Inconsistent Resolutions

It’s been about two weeks now, and I’m unsure on how I’m doing with my resolution to not play “just OK” games.

At first, things were good. Loaded up Fable 3, suffered through the Games for Windows Live bullshit, game froze while auto-saving after about 30 minutes of gameplay, and I Noped right out of there. Then, having picked up a Punch Club code from somewhere, I decided to give that a spin. Spent about 1.5 hours “playing” Punch Club before realizing it was just not for me. Cross that one right off… but now it’s getting press and I’m starting to wonder if I gave it enough time.

Then there is my current game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengence. I played that for about an hour the day before, and got stuck on one of the early bosses and was pretty frustrated. “Time to drop this game too.” But… I didn’t. I came back the next day, cleared the boss with ease, and for all intents and purposes am having fun playing. Not fun enough to justify a full review, but certainly more than I was the day before.

While there are certainly games in which the opening gameplay is the same as the end, there are even more that are not at all similar. Like pretty much 100% of MMOs, for example. It is not as though I “owe” these games anything – this is all supposed to be about my personal entertainment, after all – but it has got me thinking about things. Is it really fair to judge a game by its opening hours? Am I fine with the possibility of missing out on an otherwise compelling experience based on basically a slow tutorial?

I suppose on that note, I shouldn’t be second-guessing my resolution just quite yet, eh?

Review: Dying Light

Game: Dying Light
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 75
Completion Time: ~30 hours
Buy If You Like: Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge, Parkour, Zombies

Environments that, for the most part, don't feel contrived.

Environments that, for the most part, don’t feel contrived.

Dying Light is a less gamey Dead Island meets Mirror’s Edge. In other words, it is a zombie game in which you spend less time killing zombies for XP and more time parkouring along the rooftops to avoid them… for XP. It’s a game of movement, momentum, and generally avoiding battles wherever you can. Or mowing through zombies if you feel like it. Either/or.

The premise of the game is that you are a lone GRE agent sent into a zombie quarantined zone in an effort to resolve a rogue agent situation before it gets (more) out of control. In the process, you help people, sometimes not help people, and otherwise play Dead Island again. By which I mean collect crafting material and blueprints so you can craft increasingly unlikely weapon mods to help you separate zombie heads from zombie shoulders. There aren’t zombie health bars or numbers popping up after each attack, but we all know that they’re there, right beneath the surface. Especially once your badass electric katana inexplicably no longer one-shots random Biters.

Indeed, if there was one element from Dying Light that I felt fell flat (beyond the ending), it was the actual crunchy gamey bits. I enjoyed how the Skill Tree system was segmented into independent categories – you level up Power by fighting, Agility by parkour, and they have their own trees – but the crafting part was straight lifted from Dead Island, and otherwise felt out of place. Why is this Chef Knife dealing more damage than a Fire Axe? Oh, right, because the Chef Knife is purple. That didn’t bother me in Dead Island because I saw a cascade of “150 damage” pop-ups after throwing a Molotov, but it’s damn weird here.

Also, I hope you like the Fallout 3/4/New Vegas lockpicking minigame, because you’ll be doing that approximately a million times. Luckily, it becomes increasingly not worth it.

Fortunately, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Conversely, this sort of thing rarely gets old.

Mirror’s Edge is the comparison everyone makes to any game that features parkour, but I must say that Dying Light gets the feeling closer than most. A lot of the more interesting maneuvers are gated behind level unlocks – including basic stuff like sliding – but even from the start things feel real good as you scramble on rooftops and vehicles. Indeed, once you start unlocking the rest of the tree (along with the grappling hook), you’ll start to feel like part Neo, part goddamn Spiderman. Even after 30 hours, running at a dead (har, har) sprint and vaulting onto a rooftop from the shoulder of a zombie trying to grab you never gets old.

One of the biggest gimmicks of the game is the Day/Night cycle, where especially overpowered “Volatile” zombies comes out to play. What is so curious about this is how utterly optional it ends up being; every Safe House features a bed, which you can freely use to skip Night segments, even when it doesn’t make much sense (e.g. something bad is happening in the next 24 hours… or next month, if you just want to sleep a bunch). The game makes a token effort to get you to venture out at Night via sidequests, but for the most part I ignored it. At least, I did until I unlocked the Grappling Hook and the “Camouflage” skill, the latter of which in particular removes basically all danger from Night escapades.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Dying Light. If you were someone who didn’t enjoy Dead Island, Dying Light is probably different enough to make it worth your time to try it out. Then again, since I’m one of those apparently crazy people who enjoyed Dead Island in the first place, it’s tough to be objective. All that I know is that it’s going to be difficult going back to any zombie game that doesn’t allow you to scale walls and Spiderman your way around town.

