War Never
Changes
Mar 22
Posted by Ben at 17:36

This post kind of leads on to a future post, but I need to write this one first. It's also inspired by a conversation with a 20 year old, so as Mark has already pointed out, it's basically just a man reacting to the encroachment of age.

The 20 year old, for whatever reason because I've never really spoken to him about games before, decided to tell me that he was going to buy a PS2. I asked him why, he said he's always had a soft spot for the PS2 because it was his first console, back when he was 4.

Fuck all 20 year olds.

That started a thought worm tunnelling through my brain, one that resurfaced a few days later on a completely different tangent. All of a sudden I remembered the start of this generation. I know fanboyism is never going away, I know the launch of a console brings out the worst of people, but it was like people had never seen a new console before. I remember the conversations around it, I may even have started (possibly even finished) a God Mode On post about it, that the reason it felt like people's first new console generation is because it was, for many people, their first new console generation. If at 11 years old, rather than the hand me down consoles you've been putting up with/grateful for in the past, you're finally able to pick your console of choice for christmas or your birthday. If you get a 360 at launch, you're then 20 years old before the PS4 launches.

it got me thinking about my console history, and the sheer number of consoles that have come and gone over the years, particularly in the 1990s.Without checking, and sporadically including handhelds to make my point look a bit better, off the top of my head; The Master System 2 (included because it was an important release here in the UK), the Mega Drive, Snes, Neo Geo, Amiga CD 32, Atari Jaguar, Atari Lynx, Game Gear, Mega CD, 32X, CDi, PS1, N64, Saturn, Neo Geo Pocket, and of course, the Sega Dreamcast. I’m missing some, loads probably, but I’m fairly sure all of those came out during the 1990s. If you compare that to the 12 years since the Xbox 360 released; The aforementioned Xbox 360, the PS3, the Wii, the 3DS, the Vita, the WiiU, the PS4, and the Xbox One. You can throw in a couple of forgettable Android machines like the Gamestick, there was also the Gizmondo, OnLive if that counts. It’s no comparison really.

There’s probably multiple causes for this shrinking of the market, in terms of choice at least. Costs and budgets have risen, I think that’s probably the obvious one, but I think the biggest reason is that the divergent videogame market of the 1980s began to converge in the 1990s. Home computers died out in favour of the unified Windows PC platform, those companies choosing instead to enter the console race, which is fine, both Microsoft and Sony have shown late entrants can succeed, and it’s probably worth remembering the PS1, Sony’s entrant in to the console market, prior to launch wasn’t initially looked at much differently from the likes of the Atari Jaguar, so many consoles had we seen fall by the wayside.

So when it struck me, and many others, how odd people’s reaction to the launch of this generation had been, how it seemed like they’d never experienced a good old-fashioned console war before, it’s because they probably hadn’t. The 20 year old I mentioned, granted he apparently mainly plays on PC, will have played on his PS2 from the age of 4, then presumably got a 360 for Christmas, aged 10 or 11 (main present of course), then nothing. He’s a kid, or was at least, he was in no position to buy a 2nd or third console, whatever console he had he would have had to stick with.

It’s a phenomenon that’s going to get worse I think. The next few years doesn’t seem like it will include a new handheld from Sony, it might, they’ve done stupider stuff, but not many. In fact we might not even see a 3DS successor from Nintendo, they seem to want to keep the 3DS plodding along for as long as they can, the Vita does still get the odd game too, I’m fine with that, I like both handhelds and am not itching for a new one, but I think we will need at least one sooner rather than later. The model for both Sony and Microsoft seems to be giving their current consoles a shot in the arm. I’m not against that model, I like my PS4 Pro, it sort of feels like the console the PS4 should have been in the first place, and I can see many baulking at the thought of buying another one of the same, but it does seem to suggest we’re in for a long generation. It’s feasible that this could be the longest generation yet, and we’ll have another generation that doesn’t know what they’re doing when the console war starts again

Header Image: HERE
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'tis the Season

Feb 15
Posted by Mark at 19:11

I bloody love Game of Thrones. It's the best thing.

Every week when the series is running I like nothing more than sitting down in front of the TV to watch these brilliant, well-formed characters played by the best actors working in television absolutely at the top of their game as the deep and engaging story twists and turns, aided by the some of the best production money can buy from their location filming to the CGI special effects.

And the thing is, you don't get that sort of thing anywhere else. I tried watching that Jersey Shore when it was on MTV and it's just not for me. If you've not seen it, it's a reality show about people getting drunk in nightclubs then going home and having sex and/or a blazing row. Okay, GoT has more than its fair share of drinking and shagging but it all serves part of a wider narrative in a way that it doesn't in this.

Either way, Jersey Shore isn't for me. It doesn't offer me what GoT does. Similarly a lot of what makes Jersey Shore what it is is absent from Thrones, and that's what I appreciate about it, and I'm sure the reverse is true.

