Category Archives: Commentary

Prey in Conclusion

I completed Prey over the weekend, after about 35 hours.

Prey_Material

I could craft 870 rounds of ammo, if I wanted. Or if it mattered.

The majority of my concerns were comically overblown. Prey does tally up your behavior during play, but it only merits a single line of commentary at the end, and didn’t tip the scales in any case. I got the “best” ending doing the sort of things one would expect to merit a best ending, and that was that. Feel free to take all the special powers you want, unless you are specifically going for the achievement for not doing so.

How do I feel overall? Disappointed.

There are parts of Prey that are amazing. The GLOO Gun is an amazing tool that remains useful for 99% of the game. You can spend a lot of Neuromods to augment your jumping capabilities… or you can create your own path pretty much wherever, and whenever you want. At the same time, the GLOO Gun “platforms” are just tricky enough to utilize that you never think that it’s required to progress. In other words, it feels like the designers threw it into the game as a toy to play with, rather than a central mechanic (e.g. Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2), and thus you feel clever every time you use it to bypass obstacles.

The set pieces and overall level design are top-notch as well. The environment is cohesive and dense, making you feel as though you are exploring a real place. There is a ton of backtracking, which gets pretty annoying by the end of the game, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel artificial. Yes, if you want to track Volunteers, go to the Volunteer terminal. Yes, if you want to do something with Neuromods, go to the Neuromod area (again).

Prey_Psychoscope

At least it’s not sepia-toned, but still… ugh.

Where the weakness starts creeping in is two-fold. First, the designers fell into the same design hole as Dishonored vis-a-vis “detective vision.” One of the marquee enemies you face in Prey are Mimics, which are capable of perfectly disguising themselves as chairs, coffee mugs, etc. After a few hours of exploring, you get a Psychoscope that will allow you to scan for Mimics. At this point, the rest of your gameplay experience will tunneled down a blurry circle, with buzzing in your ears.

Do you have to use the Psychoscope 24/7? No. It’s possible to pop it on to quickly glance through a room for Mimics, then turn it off. Hell, by the mid-game you likely have so many supplies and weapons that it won’t matter if you get ambushed by half a dozen at once. Nevertheless, you aren’t overtly punished for Psychoscoping the whole time… other than ruining the ambiance for yourself. Which, IMO, the is dev’s fault.

The other disappointing element is the ending.

Spoilers are below, but let me go ahead and create some more buffer.

Spoiler-Alert-Red

Last chance… okay.

This is basically Bioshock Infinite all over again. Not specifically with Alternate Universes, but in the fact that the devs thought they could take another of the most reviled, cliche plot devices in history and polish that turd till it gleamed.

Nope. Even a polished turd is still a turd.

The ending actually failed on multiple levels for me. First, it was essentially spoiled in-game around halfway through by completing a quest. I expected a bad ending for trying to bail from the station via escape pod without even doing anything, but wanted to “get it out of the way” so I could continue the correct way. What I wasn’t expecting was Alex’s words after the fade-to-black. Whoops!

Prey_Ending

Yeah, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

The second level of failure was using the “it’s all a dream” cliche, period. I have read some arguments that state this implementation actually made your simulated in-game actions matter, given the extra-special reveal. Nope, still doesn’t work for me. Just because I’m being evaluated on my simulated actions, doesn’t mean I view simulated actions with any particular regard – none of it actually happened. Maybe it’s “based on a true story” when it comes to Morgan, but if all my actions can be rebooted with the flick of a switch, I’d rather them not have occurred in the first place.

Which… they didn’t.

Finally, the ending actually ruined a lot of the nuance I had hitherto been impressed with. For the majority of the game, your one directive was blowing up the space station. Given that, the still-living crew were effective dead already… so why bother helping them out? Was it not more cruel to give them hope before killing them all? At the same time, I felt better easing their more immediate suffering, so they could relax and eventually accept their fate when the time came.

