I like Halo. I like shooters “OK”, and I’m not going to lift my pinky and stick my nose in the air to nitpick the plot or the execution of the series: I like the atmosphere, and it’s a fun game and a moving story, and the music is fantastic and contributes mightily to each offering. I give props to Bungie because the Halo series is really the only games I’ve finished with regularity (barring Halo: Reach, Halo 3: ODST, and 343′s Halo 4, which is outside the scope of this post).
Bungie has certainly earned their laurels. They’ve proven themselves to be on the positive side of competent, and while no product or producer is perfect, they know how to give people a good time. Now that they’re out from under the Halo shadow, and more importantly out from under Microsoft, they’ve turned their artful gaze towards something more ambitious in Destiny. The details are scarce at this point, but if you’ve got an interest in games and have a pulse, chances are you’ve seen the video documentary about it. That’s where I want to start.
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After watching the video featuring Bungie talking heads, I sat back and tried to nail down why the video felt familiar. Like I said, there are very few studios who have enjoyed such excellence in sales, and who have generated a brand loyalty. In many respects, those factors excuse Bungie when tooting their own horn in this video as they praise their own efforts in making Halo a world-wide phenomenon, and in elevating Bungie to the level where it has it’s own stable of dedicated fans…
…oh yeah! The video reminded me of the series of videos that BioWare did…for Star Wars: The Old Republic! Remember how many Atta-Boy fist-bumps they awarded themselves for past performance? How little information those videos and interviews actually provided? How sure they sounded that their legacy was firmly established and nigh immutable, and how sure they seemed that their reputation would continue to rise with their next, far more ambitious offering?
Know, however, that I am insanely intrigued with Destiny, the same way I was intrigued with SW:TOR. Despite how the later turned out, many of us were in the same boat, and claiming otherwise through the benefit of hindsight will not absolve any of us. I will not say that Destiny is…destined…to go the same route as SW:TOR because even a coin has the same chance of landing heads up as it does tails up with each toss. Bungie is good, and they may pull off…whatever it is that Destiny shapes up to be.
So retain hope, but don’t hold fast to blind faith. Still, I’m personally worried that this unmitigated self-congratulation is both a glimpse into the soul of the company, and a potential warning that Bungie’s reputation has gone to their heads. Only time will tell.
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Destiny‘s reveal video bothered me because of the undercurrent of sheer, unmitigated hubris. Granted, when biting off a chunk as sizable as what Destiny might be, convincing yourself that it can be done is paramount, and I’m sure that the Bungie offices have a 50 foot high-water mark of adrenaline each and every day that helps them believe in what they’re doing.
The problem with hubris (aside from it’s inherent definition), is that it makes people do and say stupid things. Things which seem totally awesome from behind the wall of the fish-tank one swims in, but which look and sound absolutely asinine from other side of the glass.
Bungie mouthpiece Jason Jones continued the avalanche of self-satisfaction with this statement:
We did a bunch of ambitious things on Halo deliberately to reach out to people. We limited players to two weapons, we gave them recharging health, we automatically saved and restored the game — almost heretical things to first-person shooters at the time. We made the game run without a mouse and keyboard. And now nobody plays shooters the way they used to play them before Halo ’cause nobody wants to. – Destructoid :
In fairness, “the way they used to play them” is absolutely ambiguous, but the quote is offered in the context of the question of whether or not Destiny will see a PC release. Given other triggers in the statement, it’s being widely assumed that Jones is saying that “no one wants to play shooters on the PC because of the way we innovated with Halo,” or even the more succinct ”no one plays shooters on the PC.” That’s insanely broad, absolutely false, and horribly head-up-the-ass. It makes me want to not have anything to do with Destiny, or Bungie from here on in because as a someone who is a PC gamer first, and a non-gamer second (console gamer seventh, after smartphone, tablet, board game, and card game), he just insulted me directly by calling me — and other PC gamers — “nobodies”. We don’t matter to Bungie, and apparently don’t fit in their plans, despite the fact that many of us would be quite willing to do so.
