Archive for September, 2011
The Windows Phone Marketplace is isn’t a populated as the Android Market. We can talk about adoption rates and all that as drivers for development, but I’m being non-partisan here. I’ve owned iOS, Android and now WP7 devices, and each has it’s strength and it’s weaknesses. I’m not here to get into a pissing match over which is better, mainly because I doubt most people have actually used all three which renders their opinions on the subject pretty much useless. Yes, I went there, but let’s return to the topic at hand.
The games on the WP7 Martketplace are at a stage now where the games on the Android Market were when I first got my Android phone maybe two years ago. It’s populated with quick apps of a certain variety. There’s match three clones, s’hmups, side-scrollers, lame puzzles, and platformers. For non-games, there’s a lot of “database” apps: apps dedicated to lyrics of a specific artist, or dedicated e-book apps, or apps that are nothing more then pictures of guns. Seriously. In short, these are apps that probably took a few hours to create, compile and dump on the market in an effort to catch the eye of early adopters. The quality apps aren’t there.
A recent article at WMPowerUser.com pointed out a study that shows that the top 10 paid apps on the WP7 Marketplace are actually Xbox Live games. WP7 has tight integration with XBL, and the XBL games on the device can contribute to your Xbox gamer score, earn you achievements, and so on. I’m not sure what a developer needs to do to get his or her app into the Xbox Live category, but most of those top 10 games are from Microsoft Games Studio. Doing the math (which WMPU has done for us, thanks!) means that:
Microsoft is receiving a bigger than 30% share of the income of the games and is in fact profiting disproportionately from Marketplace compared to other developers.
So, I’m sure someone, somewhere is sharpening their conspiracy theory pitchfork as if to say that Microsoft is purposefully stacking the deck against other developers, because Microsoft is big, evil, etc. Well, let’s harken back to the first two paragraphs, which I’m sure have already passed into the mists of Internet time as you have reached this point.
Quality. The XBL games are leagues ahead of pretty much every other game on the platform in terms of quality. Don’t have a WP7 device, but want to see what I’m talking about? Fire up your or a friend’s Xbox and peruse the Indie section of the XBLM. Now do you understand? To clarify, I’m not down on indie development by any stretch. I just don’t think that the games being made with XNA Game Studio that show up on XBLM or the WP7 Market are actually reaching for increasing levels of quality. They’re shovelware. We really can’t compare what we see on WP7 to, say, the latest generation titles for iOS or Android because those devices have traction; WM7 has only been out for less then a year, and looking back, neither iOS nor Android had the quality apps that they enjoy now within their first year. But WM7 devs can’t blame the platform’s nascent performance for lackluster quality; seeing what’s on other platforms should mean that WM7 devs need to try much, much harder to reach the bar that is being set.
I do partially blame the ease of the tools. There’s a lot of Windows developers out there for whom it’s a short hop from desktop apps to XNA. They’ve probably got 90% of the mechanical skills needed to create a decent game. What they lack is the game development mentality, and the design and visual presentation chops. Visuals aren’t everything, of course, but if you’re on your WP7 and are sitting next to someone with an iOS on one side, and an Android on the other, it’s pretty embarrassing to play the average WP7 game compared to what’s available on other other platforms. For those not so well versed in XNA, there’s a ton of starter kits and tutorials out there to show you how to make side-scrollers, match three, or platform games, so naturally the market is flooded with what amounts to augmented tutorial projects.
My measuring stick for games on a platform is the RPG. iOS has some decent, PC and console like RPGs, so I’d say they’re leading the pack. Android is getting to that point, but is mainly stuck on Legend of Zelda clones like Zenonia (a great series in it’s own right!). WP7 has no RPGs, which puts it in last place. Why RPGs? They’re my favorite, for one. But they’re also significantly more complex then side-scrollers, match three, or platform games. When – or if – we start seeing decent RPGs coming onto the WP7 market, I’ll breath easier and then I’ll know that the market isn’t stagnating.
