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?

Entitlement Culture

Apparently I write about (gamer) entitlement every two years.

Well, here is the 2018 version, inspired by this section from MMOBro’s recent post:

The problem with trends is that businesses chase them to the detriment of innovation and traditional success stories. It also reinforces the entitlement culture gamers have developed over the years. Read responses to any game developer’s tweet if you don’t believe me. “I supported you for 10 years and now you RUINED Magic Turtle Kingdom by adding BLUE HAIR! READ THE LORE! You’re so stupid I uninstall and never support you again.” This is an issue with society at large, but game design continues to move in a direction that feeds player entitlement. Games tell players they earn their wins but aren’t to blame for their losses, and egos balloon as a result.

All of this creates more toxic communities, games developed for the common denominator, less creative character development, and less chances to show player skill. It’s not where I want see game development money heading, but you can’t outrun a tsunami.

The Bro’s overall post was about the lamentation of the “MMOification” of all gaming genres. Which is a thing more commonly referred to as “adding RPG elements,” but seeing as RPGs are becoming rather scarce these days, MMOs are probably a good enough example to explain what is happening. Which, basically, is a cross-generation acknowledgment that XP and seeing meters fill up is pretty universally compelling (to a point).

But what I actually want to talk about is this part:

It also reinforces the entitlement culture gamers have developed over the years.

No.

First, using “entitlement” as a pejorative is a thought-terminating cliche that absolves one of examining whether the implicit claims make any sense. By saying “entitled gamer” you really mean “gamer who erroneously believes their opinion has value” without bothering to explain A) why that opinion holds no value, and B) why your own opinion does.

But it’s worse than that. The (presumably hypothetical) example of a gamer tweeting criticism of an apparent lore discrepancy is meant to make the entire exchange seem ridiculous. Not just the threatening of uninstalling part, but also, implicitly, the giving so much of a shit about lore/story/world in the first place. I agree that such a tweet is bombastic and the tone counter-productive. But instead of having a conversation about whether the designers actually ignored the rules of their own game fiction, we’re talking about “entitled gamers.”

Second, there is a presupposition that gamers have changed over the years at all. Did you really not know anyone who behaved like this hypothetical entitled gamer prior to the age of MMOification? Did not see them in high school, or the Returns section of Wal-Mart, or at the sidelines of their kids’ soccer games? Did you not encounter them playing Magic: the Gathering, or in Counter-Strike lobbies, or in your D&D group? Did you perhaps only encounter them once you started playing with large groups of completely random people from across the country/globe?

What changed was access. If someone was really upset about Super Metroid, they mailed a letter to Nintendo Power or otherwise shouted into the void. You never heard it. These days, they shout in your Twitter feed, your Facebook timeline, or in your subreddit. None of which existed prior to 2004, by the way, and didn’t get really popular until years later. We’re barely a decade into this grand “give everyone a voice” experiment, and as it turns out, not everyone has something nice to say.

Even worse/better, the developers want the shouting! Probably not the death threats and general ugliness, but absolutely the feedback and passionate, free advertising that spreads by digital word-of-mouth. These companies are not handing down stone tablets from on high – they are selling a product. And when you are in sales, it literally pays to attend to the ministrations of your customers.

This positive attention, not generalized entitlement, is what encourages a quite literal feedback loop. Maybe this loop counts as changed behavior, but that’s a function of attention, not egos inflated by game mechanics. I still contend that we’re only more aware of the nonsense these days because the devs have Twitter accounts (etc) to conveniently compile all the nonsense in a single location, which we then encounter as we try to glean nuggets of design wisdom from the chicken entrails.

In summation: when you pool everything in the same place, of course the turds float to the top.

The irony is that, at the end of the day, we all want better games, yeah? We may disagree on what “better” consists of or how to accomplish it, but we all desire fun things to play. The one sure-fire way to not achieve that goal is to claim one’s opponents as “entitled” or that there is an “entitlement culture” and thereby erode the very notion that gaming can (or should) be taken seriously at all.

If the kind of games you want to pay for are no longer being made, that’s a market failure. Threatening to quit over blue-haired turtles is rather silly, but I’d rather have developers attentive to details than the opposite, and you should too. Because, eventually, it will impact your favorite game.

And then you will not be entitled to complain about it.

