Author Archives: Azuriel

Huge Layoffs for Wildstar

Uh-oh.

In a statement provided to Polygon by NCSoft, the layoffs were described as part of “a restructuring of key operations with [NCSoft] West.” The publisher says it is devoted to its core massively multiplayer franchises — Aion, Wildstar, Lineage, and Guild Wars — but it also plans to expand into mobile and tablet products.

According to the statement, there were “staff reductions” across all of NCSoft’s western branches except for Guild Wars developer ArenaNet.

A source speaking to Polygon who wished to remain unnamed said that Carbine was especially hard-hit by the layoffs. The studio reportedly lost over 60 members of its team of a few hundred. Our source says the layoffs included Carbine employees across all levels, not just entry level or less senior staff.

Although I let my Wildstar subscription lapse after the first month (I had one extra free month via in-game gold), I left /r/Wildstar subscription active on Reddit just to keep an eye on things. For the last few months I thought it might be good to track down just how many developers were leaving Carbine, but it didn’t seem especially pertinent considering I did not know their relative “value” or impact to the game. Given the news of this heavy cut, I decided to go ahead and post what I could find:

  • Jeremy Gaffney (President of Carbine | Aug 26)
  • Hugh Shelton (Class Lead | Sept 23)
  • Stephan Frost (Design Producer | Sept 30)
  • Matt Mocarski (Art Director | Oct 14)
  • Bitwise (Lead Client Engineer | Oct 23)
  • Rob Hess (Dungeon and Raid designer | Oct 23)
  • Ryan Moore (Senior World Artist | Oct 23)

Some of these people left for personal reasons, some got better offers, some were hit with layoffs. To an extent, this is pretty “normal” in the game industry anyway. No doubt some of those people have been working on Wildstar for 5+ years.

At the same time… yikes.

Too soon? Too soon.

Too soon? Too soon.

It’s 25% Off!

A friend of mine still hanging onto WoW for dear life wanted me to see this news:

Wow. Much Savings. Such Doge. Wow.

Wow. Much Savings. Such Doge. Wow.

In other words, character transfers are 25% off for a limited time. Not quite the 50% discount Blizzard was offering back in June of last year, but hey, why would they? They got back 600,000 subscriptions in Q3. Can’t possibly stymie that value-added cash flow equivalent to any number of quality Steam games/bundles/etc.

I kinda get the argument that the value is there for players still invested in playing WoW; even at $18.75 there are only a few Steam games that could stand up to ~100 hours of play that WoW could easily generate in a month. On the other hand, my subscription ended 5/10/13. I am nearly a year and a half removed. And even if I came back tomorrow, all my toons are still stuck on no-Pop Auchindoun-US whatever merged PvP server nonsense exists with just about everyone else I know having abandoned ship to a PvE server. So the costs for me to get back into the game is, minimum, $15 + $18.75 + the expansion. That is a rather serious goddamn commitment for something I don’t even know I will find fun anymore.

So, no thanks, Blizzard: it’s still a wee bit ridiculous. If I could transfer my entire character stable wholesale for that price, sure, maybe. I simply got too much gold, too many alts, and not enough fucks to give.

Review: The Stanley Parable

Given the extremely recent news that it sold 1 million copies in the last year, I figured I’d go ahead and throw out my brief review of The Stanley Parable.

Game: The Stanley Parable
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score:
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: Choose Your Own Adventure games, experimental indie titles

I see what you're doing here.

I see what you’re doing here.

The Stanley Parable is a visual Choose Your Own Adventure tech demo that extremely briefly examines the nature of narrative choice in video games. The “game” consists of moving around in the first-person and exploring an office building while a narrator details all the things you are doing, Bastion-style. The meat of the gameplay consists of getting to one of the endings (sometimes taking as little as 5-7 minutes) and then doing something different on the next play-through.

And… that’s about it. While the concept itself is novel, and some of the meta-humor actually relevant/damning, there isn’t really anything resembling a game here at all. The entirety of the “parable” could have just as well been summed up in a single blog post, but I suppose that would have meant forgoing the opportunity to charge $15 for the privilege of hearing it.

Nevertheless, I do recommend keeping an eye out for when The Stanley Parable appears in one of the many gaming bundles. I might not be willing to put a dollar price on this experience, but it does add value to whatever the overall bundle you might be looking at. So… take that for what you will.

