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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.

YouTube video

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.

YouTube video

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):

YouTube video

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

Tuesday Pontificat’n – The Ownership is Overrated Edition

Gamestop Used Games

So, a few more cards are now on the table. I’m not going to write much (this time) about the console themselves. Matt already did a fantastic job assessing each company’s sales pitch. Do go read it, if you haven’t yet. (What I find interesting is that in a generation where both platforms are based on x86 architecture, they’ve certainly found ways to wholly differentiate themselves. Bravo!) What I’ve found fascinating to watch since the initial One unveiling and in the wake of Monday’s E3 press conferences is this love affair we all seem to be having with game “ownership,” now that console gamers everywhere are terrified of losing it.

Right now, the One’s current feature list has precisely one deal-breaker for me. The once every 24-hour check-in required for me to keep access to my games library is a non-starter. It’s a poison pill that will kill the console and I’d be shocked –SHOCKED!– if this policy doesn’t change by release (or within the first year). Take that away, however, and much of the vitriol directed towards the Xbox One has to do with the fact that it’s a blatant attempt to end the era in which we “own” our games, thus killing off the used game market as we know it. This is troubling to people who feel they’ve done quite well by its existence — Gamestop, people saving $5 on a used game, people spending $60 on a game knowing they can get a chunk back for their next purchase by turning it around right quick. It’s been a decent ride for you folks and Sony is shrewd to make continued embrace of this model a marketing point for the PS4. It’s still all going to end, though. It’s a matter of time.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the PS4 flops and when it goes, the used game market evaporates with it. (I do not think the PS4 will flop.) Do I feel for you that it’s going away? Not really. I’m a PC gamer, man. My hobby has all but already transitioned to this whole license purchasing thing. Yes there are solid alternatives, like GoG, but Steam owns the PC gaming roost and, with it, we stopped “owning” most of our games quite a while ago. And you know what? We’re all getting on just fine that way. In fact, our platform of choice is thriving, thank you very much.

Take away the check-ins and the only thing particularly new about what the One is purported to do is that it still wants the disc to be a part of the equation. I realize that’s important to your Gamestops and Best Buys, but why on earth would I buy the disc just to install it on my console and never touch it again? Why wouldn’t I just download the game as I do on Steam? (Yes, yes, exceptions for gamers not living in a broadband world. The One’s already bending you over anyway.)

Whether the One’s model works or not will depend entirely on the same thing Steam’s model relies on — offering value. Steam isn’t the harbinger of doom. It’s not an enabler for a draconian future of oppressed gaming. It’s a service that successfully offered PC gamers a trade-off. I agree to ditch the cardboard box and plastic disc and tie my games to a personal account that Valve owns and in return I get convenience (purchasing games from home), easy access on any PC device I own, and dirt cheap bargains on existing catalog. This is all good enough for me (and a hoard of others), even if I do still miss good manuals… but those went bye-bye a long time ago.

(Please note that this post has nothing to do with game quality and the impossibilities of AAA game development. That’s another story, one I’ve been railing about for quite some time. Games shown off for the One at the E3 presser that I care about? Zero.)

EDIT: Check that. One. Witcher 3. Which I’ll play on the PC.

What it comes down to is that I can’t muster up much Internet-rage about finding ways to preserve the Culture of Ownership. More and more I feel like it’s mainly out of habit that we care so much about having ownership of such highly disposable products. For most of my life (and yours too, I’d imagine), media-based entertainment has required the acquisition of things. Music on cassette or CD (or vinyl or 8-track). Games on floppy or optical disc. Movies on cassette or optical disc. You bought it, you owned it forever or until you sold it or gave it away.

Forever.

There was something comforting in that fallacy. And make no mistake, it is a fallacy. Media gets damaged or degrades. Tech gets abandoned. It all goes eventually. And that’s okay.

I’m about to be 39 years old. When I was a wee lad playing Starflight, Wasteland, and earlier Ultimas all the way until my relatively recent adulthood I have believed that my life would be incomplete if I couldn’t go back and access these games whenever I wanted. What if 65 year old me wants to become the Avatar One. More. Time? What if nobody ever makes another good fantasy D&D game like Baldur’s Gate II? I want my kids to have these experiences! I need these games to be a part of my future! AHHHH!

Hogwash.

Sure, it’s nice to have a few choice titles on the shelf to be nostalgic about, but we don’t need to carry this stuff with us. None of it. Ownership of our media is overrated. And console fans should know that better than anybody. When was the last time you fired up a game for the original Xbox or Sega Genesis? Console games have always come with expiration dates. Not owning discs is not going to destroy gaming any more than the rise of legally downloadable MP3s destroyed music. What’s really happening right now is that the ecosystem surrounding how you purchase and play games is changing.