Oh, but hey! Now we have a sudden third solution that magically makes everything better, revealed in the final act! Those dilemmas aren’t really dilemmas anymore. And they never were anything but contrived, simulated scenarios in the first place to judge your empathy. Congrats on playing through the trolley problem – not metaphorically, but literally. Woo!

I’m sure the ending worked for some people, just as there are people who feel Bioshock Infinite is a real deep narrative instead of the total bullshit cop-out it is. The special, second reveal at the end of Prey was indeed surprising, and I guess novel in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I did not feel any better about how none of what occurred actually did, nor did it apparently matter to the people of Earth. Hell, we still don’t even know what happened, or if anything is real. It could be simulations all the way down.

And that’s why the plot device is such bullshit. A sequel, assuming one ever exists, would have to have a radically different tone or go through a lot of effort to convince the player they weren’t being duped again. But I guess we won’t be seeing a sequel so none of it really matters.

Sort of like any of your actions in the game.

Too Much Cheese

I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.

No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.

One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.

While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.

Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.

Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.

There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:

  1. Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
  2. Don’t play these games yet

To which I would say:

  1. Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
  2. These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment

If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.

Ascension

As you may have heard, I continue to play Slay the Spire.

I have beaten the “normal” game dozens of times with all three default characters, and have unlocked all the cards and relics. When you defeat everything with all three characters, you can unlock a fourth stage with a super-secret boss, and you also unlock Ascension Mode. Each character has their own Ascension Mode tracker, and defeating the standard final boss will increment the Ascension Mode up one digit, to a maximum of 20. What happens on each level is the following:

  1. Elites spawn more often.
  2. Normal enemies are deadlier.
  3. Elites are deadlier.
  4. Bosses are deadlier.
  5. Heal less after Boss battles (75% of missing health)
  6. Start each run damaged (-10% health)
  7. Normal enemies are tougher.
  8. Elites are tougher.
  9. Bosses are tougher.
  10. Ascender’s Bane
  11. Start each run with 1 less potion slot.
  12. Upgraded cards appear less often. (50% less)
  13. Bosses drop less gold. (25% less)
  14. Lower max HP. (-5 for Ironclad, -4 for Silent and Defect)
  15. Unfavorable events.
  16. Shops are more costly. (10% more)
  17. Normal enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  18. Elite enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  19. Boss enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  20. Fight 2 bosses at the end of Act 3.

I have been focusing on playing the Silent, the 2nd character, and achieved Ascension 15.

Also, I am so done with this game.

This particular Ascension mode design is rather brilliant in a lot of ways. Many games have harder difficulties, including roguelikes, but most of them are not as granular as this. The first “downside” of more Elites, for example, is not technically a downside for someone skilled with the game – each Elite enemy killed will result in a Relic, which can substantially improve the rest of a run. It’s often advised to target as many Elites as possible in the first Stage, to either wash out a weak deck early, or load up on goodies when the risk to your time is low.

Plus, there is the more mundane benefit to the fact that even if you are a super pro player from the start, you still need to play through and beat the game 20 times before you reach the hardest difficulty. Per character! That’s a lot of gameplay. Or grinding, depending.

I lasted way longer than I thought I would at the beginning (Ascension 15, remember), but the fundamental truth is that each time I succeeded, each subsequent game became less fun. By design. Well, presumably I am supposed to become more and more proud of my ability to overcome challenges, but that doesn’t really happen in practice. Especially in Slay the Spire’s case, where after a while things become more and more RNG-based as the margin for success shrinks.

This is probably for the best. I prefer the discrete finality of a rolling credits screen to the ashes of burning out, but an ending is an ending. Now maybe I can move on to something else.

Epic Shenanigans

In case you haven’t seen the news, the Epic Store has poached another timed-exclusive game release: Metro Exodus. The wrinkle this time is that rather than being planned from the start, Deep Silver must have been given a fat stack of secret cash because the game was already available on pre-order from Steam (which are still being honored, until removed from the Steam store). And, you know, the game was all set out to be released in 2.5 weeks.

