Impression: Civilization: Beyond Earth

I think I am beginning to understand those old-school gamers who were miffed by EA’s Dungeon Keeper app. Because, you see, with Beyond Earth I thought I was buying Alpha Centauri and ended up with a full-price Civ 5 mod instead.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

That is not an entirely fair comparison, of course. I knew this wasn’t going to be Alpha Centauri. But… you know… I kinda wished it was. Alpha Centauri consumed a solid chunk of my adolescent mindspace, where it resides to this day. Like… like a mind worm. That will need to be nerve stapled to be removed. And don’t even get me started on those real-world quotations used when researching new tech – I walked into my college courses years later with the equivalent of AP credit from being inspired by Plato and Aristotle half a dozen years before they were required reading.

Anyway. Back to Civ 5 Beyond Earth.

You know, it’s actually extra unfair that I keep belaboring this Civ 5 point because I didn’t start playing Civ 5 until about two months ago. I have a total of 24 hours /played in Civ 5 actually. By contrast, I have 16 hours in Beyond Earth as of this morning. It came out three days ago. So there is that.

What I already like about the game are the barbarians aliens. There are multiple kinds roaming about, including ranged and flying units, and even some “endgame” aliens right from the start. While it feels a bit unfair to stumble across a Siege Worm with an Explorer on Turn 3, I enjoy that extra level of randomness insofar as it gives you some interesting decisions. Such as A) run screaming, B) decide you didn’t want to build a city over there anyway, and/or C) New Random World.

Another thing I like – thus far – is the tech web:

*Rubs chin*

*Rubs chin*

The basic gist is that instead of needing to research lame things like Pottery and Horseback Riding on your road to thermonuclear weapons, you can make a beeline to wherever you want. Each tech “branch” has tech “leaves,” which I thought was a pretty clever way to keep the web itself relatively clean. Still, there is a lot of convoluted nonsense in there with some techs granting bonuses to buildings on the other side of the tree and the rather unfortunate necessity to research certain techs to “unlock” strategic resources. I know Civ 5 had something similar, but it’s extra important in Beyond Earth because your Affinity special units “reserve” a certain amount of said resource, and you never really know how much you’ll have until unlock the ability to see it. Combine that with Civ 5′s “we still don’t like you building cities” M.O. and you could be frustratingly locked into a different Affinity or just use standard units forever.

Speaking of forever, my Civ 5 experience in pressing End Turn about a thousand times before anything of consequence occurs has carried over into Beyond Earth. I have completed one game thus far, where I decided to go for the Supremacy victory instead of “just roll over the insane enemy Civs” victory. After grinding up Supremacy to the prerequisite level, I had to spend 30 turns building an Emancipation gate. Then I needed to… send 1,000 Attack worth of units through the gate. And you can only send one unit per turn. I get that this would probably be completely compelling in a multiplayer match or something, but Jesus.

Worth it.

Worth it.

My second game was on a bigger map that ended up being an Archipelago-ish area. Which could be interesting… except, whoops, you need to spend ~17 turns researching the ability to Embark your land units. Remember when I told you that high-level aliens are everywhere right from the start? That also includes the seas. You can’t even escort a colony expansion until you research Gunboats in such a scenario, and one Gunboat can eat about two hits from the standard sea alien. It was literally turn 98 before my 2nd city came up to speed. I might have been able to push for a much earlier expansion but, again, Sid Meier apparently hates cities these days so I wanted the few he would deign to grant me to be near some strategic resource.

Want to know how that game ended? I came into it deciding to go Harmony and channel my inner Deirdre this time around. After unlocking the ability to see Xenomass, I check out the map and… huh. There is pretty much just one free node anywhere near me. Which makes sense, in a way, given that it spawns on land and this particular world is mostly water. Still, it was discouraging enough for me to just abandon the effort altogether. No doubt I could have switched strategies to something else – there were alternative avenues of (eventual) victory – but I wanted a Xeno Titan. Oh well.

There is more to say about Beyond Earth and it’s inevitable parade of expansions that will socket in more Civ 5 mechanics, but these are my impressions at 2am after playing 16 hours across three days. If you liked Civ 5, you’ll probably like this game. If you liked Alpha Centauri, you probably won’t. I am not quite sure what I ultimately feel like right now, but I do know that I would like to try it again.

Micro-Reviews: Suzuka, Orange Marmalade, GE – Good Ending

Suzuka

Suzuka

Suzuka starts off as a fairly cliche high school romance manga, right down to the main male character transferring to Tokyo and living in an all-girl dorm/spa. In fact, you might recognize pretty much that exact premise right out of Love Hina. The curious thing about the manga though is that I was never really able to get a sense of whether it started this way intentionally, or if the gradual evolution of the story into something more meaningful was a happy accident. In either case, the character progression becomes much more interesting as time goes on, the harem and fanservice drops away, and many satisfying (and occasionally frustrating) developments are had by the end.

Basically, if you are looking for a more “realistic” romance manga along the same vein as A Town Where You Live, Suzuka is a good front-runner.

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Orange Marmalade

Marmalade

This is a Korean-style romance manga centering around high school girl Ma Ri, the “ice queen,” who actually happens to be a vampire in hiding. It has been 300 years since the last vampire has actually killed a human, but the discrimination and threat of exile is constant. In fact, her family has had to move around repeatedly any time people start to get suspicious, which has led to Ma Ri to make peace being alone forever. Despite her best efforts though, she is befriended by a group of girls and Jae Min, a boy who seemingly refuses to leave her alone once she accidentally nips his neck.

The pacing, art style, and overall quality of Orange Marmalade is extremely good. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I basically plowed through the entire series in a single day. It has angst, drama, and moments of extreme pathos, all without necessarily devolving into standard tropes. There are some vampiric shenanigans, but the story isn’t necessarily about vampires. In fact, beyond a few initial plot points, the vampire angle is more allegory than anything – and in that regard, it is extremely effective. I recommend it.

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GE – Good Ending

GE

GE – Good Ending is, as you might expect from the title, a high school romance manga. The story centers around Seiji Utsumi, a boy who has a crush on the tennis club president. Too scared to make a move and too unathletic to join the tennis club himself, he remains content with admiring her from afar. That is, until another tennis club member, Yuki Kurokawa, catches him peeking in the bushes, and seemingly makes it her duty to put them together.

While this manga starts out with the stereotypical dumbass protagonist who is incapable of doing anything, the beauty of GE is the character progression and, indeed, evolution. Characters grow up, pasts are revealed, feelings change, misunderstandings are had, and basically real shit occurs. In other words, the beginning of the manga bears little resemblance to what it eventually becomes, which is a rather compelling narrative. If romance manga is your genre, GE will definitely earn a spot on your list.

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.