Community servers, rogue servers, unofficial, unsanctioned, or possibly illegal servers have been around since the early days of the MMO genre. People tend to get really attached to a game’s feature set at a certain point, and when the game changes due to updates, running one’s own server is a sure way to offer people the experience they loved without the obnoxious, game-changing updates they don’t. I need only to say “NGE”, and it all becomes clear, right?
The other opportunity for these player-run servers is when an MMO is sunset. It happens surprisingly infrequently considering the money spent on development versus the amount of money needed to launch the game and keep it running. It was far more common for games to shut their doors during the early days of the genre (Earth & Beyond, The Sims Online, Motor City Online, Asheron’s Call II, The Matrix Online) than it is today when World of Warcraft still commands the lion’s share of subscriptions, when Eastern titles are making headway in Western markets, and when pretty much every developer/publisher has or wants an MMO on the market to get a slice of the ongoing revenue pie. But closing a game doesn’t mean it fades away. Nor should it.
I’m totally on board with the idea of player run servers for games that have closed down, but not everyone is on board with that. There will be some dev/pubs who are OK with the idea: the game is closed, the community is loyal, and there won’t be enough players who’ll want to fight with finicky servers and odd client configurations to make shaking them down worth the billable hours their corporate lawyers will charge them to post a C&D letter. Other companies will be more aggressive, and on some levels, it makes sense. We’re talking about a company letting someone else beyond their oversight handle an IP that they may want to exploit down the road. Being gamers and not developers or publishers means that they can’t possibly treat the IP with respect, right?
Well, I don’t think so. We’re not talking about a group of junior high kids who want to run their own WoW server so they can code the night elf females naked. The people who start these servers love the game. They probably put in hours upon hours of time in the game when it was running (and hundreds of dollars, let’s not forget that). They probably have a favorite feature set from the game’s lifecycle that they feel should never have been iterated beyond, or maybe they want to add in functionality that the original operators never got the green light to implement. These people want to respect a game that was closed down because it wasn’t “financially supportive of the operator’s bottom line”.
I’d like to see operators possibly find a way to work with these communities. If they want to do it within the narrow-minded confines of a legal partnership, then so be it. Maybe players get the source for the server in exchange for never demanding anything from the IP owner, and that they have to respect the IP ownership of the operator now and forever. If the operator wants to resurrect the IP for anything of it’s own later on, then the server operators have to take the server down. I’m sure the lawyers can layer more complexities on that solution to make it not-so-simple, but the end result should be the same: give the players what they want in exchange for not asking the IP owners to foot the bill. The players are going to do it with or without the support anyway. It’s just a matter of how the owners want the PR to play out: do they want to spend money in mounting a legal attack on a community-based, not-for-profit labor of love? Or do they want to look like the good guy to current and potentially future customers who will remember their gracious support of a much loved cast-off product? Besides, if it wasn’t important enough to keep running, why is it important enough to “salt the earth” so that no one else can enjoy it?
This isn’t about SWTOR per se, although it is. More to the point, it’s just a stream of consciousness post with Star Wars: The Old Republic at it’s core because, let’s face it: it’s topical in certain circles right now, what with the release date and monthly pricing having been released and all.
Some people who are in beta have merely said that “it exceeds expectations” (paraphrasing there) and seem to be generally enthusiastic about it. Others are, of course, down on it because it seems like a retread to them. Recently, I’ve watched the video on the companion system, and while I’m going along with the rest of the herd in giggling at seeing Blizz the Jawa popping a heavy artillery cap into someone’s ass, this singular video really “did it” for me. Bringing the voice overs to what could have been a pretty stale experience with otherwise cardboard NPC interaction is going to take this particular aspect of the game to a new level.
So here’s just a few other musings:
Unguilded On Account Of Meh
I had originally signed on to join the Multiplaying.net guild Delusions of Grandeur, but decided to back out. I’m not interacting with any of the members in regards to this game, which is basically an ongoing pattern of mine: I really don’t follow/discuss/understand/give a rats ass about a game until maybe the week before it launches. I figured that being in a guild for the sake of being in a guild has never, ever worked out for me in the past, so I probably won’t miss out on anything anyway. I have several local folks (including my not-so-much-a-gamer brother) who are already on-board for SWTOR, so although we may be unguilded, we’re not alone.
