Vote with Your (Whale) Wallet

There was an interesting, albeit depressing, exchange on Reddit concerning the release of Dr. Mario World, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile nihilism. Basically, it’s Dr. Mario meets Candy Crush (e.g. stamina meters) with a dash of gacha game lootboxes. Which is a little weird, considering Nintendo seems to make a point about not being too greedy with their monetization strategies. What changed?

$$$$$$

Five years ago, I made the point that “voting with your wallet” was a losing strategy, in comparison to complaining about things and thereby possibly voting with other peoples’ wallets. That sentiment seems almost quaint these days. The current reality we inhabit is one in which the mere existence of people willing to drop $100 (or $1000) in a sitting dictates how mobile games are developed.

I would like to believe there is some kind of silver lining in all this. And maybe there is. If you are just looking for something to do on your phone, there are tens of thousands of options available for free. Not all of them are even horrible. Hell, go play Dr. Mario World if you want!

As someone who loves the purity of elegant game design though… I’m fucked. I could vow to never play these games again, convince thousands more to join the boycott, and it wouldn’t matter. When 90% of the playerbase is already not paying for anything, and the average lifetime value of paying customers is single digits, one $99 purchase justifies a lot of nonsense. Not just in one game, but every game. There will be exceptions, but they exist as deliberate acts, fighting the ocean current.

When money is speech, the richest speak the loudest.

…er, when did we decide that was a good idea, again?

Subscription Pass

When the videogame historians look back on this particular monetization strata, it will undoubtedly be the Season Pass era. Or perhaps the Microtransaction era more generally, to include loot boxes, but with legislators and science slowly turning against loot boxes, I feel like more and more games will be making a hard turn into the Season Pass model.

To be clear, I am not referring to the Season Passes of yore, in which you essentially pre-ordered DLC. The new hotness is basically a month-to-month subscription. This most recently slapped me in the face in Clash Royale:

Clash-Royale-Update-Pass-royale-1147670

The new troop doesn’t even officially get released until Season 2…

Someone on Reddit wrote up all the incentives that your $5 will purchase, and the list is somewhat enticing. None of them are technically P2W, which is itself a moot point because you could drop $99 on shit from basically day 1 in Clash Royale anyway. Indeed, if you look at the package in comparison to what your hard-earned cash could buy normally, you’re effectively getting 10x-11x the normal value. Five dollars will get you 500 gems, which can convert to 10,000g or two emotes or two Lightning Chests… or basically give you 40,000+ gold, 800 more cards (including 60+ Epics) and a bunch of other stuff.

Of course, Supercell doesn’t want it to be an either/or scenario. You can do both. Having an exceptionally generous Season Pass can lure F2P players into making their first purchase, after which it is easy to make another. One of the “perks” of the one in Clash Royale is an auto-announcement in Clan chat that you purchased the pass, and thereafter your name shows up in gold coloring in chat and battling. Turns out that adding gold leaf to a scarlet letter makes it rather desirable.

The dilemma I face is the same as always: I am caught in eye of the monetization storm.

ClashRoyale_AlmostMax.jpg

Could I be any more off-meta?

As the screenshot shows, I am one Miner card away from having a fully-maxed deck. I am sorely tempted to purchase the Season Pass entirely to get that last Miner card. It would normally not be too difficult to trade for it within my current clan, but there are at least three other members currently asking for Miners themselves, and none seem keen to trust me in giving up one of their so I can max the card and satisfy an effectively infinite number of trades thereafter.

After that though… what then? I have dozens of technically maxed cards that I cannot actually max out because I lack the gold to upgrade them all. Not that I would need to max them out in the first place, considering I don’t use them in decks. The deck I have is the one I enjoy the most. The last two slots are technically flex slots, but I have tried a bunch of alternatives and found them lacking.