And you know? That's fine. I don't think they're making Jersey Shore any more, but I'm sure MTV're making something in a similar vein, and if they want to run nothing but Jersey Shorealikes, that's equally fine. I don't blame them- it's cheap to make, and MTV get a hell of a return on their investment. MTV are a business, and Shore is good business.

So they want to fill MTV 2 with it, that's equally OK, and if they want to launch MTV 3, 4, 5, all the way up to MTV 100 and show nothing but wall-to-wall Jersey Shore on all of it that's absolutely A-OK, so long as I've got my HBO and my Game of Thrones. You all do you, I'll be over here.

-

So it turns out that HBO have announced that the next series of Game of Thrones is taking a bit of a turn. It's not going to be set in the fantasy land of Westeros at some undefined point in what we'd call "The Past" any more, it's going to be set in the modern-day, real world. And instead of being a scripted drama, it's going to be a reality show. About people getting drunk in a nightclub.

And they're also turning Westworld into a shitty mobile Gacha game.

Nintendo's recent announcement that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is going to have a Season Pass has been met with widespread disappointment, from myself as much as anybody else. The reason it's been met with such, is because they've done exactly the above.

As with most criticism that comes from within gaming, there's been an equally loud- if not louder- attempt at shutting the criticism out, mostly by accusing the people of complaining of all sorts of things simply for the act of criticising, but occasionally by coming out with counterpoints that are not incorrect, but also not particularly relevant.

"But business!" cries the journalist. "All the other games companies have been doing it for ages!" exclaims the random on social media. "It's not even the first Nintendo game with DLC!", follows up the smartarse who thinks they've pre-empted the counterargument. "There is such a thing as good DLC!" says someone who's missed the point spectacularly.

Yes, Nintendo are a business and they've have had a hard time of it in the last few years, and the Season Pass model is proven to work as a moneymaker. Equally, the notion that Season Passes are widespread is unequivocally true- a cursory search of XBox One suggests there's 64 of them already, for games as recent as Sniper Elite 4 and For Honor, which only came out this week. Nintendo games have had DLC, even Zelda spinoff Hyrule Warriors (which itself had a Season Pass) and Mario Kart 8's DLC is often cited as a good example of DLC being done right.

All of these points are very true, and nobody is saying otherwise.

But we can make similar points of reality TV, it's good business, it's not a new format (Big Brother started nearly seventeen years ago) HBO- or at least its parent company Warner Brothers- is responsible for The Bachelor, amongst other shows and the first series of The Genius is probably one of my favourite shows of the last few years.

What makes HBO great is the quality of its programming. What makes HBO amazing is that in a sea of trashy reality shows, lazy sitcoms and by-the-numbers police procedurals they stand out for their dedication to not doing that. For them to throw it away on making yet another show in the style of Jersey Shore, even if it was the best possible example of such, would be a crushing disappointment.

Likewise, what makes Nintendo great is the quality of its games. What makes Nintendo amazing is that in a sea of tacked-on multiplayer modes, scummy microtransactions and games being cut into piecemeal DLC chunks so you have to spend Ł80 to get the same game you used to pay Ł40 for, they stand out for not doing that, for still making these finely-crafted single-player experiences that the Zelda series in particular is known for being.

Even if Breath of the Wild is still incredible (which I think we all know it's probably going to be) and everybody complaining still goes out and buys both game and Pass on day one to throw that away by sticking a Season Pass on what is really the last bastion of AAA headliners without upsells is equally crushing- and everybody who is disappointed about it is absolutely right to be.
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Killing is
Charmless
27-05-16
Posted by Ben at 02:23

I have written some pretentious and nobby stuff in my life, I try to reign in a lot of it, especially when talking about videogames, but here I am, about to write a think piece about Uncharted 4, Doom, and Spec Ops The Line, which came out years ago.

Spec Ops The Line wasn’t a classic game, it was a bit dull, not actually all that much fun to play. It gets lauded, rightly, for what it does in terms of its narrative and the themes it examines. Set in Dubai, you play as Walker, leader of a special forces team sent it to Dubai to check for survivors after a biblical level sandstorm. What you find is that the 33rd, a US Army force sent to help, is in the midst of a civil war with a faction of Dubai’s residents for control of the city. Initially you’re drawn in to conflict with the insurgents, then the 33rd, then the CIA get involved, it’s all very confusing. What the game is really about though is choice, Walker could walk away at any time, report back what he’s found, instead he descends deeper and deeper in to Dubai, getting more and more blood on his hands as he does

