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Temporary EAnity

EA has temporarily removed the loot boxes from Star Wars: Battlefront 2, right before the official launch of the game:

We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.

I am honestly quite surprised. The negative press surrounding GTA Online’s Shark Cards or Shadows of War’s single-player loot boxes affected zero change, but here we have EA, of all people, turning off the cash spigot right before the water main gets connected. Then again, EA did get mentioned in half a dozen news article for having the most-downvoted comment in Reddit history (-676,000 at the time of this writing). Not exactly the narrative you want to be having right before the game’s release.

It’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back, at least those of us who actually care about game design and our fellow human beings. But the victory feels… well, like EA says, “temporary.” They did the right thing… under withering criticism. It’s like a politician apologizing for a decades-old scandal – an apology is more than we can expect these days, but it would have been nice if they had apologized before it was news. Or, you know, never did the action in the first place.

Alas, here we are.

It will be interesting indeed to see under what conditions the microtransactions return in SWBF2, and what possible new permutations they might take in other EA games. Will Battlefield Whatever’s design be impacted by this learning experience? Is this a learning experience at all, or simply an unfortunately-timed (for EA stockholders) zeitgeist?

We already know that the suits from TakeTwo don’t give a shit:

It appears that the GTA Online/MyCareer model is going to be the standard for big Take-Two Games going forward. People have expected a GTA Online type environment for Red Dead Redemption 2, which launches next year, though Rockstar has not announced what its online features will be.

“One of the things we’ve learned is if we create a robust opportunity, and a robust world, in which people can play delightfully in a bigger and bigger way, that they will keep coming back,” Zelnick told investors. “They will engage. And there is an opportunity to monetize that engagement.”

And that sort of underscores the vice gamers are put in to begin with. SynCaine pointed out that anyone buying SWBF2 is complicit with its monetization scheme, even if they don’t spend cash on loot boxes. That is technically accurate. But by that same token so is anyone who bought GTA V, given the Shark Card shenanigans. Do we really need to commit to never touching Red Dead Redemption 2 or the inevitable GTA VI?

I dunno. On the one hand, I am obviously an idealist when it comes to the purity of elegant game design. When the pieces fit together, when the various game systems synergize so perfectly… it’s orgasmic. Microtransactions have literally no place in any such gaming schema, any more than the concession stand does for the symphony performance. The symphony or game might rely on outside money in order to exist originally (artists have to eat), but once created, the art does (and should) exist independently.

Also, Consumer Surplus. It’s a thing.

On the other hand, we live in an absurd universe in which any sort of meaning or value is surprising. Thus, EA’s capitulation here, however temporary, is something to be celebrated. I certainly don’t think any of us expected it, especially given the likelihood that whales would have justified the PR hit by buying thousands of dollars of loot boxes on Day 1. And even if EA hadn’t backed down, if it’s possible for you to enjoy playing the game, what particular sense does it make to deny oneself? They’re microtransactions, not blood diamonds. Go have fun – nothing matters anyway.

All things considered though, I do think I’m giving SWBF2 a pass for now. Who is buying a game at full MSRP a literal week before Black Friday? Wait a month or two, save some cash, play your thirty other Steam games, and see how it all plays out. At least, that’s my plan. You do you.

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[SWBF2] Loot Shift

While not exactly a change of heart, EA is making some cursory changes to its loot boxes in the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront 2:

  • Epic Star Cards, the highest tier of Star Cards available at launch, have been removed from Crates. To help keep everyone on a level playing field, these Star Cards will primarily be available through crafting, with the exception of special Epic Star Cards available through pre-order, deluxe, and starter packs.
  • You’ll need to reach a certain rank to craft upgraded Star Cards. You won’t be able to buy a bunch of Crates, grind everything up into crafting materials, and immediately use them to get super powerful Star Cards. You can only upgrade the ability to craft higher tier Star Cards by ranking up through playing the game.
  • Weapons are locked behind specific milestones. While a select few will be found in Crates, the rest can only be attained by play. Want to unlock a new weapon for your Heavy? Play as a Heavy and you’ll gain access to the class’s new weapons.
  • Class-specific gear and items can be unlocked by playing as them. As you progress through your favorite class, you’ll hit milestones granting you class-specific Crates. These will include a mix of Star Cards and Crafting Parts to benefit your class’s development.