Frackin’ Starbound

I have kinda let Fallout 76 slide these past few days, as I reach the mundanity of the endgame. Which mainly consists of server hopping for weapon plans and getting distracted by nuke zones in the process. We’ll see if any of these patches fix anything.

Still in a mood for survival game though, I was sucked back into Starbound with the Frackin’ Universe mod pack. This is a full-body mod that basically changes nearly every aspect of the game by adding dozens of new systems and results in thousands of different interactions. To give you an idea, one of the early buildings is a “wooden centrifuge” that allows you to put water in, and get Hydrogen and Oxygen canisters back out. There are other systems changes as well, including the fact that your character no longer emits light, so things like flashlights and seeding tunnels with hundreds of torches becomes important.

So far I have spent about 8 hours playing and haven’t even left the starter system yet.

The problem I’m facing is two-fold. First, there is a noted lack of direction/progression. The mod includes a whole host of “tutorial” quests to introduce some of the concepts, but in practice they are more like “craft a growbed… now have fun!” While I can’t quite build everything yet, I have like a dozen different crafting stations and no sense of what I should be building, or working towards. “It’s a sandbox, do whatever.” Yeah, no, not how it works. If you look at ARK or even Minecraft, there are subtle channels of progression – things are either level-gated or material gated or biome gated. There’s gating in Frackin’ Universe too, but the starting gate is way too big.

The second issue is sort of mundane, but… I’ve already beat this game. Frackin’ Universe puts in all these new systems and such, but the core game is still about collecting six artifacts and defeating the tentacle monster. There is a longer journey to get there – the mod rebalances things so its not as easy – but the destination is the same. While I could and probably should just create my own goal and do whatever, I feel like if I’m already having to do that, I should probably do that in a game I haven’t already beaten. I mean, I already had 60 hours in vanilla Starbound.

We’ll see. It’s fun (and a bit frustrating) for now. The question will be for how long.

Goose, but not Gander

It was recently reported that Epic, the guys behind Fortnite and the Unreal engine generally, will be spinning up their own storefront in (yet another) bid to give Steam some competition. The most reported takeaway is that the store cut will be just 12% of sales, instead of the industry-standard 30%. That fact, along with a more curated experience with opt-in user reviews (e.g. can’t review-bomb games), no forums, and so on, is supposed to entice developers to jump ship.

The funny thing to me is that the conversation on the topic seem ass-backwards. Who gives a shit about developers? Where is the incentive for gamers to care about and download yet another proprietary storefront? That is literally the only thing that matters.

As a consumer, having to interact with another launcher is a net negative experience. Developers might very much love the larger cut of revenue, but will they love it enough to move exclusively to the Epic storefront, selling their game nowhere else? If not, I’m going to continue buying my shit on Steam when possible.

And even if they do go exclusive, the game would have be extremely fucking good to make me bother in the first place. I have Origin because of Mass Effect 3 and the Battlefield series. I have GOG because of Witcher 3. In all other cases, I buy from Steam or from sites that give out Steam codes, even if GOG (or whatever) versions are available.

The ONLY thing the Epic has going for it is price potential. Imagine if every game was 10% cheaper on the Epic storefront than Steam, permanently, irrespective of sales. The developers still get 8% more of the revenue than they had before, and by every principle of Econ 101, more copies will be sold, so it should be a win-win, right?

Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

The irony of ironies is that cheaper prices might not even be enough at this point. Epic is offering a “curated experience” and the groundbreaking ability to send out newsletters (comes with a free pager!), but none of that means anything if you are not actively playing a game in the Epic launcher. That newsletter might remind you that developer X has Y game coming out tomorrow, but what about all those other indie devs sitting in the wings, hoping that you see their title in the “Similar game to…” window? They get nothing, assuming you aren’t still playing their 2-hour walking simulator that you get 14 days to refund (lolwut?). I suppose the idea is to try and lure bigger developers to release their AAA game on Epic for some downstream benefit… but guess what? All the AAA devs already have the same idea and are doing the same thing with their own launchers.

Tragedy of the commons, indeed.

Taking Stocks

As gaming pundits, we often make claims that X change or Y addition are terrible design decisions that will cause companies to lose money, subscribers, etc. They are easy claims to make, when there is absolutely no sense of follow-up or acknowledgement that something like stock price is affected by many different factors.