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Nerdrage
I’m far beyond caring if SWTOR is theme park, World of Warcraft derivative, “been there, done that” or whatever witty maxim the Internet’s Finest have chosen to lob at this title this week.
This weekend, I watched the “new” TV show Person of Interest, which my wife had recorded and which I happened to be in the room for. It was not bad, but neither was it horribly original. One of the current trends in TVism is this “shadowy organizations/people doing good” motif. Kind of like the A-Team, but with fewer cigars and less explosions. These kinds of shows get the green light because people keep watching them. Same with cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows, and shows with ensemble casts.
I also watch Warehouse 13, which I like, but it’s not original. Back in the late 80’s or early 90’s there was a show just like it (kinda) called Friday The 13th: The Series, which had nothing to do with the movies of the same name, but instead was about people who collected cursed artifacts and returned them to a secret vault for safekeeping.
Basically, any kind of entertainment we have has been done before in some form. Maybe we’re not old enough to have partaken in it the first time, or maybe we’re awash in it, but getting all uppity about it is both ignoring the fact that this is the pattern to how humanity works, and getting all nerd-ragy for nerd-ragy’s sake. A lot of times it’s hard to be original, and originality isn’t always embraced when it’s presented to a crowd that claims to want originality. Every now and then, something comes out of left field that wows us, and we ask why we can’t have more like this. Well, I think the answer is that we do, but we don’t appreciate it when we see it, or we have to be in the right mood for it, and at the most basic level, we like what we like. If that happens to be a favorite sweater or pair of jeans, or a restaurant we frequent in a city of other possibilities, or a game design that we’re comfortable with, so be it. There will always be the occasional Minecraft standout, but if we had a new groundbreaking title every week, I’m sure the Internet would find something to bitch about anyway.
No Shoes, No Shirt…No Beta
I’ve kinda given up on betas. There was a time when I signed up for every beta for a game I thought I’d want to play. I take beta seriously, though. If I am chosen to put the game through it’s paces, I’m going to use that opportunity to help smooth out the road I’m going to be riding on, so to speak. But since the modern beta test has become a preview period, and the potential applicant pool has gotten so much larger, both my chances and desire to get into a beta have diminished significantly.
I don’t like to repeat myself. Considering how slowly I play these games, and how I have a need to see progress in my gaming, rolling back to earlier content with alts is pretty painful for me. I generally do it only when I need a lower level alt in order to play with someone, or there’s a mechanic in place that makes playing an alt a totally different experience. Rift is a good example, with the soul combos, and SWTOR, with it’s proposed class-based storylines, sounds like it has the potential to be another. But I don’t want to enter into a beta test which is not a beta test just so I can sate a desire to get my hands on a game.
The Last Of The (Subscription) Mohicans ?
Is SWTOR the last of the upcoming AAA, subscription based MMOs?
There’s a few notables on the horizon, like The Secret World, World of Darkness and…uh…honestly, I got nothing, without looking it up (see Unguilded On Account Of Meh, above). The other juggernaut, Guild Wars 2, is out-of-the-gate free to play, and this year has seen an unprecedented number of formerly pay to play titles migrate to freemium with cash shop. At this point, the only game I have that I want to play that isn’t F2P or which isn’t going F2P is Rift. I wish I could simply buy time from the cash shop.
People still seem split on this whole F2P/Freemium deal, but the tide is rolling in favor of the cash shop. I do suspect that supporters of the F2Shop model (like myself) will one day look back on the subscription model with nostalgia, for the days when we had the buffet ad not the a la cart. I don’t think I’ll miss the balancing act of deciding which games to pay for and which to put on ice, but if anything the F2Shop model has yet to solidify into a universally accepted configuration, and I don’t think it will any time soon. Too many games are vying for the privilege of coming up with the one, best adopted strategy for what to offer for free, and what to put behind the pay-wall.