Believe it or not, that’s not the point of this second half!
Instead, think about it: if you are interested in Destiny, you’ll need an Xbox or a PlayStation (sorry WiiU! Support group at St Catherine’s rec hall at 8PM!). I have both, so I’m still in the running, but what if you don’t? You’re basically S.O.L. unless you want to buy one now, on the tail end of this current console generation. In essence, Bungie is deciding for you where your loyalties need to be if you want a piece of this sweet, sweet Destiny pie.
OK, this is nothing new. If you wanted Halo, you needed an Xbox. If you wanted Uncharted, you needed a PS3. If you want Mario, you need a Nintendo machine. We’ve lived with it, accepted it, and we’ll have to continue living with it, but the problem is that it’s becoming more and more widespread.
It used to be that companies earned loyalty by making the best product on the market, and selling it for a fair price. When the competition comes out with a better product — and that used to be the only way to get people to switch from one product to another — each company had to double their efforts to make something even better! At the end of the day, the consumer wins because companies fought each other over merit while we reaped the benefits.
We’re now in the era of Cheap Tricks. Companies no longer have to compete for your constant attention because they have found a way to skirt anti-trust accusations and to allow us to willfully make ourselves hostages of our products. For the average consumer (and even for a lot of above-average consumers), once a decision has been made to buy into an ecosystem, the chances of leaving that ecosystem drop with every subsequent purchase.
How much money have you spent on apps for your smartphone? What happens if you switch to a different ecosystem? Those apps aren’t gone, technically, but they’re useless to you on your new device. Can you pull yourself away from the investment you not only made in the hardware, but the software as well? How about your Steam library? Steam’s not the only game in town for digital distribution, but many, many people have invested heavily in Steam over the the years. If Steam abandons Windows for Mac or Linux, will you abandon Steam…or WIndows? Don’t bother answering, I know what you’ll choose, because it would be ludicrous to turn your back on the thousands of dollars you willfully funneled through Valve.
People still like to frame these situations as choice. Smartphone users will swear up and down that their choice was informed and they made the right one based on knowledge alone. Folks jumped up and down with glee when Valve announced Linux support, despite the fact that their own sprawling libraries would be mothballed — possibly indefinitely – until (or more truthfully, if) those games could be retrofitted to work with Linux. Linux fans rejoiced: FINALLY, an end to the tyranny of Windows! But wait! Having Steam only on Windows, and having decades of game developers focusing almost exclusively on Windows, meant that we were forced to use Windows all these years! Don’t cry for Microsoft; they’re just as guilty.
So you see my point.
Content producers and gatekeepers are increasingly controlling what had been our choice, if we ever had choice at all. You may not like Linux or Mac, but all it takes is a nod from St. Newell, and Windows support vanishes like a mob snitch in the night. Supporters of other platforms might say good riddance, but it it can happen to one, it can happen to any, and we’re all poorer for having fewer choices in any and all walks of life, even if we never partake of them.
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Bungie is just the latest company making decisions for us, but I think this is one of the few times that a company has come right out and backhanded a segment that would have gladly partaken of their product in exchange for the cash. In that regard, I can’t fathom the reason behind Jones’ statement. Is he actually hateful towards PC gaming? Or is Bungie so steeped in their own self-satisfaction that they are comfortable saying what they believe, and believe what they say?
I hope for everyone’s sake that it’s neither. I hope he and the folks in the video had a momentary head-rush that caused their euphoria, and that they come to realize that while their bro-fisting grandstanding will certainly garner them untold wealth and prosperity in a certain segment, they should also consider what the same prideful behavior did for BioWare. Every single developer is one self-assured success away from abject failure and shame, and I personally think it would do them much more good to focus on being as inclusive as possible, with significantly less high-octane hubris than they’ve started this project out with.