Well, color me surprised when I stumbled across the actual stock prices of gaming companies the other day. That gaming stocks have been pummeled this year is putting it mildly.

ATVI is Activision Blizzard, currently trading at $46.52, and the stock is down -26.53% year-to-date (YTD). If you look at just the last six months, it is down -36%. EA is, well, EA, currently trading at $81.18 and down -22.73% YTD. Again, if you look just at the last six months, EA is down -40%.

It is incredibly easy to say “well of course.” Beta for Azeroth will probably go down as one of the worst expansions in WoW history – or at least give Cataclysm a run for its money – so of course the stock prices reflect that. Then with EA, you only have to look at all the “historical inaccuracies” they added to Battlefield V and the controversies that spawned. Get woke, go broke, right?

Well… hold up.

TTWO is Take Two Interactive, and is currently trading at $101.69. You might know this company as the one who released a little game called Red Dead Redemption 2. The YTD movement has been… -7.87%. That is certainly less of a drop than Blizzard and EA though right? Yeah, sorta. The three month decline has been -24% though, and that’s with a critically acclaimed (Metacritic: 97) title coming out a month ago.

This is not to suggest that what a company does, or any sort of controversies it generates, has no impact on their bottom line and thus stock price. But sometimes it’s good to acknowledge that there is a large gap between what we feel should be the natural consequence of a given design choice, and what actually happens in the real world. On occasion, things line up and we appear prescient. A lot of the time though, we rage in our little bubbles and the world moves on without us.

Well, That Was Quick

Welp, Bethesda will be sending out canvas bags eventually:

We are finalizing manufacturing plans for replacement canvas bags for the Fallout 76: Power Armor Edition. If you purchased the CE, please visit https://beth.games/2QDropM and submit a ticket by Jan. 31, 2019. We’ll arrange to send you a replacement as soon as the bags are ready.

There is an interesting paragraph in the VentureBeat article of the same news:

In multiple messages to consumers, Bethesda explained that it made the change due to cost and a shortage of canvas material. Cotton, which makes up most canvas, is the subject of import taxes in the trade war between the United States and China. It’s possible those tariffs, which went into effect in July, pushed up the per-unit cost of the canvas bags.

As VentureBeat notes in the very next paragraph, and everyone in /r/fallout notes half a dozen times each thread, this doesn’t mean Bethesda didn’t fuck up. As with most things, it’s not so much about the crime, but about the cover-up. Canvas too expensive? Fine. Alert the buyers, give them the opportunity for a refund, continue on with life. Not enough canvas can be sourced before the release date? Sounds fishy, but keep in mind that the Power Armor edition was shipped late even with the nylon replacement, which indicates that this probably wasn’t the nefarious plan from the start. In any case, alert the buyers that they will get nylon now, and that canvas bags will be coming later.

What you shouldn’t do is what Bethesda did. Which was this:

ThisIsFine

Because, absent any further communication, what it appears to be is that some suits at Bethesda chose nylon because it was cheaper, didn’t tell anyone because they didn’t care/thought no one would notice, thought $5 in cash shop currency would suffice to shut people up, and then got real scared when they realized that although my Big Mac might not look like the picture, McDonalds can actually get sued if the beef patties were replaced with chicken.

If I were them, I’d ask Todd Howard to put out a short mea culpa regarding the communication failure, and then move on with life. Otherwise, we’re on to the next two panels:

ThisIsFine2

Or maybe Bethesda does nothing more. The meme will last longer, but again, everyone will be buying Elder Scrolls 6 regardless of whatever happens with Fallout 76. I was browsing some of the reaction to the canvas bag replacements, and someone leveled this “threat“:

Oh man, it did cost them a shit ton. I sure as hell won’t support them monetarily anytime soon, and I hope many people won’t as well.

Do what you want cause a pirate is free

You are a pirate!

That moment when people desperately want to boycott your games but they just can’t stop themselves from playing them. Viva la revolución! Or something.

CanvasGate

In today’s Two Minutes of Hate, we’re once again getting very angry on other peoples’ behalf for something we find them stupid for buying in the first place:

FO76_Canvas

In short, the $200 Power Armor edition of Fallout 76 is advertised as containing, among other things, a canvas bag. But the bag that arrived was actually nylon instead. When someone wrote into Bethesda support to complain, they were greeted with the meme-worthy:

We’re sorry that you aren’t happy with the bag. The bag shown in the media was a prototype and too expensive to make.

