done, all it takes is a press of the Publish button to release it to the masses. You can even use the Foundry to review the reviews posted by those who have played your adventure.
After spending time putting together the most rudimentary map, and reading the documentation put together by community member gillgrmn, I can see how powerful the Foundry is. And why not? If I’m not mistaken, Cryptic used the Foundry to make Neverwinter itself! This follows a long but sadly sparse tradition of game developers releasing the tools they used to make their game, to the public. While making the video last night, I mentioned how the complexity of “the game” that we play is laid bare when we realize that it’s nothing but maps, NPCs, dialog, costumes, and items, arranged along a timeline controlled by triggers and conditions.
The best thing about The Foundry is that it’s like the Home Expansion Kit. In a best case scenario, the best authors will float to the top, and Cryptic can release more assets for people to use, resulting in a flood of top-notch, professional grade story arcs available on-demand from now until the point where the sun burns itself out. Sure, there’ll be duds, but word gets around on who makes the best adventures, which ones are worth your time, and which ones aren’t.
The Gateway is in beta, as is the game (“beta”), so it may not be working 100%, and not all features are enabled, possibly, but so far, it seems to be firing on all cylinders for what I’ve been using it for.
So what is Gateway?
- It’s a way to view your character online
- You can buy and sell through the auction house.
- You can send and receive in-game mail
- You can do…stuff…with your guild (Not in a guild yet, so I don’t know what is offered)
- You can update your professions progress (crafting)
I’ve been playing MMOs since the dawn of the “modern” design, and the one concept that has always been at the forefront of conceptualization was the idea that so long as we’re accessing game data through a client via the Internet, why can’t we access the same or a subset of data through other clients via the Internet? Granted, we’re talking about product data, which is essentially what we’re paying for, and what we’re paying the operators to keep safe on our behalf, so there’s the data integrity concerns, but if a company employs enough smart people who can create and run a real-time game that allows thousands of people to simultaneously dance naked in a virtual town square, I think they’d be up to the challenge of creating a web app to allow me to check my auctions and launch my crafting tasks through a browser. Why this hasn’t become standard is beyond me.
Granted, not everyone wants or needs to take care of game business…you know…from work or school. Here’s the thing: we’re rapidly transitioning from a gated model of online gaming to an honest to goodness ‘Murican buffet model. We have so many games to choose from that we buy them now at stupidly low prices or download them for free and promise that we’ll get to them some day before we die. Loyalty of the customer is, quite frankly, a thing of the past, or is relegated to those few with unusually strong wills. Not everyone can make a good product, which means even fewer people can make the kind of product that causes people to forego all other opportunities that are too good to pass up, or that they’re peer-pressured into adopting. If you want to attract people, and more importantly, to keep them playing your game, why not give them the opportunity to never leave? It’s an insidious plan worth of Illithid, sure, but it’s wrapped up in so much fun that folks will thank you for the privilege. Thanks, Cryptic!
More importantly, and as loath as I am to say this, the ubiquity of mobile devices practically begs for some kind of way to play without playing, and for companies to keep their product in the thoughts of it’s users no matter where they go. To be honest, if your online game isn’t offering some kind of portal that gives your players an opportunity to keep playing while on the go, I have to wonder if you’re as dedicated to being as “cutting edge” as your About Us page claims you are. Technically, this would have been cutting edge in 2000. Now a lack of extra-game tools is just a gaping hole of pure let-down in 2013.
Because as bloggers who jump from game to game, we are contractually obliged to post something about the new game on the block while the game is still relevant in order to get page views as people scour the Internet for information. The usual disclaimers apply: This is an impressions piece, not a review.
Founders got to get into the open beta period ahead of the general public as a thank you for shelling out money on a game that will be free to download, free to play. Cryptic is staging access, with the Big Spenders getting five days early access, the Moderate Spenders getting three days, and I think that’s it. Everyone else can get in on Tuesday. I like this system, as it means that the starting zones will be clear of the last round of entries when the next round enters. It sucks for friends who are on disparate plans, however.
But wait…Tuesday is usually Launch and Retail Day in the gaming world? Is this an open beta, or a launch? Soft launch, really, as there will be no wipes between open beta and the official launch date. It’s kind of squirrely, but Cryptic does things differently than other companies, I’ve learned.
If you’ve played Star Trek Online, you will be familiar with a lot of what Neverwinter does. Whereas many of what I’ll call “convenience features” were added to STO over the years, NW gets em all up front, and benefits from what Cryptic learned through STO.
