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Moving and Ownership

All this week I have been in the process of packing up my apartment in preparation for a move in meatspace. It is just a move across town, and there isn’t too much stuff, but the process always feels exhausting. Packing up the essentials feels really easy, but then you get to all the miscellaneous stuff that you hardly ever use, but would likely miss if it were discarded. For example, how many of your pots and pans do you use on a weekly basis? Do I really need a colander, much less two of them?

What really struck me though was when I packed up my PlayStation 2. Both the system and the games didn’t take up all that much space, but I pretty much turned on the system once in the last year, during an abortive attempt to play FFXII. I kept the system around because at some point console designers decided backwards compatibility wasn’t a priority, and why get rid of it if I still have all my classic PS1 gems?

It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t really need these things anymore. In fact, why I had physical media of any type was a hold-over from what feels like ages ago. I am pretty sure that all the PS1 games I own are also on the PlayStation Network, or even on Steam. All the games and systems and movies I own could easily fit on the external HD the size of my hand. I should be finished packing by putting on a backpack, minus that behemoth of a PC I use.

At the same time… it’s hard. First, you have to fight against the feeling of conservation. Why throw anything away? It’s something that still has use, still has value, albeit diminished by the passage of time. Second, there are all the what-if scenarios and general optimism. Maybe I’ll suddenly find myself on a retro-gaming kick, yeah? Playing old games in 640×480 resolution blown up on my wall via 100″ projector screen… that’s the life. And what if I suddenly drop everything and go teach English in Japan? Surely I’ll want to pack… err… uh.

The interesting thing to me about this whole experience is my evolving concept of ownership. Back in the day, I fought hard against “all-digital media” and the notion that nobody ever really owned anything, they just licensed it. I was there jeering at Microsoft along with everyone else during the Xbone E3 reveal. The curbing or removal of the secondary game market was an existential threat in my mind.

Now? In the middle of packing up my life, I feel I’d be better off owning less. I’m not going to play Kagero: Deception 2 again. Or any of the Tenchu games. Even if I felt like I had the time and inclination, it’s tough going back to anything less than 720p at this point. The game discs might have retained some value – I certainly made a few hundred dollars selling my SNES classics a few years ago – but is that value worth the time and eBay headaches? When I finish a Steam game, I delete it and then set the Category to “Finished,” which I keep minimized. I don’t think I have ever gone back and played any Finished games.

Games are largely experiences and experiences only. Some have replay value, sure, and others (like MMOs) can keep you entertained and experiencing them for weeks/months/years to come. The vast majority though? One and done. The more time passes, the more I feel these accumulation of games are no different than old newspapers; the hoarding of which is something less deserving of a nostalgic nod and more of a questioning eyebrow.

I’m going to lug around my box of historical gaming debris this time around – there’s no sense to unpack what I’ve already packed – but the odds are good that this will be the last trip they make in my possession, one way or another. And I am becoming increasingly okay with that.

Hex

In the event that you didn’t read last Friday’s Penny Arcade, they talked about the Cryptozoic Kickstarter for a “MMO-TCG” called Hex. Basically, Hex is Magic Online meets WoW TCG meets cards that can get socketed gems, equip gear, gain XP, earn achievements that expand artwork and upgrade cards to foil versions. Also, there will be PvE, apparently including dungeons and raids. And all of this is Free to Play.

Of course, just like with Hearthstone, calling a TCG “F2P” is criminally misleading.

I have some concerns with Hex. First, while I am frankly excited about the unique opportunities involved with an all-digital TCG – cards that buff your creatures do so for the rest of the match, you can put tokens on cards that get shuffled into your library, and all sorts of crazy nonsense that physical card games couldn’t pull off – this game skews so heavily towards Magic Online that I’m surprised Wizards of the Coast hasn’t issued a takedown notice.

Seriously, look at this video:

I’m not talking about Apple’s “rounded corners” copyright bullshit, I’m talking about Grand Theft Mechanics. Creatures have summoning sickness, there is First Strike, Haste, seven cards in the opening hand, 20 life per player, four copy limit on individual cards, 60 cards per deck, land cards, instants, discrete turn phases (Draw phase, main phase, declaring attackers/blockers/combat damage, end step), and even the goddamn Stack.

That’s not even really my concern here though. My concern is what occurs about 200 times in the bottom right corner of that video: spamming of the Pass Priority button.