For those not “in the know” (read: under a rock), Kickstarter is the insanely popular crowd-funding website. Traditionally, people who wanted to “do stuff” of a certain magnitude had to suck up to people in suits. Now they can register on Kickstarter and suck up to people at home. Probably sitting around in their underwear. Progress!
Being a gamer, and writing this on a game-centric website, a lot of my dealings with KS have been centered on short films. Just kidding. I’ve only backed a handful of games like StarDrive, The Banner Saga, and naturally Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns. I felt that I was really picking up what they were putting down for the most part, and although the last two didn’t really need my paltry donation, having broken records in the amount that they scraped into trashbags before jumping over the fence and high-tailing it to the Caymen Islands, I felt good helping these folks with their projects. They have to eat too, you know!
Recently, we’ve been talking about the subject of Kickstarter “stretch goals” over on the ole’ G+. Stretch goals seem to be the new thing for some games over on KS. The first time I saw them was on Project Eternity, an isometric RPG from Obsidian, makers of such fine products as Fallout: New Vegas and Neverwinter Nights 2. I also noticed them on the high profile RPG SHAKER, from industry luminaries Brenda Brathwaite and Tom Hall. Now, a stretch goal is a wacky thermometer graph of features that will get baked into the final product once the base funding amount has been secured. The more post-goal cash they raise, the more features they’ll layer on. The idea is that you’re no longer wagering on a hum-drum product, but are doubling-down on an insanely sweet payout. Eventually.
I backed Project Eternity initially, but ended up cancelling my pledge because I can’t get behind this concept of stretch goals. I was practically suffocated by an avalanche of emails from Obsidian pimping what I’d get if only I tossed another $15 or $50 onto their bonfire. That’s over and above my “what I’m comfortable paying for” pledge. I don’t normally skimp on paying for promising projects, throwing down about what I’d throw down for a retail release, so stretch goals put me in the “collectors edition” territory for traditional retail products. Those I only buy if I’m really psyched about the product or franchise.
Part of the issue I had with PE’s campaign is that it wasn’t only this growing list of features that we’d get, but that they started selling goods from the back of a van as part of their pledge drive. This isn’t upping your pledge; you maintain your original pledge level (and get nothing more than your original pledge perks), but if you act now and add $15, you get a digital download atlas! For $7, you can get a digital strategy guide.
Yeah, it’s DLC for a game that hasn’t been created yet.
Now, I understand that the more money in their hands, the more people they can pay to cram content in, the longer they can leave the lights on, and the more Nerf guns and Red Bull they can buy to keep that oh-so-important game developer stereotype rolling, but here’s the thing: I offered my pledge for the game they advertised. I did my part, and a lot of other people did too, to the tune of $1.1 million. But still we were getting a hard sell. Like when you travel to the Caribbean and have to dodge the locals who aren’t shy about getting all up in your face to buy local goods every five feet, at some point it felt like Obsidian was looking for anything not nailed down and inviting you to make them an offer.
All I wanted was for the damn game to get done. If these stretch goals are going to hamper that in any way, then fuck em.
If that sounds “entitled”, tough shit, but I liked the initial project enough to pledge. So did other people. We handed them our I.O.U. for the base game, and that was enough for us. Somewhere, something snapped, and the $1.1 million became not-enough for Obsidian. It’s like they saw the numbers on the tally-board flipping by at breakneck speed, and didn’t want it to stop, so they had to come up with something – anything — to keep that euphoria flowing. It eventually felt that the promised game got lost underneath a mad dash for as much money as possible.
I personally don’t want to see other projects going down this road. So far, I have only received one product that I’ve backed. If stretch goals are going to make more work for these developers, then the potential for vaporware grows. If that happens, it’ll be high profile: Project Eternity is now the highest grossing game development project on Kickstarter. They must make good on everything the promised, hopefully before the sun burns itself out, or else there will be a $3.7 million worth of angry gamers chasing them from one corner of creation to another.
