Category Archives: Commentary
The Oculus Rift will be retailing for $599. Like what.
I am not necessarily the sort of person who will say that VR, conceptually, is a fad – I’ve seen too many sci-fi movies to say otherwise. But! I also truly believe that VR is a solution in search of a problem in ways similar to that of the Kinect. VR is a part of the future, not the future.
First, there are the practical issues: the headset on your face. Do any of the models work well with glasses? I’d be surprised, considering that buying goddamn comfortable headphones that don’t grind your frames into your ears remains a struggle to this day. Even if they were comfortable, I’d still be near-blind with my peripheral vision in VR space. Can I take a drink with the headset on? Is there a transparency mode to allow me to check my phone, or look at my keyboard?
Do I really want to be standing/squatting for more than an hour anyway?
Then comes the software issues. How many first-person games are you playing right now? I’m not seeing (har har) much of a point in VR 3rd-person games, so the majority of MMOs are right out. Nevermind the fact that you’ll clearly be needing to play all these games with controllers instead of keyboards/mice. Hope you like teamspeak in your games, because that’s how you will be communicating.
“Have you even used VR before?!”
Yep. Not EVE Valkyrie or anything, but once back in the late 90s at Epcot and again last year in Japan. In the latter case, the friend I was with was blown away, but the whole time the skiing demo was playing I couldn’t help but realize that I didn’t exactly want to be standing up and gyrating my neck every which way. I am a gamer – it does not take a 360 degree virtual view to immerse me. I still get a rush of vertigo falling down large distances in Minecraft with a simple 22″ display three feet away from my face.
Like I said earlier, no doubt the technology will improve, and perhaps something like Sword Art Online/Ready Player One/Matrix/etc/etc/etc will be enough to have us all abandon meatspace gaming (and perhaps meatspace altogether). But in the scheme of things, I personally believe that something like Augmented Reality is going to be worlds more relevant to the future of gaming and life in general than VR. It has most of the advantages and none of the distinct disadvantages.
Well, I suppose we haven’t seen a price tag yet for AR.
As you might have heard, a French consumer group is suing Valve over, amongst other things, the inability of customers to resell their Steam games. The actual likelihood of this case being successful is rather low, as a German consumer group sued Valve (for the 2nd time) and lost last year. Which is interesting, considering reselling software licenses was ruled legal in Europe back in 2012.
The entire issue is fascinating to me though, as it touches on a lot of philosophical, economic, and even political points. There has been this historical dichotomy in gaming since at least the 90s, where we (in the US) have just simply accepted that computer games cannot be resold, but an entire industry can be built around reselling console games. I mean, think about it: why? Why the difference?
It seems we just kinda decided – rather arbitrarily, I might add – that because the PC disk wasn’t necessarily after installing the game, or that it’d be too easy to copy, that we shouldn’t be able to resell it. But what does that actually matter from a rights perspective? “You don’t own the game, you own the license.” Yeah, unless it’s an Xbone copy of Call of Duty, or a music album, or a DVD, in which case it apparently doesn’t matter.
If you have been following this blog for any particular length of time, you might know that I am a stalwart consumer advocate. And thus, I also agree that we should have the right to resell game licenses. None of the counter-arguments are at all compelling, and mostly seem to revolve around “it’s always been that way” or “think of the
children game developers!” About the only halfway interesting one was something along these lines:
As a consumer I do care about this, as I can only see digital resales being viable if the game enforces online authentication every time you start up the game. Physical games don’t need this as they use authentication with the physical medium, you need the disc to play.
Some people also brought up the Xbone launch debacle. The problem is… these are non-issues. The Xbone was going to require a constant internet connection, or at least the ability to phone home every 24 hours, which has nothing at all to do with licenses. Requiring a connection for when you purchase or sell a license? Uh… yeah. That’s fine. You’ll presumably need a connection to download or sell the goddamn game in the first place. There is zero reason to require verification after that, other than to be nosy.