But with so many titles in the F2Shop space, is any game going to be able to command a subscription as it’s only option after SWTOR? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect that once the train has left the station, it’s not coming back.
NPCs can be pretty chatty, depending on the game you’re playing. World of Warcraft has some pretty succinct NPCs, while some of the Asian grinders seem to be populated with people who’s sole purpose is to take years off your life by bending your ear for the most inane reasons. Generally, the conversations are there for flavor, and clever designers have realized that either most players don’t bother reading the text, or are accessing the quest text for the nth time, and have provided a ‘tl;dr’ section at the bottom for just the objectives.
I’ve never really minded the conversations I’ve had with NPCs, although I’m not a lore-seeker. Filling the quest log is the real reason I talk to anyone, and having to keep several overlapping threads of narrative straight in my mind is really just taking up space. Besides, the gist usually boils down to a handful of templates anyway: I lost X; We have a problem with Y creatures in the area; There’s spies from faction Z. And so on. But this weekend as I was playing Dungeon Siege III, I found myself making that rotating/fanning hand-motion that is ASL for “hurry the fuck up, already!” Later, I compared this experience to Final Fantasy XIII, and also thought about Bioware games, and MMOs. Why are some of these interstitial interactions more palatable then others, at least for me?
I played FFXIV for the cut-scenes. I really wanted the action to just STFU so I could watch the beautifully rendered (if mentally irrelevant in the time-honored JRPG tradition) cut-scenes. I kind of sat uncomfortably through the conversations in Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, but couldn’t get away from NPCs fast enough in DSIII. I decided that what I was getting out of the situation made the difference, as did the presentation.
See, with FFXIII, the conversations and cut-scenes were full-on cinematic, complete with renders, camera switching, background music and anything you’d expect to find in a motion picture. That made up for the ‘WTF’ storyline. Contrast that to pretty much anything Bioware has done (or is doing), which is basically a mannequin conversation system: You stand off-screen while you watch your conversation partner(s) stand stock-still and recite their lines. The same goes for DSIII. While you get to “choose” what you want to “say” in the mannequin conversations, the conversations and the situations themselves are about as engaging as watching C-SPAN in 102 degree weather when the A/C is broken.
The sad part is that there was, and probably still is in many quarters, bad blood between many gamers and cut-scenes. When they’re poorly done (the cut-scenes, not the gamers, this time), they can make their appearance a signal to take a bio or get another beer*. IMO, games like FFXIII may be as comprehensible as a badger in a wet-suit, but they’re enjoyable to watch because of the craftsmanship that’s gone into them. Same with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both of these games feature rendered, cinematic scenes that may be jarring as they shift from in-game visuals to these slickly produced mini-movies, but for me, it’s well worth it.
I mentally cringed when I thought of what Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to bring. It’ll basically be combining the mannequin method with the “OMG shut UP already!” molasses of EverQuest 2‘s conversation system. I applaud the idea of making MMOs more cinematic and less of the “postcards from NPCs who are too lazy to do things themselves” systems we see in most MMOs, but I’m already preparing for the slog by turning up the heat and settling in for some TV.
* Yes, I suggest making a drinking game out of poorly scripted, poorly executed cut-scenes. If you can find your way to the keyboard after you’re done, please try not to vomit on your keyboard. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.
I was listening to RadioLab this weekend, and their latest topic was on Games. “Hot damn!” I thought. “This is right up my alley!” But it was mostly about sports, which is as close to my alley as Alpha Centauri is close to my basement, but in the second half of the segment they started talking about chess. I was a bit disappointed, but I kept on because one could be excused for not getting all worked up about a segment on chess, but then…
Chess is a very mathematical game. It’s like ballet. Or a Cold War spy novel. Or Dance Dance Revolution. Someone makes a move, and the opponent makes a counter-move. You then counter the counter-move. At some point, a beautiful pattern emerges. Hardcore chess fans can easily recognize these patterns based on the moves and counter-moves that are executed. The combination of actions from start to finish constitute the complete package of the chess game, and this is not only recognized in chess, but it has an official name: The Book.