More Than Fun

Some people play videogames just to have fun. I am not one of them.

Have you ever listened to a mindless comedy sketch or watched a show like America’s Funniest Home Videos (or equivalent)? Or realized that you somehow sat through the national average of 5+ hours of television a day? I always feel empty inside afterwards – I had “fun” in the moment, but then the moment is over and the fun evaporates as if it never existed. Because arguably it never did.

To me, having fun isn’t enough. I am not in search for some meaningless amusement to while the time away until oblivion; if that is all you’re looking for, I might recommend heroin or masturbation. I am looking for fun + X, where X is something I am going to remember more than five seconds into the refractory period. It doesn’t always have to be a profound, life-changing epiphany. It just has to be something.

Some people just view videogames as entertainment. Games are certainly that. But they don’t have to be just that however, and I would say that they shouldn’t be just that. If something can be more, it should be more.

I want games that set fire to my imagination, that grip me emotionally, that change the way I look at the world, that make me want to be a better person. I will also settle for games that break new ground or do familiar things in clever ways. The world has plenty enough slot machines and similar wirehead simulators; we don’t need more Loot Caves, we need more Plato Caves.

Are there better avenues than videogames to sate these desires? Maybe. Books have been changing peoples’ lives for thousands of years, for sure. At the same time, I don’t see a particularly compelling argument that we need sequester life-affirming experiences to one particular medium or another. As we have seen, games can be accessible in ways that Tolkien (etc) may not be. A substitute, even a poor one, is often better than nothing.

If you say such games do not exist, I will disagree. I have played them. Chances are you have played them too. They will be the ones at the top of your “most favorite games” list. They will be the titles you still think about and talk about decades after you stopped playing them.

There is a time and a place for the Flappy Birds and Candy Crush Saga games of the world, don’t get me wrong. But just like this compilation video of guys getting hit in the balls, you’re going to turn it off and feel nothing. Except, perhaps, remorse.

Peril of Subjectivity

As noted in the sidebar, I have been reading the Art of Game design. One part of an early paragraph sort of jumped out at me, and is kinda relevant to the topic of the usefulness of game reviews:

This peril is the peril of subjectivity, and a place where many designers fall into a trap: “I like playing this game, therefore it must be good.” And sometimes, this is right. But other times, this is very, very wrong. [Art of Game Design, pg 16]

Now, on the one hand, this is pretty straight-forward advice for a game designer. Just because you like the game you are creating doesn’t necessarily mean other people will. But it seems to me that there is a hidden edge to that sentiment, an implication that a well-designed game is one that most players enjoy.

Duh, right?

Well… doesn’t that mean Candy Crush Saga is one of the best games of all time? As of March of this year, 143 million people were playing it every day; the company’s revenue went from $164 million in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2013 almost entirely on the back of a single game. While the game’s popularity is declining (as is King’s stock price), the takeaway should be that perhaps the quality of a game’s design is not necessarily a function of it’s popularity. Good games can languish in obscurity and bad games can sell beyond all reason.

Which, really, should not come to a surprise to anyone who has ever turned on a television, read a book, or seen a movie.

Here is the Wikipedia link of the best-selling books of all time (minus religious/political works), for example. The top looks pretty good: A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Then you hit The Da Vinci Code and your eye might twitch. It’s only when you scroll down to the book series section when you realize that 50 Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies. I wasn’t able to find how many each individual book in the series sold, but if we assume 33 million apiece that means the original 50 Shades of Grey is “better” than To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or a whole swath of cultural brilliance.

You probably don’t even need to look at the highest-grossing movies listing to know it’s even worse. There is a Transformers movie at #7 and #11, for the record. And the one at #11 was released, oh, a week four months ago. As in literally seven days ago as of the time of this posting [Edit: I misinterpreted the Wikipedia note; the movie is still in theaters though] . I mean, it should really have been bad enough that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at #48, ahead of all its infinitely better predecessors.

I suppose my point is that, going back to Tobold’s post, it does not surprise me in the least that Destiny received a 76 Metacritic score and yet has 3.2 million daily players. Just as it shouldn’t be surprising to see how little overlap there is between RottenTomatos’ Top 100 movie list and highest-grossing movie one. I mean, Transformers: Dark of the Moon got a 36% score, and is #7 highest-grossing of all time with over $1.1 billion worldwide. That’s more than LotR: Return of the King (94% fresh) which clocks in at #8.

