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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.

 

Where Lost Islands Lost Me

skylanders lost islands shot 1

The game I spend the most time with on my iPad is Lost Islands, the free to play Skylanders game from Activision. I don’t usually play free to play games, in fact, with the exception of Jetpack Joyride, I actively avoid them. Lost Islands was another story though, a story with Skylanders in it. Skylanders has three iOS games and a PC game to tie in to the console games, all of which use the figures used in the console games. Cloud Patrol is a shooting gallery game, Battlegrounds is a hex-based, real time action-RPG and Lost Islands is a free to play, kingdom builder. The fact that you can use your figures across all three games made it all the easier to buy more figures for the main game, not that I needed a reason. I mean, come on, this is me. I don’t need reasons to buy toys, but as reasons go, increased utility is a pretty good one.

As I got more figures, my kingdom grew and grew in the usual free to play way. Characters use energy to go on missions, missions that reward them with gold and experience. Gold buys crops which in turn grow more energy. Gold also buys houses which attract Mabu citizens. The more Mabu you have living on your island, the more public buildings you can have. Public buildings and houses grant your kingdom experience. As your kingdom levels up, you can get better houses and better public buildings. As your characters level up, they can go on longer missions that give bigger rewards. Grafted on to all of this is a quest system that rewards you in money, experience and gems, a multi-purpose currency used to buy special buildings, buy new Skylanders and speed up missions and building construction. Finally, there’s a pretty nice “element of the day” mechanic in which Skylanders that match the element of the day get reward bonuses when completing missions and planted crops that match the day’s elements give additional energy.

skylanders lost islands shot 3

Everything was fine up until a week or so ago. I had established equilibrium in my economy, the best trade off between airships and crops, so that my economic engine was humming along quite efficiently. All of my Skylanders had leveled up to level 10, save for the Easter themed Pop Fizz that I won via the game’s wish stone mechanic. I was dutifully working towards level 30, needing only a keep and a Town Hall to finally finish up all of the quests. Once that happened, I was planning on putting the game aside and letting my kingdom crumble to dust. Cruel, I know, but when one sees the end of the tunnel, one doesn’t dwell on what’s on the other side.

A week or so ago, the game got a substantial update that not only added in companions, special residents of your kingdom that allow you to do new things like level up your characters to level 12 and level up your kingdom to level 35 (once you get your characters up to level 12, of course) but it also added a huge number of kingdom quests. Unfortunately, most of these quests involve the same thing, obtaining various items from all of the buildings in your kingdom. Now, I’m no stranger to these quests, having seen them many times before in this game, but this takes things to a whole new level. 200 snow globes from houses, a hundred armor pieces, fifty books from a library that gives up a book once every seven hours, hammers from the blacksmith, water from the waterworks. Worse still, is that there are multiple quests that need different things from the same place, so the pace of completing quests is piddling at best.

Now, I’m not stupid, I know why they did this. You can buy gold and gems with real life money and then use said gold and gems to get through these quests more quickly. This is a free to play game after all, and while I have been able to successfully play the game without shelling out any money other than for figures, figures I was purchasing any way for the sister product, my purchasing habits are not what Activision is hoping for.

skylanders lost islands shot 2

The problem is that I had the end game in sight. Level 30 had been obtained, my keep was under construction and I was on the grind to get enough citizens to get a town hall. I typically don’t have a problem walking away from a game if I’m done with it, but I had put so much time into this kingdom at this point, that it seemed wrong to walk away so close to the end. Now though, I dunno. Now I’m just randomly tapping on buildings, hoping that what I need from it pops out so that I can finish up and have a reason to walk away. If I stick around, I can go up to level 35 and get more buildings which will lead to more quests for more random items and so on, until what? Will it ever end? Is there an end or will the levels just keep going up until Swap Force comes out and they’ll integrate those figures in?

The bottom line is that I need to give myself permission to leave, despite what I’ve got invested. Otherwise, I’ll just be mindlessly tapping, hoping that what I want pops out, when what I really want is freedom.

Fare Thee Well, Outernauts

I’m not one for freemium games, but when Outernauts launched last week I couldn’t resist. I mean, a space Pokemon game made by Insomniac? Sign me up, Facebook be damned. Sure, free to play, or freemium or whatever the hell they’re called may not be my thing, but I love Pokemon, I love Insomniac and I’m fond of space in that it is necessary for our survival.