Of course, as Pete from Dragonchasers said, we can all win: Obsidian got more than they asked for, so those stretch goals will hopefully pay off. Meanwhile, those of us who canceled out pledge can wait until the game shows up on Steam’s holiday deep discount sale and pick it up for a fraction of what we had initially pledged.
This isn’t about Greenlight, I promise.
Over the weekend, I was alerted to a coupon code at Green Man Gaming that would net me Borderlands 2 for $36.00. I am ashamed that I hadn’t already pre-ordered this but it was one of those “I’ll do it tomorrow” kind of things. But all’s well that ends well, I suppose, so come release day, I’ll be able to download my Steam copy return to Pandora.
Wait…Steam copy? That kind of threw me. I was ordering from one online retailer, but had to actually pick up my product from another retailer? Was this legal? I also didn’t know that Steam was subcontracting sales to other online retailers. This is madness!
Actually, it’s kind of brilliant, but I’m still not sure if there’s an agreement between Steam and GMG, or if it’s merely exploiting a loophole. I assume we’re all familiar with the “Activate a game on Steam” feature, yes? Regardless of the answer you gave, I’ll explain it for completeness: Steam allows you to enter the retail key for many games, which effectively adds that game to your Steam library. I don’t know why this started, but it’s something I have taken advantage of over the years for allowing me to chuck my hard-copy disks in favor of keeping my library neat, organized, and centralized.
Like the Force, though, there’s a light side, and a dark side. The light side is obvious: everything is in one place, forever and ever Amen (until Steam shuts down or gains sentience and kills us all). The dark side is that while you’re willfully locking yourself into Steam’s ecosystem, not every game key you have will work on Steam, even if Steam sells that game. For example, I bought Anno 2070 from Amazon.com, but Steam won’t accept my key. I suspect that it’s because Amazon’s keys are tied to Amazon, which Steam refuses to recognize. Conversely, I’ve bought items from Previously Stardock’s/GameStop’s Impulse, which have told me flat out to “download through Steam”. So there’s some conscious cock-blocking going on based on who you got your key from.
But to sell a key only, and to tell your customers to go to a competitor’s site to download it using the “Activate a game on Steam” feature? That’s one part brilliant, one part more brilliant. First, there’s nothing to ship. Second, there’s no need to have one’s own download service, with the bandwidth and the retention of central files and the updating from the developers.
What I don’t know is if this is OK, or if this is an end run. I suspect that the batch of keys GMG will get won’t be blocked by Steam like Amazon’s are. I just don’t’ know if Steam is in collusion with GMG to allow this. I don’t know that they can really stop it, or more to the point, if it’s worthwhile for them to try and stop it. They could block the key batch, sure, but is this being done with Steam’s knowledge, or is GMG merely telling people to take advantage of a feature that was created for exactly this purpose?
Regardless, I support this symbiosis. First, it allows for online retailers to cut a chunk of potential drags on profit like order fulfillment and download services. Second, it allows Steam to become the clearinghouse, which indirectly supports smaller online retailers, by handling the fulfillment part, and benefits Steam by forcing people to return to their service during their Steam Sales (*shudder*). It may very well be that Steam has a formal system in place that retailers need to sign up for, but if not, I would not be adverse to seeing other retailers take the same road as GMG, and hope that Steam doesn’t block this kind of reciprocal back-scratching.
Maybe it’s because it’s lunchtime here, but this is making me hungry. GameSalad is a rapid development platform originally available on the Mac to create games for iOS and Android. They’re now making the platform available on Windows, with the opportunity to publish to HTML5 through their own GameSalad Arcade (publishing to Android or iOS requires a $299 license, and iOS still requires a Mac).
GameSalad appears to be a decent way to create some simple 2D action games. Everything is drag and drop, and all interaction is handled through linking “cause and effect” behaviors. I created a game called “Mouse Move” which is really nothing more than pushing a mouse around the screen using WASD, but it was created in less than five minutes. I’m not entirely sure how deep of a game that can be created with GameSalad, but I’ll give it a shot once I have more free time.