So, basically, no – game reviewers are no more irrelevant than reviewers of any kind of medium. I mean, unless you think movie reviewers are there for some other reason than to direct you towards movies worth watching… in which case they should have just said “Transformers,” apparently.

I cannot really comment on Destiny’s actual merits for two reasons: A) it wasn’t released on the PC, and B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. I do not consider the latter indicative of Ps2’s game design brilliance so much as a personal deficiency.

Stubborn (PvP) Principles

I have not been playing Wildstar for months, but I try and keep abreast of its various developments. The most recent was a disabling of the free realm transfers ahead of the incoming megaserver merge. It was later clarified on Reddit that the free realm transfers would be coming back once everything is stabilized… but only for PvP –> PvE transfers. Some player, clearly new to the MMO scene [Edit: or used to WoW] , asked the bright-eyed question of “Why?” InRustTrust helpfully explained the hitherto ironclad logic:

The restriction is, and always has been, purely because the people on PvP servers don’t want you to just level up your character in complete peace, obtain all the gear they competed over and free of the ganking they had to endure, and merely transfer past all that. I don’t know why this is ever shocking to anyone. It’s like this in practically every MMO and the reason is always the same.

I say “hitherto” because A) I like fancy words, and B) does that explanation strike anyone else as increasingly asinine?

It is certainly true that such a rule strikes a chord of fairness. But what are we really saying here? What are the developers committing to? There are precisely two megaservers in North America, with a one-way funnel between them; any server transfer is basically a permanent loss for the PvP megaserver. So anyone who originally joined their friends on a PvE server only to lose them, now has to sate their frustrated bloodthirst in battleground queues. Or anyone who wasn’t sure whether they could stand it, or anyone who didn’t originally know the difference, or anyone looking for a change in scenery, or for any number of reasons. Including, I’m sure, X amount who wanted to level in peace but are itching to gank lowbies.

Would it be unfair? I ask… who cares?

No, seriously, just think about it. Are we really regarding leveling up on a PvP server as some kind of rite of passage? That you cannot gank lowbies unless you yourself were a lowbie to be ganked? It spawns all sorts of interesting questions. For example, I leveled up on the PvP no-pop server of Auchindoun in WoW. There were a few ganks along the way, sure, but my experience had to be night-and-day different from someone who leveled up on a High-pop PvP server. Am I “worthy” of the same “respect” as those who had it worse?

I mean, principles are great and all, and I recommend everyone having a few. But on occasion I also recommend examining them and seeing if they are still relevant to your interests. Having a PvE –> PvP server restriction is 100% arbitrary and I can’t see what real benefit it brings, especially when PvP servers are historically the most empty to begin with. Can Wildstar really afford to turn away geared endgame players from possibly generating endgame shenanigans on PvP servers? “It’s not fair!” So add an achievement: Leveled On A PvP Server [+10].

It’s a PvP server, people, everyone should be falling over themselves getting more (carebear) targets to transfer. Right? The sanctity of the hazing ritual that is leveling on these servers is not sacrosanct. The PvP person who would quit over this clearly was not interested in a world PvP endgame. The only people you have to watch out for would be the lowbies who might see an increase in getting ganked… but then again that is precisely what they signed up for in the first place. Arguably those masochists would like it even more.

So come on, Carbine, be the first (?) next to put this sacred cow out to pasture.

Cooperation Requires Incentives

Both Tobold and Rohan were musing about a similar issue last week: why isn’t there more cooperation in survival MMOs? Or more PvE-only survival MMOs in the first place?

Let me turn the question around: why would you cooperate? Tobold is thankful that our real-life ancestors were not as blood-thirsty as the average DayZ player, but I am not even sure whether or not that is true. Recorded history is filled with the conquest of the weaker, and who knows what happened in the darkness of the forest millennia before that?

The problem in gaming, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. Specifically, if there are no extrinsic bonuses for assisting someone in any game, I generally only do so if I happen to be in the mood and it’s easy. For example, I have no problem playing Medic classes in PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 because reviving teammates A) gives me as much XP as a normal kill, and B) the revived character is likely to get me closer to the goal of winning the match/flag/etc (i.e. more XP). Guild Wars 2 also did a pretty good job in incentivising reviving other players along similar lines. Obviously 5-man dungeons and such offer similar carrots.

