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Brakketology Confronts the Dragon… Despairs

Excalibur Merlin

Look upon the eyes of the dragon and despair. Merlin was, of course, talking to Morgana when he said that, but he could easily have been speaking of game designer and “monetization design consultant” Ethan Levy, who wrote a piece on F2P success at Games Industry Biz. It is insightful, based on sound data, and wholly abhorrent to anyone who actually cares about games. A snippet, cherry-picked to set you against him:

When I compare Arkham Origins to Gods Among Us [ed: the F2P releases, not the “real” games], my sense as a player and a game designer is that NetherRealms has made an undoubtedly better game, but a worse free-to-play product. They have made fundamental changes that will earn them brownie points with gamers wary of free-to-play, but have a negative impact on P&L. Even more damaging is the effect of diverting resources from a top grossing, live game to build a new product. I know from firsthand experience how difficult hiring talented team members can be in a competitive space like mobile game development. But by shifting resources instead of growing the overall mobile team to support multiple games (which I assume is the case solely based on the credits) Warner Bros. has not only delivered a lower performing product, they have missed months’ worth of opportunity to add new features to Injustice that would grow player base and profitability.

I bang my anti-F2P drum on, very nearly, a weekly basis. This kind of stuff is why. These games aren’t games. Games are creative expressions and therefor are art forms. They may often be very low art, but they are creative endeavors and while there is money to be made (nor can they be made without it), you are not making great games if your primary design axiom is built on how you get players to stop in the middle of what they’re doing and fork over more money, and then do so again a session or two later (and again, and again). And that, of course, is F2P’s problem. When games are designed and built to get you coming back to the feeder bar as much as possible without getting too pissed off to abandon the title outright then they are no longer games of any substance or worth. If you eat, sleep, and breathe that business, then you’re not Satan exactly, but you are the guy who goes into the corner store to buy Satan a pack of cigarettes. (Points for you if you know where I’ve stolen that line from.)

Make us a good game, rather than a nickel and dime delivery system, and we’ll pay you for it. Speaking of real games…

Captain’s log, long-range scanners reveal Teh Awesumz! For months after FTL’s release I dropped by the FTL site/forums to see if there’s news about what it’s creators are up to. I eventually stopped. So it figures that now they pop up with not only a new, free mega-update for the PC version, but also news that an iOS version is coming (both in January). The new additions include:

Mind Control System: Temporarily turn enemies into allies. Force a boarder to repair the damage they just did, or have the enemy pilot sabotage their own helm.

Hacking System: Lockdown and disrupt enemy systems. Unique effects for each system, ranging from forcing a teleporter remove boarders to making the medbay damage instead of heal.

New Sector and Events: Our writer Tom Jubert (http://tom-jubert.blogspot.co.uk/) has returned along with special guest writer Chris Avellone (of Planescape fame), who managed to find some time for us between his work onProject Eternity and Wasteland 2. They’ve been helping us add a new sector and scatter new events throughout the rest of the game.

New Weapons and Effects: Many new weapons that take advantage of new mechanics: overcharging to increase the number of volleys, stun effects to freeze crew, and area effect targeting, to name a few.

And more systems, drones, augments, enemy ships, enemy layouts, and hostile environments. All of which we’ll be sure to talk about more in the coming weeks!

Picture the free-to-play version of this game and think about how awful it would be. I can see it now; in the middle of a pitched battle, FTL sticks out its hand to ask you for real world money if you want to upgrade your ship’s armor or put out that fire in the med-bay. Sounds like a winner, doesn’t it?

Well crap. I have Enemy Within loaded up on my PC, but haven’t gotten into it yet. I’ve been concern-trolling for months, however, that the whole national panic level versus satellites versus adequate funds balance was at risk of tipping straight over because of all the extra stuff in the expansion; if, that is, Firaxis didn’t go through and thoroughly re-balance the thing. Based on Alec Meer’s review of the expansion it doesn’t sound like they did:

I’ve said this before, but I think the need for rapid, expensive and slow satellite coverage is the weakest part of XCOM. It requires too much, and obtaining those things is too convoluted

It’s deeply illogical, it involves dependency upon dependency upon dependency, and it means that not prioritising satellites over everything else early in the game can lead to an inescapable early game-over later on. This is due to the still-aggravating fact you’re not allowed to carry out all Terror missions when they come up, but instead must choose one of three, and thus have no choice but to increase panic in not just the nations whose missions you couldn’t do, but every nation in the same continent. Too much panic means a nation drops out of funding you, and as well as this limiting your teching up, if enough nations drop out it’s game over. A mess, and not a hot one at that.

