Author Archives: Azuriel

Path of Self-Exile

Browsing through my new-and-improved Steam library, I notice Path of Exile sitting there. Looking for something different, I download it and boot it up after like… damn, six years ago? My characters are still there, so I load up my Witch and…

POE_Grid

Ain’t nobody got time for this.

…shut the game down.

I ended up going to some websites to look at what constitutes some good Witch builds. What I found were builds labeled “3.8| Stress Free PoE – COLD-HEARTED CURSER |Clear the Atlas w/ YOUR Items @ YOUR Pace (SSF & Co-op).” Sounds good. Let me just look at the video of its gameplay…

Oh. Just literally pressing one button and running around.

There were other builds, of course, but most of them were, shall we say, thematically similar. Plus, knowing that the above build is possible, what motivation would you have to do something else?

As it turns out, very high. Just in a different game.

ApoligiCon

So how ’bout that BlizzCon?

Let me dedicate some space to the The Apology. Or, rather, “apology.” A lot of my fellow bloggers seemed surprised that one was offered right in the opening ceremony, but it seems unthinkable that Blizzard would have tried to not address the one thing that threatened to overshadow their whole trade show. Can you imagine the headlines all weekend if Brack said nothing?

Which is amusing to think about, because he did say nothing:

Before we start the opening ceremony, I want to say a few words. Y’know uh Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone Esports moment about a month ago and we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves and the second is that we failed at our purpose. And for that I’m sorry and I accept accountability.

I’m going to pause here, as it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine whenever someone says “I accept accountability” when there aren’t any consequences to account for. Imagine a parent saying that to the store manager when their child knocks over a display case, but then just leaving without, you know, paying for the shit that got broke. Brack “accepts accountability” and that means… what? Nothing. Is he going to take a pay cut? Resign? Maybe this will be filed in his Permanent Record?

[…] We will do better going forward. But, our actions are going to matter more than any of these words as we walk around this weekend. I hope it is clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.

This is likely a reference to the protesters outside, the people wearing Hong Kong tshirts, and possibly the person walking around in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Which SynCaine sees as a huge deal, for Blizzard allowing someone to do. Because allowing them through the door is surely more potentially damaging than ejecting someone for an obscure reference to China’s president.

Give me a break.

What this apology did was give enough cover for those that were only reluctantly boycotting Blizzard to go back playing games guilt-free. As Brack clarifies in this PCGamer interview, the 6-month ban on Blitzchung (and the casters!) is staying. Would people have boycotted at all if this was the initial punishment? I don’t know – you tell me. The prize money confiscation was especially egregious in my mind, but the whole thing kind of reeks. At the same time, having no policy at all regarding non-Hearthstone speech during a Hearthstone victory interview seems untenable as well.

But, whatever. If an apology with nothing behind it is good enough to allow you to have fun playing videogames again, then have at it. I never joined the boycott myself, because half the items in my house come from China so it all seemed kind of hypocritical. Yes, Blizzard said the quiet part out loud. But if you think the makers of your George Foreman grill would not have also done the same thing in a hypothetical grilling tournament scenario, you are naive to the extreme. Same with the people flocking to Final Fantasy 14 after the controversy, as if Square Enix made some kind of heroic stand against China. You know, what with their partnership with Tencent and all.

I have nothing against principles. I love’em, in fact. But they only ever mean anything when you actually stick with them. If what Brack said at BlizzCon was enough to move your needle, well… maybe you were better off in the peanut gallery with the rest of us.

[F76] Sidenote

File this under “It’s all starting to make sense” (from Wikipedia):

BattleCry Studios was founded on October 3, 2012, as subsidiary of ZeniMax Media, headed by Rich Vogel as its president.[1] Initially, BattleCry Studios was seeking employees with experience in microtransactions and free-to-play games.[2]

On May 28, 2014, BattleCry Studios announced their first game, BattleCry.[3] On September 10, 2015, it was reported that BattleCry Studios had laid off a “substantial portion” of their staff.[4] On October 7, 2015, the development on BattleCry was halted for the studio to work on different projects.[5] One of the studio’s first projects following the hold of BattleCry was the modification and restructuring of Bethesda’s Creation Engine (in conjunction with sister company id Software, utilizing netcode from Quake) to support multiplayer functionality in anticipation of then upcoming Fallout 76.[6]

When you follow the [2] link, you get an Engadget article from 2012 that states:

Bethesda may be known for its one-of-a-kind offline RPGs, but its new Battlecry Studios division is looking to ride the online free-to-play gravy train.