As for the impact to game developers? I mean this in the kindest way possible: not my problem. Nor is it yours. It is intellectually dishonest to wring your hands over such a development if you aren’t already very concerned about, say, Steam sales in general. Businesses are abstract, amoral entities that don’t give two shits about you. They are not your friends. If it were up to them, games would cost $2,000 apiece and require you to drive to their headquarters to play them.
Will game companies start doing more micro-transactions/DLC/services bullshit to recapture funds lost by a used game license scenario? Maybe. Then again, that sounds exactly like the same dumb argument that we shouldn’t be paying fast food workers more because it encourages businesses to replace workers with robots. Guess what? They’re going to do it anyway.
Honestly, just like with everything, it’d be best for everyone involved if game companies got ahead of the legislation on this. I don’t see any reason why Value couldn’t implement a system of resale that includes a cut for both Valve and the developer. When I sell a Steam trading card for $0.10, Valve takes two cents. No particular reason why Valve couldn’t take 30% (or even more) of the resale value for facilitating the transaction, and give X amount of that to the developer. If Valve, et al, tries to fight the future on this one, they might be stuck with a defined activation fee at best, while gamers trade licenses on eBay, Craigslist, etc.
How many active subs does Final Fantasy 14 have? More than WoW?
The answer to the latter question is “lol no,” but the former is a bit trickier. The official word circa July 2015 was the following:
During today’s Japan Expo, Final Fantasy XIV Producer Naoki Yoshida shared that the game has accumulated a total of five million paid subscribers during its 21 months on the market.
To be clear, the current subscriber count hasn’t been announced, nor has Square Enix ever shared this figure. The five million subscriber total doesn’t include trial accounts, and only those who have at one time or another paid the $12.99/$14.99 monthly fee making it a substantial feat.
Estimates place FFXIV at around 800,000 to 1.2 million subscribers after a one million subscriber bump from February’s announced total of four million, averaging at around 9,000 new players per day over four months. Significant post-launch updates and the arrival of Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward have been key components to recent growth
An embarrassingly large number of people have taken the “5 million registered accounts” news to mean 5 million active subs, but that does not pass the smell test. Which smell test? The March 2015 yearly report smell test (PDF):
The graph above shows that all Square Enix MMOs generated around 6 billion yen on a quarterly basis, or roughly $49 million. If we assume that 100% of those dollars came from FF14 subs at the $12.99 price-point, that would put the sub numbers at $49m / 3 / 12.99 = ~1.25 million subs.
We can be more charitable in our calculations, if we wish. Let’s take the yen/dollar exchange rate from back in 2014, so 6 billion yen is now… erm, way less than $49m. Nevermind.
Okay, let’s assume that the chart actually refers to 2014 sales (or projected 2015 sales) instead of what it’s labeled as. We know that FF14 had 4 million registered accounts in February 2015, followed by 5 million in August 2015. Looks like it also had 2.5 million in December 2014. That amount of box sales + 2nd month sub fees is nothing to sneeze at, especially 1.5 million over the holiday season. Assuming a 100% retention rate, if we add the 2.5 million to what we have already established, we get 3.75m subs, which is the closest any MMORPG has ever gotten to WoW.
Of course, that’s all a bit silly.
What we know from other sources, is that there are 408k characters (not players) at the highest level cap in the five months since the expansion was released; the number of level 50+ characters stands at 1.3m. Maybe FF14 takes people longer to level through, sure, fine. So lets now assume that the chart we used before speaks about all of Square Enix’s MMOs and not just FF14, and the fact that it includes box sales, so whatever FF14’s portion of those numbers actually is, is reduced again.
Still think FF14 has 5 million active subs? Half that? Even a third?
There is every indication that FF14 is a great MMO, and I expect that it is. What I do not expect is for the Square Enix 2016 report to show even 2 million active subscriptions throughout this year.
We’ll have a better idea around this coming March, I suppose.