So yes, the new upgrades do complicate that fudged system further, but not dramatically – just be mindful that your resources will be stretched more thinly, and try to concentrate on getting more satellites up before you succumb to the temptation of super-soldiers.

Now, to provide full context, Meer clearly doesn’t think it’s a deal-breaker for the expansion, which he’s largely positive on. (This is understatement, it’s a very positive review.) To me, this isn’t a killer, but it remains very worrisome. The satellite/terror level stuff is the weakest part of the game from a conception/implementation standpoint and if there’s nothing there to make it work better and smarter, that’s not a game-killer, necessarily, but it is disappointing.

New recipe, same ingredients. Also, as long as I’m pimping Mr. Meer’s work so slovenly, be sure to check out his review of Burial at Sea Part 1 (of 2), the Bioshock Ininite DLC. Well worth the read. I’ll get to that at some point, but I already wish it didn’t feature more of this:

But as with Columbia, the problem is the attempt to have the monsters co-exist with the men and women of a supposedly functioning city. Infinite’s approach was to simply clear the stage of non-violent life whenever weapons were wielded – a clean switch for sure, and some have defended it as an open admission that the place was consciously a theme park rather than a community, but for me it meant great dissonance. Where is everyone going to? How can the people in this part of the city be so content and unworried when two minutes away there are crazy bastards and open conflict everywhere?

Sadly, Burial At Sea’s long-awaited demonstration of Rapture at its opulent peak pulls the same trick; whether it’s one of technological necessity or deliberate design I of course do not know.

 

Banners raised. Banner Saga is coming out January 14th. Funded at 7x it’s target goal, it’s not like the game suffered for my having failed to back it, but I always meant to. It looks phenomenal. From the release date announcement:

What’s left to do? We’ll be spending an appropriate amount of time on playtesting, polish and balance. We’ve been getting help from a QA house to help us find and write bugs because the game has become both long and complex at this point. What we originally envisioned as a 6 hour game is probably closer to 15+ hours on the first playthrough, and all the branching variables and additional systems are time-consuming to test. We’ll also be playing through the game a lot to get combat balance in as good a state as we can. Lastly, you may have heard this before, but polish is the difference between a good game and a great game in our minds. Personal touches, transitions and making sure that everything is finely polished is really important to us. For example, we’ve added procedural snow, random events in travel, items in combat, an interactive world map, every godstone in the game and tons of new characters and classes.

Is this cool? It seems like it should be cool. There’s a fresh Kickstarter project, Eon Altar, that I bring up here precisely because I can’t decide if it’s the next neato idea for lovers of pen and paper RPGing or if it’s just kinda lame. Flying Helmet games is looking to sell you on the idea that in-person RPGing can be fun if we all gather ’round a tablet for a little vintagy RPG action and then use our phones to manage our characters.

Among the problems I see from watching this video: That’s not a tablet they’re on, well not in the traditional sense. That looks like a small TV/laptop screen. I could see this being cool with that and everyone else on their personal tablet sized screen. But my 10″ iPad surrounded by a bunch of dudes on their smartphones? That’s a tougher sell in my mind. Also, isn’t part of the boon of getting your buddies together around a table is that it doesn’t involve a screen? Call me a Luddite, but I don’t see my Pathfinder group going to this. Also, the DM is really, really central to this experience and that appears to be wholly missing here. Also, also, pre-generated characters, even if you can customize to your heart’s content, strikes me as counter to whole pen & paper experience.

Trust in Guido? I’ll forgive you for not knowing the name of Guido Henkel, but if you were ever a fan of the Realms of Arkania games, or if you thought Planescape: Torment was a jolly good piece of design, make a point of checking out his new project Deathfire: Ruins of Nethermore.

Looks like a bit like Legends of Grimrock, only more involved, which I’m not writing off, but doesn’t make me want to jump in line with my wallet open. (I liked Grimrock as a fun notalgia trip, but it wasn’t long-lived on my PC.) Like Shroud of the Avatar, it’s not something I’ll fund, but it’s a project worth watching.

RPS 1,372, Microsoft 0. This evisceration of Microsoft’s latest, “No, we love PC gamers, we really do,” is a thing of beauty.

XB1 launch apps. There are lists everywhere. Here’s the one from Joystiq, broken down by region. Wasn’t there supposed to be an Xfinity app? What gives?

Holy shit, you guys! Marvel is creating, and delivering via Netflix, four new live-action superhero series. Those series will feature Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage. Then they’ll all come together for a Defenders series. Among the many things out there in the universe that are awesome, this so totally ranks.