Mission Accomplished, eh?

Well… maybe. It’s certainly a better situation than we were in before. Just keep in mind that each Star Card has four levels of potency, and you can in fact randomly get higher potency Cards from the loot box. At least, I did during the Beta. Perhaps the above information can be taken to mean each Card is always going to be the lowest level one, or that you can get a higher-level Card and simply not be able to equip it until you’ve ranked up some more.

In any case, this might be the moment at which we can call a ceasefire. EA is committing to free map packs/content, and always-relevant loot boxes is an alternative method of replacing that revenue. Of course, paid map packs are abysmally stupid and just segment the playerbase, but… baby steps. We may have to see how it plays out in practice.

Review: Dragon Age 2

Game: Dragon Age 2
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: 45 hours
Buy If You Like: More action-ish RPGs, Humorous party dialog, waves of trash mobs

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

Another day, another 30-dude ambush.

In light of the impending release of Dragon Age 3, I decided to go ahead and play through the much-maligned Dragon Age 2. Would it be really as bad as everyone says? Well… maybe.

When Dragon Age: Origins came out, it was a love-letter to the Baldur’s Gate generation, featuring tactical and brutal combat, an epic and lore-rich storyline, and plenty of morally questionable scenarios. Dragon Age 2 follows mostly along similar lines, but there are enough breaks from the formula that you start wondering if the devs wanted to make a different game altogether.

Combat in Dragon Age 2 has a much more action game feel, even though it shares many things with the original. The Tactics system is still in place for configuring the AI, for example, and you can still pause the action at any time to issue orders or directly control different party members. Indeed, in the beginning, it felt largely the same as Origins, albeit “quicker.”

The major problem though is that the game throws waves and waves of weak enemies at you, even when it doesn’t make any sense. You could be walking around the slums when BAM! Thirty dudes try to take you out, ten at a time. While superficially more exciting, the challenge in these sort of fights is extremely low; the only times in which my party died were when an enemy spellcaster dropped an AoE spell, which typically will one-shot everyone nearby before you realize what’s going on.

There's self-deprecating and then there's sad truths.

There’s self-deprecating and then there’s sad truths.

Bioware went a different direction with the plot and overall story structure as well. Instead of fighting another Blight or dealing much with Darkspawn at all, the story follows your character as he/she… well, lives in a city. On one level, it felt pretty novel to experience a former refugee’s rise to prominence, especially given how reasonable the path ends up feeling. I especially liked how each game Act fasts forward time by 3 years – all too often it feels like the average RPG sort of assumes all this character development and world-saving occurs within a week.

On the other hand, the lack of any discernible threat puts a lot of pressure on the incidental stories being interesting… which they are largely not. The underlying plot of Dragon Age 2 is an exploration of the Circle and Templar tension within the Dragon Age setting. While I always thought that bit lore was cool, it isn’t enough to carry a 40+ hour campaign. At one point, the only quest left I could complete was the plot quest to find some Blood Mages who ran away, and all I could ask is: who cares? Those Blood Mages have nothing to do with anything, even in context.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

At least the dialog was refreshing.

Another major issue I had with the game was the rather outrageously blatant copy & paste job with the environments. Going into a cave? Guess what, it’ll be the same cave you always go into, except maybe certain passages will be blocked off this time. Given how the game takes place in one main location, I can understand reusing assets to an extent. But when every warehouse, every cave, every secret base all have the exact same map even when they have no rational reason to be shaped similarly? Call it what it is: developer laziness and cutting corners.

Overall, the online criticisms of Dragon Age 2 largely hit the mark. It is very clear that DA2 was an experiment, and it is equally clear that even Bioware acknowledged that things did not pan out quite as they had hoped. Although some characters from Dragon Age: Origins make cameo appearances, there isn’t a real reason to encourage that fans of the original game to play this one. It isn’t awful, in isolation, but it’s not compelling enough to deserve the Dragon Age title.