When you load in, the first thing you see is a kind of dashboard. I love this. I think this is really what sets the tone for Cryptic’s M.O.: give people access to information about almost anything that’s going on almost anywhere in the game that doesn’t deal with the “main story”. Cryptic has scheduled events that rotate through a 24 hour period, like additional XP if you play Foundry missions, or additional Astral Diamonds if you do the team instances. Sometimes you want to log into the game, but not bust ass along the same old story trail that every game expects is the reason you’re playing the game, and Cryptic understands this. The Dashboard provides upcoming events (also available as a fly-out on the mini-map), featured Foundry missions, and even “Suggested Content” that you might like based on what you want to accomplish: earn cash, explore, or level. There’s even a calendar for a broader view, and the Dashboard allows you to queue for instances and PvP.
NW is an action take on the Dungeons & Dragons 4E ruleset, and that sound you just heard was the door slamming as several people left in disgust at the term Dungeons & Dragons 4E. Well, screw em, because if 4E was the “MMO-like” implementation of the D&D rules, then NW is the pudding that provides the proof. You don’t need to know 4E to “get” NW, but you’ll appreciate the way they’ve translated the rules to the game if you do.
You have a limited number of abilities that you can use, which is instantly going to turn off another segment who can’t abide by restrictions. I prefer to think of it as “tactical economy”, but I also like to make up phrases, so there’s that. There’s At-Will powers (bread & butter attacks that keep firing if you hold the mouse button down), Encounter powers (with cooldowns). and Daily powers (require you to build up a reserve of energy before you can use them, which is a conceit needed by a video game version of 4E). The gist is that you point your recticle at a target and go to town. It really doesn’t get much more complex than that, and that’s going to really piss off some people who want more more more options.
Thing is, D&D wouldn’t be worth a damn if it weren’t based on the story, and like it’s older cousin Dungeons & Dragons Online, NW strives to make your dungeon experiences more about the experience than they are about the experience points. There are traps to detect and disarm (if you can), and hidden areas to find. One nice/frustrating feature is the class-ability-specific items you’ll find. Clerics, for example, can access altars that they find, but other classes cannot, unless they are carrying special kits that grant them a percent chance to get something from the loot crate. In a balanced party, everyone has a chance, but soloists aren’t locked out totally either. I like their dungeon designs, and your quest log contains a running journal of Neverwinter lore that you find in dungeons or just by entering into an area within a zone. I’ve read the Neverwinter Campaign Setting book cover to cover, and I appreciate this “ground-level view” of the lore put into practice. Some folks just want to kill, and that’s fine; think of NW like a third-person Diablo and that should be all you need to put it into perspective.
Another convenience factor I discovered today was that the auction house will make recommendations for you. Seriously! You get a mission to talk to the broker, and he’ll offer you a list of a few things that are suitable for your level and class. Thing is, the dude also tells you that if you don’t want to pay, you can tackle a certain quest and get the item as a reward. I thought that was very sweet of him.
A bunch of us G+ers tackled the first group “instant action” scenario, and it went pretty well. You can queue as a party, or PUG it. We had to take on waves of undead, and then tackle the end boss monster. We did it during a scheduled time where we could earn Rough Astral Diamonds for our trouble.
So now that we’ve gotten rid of 4E haters and limited option haters, let’s complete the trifecta and talk about the cash shop. Cryptic relies very heavily on their cash shop, and because of it, we need to face some facts: these games are expensive to run in terms of hosting and support staff. We like new content, right? Well, those people need to be fed and watered (and get health benefits) so when your product is free to obtain and free to use, the money needs to come from somewhere. The trick is, then, to make the store contents enticing enough that people want to buy them, but don’t force people to need them. The Secret World excels at this because it’s got a core of avatar customization at it’s center, and people love to buy clothes and play dress-up. STO players know that Cryptic can seriously stock their shop with “nice to haves” that can easily be seen by some as “need to haves”. I don’t mean “need to have” as in “in order to play” or “in order to advance”. No. Actually, I was looking for XP boosts in NW’s shop, and they didn’t have any. What they do have are companions — NPC minions you can use in combat — mounts, limited outfit options, and rename and respec tokens, among other non-essential-but-convenient (there’s that word again!) items. People end up really wanting these things to enhance their gameplay, not continue it.
