Monthly Archives: March 2012

Will Killing Game Resale Kill Consoles? Kyle Ormand Says “No”

…thing is, I feel like he kinda wants to say “yes”.

Okay, go read this piece in Ars-Technica from Kyle Ormand. It’s about how blocking the use of used games—a rumored feature on the next set of consoles—won’t be disastrous for console game. I disagree, obviously, but was interested in what he’d have to say. What I found was a fairly balanced piece, but I honestly couldn’t figure out why Ormand was concluding that these things wouldn’t be an issue, when what he’s actually saying adds up to “disaster”.

I’ll go to the first section and show you what I mean.

One thing many publishers and used-game opponents seem to minimize when arguing against game reselling is that the mere existence of an aftermarket for games helps support the demand for new games. After all, you’re much more likely to shell out $60 on a game the day it’s released if you know you can get $20 to $30 back if and when you plow through it in a week. Eliminate the sellback option, and that same new game becomes that much harder to sell to a significant part of the audience, lowering demand and sales (or, alternatively, forcing publishers to lower the asking price for new games).

On the other hand, in a world where used games simply don’t work on your console, some segment of the market would be forced to pay full price for titles that they would otherwise buy in the form of a cheaper used copy. This would in turn increase the amount of money going to publishers and developers, compared to a world where used games are siphoning off some of those direct profits.

It’s hard to know exactly how big these countervailing effects would be, but we can try to estimate. Using Gamestop’s annual used game sales revenues of $2 billion as a basis, Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter suggests that the retailer is paying out roughly $1 billion a year in store credit for used games. Most of that money is plowed right back into new game sales, which Pachter says could be “driving overall games sales up around five percent or more.” That sounds like a big chunk of the new game market’s nose to cut off just to spite the used market’s face.

“It’s impossible to know the balance, but the cannibalization of new game sales from used games is most definitely largely offset by the purchase of new games with used game credits,” Pachter told me.

This doesn’t read as “things will be fine”. It doesn’t even read as “things will be good”. Ormand correctly points out that the main (I’d argue only) reason why the current $60 price for new games is sustainable is because people aren’t actually paying that price. What they’re paying is that sixty dollars minus however much they get for selling it on to someone else. They’re paying a net price of $50 or $40 or whatever to get the opportunity to play the game new without the hassle of rental or buying used.

So let’s go back to basic economics. There are far more people who are going to be willing or able to pay $40 for a game that aren’t going to be willing or able to pay $60. There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t willing or able to pay $40 for multiple games, too. If the price goes up to $60, they might buy one game, but they won’t buy others. That’s great if you’re the guy selling that one game, but it ain’t much comfort for the guy selling the others. That’s why Ormand and Pachter both correctly point out that used-game buyers helps prop up the new-game market. Maybe not for the CoDs of the world, but everybody ELSE benefits.

Ormand mentions there will be profits from people who will be forced to buy games new. I don’t buy it, and it feels like he doesn’t either. Any additional revenues from forcing people to buy the games new have to be balanced against the “no resale” effect. Most people’s threshold for game-buying isn’t going to be based on idle desire, but firm limits on their entertainment dollar. They can only spend so much!

Think about it. As important as games may be to you, as vital an element of culture as they may be, they STILL have to be balanced against your other needs and desires. You still need to pay for shelter, for food, for warmth, for electricity, transportation, clothing, and all the rest…and you’re still going to want to pay for access to other cultural products and services as well. Games compete with movies, television, music, theatre, and all the rest. All that babble about “movie prices mean games are a better value proposition!” aside—now nonsense with ubiquitous five-dollar VOD movie rentals—people aren’t going to completely blow these other things off for games.

No, there are LIMITS to what you’re able to spend on games, especially with the middle class withering on the vine. Getting rid of resale won’t change those limits, so it’s actually quite unlikely that revenues will increase. They might concentrate, as a smaller and smaller number of big-name franchises scoop up more and more of those single-game buyers, but not increase.

Ormand’s quite aware of this, I think. Most of that section—only one of several, but all fitting this pattern—talks about the downsides of losing resale, not the upsides. It’s not a bad piece, mind, but that’s why I was a bit baffled reading it. What this article’s really saying is that losing resale is going to have terrible effects on the industry and on gamers. So why make the article about how everything will be fine, when all the available information suggests that it’ll be anything but?