I mentioned “fat stack of secret cash” because while the revenue split is more generous in the Epic Store, they are actually doing the only thing I said would matter in the competition space: Metro Exodus had its MSRP lowered from $60 (on Steam) to $50. Which means the gross revenue from this game would be:

  • Steam = $60 * 0.7 = $42
  • Epic = $50 * 0.88 = $44

That calculation demonstrates how a developer could still make a higher profit on the Epic store by dropping the price to $50, but here’s the thing: they are going to be losing a non-trivial amount of sales for not being on the PC’s largest storefront. Enough to matter? Remains to be seen. The Metro Redux (aka remasters) of the first two games sold 1.5 million copies back in 2016. That would be $3 million more in Deep Silver’s pocket if they sold the same amount of games… at full price… as the remasters of the last two games combined.

That $2 difference between revenue is 4.5%. If Deep Silver sells 4.5% fewer copies due to not being on Steam, then they lose almost $3 million. I mean, without even doing much calculations, you gotta know that for every Steam sale lost, they have to sell 22 copies in the Epic Store to break even. Ergo, I suspect that Epic was waving something more than simply the 88% cut in Deep Silver’s face.

And that’s kinda the baffling thing about all this. I’m not opposed to competition between companies, especially when it results in a gain in consumer surplus. Competing on price is a huge deal, and I’m sincerely amazed that Deep Silver pulled that trigger to sell at $50. But… why then yank the title from Steam as a “timed-exclusive release”? That isn’t consumer friendly or useful to anyone at all. Why not let the same title be purchasable on both platforms, and allow nature to run its course?

We’ll have to see how things shake out a year from now, when the game is finally released on Steam… presumably at a huge discount because it will have been a whole year.

Zombie Smarts

I have been playing some more 7 Days to Die (7DTD) now that the Alpha 17.1 patch came around. There have been a lot of tweaks to the progression mechanics and Perk system, including some level-gating on Iron/Steel tool recipes. The biggest change, however, was to zombie AI.

In short, zombies are now impossibly smart… and impossibly dumb.

It’s been long enough that I don’t even remember how zombies behaved in prior patches. What zombies do now though, is behave in perfect tower defense intelligence: the shortest distance between them and you, with walls adding a virtual number of steps. Zombie are also perfectly prescient, knowing exactly which wall blocks have the lowest remaining health, and will attack that spot en mass to get to you. At the same time, zombies prefer not attacking walls to X extent, if they can walk there instead.

The result? Cue the Benny Hill theme:

Essentially, the current 7DTD meta is to not create bases at all, but rather mazes that funnel zombies into kill zones and/or large drops that loop them around until they die of fall damage. The devs have added a “zombie tantrum” mechanic to try and get some damage on looped mazes – zombies will attack anything nearby when they fall, possibly weakening your support pillars – but that will be metagamed away with multiple platforms or deeper holes.

To be clear, the prior zombie meta was solved by simply building an underground bunker. At that time, zombies could not dig into the ground, and disregarded the Z axis entirely – it was possible to hang out in the middle of a bridge and often have a nice grouped pile of zombies directly below you to hit with a Molotov. I played the game enough to recognize which Point of Interest had a pre-built bunker located underneath it, and often sought it out immediately after spawning so I could all but ignore the titular 7th day horde attack.

That said, how smart should zombies be?

The only way to answer that question is to ask what the game you’re making is supposed to be about. When you add tower defense mechanics, you get a tower defense game. This will preclude people from building nice little houses in the woods, and instead opt for mazes and obstacles and drops. It becomes a much more technical game, solvable with very specific configurations. Having dumber zombies frees up a lot more base designs, on top of possibly requiring a lot more attention to one’s base after an attack, as a single “dumb” zombie could be weakening a support in an unused corner.