Back during the Cold War, when the old Soviet Union was really high on chess, “they” (the Soviets, I guess) maintained a library of all of the games that their grandmasters – and the other world-wide grandmasters – had ever made. When a match was forthcoming, the Soviet participants would study their opponent’s histories, committing their moves to memory which may include hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of permutations. The Soviets took their chess very seriously. Once the USSR fell, a man named Frederic Friedel geeked out and created an online database called ChessBase that superseded Old Mother Russia’s library and allowed any chess player access to this historical archive.
Friedel was pretty much reviled by the hardcore chess community for this undertaking. Why? The Book was an institution already. Players who didn’t consult some form of The Book were gambling with their chances of winning, because one had to assume that even if you didn’t consult The Book, your opponent surely had. Chess was srs bsns at the grandmaster level, with entire national reputations on the line.
Chess fans hate The Book. By posting The Book online – strategies on how to play, on how to win without really trying – Friedel was Public Enemy #1 as far as chess fans are concerned because no one wants to watch the same plays over and over again. It takes the – ahem – suspense out of the game, and any players who stick to The Book are booed and jeered just as badly. What chess spectators want is what is mystically known as The Novelty. They want something new; not more of the same trotted out on a different stage, in a different country, with different players. They want to be wowed, astounded and engaged in the way they were engaged when they witnessed their first chess match and had no understanding of The Book, when they were on the edge of their seat, move by move. But that’s hard to do, when there are only so many hours in the day, and only so many moves and appropriate counter-moves to be made on an 8×8 square chessboard.
Of course, as soon as you say something is impossible, someone proves you wrong, and in the case of chess, that someone is Bobby Fischer. When Fischer was 12 or 13, he sat down in a posh smoking room of some high-scale country club to throw down with a world-recognized grandmaster. They had quite a crowd there who wanted to see the train-wreck that would surely be Fisher’s utter destruction at the hands of a seasoned champion. Things started out “by The Book” (origin not necessarily related), with Fischer and his opponent making rote patterns that had been done 100,000 times according to The Book. Then 10,000 times. Then 100 times. Then…only 9 times in recorded history. Then Fischer supposedly made a totally dumbass move which opened him to exploitation.
And the game was now “out of book”.
Turns out it wasn’t a dumbass move after all. To the contrary, Fischer had planned it from the very first move. He trapped his opponent, and then proceeded to slaughter the grandmaster while his white-bearded cronies dropped dead of heart failure. Here was The Novelty, played out before their eyes, in real time. They watched in amazement as what was surely chess-suicide transition quickly into the next empty page of The Book, and what is now known as “The Game of the Century”.
I don’t play chess. I never have, but there were some elements of this segment of the podcast which resonated with me as a player of video games, and an unofficial student of gamer behavior:
- Friedel’s compilation of The Book into online format is exactly what we see in products like ZAM and WoWHead.
- No one likes The Book because it leads to singular, unimaginative gameplay which strips out the “seat-of-the-pants” excitement of the endeavor. However…
- …Not using The Book puts you at a disadvantage when so many other people are using The Book. It’s compounded when the people you’re playing with expect you to be using The Book.
- MMOs (and other genres) are very much entrenched in a development and feature-set version of The Book. Instead of winning being the reason for using The Book, it’s sales.
- Players book and jeer games that are created “by The Book”.
- It’s difficult to achieve The Novelty, partly because The Book takes the guess-work out of developing for the widest possible audience, and partly because we don’t have any Bobby Fischers around: people who are both thinking 20, 30 or 50 moves ahead, and are willing to pitch it all out the window on a gamble to achieve something absolutely, spectacularly mind-blowing that will make the jaded old-timers drop their jaws in amazement.