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Davison and the Venomous Mass Effect Defences

(This is a repost of a comment I made on Pete Davison’s excellent blog, where he touches on the Mass Effect ending controversy, and especially on the notion forwarded by people like Rob Fahey that the fans requesting that the ending is changed are demonstrating delusional levels of “entitlement”. Davison makes the point that social media made developers more accessible than ever. My take’s different, and I’m reproducing it below.)

(I hate this issue. No. Really. Despise it. I want to talk about gaming and game design. I want to get back to Daggerfall and Skyrim and SW:TOR and the World of Warcraft: Mists of Panderia demo I just got into. It’s stupid that this is happening. But it’s getting so bad, so….bilious….that it’s wiping everything else aside. Anyway, response follows now.)

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Wow, I didn’t realize he called them “sociopaths”. Pots and kettles come to mind here, considering how he seems to argue from the POV that critical fans are a subhuman rabble.

I kind of agree with where you’re coming from here, but can’t completely. The idea that stories are not “finished” when first released, and outcries over bad creator decisions, are pretty damned old. People have (legitimately) brought up the reaction to the death of Sherlock Holmes, and even Great Expectations got a pretty big change made to it after-the-fact. One good example that I fixed on just a little while ago was the theatrical release of Bladerunner, which was frankly crap thanks to the half-assed narration; it was made clear by both fans and critics that the film was better off without it, and the combination of its removal and a fleshed out ending(!) in the Director’s Cut edit turned it from a curiosity into a classic. Game writers who are treating games as Finished Works Never To Be Touched Again are demonstrating that they’re not only out-of-touch with modern game design (which emphasizes iteration), but out of touch with pretty much every narrative medium in human history.

(Yes, all of them. You don’t seriously think that people in oral cultures didn’t change stories to suit them? The only reason we can’t do that sort of thing NOW is IP laws. If it weren’t illegal, somebody would have already hacked together a version of Mass Effect with a better ending.)

I also don’t believe that this has much to do with social media. There have been outcries over crappy games on the Internet since there WAS an Internet. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened; the cryptic, unsatisfying endings of FFVII and FFVIII provoked a lot of anger and disgust, just as the ending to BSG and Lost did later. The particular venue changed from Usenet to Web forums to Social Media, but it was pretty much the same thing. If anything, Usenet was WORSE.

No, what it comes down to is the simple fact that it’s routine for games to change after release now. Mass Effect 2 is a different game when you add on the DLC. The narrative’s different, and the experience is different. Dragon Age is different. Assassin’s Creed 2 is different. (The DLC adds context that wasn’t there before.) Batman: Arkham City is different. Both Fallout 3 and that stand-alone Prince of Persia actually had their endings change. How on earth is it the fault of either social media or this toxic notion of fan “entitlement”, when the notion of changing, iterated narrative games is commonplace now? THAT is what the industry did.

Yes, this whole controversy says a lot about gaming, and none of it good. But the message isn’t about either game designers or gaming fans. It’s about writers, reviewers, journalists and critics. I’ve been disappointed before with some of the arguments or attitudes; the used gaming controversy has revealed far too many economic illiterates calling people “pirates” for trying to save a bit of money. The DLC thing has been an issue too, where the only bank accounts given any real consideration belong to EA or Activision or Ubisoft, instead of gamers.

But this…I’ve never seen it as bad as this. I’ve never seen such acidic bile spit about gaming’s biggest boosters. I’ve never seen the word “fan” used as such a vicious expletive. I’ve never felt so…nauseated…by the people who are supposed to be advocates for consumers and fans. I’d never, ever thought I’d see the word “sociopath” thrown around.

Were it about the whole anti-gay thing, or about the treatment of women, I could see it. But that isn’t what’s happening here. This bile is being spat out for asking developers to do what they are already doing to begin with. This is far bigger than one game. It raises the question of who the hell is going to advocate for game consumers. Maybe the Mass Effect thing is proving they’ll have to do it on their own.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic Impressions

(Yes, yes, I’d promised more on Daggerfall and how cheating makes it better.  I’ll get to that.)

So I got one of those “try our game free for seven days!” things from EA/Bioware for Star Wars: The Old Republic. (“SWTOR” to its friends.)  Immediately interested by that. Unlike pretty much every massive-multi game under the sun these days, there’s no option to play SWTOR for free. World of Warcraft and Rift are both free up to 20, and pretty much everybody else is completely free-to-play. Not SWTOR. This was as “free” as it was going to get.