My initial “solution” would be to mix and match, but I think that’s actually the worst of all possible worlds. Instead, I think zombies work best as environmental hazards. Bunkers might make you invulnerable to nightly attacks… but you have to leave sometime. Shouldn’t the punishment for hiding underground be the simple lack of information of what’s going on, combined with having to spend your morning hours slaying the zombie hordes milling about outside?

I guess we’ll see what the devs eventually decide. At present, there simply seems to be a maze-based arms race at the expense of any sort of satisfying nesting. If the 7DTD devs want to double-down, well… thank god for mods.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Waxing my Wane

I’m generally a pretty frugal guy. Parsimonious, even. And yet I just bought half a dozen games in as many days, after having avoided doing so for these specific titles for as many years. “They were on sale though.” They were on sale last year too. What changed?

The void.

Specifically, I finally exhausted my desire to play modded Starbound (Frackin’ Universe)… after 100 hours. One. Hundred. Hours. When you get up to triple digits like that, with any game, the entire experience becomes more than just “having fun” and instead morphs into a whole routine. I would play in the evenings, lie in bed planning my actions the next day, and browse wikis and such during the day. It all really hearkened back to my heydays of WoW. Minus a few thousand hours, of course.

Then, one day, it’s all just gone. Whether it’s the game ending or just getting tired of it, the experience is over.

I am not sure how other people handle post-game depression. My go-to move appears to be ennui of unknown duration. I know of games that could probably suck me right back into mainlining. But I don’t feel like it. In this lucid state, smaller experiences seem like the better course of action. If I don’t play them now, I definitely won’t be playing them later when absorbed in something else.

So out comes a little retail therapy.

We’ll see how it goes. Right now the routine is playing a few missions in Far Cry 5, followed by an area or two of Knife of Dunwall (Dishonored DLC). The segmentation is not on purpose – I can only seem to stand playing either one in short bursts. Not exactly a glowing review, but I blame the ennui more than the gameplay itself. After these two, hopefully the pallet will be cleansed, and I can get into the more cerebral titles like Hellblade, Prey, and/or Final Fantasy XV.

And then… we’ll see.

End of Year: 2018 Edition

Things were going pretty excellent last year, and this year was even better. On the personal front, not the gaming front. Gaming has been pretty bad. Or perhaps just more recently bad.

My gaming goals from last year:

  • Complete the vanilla, HoT, and PoF story content in GW2. [only HoT complete]
  • Play through some of those PS3 games I bought five years ago. [Errrm]
  • Embrace the notion of shorter, possibly more frequent posts. [Not really]
  • Use my Blizzard balance to pay for all my Blizzard gaming. [Success]
  • Clear at least 40 games from my Steam backlog. [Success]

Guild Wars 2 has been an interesting experience, as I have played it off and on all year long. I feel like not very many MMOs could work this way, even if they didn’t have subscriptions, but somehow it does. It also helps that the Necromancer is a class I enjoy playing. While I finished the HoT story and stopped, there’s a good chance I’ll get back on the horse at some point and finish out PoF and maybe even the main storyline.

I’m just conceding the PS3 game situation as a moral failing and moving on. Well… maybe. It’s been a useful cudgel in preventing myself from buying a PS4 or other gaming system. One day, though.

The shorter posts thing definitely didn’t work out, or at least it doesn’t feel that way. There were more entries in 2018 than in the last two years, but 10% less than the 2012-2015 time period. I prefer writing articles to quips anyway, but quips are generally better at generating comments, clicks, and all other metrics that demonstrate traffic. Luckily, I have no need for traffic, and would be shouting into the void regardless. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the company down here in the void.

I got in relatively early on the Battle for Azeroth gold train in WoW, and so all my Blizzard activity can be financed for the foreseeable future. Provided, of course, I were still interested in playing any Blizzard titles. As it stands, my balance is around $90 and will continue to be at that level probably through 2019. And possibly beyond, unless I run out of other games to play.