I think Spec Ops The Line was a fascinating game, not so much the greater finger pointing theme of “you, player, you always had a choice too! Why didn’t you turn the game off?!” It was bullshit when Bioshock did it, great twist that it was, and it’s bullshit here. It’s thematically interesting, but the player can just shrug “I carried on playing because it’s a game”. Anyway, it’s not that I wanted to talk about, it’s actually the smaller details, the examinations on the ingrained tropes of video games. You see I’ve been reading ‘Killing is Harmless’, a long-form criticism of Spec Ops by Brendan Keogh, and it does a really good job of shining a spotlight on some of the nuance of Spec Ops and Walker’s capitulation. Some of it is small things like language and tone changing; rather than calm and clinical as in the early stages, eventually combat is soundtracked by swearing and ferocity. It’s a thought you’re going to have to hold on to because for this point to make sense I need to go back to Uncharted

The Uncharted series has long had its duality used as a criticism. While he’s out on his adventures throwing out quips, Drake is also killing hundreds and hundreds of people. Rarely is he actually defending himself from harm, he’s putting himself in harm’s way, he could just walk away. Early on in Uncharted 2 Drake is handed a tranquiliser gun because of his reticence to kill people. 10 minutes later he pulls a guy off a roof to his death while Drake’s partner jokes about it. You never get the impression Drake, nor Uncharted itself, cares about these deaths, they don’t stay with him. At least in Gears of War you’re at war with leathery monsters, in Uncharted you’re gunning down people hired to stop people like you from stealing shit.

Uncharted is what Uncharted is, and with Uncharted 4 it feels like Naughty Dog have tried to address it. For the first couple of hours gunplay is fairly minimal, and when it does occur it’s not Nate behind the trigger, initially at least. Smart, especially how they pitch Nate once we get up to present day. Even when it does kick off you’re encouraged to be stealthy, there’s tall grass to hide in and take people down, and a lengthy section where you’re in combat but trying to remain unseen. Apart from a guy I pulled from a roof to his death, I think without any sort of joke this time, I just chose not to kill people. That doesn’t last long though, eventually you’re back to killing people for trying to stop you from stealing stuff. The juxtaposition of the gunplay and tone of Uncharted is kind of redundant, as I said, Uncharted is what Uncharted is, what actually gave me pause for thought was a little more hands on.

There’s a point in Spec Ops: The Line, something that Killing is Harmless focused on, where Walker’s melee takedowns have gone from knocking people out to beating a man so hard and so often he caves in his skull. It’s brutal and unnecessary. There’s a point in Uncharted 4 where Drake lands one or two punches too many during his own melee takedown that reminded me of that scene. Similarly, after a while, it dawned on me that all those stealth attacks, the ones where I’d been choking people out to put them to sleep, were accompanied by a ‘snapping’ sound. Now, maybe that’s just their eyes shutting so fast that you can actually hear it, but I think, think, that Drake might be snapping their necks for no reason other than brevity. That realisation struck me, in amongst this gun fight, when people are clearing away the corpses, it turns out someone, rather than cleanly shoot his enemies, was lurking in the grass to snap their necks. It’s terrifying and ferocious

There were points, and this is where I get a bit nobby, early on in Uncharted 4 where I started to wonder if I was done with games like this. Not with video game levels of killing, I played through Space Marine again the other week, more the violence without consequence. I wondered if my brain had been engaged too much to just turn it off again, if Uncharted was doomed because in every other way it feels more human than most other popcorn blockbusters. That the grounding put it place to make Drake feel human, a likable everyman surrounded by likable people like you, a man who can return home to a normal job with a studious wife, a happy, normal life, whether that extra connection to reality compared to something like Space Marine, means that it doesn’t have as much room to just be a video game.

Fortunately it seems not, but I think we may be reaching the point where games like Uncharted have to solve their contradiction of violence and personality. I want to stress, it’s not the violence itself that’s the issue. I’ve been playing Doom alongside Uncharted 4 and I love it, it may well end up being my game of the year. I love it for the absolute nonsense of it. There’s a moment early on where the narrative is being set and Doom guy literally tosses it away, he, and you, don’t need it. I don’t want every game to be like Doom, Doom’s refreshing because of what it’s not, but it does highlight why the (I got this far without using it) ludonarrative dissonance caused by chatty nice drake ruthlessly breaking the necks of people who don’t know he’s there is a problem but Stevie Space Marine (actually called Titus) and Doom Guy killing monsters, orcs and the corrupted isn’t. To borrow a term from Killing is Harmless, those enemies are never anything more than ‘others’, they’re never anything more than targets, the very thing that makes Uncharted stand out adds a dimension to the world that raises an eyebrow. Not everyone will care, but I think we’re starting to see this problem get addressed, either we’ll have better justifications for the violence, ways around it, or we’ll have more things like Doom
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STELLLLLAAAAAA

15-03-16
Posted by Ben at 17:51

I've just started Stella Glow for review, and so far so good. Actually that was true to a point, then it killed the pace by throwing a bunch of story in with the occasional ‘you can't win’/’you can't lose’ story progressing fight. Hopefully I'm past that now and back in to the routine of killing monsters. While playing, and we're talking about the very early stages, something struck me, something about the tone of the game that made it stand out.