Okay, yes. It’s restricted. But the restrictions are interesting: you can only go to the first few areas, you can only go up to level 15, and you can apparently roll as many characters as you see fit.  Put those together, and you have a demo encouraging you to see a good broad cross-section of the early game. Not a bad idea. In a modern MMO, that’s often the best bit.

So after ensuring I had enough space and download data free for that groaningly huge client,  I downloaded it, fired it up, and selected my first class: in this case, a female Republic Soldier. Had to be that: I found out that that character’s voiced by Jennifer “Femshep” Hale, and I’m always up for hearing her growl at people.

Then I set out to recreate my Shep, and that’s when I found out the first thing about SWTOR, which is that playing other Bioware games is not a good indicator for SWTOR’s graphics. Yes, they’re better than WoW, but I was expecting something on the same level as your Dragon Ages or Mass Effects. This wasn’t even in the same ballpark. I’m pretty sure the faces in DCUO were more detailed, and that one was a console port!

Doesn’t matter, though. Minor detail. And after making a “good enough Shep”, I started up the game proper, and discovered three things:

  1. It’s a Bioware Game;
  2. It’s an Everquest/WoW-style MMO; and
  3. Those two things are really weird together.

Not “bad”, mind you. But weird. The game is the oddest hybrid. You do some classic Bioware conversation stuff, and then go do some WoW-style exploration and combat, and then go back to turn in the quest and do MORE Bioware-ing, and it’s seriously a bit jarring after a while. It feels like I’m playing two different games that kinda-sorta have something to do with each other, but not quite.

The conversation bits are definitely the high point. They really do flesh out your character and make you feel special, and the idea of having  “locked off” areas that are focused on telling the particular classes’ stories was an excellent notion that other companies should definitely emulate. You’re invested in the story from the get-go.  The Republic Soldier story felt a little generic, but still decent.

After playing with her for a while, I rolled an Imperial. Two, actually:  A Sith Inquisitor, which seems to be a popular class, and an Imperial Agent, which is getting rave responses. WOW.  I now understand why there’s a huge faction imbalance. The Republic soldier story was fine, but is simply outclassed by the Imperials. The Imperial stories started off engaging pretty much from the get-go and have just been getting better. THAT’S the Bioware that I remember and used to love.

The MMO bits, though…just not quite sold yet. Yes, it’s early. MMO combat is notoriously simplistic at low levels.  Maybe it gets a lot better. But it’s still the old “go here, kill a thing, collect another thing, bring it back, enjoy your loot” experience that everybody’s familiar with. It’s odd, too, because Blizzard has been working really, really hard to get away from that sort of thing. Ever since Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard’s been using their “vehicle” mechanics and environmental phasing and a whole lot of other tricks to try to mix things up a bit.  Other companies have been trying to mix it up, too, with the standout being Trion with their various dynamic gameplay elements in Rift. Not Bioware. They’re bringing circa-2007 gameplay to the table in 2012. That’s surprising. They know things have changed.

So, yeah, odd hybrid. Neat storytelling (though the morality system’s kind of suspect) married to the sort of traditional theme-park MMOing that we all kinda got sick of at least three years ago. It’s not obnoxious, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

I doubt I’ll buy the game, but I am appreciating the experience. I’m going to make a point of rolling every class, if only to see how they all start out. I won’t necessarily finish the first “planet” on each, but I do want to see what they’re about.

Then it’s back to Daggerfall and Skyrim.

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Stupid Pandas.

Yes, the beta for World of Warcraft‘s “Mists of Panderia” expansion has started.

Yes, it looks like Blizzard’s return to form after the disappointing “Cataclysm”.

No, I’m not in it yet.

<grumble>Stupid Blizzard and their stupid pandas.</grumble>

That's right, buddy, you heard me.

And, yes, more on Daggerfall soon. I’m a big cheater, and I wanted to talk to you about it and about how it kinda makes Daggerfall a more interesting game. But, right now, I’m busy grumbling about pandas.

(Image comes from Blizzard yadda yadda check their site.)

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Bioware’s Bans and the Public’s “Pirate” Perception

I was reading a good piece on the whole “From Ashes” controversy on Gamasutra, and ran across a bit that I hadn’t really known about that I wanted to take a look at. Apparently, you’re all pirates. You just didn’t know it.