My final goal was clearing 40 games from my Steam backlog. Looking at my Recently Played stats, I can see the following titles listed in 2018 with at least a few hours on them:

  • Homefront
  • Furi
  • Lone Survivor: Director’s Cut
  • Closure
  • Scanner Sombre
  • Warhammer 40k: DoW 3
  • Salt & Sanctuary
  • Talisman: Digital Edition
  • QUBE 2
  • Darkwood
  • SuperHOT
  • Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut
  • The Banner Saga 2
  • Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
  • Monster Slayers
  • Galactic Civilization 3
  • Clustertruck
  • Guild of Dungeoneering
  • Dark Souls
  • Metal Gear Survive
  • The Long Dark
  • Nier: Automata
  • Slay the Spire
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Civilization VI
  • Dead Cells
  • Subterrain
  • RimWorld
  • Stellaris
  • Conan Exiles
  • Stardew Valley
  • Nuclear Throne
  • Hollow Knight
  • The Forest
  • Oxygen Not Included
  • Fallout 76
  • Subnautica
  • The Division

I tried to put the more substantial games in the right-hand column. The above 38 do not include the ~7 Visual Novels I cleared, nor the games from 2017 I’m still playing (e.g. Starbound), nor the games I played for about an hour and uninstalled (e.g. Dead Rising 4), so I’m well past the 40 mark.

As I sit here thinking about gaming goals for 2019, I’m a bit at a loss. It almost feels as though an inflection point has been reached beyond which “clearing the Steam backlog” is less a Sisyphean task and more… an irrelevant one. I used to find value in doing so not because of sunk cost fallacy, but with the hopes of finding the diamond in the rough. In a similar fashion, I used to download an Indie-Rock playlist with hundreds of crap songs just for those rare moments of discovering a new band I liked, and the joy of experiencing their whole discography. Never heard of the band Sleeping At Last until this year, for example, and now they’re one of my top favorites of all time. If I hadn’t put myself out there in the weeds in the first place, I may never have had them in my life.

But when was the last time that happened in a gaming sense? Something like Slay the Spire might have qualified, had it not been the fact that I already knew the game was awesome and confirmed the game is awesome. I feel reasonably in tune with my own gaming preferences these days – including the realization that survival games push all my buttons – so most things seem figured out.

It might also be fact that I’ll be a father around May and will thus have less gaming time. Either/or.

For fun though, let’s write some stuff down:

  • Seriously, dude, play some of those PS3 games
  • Clear at least one story path from SWTOR
  • Finish up the PoF story content in GW2
  • Clean up Steam library by removing titles not likely to play
  • Be a (passably) responsible gaming dad

Five months is plenty of time to get everything done, right? Easy. Yep. No problem.

Narrator: It wasn’t.

Being the Change

You never quite realize how much the internet requires unceasing, anonymous effort to function… until it doesn’t. I’m not so much talking about keeping the lights on and the modems running, although there is that too. I mean something like keeping a game Wiki up-to-date.

About six months ago, I opined that a lot of Stellaris’ historical Wiki information was no longer correct or missing altogether. Having recently spent over 100 hours with Starbound’s Frackin’ Universe mod, I can safely say the same situation applies. It’s actually almost worse in a way, because someone ran some script to auto-generate pages for most every item, and then never touched it since. The result is a false sense of information that hasn’t been accurate for months, if not years.

Frustratingly, even the Frackin’ Universe mod creators will routinely mention that the Wiki is out of date. It’s like, dude, you made it out of date by changing stuff. How about you take some time to post change notes or update it yourself?

As I was lamenting the situation, it occurred to me that, you know, I could be the change I was looking for. The whole point of Wikis is to crowdsource information, right? The struggle though is A) I’m pretty much done with Frackin’ Universe at this point, B) I surely have better uses of my time in any case, and C) it’s possible everything is going to just change and be wrong later anyway.