Would the new Fisherman legendary card be a good fit? Completely irrelevant. New legendaries may as well not exist, because I would need literal dozens of them to get them anywhere near usable levels where I’m sitting on the ladder (~5800 last season) and in 2v2. Granted, the Fisherman has some utility outside of his base HP and damage – the ability to hook and pull troops around like Roadhog from Overwatch – but I’m still not bringing that to match that matters.

In any event, the Season Pass model gives me pause. In the context of cash purchases within Clash Royale, it’s a great deal. Would I pay a $5/month subscription to Clash Royale though? Nope. It’s not a subscription though, as there are no reoccurring payments. “Cancel any time!” And yet there will be tens of thousands who do re-up every month, for the rewards or the conveniences lost.

Technically this should be positive Consumer Surplus territory… so why do I feel so dirty?

Possibly because I felt the hook twitch. Supercell isn’t reeling in the line yet, but it’s there. Subscription versus Season Pass is a distinction without a difference, and yet those who would riot about the former in their game are praising the latter. It is a trick of psychology, a stark reminder we can be tricked, and evidence that we face amoral corporations that have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to trick us out of as much money as possible.

For however bad loot boxes may seem, never forget that loot boxes are apparently not enough.

Mobile Attributes

As I have begun my homebound tour of baby duty, I have a new appreciation for mobile gaming. Because it is the only gaming I can conceivably complete. While there are only three games in particular that I’m playing at the moment, I’m becoming well acquainted with the specific attributes of each one.

Time-to-Play

How long it takes from the moment you press the icon until you can start making selections. This probably shouldn’t matter as much because if you’re counting seconds you likely weren’t going to be having a lot of fun to begin with. That said, it became important to me once I realized that it takes Hearthstone 38 seconds to boot up.

Thirty. Eight. Seconds.

That’s just to get to the quest screen, by the way, not actually playing. In contrast, Clash Royale takes 17 seconds and Gems of War takes… huh, 32 seconds. For some reason, Hearthstone seemed more egregious.

Minimization

How the game reacts to being minimized or otherwise losing focus. This attribute is a bit tough to precisely quantify because apparently it matters for how long the interruption lasts. Sometimes you can minimize to shoot off a text and be fine, and other times the app requires you to log back in.

Hearthstone used to be the worst at this, not only requiring a re-login, but also counting a Dungeon Run as a loss if you minimized in the middle of a boss instead of on the reward screen. As of some patch ago, you can safely minimize without losing progress.

Clash Royale is finicky, but even when there’s the equivalent of a re-log, it’s very brief. Things are significantly different if you are in the middle of a battle though. In some cases you can get back in, but you are generally penalized as “leaving the match.”

Gems of War, in my experience, doesn’t care and will be right back up instantly.

One-Handed Play

Can the game be played with one hand… if you know what I mean. Because you have a baby in the other hand.

Both Hearthstone and Gems of War are perfectly playable with one hand. Both games are basically turn-based, and even if you’re playing a human opponent in Hearthstone, you have a minute and a half to complete your turn.

Clash Royale on the other (one) hand is technically playable, but sometimes entire matches can be decided on pixel-perfect placement of troops at precisely the right moment. So in this respect, I’d say this isn’t a one-handed game.

Fun

Pretty standard.

Depth

Same.

Microtransactions

They all have them.

Overall, I will say that Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run modes have been the MVP for me this far. When I said I had no desire to play Dalaran Heist anymore, that was before I got stuck watching a baby for 12+ hours a day. I’m already halfway through beating Chapter 1 heroic mode with every class, and being grateful I have something to do.

The Dalaran Heist

One of the most enjoyable things out of Hearthstone have been the roguelike deck-building modes (Dungeon Run) launched with each expansion since Kobolds and Catacombs. The exact formula has changed a bit each time, but the idea is that you start with a deck with only a few cards, and as you face off against increasingly tough bosses, you get to pick a “bucket” of three cards when you win, punctuated with the occasional passive effect or uber-powerful cards. This mode is something that could almost stand on its own, given how engaging it has been for me these past few weeks.