Or if I’m honest, any open-world game.

VR At Any Price

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.

Practical Design Considerations: Water

A few people have talked about swimming in MMOs.

While I largely agree with the premise that not many (if any) MMOs have implemented water combat/exploration particularly well, I have yet to read the (rather obvious, IMO) reason so many different MMOs try: practical design space. Or more specifically, not having swimming means your world will only ever have ankle/waist-deep water, and all the cascading design restrictions that follow from that.

There are two things I immediately notice when playing an MMO for the first time. The first is whether my character can jump. A non-jumping character means that every action I perform will be anchored to a 2D plane, there will be zero verticality elsewhere, the majority of the game world will be skyboxes, and I otherwise may as well be on rails.

The second is whether my character can swim. If the first river you come to only serves to get your boots wet, that’s an immediate clue that swimming doesn’t exist in the gameworld. Which means the gameworld will be populated with large amounts of invisible barriers and/or incredibly unlikely mountain ranges. Which means the designers don’t particular care for crafting an immersive environment, as how can that possibly exist with a surface only sparingly covered with puddles?

So, yes, most MMOs don’t do underwater sequences justice. But the alternative can’t be “not implementing underwater areas.” I would much, much rather a MMO (or any game) toss in a half-hearted, empty seascape than imprison us in Flatland.

End of Year: 2015 Edition

Something something… hope you have a good new year?

What I will say is that 2015 has been a particular year of changes in my real life, which I haven’t much talked about before, and don’t particularly feel like starting now. But things have been changing, life decisions made, and so on. All for the better, for the record. I doubt said changes will have any impact on my postings in 2016, as I am rather fond of writing and ranting to you all. With any luck, most of you feel likewise, at least some of the time.

My resolution for 2016 is to not play “just OK” games to completion anymore. Because reasons:

Challenge Acc... deferred.

Challenge Acc… deferred.

What I anticipate doing in 2016:

  • Actually playing FF14 for real this time.
  • Maybe, potentially sticking my toe back in GW2. Briefly.
  • Oh, yeah, I bought GTA 5, didn’t I?
  • Being more excited than I probably should be about Overwatch.
  • Spending a WoW token and immediately regretting it.
  • Being amazing.

So there you go. Let’s look forward to seeing what sort of shenanigans 2016 has in store for us all.

Impressions: The Elder Scrolls Online

Over the past few days, I played around 10-15 hours of The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and the experience has been… odd. I say “odd” because while in general I found the experience pleasant, the more I played the game, the more I wanted to be playing something else entirely.

I'm pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

I’m pretty spoiled by my 970 card at this point.

There is a lot of interesting things going on in TESO. For example, while there is an option for a more traditional 3rd-person perspective, I stayed in first-person the entire time for its sheer novelty. I also appreciated the dedication to the traditional Elder Scrolls trappings, up to and including the ability to literally steal all the things. Want some Grand Soul Gems as a level 3 character? Just crouch behind the merchant’s cart and pocket (?) them. Finding a random armor rack with a full suit of wearable armor that you could just take and equip was rather delightful.

The progression/leveling system in TESO is interesting as well. There are four classes, each with three class specializations. Beyond that, every class has access to the same dozen or so general specialization lines: Light Armor, Two-handed Weapons, Destruction Staves, and so on. Most of these specialization lines have ~6 active abilities and a number of passives. Your character has a total of five hotbar buttons and one ultimate, and it is up to you to mix and match. Additionally, individual abilities level up with use in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, but once an active ability hits rank 4, it can be “morphed” into one of two mutually exclusive options, which typically adds bonus effects.

While all of the above systems felt satisfyingly crunchy, it reminded me heavily of Guild War 2’s system – limited ability slots, choosing abilities from a wide list, earning Skill Points from exploration (every three Skyshards found in TESO grants 1 Skill Point), and even “leveling up” skills in a sense. In fact, that was my exact problem: the more I played TESO, the more I felt like I’d be having more fun playing GW2. Especially when I started thinking about PvP and three-way battles.

Hell, I’m resisting the almost overpowering urge to redownload GW2 right now.

Not pictured: any combat.

Not pictured: any combat.

Strictly viewing TESO as a sort of pseudo-Skyrim did not assist in keeping my interest level high enough to justify more play time. As tends to be the case, the existence of other players ruins the MMO experience. Apparently mobs drop individual loot so there isn’t any kill stealing, but objects in the world (chests, etc) absolutely disappear if someone loots them. I did not stick around a particular place long enough to see if they respawned, but the bottom line is that there was never a point in time that I was thankful to see another human playing “my” game.