I'm reluctant to call Stella Glow sexist because that's a more damning statement than it deserves, especially as I've only seen a couple of hours of it. Undeniably there's moments in the script that are sexist, the question being if it's merely a reflection of a specific character or the game itself. There's a point early on where Alto, the main character (ish), says something along the lines of “you're going to fight, but you're a girl?!”, his parental figure even says that he's allowed in to the woods while her daughter isn't because he's a boy. Now, I'm willing to accept that it's consistent with the narrative of the game world, something that gets forgotten sometimes. Why couldn't a girl be a hunter? Sure of course, but in this thing aping a small village in the dark ages, it's more likely that would be seen as a man's job.

So that was striking, but given how quickly Alto is put back in his box nothing really worth dwelling on. It's actually Hilda, the game's antagonist, and her outfit that first caught my "that seems topical" eye. Hilda, a fairly young looking girl, is dressed in an outfit that's split down her torso revealing her skimpy underwear. Later in the game you’re introduced to Nonoka, the shinobi guard of the fire Witch Sakuya. Nonoka is straight away remarked on for how she's dressed. Her huge breasts are only barely covered, and even then only by a bra and a fishnet top. Also, I'd like to take a moment to note that I'm writing this in a coffee shop and anyone who can see my screen is making all sorts of judgements about me.

I want to be clear here, I'm no prude. I've no issue with 'Carry On' humour being in games, nor have I got a problem with titillation being in games. In fact were it ever removed completely I think it would be a huge shame, I'm an adult, I shouldn't be dictated to as to what I can and can't play. People have different tastes, some sit uneasy with me, I'm not really in the market for waifu games, but if that's what you're in to, cool. I wish those games were better, and I probably will judge you a little bit, but I'm not going to add you to a watch list or anything. I'm also not writing this to slate Stella Glow for what it is, I'm not writing a think piece about how it's some insidious danger, I'm sure someone else probably will if the game gets any sort of traction.

No, what spurred me to write this is how out of place and time Stella Glow seems. When you've got any and all possible hints at sexualisation or offence being pulled from games, with outfits being modified in Bravely Second, gameplay being removed from the new Fire Emblem, and even Street Fighter coming under fire, seeing Stella Glow's more risqué moments stands out. They aren't even that bad, light sexism aside, they just feel at odds for the culture around games at the minute.

Then I took a look at the release lists, the PS4 port of Witch and the Hundred Knight is out this week. I reviewed the PS3 version of Witch and the Hundred Knight, it's alright, I also found myself sticking up for it when it was criticised for the dress sense of its characters. Even the bit where one of the characters is tied up, it's all actually fairly good humoured. It's in bad taste, sure, if that's not a contradiction, but it's not malicious, it's not trying to take advantage of anyone, it's simply telling a story where you play as the bad guy.

Stella Glow isn't doing that, or at least as far as I know, which is I think part of why it stands out. It's a game that shifts in tone, people are being taken advantage of, the horrors of war, of betrayal, are looked at, even a bit about drug barrons and being addicted to something resembling meth. Then, in the next scene, a hyper positive 'kawai' young witch will make you mud tea. There's a line at one point, while talking about the horrors of war, that I'll paraphrase; "Hard to take without a drink huh?" "I can't imagine it's any easier with one" Having moments like that paired off against activating a Witch power by holding her in your arms, smiling gently as she squirms nervously, then slowly pushing your dagger into the jewel of her heart... I dunno man, it's not that I think it's wrong or dangerous, it's just odd and out of place. Whether that's both in the game and in the greater context of gaming at the minute I can't say. And who knows, if Stella Glow had come out 2 years ago it maybe would barely even register with me, but as things stand it's something that's stayed with me as I'm playing through the game
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Angels on the
Sideline
13-01-16
Posted by Ben at 16:58

There's something that's been bugging me for a while, years probably. It's something that comes up when I'm talking to friends but I don't think I've ever put in a review. It's also something I'm not sure I can explain, so bear with me as I stumble around it.

I don't think I like choices

I finished Shin Megami Tensei 4 today, it's a fantastic game with a slow middle. I also started Until Dawn, Sony's slasher movie homage designed around the premise of the butterfly effect. Until Dawn really lays it on thick too, the game opens with an explanation of the term, has butterfly symbols in the UI, then even has a couple of characters talk about it, it's a game about choice. When it came to the first meaningful choice, or at least consequence, I, well, I didn't like it. I’ve scratched around for words to end that sentence, I didn't resent the choice or having to make the choice, I didn't ‘hate’ it, it just stirred an ‘off’ feeling in me that I can't place.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I’d seen a warning of what was going to happen and based my decision around that. It didn’t go well, and immediately I wondered about the other choice, should I have taken it, what would have happened if I had, would it have been worse for the character, worse for me?