For the past week, I’ve been able to successfully navigate around Outernauts’ weird, free to play restrictions, but all of that has, unfortunately, come to a screeching halt and all over my inability to do two things. Technically that’s not true. I am unwilling to do one thing, well, two really, and that makes me unable to do another thing.

Come with me, to spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

First of all, let me say up front that if Outernauts were a boxed product, I would buy it. Pokemon is popular because it works and the quests built around capturing beasts in Outernauts help make it more than just a Pokemon clone. Go to this planet and fight a certain kind of beast. Then, go to another planet and fight another type. Along the way, expand your home world so that you can build buildings and train your beasts, or have more more beasts in your party or get more resources for the whole battle-capture-train-battle loop. More importantly, if this were a boxed product, I could conceivably play it as much as I wanted, for however long I wanted.

That restriction right there, was my first stumbling block with the game. The game is based on two things, battling beasts and collecting resources. Your outernaut has a handy shovel that she can use to dig up bushes and snowdrifts and junk piles, all of which will give you money, experience, items and sometimes, more energy. Battling beasts costs three energy units. Battling the game’s enemies costs six energy units. If you run out of energy, you can’t do anything else. To get more energy you can either wait or spend star gems, the game’s only resource purchasable with real money. I’m not sure why they limit your energy, but the Dragon Age Facebook game did something similar, so I’m assuming this is a Facebook thing. Or maybe it’s a freemium thing. Or maybe it’s an EA Facebook freemium thing.

I have to admit, that when I started playing the game, and saw that you purchase star gems with real money, I expected to get about a day’s worth of time out of it before I hit a brick wall with my meager starting selection of gems. That’s not the case here. You can actually go pretty far without spending any gems, more if you’re willing to harass people, which I’ll get to in a minute. The other thing that surprised me is how much these star gems are tied into every aspect of playing this game, and not in ways that I necessarily condone.

I’ve played more than my fair share of free to play games on the iPad and usually, spending real money helps you make progress by giving you currency with which to buy better weapons or gear or whatever. You can certainly do that in this game but you can also use star gems to level up your beasts faster, or give your beasts more than the starting slate of four powers. Want to bring more beasts into battle with you? Spend some star gems. Need to revive a downed monster and you don’t have a revive potion? Spend some star gems? Don’t want to fulfill those quest objectives? Spend some star gems.

Maybe my inner old man is taking over, but I find the notion that you can pay your way to quest completion somewhat unsettling. Sure, people are free to play the game however they want, but what does that say about us as a culture that we can’t be bothered to put in the effort in our leisure activities? I could understand if some of these quests were balls out hard, but they’re not. Similarly, there’s something about using money to make the game easier, not just because you have more resources but because your altering the mechanics that doesn’t sit well with me.

Part of the genius of Pokemon is having a hard limit on both the number of beasts you can bring into battle with you and the number of moves you can know at any one time. Neither of those things are new, RPGs have been limiting perks and party members since paper was first put to pen and 20 sided die clattered across basement tables. These limitations force hard choices and foster experimentation. Who works well with who? What powers compliment my team? How much will I use that new power as opposed to one that I know already works? Now, imagine all of those questions and choices upended with the ability to spend more money. That’s basically what happens here. If you don’t like having only four powers to work with, you can buy four more slots. Unlike Pokemon, where you can capture to your heart’s content and are only limited by how many monsters you can carry with you, this game limits how many beasts you can have captured unless you find resources to build new buildings or, you guessed it, buy more slots.

Which brings me to where my game has ended. I need to expand my home world, but to do that, I need pyrite. The only way to get pyrite is to ask for it from friends. I don’t use Facebook to connect with friends. I use Facebook for, well, I’m not really sure. I don’t like it when people ask me for items for their games and I don’t like it when they send me shit. I find the notion of spamming people with item requests completely odious. Hell, my XBox Live friends list is completely full and I think I can count on one hand the number of people I’d accept a chat request from while I’m playing. That’s how little I can stand communicating with other people when playing games.

In Outernauts, you can’t expand unless you have pyrite and you can’t get pyrite unless you ask for it or spend star gems. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough star gems left, having already spent some to avoid asking my friends for other items in previous quests. Without a larger world, I can’t capture any more monsters, I can’t train the ones I have and I can’t complete the three or four quests that all have to do with constructing buildings and pumping out items. I’m essentially stuck. Sure, I could buy some star gems but who knows how long they’d last me? Forty bucks, which is what a Pokemon game usually goes for, would get me 440 star gems. Maybe that would last me until the end of the game, but probably not. Besides, I have no idea if this game can go on endlessly with new content or if there’s a set end point. I know that the map is pretty big and with as much friend pestering as they’ve asked me to do thus far, I can’t imagine that they’ll back down from it.