On the other hand… maybe. I’m already in the process of writing up a Quick & Dirty Guide for the mod, as I sometimes do for certain games. Part of my hesitation on updating the Wiki as I went along was the simple fact that “testing” things is a pain in the ass in a normal environment – you have to gamble resources you spent hours collecting on a potentially useless item. Now that I’m basically done with the mod, giving myself /admin powers no longer threatens the integrity of the experience.

Hmm. Wait a moment, what’s written at the bottom of this page?

WARNING – This is an “automated” page. As the Wiki is getting an extensive overhaul, any content added to this page may get deleted in the near future! If you think this page needs a particular piece of information, join us on the Discord server:

…on second thought, maybe not.

Game Developers as Chefs

Estebon had an interesting comment on my prior Entitlement Culture post, in defense of the experts:

There is, unfortunately, a general zeitgeist of mistrust toward expertise in the world today, which has bled over to gaming. Gamers, particularly of the self-identified variety, make for an especially fertile ground for that sort of thing, for cultural reasons.

Game devs are supposed to be the experts in their field. They’re the ones who, at least in theory, beat the hiring/funding gauntlet on their merits. That their opinion on how to make a good game ought to carry greater weight than that of the person in the street used to be… more or less self-evident, as with any other profession.

It’s difficult to imagine a set of statements that I disagree with more strongly on a fundamental level.

First, suggesting game developers are “experts in their field” because… they’re game developers… is a tautology. We might assume that these bigger game companies have some kind of hiring standards, but that never really seems to be the case. Instead, it’s often more recursive like “previously sold a popular game” or “already worked for us in QA” or “nobody else applied.”

Remember Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) of WoW (in)fame(y)? From his Wikipedia article:

Street graduated from McDaniel College in 1991 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Biology and Philosophy, later earning a PhD in marine science. Between 1996 and 1998, Street worked as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina.[8] […]

Game Design career
Ensemble Studios, the team behind the real-time strategy series Age of Empires, employed Street as a designer in 1998.[8] With no education or experience in the game industry, Street suspects he was accepted due to his “writing and teaching experience, historical breadth, personal hygiene, gudd speling [sic], creativity, [and] my talent at capturing live alligators”, as well as the user-created scenario for Age of Empires he submitted with his application, which later appeared in Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome. Street helped develop every Age of Empires game from Rise of Rome on, until his departure from the company. At first he designed in-game scenarios and maps, and later graduated to being the team’s lead designer.[9]

Street was hired by Blizzard Entertainment in February 2008, and was the lead systems designer on the MMORPG World of Warcraft until November 2013.[8]

Now, you can hate Ghostcrawler’s philosophy during his WoW tenure – I personally thought it was fine overall – but the fact remains that this marine biologist worked for like two years, wrote an Age of Empires scenario, and then a decade later became a billion-dollar franchise game developer (or a prominent cog in the machine thereof). Twice! We have to either assume that Ghostcrawler is a hidden genius, or there are no particular standards that apply to game designers generally.

There is a third option too: the M. Night Shyamalan effect. You know, the producer of the 1999 cultural touchstone film, Sixth Sense? He followed-up with Unbreakable and Signs which were whatever. After that, it was solid decade of unremitting garbage films. Shyamalan is a supposed expert in his field, as evidenced by movie companies continuing to hire him, but clearly he lost whatever magic he had. Or perhaps more likely, the seam of magic he just happened to tap into shifted, and he wasn’t able to find another.

I bring a lot of this up because I find the hero worship of brands or developers (or anyone) to be… misguided, at best. For one thing, if these people were “experts in their field,” one would expect less game studios to be closing down or laying off staff. As I pointed out a few years ago, most of the same people have been working on WoW this whole time, so any declines in perceived quality can be attributed to the Shyamalan effect.