I think a big part of it is that the rules of a videogame don’t reflect the rules of life. We make an immeasurable number of choices every day, whether to just sack off work is usually the big one, but before I’ve even clocked in I’ve made hundreds of decisions, trivial things about breakfast, what to wear, which order to get ready in, which route to take, what to listen to, when to cross the road etc etc. Granted, I could have picked a different route yesterday morning and stumbled on to a gang war, altering the course of my life immeasurably, but I didn’t. I didn’t because there’s a consistency to life that isn’t reflected in games. I generally know the consequence of my choices because I generally make the same ones every day. Even when it comes to interactions, I’m an adult human, I’m experienced at social interaction, I more or less know what to say to someone, and even if I’m trying to antagonise them how far to go

There’s grey areas in life that can’t possibly be covered in a game. Think about that vague moment in Until Dawn I mentioned earlier. Before that life and death decision how many decisions didn’t I get to make? We ran when maybe I wanted to face down whatever ‘that’ noise was, and we ran in a direction maybe I wouldn’t have done. I think a big part of my problem, and the problem with choices in games, is that it’s a forced hand. I’m left with either, effectively, no choice, or a consequence I couldn’t have foreseen, and the game shrugs at me and says “dunno what you’re complaining about, you chose it mate”

It’s why I mentioned Shin Megami Tensei 4 before. I don’t really want to spoil the end of that game, but while there’s lots of choices along the way, ultimately it comes down to an all or nothing choice. There’s a character I agreed with, but his methods were essentially “kill everyone”, I can’t get behind that, but nor can I talk to him and suggest some sort of middle ground. The choices are binary in a way life's choices are only if you're trying to win an argument. It's frustrating as a player who's invested so much into the game (Shin Megami not life), I was making choices based on “fuck it” rather than picking what reflected my feelings and thoughts. I think even if your character had muttered a word of protest it would have gone a long way.

The other area where choice in games falls down is consequence. While I finished it, and did enjoy it to a point, one of the reasons The Walking Dead lost me was the schizophrenic reactions to your actions. Suggest that someone might want to calm down so as not to give away our position and 3 people get shot in the face. LA Noire suffered from it massively. The text to set up what you are about to say would imply a gentle prodding against a statement, what actually happens is Cole screaming at a 5 year old accusing them of murder. Mass Effect and Fallout suffered from it too, it's a disconnect between the rules of the game and what the player experienced in the real world expects

Maybe this is part of a bigger topic, but I think the nature of gaming and of being a gamer is the introduction of competition. Even when you're told there's no wrong answer, that it's about your experience, but there's usually a 'better' outcome. And that's all it takes, a difference, and all of a sudden you've failed. Add to that your ideal scenario not being available, the setup not matching the conclusion, and options not being available to you, and maybe choice isn't always a good thing
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The Shadow of the
Shadow of Mordor
26-10-15
Posted by Ben at 18:42

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that literally every game released in the past 12 months has been an open world game, literally every single one. In some ways I don't really mind it, I get the appeal. Take something like Gears of War, we've all done it before, that linear cover based shooter, there's very little you can do with it. I played The Order 1886 recently, it's not bad, it doesn't deserve its reputation, and had it launched last generation I think it would have been received more warmly. As it is it's the most linear of linear games, at times entirely focused on narrative. Which has its place, but it's so easy to tear apart for what it is and what it isn't. I do wonder if Ready at Dawn regret not opening the game up a bit, assuming they had the time.

The problem is that an open world for open worlds sake isn't a good thing. I regularly claim that I'm not a big fan of open world games, certainly I'm not a fan of the GTA games, nothing against them in particular they just don't click with me. The truth is though that I really enjoyed Sleeping Dogs, Skyrim, Infamous Second Son, Witcher 3, and, despite myself, Shadow of Mordor. So why am I bringing all this up, because I've been playing Mad Max and it's a boring game.

I'm not sure I hate Mad Mad, that's too strong a word for my ambivalence towards the gameplay, but there's a level of cynicism that grates me. The truth is that with the not terrible (though not great) car combat, and Batman’s fighting system I should like it more than I do. Where Mad Max falls over is with its world, beautifully desolate as it is. Mad Max shares the same structure as Shadow of Mordor, something different from your standard open world game.

Take Assassin's Creed, there's tons of periphery bullshit in that series, but your play is also very directed. Climbing the towers has a benefit,and there's reasons to do the side missions, but often they'll be done on your way to the next story mission. Same with Skyrim, you don't decide to abandon the story quests, you just tumble endlessly down the rabbit hole because you're near that cave, because that dragon isn't all that far away. You're like Sam Beckett, always striving to get back to the right thread. If Skyrim clicks with you it's compulsive, same with Infamous,same with any open world game, you'll stop after you've done one more thing.

What Shadow of Mordor did that's different from most games was just drop you into the world and tell you to fuck off and leave it alone for a bit. It's something GTA does, but then your phone will ring and you'll start a new story mission. In Shadow of Mordor the side quests are the game. That's what it's telling you to do. It's undirected and aimless, and it very nearly ruins the game. The reason it doesn't is the Nemesis system. It adds a compulsion, that ‘one more thing’ feeling, you're never far from a General to kill. It keeps you playing when samey missions and locales would have already out stayed their welcome, and more importantly, spreading your influence is a benefit to the campaign, it's not wasted time.