Speaking of Marvel, Thor 2 is a super-happy-fun-good-time. It’s not without its darker moments, and you can poke holes in it if you must, but it’s like Avengers in that it brings the joy of superheroes to the screen without resorting to god-awful, screen-winking camp. Also, Loki.

Sports journalism lives! Or at least when it comes from the pen of Grantland’s Andrew Sharp, who’s story, The Miami Dolphins and Everything That Will Never Make Sense, is well worth your reading time.

On a note only tangentially related to bullying, but wholly related to football, I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy watching the sport. I’ve been a fan of football for over 35 years. My dad starting taking me to Michigan games at four years old (dear god is that Michigan offense awful), but the volume of data coming out about CTE and its potential to destroy the very identity of the players who participate is beyond alarming. I know these guys, at the pro level, are not forced to play and they are generally well paid, but just knowing what these guys are doing to each other out there makes enjoying the sport difficult and, in the end, that’s what will kill it.

My son doesn’t have the size or temperament for organized football, but even if he did, not in a million years would I allow him to play. With the NFL the undisputed king of American sports, it’s hard to envision a day when it’s as irrelevant to the sports landscape as boxing, but it will be. Eventually fewer and fewer parents will let their kids participate and the game’s feeder pipe will run dry, as the most gifted and talented athletes of their generations instead lend their abilities to other sports. The NFL knows this, which is why they are in tobacco-company levels of denial and cover-up.

 

Brakketology Is Out of Its Element

Big Lebowski Reunion

This is from my buddy’s annual best of its breed Halloween party last weekend. Call it an unofficial and wholly fictional Big Lebowski reunion tour. On one hand, being asked to be Donny is both A) uninspiring – I mean how do you replicate Steve Buscemi’s look in that movie? Guy wears bowling shirts and Dockers. Done. And B) debilitating to one’s soul, because you know you’ll spend the entire evening being told, “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

On the other hand, this collection is incomplete without Donny and these dear friends of mine did an unbelievable job replicating Jesus, Walter, and The Dude. Walter in particular is just an eerie likeness. Also, given A and B, there may be no one else in the world, and certainly not in my social circle, better-suited to manning the role. That may be a dubious distinction, but if you’ve got it, own it, right? Plus, as a collection this is completely awesome.

On to business. In this week’s Brakketology rock lives, Mythic’s free-to-play designers ruin beloved franchises, Enemy Within gets some hands-on time, there’s more Xbox One/PS4 comparing and contrasting, and Star Citizen is the game that refuses to take “no” for an answer.

Rock and Roll Will Never Die. I was as big a Guitar Hero (1/2)/Rock Band stalwart as anybody, but despite a recent resurgence at said Halloween party this past weekend, the fad has ebbed and now my collection of plastic instruments –instruments that in no way replicate the experience of playing music– sit in my basement awaiting the inevitable day that they’re moved out completely. There is something in me, though, something that yearns for the notion of game and actual guitar teaching to work well together. I never gave Rocksmith (or that other game I don’t recall) a serious look, but Rocksmith 2014 is now upon us and I’ll be damned if Sean Sands’ deep dive into it at GWJ doesn’t make me want to let slip a couple hundred bucks and dive in. Where is that pesky willpower when you need it?

Console War. FIGHT! If you’ve already taken up sides on the XBox One versus Playstation 4 tempest (in a teacup), this Edge Online article isn’t going to sway you, but it’s a nice even-handed look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two consoles (at the hardware level) with some cogent thought put into how messaging (and lack thereof) has played into the equation so far. Lots of good quotes from people at Microsoft and from developers.

“Of course [the company’s messaging problems] hurt in the short term,” says Ken Lobb, partner creative director at Microsoft Game Studios. ”We’re not blind, right? Did they hurt in the long run? We’re going to have to find out after we launch. We knew what we were going to do with indies. We knew what we were doing with Killer Instinct. But when someone comes in and asks a question about something we’ve decided we’re intentionally not going to talk about until a certain date, sometimes you get half answers. There’s no such thing as perfect PR.”

Well, unless you’re Sony. (I can’t believe I just typed that.) Speaking of the One, here’s a demo video of the dashboard. Although it is more frenetic than a coked-out squirrel, being the one guy who’s less interested in the games than the everything else it does, the responsiveness and multimedia capabilities are of interest to me.