With the latest version though, Blizzard might have gone too far with the options.

The original Dungeon Run featured all nine classes to choose from, each with a simple starting deck. While it could be frustrating to lose over and over with the same class, knowing you would still have to deal with some subpar cards, the Treasures (passive abilities) and bosses you fought and the buckets of cards offered would quickly change how each run would go. Then came Monster Hunt, which featured four made-up classes with new Hero powers to play with. Then was a puzzle-mode interlude with the Boomsday Project. Then came Rastakhan’s Rumble, which featured “shrines” that did special things, but you otherwise used troll versions of the basic classes.

With Dalaran Heist, we are back to choosing one of the nine classes. However, you can also unlock two additional new Hero powers (per class!) by doing things like casting 25 elementals and other achievement-esque things. You can also unlock two additional starter decks (per class!) to shake up the early game. Finally, in addition to passive abilities and uber-cards, there are two sets of Tavern encounters which allow you to do a random assortment of things, like add new cards to your deck, increase your starting health, or even remove some cards.

In short, the whole thing is kinda nuts with the options.

One would think this would be a good thing. “Lots of replayability there!” But too much of a good thing is a problem. I finally cleared the Heist on Heroic mode and I am beyond done. Not because I only needed to beat it once, but because there is too much to contemplate. I beat Act 5 (Heroic) with Paladin, Boon of Light Hero power, and Old Hero starting deck. I could try and do the same with all the same settings but changing the starting deck to Adventure. Or Holy Flames. Or use the default Hero power and Old Hero starting deck. Or any of the five other permutations. Nine total combinations across nine classes on two separate difficulty levels.

[Fake Edit] I knew there was a Random Deck option too, but I thought that meant it would randomly pick between the three starter decks. I have just now read that it actually gives you a purely random set of cards as your starter deck. Not only does that add another three permutations, it arguably adds a quasi-infinite variety of starting positions.

Oh, and have I mentioned there are Anomalies you can activate too? Stuff like “After a player casts 3 spells in a turn, that player summons a 5/5 dragon.” I don’t know how many of those effects there are (Edit: Fifteen! 1-5!), but that would again layer on additional RNG and permutations.

Like, Jesus Christ, Blizzard. You guys crammed pretty much every possible idea on the whiteboard and put it into one game mode. I’m actively wondering if this might be the last Dungeon Run-esque version we get for a while. Where could they go from here?

76% Fallout

SynCaine has his 30-minute impression of Fallout 76 up and, spoilers, he’s not impressed:

If you ever wondered what a Fallout game would be like if you removed all the story, all the reasons why you might play and care, F76 is the answer. It’s the same gameplay, the same systems, basically the same world, just empty of reasons to care.

While I am sure that is intended to be a damning indictment of Fallout 76’s failure… it really isn’t, IMO. The overwhelming vast majority of any Fallout gameplay is, well, gameplay. Specifically, it is wandering around, collecting junk, killing Super Mutants and Ghouls, experiencing environmental storytelling, and otherwise exploring the post-apocalypse wasteland. You know, all of the fun bits that occur inbetween questing. So when SynCaine says something like:

In Fallout 3, you also start in a vault, but as a child surrounded by other humans, including your family. Shortly after leaving the vault, you had to a fairly large settlement of humans that gets you rolling.

…I had a puzzled expression on my face. When I emerged from the Vault 101 for the first time – still in the top 5 videogame experiences in my entire life, by the way – I must have gotten turned around because Megaton was not where I went next. Instead, I explored some burnt-out buildings, fought some raiders, collected a bunch of junk, and basically hit up a bunch non-story locations.

I was not trying to avoid whatever the main story quest was supposed to be, but I wasn’t particularly bothered in speeding towards it. And while it was interesting finally getting to Megaton and having to make those moral decisions regarding the sheriff and the nuclear bomb in the middle of town and all the rest… that wasn’t everything that Fallout is. Shit, some of the best narratives in the entire series do not involve NPCs either, e.g. Father in the Cave.