In the absence of the extrinsic carrot though, a game designer cedes control to the player’s own nebulous intrinsic motivations to govern behavior. Unless you are a particularly extroverted individual looking to make more internet friends, there is really no reason you would ever cooperate without the carrot. If it’s a free-for-all scenario, not killing another player on sight is a huge risk. And even if you are willing to take that gamble and it succeeds, the “reward” is generally limited to what you can accomplish within that play session… unless you go out of your way to befriend them.

What if you don’t want more friends?

For a PvE survival MMO to work, I think constructing the proper incentives for cooperation would be Priority #1, and they would need to be extrinsic incentives. I am not a huge fan of the permadeath ideas Rohan was tossing around, but imagine if permadeath were a possibility, and killing other players (without cause) increased that chance? Let’s say the odds of permadeath were 10% baseline and increased by 25% for each player you killed. Meanwhile, if you healed, revived, traded/interacted with, or perhaps simply were in X radius around another player on your friends list, the baseline permadeath chance dropped to 0%. The “stain” of unjust PvP would not diminish – unless as a result of some penance or whatever – and yet it would give both groups the relevant incentive to do stuff with others.

I do not necessarily think it is wrong for game designers to rely on players to want to make friends to enjoy their game properly, but that ship has long sailed for me. I got my ex-WoW buddies, some IRL friends, and this blog if I want to talk shop with someone; I’m not entirely in the mood for the arduous vetting process and necessary synchronized timing necessary to make new friends. Needing to join a guild or Outfit or whatever to get the “full experience” simply means I won’t ever be getting the full experience in your game.

And if your game offers nothing else, then I won’t be playing it.

That Michael Ironside AMA

If you are not familiar with Reddit, it’s… well, let’s just say it’s a thing. A thing that occasionally has “Ask Me Anything” threads from famous people, like Michael Ironside. You might be familiar with him from his work on Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. Or, you know, any of the hundreds of classic movies he’s been in, including Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Free Willy.

In any case, in his AMA he related had a rather interesting story about Splinter Cell:

Q: Hello, Mr. Ironside! I have to say that I liked your voice work as Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell series. How do you feel about Ubisoft’s decision to not use you in the newest game? Also, any stories about your work on the games?

I think it’s a great idea for Ubisoft. They’ve gone to motion capture, and this spring I will be 65 years old. I don’t think anyone wants to pay money seeing a 65 year old Sam Fisher bounce around on set, killing and stumbling while he kills people. I wish them all the luck. I hope that franchise has a long and storied future.

I have to confess I’m not a gamer. And when they sent me the contract for the very first game, it was quite lucrative, and I said “absolutely, I will do this.” I thought it was going to be like PONG, and I would just have to introduce it.

My wife, actually, went out and bought a brand new SUV with some of the money.

When I got the script, it was very stiff, very inflexible, and very blood and violent.

And I didn’t want to do it. And told them I was going to give them back their money. They asked me what would it take to keep me on the project, and i said we would have to change the character, and give him some type of humanity. To their credit, they sat me down with the game creators, and we came up with the present Sam Fisher, who had an empathy and was not just a 2 dimensional killing machine. And we got as much humanity, I think that that format will allow.

And my wife didn’t have to give back her SUV.

ALso, what happened is, when you’re doing games, usually it’s one person in a booth doing their work, creating their character, and then the next person goes in, you usually never get to work or meet anybody. On the first 2 games, we brought the cast in, and we all did it together, so we had a sense of humanity. That was one of my stipulations.

I said “Working is like making love, if i do it by myself, it’s just masturbation. I’d rather have the other cast around.” And I think the proof is in the pudding, the game has had a pretty good set of legs on it.

I confess that I have never actually played any of the Splinter Cell games, which I realize makes highlighting this anecdote a little weird. Still, it is a bit encouraging to hear that by virtue of a single person, a group of developers were able to come together and change what would have (undoubtedly) been a more one-dimensional experience into one with a lot more texture. Somewhat less encouraging was the fact that Ubisoft felt like the killing machine script was good enough at the beginning, but I’ll give them a pass here.

In any case, this is still one of the best AMAs I have ever read. This Christian Bale story, this Starship Troopers trivia, these Highlander 2 moments with Sean Connery. Way good.

Gamer Demographics Over Time

The Entertainment Software Association puts out a PDF every year with a variety of gamer statistics, such as average age, gender, and so on. I started looking them up in support of an argument I was going to make, realized the data might have proven the exact opposite thing, then decided “what the hell” and tossed it up into a Google Doc. Here are some simple graphs that may or may not prove useful to someone, somewhere:

Hmm.