Read the text to get the info

"Wait...THIS is 'Piracy' now"?

In case you didn’t click through,EA/Bioware was apparently banning people from their forums for posting the .ini tweaks to open up the extra “From Ashes” character.  Last I checked, those bans were still complete bans, too: if you get banned from the site, you’re banned from your games. Yes, even the single-player ones.

That’s pretty bad.

What’s worse, though, is that we aren’t talking about any sort of real “crack” or “hack”. Tweaking a configuration file isn’t cracking or hacking a damned thing. Go read any given PC gaming site, and they’ll routinely give you instructions on how to tweak this, that, or the other thing in order to improve your performance or customize your experience.  Skyrim has loads of little tweaks that you can do to it, and nobody’s going to give you grief for it, or ban you from Steam for doing so. Heck, you can even patch the Skyrim executable if you want.

This little guy? He's a hack too. Just an official one.

So to call this “piracy” is just odious. Plain and simple. ODIOUS. I still like Bioware, somehow, and I understand why this would be a tough position to be in. But to call users “pirates” because they’re accessing material on disc that they have paid money for? Material that you have told them isn’t the “real” DLC? Material that can be accessed through a simple configuration tweak, the same kind that happens every hour, of every day, on practically every PC gamer’s computer? What’s next, labeling them “pirates” for reading multiplayer strategies on some Wikia? Condemning them for watching somebody’s “Let’s Play” on Vimeo?  Maybe you should go after people who look over somebody else’s shoulder…they haven’t paid to see that content! PIRATES!

“Worse” as that is, though, that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is that this sort of labeling only serves to make people believe that piracy is legitimate. If you’re labeling perfectly normal activity as “piracy”, then what are you going to do with the real ones? “Super-pirates”? “Ultrapirates?” No. You’ll call them “pirates” too. And when the harmless people see you lumping them in with the actual pirates, their reaction is going to be a combination of “well, screw you buddy!” and “fine, if I’m a pirate, then I’m a pirate. Off to the torrent sites, I have some downloading to do”.  Then you’ve lost them, probably for good.

That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Ultimately, the fight against piracy has to be a moral and ethical one. You have to convince people that copyright infringement is wrong—not just because it’s illegal, but that it’s wrong, full stop. That isn’t the only way to get people to get stuff legitimately—Gabe Newell’s made nearly two billion dollars proving that convenience is a factor as well—but there still needs to be a certain basic level of empathy for your position.

That empathy is eroding. I’m seeing it every day. I’m seeing it in the harsh reaction to DRM, to DLC, and to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. I’m seeing it in the rise of “pirate parties” across Europe, and of public officials willing to give them time and perception. I’m seeing it in the hardening of Internet opinions against publishers. I’m seeing it in the changing views of game critics like Jim Sterling, who went from being a savage critic of pirates to practically throwing up his hands and saying “go ahead”. And, honestly, I’m seeing it everywhere else as well. So can you, if you look around and pay attention to what people are saying when they don’t think they’ll get banned by some site administrator.

The pirates even have snazzy logos now

The producers do deserve that empathy. Our society and culture really do benefit from giving them their fair shot at making a decent return on the time and money they’ve risked on the enterprise. Even if their rights should never completely trump consumers’ rights, they DO have rights. That trend towards legitimizing piracy should be arrested. But the rise of the “Pirate Parties” shows that “arrests” won’t do it. If the law conflicts with peoples’ sense of morality, then it is the law may end up being changed.

That’s what Bioware’s risking here. That all-important goodwill and empathy towards producers is being shredded by their behavior. Arbitrary bans from single-player content, exploitative DLC, abusive labeling of ordinary behavior as “piracy” and what would appear to be outright lies about your DLC plans are not going to help producers convince the public that their copyrights are worth protecting.

Instead, it’ll help convince the public that there’s enough free stuff on the Internet that society doesn’t really need to protect and support companies like Bioware. Sure, it’ll suck not having things like SWTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or the rest; but if the public decides that that’s a small enough price to pay, it’ll be near-impossible to convince them otherwise.

The masses will be flying their digital Jolly Rogers, and all the lawsuits in all the world won’t change their mind otherwise.