Sometimes I Really Hate Bioware

So hey, there is another sale on Origin right now – pretty much the entire EA catalog (all six games) is reduced by 50% or more. Know what isn’t reduced in price though? Goddamn Mass Effect DLC:

For god's sake, Bioware, get your shit together.

For god’s sake, Bioware, get your shit together.

That’s right, you can buy the entire Mass Effect franchise for $15. If you want to get all the canon DLC though, that will be an additional $64. For a 2+ year old game. For DLC that has never been on sale.

At this point I can no longer tell if Bioware is just stupid, or evil, or what. Is the nefarious plan to rope in new players at the $15 price-point and then squeeze the $64 out of the few who become super-enamored with the game? Or is the marketing department asleep at the wheel (or fired) and they just never got around to running the numbers on having a Bioware point sale? Or, you know, migrating from the goddamn ridiculous point system like every other game company?

I suppose the good news is that Casey Hudson, project director for KOTOR and the entire Mass Effect series, left Bioware last week. While I still have some sour grapes (more like sour raisins at this point) over the ME3 ending debacle, the fleshed-out endings went a long way in regaining my trust. I do not idolize content creators as a rule – individual works are the only thing that deserves respect – but this move makes it more likely that Bioware will be left with games I won’t be compelled to play, thereby making it easier to both hate them and not give them money simultaneously.

But seriously, Bioware, put that goddamn Mass Effect DLC on sale and I will buy it.

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.

Battlefield 4 Impressions

I have spent the past few days gorging myself on Battlefield 4, and feel it’s time to come up for some air and reflect on my self-abuse. As you might recall, I dabbled in the BF4 beta for a hot minute and was none too impressed. That opinion is… mostly still intact, although there are some definite surprises.

Progress!

Lens flare technology has definitely improved.

Right off the bat, the game does not feel materially different from BF3 in any way, shape, or form. The environments are detailed, geography diverse, the physics palpable, and actually seeing people to shoot without an over-reliance on Q-spam is a study in #firstworldproblem frustration. “The game is too beautiful to notice the bad guys.” All of this existed in BF3 to an indistinguishable degree. The “levolution” upgrade to the engine makes for some nicely-done scripted destruction, but that appears to be it. Well, the weather effects are pretty damn amazing too.

Indeed, about the only thing that became immediately apparent in terms of differences between BF3 and BF4 is how DICE continues to lurch further away from anything resembling intelligible UI design. The Battlelog fiasco is fine, whatever. What I’m talking about is how convoluted the menus and unlocks and the rest happen to be. Back in BF2, you earned ranks via XP and received an upgrade of your choice for any class (occasionally there were prerequisites). In BF3, all this was shook up with the introduction of assignments/etc, which had you to unlock weapons/items via the completion of what, in retrospect, closely resemble MMO quests: getting 20 kills with gun X and doing Y twice to unlock Z.

That's right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch.

That’s right. I took out an armored patrol boat with a blowtorch. It only had 4hp but STILL!

For the most part, BF4 does away with that unlock scheme. Instead, weapons are unlocked linearly based on XP earned using any particular weapon in that class, e.g. using any LMG eventually unlocks more LMGs. The “problem” is that there is (still) really no incentive to use the newer weapons because you’ll likely be stuck with iron sights and no other accessories (bipod, laser sight, etc). The workaround appears to be via “Battlechests,” which are basically briefcases you earn via leveling up (and sometimes randomly in a match) that contain XP boosts, attachments, cosmetic items, and so on. Unfortunately, the accessories you earn can be for any weapon, including ones you haven’t even unlocked yet, so it’s too random to be useful for assuaging the new weapon issue.

One of the worst parts of BF3 was that feeling of utter uselessness that came with being a brand new player with zero unlocks; not only were you likely bumbling around getting no kills, even if you were in a position to be useful, you couldn’t really pull any of it off with the tools available to you. Even the DICE developers came out and said they “should be slapped” for it.

