Category Archives: Commentary
Big props to Eph for bringing my attention to a recent Gamasutra article entitled “How the Data Implosion will trigger the Great Game Dev Correction.” In it, the author put his “100% predictive accuracy” record on the line to portend the coming (Date: TBA) collapse of the F2P market.
If you want the short version of the 3100-word article, here it is: erosion of Consumer Surplus.
Really though, the author points to two primary trends that have entangled with one another in a negative feedback loop. The principle one is that the User Acquisition Cost, e.g. how much money spent on advertising/etc, continues to increase. One of the main drivers of that is the simple fact that there are thousands of competing titles on the market, with more arriving all the time. While we like to imagine that more options are better, the truth is that nobody really goes past the first two pages of Google results, much less browsing all 21,000 new games that came out in the last month. By “mathematical certainty,” costs go up trying to find new customers, revenue goes down as a result, and studios close their doors.
…but not before engaging in some Consumer Surplus shenanigans.
See, the second part of the feedback loop is how most F2P game companies are engaging in their data-driven quest to extract the maximum amount of Consumer Surplus from each user. Think lockboxes and timers and “special, one-time deals” that are psychologically honed to trick you into believing them to be worthwhile purchases. The very real problem though is that consumers have finite money. Shocking, I know. Since all of these F2P titles are trying to extract the same pool of dollars, all that happens is that each individual app only receives a smaller share of them.
And even worse than that is what we as gamers come to understand intuitively: these games just have less value as a result. In every sense of the term. Studios are spending more time and development dollars on ever more novel ways of tricking you to part with your cash, than they are with creating content worth purchasing in the first place. But even when those two points intersect, we’re left with little to no Consumer Surplus. At a certain point, you are better off watching Netflix than having to spend precisely the amount of money as enjoyment received from a game.
Now, the author is predicting a Correction at some point, with the Creative forces – as opposed to Big Data – rising up from the ashes of a devastated (F2P) game market and commanding a higher salary since we all suddenly realize we want better content again. I’m… not so sure.
For one thing, the F2P genie is out of the Cash Shop bottle. There is zero reason to believe that the surviving games of a post-Correction world will leave that
extracted Consumer Surplus money on the table. Secondly, the game industry itself has proven rather resistant to the notion that content creators should be paid practically anything. Undoubtedly part of that is due to the fact that everyone wants to be a (armchair) game designer and thus there is no market pressure to improve working conditions/pay. Hell, I wanted that job so much that I spent two years of college studying programming and Japanese so I could try to break into the industry back in the early 2000s.
Finally, there’s Minecraft. You know, that little indie game that was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion three years ago? While an excellent case study in why Creatives are better than Big Data, the fact remains that this “simple” game won the lottery in a way that will inspire decades of copycats and dreamers, just as WoW convinced everyone that MMOs were the next big thing. The MMO fever has mostly died down, but that’s because it costs $60 million a pop to roll the dice. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people creating apps in their basements for free, let alone the corporate code monkeys churning out thousands of Flappy Bird derivatives. The cost of each attempt is so low, and the payout is potentially so high, that there is no reason to believe investors wouldn’t keep some pocket change flowing into basically purchasing Powerball tickets each week.
So, while I do agree there will be a Correction of some sort in the game industry, it’s ultimately not going to fix the flooding of garbage games. What I expect to see is a return to Curation: a sifting through the river of shit for those few nuggets of value. People will find the voices that they trust, and those voices will end up picking the winners and the losers. At least, up until the Curators become corrupted by studios throwing money at them, and the great cycle repeats.
Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:
In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)
Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:
The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)
This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.
We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.
Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.
Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.
If you haven’t already heard the scuttlebutt… well, I’m sorry. The former lead writer for the Half Life series has released what is widely reported as a summary of the hitherto (and likely forevermore) unreleased Half Life 2: Episode 3. While it is being termed “fanfic” by the author himself, keep in mind that Marc Laidlaw left Valve in January of last year, and there are no other writers from the series remaining in Valve.
Divorced from physics-based gameplay and otherworldly vistas, the plot ends pretty quick. And it certainly still leaves the door wide open to some kind of proper Half Life 3. But… this is closure enough for me. It feels right. While nothing can really assuage the ire I feel after the ending of Episode 2 almost ten years ago, this nevertheless meets me halfway. It lines up with pre-established lore, and completes the themes presented since the original game.
Which makes sense, coming from the person who wrote everything in the first place.
At the same time… goddammit. Valve hasn’t released a single-player game since Portal 2 in 2011. That’s more than five years ago, for those (not) playing at home. And really, they don’t need to anymore. Steam obviously more than pays for itself, as evidenced by the non-standards of Early Access and shovelware that make it to the front page. For all intents and purposes, Valve has taken the ball and gone home, having monetized every inch of the field. They built it, we came, they left.
Oh, well. At least there are all these other games I can play on Stea…
About a year and half ago, I was excited about Overwatch in large part because it was new. I enjoy FPS games in general, and have spent countless hours over the years playing the Battlefield series. There were several titles though, such as Team Fortress 2, that I either tried and dropped or didn’t bother trying at all because of accretion:
the process of growth or increase, typically by the gradual accumulation of additional layers or matter.