Three years ago, I wrote a post called The Weaponization of QQ in which I discussed “review bombing,” e.g. the practice of people writing negative user reviews out of spite. At the time, one of the particular objects of ire was Mass Effect 3. The user rating has trended upwards from 3.7 to today’s 5.4, but there remains 2518 positive vs 2372 negative reviews. And the vast, vast majority of the latter straight-up include passages such as the following:
I would have given this [Mass Effect 3] just a five, as it’s just that, an average game. However, since it’s clear that Bioware bribed journalists and reviewers to give their game a good review, I decided to counter the inflated reviewer scores and give this game a zero.
Now in the waning days of 2015, I am here to say that the practice is, unfortunately, alive and well.
One of the more topical targets is Fallout 4, which also sits at 5.4, primarily due to “reviews” like this:
Overrated Bethesda is back at it again, and they created another piece of garbage idiots to j!zz over. For starters this isn’t a 0/10, it’s more of a 4/10 but I’m trying to even the score because the fanboys are giving the game a 10/10 without explaining anything.
The above opening continues with some actual criticism of game mechanics and such, which puts it in a shockingly vanishing minority of these sort of reviews. Many are just like this:
It is not entirely clear how many of these people even played the game.
Fallout 4 is not, of course, the only high-profile victim. Even media darlings like GTA 5 are not immune:
Back in June, I had to scroll through thirty-eight (38!) negative Steam reviews to find even one that contained useful information about the actual game. The rest were simply outrage over one of the Steam sales in which Rockstar apparently increased the price ahead of the sale, via adding in-game currency as the only available bundle, thereby possibly disabling Steam refunds. Which is certainly an entirely valid concern by itself, but not one that really has anything to do with reviewing the game.
The first time I brought this up, I was concerned about what possible effects these user review bombings might have on the direction of developer game design. Now? I’m much more concerned about how devalued this practice has rendered user reviews and, by extension, all our opinions. Perhaps developers have never been overtly concerned with user reviews, so review bombing doesn’t matter. But they mattered a bit for me, when determining if a game might be worth playing. And now that resource is gone, to be replaced with the outrage of the day.
It has been an interesting weekend.
In case you missed it, Sony released a gameplay trailer of the upcoming FF7 Remake:
People are saying that the combat system looks pulled from FF15, but I never played the demo, so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that it looks a lot more Action and a whole lot less classical Squaresoft. Which is probably to be expected, given how Squaresoft hasn’t been Squaresoft since 2003.
What wasn’t expected, at least not by those without hearts crafted out of solid jade, was this part (emphasis added):
LOS ANGELES (Dec. 6, 2015) – During this past weekend’s PlayStation Experience in San Francisco, SQUARE ENIX® debuted a new trailer for FINAL FANTASY® VII REMAKE, the full remake of the award-winning role-playing game, FINAL FANTASY VII. The new trailer features the first CG scenes as well as gameplay footage. FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE will be told across a multi-part series, with each entry providing its own unique experience.
It’s difficult for me to even know how I feel at this point. A year ago, I said:
In Scenario B, Square Enix remakes FF7’s graphics and then essentially changes the entire game with a new battle system or whatever. I agree that such an outcome would be bad, but that is because the scenario itself is dumb. That is no longer a remake, it is an entirely new game with the same characters. Which at this point I would probably play, but nevermind.
Six months later, I was a gushing fanboy again. Now? I don’t know what to believe.
The explanation that has been given is that in the process of remaking FF7, the game simply became too big for a single title. Which, to an extent, I can see. Part of what blew my mind 18 years ago (…Christ) was when you defeated those Shinra guys during the highway chase and finally reached the outskirts of Midgar. And… the game kept going. Every single thing that you had been doing up to that point – the grandeur of Midgar, the assaults, the Section 7 destruction, Sephiroth, all of it – was just one town on the world map. I fully expected Midgar to be the only city in the game, and thus I can see Square Enix doing something exactly like that in the Remake.
But, man, there are so many different ways to fuck this up.
When they say “episodic,” do they mean dividing the base game up into individual pieces? Some have suggested Disc 1 would be Episode 1, etc, although that makes Disc 3 rather sparse. Or would they go with the scenario I outlined above, and have the first episode take place entirely in Midgar? I could see that happening, but they would have to change quite a bit to make a full game out of it. Or maybe they wouldn’t, and just leave it as a 10-20 hours or whatever. But what do they mean by “each entry providing its own unique experience?” Different viewpoint characters? Will progression be reset inbetween? Doesn’t this imply that sections of the world will be cut off either way?