Well, the devs must have been talking about their BSDM preferences because BF4 proudly continues in that hazing tradition. The default Engineer anti-vehicle tool, for example, is a dumbfire rocket launcher that sometimes-maybe veers towards the roof of vehicles if it passes nearby. Which sounds neat, except this rocket hits like a dry pool noodle. You get stocked with five of them, and all five rockets are required to kill a single tank, assuming the driver is dumb enough to just let you launch five rockets at him. Or smart enough, I guess, because he’ll likely live past the barrage via passive vehicle repair and meanwhile you’ve just spent a full minute accomplishing nothing. Thankfully, the later weapons are significantly better in every possible fashion, but it’s still a ridiculous way to handle the new player experience, IMO.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 10,000 ft is my favorite thing.

Shooting lock-on rockets at vehicles while parachuting from 5,000 ft is my favorite thing.

It would not be a DICE game review without mentioning the bugs. I would say in the ~25 hours of play time I’ve racked up this far, I have to Ctrl-Alt-Del my way to the Task Manager and End Process about once every 2-3 hours; the Ctrl-Shift-Esc shortcut is apparently not powerful enough to break through whatever memory hole BF4 generates. Rubberbanding is occasionally an issue, although it mainly appears to be a server-specific problem. I have not encountered any obvious hackers, but I’m sure that’s inevitable. I still get in a full round of Candy Crush before the level will load when starting a session for the first time, but that’s been the case since BF3. DICE is saying they’re putting future expansions on hold until they sober up enough to fix the problems, which has to start sounding embarrassing to someone over at EA since that seems to be the case with every game they release.

Overall though? I’m having a lot of fun for my $26 thus far. I’m extremely burnt-out on PlanetSide 2, and BF4 scratches an itch in the way only someone slightly resembling your long-gone ex can. “Remember when you played Battlefield 2 for four years in college?” Yes, yes I do, BF4. You’re not BF2, but you’ll do. For now.

When PopCap Jumped the Shark

heavy sigh

heavy sigh

Yeah, yeah, it’s a dev hack to get around the bizarre inability for iOS apps to figure out if the given device can run it. And the actual shark-jumping likely happened two years ago. But, still, it’s like… really? I’m not mad, just depressed about the first signs of the somewhat arbitrary obsolescence of my iPod touch. PvZ2 is not necessary by any means, but it’s still clear that winter is coming.

Good Guy EA?

What. What.

That's like... totally worth a dollar.

That’s like… totally worth a dollar.

Is EA about to discontinue Origin or something? Dead Space 3 for one dollar. You would be hard-pressed to find Mirror’s Edge on sale for $1, let alone a AAA (or at least BBB) game that just came out 6 months ago. And there are like six more games! Getting BF3 or Sims 3 for ~$5 is sort of a trap, considering how much important DLC is available, but good lord.

Yeah, yeah, I know EA is handing out the first hit for practically free just to rope more people into the Origin client. But then again, A) EA is giving their share of the money to charity (they aren’t even listed as an option, actually), and B) most of the games have Steam codes in addition to the Origin codes. So you could technically sell your extra codes to other people, if they couldn’t afford to purchase the bundle themselves for one dollar.

If this is somehow the new face of EA evil… well, we’re doing pretty good for ourselves.

Virtual Realms: Height of Cynicism

Alright, maybe Virtual Realms were the unannounced feature of 5.4. Or the tutorial zone, aka Proving Grounds. But, no, probably Virtual Realms:

New Feature: Virtual Realms

  • Virtual Realms are sets of realms that are fused together, and will behave exactly as if they were one cohesive realm. Players on the same Virtual Realm will be able to join guilds, access a single Auction House, join arena teams and raids, as well run dungeons or group up to complete quests.
  • Players belonging to the same Virtual Realm will have a (#) symbol next to their name.

I guess they finally solved that otherwise insurmountable naming problem, amirite?

Anyway, there are two (other) reasons this announcement is the height of cynicism:

1) Server Merges by any other name.