Is there anything approaching Father in the Cave level so far in Fallout 76? Nope. Of course, there really hasn’t been anything of that level even in the main story quests for any Fallout game. Were you really that enmeshed with finding your father, finding your son, or deciding who rules the Mojave? Or was the main plot just a vehicle in which you drove around the wasteland, finding all the poignant stops along the way? Fallout 76 has that same vehicle, that same main story quest, getting you to explore every corner of the map. It’s a beater instead of a Porsche, but it still gets you from A to B.

Which is astounding for a survival game.

SynCaine would surely not care that Fallout 76 was never intended to be anything but a spin-off survival game and not some Fallout 5 substitute. But that is a distinction that matters. There is no plot reason to care what occurs in ARK, or Rust, or Conan: Exiles, or most other survival games. And yet there is an overarching plot to Fallout 76, complete with hours of voice acting, tragedy, and dark humor. There are no moral decisions, true, and yet that is about to change with upcoming patches in a natural way, e.g. everyone died from Scorchbeasts, Vault opens, we followed in footsteps of the dead but succeeded in eliminating the threat, newcomers are now moving in.

The devs did not set out to construct the plot this way; they honestly felt like “players are the NPCs” would work, which is some Silicon Valley startup fantasy bullshit and any actual player of videogames would instantly say is dumb. Bethesda is trying to turn the ship around though, and they have largely succeeded thus far with monthly patches and new quests. Some of it is a bit grindy, like the recent Boy Scouts-esque stuff which comes down to Achievement hunting to unlock a backpack. But, well… it fits this game, and gives you a reason to go back around the block.

I dunno. People aren’t still playing Diablo 3 for the plot, or Destiny 2, or Anthem (at all, *rimshot*). They play because the gameplay loop is fun. Complaining about Fallout 76 not having the same narrative quality of actual Fallout games just makes me question why you played Skyrim so much, and possibly still do. Was it for the engaging faction warfare? Or for whatever the situation was with that one dragon final boss that I 2-shot from stealth? Is that why any of us played and enjoyed Skyrim so much? Or was it perhaps the walking around, the fighting, the exploring caves, and otherwise existing in that world?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps you played Fallout and Skyrim exactly one time, never went anywhere other than towards a quest marker, and turned it off the moment the credits rolled. If you don’t play these games that way, well, you are in for a treat. Not because there is a grand narrative you are missing – although it ain’t that terrible – but because there is a huge map full of nooks and crannies actually filled with things worth picking up, killing, or looking at. And it’s getting better all the time.

Digital Resell, 2019 edition

In doing some research on my last article about digital reselling, I found this article talking about Robot Cache, a new storefront coming out in roundabout competition with Steam and Epic. The primary selling point of this store is… reselling. Specifically, you can resell digital games you purchase and get 25% of the cost back.

The gist of Robot Cache is that it’s a new store that uses a blockchain certificate as a form of DRM. That certificate allows the store to track individual copies of a game so they can be resold. The price is the same as a new copy—you’re really just selling a license to a digital good, so it’s never really “used”—and you get a 25 percent cut put on your credit card, while the publisher gets 70 percent and the store takes 5 percent.

“Used” copies up for sale are put into a queue alongside brand new ones and the sales alternate between new and used copies, so on some sales publishers will get 95%, and on others 70%, as long as there are players selling their games back. Crucially, Jacobson says, you can’t sell a game back in the first 90 days after release, when publishers make the most money.

The “used game sold at retail price” thing kind of threw me for a loop at first, but… no, actually, I’m still looped. I understand the concept that used goods are generally cheaper to account for diminished value, which is not entirely relevant with a digital game. I can also appreciate the obfuscation going on insofar as you never really buy explicitly “used” games on this new store, as the keys will be mixed together with new ones.