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Eric Swain and Genre “Elements”

So Eric Swain is kicking off a gigantic discussion of genre in gaming. It’s really neat, and rich enough that I’ll have to think about it for a while before I really come to grips with it.

Granted, I disagree with his attempt to structure genres through a sort of biological “phylum/kingdom/species/whatever” sense. I don’t think it’s an analogy that’s really necessary here.I’m also definitely not sold by his argument that things like leveling in RPGs are just “tropes”. The RPG bit I’ll get to in a sec, but I simply don’t think the word “trope” is useful or helpful in this case. It’s just too slippery to be used in defining ANYTHING. It’s like trying to define something with the word “synergistic”. Ergh. No.

But it’s still really interesting, and a perfect starting point for discussion. There’s one bit that I wanted to highlight.

In broad strokes, a game has mechanics, it delivers its focus through the interactive dynamics of those mechanics, to that focus, context is applied and from the result a meaning can be derived and extracted from the work. In no other medium is this a consideration…

…Video game genres though don’t need [the sort of stretching you see in other media], because a first person shooter is fundamentally different from a point and click adventure, which is fundamentally different from a real time strategy game, which is fundamentally different from an open world RPG.

This is really, really important. GAME GENRES ARE NOT ABOUT SETTING. No, really, they aren’t.  I don’t think they’re even about classifying games, either.

No, here they are, in a pinch, put quite simply: a genre in game design is a particular set of related gameplay mechanics.

That’s it. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t really require heavy classification.  They do have to be related, of course, and the process of experimental game design is always bringing up new ones and sunsetting old ones.

Note what I didn’t say, though. I didn’t say “a type of game”. I said “set of  mechanics”. That’s really important. Trying to say that any particular game is “an RPG” or “an action game” or “an adventure game” or “a strategy game” (to use the four uber-genres that Eric is using) isn’t helpful or useful.

It isn’t helpful or useful because almost no game focuses purely on a single set of related mechanics. Games are almost always mixtures of genres. There’s a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a whole lot of something else. Some are purer than others, but precious few are completely pure examples of genre mechanics.

Sometimes the genres present in a game work together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like the mixture of music and action in a game like Child of Eden. Sometimes it’s a wee bit dubious, like the mixture of RPG and FPS in the multiplayer component of Modern Warfare. Sometimes it’s just bizarre, like the platforming elements in Sierra’s old (and entirely underrated) Manhunter series. It’s the mixtures that often make a game interesting.

That’s where the word “element” comes into it. (Wondering when that one would come up? There it is.) We implicitly recognize this when we use the word “element”, even if we don’t always recognize what we’re saying. When we say a game has “action elements” or “adventure elements” or “puzzle elements”, what we’re really saying is “these are sets of related mechanics that are present in this game”.

When we say that there are “RPG elements” in a game, we aren’t saying that it’s a pure RPG: we’re saying that  a particular set of mechanics are present in the title. That’s why I disagree with Eric on the “level” thing; the presence of “leveling” in a game is the presence of, yes, the sort of mechanics that we label as “RPG” mechanics. That doesn’t mean setting, or whatever the hell a “trope” is supposed to be these days; the fact that Modern Warfare doesn’t feature elves or swords or spaceships or what-have-you means nary a thing when it comes to discussing its RPG elements. Not tropes, gameplay.

That’s where I part ways from Eric. Eric’s definition seems to be top-down. Mine is bottom-up. He’s trying to classify from a set of “super-genres” downward. I’m pointing out that genres are something that evolve more than anything else, and that they work a bit like DNA: what makes games special and interesting are the ways that they combine, mutate and bud off the sets of related gameplay mechanics that we call “genres”.

It’s also why the complete loss of a genre is devastating to the medium; it’s taking away from the ways in which games can evolve. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often. Even adventure games, that poor, benighted genre that so often gets confused with RPGs—and don’t think I’m not going to go off on THAT thing soon—are still a going concern thanks to the vitality and freedom of modern  open platforms like PC and mobile.  Sure, it’s small, but small and open go together really, really well.

(Ditto with the “scrolling shooter” genre: if you think that one’s dead and buried, you haven’t played Jamestown yet. Besides, Cave’s on iOS now.)