Hmm.

As you might notice, the average age of gamers plummeted in 2012. This was a result of the ESA changing the wording of their questionnaire, turning anyone who played one hour per week of a game on a smartphone or iPad into a “gamer.” Incidentally, people who played 10 hours per week were considered “serious gamers,” which I believe automatically applies to anyone who has ever played an MMO. It’s kinda funny though, in that playing games more than an 1.5 hours/day is “serious,” but (Americans) watching more than 5 hours of live TV a day is average. Casuals, indeed.

Getting older? Maybe.

Getting older? Maybe.

The above chart is a breakdown of the three age ranges into percentages of the whole. This is where my original argument got tripped up. You see, I was trying to refute the “these days gamers are getting older/having kids/etc and thus have less time to play” argument. I mean, it makes sense as a talking point when speaking to one’s own peer group, but the average number of years a person has been gaming hasn’t increased all that much (see chart 1). In this chart however, it’s pretty clear that the under-18 crowd went from about 35% of all gamers down to sub-20% across seven years. So yeah, maybe we’re all growing up. Or more older non-gamers are joining, which may as well be the same thing.

If you are wondering what happened to 2012-2014 numbers, well, the ESA decided change the age ranges for basically no reason. Seriously, under-18, 18-35, and 36+? I mean, I guess that isolates the COD crew better? I’m not going to bother with a graph for just those three years though, so here is a table:

Under-18 18-35 36+
2003 37.9% 39.5% 22.7%
2012 32% 31% 37%
2013 32% 32% 36%
2014 29% 32% 39%

I included the 2003 data in there simply because it happened to have those same age ranges on it.

Finally, here is a gender chart for the curious:

We've come a long way.

We’ve come a long way.

And there you go. Hopefully that was useful to someone, somewhere. If you want to see the figures yourself, the Google Doc includes links to all 14 PDFs. Go nuts.

“Indie Devs are People Too!”

A little more than a month ago, I wrote a largely throwaway Saturday post called “Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes” in which I criticized Falco Girgis for his response to an internet troll on Kotaku. Specifically, he wrote this (emphasis added):

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

My overall point was that the stuff I highlighted in red is him just being an asshole and is otherwise dumb to say in any context.

Well, somehow Falco found the post this past Friday and decided to defend himself in the comments, with Facebook backup. Which was interesting for a whole host of reasons, but I’m not going to encourage you to check his recent (public) timeline or anything.

The Team Falco consensus seems to basically be summed up by this:

We’re just people and will respond as human beings. If indie devs acted like you expect us to act the there would be a whole lot more examples of Phil Fish and to a lesser extent Notch.

In other words, these sort of responses are just people being people.

The problem is that you cease being “just people” the minute you become an entrepreneur publicly selling a product. Or take any job whatsoever. I do have a little sympathy for people like Notch after the fact, but that might simply be because I didn’t follow his public comments too closely; if he was anything like Phil Fish or Falco here, he deserved the shit he got up to and including his meltdown. Not that I think he’s exactly crying into his $1.8 billion right now.

I am not trying to set myself up as some sort of paragon of good behavior. Who knows how I would have reacted in a similar situation? Maybe exactly the same… or worse! But that is all besides the fact that, objectively, those were all monumentally dumb and utterly unnecessary things to say. For anyone, in any scenario. The anonymous hater was put in his/her place with facts within the first five sentences – everything that came after was just him being an asshole. Any sort of “he was under a lot of stress” apologetics not only highlights the underlying lack self-control (or crippling insecurity), it is also a blank check to internet trolls everywhere. “Maybe they were just stressed when they told you to die in a fire.”

No, we can criticize people behaving badly regardless of why they did it.

Walking away from this exchange and having read Notch’s farewell post, it’s pretty clear that one does not simply make videogames; when you pick up the developer mantle, you get all the baggage that comes attached. Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. I’m certainly willing to admit that gamers seem significantly more likely to publicly air grievances than, say, Walmart shoppers or whatever. At the same time, this is also what you signed up to do, whether you knew it at the time or not. And now that you know, it’s up to you as to whether the literally infinite reservoir of internet malice is worth responding to every single time.

I recommend not doing so. And especially not in a manner indistinguishable from original source.