I get it, you get it, we all get it. Actually saying “server merges” is a sign of the apocalypse and bad PR besides. Grouping several low-pop servers together “virtually” is putting lipstick on the pig of 1.3+ million subscriber losses in the last quarter. At some point though, it’s just sad. You aren’t fooling anyone with that ridiculous comb-over. Just shave your head and get it over with.

2) Aren’t you glad you just spent $12.50+ server transferring?

I read the comments on my earlier post, regarding how things “usually go on sale before they are obsoleted.” For as jaded and dour as I can be under normal circumstances, I generally have some minimum level of faith in humanity. Obvious displays of naked greed are actions that can still genuinely surprise me, even if I distrust the “altruism” of corporations as a rule.

But, Jesus Christ, did Blizzard just take a huge shit on their playerbase.

There was a running joke in the PlanetSide 2 community regarding something similar: Item of the Day. Usually, the deals are 50% off the Station Cash (i.e. RMT) price of some garbage item or another, including items that are way cheaper to purchase with Certs. Every now and then though, some recently-released gun or something will pop up, prompting a lot of sales. People always joked that whenever something good snuck its way into the rotation, that meant it was getting nerfed by next week. And the shitty thing? It usually did.

The assumption got so pervasive and accurate that Higby, one of the PlanetSide 2 devs, actually stepped in and rolled back a planned nerf to one of the vehicle weapons that had just went on sale. He assured the community that these sales are planned out 30 days in advance, that the sale/nerf cycle was just coincidence, but who can you really believe when it comes to capitalistic incentives?

That question is not so rhetorical anymore. It was not an accident that Blizzard put server transfers on sale for the first time in their 8+ year history a mere week before announcing (free) server merges. Maybe they see some distinction insofar as players can choose where they go versus leaving it up to random chance. It’s still absolute bullshit though, because how many people would have bought a server transfer if the sale was this week, or next week? QED.

I mean, this is a new low that even EA hasn’t achieved, not for lack of trying.

Xbox One11!one1!

The Xbox One reveal reminded me, forcibly, that Microsoft is the company behind the console. I mean, obviously, right? But between Windows 7 and Bill Gates building better condoms, I temporarily forgot about Games for Windows Live, Windows 8, and all the markedly cynical shit the Redmond company pulls as it endeavors to further erode all consumer surplus and out-EA EA.

Remember the always-online brouhaha? Well, the new Xbox doesn’t require an always-online internet connection. Except when you play a game for the first time. Or if the game company feels like pulling a Maxis and “off-loading computations to the cloud.” And just kidding, your Xbox needs an internet connection to phone home once every 24 hours or it presumably bricks itself until you do.

So how often does it check your connection? “Depends on the experience,” Harrison said.

“For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today.”

Oh, how nice of them that your Blu-ray movies “should” be accessible when your internet connection is interrupted.

In return for all of these restrictions, you get to opportunity to… pay full MSRP for all your games! There are no used games for Xbox One, there are simply game disks which will prompt you to pay a “fee” of the full price of the game to play it. Remember when we thought EA eliminating the Online Pass was a gesture of contrition and good will? Surprise! It was cynical bullshit because Microsoft is handling the Online Passes now and adding them to 100% of all future Xbox games.

A lot of the Xbox Apologists have pointed at Steam in making their arguments that things are not so bad. In fact, there is talk that you may be able to sell your used games game licenses to other people on the Xbox Marketplace, in a sort of virtual GameStop setup. Okay… details? If it is true, and assuming you can set your own price, and assuming there isn’t exorbitant fees, then great! We just had to give up renting games, letting your friend borrow your games, and in the case of Steam comparisons, getting 50% discounts on brand new games released just three months ago.

I am not an Xbox customer; I neither bought any of the prior consoles nor plan to purchase this new one. But this sort of shit will affect every one of us. We already see DLC for our PC games delayed because of “Xbox exclusives.” Ports of future Microsoft games could be pulled from Steam just like EA pulled theirs, ostensively so we can have the privilege of paying more money for no conceivable consumer gain. What we see today is what we can expect more of tomorrow – not just from companies like Microsoft, but from everyone who thinks they can get away with it.

And that sucks.