We aren’t planning on doing anything about it.

An actual Bethesda PR went on to clarify:

Thanks for tagging us in this post. We’re not sure if you’ve seen this make the rounds on various areas of the internet, yet, but we’ve made an official statement about this issue and included it below:

“The Bethesda Store’s Support member is a temporary contract employee and not directly employed by Bethesda or Bethesda Game Studios. We apologize to the customer who took the time to reach out. The support response was incorrect and not in accordance with our conduct policy. Unfortunately, due to unavailability of materials, we had to switch to a nylon carrying case in the Fallout 76: Power Armor Edition. We hope this doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying what we feel is one of our best collector’s editions.”

Many people are hammering on this response as well, for essentially restating the first message while throwing the other employee under the bus. After all, is there much of a difference between “unavailability of materials” and “too expensive to make”?

Well… yeah, actually. Enough canvas might not have been available in order to reach the distribution date, whereas enough nylon would have been. Sometimes you can throw money at a problem and make it go away, and sometimes you can’t. Or maybe it truly was a $1 vs $5 decision and they scrapped the plans for canvas based on that alone.

Speaking of $5, Bethesda put a little extra squirt of acetone on the PR fire by offering 500 Atoms to anyone who purchased the Collector’s Edition of the game. It’s difficult to imagine this amount not having been selected due to $5 being the actual value of the canvas bag in question. In any case, the gesture itself only inflamed the nonplayerbase further, who then took to the streets of /r/fallout to advise others to not accept the Atoms, lest they forgo their potential class-action lawsuit payouts.

I was originally planning on making a joke about how my food never looks like the pictures on the menu, but this older article on false advertisements is making me think people might have a case. The ad says canvas, it wasn’t canvas, case closed. I’m no expert in bird law though.

That said, I get it. If I were a nonplayer of Fallout 76, I’d be bored enough to be outraged too. As an actual player of a game that has become a punchline however… well, shit. It’s tough defending an otherwise fantastic game (IMO) that’s going to get better with each patch when the company behind it can’t seem to stop embodying (hilarious in the abstract) metaphors of their own products. “We were promised canvas, but the game we got was nylon.” Shit literally writes itself.

Ultimately, Bethesda will be fine. “I’m not going to buy Elder Scrolls 6 at release based on Fallout 76!” “Bethesda’s reputation is ruined forever!” Yeah you are, and no it’s not. Skyrim sold 30 million copies since 2011. Fallout 4, which was widely panned before and after release, sold 12 million copies the first day. This doesn’t mean that Fallout 76 is safe from being dropped, but as controversies go, this will be forgotten (and forgiven) the moment we get another 5-second video clip of some mountains overlaid with monks singing. Or by Christmas. Either/or.

I just hope that, you know, there continues to be Fallout 76 patches until then.

Patch Purgatory

There is a special sort of exquisite suffering involved in waiting for game patches. Like, there is an acknowledgement from the game makers that a problem exists, and they even have a date listed for when the problem will be fixed. That’s good! Fantastic, even. But it’s going to be next week. And seven days is so long from now, but it’s also entirely reasonable to have patches scheduled for certain days, and last week was Thanksgiving… so, yeah. Purgatory, basically.

Over on the Fallout 76 subreddit, Bethesda has laid out a general cadence for upcoming patches:

December 4, 2018 – Next week’s update will bring an increase to the Stash limit, as well as a variety of performance and stability improvements, balance changes, and multiple bug fixes to the game. We’ll have full patch notes available later this week ahead of Tuesday’s update. […]

December 11, 2018 – The next update after December 4 is currently planned for the following week. Like previous patches, it will include a variety of bug fixes, but we’re also planning to bring some more notable changes and features to the game. You can catch a preview of these improvements below, and a full list of changes will be included in the December 11 patch notes.

The post itself has actual details, but the big ones to me are the Stash limit increases and better boss loot on the 4th, and Push-to-Talk, (limited) Respec, and CAMP improvements on the 11th.