The only measure that matters for an expert (game developer) is continued, consistent results. Did they make your favorite game back in the early 2000s? Good for you… but why are you still waiting for them? It boggles my mind whenever someone talks about Bethesda and Morrowind, for example. That game came out in 2002. It can still be great, but you knew after Oblivion that something changed. How many new Shyamalan films are you going to sit through before you give up?

From the player side, Estebon pointed out:

J. Allen Brack got memed for his “you think you do but you don’t” line, and devs and customer relations reps have long been trained to pay lip service to the idea that the untutored mob knows best, but people routinely say and demand things that are not remotely reflected in their behaviour or proclivities as reflected in the internal metrics available to game developers. Elsewhere, insane fortunes have been built by paying attention to what people do, not say, and giving us things we never asked for or imagined we needed.

I actually agree with that. Players are generally bad with coming up with the solutions to their problems, even when the solutions aren’t inherently contradictory. What players are exceptionally good at though, is identifying that a problem exists in the first place. The problem might only be impacting them, specifically, but that’s all that really should matter to them or anyone.

All of this is to set up my title analogy.

Game developers are chefs. You don’t need to go to culinary school to be a good chef, and having a degree doesn’t mean you always cook tasty food. Being the best chef in the world will not stop a dish tasting like shit if there is too much salt/it’s burnt/etc. We might expect a master chef to avoid rookie mistakes, but there is another integral component to the dish: the tastes of the person eating it.

In a restaurant, we can assume the customer is choosing a dish they think they will like. If it comes out too salty to their taste, no one bats an eye at said customer complaining about it. “Entitled diners not wanting their food caked in salt!” The relationship is inherently transactional, and there is an expectation of quality. There are limits, of course; no one should expect Chik-Fil-A or KFC to sell burgers, for example. It is also unreasonable for ten chefs to cater to the individual palettes of ten million individuals.

Is that going to stop you from complaining when you get served a salty steak, or if the French Fries are limp at a chain restaurant? Should that stop you? No. I couldn’t cook a restaurant-quality meal, but I sure as shit can criticize one if it comes out poorly. Gaming today is no different.

Granted, it used to be different. The last bit of Estebon’s comment was:

I struggle to think of any other form of entertainment where the audience claims the right to meddle in the details of the creation process quite to the same extent, as opposed to just letting the product succeed or fail as a whole, in a binary way.

Back in the day, games were done. Cartridges were manufactured, CDs were pressed, and physical media was sent to stores. If there were still game-breaking bugs or exploits that got past QA, well, hopefully they weren’t bad enough to sink an entire $10+ million investment. Games in that era were more akin to traditional entertainment like movies or books in the sense that fans could only possibly influence future decisions. Once it was out, it was out.

As we are abundantly aware today though, games are now a service. Something like a Day 1 patch clocking in at 40 GB is not uncommon. No one expects to unwrap a PS4 on Christmas and immediately start playing anything. Moreover, game developers want us to know that development is an ongoing process. A game in maintenance mode is “dead,” and one which is no longer receiving updates is “abandoned.” We barely even have the language to describe a finished product anymore.

Gamer entitlement didn’t get us here. Game makers leveraging social media for free PR and turning “lip service” into a competitive advantage got us here.

Which is just as well, because I’m not especially convinced anyone knows what they are doing. Did Notch know he created a $2 billion game when he released Minecraft? The original dev team for WoW certainly didn’t know they would have 8 million subscriptions by the end of 2008, nor have they been able to do much to stem the bleeding over the last decade. We can’t attribute all of this to corporate malice, because that doesn’t explain why these rockstar developers can’t recapture lightning in a bottle when they move elsewhere.

If you can’t reproduce results, what does that say about your expert game development science?

I think the important thing is to not put game developers on a pedestal. They aren’t scientists (anymore) doing peer-reviewed studies changing the way we understand the world. They’re just people who have eaten food before and think they could come up with something better. Occasionally they do, and even more occasionally they do it on purpose. But can they do it again?