It Is What We Thought it Was. Rich Stanton’s Eurogamer review of Ultima Forever went up back in September, but I’ve only just come across it. I spent roughly 10 minutes with this abomination of F2P horror and Ultima bastardization and never launched it again. I never wrote about it because, well, what can I authoritatively say about something after 10 minutes other than it clearly wasn’t for me. But Rich played more. He’s a braver man than me. And was likely paid to. I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world for an Ultima fan to have to endure this:

In the dungeons, and also in every town, are chests. Here’s where things really go south. Ultima Forever’s currency is keys. Bronze keys you get constantly, and 18 of these can be smooshed into six silver keys. Gold keys are the rarity. These get you the best loot from chests, open inventory slots, allow you to use a second ability at once, and pretty much everything else of any consequence. Did you get that? Basic things like a second spell slot are locked behind paywalls. And not only that – you have to pay to unlock these things separately for each character. Your key balance is shared across your account, but not what you buy. Another sneaky touch is that Ultima Forever sells silver key bundles starting at 69p, but the minimum purchase price for gold keys is £6.99.

How did this happen? The short version is, “who gives a damn.” I mean obviously Mythic is making games for other people. I’m not sure who those other people are, but there are surely two or three of them out there. The longer version is birthed in the attitude of EA and Mythic, given voice in a mid-October interview at Pocketgamer with Dungeon Keeper for iOS senior producer Jeff Skalski, who said this:

“If you want to play Dungeon Keeper or Dungeon Keeper 2, go to Good Old Games and download them,” the senior producer tells us. “I’m not trying to recreate those games. This is not Dungeon Keeper 3. This is not a PC game for mobile. We’re not trying to build the game like it’s 1999,” he says. “We want to make a Dungeon Keeper experience that’s right for this platform, so there were things that we just had to change”.

This is called violating Bill Harris’ first rule of public speaking: Don’t be a dick. I realize, Jeff, you probably weren’t trying to be a dick. You were probably overtired and maybe even having a bad day and the words probably sounded less offensive in your head than they do in an article. And yes, you’re very correct that you’re not just recreating those games. But you also have to understand that if you’re putting the name on it, you are supposed to be recreating the spirit of those experiences. Everyone and their brother knows stuff has to change when you start designing for mobile. But, see, that’s not what the problem is either. The problem is you’re designing for free-to-play and that is a model that ruins every decent gameplay concept it touches. So, you can act be as exasperated with Mythic’s critics as you like, it doesn’t change the fact that the F2P games almost universally suck and when you force that model on some very much-loved franchises it kills what people loved about them. That tends to piss people off. If you want the safety of obscurity that these types of games so richly deserve (to be obscure, that is), your bosses need to put a name on them that nobody cares about. Until that day, however, endure the criticism. It is earned.

Enemy Within Gets Buzzed. RPS posted a boatload of impressions based on hands-on time with XCOM: Enemy Within. Despite the section I’m about to quote, the tenor is very nearly universally positive (and it’s fantastic to see Mr. Meer’s voice back at RPS). But then there’s this here bit I’m about to quote:

The game does feel a little cluttered now, in terms of the amount of things that need researching and building slow things down enormously – which wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for the matter of keeping the XCOM project’s funding nations happy. With all my cash and efforts going into Mechs and gene-splicing, it’s much more tricky to raise the capital and staff needed to build more satellites and Interceptor kit. I had four nations back out in my second in-game month, which wasn’t because I’d fouled up any missions but because I couldn’t erect enough satellite dishes – which as you may remember also entails building enough relays and power generators and lifts and excavations – in time to offest their rising panic from the terror missions I wasn’t able to do. Still, it is feasible enough to get by, but my point is that all the new stuff – colourful and varied and silly and strategic – both steals focus from and really shows up weaknesses in the base-management aspect of XCOM.

This is exactly the kind of thing I’m worried about. Balancing base funding and mission selection with the state of nations and their terror level was already a rather frustrating experience. It’s good in that it forces you to make difficult decisions, but it also feels rather plastic and punitive after awhile. Anything that makes resource allocation at this level of the game more difficult or punitive, without re-balancing the whole darned thing, strikes me as a particularly bad move.

Sidenote: The PA Report preview of the game notes that your soldiers can also earn medals based on unique combat actions. That, combined with the fact that you can rename them whatever you want, could be pretty cool.

Ever More Star Citizen Hype. They just passed an absurd $25 million in funding. There’s a new trailer. Despite the focus on online gameplay (which I keep having to remind myself I don’t give a fig about), this is getting harder and harder to resist. I don’t want to give them my money yet. I told myself I would wait for the final product. Resistance failing.