But it’s difficult to grok how all this works in practice. Is the resell basically guaranteed then? Or will it sit in a queue until enough licenses have been sold/resold? Are there mechanisms in place for banning users instead of revoking licenses? What happens when you go to resell and there’s a sale on the base game? Hell, that 90-day stipulation all but guarantees that the base game will be at a lower MSRP by the time you’d be eligible to sell your own copy.

What I do enjoy though, is the candor:

While Jacobson said Robot Cache’s goal isn’t to compete with Epic or Steam, it’s notably not a reseller like Humble or GreenmanGaming, selling Steam keys at reduced prices. To some extent it has to compete, because its games will be sold elsewhere, too, sometimes with superior features like the Steam Workshop’s mod support. But it does seem like out of the gate, Robot Cache will actually be more fully featured than Epic’s store with an SDK meant to replicate most of Steamworks’ major features, from multiplayer to chat to cloud saves.

I do not expect Robot Cache to succeed as a storefront. But I am hopeful that it will be enough of an agitator to possibly move the needle on digital resells in some small way.

GameStopped

Gotta love this news headline: GameStop’s stock in free fall ‘as business burns to the ground‘.

Couldn’t happen to a better company, am I right?

Still, I am a touch concerned. As the article notes, GameStop revenue is down as more and more gamers rely on digital purchases and streaming services than physical games. It’s been more than five years since I bought an actual physical game, myself. But it is vitally important to me that physical gaming continues to exist because otherwise we consumers lose the ability to resell our games.

While there have been attempts to make inroads in digital resell, the lack of recent headlines leads me to believe things have stalled. The most recent article I could find was from last year, wherein a new storefront (sigh) was going to be launched that could allow digital resell based on blockchain technology. Except, you know, the consumer’s own cut was going to be only 25%.

Which kinda makes GameStop look downright charitable in comparison, yeah?

In any case, if GameStop goes away, I am not entirely certain what fills the gap. There are a few off-market used game stores in my area, but none of them have any particular web presence or meaningful sales. Perhaps we will see more eBay storefronts open up, but where are they sourcing the games? My fear is that once GameStop goes under, there won’t be a big enough lobbying voice to dissuade game makers from pushing an all-digital future and thereby removing one of the last bastions of gaming Consumer Surplus.

Nickeled and Quartered

I was browsing /r/GameDeals and came across a post about Destiny 2. I think this is one of the first times I have experienced a game sale in which I walked away more confused than I started.

The short version is that Destiny 2: Complete Collection is $40. This includes the base game, the “expansion pass” that contains the first two expansions, the third large expansion “Forsaken,” a character boost, and then the “Annual Pass” which covers three additional expansions (Winter 2018, Spring 2019, Summer 2019).

That’s fairly straight-forward, I guess. The issue is that in September, parts of Destiny 2 are going F2P. Specifically, the base game, the first two expansions, and a portion of Forsaken, e.g. the patrol areas, but not the raids and more formal missions. Or something. Also, it’s leaving the Blizzard launcher and going to Steam instead.

Having the base game, as I do from an earlier Humble Bundle, doesn’t appear to be relevant to the primary deal. But what about when it goes on Steam? When there is a Steam bundle, you typically get a discount for pieces you already own. Now, the base game and the first few DLC will be F2P so maybe future Steam deals won’t take those pieces into account.

In this midst of this pondering, it dawned on me how completely unnecessary all of this was. This was a $60 game that had two paid DLCs, one major expansion, and three additional DLCs. On top of a cash shop. Why not just have a fucking monthly subscription and call it a day?

None of this is news, but sometimes it is good to be reminded how far into the weeds the developers are willing to go to monetize every inch of available space.

Bygones

It was once said:

“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” -Shigeru Miyamoto

These days, we have this:

“All of the games like this… It’s not how you launch, it’s what it becomes.” -Todd Howard

There are a number of interesting articles out this week, including this one, which covers a candid interview with Todd Howard regarding (among many other things) Fallout 76. Specifically, how he and the entire team knew it was going to be a widely panned shitshow… but released it anyway. Because eventually it could be made better.