What may end up cheesing people off, though, is the Astral Diamond system. Similar to Dilithium in STO, ADs are a special breed of in-game currency that bridges the gap between totally worthless “game money” (copper, gold, etc), and real world money (cash, but you knew that). You usually earn Rough Astral Diamonds (RAD) that can be refined into regular AD at a rate of 1:1. However, you can only refine about 24,000 RAD per day. AD is used all over the game to buy all kinds of things, including a lot of things that really shouldn’t logically require ADs, like enhancements for your companions. Why not just use in-game cash? Well, it’s a hook to get you to buy Zen — Perfect World’s cash-for-currency denomination — and to convert it into AD. Want it now? Buy and convert Zen. Can you wait? Do events and earn RAD and refine it to standard AD. The cynical among us (read: the Internet) will probably jump on this as “bad” and “exploitative”, and I will admit that it can be annoying when A) you see things you want, and B) you don’t have the AD to buy them, and C) it’ll take you quite a while to earn the RAD for it, so naturally D) you’ll feel you’re being railroaded into paying for *GASP* something you enjoy. I know, Internet. I know. It’s horrible.
Crafting is…unique. Everyone can do all crafting branches, but there’s a prerequisite system in place. For example, if you want to craft mail items (shirt, boots, etc), you need to hire a prospector, which is represented as a dude. Just a dude. You need a prospector for each crafting task you undertake in this branch, so while you start out only being able to tackle one branch, you may end up needing many prospectors if you’re mass-producing some mail items. You then need materials, either found or bought, depending on the recipe. You can then queue up the activity if your crafting discipline is of appropriate level. The end result is that you’ll get the item(s) that you craft, and some XP specific to that crafting discipline. Some queues can take seconds, minutes, or hours, depending on the output and the complexity. At first I was unsure how to see this, then I realized that the “people” you hire through this process are nothing more than crafted materials needed to craft additional materials. It’s fun, though, especially since you can eventually queue up something like nine simultaneous activities across several disciplines.
The last feature is the doozie: The Foundry. I have only peeked under the hood on this one, since I’ve not read the documentation [here] and [here] on it. It’s supposedly more powerful than the Foundry in STO, which you need to be a subscriber to use, so I’m super excited to have this one available to everyone. I’ve played one mission made by the Internet’s Own @Wininoid which I enjoyed, and I’m eager to get into there myself. I was sad, however, to see that Cryptic didn’t include the Wall or the Chasm as map zones that could be used. I hope they remedy that in the future, although I can see those areas being held for an expansion, since the Chasm does extend down through the Underdark.
Despite the overpowering scent of sarcasm contained herein, there really isn’t a reason I can think of for not jumping into Neverwinter. It’s free. It’s got decades of IP behind it. It’s social (if you like that), and Cryptic does a stellar job of letting you know that you don’t need to follow the Golden Path every single time you log in, and they make it stupidly simple to explore the corners of the game rather then keeping them out of sight until you’ve reached a certain level or zone. While the AD situation can be off-putting with it’s insistence and ubiquity, that Cryptic allows players to earn RAD means that technically nothing is out of reach: I started today with no AD, and left with over 3000, which came just from two runs of the initial skirmish instance, and some other minor but enjoyable activities (fact: you can pray in-game every hour and the gods will reward you with some RAD). Neverwinter looks to be a good “pick up” game, alone or with friends, and since it doesn’t cost you anything except time and maybe the risk of being less of a grumpy-pants, then check it out this Tuesday at http://www.playneverwinter.com.
Added Bonus: Sometimes these things get obscured in the fancy UI, but I found three items of immediate note in case people were interested.
The first is that you can collapse the scheduled events next to the mini-map by clicking the tiny arrow below the scheduled items, and can roll it out again by clicking the arrow above the scheduled items.
The second is one thing that has plagued STO players for years: Instances and friends. While they are using a server setup, you can be in the same in-game area, but not see your friends who are also in
the same area. This is because Cryptic uses instances to balance the players. If you want to hop to the instance you’re friends are in, you can click the blue…thing…in the upper right corner of the mini-map to get the instance list.
And Jumping Jesus On A Hamburger, check out http://gateway.playneverwinter.com. It’s 2013, people. Why the hell isn’t this kind of thing standard?! You can view your character, check your auctions, do your friggin crafting, and check up on your guild. Seriously? There are rock-stupid and useless systems which have become “necessary” for an MMO to launch, yet this is something that still hasn’t caught on the way it should? We need to re-examine our priorities, people.