Eurogamer has sussed out a few details based on the firm’s job postings, which include a “monetization designer” and a platform lead position that requires experience with “design and implementation of microtransaction systems and services.”

The advertisements also suggest some sort of console release, as Bethesda notes that “console experience — preferably next generation (PS3, Xbox 360)” is preferred.

Battlecry is headed by former Star Wars: The Old Republic executive producer Rich Vogel.

While the hotbar-selling SWTOR is kind of a hilarious gotcha moment, Rich Vogel also did Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies back in the day. So… he either sold out or allowed his vision to become corrupted by publishers, although those are basically the same in the end.

Maybe we can argue about how much each Bethesda Studio contributed to the overall Fallout 76 package, but my money is that the corrosive, microtransaction design came from the studio headed by the guy who introduced the world to selling hotbars in an MMO. And, of course, Todd Howard… who is either an empty suit or willing participant in this nonsense.

Nuked Frog

Remember last month when we were wondering about whether Bethesda’s latest monetization strategies were a boiling frog scenario? Well, they just tossed the frog in the microwave and nuked it:

PRIVATE WORLDS, SCRAPBOXES & MORE COME TO FALLOUT 76 WITH FALLOUT 1ST
Ever since Fallout 76 launched, we have consistently worked to improve and evolve the experience based on your feedback. That’s why we’re excited to launch Fallout 1st, a premium membership that offers something players have been asking for since before launch: private worlds for you and select friends. In addition to this huge feature, Fallout 1st also includes a host of exclusive items and membership bonuses, all of which you can find detailed below. And the best part? Fallout 1st is available right now.

Yep, Fallout 76 now has a $13/month (or $100/year) subscription option.

F76_First

A bargain at… none of the price

Reddit is understandably losing its shit.

F76_Rage

That last post is a great tip, BTW

The subscription itself unlocks Private Worlds, e.g. your own personal game world that up to seven other friends can join, infinite Scrap storage, a tent to act as a mobile second base, a monthly stipend of Atoms (premium currency), and some lookalike NCR armor from New Vegas. And emotes or something.

While it came as a shock to most everyone, Bethesda did “prime the pump” last week though, when they flat-out said they’ll be selling utility in the Cash Shop going forward:

Our approach to [Atom Shop] items at launch was to keep them purely cosmetic. But after looking at all the data, it became clear that to consistently deliver content that keeps Fallout 76 fresh and exciting for all, we needed to rethink our approach to the Atomic Shop.

While we had many ideas on what to add to the Atomic Shop, one of the ways was the direct result of the community’s feedback. We heard from many of you who wanted items with some real utility. Starting in April, we began adding items such as Repair Kits, Scrap Kits, the Collectron Station, and a working Refrigerator. These have since become the most popular category in the Atomic Shop. We’re also still working on all the previously announced items and new cosmetic categories.

[…]

Of course, players can also buy Atoms, and we’re careful with everything we add to not upset the game’s balance. Our main objective is to avoid a situation where players can spend money to gain a competitive advantage or make the game worse for other players. Even more so, we want systems that allow players who do choose to buy Atoms to make the game better for others, not just themselves. With these principles in mind, we make careful decisions about the items we offer to keep it fair for everyone.

That was the same News post that stated the much-anticipated Wastelanders update – which will see the introduction of actual NPCs – was delayed into Q1 of next year to, and I quote with heavy emphasis, “make sure the work we’re doing hits our quality bar, and yours.” Er, yeah. Sure.

The tragedy is that I can see where Bethesda was coming from.