I dunno. As I mentioned last time around, a rather large part of me is happy that this Remake is a thing in the first place, even if they screw it up royally. Of course, I would actually like this to be amazing. As they say though: “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up faster.”
Still, I want to believe.
Pacing is an incredibly important concept in game design. Pacing can be defined by the ability of a game to remain fun and novel for a player throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the gaming experience. In other words: for a game to end while you are still having fun. Otherwise perfect games can be destroyed by bad pacing, even if you had immense amount of fun while playing, simply because you often remember your final experiences with a game more than the first ones.
Pacing is also almost entirely subjective, often depends on variables outside of designers’ control, and is sometimes impossible to force.
I was thinking about pacing the other night as I was playing Fallout 4. I am basically at a point in the game where what I do doesn’t matter. I am level 46, I walk around in the highest-level Power Armor 24/7, I have 25,000+ caps, and have more than enough supplies to build whatever kind of Settlements I want, if I ever cared to do so.
There is nothing left to challenge me. This fact was rubbed in my face last night when I fell down into a basement area and a Legendary Alpha Deathclaw walked into the room, 10 ft away. I shot it with a Gauss Rifle around 3-4 times and it died, never having the opportunity to even attack. This is on Survival difficulty.
For all intents and purposes, I am done with the game. But the game isn’t done.
This is not Fallout 4’s fault, per se. RPGs are always tricky to balance, even when they are on rails, simply because grinding XP to out-level challenging content is a pretty standard, time-tested strategy. Add in an open world, and pacing pretty much goes out the window. Or, at least, there is an implicit expectation in open-world games that the player will supply their own pacing.
Unfortunately for me, I am utterly incapable of pacing myself.
At this point, what I should be doing is ignoring everything but the main story and plowing forward. And that is precisely what I keep intending to do. At the same time, I do not anticipate playing Fallout 4 again until after the first DLC get released, at a minimum. In such a scenario though, there is always the possibility that I put a game down and never pick it back up again. I would rather breeze through trivial encounters in order to experience interesting side quests than possibly never see them at all.
Of course, I would rather experience them in a challenging, tightly-paced manner even more.
I have been playing Fallout 4 pretty much non-stop since last Tuesday, and in that time I have started recognizing a few things about myself and how I play the game. These are not perhaps grand, personal epiphanies caused by Fallout 4 – I have certainly seen the seeds germinating in other games – but there is something about this game that is causing them to be more noticeable than normal.
Voice Acting Makes Characters a Character
Generally speaking, I do not role-play RPGs. By which I mean, I do not construct a character that looks like me, and I do not make decisions based on what I would personally do in that situation. If anything, I role-play the character I am playing as themselves, or whatever idealized form seems more narratively interesting. Which, I suppose, is still technically role-playing, but nevermind.
This predilection means I don’t actually like Fallout 3 or Fallout New Vegas all that much from a narrative standpoint. In Fallout 3, you are a blank slate, literally controlling your character from birth to presumably mold him/her into something resembling you IRL. Which, personally, just always seems like an easy way to skip writing a convincing narrative. “Let the reader fill in the details.”
The protagonist of New Vegas had a backstory, but the implementation was even more discordant, as I noted in my review:
I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.
Fallout 4 reminds me of what I already implicitly knew from Mass Effect: voice acting makes all the difference. Even when you still have the difficult choices to make, a well-delivered line can leave you with an impression of a character, and that impression can serve as your guide to who they “really” are.
Is voice-acting appropriate in every game? No. Does its presence often lead to more railroaded plots (due to the costs of recording twice as many lines)? Yes. But as someone who would rather experience plot vicariously rather than directly, it makes Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style choices a lot more bearable. The characters will tell you who they are.