Good Old Games is a wealth of “classic” video games which are made to work on modern operating systems. They recently started pumping out the original Ultima games, I through IV, with the latter being free to download (it’s free on EA’s website, so GoG can’t in good conscience charge for it).
Naturally, I downloaded Ultima IV, because…it’s free! And it’s Ultima! How could I not?
I then got to thinking, as I sometimes do: will I get to play it? Will I want to play it?
As a card carrying "Elder Gamer” (I just made that up, but am accepting membership signups at the next window), I remember the days when Ultima games were the most amazing things ever. Huge worlds! Lots of people to talk to! Epic stories! We (my brother, my friend Bob, myself, etc) would spend hours and hours playing these games: I’d wake up in the morning each summer vacation, before my brother (the unwritten rule was that whomever reached the computer first that morning had it for the day), and get started where I’d left off. We had an Amiga 500 with a piddling 13” monitor, which certainly did the graphics justice. I’d play for hours, until I decided to shut it down, or started to vomit from the eyestrain headache. Usually the latter.
But now? Now we’re used to supermegaultrasupremekidneysforsale AAA games with voice-overs, breathtaking graphics and intricate storylines. Kids Who Don’t Know How Good They Have It* probably can’t fathom how we could have stood playing on those clay tablets with nothing more then an animal skin and mammoth thigh-bone to guide us. But really, can anyone who gamed then and who games now, ever go back to those older games? Hell, I tried playing Ultima Online again, and couldn’t fathom it.
Why? Have our tastes changed? Many gamers like to rattle off their gaming lineage like it’s some kind of heraldic family tree that highlights their place in the gaming geek hierarchy, but faced with the opportunity to roll back the clock, we just can’t do it. It’s not willpower, it’s not even a lack of time, really. It’s just…something. We can’t go back, maybe because our lives aren’t what they used to be.
As much as I like to thump my chest and claim association with Ultima back when it was first run, the fact is that I don’t think I can stomach it now. I think I’ve been ruined by the cinema-tastic games we have at our disposal. Ultima games were long on silence: limited audio, limited narration, whole lot of limited feedback about where we were and where we needed to be. Now, we have 5.1 audio blasting orchestral scores, a cast of dozens dealing out iconic lines in full voice over, amazing cut scenes, in-game maps that track our objectives, and web-based databases which catalog anything and everything we might ever want to know about where to go and where we’ve been.
So yes, we’ve become lazy. Playing in the silence of old school games, with their repetitive mechanics and limited feedback and zero hand-holding is a chore now. I’d like to force-feed someone Ultima IV the next time they bitch about how repetitive “the grind” is in an MMO. Those games are also “hard” and unforgiving in many ways. 12 HP is absolutely OK for a level 1 character. So what if the skeletons hit for 7 damage a piece…and there’s 3 of them? And who needs a quest tracker…or quest log for that matter? Just talk to people, and use your own intuition to figure out where to go next. If you make a mistake, backtrack! Search! Take your time and enjoy the game.
Maybe that’s where things got all out of whack. At some point, we stopped picking up a game because we thought it would be fun. Instead, we pick them up because of peer pressure, because it’s the latest, hottest thing, and we don’t want to be left clueless while everyone around us is discussing it. When playing, we don’t want to look stupid or clueless, lest we incur the wrath of the "better informed” players. I propose that we’re no longer playing these games, we’re working at them, but when while working, we’re getting a whole lot of assistance in the process. Sure, Ultima IV would also be work, but it would be like dragging a stone Escalade tied to our ankles, in the dark, up hill, both ways. With the required grue in the wings.
I might welcome the chance to just clear my plate of all “modern” games, and only work on one, single, older game like Ultima IV, but I think that would be a nearly impossible task, because A) of my gaming ADD, and B) I have no willpower to actually do it. I suppose it’s just as well, because when I think of Ultima IV, I remember it fondly through the lens of many, many years, and I don’t think I’d want to wreck that by trying it now, and ending up frustrated and angry.
* Get off my lawn.