Scratch that. I’m looking through the other games that people have made, and they’ve got some full-on mobile-trope games in there, complete with “PLAY” button splash screens, level select with padlock memes, and – of course – Angry Bird clones-slash-blatant rip-offs. So I guess you can actually use this software for…holy crap. The Secret of Grisly Manor is on here. Huh. So this is a real-deal development platform, it seems. Makes Mouse Move look like total shit. Thanks for making me look stupid, guys! Sheesh.
This is a stream-of-consciousness post, and does not necessarily reflect a philosophy or well formed opinion. It certainly isn’t designed to represent any kind of actual theory or practice as it exists in the real world.
I want to start with this thought from Pete at Dragonchasers:
“Are MMOs the kiss of death? Blizzard was a beloved game developer before World of Warcraft came around. Now there’s definitely a loud Blizzard-hating group of gamers out there. Is Bioware going through that same transition?”
I’d like to see this in survey form, because I think that Pete’s on to something, at least in part. I’d be willing to agree that since BioWare was acquired by EA, and Blizzard by Activision, both titans have experienced a serious down-hill slide, not in quality, but in customer satisfaction brought about by design decisions. World of Warcraft got progressively easier over time, which many people feel ruins the experience, and StarCraft failed to ignite hearts here in the West (and the one-SKU-per-race decision is still a head-scratcher). Similarly, BioWare has hit some rough patches with Dragon Age II and it’s shift from their bread-and-butter tactical mechanics to a console-born action game, controversies over not including same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and of course the whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing. So I’d probably be more apt to “blame” EA and Activision for handing down edicts, but Pete’s comment about a company “going MMO” got me wondering about the relationship costs for a company when they move from making single or lesser multiplayer games to making an MMO.
The very first thing that I thought about was “what does an MMO mean for the players”? MMOs are time sucks, more so then any other genre out there, I’d say. Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 or Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may inadvertently keep you playing until 2 AM, but at some point, you’ll finish their campaigns and be done. Maybe you can jump in and play some multiplayer, but those are one-off experiences and are not linked together by anything more than stats and upgrades. Contrast those examples to an MMO, which is multiplayer all the time, where people are around 24/7, and where you can be logged in at any hour and find things both as you left them, and possibly changing around you (in minor degrees, like mob spawns and world events). Because of this, and because an MMO technically has no end, players generally approach these games much differently then they do single or multiplayer games. They hopefully understand that an MMO is a long haul, and therefor the expectations must be adjusted. There will be weekly maintenance windows. There will be patches. Things that you have gotten used to will change. Content will be added. Content will be removed. Friends will come and friends will go. Although most modern MMOs aren’t “virtual worlds”, they do have a persistence of landscape and, to some degree, are dynamic in that the game you have at launch will never be the same game you have in 6 months. Many players count on this, and is the reason why they prefer MMOs to single or multiplayer games.
With the understanding that an MMO is a long-haul experience, players have a tendency to become emotionally attached to the game. IPs or developer involvement aside, players create and play a single avatar (alts notwithstanding). They take them through a “growth process” towards a level cap. They make friends and enemies, and they share experiences with other people that they recall years later and which will be the only light left once their memories of the specifics of the game have faded away. These games can change people, and so MMOs are “serious business” to their players.
So the second thing I wondered was “what does making an MMO mean for the developers”? The story as I understand it is that Richard Garriott had a hell of a time pitching an online version of Ultima to EA, and that they gave him the OK not because they believed in the idea, but because they wanted him to get out of their hair. Hooray for avoidance tactics, because we got Ultima Online, and then EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and eventually World of Warcraft. Blizzard was a beloved developer who got that way by making games for people. Parse that sentence for a second, because it’s more of a powerful idea then it seems. Blizzard’s design process was to keep things simple: Diablo is a CRPG without having to worry about conversations and number crunching. WoW was EverQuest without the hardcore-ness. It was pretty, and approachable, and combined with their reputation as a developer, it blew the doors off of what anyone believed was possible in this young genre.