As many are aware, Raptr is offering current and possibly former RIFT players a free copy of the game AND a free copy of the Storm Legion expansion pack if you meet their play-time criteria. Never one to look a gift…gift…in the mouth, I picked it up because it also gives lapsed players 30 days worth of play time (I know RIFT has some level gated “free” play as well).
As many MMO nomads are aware, going back to a game after a lapse can be interesting at best, painful otherwise. It all depends on how long you’ve been away. RIFT is one of those games that I played a lot, but I also quit it quite some time ago, so when I re-installed and fired it up this morning, my first order of business was to figure out what had changed.
There’s good news, and bad news. The good news is that not much has changed. I recognize a lot of the game, which is good. Hitting the starting zones again (for the bazillionth time) has proven to be less of a chore, as Trion has reduced the chores in the tutorial zone. There’s a lot of “helper” aspects to the game now, with soul selectors and new ability pop-ups to let you know how powerful you’ve become.
Now the bad news. My main, a Defiant cleric, had her souls reset. If this was an overnight thing, I’d say OK, and get about putting things back the way I liked them. But I haven’t the slightest clue what abilities I had. My cleric was a finely tuned custom machine that was a real powerhouse to be reckoned with; now she’s an empty, confused shell in a mid-level haze. My only alternative was to start a new character from scratch and see if I can re-create the magic.
This is pretty much my standard situation when returning to a game. Learning a game is fun; re-learning a game is not so much fun. I remember enough to allow me to bypass a lot of tutorial junk, but have forgotten enough to actually be effective at the point where I left off.
Defiance is available on PC, Xbox, and PS3, which means that on a purely statistical level, 2/3 of people playing the game haven’t played an MMO before. I don’t actually believe that’s the actual ratio, but for the sake of argument, we need to acknowledge that there WILL be people who play nothing but consoles, and who have never approached a PC for gaming, let alone MMOs. In fact, one such example is the reviewer over at Xbox360achivements.org who talks about Defiance in this morning’s review.
The poor 360 players seem to be getting the royal shaft with this title. There seem to have been more troubles with Defiance on the Xbox than on any other platform, and a lot of it seems to be on the back end. If this were Trion’s first rodeo, it might be easy to point the finger at them, but they have always been amazingly responsive to issues in Defiance and RIFT, so it’s entirely possible that the Xbox engineers have been caught with their pants down. Microsoft has always been more hesitant to allow this kind of game on their console, and I think it’s coming back to haunt them. Consider this the “growing pains” for Durango, I suppose, but that’s not the point I want to raise here.
The review isn’t very favorable, ending with a score of 65/100. I think the author’s dissatisfaction stems from two conceits: that he’s exclusively a console gamer, and that he has little to no experience with MMOs. Console games generally are more focused on wringing the best visuals from the system, and not necessarily experimenting with alternative game play, so the author finds that Defiance is a pretty lackluster CONSOLE GAME compared to other, somewhat similar console games that he has experience with. Defiance doesn’t have the visual fidelity, or the console-specific focus that allows for a tighter, easier to manage UI, so in this aspect, I think it’s reasonable to give his opinion it’s due.
We long-term MMO players, however, might read the review and gloss over 98% of his dings for the game’s “MMO-ness” because they’re all aspects that we have (often begrudgingly) come to accept. Calling out the wide open world and the ability to play with others at the drop of a hat may make us nod sagely — welcome to the wider world of gaming, my friend! — but our vision might cloud when he takes exception with missions that seemingly go on forever, and seem to have no overarching point. We MMO players know this on a cellular level, but as is often the case, we’re so immersed in the genre that we can’t articulate the forest for the trees, something that this author does with ease because he comes at the MMO aspect of the game with no previous baggage. He can speak about Defiance’s “MMO-ness” with clear vision, and in doing so, raises points about most MMOs out there that we instinctively know, but may not have been able to talk about with such surity for a long time.
As a console game, Defiance may not on par with Call of Duty or Halo or Gears of War, and in my circles, I think the agreement is that as an MMO, it’s pretty OK, but not revolutionary. None of that really seems to be making a lot of difference in people’s enjoyment, though, as from where I sit it seems that the vast majority of people really like it. I’m not so interested in the opinion of the reviewer on the game as much as I was fascinated by the view of a non-MMO gamer on an MMO game, because it’s been so long since I felt objective about MMO mechanics that it was refreshing to see how someone who is not as steeped in the genre views the aspects that the rest of us have taken for granted.