Even Implied Romance Options Forces Me into Guy-Mode
The first character I created in Fallout 4 was, of course, Azuriel. As in, the wife. Played through the tutorial and even got all the way into Concord before something occurred to me. Could you romance companions in this game? As it turns out, you can.
I immediately rerolled as a dude.
It is a completely ridiculous reaction, but it happens every time in every game where romance is possible. Well, with one exception that proved the rule: I played a lady dwarf in Dragon Age: Origins several years ago. And it was awkward as fuck. Not that romance in any videogame isn’t generally awkward, but there is just something… maybe not immersion-breaking per se, but something personally off-putting about it that I can’t get over. Which makes my reaction to Fallout 4’s version of romance even more ridiculous, since you can romance any gender as any gender. But there it is.
I do plan to play the wife on my next “only pistols, no Power Armor, Renegade” style run though.
Change (in Formula) is Good
For the longest time growing up, I never really understood why all the Final Fantasy games had to have such radically different battle systems each time. Wasn’t FF7 good enough? Innovation, refinement, and so on are all worthy goals, but when you hit a certain plateau of elegance, why not just keep doing that thing?
Well… because then you have Fallout 4’s systems.
I grokked the entirety of Fallout 4 within the first hour or so of playing. The same strategies I’ve committed to muscle memory after hundreds of hours of Fallout 3 and New Vegas were immediately successful. Loot guns, leave the armor. Peek around corner, VATS, hide until AP regenerates. Food > Stimpacks unless you’re pressed for time. If things get dicey, break out the Pip-Boy to stop time and organize your equipment. Shoot X enemies in the face, shoot Y enemies in the legs.
While the out-of-VATS gunplay is much, much improved compared to the prior titles, Fallout 4 is basically Fallout 3/New Vegas all over again. The same tricks work.
As someone who enjoys optimizing the fun out of games, this has left me in a weird spot. All the optimization is basically done. I spent a rather absurd amount of time looking over the Perk tree and trying to figure out the best way to navigate it, but it almost seems meaningless at this point; not only am I near level 30 (and thus am actually hunting for Perks to still take), most of the Perks aren’t actually that good. And even if they were, there is no level cap, so in a sense it doesn’t matter. If I’m going to optimize anything, it’ll have to be a much narrower field, like getting an OP character between levels 2-10 or something.
I feel like the Witcher series has steadily gotten worse from a mechanics standpoint with each iteration, but at least it was different each time. The changes gave me something to mull over and marinate in my mind. And it seems like being able to do that, even if the underlying mechanics end up being worse, is still better than not having to do it at all.
Legendary Items are a Bad Idea
To an extent, I am still conflicted on this point.
Legendary items are cool, generally, in any game they are in. Their rarity gives designers the chance to introduce abilities that might be too powerful to be added to random loot. Legendaries can also facilitate character builds, and thus encourage additional playthroughs. Legendaries are fun in Borderlands, Diablo 3, and Fallout 4.
Legendaries also remove entire categories of loot drops, replacing them with nothing.
In Fallout 4, I have been using the Overseer’s Guardian for the last 30 or so hours of gameplay. The only way I could replace this weapon is if I encounter an even more ridiculous weapon that trivializes the game more than the Overseer’s Guardian already does. Which is sad, because not only does this make all the weapon drops I’ve encountered vendor trash, but it actually discourages me from experimenting with anything new.
For example, I finally saw a Gauss Rifle on a vendor just yesterday. I always enjoy Gauss Rifles in Fallout – mainly due to how cool they were in the movie Eraser (holy shit, 1996?!) – but it “only” deals 125 damage baseline. Even if I could mod the rifle for more damage, it seems unlikely that it’ll beat 137 damage x2 from a semi-automatic sniper rifle. “Maybe I’ll see a Legendary Gauss Rifle drop.”
As soon as that thought formed in my mind, I began massaging my temples. After all, this is the same game that hands out weapons like this:
Maybe I’m less conflicted than I thought. Legendaries are a bad idea, even if I enjoy the existence of Legendary mobs in Fallout 4. The latter fills holes in the gameplay, whereas the Legendaries they drop create them.