This is alpha footage, things can change, etc etc etc… but not really. Magic is an incredibly nuanced card game with thousands of pages of technical rules that few follow to the letter in non-tournament settings; friends usually don’t ask each other if there is any response to their Draw Phase, unless one of them was packing a relevant card in their deck. My initial few weeks with Magic Online was a brilliant experience because the game reminded you of all the sort of routine Upkeep triggers and the like that can bog down/derail completely a physical game when you forget one. Trouble is, Magic Online is going to ask you every damn time because it has to. You can manually change your settings to ignore certain steps if you want, but again, Magic is an incredibly complex beast – if you aren’t careful about when you cast a spell or use an ability, you can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in an (cough) instant.

So that’s concern number one: the Pass Priority button is going to simultaneously be annoying as hell and be the reason you lost a perfectly winnable match. It’s also incredibly high-brow for as much as Hex is being marketed as “easy to get into.” I was a tad disappointed at first when I watched the Hearthstone duels and realized that there would be no “in response I play X!” back and forth. But seeing Hex and being reminded about how cerebral Magic can get… I think the Blizzard folks are on the right track, at least for a casual audience.

Calling it now: this will sell for at least $60.

Calling it now: this will sell for at least $60. Each.

Concern number two? You’re going to spend probably $100-$200 a month playing this F2P game.

Look at this paragraph from the official website regarding the above card Extinction:

Every last troop in sight bites the dust. This card will be a crucial staple of many control decks in any tournament format for a long time to come. In other words, in addition to being awesome, these will be quite valuable to all types of players. If you’re dungeon crawling instead of tournament crawling, you can even keep troops off the board for another two turns while you finish your master plan, with the all-powerful equipment Grips of the Unfortunate!

Translation: everyone will be paying out of the ass for this “crucial staple” of a card.

Even if you don’t see yourself competing in the sort of obvious P2W Constructed deck format (or presumably high-end PvE raiding), you will still probably be spending many times the average monthly subscription if you are remotely interested in the game. It is all right there in the Kickstarter page:

For experienced TCG players, we have designed the card set around Booster Draft and Limited play. We have engineered the card sets to launch three times a year, like a standard TCG.

In Magic Online, a Booster Draft = eight players buy three booster packs apiece. Open pack, take one card, pass remaining to the left, repeat. Build deck. Limited = buy six booster packs, open them, build deck. Booster packs in Hex will cost $2 for 15 random cards, which is half of what WotC charges. Magic Online rewards the winners of these mini-tournaments with extra booster packs, such that those coming in 1st and 2nd place can generally leave with a profit of a few packs; I assume Hex will reward similarly. Everyone keeps the cards they play with, so you don’t leave empty-handed if you lose, but… well. Suffice it to say, I finally overcame my game subscription aversion when I realized I spent $24 in the course of a one hour in Magic Online. Suddenly, a mere $15/month seemed like a total steal. Cue WoW purchase.

Frankly, Booster Drafts and Limited are the best Magic tournament formats to play in because there is no Pay 2 Win pressure – everyone starts with the same random chance to get good/bad cards, and skill plays an exceedingly strong role thereafter. But, again, in Hex you are looking at dropping $6-$12 to participate in “content” that evaporates after an hour, if you’re lucky. This is to say nothing about the fact that new sets will come out three times a year, which means most of your cards will be unplayable in Standard settings (which is the big set and its two smaller components in Magic). You can still play older cards in Magic, but only in Extended formats where most people are still packing the overpowered cards of 5 years ago, not the leftover garbage from your Limited games that just became old news.

My deck-building sense is tingling.

My deck-building sense is tingling. Or that could be the withdrawal.

If you haven’t noticed, I am extrapolating a lot about Hex from how Magic Online worked, but Cryptozoic has already stolen so much shit I feel safe that they will keep the theme going here. Perhaps Hex will feel a little different since it will have a PvE aspect, where some of your “outdated” cards might find a long-term home. Perhaps you could even earn boosters from said PvE – that would at least make the F2P claim less of a bald-faced lie. But make no mistake here: Hex, like any TCG (digital or no), will contain the two worst components of consumer-gouging videogame design: Pay 2 Win and gamble boxes.

And goddamn it if I’m still reacting like an ex-junkie, credit card in shaking hand.