It’s worth noting that I made it to level 10 without seeing even one “kill 10 whatever” quests. In fact, many of the (non-side) quests I encountered were fairly lengthy and involved. Not quite Secret World-level involved, but more than the industry standard. That being said, I found myself actually missing those kill quests, as the opportunity to kill anything was rather muted.

Sometimes I like pushing buttons, you know?

In any case, those are my impressions of TESO. I deleted the 44gb installation yesterday and don’t particularly see myself downloading it again. It wasn’t bad – at least the little slice of the beginning I played – but my New Years resolution is to not play “just OK” games to completion as if I don’t have a backlog of potentially amazing games to play through.

In An Age (of) Game Awards

Since this appears to be a Thing now, let me hand out a few awards.

Overrated Game of the Year: Witcher 3

Witcher 3 conclusively proves that all that particularly matters in gaming awards is that it looks pretty and has an interesting story; gameplay and rational design systems are 100% optional. Which, actually, is a fact that I should have already learned from Bioshock Infinite, which managed to bludgeon its way to several awards in 2014 based solely on its visuals and media narrative, not the garbage story or weak gunplay.

Seriously though, search your feelings on this – you know it to be true.

Actual Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid 5

Yeah, I went there.

Look, the question you need to ask yourself is “what does Game of the Year even mean?” If that means “which game had the most engaging gameplay, the tightest game mechanics, and the elegance of harmonious, interlocking design,” then MGS 5 is Game of the Year no question. Go ahead and try to argue some other game got gameplay better.

Did MGS 5 go off the rails towards the end story-wise, when Konami presumably had Kojima’s balls in a vice? Yes. Would one final chapter mission DLC wrap everything up to a ridiculous degree and catapult the game into gaming legend? Absolutely. Does it immeasurably suck that none of this happened? Crushingly so.

But goddamn if the act of playing MGS 5 wasn’t the best game experience all year for me. Witcher 3 probably had better voice acting and a more coherent story, and I spent more time in Fallout 4 overall. Nevertheless, I feel MGS 5 deserves Game of the Year more than the others because it got the actual game bits so, so right.

Game of the Year after Mods and DLC: Fallout 4

Calling it now.

You Can’t Go Home Again Award: Pillars of Eternity

I remember having nothing but fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series, playing them for many, many hours during a time period where I was otherwise beholden to JRPGs only. Pillars of Eternity was indeed a return to form, and I thought those same good feels would return.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, they did not.

As it turns out, the pseudo-real-time combat of PoE (and by extension Baldur’s Gate) isn’t actually all that fun to me. Back in the day, it was novel and interesting, but I just can’t stand the tactical sloppiness anymore. You can’t simultaneously make positioning super important and not allow me to fine-tune my character’s movement, especially when two pixels are the difference between your tank tanking and allowing the assassin to slip through the doorway.

Also? Sitting around and auto-attacking for days isn’t especially engaging.

I love tactical games, queuing attacks, and so on. Pillars isn’t tactical though, as you have no idea when an attack is going to fire, if a potion will be quaffed in time, or pretty much anything else. Not necessarily a deficiency in Pillars itself – it is true to the form it is imitating – but it represents a gameplay type that simply doesn’t work for me any more.

Best New Feature in a Game: Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl

I may have talked about Tavern Brawl from time to time already, but let me just say that Blizzard came up with game mode here that nobody asked for, but nevertheless ended up being exactly what the game needed. It’s hard now to imagine what Hearthstone was actually like without it. Did we really just grind Ranked or play Arena all day? Gross.

The brilliance with Brawl is actually manifold. Half the time you have to create decks from your own collection, but the other half of the time your collection doesn’t matter; this means that a new player has a shot to win against someone who has been collecting cards since beta. The weekly format means A) variety of play styles, and B) drives the Hearthstone conversation in interesting ways. On Blizzard’s side, Brawl also affords them the opportunity to playtest new cards, game modes, and receive real-time feedback on the same.

Of course, Brawl isn’t perfect. Some weeks, the rules are just crap. Brawls frequently jack up the RNG to insane levels. There have been quite a few repeats. The 2-3 day “cooldown” in-between Brawls doesn’t really need to exist, IMO.

But overall? Tavern Brawl is exactly what Hearthstone needed, right when it needed it.

Most Anticipated Game of 2016 (Thus Far): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I asked for this.

Runners Up:

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Final Fantasy 15
  • Star Citizen (?)

Game I Would Really Like to See Out of Early Access: The Forest

Oh, and Starbound. And The Long Dark. And Darkwood, which was a game I technically backed in goddamn 2013. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a game I want to ever see in Early Access anymore.

Digital Resale

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.

FF14 Subscription Number Speculation

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.

Review Bombing

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:

Slacktivism at it's finest.

Slacktivism at it’s finest.

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:

Useful.

Useful.

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.

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