And the race was on. Everyone wants to get in on the ongoing revenue stream, so it seems that every major developer has an MMO on the market these days. The more people who jump into the arena, the easier it becomes for others to jump in as well, right? It’s a cornerstone philosophy of manufacturing that once something is done often enough, or by enough people, then the processes involved in production, testing, marketing, and distribution get ironed out to the point where they can be achieved without much thought. We get templates for production, and when a product can be churned out on a template, the barrier to entry falls and the market is flooded. In the case of the MMO market, the template is WoW. There are painfully few MMOs which deviate from the WoW look and feel, preferring to differentiate themselves on their art style, their IP, or on incremental changes or additions to the formula.
So I don’t think we should be surprised when other beloved companies like BioWare throw their hat into the MMO ring. BioWare is one of the few companies that I think people believe to be able to “break the mold”. After all, it’s inarguable that BioWare pretty much single handedly kept the CRPG genre afloat while the industry was moving towards more and more FPS and RTS titles. They churned out top-shelf products like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic before they got into modern day CRPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. What else could they do but take their bread-and-butter – the CRPG – and translate their “expertise” into the “final frontier” of the MMORPG?
Making an MMO is a business decision because they’re unique beasts. Whether it’s a monthly subscription or cash-shop supported, MMOs generate ongoing revenue that’s difficult for investors to ignore, especially with the games industry in a kind of “cold war” with used game sales of single and multiplayer games. While I’m sure that the developers of MMOs are gamers, it’s the dollar signs that cause the publishers to stark kicking around the idea of getting a slice of the perpetual revenue pie. This is where everything comes to a head, because we’re now at the confluence of publishers, developers, and fans.
Both Blizzard and BioWare had rabid fans before they got into the MMO space. It was both right and wrong to assume that this loyalty would translate into anything that either company did, and because an MMO needs massive amounts of people, and massive amounts of emotionally invested, loyal people, I’m sure that some bean-counters figured that it would be a direct translation from the fans of the developer to continue to be fans of the developer once they moved into the MMO territory.
MMOs require and give totally different vibes than single player games. MMOs are massive undertakings from the developer’s perspective as well, taking millions of dollars, years of development, gigabytes if not terabytes of assets, and warehouses of hardware to maintain just so players can log in, check their auctions, and log out. We talk about the “hype train” that delivers hints of a new MMO, then confirmation, then asset leaking and developer interviews, and which culminates in a massive Internet pep-rally designed to get people on-board for the release of the game. This starts at least a year in advance, and in the case of companies like BioWare, Blizzard, or NCSoft, it becomes hard to avoid official marketing materials or interviews, and harder to avoid community buzz.
This is where we start to see the real cost of making an MMO: the psychology. Gamers are dedicated. We’re all hardcore. We’re like the girls in the pictures of The Beatles concerts. We laugh at how intense Twilight fans are, but we’re just as rabid about wanting our hobby to take us to some undefined Nirvana that we’re actually willing – at some point in our gaming lives – to put our eggs in someone’s basket because the song they sing to us is so tonally sweet that we can’t imagine life without it. Promises are made, and enthusiasm spreads. We’re caught up in the hype, and we totally forget that this company has no clue what the hell they’re doing!
Sure, they’re technically proficient, and we can be assured that the product won’t be an absolute cluster-fuck, but in the case of BioWare and Blizzard, people totally hung their expectations on WoW and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on those company’s single player products. People believed that neither company could do them wrong, and neither company did do anything wrong from a technical standpoint. Where things invariably went south was in the management of expectations. Hype is what hurts MMOs early, because hype is words and concept art; players are left – and expected – to fill in the blanks with their own desires. If players don’t project their own desires into the marketing material, then marketers have failed in their mission. Once the game is released and the hype gives way to something concrete, it’s the longer term emotional attachment to characters and community that needs to be managed. MMOs aren’t really about raids and dungeons and PvP and mechanics; they’re about managing the expectations and emotional states of the customers through the life-cycle of a long-tail product.