Mad Max on the other hand is too loose, too open. Fairly early on there's a story mission that involves scoping out a gate, a gate you aren't ready to break through. You're then tasked with going out in to the open world to find the car parts you need to take on the gate mission. There's nothing special about the locations of these car parts other than them having the car parts, they're the exact same scraps or earth and huddle of bandits that house water, parts to equip the safe houses, and memories of the old world. It reduces the story missions to busy work, there's literally nothing different about them from the scores of filler that litter the game

And that's my worry with this trend of genres setting their games in open worlds. It works with some, being a Witcher and taking contracts makes sense, giving a superhero civilians to save makes sense, and amazingly even the stealth of Metal Gear works. These experiences need to be directed, there's very little difference in locations between story and side quests in Fallout and Skyrim, but you can tell the difference from the tone and the setup. Just dumping your mechanics in to an open world isn't enough. Mad Max feels like a game built on telemetry, like someone saw how people played open world games and decided they didn't need the core experience, it's design by maths, it's cynical, and it feels it
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Not So Special

05-08-15
Posted by Mark at 18:00

Controversial statement time: I don't think Special Editions are all that bad.

Alright, they're a bit of a waste of space/money/whatever, but if people like them then that's fine. So when today's welcome announcement that the new Project Zero game is coming to Europe came with news of a Special Edition wasn't that surprising. What was surprising was the lack of Standard edition.

We're looking at the usual bonus fare- steelbook case, artbook and cards, poster, and- unless you're buying digitally- that's your option. There's no solus game.

This makes it notably different to other Special Editions. Xenoblade Chronicles X is also getting a similar release, but Nintendo have been careful with their language, using the word 'only' in both their tweet and press release, in reference to Fatal Frame, but not in reference to Xenoblade- something mirrored in their tweet on the matter.

It also puts it in a different bracket to the Special Editions we see with other games. A plastic toy that costs Ł10, yet increases the retail price of the product by Ł30, is simply chasing whales (the merits of which is an argument for another day) and a slightly higher-priced version of a game which has the Season Pass bundled is a legitimate offer of choice. More importantly, both of these are available alongside the 'normal' version.

The Special-Edition-Only release of Fatal Frame means that Nintendo are adopting the tactics of Nippon Ichi, Atlus, and other publishers peddling otakubait JRPGs who, as a function of the games retail market, have to bribe people into buying their niche titles with assorted trinkets under the guise of a 'Limited Edition'.

This shows either a lack of confidence in the game- which is not entirely unreasonable, considering that previous entries in the series have hardly set the charts alight- or that Nintendo, having an utter nightmare at retail in the UK, has found itself backed into a corner and needs to hit safer, smaller bets in order to remain relevant.

It's an interesting change of course, considering the Wii was all but built on slow-burning titles like Wii Fit and New Super Mario Bros.- and considering the use of Free-To-Start, one which could tell us a lot about where they plan to take their future titles.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
 
 
Pokémon Shuffle Mobile could
undermine Iwata's mobile plans
29-06-15
Posted by James at 12:25

The Pokémon Company has gone rogue again. Having released Pokémon Trading Card Game on iPad last year, it has announced that Pokémon Shuffle Mobile will available soon on iOS and Android devices.

Pokémon Shuffle, you may remember, is a Free-to-Play Pokémon game for 3DS. It's a fairly basic match-three puzzler wrapped in fairly charming presentation. So far, so generic. What's more interesting is how The Pokémon Company and developer Genius Sonority set out to monetise players of the game. After spending some time with it a few months ago, it's fairly conventional.

Pokémon Shuffle is set up to monetise 'whales', the most engaged players whose spending typically provides the majority of a game's revenue. Indeed, the majority of Pokémon Shuffle players likely won't find a reason to spend anything when they casually play through the game, but those who are dead-set on collecting all the Pokémon and completing the Pokédex, or getting through the late-game (1, 2, 3), will.

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So there's that. But The Pokémon Company's timing with this mobile port isn't ideal. It comes a month after Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata outlined more of his company's plans to release five mobile games by April 2017, the first landing later this year.

When asked about how Nintendo will monetise the games in an investor Q&A session, Iwata replied with the following:
My understanding of how to succeed in the Japanese market now is to find a limited number of generous consumers who are willing to spend a lot and analyze what encourages them to spend. However, if we did that, I don't think that we would be able to entertain hundreds of millions of consumers all around the world or to produce large and long-lasting achievements.

Iwata acknowledges the long-term consequences of whale hunting in pursuit of short-term profits, which is likely a reference to some companies have struggled to release a second or third hit on mobile.