You’re Like a Child That Wanders into a Room. Finally, if you have no frame of reference for The Big Lebowski portion of this post, I give you this (NSFW: language):

One of the all-time great movies. And if you disagree, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Brakketology: Summer’s Over Edition

DAInquisition

Labor Day has come and gone and the last time I penned anything we lived in a world where I could go 48 hours without hearing anything about Miley Cyrus. I didn’t even know what twerking was. Yes, it was a happier, simpler time. But fall is coming and I’m here with renewed vigor to, like, write things and stuff. (Said vigor may least three weeks or three years, get your bets in now!)

After the break, lots of stuff from the past week summarized for your edification…

Dragon Age 3. Now with 100% More Origins. And 150% More Mass Effect 3! RPS saw the game. They wrote things. (Along with about a billion other hosers.) Many promising things that you should go read, but let me snip this one small chunk from them:

Tales of Grey Wardens and blights are in history now, with the world facing a new threat – a Fade Rift. The Fade is the magical realm that exists alongside our own, filled with horrors and abominations. It is the place with which mages are most in touch, and hence why mages are so feared and vilified in the world. And now it’s torn open, and all manner of beasties are pouring in. And that’s trouble.

However, rather oddly, little seems to be being done about it. Each clan of people, each enclaved race, seems extraordinarily wrapped up in their own disasters, and none is able to tackle the Fade troubles as well. And BioWare were keen for us to know that this just seems a little bit too convenient. So you, whomever you might decide to be (and this time out that can be Human, Elf, Dwarf or new to Inquisition, Qunari), are heading up a new Inquisition, to Get. Shit. Done.

Put in Mass Effect terms, you’re a Spectre and you have to unite the Salarians and the Rodians and the Romulans to combat the Reapers. Yes, the next paragraph (follow the link, follow the link, follow the link) says this isn’t the case, but not with any facts. They’ve got a “just trust us on this” from producer, Cameron Lee. I think Bioware used up all their trust when they told us Dragon Age II was a full on sequel, but perhaps I’m just being catty.

On the non-catty side of the fence, tactical overhead view in combat is evidently back (YES!), there is not auto-healing between battles (m’kay), and locations won’t scale their difficulty to your level (YES!). These are things you should be excited about.

Is the Enemy Within Firaxis Itself? You people know how much I love XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I love it so much I eventually caved and stopped using a hyphen in the title. They earned it. This trailer and some of the things I’ve read about the recently announced expansion, Enemy Within, however, have me wary. Sure, I’m glad international troops will have international voice sets, etc., but augmentation canisters on levels that self-destruct if you don’t reach them in time? Is that a bridge that’s just entirely too… gamey? It feels like it. As do the mechs in this entirely too action-packed trailer. Enemy Unknown wasn’t an action game and marketing it like one strips away the qualities that make it unique and awesome. I’ll keep my mind open until it comes out in November, but yellow flags raised and all that.

Outlook Cloudy. Ask us Later. Microsoft is telling people they absolutely will support external storage for the Xbox One. Just not at lunch and, no, please don’t ask us how long you’ll have to wait. Next question. This is the natural evolution of the release now, patch later mentality that began with PC games roughly 20 years ago. It’s filtered through to console games and is now infecting game consoles themselves. (Isn’t the Wii U still promising features that buyers should have had at launch?) How about you guys call me when you’re done fiddling and the console is really complete and maybe then I’ll consider giving you my money… if you throw in a pack of doughnuts and a hooker. (Disclaimer to fiancee: Said hooker is not for me, I swear!)

Consider Yourself Teased. It’s an actiony Space Hulk game. It has a teaser. It’s also from Focus Home and Cyanide (two companies with spotty track records) and Streum (a company with no track record to me). Given that, showing a pre-rendered space marine stomping around buys you… nothing really.

Balder’s Gate 2 Gets Enhanced. Joystiq says it’s coming November 15th. The first game’s Enhanced Edition demonstrated to me that the Infinity Engine isn’t remotely well-suited enough to iOS to have been worth what I spent on the iPad version. It’s still a terrific PC game, though. For one of my favorite games of all time, I’m willing to buy again from Trent Oster’s crew of merry rebuilders.

Star Citizen. Cash Cow. Having now been funded to the tune of $17 million, I’m starting to regret paying not attention to the game whatsoever. My wallet is in my hand, Mr. Roberts. Dare I pull out more wads of cash for you?

Short, Short Reviews. Bill just wrote about Gone Home and Occult Chronicles. I’ve played both and my opinion can be summed up thusly: What he said.

In Summation. Brakketology as a recurring name at the top of this column. Lame or incredibly lame?