I’ll read Eric’s future pieces with great interest. And, to be fair, this is only based on a quick reading. I may realize that he’s making a completely different point once I start going over his arguments in more detail. But I still wanted to get across what I think the word “genre” really refers to…

…After all, I wanted you to be ready when I finally start going off on what the word “RPG” really means. It’s gonna be fun.

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Was the Mass Effect 3 DLC Pre-Planned or After-the-Fact? (It Doesn’t Matter)

So there’s a great hue and cry about the (alleged) proof that Mass Effect 3′s “From Ashes” DLC wasn’t conceived and developed finished after the rest of the game, as alleged, but that it was intended all the time. EA’s contention has been that the work was only done after the rest of the game was over; that it was developed in the “gap” between the game going gold and getting certified by the console manufacturers.

I’ll embed the video that shows what we DO know about the DLC character. Warning, slight spoilers. (And these spoilers are as far as I’m willing to go; I still haven’t played ME3 yet.)

So let’s go over some early thoughts about what this proves and doesn’t prove.

  • It DOES prove that the decision and planning to include this character in the game happened before the game went gold. They went to the extent of adding in hooks so that the character would be playable.
  • It DOESN’T prove that the campaign and content is the sort of notorious “on-disc DLC” that people dislike. You do download something when you download “From Ashes”. Nobody seems to have proven what it is, though.
  • It also DOESN’T prove that the character’s playable in the full game. All we saw in that video was that the character was selectable. We don’t know if his dialogue or influences on the rest of the game are in as well. We can’t assume one way or the other on that one; we simply don’t know.
  • It DOES prove, though, that it’s possible that the character could have been cut for purposes of monetization instead of time. That’s the key argument here. EA has insisted, and continues to insist, that From Ashes was made after the full game was over. Sadly, we don’t know whether or not we can believe them. If the character had been “patched in” completely after release, then that would have been a solid indicator that what they said is true. Instead, we have a strong indicator that the critics’ charges MAY have been true.

It’s that latter bit that I think we need to focus on. Whether or not the DLC was made in that interstitial period between gold and release is far less important than why it was made during that period. If it was because they simply couldn’t get the content done in time and it was facing the chopping block, then that’s one thing. If it was conceived and planned FROM THE VERY BEGINNING to be DLC, then that’s something else entirely. That was a DECISION, and they could have just as easily decided to put the character in as part of the base game.

So let’s look at their defence as posted on Game Informer.

“From Ashes is a 600 MB+ download with all new content, including the mission on Eden Prime, new dialogue options and conversations with Javik, new cinematics, the Prothean weapon, and new appearances for all squad members. All of the above content was completed while the main game was in certification and are not available on the disc.

“As stated previously, in order to seamlessly integrate Javik into the core campaign, certain framework elements and character models needed to be put on disc. We did something similar with Zaeed and Kasumi in Mass Effect 2.”

This doesn’t say “content that we added in later when we could”, like with Shale in Dragon Age. No, this says “we planned out our DLC releases very carefully at a very early point”. It says “we were planning on monetizing this character and his plotline and made a point of building that monetization into the game”.

And, yes, “monetizing” is the right word. What nobody is talking about is the simple fact that THEY DIDN’T NEED TO CHARGE MONEY FOR FROM ASHES. So what if it was finished between gold and release? That’s just a kind of QA arbitrage, taking advantage of the fact  that console QA standards for DLC are less rigorous.  They could have patched it in as a reward for people buying it new, just like with Shale or Zaeed. That’s the standard they set and subsequently broke.

Heck, they could have patched it in for everybody. Even if Microsoft doesn’t like free DLC, they could have just made it free on other platforms and charged some cursory amount of cash on Live. There would be outrage, but they could just point it at MS for their ludicrous DLC policies. They’d look like the heroes, instead of the villains.

That’s not what happened here, though. What happened, I think, is that every moment of this whole thing was intricately planned out. From Ashes was planned as an attempt to get money out of people who cared about the setting, just as Zaeed was planned as a way of encouraging people to buy ME2 new, and Shadow Broker was planned as a way of answering the hanging questions about Liara.

If the DLC was developed afterwards, it’s because they planned to do that. From the very beginning, they planned to hold off on Javik. They planned to give additional plot-relevant content to those willing to pay a significantly higher price. They planned to make people wonder whether they’ve missed something important. They planned to make extra money playing these QA arbitrage games.