…and it has. Even if you were hostile to the idea of a Fallout survival game in the first place, it is undeniably in a better state than before. It may still not be your cup of tea at all, but it’s better.

None of this is particularly ideal for anyone though. As consumers, we should not be offered half-completed games riddled with bugs and half-baked design philosophies. On the developer side, while they do indeed get cash for a half-completed game, they also get (well-deserved) bad reviews and negative press for releasing a shoddy product.

The thing is… this method appears to work. As pointed out in the Ars Technica article:

The examples are almost too numerous to list. There are the games like Evolve, Paragon, Battleborn, Artifact, and Lawbreakers that were never able to turn things around after moribund launches. Then there are titles like Rainbow Six: Siege, For Honor, Final Fantasy XIV, and Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls Online that have found long-term success despite some early troubles. Right now, Bioware’s rough launch of Anthem seems to be sitting on the razor’s edge between these two possibilities.

The other two poignant examples listed earlier in the same article are Diablo 3 and No Man’s Sky. While we can quibble over whether No Man’s Sky is any better conceptually than it started, the game is undeniably a huge success now, with each content update pulling 100,000 concurrent Steam users. In other words, it did not crash and burn – the poor initial showing was only a flesh wound. And Diablo 3? The game that launched with literal P2W in the form of Real Money Auction House? Blizzard was punished with… 30 million copies sold by 2015.

And, really, at what point does it all end up sounding like sour grapes? I had to look back, but apparently the Diablo 3 RMAH was removed back in March 2014. Are we still mad five years later?

I mean, the RMAH was absolutely a terrible idea and Blizzard should have known better and we’re all so terribly disappointed in them. But if someone asked you whether they should play Diablo 3 today, is the RMAH really something you would legitimately bring up? What’s the statute of limitations on poor game design that no longer even exists in the current game?

It’s a struggle, I know. If you buy/play/enjoy Fallout 76 or No Man’s Sky or Diablo 3 or anything else today, you are indirectly supporting the (usually) same people who screwed up these games the first time around. “How will they learn, then?!” Well… they did learn. As evidenced by the game getting better. It will probably not prevent them from releasing a half-baked mess with their next game, but that may simply be the unfortunate reality at this point. We can hope that by delaying our purchase until the game is fixed – instead of preordering or Day 1 purchasing like a chump – the devs get the memo on what stage of completeness we are willing to accept. On the other hand, giving them money later on kinda justifies the whole “Release Now, Fix Later” approach.

And on the third, mystery hand? Taking a principled stand is exhausting when you could just sit down and play some damn games. If it’s fun now, play; otherwise, don’t.

HearthPwned

HearthPwn is closing down at the end of June.

While this came as somewhat of a shock, it was not due to any sort of issue with Hearthstone itself. Indeed, as Wilhelm points out, Hearthstone is the only Blizzard game still on the Top 10 PC revenue list (per SuperData). The issue appears to be a “strategic” change by the owners, e.g Curse / Fandom:

Fandom/Curse employee throwaway account here.

It’s a decision from higher ups/Perkins Miller (new CEO from Stubhub) to focus the company on the Wikis and D&D Beyond because money. They want the community to move to the gamepedia wiki, they’re the same sites in their head (source)

The spiritual successor site is… OutOf.Cards. As in, Out of dot Cards. Not wanting to be pigeonholed into just Hearthstone is fine, but… “dot Cards?” I guess…

There are probably much better Hearthstone content sites out in the world even before HearthPwn’s closure, but this sort of thing still brings me pause. We are constantly told that “the internet is forever,” but that’s not quite as true as it seems. Sites close all the time, for sometimes entirely random reasons, and while they might still technically exist like my first-ever Angelfire website created over 15 years ago, information often has an expiration date.

Watching it expire right in front of you though, is… uncomfortable.