That’s the dictionary definition, but I used it this way: “the older a game gets, the less space exists for the ‘skill middle class,’ and the less the developers seem to care about catering to said group.”
For example, getting into Counter-Strike or Team Fortress 2 these days, as a brand new player, would be an exercise in futility. Not only would you be useless to your team generally, your opponents are most likely extremely skilled veterans, and you are likely to die to mechanics/map secrets you don’t even understand yet. It is a frustrating situation for everyone involved, compounded twenty-fold considering the bile and vitriol that exists just below the thin skin of faceless internet gamers.
After this weekend in Overwatch, I can sadly report that the accretion is getting real there too.
The last time I talked about Overwatch was more than a year ago – ironically around the Summer Games, which are currently ongoing – and I stopped playing towards the end of the second competitive season. Competitive Mode was a necessary addition to the game overall, but I found it has actively made the Quick Play experience worse. First, naturally competitive players got their taste of what it’s like playing with people who actually want to win the objectives, which makes the Quick Play environment feel worse in comparison. Second, new players generally avoided Competitive Mode until they got more practice, lest they tank their ranking when it matters. And finally, the toxic tryhards that couldn’t try hard enough to be successful in Competitive Mode find themselves surrounded by other toxic tryhards and complete noobs in Quick Play all day long.
“Cream rises to the top.” Sure does. But once you remove that, everyone else is stuck drinking the creamless sediment that sunk to the bottom of the glass.
In short, the experience was awful. I stopped playing Overwatch before Ana was even released, so I’m four whole characters and countless patches behind the metagame curve. Team needs a tank? Okay, let me play… Orisa. That probably wasn’t the best pick for the team composition even if I had never played her before, but nobody else cared about team composition anyway (Hanzo and Windowmaker on a point control maps? Sure!), so why not?
Because it results in an embarrassing loss. I’m frustrated because I’m still trying to figure out the correct use of my abilities, but my team is also just bad players… unless they are just trying to figure out their characters… and oh my god just end it now. In another match, I decided to go back to my old standby, Zarya, to get a win. Things were good… until they weren’t, when I realized that the healer Ana spent more time sniping instead of healing. So here I was bringing my A-game with a hero I’m actually good at (but don’t want to play anymore) and everyone else is dicking around.
Wait a minute… now I’m the tryhard.
So, yeah, it sucks playing Overwatch now. If you never stopped playing, or exclusively play in Competitive Mode, perhaps it’s the same as its always been. Coming back from a break though, queuing solo in Quick Play? I’m not even sure I would ever recommend the game to anyone now. I would much rather be playing any iteration of the Battlefield series, where noobs can exist without constituting a full 16% of the team (6v6), or 100% of the teams chance for success should they occupy a critical role, e.g. tank or healer.
The accretion problem is real, my friends, and I’m not sure what the devs can do to counteract it. Overwatch does have Arcade Modes available, and something like “Mystery Heroes” where people get forced to play random classes can help. But these modes are not entirely satisfying on their own, and generally don’t help you develop the map awareness/strategies necessary to win “real” games.
The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.
This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.
Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.
The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?
I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.
Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.
Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.
I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?
I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.
Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.
Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.
But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.
So it is looking more and more like the Mass Effect series is done. Latest word is that Mass Effect: Andromeda will not be getting any single-player DLC. While I do not normally care for DLC – much less story-based DLC – this is not a particularly good sign for the health of the series.
And that’s a damn shame.
Andromeda is not remotely close to being as good as any of the original trilogy titles. But… it’s not bad, either. Animations are still wonky, especially when compared to what came before. At the same time, the actual graphics and alien vistas are phenomenal. Combat too is probably the best it has ever been, in terms of cadence and action. While there are still waist-high barriers around in most areas, it certainly doesn’t feel as forced as it did in prior titles. The side crew can’t hold a candle to the OG team from the Milky Way, but perhaps they could have caught up in the next few games.
The problem seems to have been development run amok. I have seen a lot of people decry those derisive animation memes as the reason for the game’s poor reception, but few people examine why the animations were poor to begin with. Despite being in development for 5 years, the game only really coalesced a year and a half before launch. It boggles my mind that the designers were thinking a No Man’s Sky approach to Mass Effect was ever a good idea, e.g. thousand of procedurally generated random planets. This is a flagship franchise – if you want to screw around with the formula, do it with another property!
To date, I still have not completed the main story in Andromeda. As is custom, I got to a stage in which I felt like the endgame was approaching, so I quickly veered off into sidequest territory. I even completed that stupid sidequest that required 16 mineral readings from every crag of the ass end of the universe. Not because it’s fun, but because I’m cruising around with fun company. I mentioned it elsewhere, but I could listen to Peebee and Drak shoot the shit for hours. And I have.
I will be sad when it is over.
While I am a big believer in finding meaning and purpose in every action one takes, I also hate unfinished stories (Kingkiller Chronicles much?). You can certainly have fun with Andromeda, as I have thus far. But I am weary of encouraging anyone being sucked into an orphaned narrative.
I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.
When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.
Then came the balance changes.
First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.
In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.
Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.
More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.
Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.
Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.
Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.
Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.