Making you pay extra for this content was their decision. It’s all on them. If people are dissatisfied with that decision, with those plans, then they have every right to complain, and yell, and vent, and rage, and post angry letters and videos and all the rest.

If they don’t like it? Well, they shoulda planned for that.

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So Peter Davison namedropped me in his most recent post. He was referring to the discussion between Peter Skerritt and myself on Twitter whether DLC’s useful. One of his commentators, Jeff Grubb made the point that the backlash is probably going to have more long-term instead of short-term consequences. I agreed, and thought I’d reproduce my comment here with a wee bit extra about Skyrim.

(Bit from comment follows)

That was roughly what I was getting at with Peter. Peter’s right about the near-term. There’s no way that they’re going to change their current ME3 DLC strategy based on the outcry. How could they? Giving “From Ashes” to everybody would be really, really unfair to those who ponied up the dough for a collector’s edition or for the DLC pack itself.

What the backlash will do is make them rethink this with future games. They might still have DLC, but the “From Ashes” experiment of day-one paid DLC might not be repeated. It’s a bit like Bethesda and the controversy over Oblivion’s horse armor; they didn’t suddenly make the horse armor free, but it probably had a lot to do with the lack of silly DLC nonsense in Skyrim. Even if the entire industry isn’t going to react, individual publishers clearly do.

(Credit where credit is due: Peter did acknowledge that in our discussion yesterday.)

So, yeah, feel free to rage. Sure, it may seem a bit silly, and you have to do it for the right reasons. But, yeah, in the long run I think you’re right. I do think it works.

(Now the new bit)

Bethesda has said that Skyrim’s eventual DLC is going to be real, expansion-pack-level content. That’s exactly what we DO want. Bethesda’s done a LOT of things right with Skyrim. Sure, it has been plagued by serious QA problems. So do a lot of modern console games prior to patching. It’s still got expansive, compelling modding tools, unobtrusive copy protection, and no ham-fisted multiplayer or sketchy DLC, It’s also tremendous value for money. TREMENDOUS.

Heck, if you look at the PC release, it’s one of the better triple-A PC releases. The UI is terrible for PC, but the deep modding support can let you fix that, and add a million different things besides. And, yes, it’s a Steamworks game, which means no resale, but Bethesda has allowed Valve to put the game up for deep discounts. Between a Christmas coupon and a weekend sale, I was able to purchase Skyrim on Steam for around thirty bucks. That’s madness. That’s far lower than the price I’d be able to get for resale, even if I wanted to sell it. I doubt I ever would.

Mass Effect 3 has DLC and is a big seller, but the DLC’s controversial and the fans feel betrayed. Skyrim is ALSO a big seller, and the QA issues still aren’t fully addressed, but the fans all recognize that they’re getting good value for money.

Which do you think other companies are going to emulate going forward? The profitable one where you’re getting burned in effigy, or the possibly-more-profitable one where you’re being lionized by even the crankiest of critics?

Answer seems pretty clear to me.

Davison, Mass Effect 3, and Skyrim’s Lack of DLC

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Leigh Alexander and Immersion into Daggerfall’s World

Just saw a tweet from Leigh Alexander:

Also, as primitive as it looks now I would still effing be scared playing Alone in the Dark, so there’s that

Well, yeah. The old games can still be really immersive. Even if the graphics don’t seem to be up to much, it can still draw you in. I noticed that yesterday while playing a bit more of Daggerfall.

Generally, I play Daggerfall in a window, so that I can see other stuff going on on twitter or check up on quest information or whatever. That’s something you REALLY need to do with Daggerfall: as much as I’d like to go in “cold”, doing that can leave you in deep trouble. (That’s already happened to me. Nothing gamebreaking, but bad. Wee bit more on that later.)

Plus, it makes the graphics look a fair sight better. Daggerfall’s base resolution is pretty damned low. The monitor I’m using right now is ancient, which probably helps with that a bit, but it’s still nothing to write home about. Putting it in a window makes everything look sharper.  I did the same thing in Arena, too, though with Arena it was more about trying to alleviate that game’s immense performance issues in DOSBox.

Yesterday, though, I broke the trend, fired it up fullscreen, started travelling through the city of Wayrest…and, yeah, I was sucked right in. the graphics were only serviceable, but they were enough not to be distracting, and the sheer SIZE of the city came through just fine. I don’t think anybody who hasn’t played the game is quite prepared for how immense it is; the three main cities appear to be roughly the same size as entire continents in subsequent Elder Scrolls games. A single guild hall was as big as a Skyrim Palace…and Wayrest Palace is so immense that attempts to give quest directions come across as difficult-at-best.