Private servers and the eventual modding piece that goes with it has indeed been one of the most requested features since before the game even launched. Now it’s here. Considering that Fallout 76 basically runs off of Amazon Web Services (AWS), it was never going to be a “use your own hardware to host” scenario. Which means a subscription. So they made one. And if you already have a subscription offering, why not throw in a few additional features to try and entice the people who don’t care about private servers? Hence all the ancillary stuff like the Tent, infinite Scrap box, etc.

Where the dick meets the car door though is the timing.

Imagine if Wastelanders was coming out next week. A huge, sprawling NPC horde that changed damn near every inch of the game world with new quests, factions, and activities. Imagine that it was… at least passably decent. In the midst of all this positive press, imagine Bethesda rolling out this subscription, letting you have your private Fallout experience with no one killing the NPCs or starting quests before you get there. Some of the outrage would still be there – Bethesda has claimed Stash space is limited for server stability reasons, but the Scrap Box can also exist in public servers – but Wastelanders itself could be pointed to as being “free DLC” as promised.

Alas, it was delayed and the suits decided to roll out Fallout 1st anyway.

To be clear, I have no interest in defending Bethesda per se. This subscription was rolled out despite the Wastelanders delay because whatever dipshit suit in charge didn’t want to lose the holiday cash. Hell, the subscription was rolled out despite the “private” servers themselves being already-looted empty servers, with no control over who on your friend list can join. Oh, and the Scrap box is eating scrap too, I guess?

To an extent, none of this matters. Not because “it’s Fallout 76,” but because whales in gaming are not an endangered species and each dollar they spend on shit like this is a vote you never get to make with a boycott. People were calling bullshit on these lines from Bethesda:

We heard from many of you who wanted items with some real utility. Starting in April, we began adding items such as Repair Kits, Scrap Kits, the Collection Station, and a working Refrigerator. These have since become the most popular category in the Atomic Shop.

…but are you really sure that it’s bullshit? Does it really surprise you that utility items were added and that people buy them by the thousands? Shit, a while back I was logging into Guild Wars 2 every day for a month hoping that Character Slots would go on sale in the Utility tab of the cash shop. I barely even play GW2! That was just for Character Slots too, and not any of their actual Utility items like daily resource nodes, special zones with crafting stations, and so on. Fallout 76 is no GW2 or Elder Scrolls Online though, so the hubris is especially galling despite the methods being identical.

My prediction? The subscription details will eventually change, private servers will actually be private, and mods will change how the whole system works on a fundamental level. People who still don’t like survival games will continue to not play Fallout 76 anyway, and yet they will still buy Starfield and Elder Scrolls 6 on release because self-control across a population that is 72% overweight/obese is clearly not a strong suit. And really, why wouldn’t you play games that give 40-400+ hours of fun just because another team in the studio keeps slamming their dick in a car door? 

Then again, maybe I have just been reheated one times too many.

Less Humble Bundle

Humble Bundle has released a new pricing structure and tacit plan to keep people subscribed:

Humble_Change

Basically, if you are currently subscribed you are grandfathered into the same $12/month plan you have always had. The upswing is that there will be no more mystery: you will know exactly what games are on offer each month.

For everyone else, you get jacked. Well, relatively. At the $15/month subscription plan, you get to see all 10 games and pick 3 that you want. Or pay $20/month and get nine. Not sure if there will be 10 games on offer or just nine, given the Classic subscription. Neither scenario makes sense.

There are several very weird elements to this change, aside from the Netflix-esque price increase.

The biggest in my mind is… doesn’t this just directly compete with the normal Humble Bundles? For example, there is currently the Post-Modern bundle that includes 8 games that you can all buy for $15. Granted, $15 is only for the top tier game – you can opt for four games for just $1. I would have to assume that the Monthly bundle would not include the “lower tier” games in the offering, because that would be quite the slap in the face if you had to choose just 3 and only one was worth it. But with the mystery gone, are we really going to assume that every bundle is going to start including three (or more) high-tier games for one low price?