It's particularly relevant for Nintendo, too. First of all, Iwata wants to protect the value of Nintendo's IP, some of which are still relevant after thirty years. Second, Nintendo is moving into mobile for the long-term.

Its aim is to build long term relationships with customers, many of which once owned a Wii, with the goal being to entice them back to Nintendo's dedicated hardware business. A global Nintendo account that spans mobile, PC and its upcoming NX hardware will be the centerpiece that links their mobile offerings with the rest of the puzzle.

It's therefore important that Nintendo gets the balance right as far as monetising its mobile games goes. Iwata wants Nintendo to go "wide and small" rather than "narrow and large"; it isn't interested isn't chasing a small percentage of super-engaged players to supply the majority of income for its games, rather it wants an even distribution of revenue from as wide a number of players as possible.

The issue with The Pokémon Company releasing Pokémon Shuffle on mobile is that for many, "Pokémon" is synonymous with "Nintendo". The Pokémon Company commissioning a mobile port of a game that already exists on a Nintendo platform (and has received Nintendo's backing) only serves to make that important distinction even more muddy.

Since Pokémon Shuffle goes "narrow and large" with its monetisation, there's a potential for it -- if consumers associate the game with Nintendo, which is likely -- to undermine Nintendo's plans to go "wide and small" in order to build a longer-lasting relationship with its customers.

How can Nintendo and DeNA avoid this? It'll depend on how tightly integrated their upcoming online platform will be with its mobile efforts, despite Nintendo and The Pokémon Company's games existing on the same digital distribution platforms. But it's clear that Nintendo also faces an uphill battle amidst the stigma from Free-to-Play games in general, too.
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The Capped
Crusader
25-06-15
Posted by Ben at 02:14

Batman Arkham Knight is out, many months late, and launching with a day 1 patch on consoles, it's maybe unsurprising that the PC version has suffered some issues too. However, no one could have predicted quite what a mess the PC version was going to be. As I type I'm writing this article having not played the game for myself. I'm having internet problems you see, it sporadically will start working, and once I managed to get Steam online I left my PC on for many days and finally managed to download the game. Great. I can't play it yet however because the game comes bundled with some DRM that, despite the game being on my Steam account and Steam being set to offline, still wants me online to launch the game. It suggests it's a one time thing, first installation, we'll probably never find out, as with any luck my net will be back up and running before I get around to trying the game again.

The DRM isn't the whole problem though, in fact it's not even the worst of it. Batman Arkham Knight has a locked framerate, a 30fps one at that. For a PC port, released at the same time rather than years later than with some bodged together code, that is unacceptable, although the neogaf post referring to Batman as the 'capped crusader' is almost worth it. You can change the fps cap by editing the ini files, but that brings up new problems, like the game being unable to stream the textures and game world quickly enough off a standard harddrive causing the framerate to plummet and textures to be “low”. In fact even without .ini file editing there seems to be a problem with textures. Warner Brothers have implied that this is normal, that your PC that is many times more powerful than your PS4 is only capable of running the game on 'Normal' settings rather than the console's 'High'

There's reportedly missing elements to the PC version, things like trees and bushes, although that seems to vary from user to user. Ambient Occlusion is missing, it's there in the console versions, just missing from the PC version, so hopefully it's something that can be fixed. There's been people complaining about alaising, the Batmobile causes the framerate to drop further, and weirdly rain textures are absent for Batman and the Batmobile. Again hopefully this is all patchable, and there's some indications to be hopeful, or maybe some to be cynical.

Nvidea, as is their want, were heavily involved in previewing the game, showing off the features only available to their cards. The game looked great, there were rain textures and another 30+ frames! They stopped showing that version though, likely because Sony paid a lot of money for the game to be associated with the PS4, or if you're cynical, because it became apparent that the PC version wasn't going to match their previews. Rocksteady didn't do the PC version themselves, perhaps they started one, perhaps that's the version Nvidea were showing off, but the PC version was passed on to Iron Galaxy. Iron Galaxy are infamous for 2 things; being friends with Giant Bomb, and not being very good at making games. Maybe that's harsh, but I've certainly never greeted the news Iron Galaxy are handling a port with anything other than a wince. Still, they're probably cheap.

Whatever, I haven't played the game myself so I can't really comment, nor do I know enough about the ins and outs of the game's development to know who to blame. It's not why I started this post, what inspired this piece was the consumer reaction. People are furious, rightly so, and it's the first time we've seen that with a AAA game since Valve launched their Steam refund policy. Batman Arkham Knight is taking a panning from user reviews, anecdotally a huge number of people are requesting refunds. Good for them. In fact so many people are demanding refunds that GreenmanGaming have had to come out and change their refund policy from “naw” to “if the game is still broken after the first patch then yes”.