That’s the odd tension within Daggerfall. The characters are serviceable at best, and while the plot is an engaging  enough mystery for its time, it’s nowhere near the standards set by other games at the time. Keep in mind that the 1990s were the heyday for both PC RPGs and PC adventure games; character-driven games were almost a rule, rather than an exception. Daggerfall isn’t even in the same ballpark as RPGs like Fallout, Ultima VII, Sakura Taisen, or Final Fantasy VII.  It isn’t even in the same LEAGUE as the adventure games of the time; it came out at the same time as the second Gabriel Knight, and that was a game whose plot and characterization actually made Full-Motion Video bearable!

(Seriously! FMV!)

Skyrim engages with its characters, and with this notion of being a unique “Chosen” hero within a setting hand-coded to cater to players. Daggerfall engages with its immense, daunting environments. No matter what you do, you never lose this sense that you’re an absolutely tiny part of an immense world.  You aren’t really chosen by fate. The backstory seems to suggest that you were given your task by good ol’ Uriel Septim VII more out of expedience than anything else.  You have the same base abilities as everybody else, employing the same numerical systems as every other inhabitant of the game. You aren’t special.

There’s more factions than you could conceivably align with, and many that you’ll probably never encounter.There are places you’ll never see; towns and villages and dungeons and even whole cities that you’ll never even KNOW ABOUT. Several of the retrospectives on Daggerfall I’ve read have mentioned that it’s quite likely that you could step foot in some procedurally-generated village or dungeon that’s never been seen by human eyes after being given the quick once-over by the team back in 1995.  Sure, the dungeons can be terrible…but it’s actual honest-to-goodness exploration!

I knew all of that. But it never really hit home until I hit the fullscreen, and that little DOSBox Daggerfall window opened up into a whole world.  A whole world with pixel-y character sprites, bad sound effects, a useless map, and low-rez 3D backgrounds, perhaps…but a world nonetheless.

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GDC Awards: A Pretty Good List

So the awards from GDC came out. And, hey, it’s A Pretty Good List:

Best Audio:
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Debut:
Supergiant Games for Bastion

Best Narrative:
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Visual Arts:
Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog)

Best Downloadable Game:
Bastion (Supergiant)

Best Game Design
Portal 2 (Valve)

Best Technology
Battlefield 3 (DICE)

Best Mobile Handheld Game
Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery (Superbrothers and Capy)

Innovation Award
Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik)

2012 Pioneer Award
Dave Theurer, creator of Missile Command, Tempest and I, Robot

Game of the Year
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda)

See? Nothing much to quibble with here.

Skyrim’s a fine choice for GOTY: an expansive game that demonstrates the vitality of both single-player games and real RPGs. It’s a monster seller with longevity, too: any game that consistently has more players on Steam than either Modern Warfare 3 or Counterstrike is doing SOMETHING right. It’s probably the first Elder Scrolls game that’s universally lauded, and although it has serious stability issues, especially on PS3, I don’t think that disqualifies it. Terrible console QA just seems to be the rule these days.

(Though it says nothing good about the people that only played the 360 version of a game before writing their “multiplatform” reviews.)

The other choices are fine, too. The indie stuff certainly is. Bastion’s a fine choice for debut, and Superbrothers (which I haven’t yet played) has gotten a lot of good press for its innovative approach to mobile gaming.  Ditto with JSJ.

Does anybody really have a big problem with the other “big” awards, either? Uncharted’s visually stunning, but maybe doesn’t deserve to clear the board on that basis. Battlefield 3 maybe wasn’t the Modern Warfare killer that EA was hoping it was, but really does deserve accolades for the gorgeous Frostbite engine.

And Portal 2 certainly earned its prizes. Even if you can name other games last year that had equally good narrative and design than Portal 2, you’d be hard-pressed to find BETTER. That audio award was justifiably earned by the amazing, amazing voicework in that game. Not even a question.

My only quibble is that it’s maybe a bit too console-focused, especially when you’ve got Cliffy B telling devs to get their asses onto the PC. But, hell, when the alternative is those damned stupid “Spike awards”, I’ll take what i can get.

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