Even seeing all the choices gives me pause. So… we’ll be able to see all the choices ahead of time with ample opportunity to cancel/pause the subscription, right? So we’re really just deciding on whether to buy three games for $15 or nine games for $20? I know that technically the subscription has other benefits, e.g. 20% off store purchases and the like, but let’s be real here, that discount barely covers the immense risk you take by purchasing Steam keys from a retailer you cannot easily (at all?) refund through.

Supposedly you can pause even your Classic subscription if there is a dud month, but I have no particular faith that that will last more than a year. And if you accidentally cancel instead of pause every month, you get kicked out of the club and have to pay $8/month more than you did before. Nevermind how many subs HB will get from people wanting to be grandfathered in “just in case.”

None of this really matters in the abstract, I know. But it’s nevertheless fascinating seeing all the novel ways game companies/retailers come up with to part you with your hard-earned cash. Makes me wonder why gamers are such a special case when the rest of the world is still selling boxes.

Internalization

To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.

Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.

Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:

The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.

We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.

If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.

That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):

We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].

Oh, wait, no it’s not.

The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.

The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:

“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”

Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.

…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.

So, to summarize:

  • Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
  • Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
  • Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
  • Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
  • Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung

Funny how that all works out.

In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.

However.

The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.

No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.

…And Then Blizzard Lost It

These are interesting times we live in. And ones that seem to, on occasion, move very quickly.

The context, for posterity’s sake, is Blizzard confiscating the prize money from a recent Hearthstone event winner and banning him for a year due to a pro-Hong Kong Live interview statement. No, really. Here’s a link to the official Blizzard blog post, for however long that stays up:

Upon further review we have found the action has violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o) and is individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. 6.1 (o) is found below.

2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4   p.12, Section 6.1 (o)

Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms. 

The Hearthstone and WoW subreddits have since erupted into a roiling boil.

HS_Boil

At least two prominent bloggers on my roll have said they will be canceling their subscriptions. If posts on Reddit can be believed, there are thousands of others doing likewise. Not a particularly good bit of PR right as patch 8.3 previews are making the rounds and Blizzcon is less than a month away.

Of course, none of it is likely to matter. Blizzard made a completely rational business decision.

Tencent owning a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard is almost wholly irrelevant in the broader truth that China is an insanely large market for games. Like $31 billion and growing to $41.5 billion in five years kind of big. By 2023 there will be more PC gamers in China than the entire population of the US. The latest news is that the US pulled ahead this year in terms of market size, but that is attributed to the fact that China freezed approval of new game licenses for almost a year and put restrictions on screen time for children. Even with zero investment from Tencent, losing access to that “second place” market would be a significant setback for any gaming company.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider China to be one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes on the planet. But… up to this point, that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. It could be that this was just a particularly egregious example that shocked people into wakefulness, similar to certain phone calls to Ukraine. And that’s fine! Whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to the fact that corporations are not your friend, and that if it were profitable, these men and women board members would have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to destabilize the United States and/or any other country.

Canceling your subscription and deleting Blizzard games is one way to protest. I hope you don’t close Battle.net and boot up League of Legends (100% Tencent owned), anything on the Epic Games launcher (48.4% owned), PUBG (11.5%), Path of Exile (80%), Clash of Clans/Royale (84.3%), or any of the other games on the list though. Perhaps that is unfair, as I don’t think the Path of Exiles devs have banned pro-Hong Kong players for interviews. On the other hand, I don’t think these other companies were forced to let go of the tiger’s tail just yet. Nevermind any non-Tencent companies that would be willing to walk the same road for access to hundreds of millions of Chinese customers.

Incidentally, the makers of Gods Unchained (another digital card game) came out with this statement:

.@Blizzard_Ent just banned @blitzchungHS and stripped his Hearthstone winnings because they care about money more than freedom. We will pay for ALL his lost winnings and a ticket to our $500k tournament: no player should be punished for their beliefs.

Cool, huh? I suppose it’s a bit easier to stand up to China when you build your card game around one-time printings of cards, including Mythic-rarity ones of which only four are printed per year, one of which just sold for $62,000:

GU_62k

A bargain at twice the price!