It may seem a small thing, but Valve have removed Batman from their featured games banner on Steam. James and I have both tested this and it seems to depend on if you're signed in. If you are then the recommendations knock Batman out of the features banner, if not it's there but at the back. This is a game that launched yesterday and should have been one of the 10 biggest games of the year, now it's the sort of game Jim Sterling does videos about. For their part Warner Brothers have posted an update saying they're working on fixing the game. GreenmanGaming have already said they're talking to Warner Brothers, no doubt Valve aren't too delighted either. It can't been good for WB either, seeing their sales reverse as refund after refund goes out of their account.

Addendum: As I woke this morning, ready to post this article, I was greeted with the news that Batman Arkham Knight is no longer for sale on Steam, it's been pulled/suspended by Warner Brothers due to the number of complaints, and presumably the number of refunds. It's not the first game to get pulled from sale, it's not the first game to get pulled from Steam, but it may well be the biggest, and it's certainly huge news.

All I can say is good, good for PC gamers. Valve deserve credit for sorting their refund policy, but gamers deserve praise for standing up to their own desire to play and requesting a refund. People should be pissed about this, the game was misrepresented (either deliberately or through ineptitude), Warner Brothers clearly skimped on the port, although perhaps they were simply loathed to delay the PC version while this was fixed. Either way it lays a marker down, if the next Assassin's Creed launches as broken as the last one it's done. Hopefully this is the tonic to 'day one' patches and broken games that have looked like a curse of the modern age in recent years.
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Money For
Nothing
14-06-15
Posted by Ben at 15:47

For most of us the news that Steam had changed their refund policy from "no" to "yes" is welcome news. Granted living in the EU as we do, until a combination of the Conservatives, UKIP, and the Daily Mail ruin it for all of us, we should in theory have had some protection anyway. Anyone who's ever tried getting a refund from Steam will tell you that despite that, it was like pulling teeth. So it was a pleasant surprise that Valve have provided a fairly no-quibble policy, although not everyone is pleased.

Essentially Steam's refund policy is this; if you bought a game and want a refund within 2 weeks, so long as you've played it for less than 2 hours, you're almost certainly going to get it. In fact even if you don't meet those requirements you can still ask and Valve will have a look at it. If you're a developer that isn't quite such good news. It's one thing for the likes of Activision, Warner Brothers, or Ubisoft who will sell tens of thousands of games on Steam, it's another for smaller developers who might just sell tens. That's not to say they should get a free pass, only that you can see why just handing the money back no matter the reason might feel a little unjust.

There's also the issue of game length. An increasing number of games on Steam that could be completed in the 2 hour refund window, theoretically turning Steam in to a deposit down gaming library. It's a concern shared by a number of developers including David Szymanski. It's worth noting at this point that Valve have stated that if they think you're gaming the system then they will stop giving you refunds.

Again another important point of clarification, the developers in the Twitter reactions don't seem to be against refunds in principle, no doubt they're also customers and gamers themselves,only the way it's been implemented. One suggestion was to cut the gameplay time allowed to 15 minutes. While I sympathise, 15 minutes is far too short a window. I've talked before about my issues with Rage, a game I really enjoyed, but had huge troubles getting to run. Starting the game, struggling with it, editing ini files, booting it again to test it. I quite quickly got to 2 hours before I'd got close to getting it running correctly.

As another example, think of your typical AAA game. From the moment you boot the game how long does it take to actually start the game properly. You've got the developer logo, probably a couple of them, the publisher logo, the video codec logo, Speedtree, then the start screen, then the menu screen. Great, now you've got a load, then a cut scene. Now you're in to the game, but it's the tutorial so it's hard to judge, and after that you've got another cutscene and a load. Now you're in to the game and you've been playing 30 minutes. You need time with the game.

That's not to say there isn't issues with the system. put it to the test by purchasing the soundtrack to The Moon Sliver, then simply requesting a refund. Soundtracks from Steam are drm free, so he made a copy and requested, and was given a refund. This is where the warning that Valve give regarding abusing the system should come in, but how many times could you get away with before Valve call foul.

Again the counter for this is that, would you really go to that trouble for a soundtrack you could just Google and find. Same with the games, why risk the wrath of Valve on your Steam account when you could just search the net for a pirate version of the game. I'd also argue that we're at the point where people kind of know what they're getting on Steam. Dear Esther might have been in trouble, as might Gone Home, but now 'walking simulators' are a known concept, same with visual novels and any number of indie genres. They cater to a subset of gamers, the kind who probably don't begrudge handing over money for an experience, and aren't likely to claim an unjust refund.

Of course that's all speculation, and it seems that the refund system might have had the unexpected result of encouraging sales now there's less risk. And I'm not about to start lecturing developers, I've never made a game but I do know from experience that customers are arseholes. It also seems to be the case that there's a huge surge of people taking Valve up on their offer of refunds. Hopefully this is something that will die down, and judging from forum chatter there's a lot of people claiming legacy refunds

Still, I do think it's right that Valve have addressed this, and I'm pleased it's erred more to the consumer side than not, hopefully that sets a precedent.
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