There are also a variety of possible bug fixes and balance changes that could materially improve my enjoyment of the game. Melee right now is incredibly OP, for example. I’m running a Rifle/Sniper build myself, and the fact that there are no rifle weight-reducing Perk cards (Gatling guns can be reduced to 2 lbs but a machine gun always weighs 20+ lbs) and apparently Legendary Hunting Rifles don’t exist in the game is a big bummer. Adding in a Perk card might be out of scope of a “bug fix,” but if they made getting the Lever-Action Rifle schematics easier to acquire, I would suddenly be back in business – I’m still using a level 25 one with no mods at level 50, because it’s still awesome despite the reloading glitch.

In the meantime though, it’s tough. I’m always dancing around the 400 lb Stash limit each time I log into the game. For the longest time, having too much Steel was a common event, but the moment you essentially delete 1000 pieces, you suddenly need that amount for something else, such as crafting bullets. There are vendors out in the world, but most are on a shared Cap limit, such that you can only vendor X amount of things each day.

The ideal solution to all of this is to simply not play the game until the patch hits. Which is perfectly acceptable as a solution… provided you aren’t actually that invested in the game in the first place. If you are though, god help you.

Black Friday Haul

I spent a grand total of… zero dollars on games this Black Friday.

Looking back, I am oddly comforted by the fact that I missed the $200 PS4 deals. Again. I have no interest in Spiderman, and simply selling the unopened game was asking a lot. The 20% off coupon for PSN stuff was more tempting, as was the $9.99 complete edition of Horizon: Zero Dawn. And all the other implicit PS4 exclusives.

At the end of the day though, I had to ask myself what I would be doing had I purchased it. The answer would be: still playing Fallout 76. So I didn’t.

Also, yes, I saw that just about everyone was selling Fallout 76 for like $35, nine days after release. On Reddit, there were some people saying that Amazon was actually accepting returns on the empty case, but I did not feel $15 was worth the hassle. Besides, I actually like the game, so… you’re welcome, Bethesda.

I guess I did technically buy something though, earlier last week: a Samsung 1TB SSD for $127. I have been juggling hard drive space for ages now, and it has prevented me (on occasion) from playing a game I might have wanted to in that moment, simply because I had uninstalled it to save room. So, I very delicately hooked everything up, moved my Steam installation to the new drive, and promptly started re-installing all the things. Which included ARK (130+GB) and a bunch of other games that are probably bigger in GB than they are in hours of playtime.

If I get a wild hair up my ass to compare Fallout: New Vegas and/or Fallout 4 to my Fallout 76 experiences though, I merely have to click the icons now.

All that said, we’ll see what happens around Christmas. I noted the following prices this past week:

  • Dishonored 2 + Death of Outsider ($21.59)
  • Prey ($13.49)
  • Final Fantasy 15 ($22.49)
  • ARK DLCs ($26.31)
  • Fallout 4 Season Pass ($18.18)
  • Divinity: Original Sin 2 ($29.24)

Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Far Cry 5 discounts weren’t yet good enough to make the list.

Scaffold

Official reviews are coming in regarding Fallout 76, and almost all of them are universally bad. Like, real bad. In reading them though, it’s very clear that Bethesda did not live up to games these people invented in their head:

The collision of Fallout and multiplayer sparks all sorts of exciting ideas in my mind, most of which have to do with post-apocalyptic role-playing. What if I ran a town, hosting elections and keeping the peace? What if I opened a shop, selling exotic items to other players in a desperate bid to raise enough caps to survive the harsh wasteland? What if I worked behind a bar, serving drinks to other players, passing on gossip and words of wisdom? What if I was the head honcho of a group of raiders, ordering other players to attack camps and loot the corpses of our enemies? What if I founded my own faction, something like Caesar’s Legion from Fallout New Vegas, perhaps? What if I wanted to infiltrate a player-run faction I didn’t get on with, befriending their leader before stabbing them in the back?

Unfortunately, Fallout 76 does not facilitate any of those fantasies. What it does instead is facilitate boredom, frustration and game-breaking bugs.

Like, what the shit, Eurogamer? “Bethesda didn’t make EVE/Star Wars Galaxy mashup, 0/10 stars.”