Ultimately, I do hope that Blizzard reverses course. I hope that all the negative PR and boycotting is effective enough at providing change. I hope that American companies will stop bending over backwards to appeal to oppressive regimes.

I had also hoped in the last election that people who would have literally died without Preexisting Conditions protections would not have voted for politicians expressly running to remove said protections, but here we are. This is the world in which we inhabit… until it bursts into flames.

Blizzard Still Got It…

…in the movie department. Well, the in-game movie department, amirite?

The above is an “official” compilation of all of the cinematics in Battle for Azeroth proper. Clocking in at nearly 24 minutes, it’s quite a lot. This does not include the three Warbringers shorts (Jaina, Sylvanas, Azshara), or the copious amount of in-game animation. It’s almost enough to compel me back into the fold.

Almost.

Alas, unlike my blogging peers, I have but 1.5 hours a day to play games, and I sure as shit ain’t playing Beta for Azeroth anymore. Maybe it got better since I last played… which was an entire baby ago. Ah well. We’ll see how things go an expansion or two from now.

Down Steam

Well, I guess that’s one way to highlight the fact that maybe multiple launchers are necessary.

SteamDown.JPG

While Steam being down has obviously happened in the past – maintenance or not – this is the first time I have actually sat down ready to play something and… not being able to. Wife and baby are sleeping, I have probably ~30 minutes of free time, and I wanted to get in some quick Kingdom Come: Deliverance action. “Oh. Maybe I’ll play Slay the Spire… err… Oxygen Not Included… uh… oh.”

Steam came back up before this got posted, but something to think about for the future.

 

Season Pass, Revisited

Two months ago, I was pontificating on the Clash Royale $5 “Season Pass” scheme, and the broader context behind this type of microtransaction.

This month, I have completed my third Season Pass purchase in a row. That $15 is more Supercell has seen from me in almost two years of playing Clash Royal, so clearly they are doing something right. But what changed in my thinking?

Floors and ceilings. And defined value.

If you browse any of the Personal Finance subreddits out there, one of the frequent topics is renting vs buying a home. What is correct for your specific scenario is, of course, specific for your scenario. One of the interesting lines that comes up though is this: rent is the most you will have to pay a month; a mortgage is just the minimum. As any homeowner knows, you have to cut a check to the bank every month and then pay for whatever shit may have broke in the meantime. Last summer, for example, we discovered dry rot in the roof by way of water leaking down pipes into the basement. You might come out ahead in the long run with a house, but that depends on running a long time.

In games like Clash Royale, the payment ceilings are effectively nonexistent. Most of the time, you are paying cash for random results and could end up spending $100 or $1000 for whatever it is you want. With that much uncertainty, it is better to… spend nothing. So I have been, for years, minus some 10x value offerings. Those had been great deals, but they were not real floors either – just chests and gold and random goodies that got me a leg up in the front door, so to speak.

The Season Pass is a true Floor. For $4.99 you get X, Y, and Z. Someone broke it down back when it first released but there was some extra value above and beyond the defined benefits. For example, unlimited resets on some of the Challenges. Sure, that effectively means “you get all the Challenge rewards.” But you could technically get all the Challenge rewards if you play well enough. With the Pass though, the anxiety is gone. I can play a few rounds while watching the baby, because if I have to put the phone down I won’t be screwing up my only shot at completing the run.

Much like with Humble Bundles, there is a relief that comes from knowing one small payment obviates any “need” to pay more money for the month. You don’t have to think about it anymore.

Of course, it is all a mental trick devised by mercenary psychologist-economists to get people to part with their cash. Nobody “needs” to pay any money to Supercell, and the “value” that comes from the Season Pass is, in part, derived from the fact the company has hitherto been miserly with normal rewards. If, if, you have been worn down by the unceasing barrage of unfettered capitalism though… well, the Season Pass is not the worst possible capitulation.

It sure as shit is going to get you farther than $5 will in Hearthstone.