And so I’m stuck. No expansion for me, and even if I did, one of my current quests, involving the training of beasts, can only be completed if I receive something as a gift, thereby requiring more friend pestering or spending of real life money. My brief tenure as an outernaut ends on my cramped home planet, surrounded by beasts that I can’t train, and longing for more monsters that I can’t capture.

I know that this game fits right into what freemium is supposed to be, so it’s hard to criticize it for staying true to its purpose, but because I enjoy it so much, I really wish it was self contained so that I could continue my adventure and roam the galaxy looking for new monsters. As it stands now though, I have no guarantees that a sizable star gem purchase would allow me to continue to the end game without having to pay more. More importantly, if I pay for something, I want to play it whenever I want to, within the confines of the platform.

Oh well, Outernauts. It was fun while it lasted. We’ll always have that heady week of space madness to look back on fondly. You gave me something to do while on my lunch hour, new beasts to beat into submission and new and exciting shoveling opportunities. More importantly, you gave me something that I thought I had lost, namely a desire to buy Pokemon Black & White 2 when it comes out in October. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

This Fall, Star Wars: The Old Republic Goes Free to Play

Well this was rather inevitable: Amid stories of dwindling subscriber numbers and months of rumors Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free-to-play this fall (while still maintaining a subscriber option). It’s easy to be snarky and all, “well duh,” about the announcement, but in truth I have to applaud. The Old Republic isn’t a bad game. There’s a whole lot of it that I enjoyed quite a bit, and not just because lightsabers have been and will always be cool. It’s just not, “Here, take $15 of my money every single month,” good. For me, it’s the sort of game you hop into every now and then when there’s nothing else on your plate, and that’s a perfect fit for the free-to-play model. I wouldn’t even mind dumping some money into the game every now and again if I’m playing it a lot in a given week and the benefits seem worth it.

So, how’s this all going to work…

You can check the link above for the full details, but for dedicated players the subscription program isn’t going away. Bioware is turning to a new currency system, referred to as Cartel Coins. Since there’s like eighty other currency forms in the game (the badges), what’s one more? The coins can be used at the Cartel Market to… make purchases of some kind that involve “valuable items, customizable gear, and convenience features that will enhace the game play experience.” Who’d of guessed?

People who stick with the subscription program will get an allotment of Cartel Coins every month, along with access to content for characters over level 50. Free-to-play subscribers will also face some “content restrictions” and miss some “advanced player features.”

Oh EA. You can always be relied upon for unabashedly dishing on the specifics.

As an additional enticement to get players playing now, and not just when it all goes free, there’s another info page showing what’s coming in terms of new in-game content and information on bonuses players will received for continue to pay now (mostly more Cartel Coins to spend). Thanks, but I think I can manage to wait this out. In the fall, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if old Sarevok rides again.

Go on with your bad self.

Might & Magic: Duel of Champions for PC and iPad

Ubisoft is continuing to try to find ways to keep the Might & Magic license relevant, this time with a card game. Now, we all love our card games here at NHS and some of us still enjoy Might & Magic. (I still feel the series peaked with HoMM III but that’s a story for another time.)

Anyway, this card game will be “free to play” which sounds like a potential money sink if you want to get the good cards. PR ahead:

Today, Ubisoft announced the development of Might & Magic Duel of Champions, a new online free-to-play card game. A closed beta of the game is available now in France and other countries and regions will be added to the beta testing in the coming months.

Might & Magic Duel of Champions is being developed by Ubisoft Quebec, and will be available for both Windows® PC and Apple® iPad®. Players can compete against each other online across platforms, and post updates on their progress to Facebook and Twitter from within the game. The game also features an in-game messaging system and other social features.

Might & Magic Duel of Champions includes hundreds of new, detailed, collectible cards all set in the Might & Magic universe. As players develop their skills and strategies, they’ll be pitted against each other in epic battles, challenged to earn new cards and grow the strength and abilities of their chosen hero’s army. Players also can enhance their experience and replenish their card supply by visiting the game’s online store.*

For more information about Might & Magic Duel of Champions please visit: http://www.duelofchampions.com

*DING!