This is where BioWare and Blizzard are losing their footing. SWTOR is BioWare’s first big-release multiplayer game. Previously, their community support was asynchronous, through bug reports and the community management of the forums. Now they have to provide 24/7 support, have employees in the game to deal with transient customer service issues that could never occur, or which could blow up and involve thousands of entrenched players. Blizzard has a different problem, in that they seem to have faltered several times over the years to achieve the balance between what the shareholders want and what the players want. WoW has become more accessible to more players in an effort to ensnare those who have (astoundingly) never played WoW, a move which has often alienated long-term, established players who are emotionally distressed at seeing their hard-won achievements now being handed out like candy at Halloween. Blizzard has teeter-tottered between putting more hardcore back into the game, while also trying to maintain a level of accessibility that they believe is needed to appeal to an untapped demographic.
Talking about and tweaking the mechanics and adding new zones and features is usually what receives the attention in a patch or an expansion announcement, but the fallout of every single bullet point in those lists is the emotional punch that accompanies them. This is where MMOs rise and fall, and the management of emotion is the true job of both developer and publisher. No user base the size of an MMO crowd can be pleased 100%, 100% of the time; the task is to please as many people as possible with each round of releases so that everyone feels that their needs are being addressed at some point, while also managing the disappointment of those who were excluded in the latest round. I think this becomes naturally more difficult the longer the game is in operation because people have had that much more time to become attached to the game, their characters, and the community, to the point where even small changes have huge ramifications. BioWare doesn’t have this level of expertise; they’re good at making games, but when it comes to “living” amongst the community, they’re just as lost as you or I would be if asked to corral players in a certain direction. Blizzard has had longer to work on this, and while just as technically adept as BioWare, their customer relations record has been spotty.
So getting back to Pete’s original question, “Are MMOs the kiss of death?” I think that the product is, as always, neutral. I think that the baggage that accompanies the development, marketing, release, and maintenance of an MMO is a high-wire act that is, at best, a zero-sum game for operators. They have to always being their A-game, have to always be on the move, and can never be off the clock because their real job is to maneuver their players through an emotional experience that’s running every hour of every day for an until number of days. The emotional investment means that players will be overly sensitive to any perceived slight, and will internalize any changes in terms of how it affects them, not how it affects the overall game. This is, of course, an impossible task since giving everyone everything that will make them happy is impossible, but both BioWare and Blizzard are experiencing backlash from failing to appropriately calculate the emotional response of their decisions.
Folks who are normally within range of my voice are probably sick to death of hearing about this, but it looks like Wasteland 2, a proper sequel to one of the early touchstones of computer RPGs, is on it’s way.
Wasteland was created by Interplay, same folks who brought us the probably-more-well-known The Bard’s Tale. Sadly, Wasteland is rarely mentioned when most people talk about RPGs that defined the genre, but it’s just as relevant because it made games like Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 possible.
In fact, it’s specifically because of Wasteland that we have Fallout 3. Fallout and Fallout 2 were made by Interplay as well, and according to Brian Fargo, were spiritual successors to Wasteland and not direct sequels because Interplay didn’t own the rights to the Wasteland name (Notice the little “EOA” at the bottom of the box cover art? That’s Electronic Arts when they were known as Electronic Arts, which should say a lot about why the Wasteland name was sealed away).
The thing about Wasteland is that it’s not high-fantasy. I played a lot of RPGs on the C64 – Phantasie, The Bard’s Tale, SSI’s Gold Box D&D Series, and more – most of which were Tolkien-inspired lands of castles, elves and dragons. Wasteland was about mutants and nuclear holocaust, which in the Cold War 80’s was a very real possibility. If memory serves me, the game also had a sense of humor – the title of this post is taken from a description you’d get when you scored a critical hit on a target, which would explode “like a blood sausage”.