The rest of that review is slightly less ridiculous. There are complaints about the tutorial quests that ask you to boil water and pick up bottles:

Most missions are little more than fetch quests. Go here, get the thing, bring it back, interact with a robot, job done. It’s mind-numbing in the extreme. It’s Fallout at its worst: basic, monotonous and lacking nuance.

Of course, that had me trying to reach back and remember the quests in Fallout 4, New Vegas, 3, and so on. Replace “interact with a robot” with “talk with an NPC” and… does that not describe basically everything, in any game? A lot of people post memes about how Fallout 3 was finding your daddy and Fallout 4 was about finding your son, and yet here we are lamenting about being free from such mundane burdens.

To an extent, that’s an unfair comparison. Fallout’s best stories were always side-quests, with the main narrative basically acting as a vehicle to drive you around the wasteland looking for them. While holo tapes can be poignant, they just aren’t the same when you can never affect the world.

At the same time… I don’t know that I miss any of that.

I want you to remember all the things you did in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4. Think about what was fun for you. Was it…

  • Striking out and going wherever you wanted to go
  • Exploring ruins, caves, and cities
  • Collecting junk to craft gear
  • Leveling up skills, getting Perks
  • Shooting things in the face
  • Solving moral dilemmas among various NPC groups

Hey, what do you know, Fallout 76 has five out of those six things! And arguably does those five better than any Fallout has before.

I am not trying to denigrate story and narrative here. I’m just saying that I don’t miss it in Fallout 76. In fact, the whole thing is making me question the cohesiveness of the prior games. For example, how much does the ability to strike out and roam around really improve, say, New Vegas’ narrative? Back when I played, I didn’t give two shits about finding Benny beyond the fact that I had a quest entry that wouldn’t go away otherwise. As I wrote back in 2013:

But the overarching narrative of revenge never felt personally compelling, and the coming clash between NCR and Caesar’s Legion seemed a digression. This game was Fallout when I was just wandering around, eager to scavenge what I can out of crumbling ruins I see just on the horizon. When I was the Courier just trying to make a final delivery for no particular reason? Not so much. […] I wasn’t protecting my home, my family, nor was I my own person. I was… the Courier, a stranger in familiar skin, following a past everyone knows about but me.

This is the same problem I had with Witcher 3 – the setting and the story were at complete odds at each other. Your motivation is to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt can, but oh hey, look, there are 40 hours of sidequests you can do over here first. All of which are a hundred times more interesting and immersive than the main, ostensibly racing against time one.

I appreciate the fact that you could kill just about anyone in New Vegas. Or kill next to no one. It is fairly uncommon in gaming to be able to resolve conflict in many different ways. But you don’t need the Fallout scaffolding to do that. By which I mean the wandering around, the looting abandoned buildings, the Power Armor, the Fast Travel ferrying of dozens of pipe rifles to sell to vendors for Caps to buy new shit. I was not “the Courier” when I was hunting for Wonderglue in a half-collapsed shack. I did that for gameplay reasons and because it physically felt good to do so.

So when I hear people say things like this:

To be fair what the hell is Fallout without the story and the player options/personalised quests/interesting world side of things beyond a clunky shooter.

…I feel like I’m going crazy. Open the map, walk over there, kill something along the way in an alternative-history post-apocalyptic 1950s. THAT’S FALLOUT (since 2008). You sure as shit aren’t playing New Vegas for 300+ hours for the storyline alone, son. You play it for that long because it’s fun walking around in that world, fun interacting with things, fun immersing yourself in the wasteland life.

Fallout 76 has systemic problems. The main one being the random server system, from which all other problems follow. All that glorious made-up shit Eurogamer was pining for could become a reality if there is a Moonguard-esque server that people specifically sought out and congregated on. Always-on PvP servers could also be a thing, with forced respawn areas and such. Pretty much everything is solved with servers, actually.

But all these people talking about the gunplay and the “emptiness” of the world? Clunky compared to what? New Vegas? Empty compared to what? Human NPCs with relatable human stories are fantastic, I agree. I just don’t need them to push me over the horizon and into the ruins – the hunt for Gears and Ballistic Fiber is motivation enough. There is still map to see, still ever-stronger enemies to face, and more guns to shoot them in the face with.

Fallout 76 is like when you finish (or ignore) the main story in a Fallout game but you just keep playing anyway. If you don’t do that sort of thing, then yeah, this game is not for you.