I remember a period in my young adult life when I would go to music shops with my buddies and pour through the used CD sections. Most of those stores are gone now and of those that remain, I really couldn’t be less interested in browsing all those scratched and cracked jewel cases. It wasn’t the apocalypse. Apple came along with the iTunes store and I thought it sucked so I ignored it and then Amazon came along with a better offering (MP3s and legitimate deals on whole albums) and I thought, “This works for me.” And it worked for a lot of people, so much so that iTunes adjusted their model too. I ended up buying and downloading a whole lot more $5 albums, at far better value than the new or used CD market offered, than I ever had in my life. And then Spotify came along and my album buying habit has all but ceased because I can pretty much call up whatever I want, whenever I want, and it doesn’t cost me a dime. True, I could lose access to all that stuff on Spotify tomorrow, but if I did, what have I really lost? The music isn’t going to go away. It’ll come out in some other form or factor and if the value proposition is good enough then I’ll adopt it. If it doesn’t, I’ll move on to something else.

And, you know what? Most people know and understand that. This isn’t really about the sanctity of the used games market. It’s about value. What really bothers people is that used games have been the place for console gamers to get value in a market that pathologically overestimates the value of games. I get it. Just don’t confuse the two. Getting value isn’t tied to the existence of used games. The Xbox One? Maybe it’ll provide a good value proposition for gamers and maybe it won’t. It probably won’t right away. But if it doesn’t, something else will and people will flock to that. Nature abhors a vacuum.

We talk all the time about how publishers need to “get with the times,” but there are times, and this is one of them, when we, as gamers, need to do the same. Yes, absolutely lobby for your rights to get good value for your gaming dollar! I’m not advocating that you throw money at bad value. (Read: the host of “shitty” dudebro games MS expected us to salivate over at the E3 presser.) Just don’t make the used game corner of your local outlet the rallying cry for your rights as a consumer. That’s a red herring. The days of you going into said shop, saying “hey” to the friendly bloke behind the register, and grabbing something off the new release shelf or browsing the used games collection? Those days are ending, just as they are for music and film purchases. And, yes, there are good things we’re going to lose when it goes, but no one ever said change was a wholly positive thing. There are costs and benefits to all change, but ideally the benefits outweigh the costs. Most often, they do. It’s precisely what motivates this sort of change.

The world is moving on. And if the world of gaming evolves into something that doesn’t interest you? Big whoop. You’ll find something else to be interested in. One thing we’re not short of in modern society is diversions. These aren’t things that require outcry, merely an even-minded assessment of the value of your entertainment and an understanding that times change. In the meantime, I’m casting off the shackles of ownership. There comes a point where having possessions means that they start owning you instead. Tossing all my game boxes and plastic discs, all this “stuff,” to the side in favor of on-demand versions of the same products that I can access where and when I want, even if I don’t truly “own” them, doesn’t make me feel repressed. It makes me feel free.

Sony Flips You All the Bird (Maybe)

Hey great news from Kotaku! The PS4 is codenamed Orbis! How cool is that? I know I love knowing the code names of the new consoles. Torch, Rolling Thunder, Market Garden, Overlord, Cobra, Dumbo Drop. Awesome stuff. And it’s pinged for holiday 2013. Mark your calenders…when you buy a 2013 calendar, which will likely be months from now.

Kotaku goes on about the name–the trees of life or something-rather. When I think Orbis I think of Orbitz, the travel booking site which in turn makes me think of Travelocity which makes me think of that funny little yard gnome in the commercials.

Sadly, there is more news to report aside from this naming business. They mention the specs which I could not care less about. I am sure it’ll be fast and pretty. Ps3 games will not run on Orbitz. I do care about that. That kind of sucks.

And then the hammer is dropped and my playful snarky-ness vanishes as it’s revealed that used games will be met with much scorn.

Here’s how our main source says it’s currently shaping up: new games for the system will be available one of two ways, either on a Blu-Ray disc or as a PSN download (yes, even full retail titles). If you buy the disc, it must be locked to a single PSN account, after which you can play the game, save the whole thing to your HDD, or peg it as “downloaded” in your account history and be free to download it at a later date.

Don’t think you can simply buy the disc and stay offline, though; like many PC games these days, you’ll need to have a PSN account and be online to even get the thing started. If you then decide to trade that disc in, the pre-owned customer picking it up will be limited in what they can do. While our sources were unclear on how exactly the pre-owned customer side of things would work, it’s believed used games will be limited to a trial mode or some other form of content restriction, with consumers having to pay a fee to unlock/register the full game.

Drinks are on me.

Three Orange Whips?