I’ve tried to replay several games that I enjoyed in my youth, but I realize that it’s a mistake to attempt such a thing. Nostalgia isn’t a crystal clear remembrance, and few things hold up down the road in the ways we seem to remember them. Case in point: I recently downloaded The Bard’s Tale for the iPad, which includes the original 1980’s version! I was excited until I loaded it up and was slaughtered outside the guild hall. That game is really fucking difficult – but not really. I just don’t remember it requiring so much prep work, a fact which I blame on today’s RPGs which start you off as a virtual badass, and not an unequipped nobody who gets kicked around by goddamn kobolds like The Bard’s Tale does. That’s why I’m excited that we’re not getting Wasteland, but a real sequel to a game (I think) I really loved back in those days, but updated for modern times. Because it’s Fargo and crew who will be working on it, it’s going to be true to the original…just more updated.
The finishing touch on this is rather amusing. The game is being funded via Kickstarter, which I wrote about yesterday. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine development company raised over $3m USD via Kickstarter, and after 3 days, Fargo has raised a little over $1m USD. If you check out their Kickstarter page and watch the (pretty funny) video pitch, you’ll see that Fargo took the Wasteland pitch to several publishers – all of whom turned it down. I know $1m isn’t a lot to the likes of EA or Activision or other publishers, but I’d assume they turned it down because they didn’t think people would be interested in a sequel to a 20+ year old game. Except the almost 19,000 people who have now dedicated, on average, $60 a piece to get this project going. That’s the 19,000 people who probably would have paid $60 a piece for this game on their platform of choice. That’s 19,000 people who won’t be paying a publisher for any part of this project.
And there’s 32 more days left on the project, which has already exceeded it’s funding requirements. So, thanks, publishers, for passing this one up and for allowing inXile to bring it direct to us, and not languish in your development hell any longer.
Kickstarter is a great service, and a great innovation that funds…innovation. There’s a lot of project concepts out there that may leak into the public consciousness, but which were offered as “pie in the sky” proof-of-concept ramblings that inevitably ended with an implied sigh; “if only we had the cash to make it a reality…” Kickstarter is that cash-pipe, allowing people to funnel money not through a middleman, but directly to the people who are making the product or offering the service. We know that the money is going to be used for it’s stated purpose, and not for sending some executive to Aruba while The Team is forced to work 28 hour days to meet someone else’s promised deadline.
Lately, though, I’m getting the feeling that Kickstarter is inching towards becoming the “Craigslist for Projects” where people throw almost anything against the wall to see if it sticks. See, with Kickstarter, if you contribute money to the project, and they reach their goal, you’re charged for your pledge. If they miss their goal, your pledge is null and void, and you owe nothing – and receive nothing, naturally. This makes it a no-brainer for a lot of wacky projects because if they don’t get the funding, then everyone is off the hook. If they do reach their goal, then they have the the funding to make things happen…no matter how bizarre or insanely niche the project may be. Ideally, the funding target is chosen based on projections of what’s needed to complete the project and make good on the promises listed in the sidebar. I’m not entirely sure what happens if there’s some kind of roadblock between the success of funding and providing the finished product. I’d assume that Kickstarter: The Service is going to only be as good as the honesty of the people who use the service for the projects. If the project creators screw the angels, then Kickstarter will suffer through guilt by association.
Back when I was thinking about Universe, I considered Kickstarter to get some cash to hire someone to handle artwork, but I’m rather skittish about being on “the Kickstarter hook” (although it would be a suitable fire under my ass to get something done). Now that the name of Kickstarter has gotten around the Internet, there are gawd-knows-how-many projects being added to an already massive pile of people looking to get their projects in front of the right faces. Sadly, there’s only so many faces, and those faces can only really contribute so much money to so many worthy (or wacky) projects that I wonder how many projects on Kickstarter end up falling off their site without meeting their goals. Regardless, I’m glad that Kickstarter exists, partly to get the money to the people who actually do the work, and partly because it can be used for some really awesome stuff that might otherwise not ever see the light of day.