Tag Archives: Gaming

The hidden problem with Steam refunds that people aren’t talking about

steam-iconAs I’d said in the previous blawg entry, Valve has decided to take Steam’s poorly-understood and ad-hoc refund system and make it both automated and accessible. Users can get refunds on anything that’s 1) less than two weeks old and 2) has been played for less than a two hour grace period.

The latter is…controversial.

The idea of this grace period is laudable. There are a lot of games where people just aren’t able to get it working properly, for whatever reason. There are many, many more games where the advertising may be deceptive, and the game just isn’t what you thought it would be. Steam’s given you enough time to determine whether the thing’s going to work, and whether it works for you.

But what if the game’s less than two hours long? If it’s a bullet-hell shooter, or a casual platformer, or some sort of experimental artgame? Many of those are short. Most of those are short. What’s to stop people from “renting” the game by buying it, finishing it, and getting a “refund”? Valve has said that they would ban people from receiving refunds if they abuse the system…but what do they see as abuse?

There had been concerns. Now, there are outright accusations. From what I saw on Kotaku:

  • Puppygames, developers of Revenge of the Titans, are claiming that there’s been a “55% uptick in refunds” since the program started.
  • Qwiboo, creators of Beyond Gravity, similarly claimed that “72% of purchases were refunded”: 13 out of 17 purchased units were returned.
  • and Skatanik Studios, who made RPG Tycoon (which I didn’t know about and am going to look into!) said that they’ve had an uptick, and are concerned that “there’s no way of knowing why users have claimed a refund”.

I know that people are freaking out about the prospect of these “free rentals”.  But in a lot of ways, it’s that latter quote that really concerns me, because people aren’t talking about it.

Look: even leaving aside the sell-back issue, refunds are going to increase. It’s going to happen. They’re going to increase simply because people know that they have the option. For a little while, they’ll exercise it simply because they can. Novelty is a whole thing, but it does fade. They’re also going to increase because people are going to find that the game doesn’t work well on their system, and they are going to play games for a few minutes and decide that the game isn’t for them.

That isn’t “abuse”. That’s the system doing what it’s supposed to do.

Some devs are even happy about it. Bryant Francis pointed out on Gamasutra that Tom Francis (creator of Gunpoint) actually applauded the ability to get technical-issue refunds; it means that developers don’t have to spend as much time doing tech support for customers, and can rest easy that they aren’t sitting on money for games that customers can’t even play.

Francis also cites Tylar Glaiel, creator of Closure, as being “uncomfortable” with the fact that two thirds of the people who’ve actually played his game have only played it for ten minutes. He sees those people who paid good money for a game they didn’t really play as “subsidizing” those who have played all the way through. It’s a fair assessment.

But, Valve, none of this is going to matter unless developers know exactly, and I mean EXACTLY why the refund happened. 

They need to know absolutely everything that they possibly can. They need to know whether the game ran, how long it was played, and whether the player had technical issues. If that involves a more detailed survey at the point of refund, and more options, DO IT. You’re all skilled coders, I know you can figure it out.

And yes, Valve, you do have a moral responsiblity here. Devs need to know exactly why people aren’t playing precisely because you’ve opened up this refund system.

Before, devs could feel comfortable focusing on getting sales. Feedback was still important, but due to the frontloaded nature of video game sales and the lack of refunds, devs were somewhat insulated from issues with their games. They were never completely insulated: bad word-of-mouth is toxic when it comes time to pick up the secondary group of buyers during sales and whatnot, or when you start marketing your next title. But they were insulated. That gave them their own grace period, where conscientious devs could look at issues, resolve them where they can, and learn from them where they couldn’t.

They aren’t insulated anymore. That grace period is gone. People who are unsatisfied will get refunds, and it will be an issue. Bad reactions and bad feedback doesn’t just mean future consequences, it means bad consequences right friggin’ now.

If there are technical issues, that’s money lost right now.

If there are serious gameplay issues, that’s money lost right now.

If there’s bad word of mouth rippling across the Internet, and people who bought the game in the last two weeks but who haven’t played much get caught up in it, that’s money lost right now.

In that kind of environment, devs need to know EXACTLY what’s happening. If there’s a storm of refunds, they need to know why, so that they can move to fix it right now.

Even the two-hour tourists are a source of information. Why did they play? What did they do? What didn’t they do? Did they play as much as they could, or just toy with it and then shut it down? If it has replay value, did they bother to replay it? What did they replay the most? As annoying as they might be, in great enough numbers they could actually be the same kind of font of useful information that the hordes of free players are in F2P games. But that only works if devs are provided with that information.

So get on it, Gabe et al. You want to make the consumers happy? Awesome. I’m a consumer and, yes, this make me happy. But it’s your policy, so it’s on you to make sure devs have the information they need.


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Steam’s doing refunds!

Ayup. Steam is now providing refunds for pretty much any reason. There are only two restrictions: you have to have bought it in the last two weeks, and you can’t have played more than two hours.

So, what’s my Hot Take? Largely positive! The biggest issue with game consumers is that they’re practically forced to be very conservative by the nature of the medium. With the demise of rental as an option and the decline of both demos and shareware, players are forced to make $60 decisions on little more than reputation and trailers.

(Sure, they can go check out the reviews. But for a variety of reasons, that may not be a great option. Let’s Play videos are helping to fill the gap a bit, but your experience ain’t going to match the Pewd’s. That Toast game is way more fun to watch than to play.)

With refund as a possibility, players will be more willing to take a chance. They aren’t really risking their money, just a bit of time and hassle. If they like it? Great! If they don’t? Great! Either way, they’re coming out ahead! As a consumer, hooray for this!

For creators, well…it’s a bit more complicated.

Make no mistake: this conservatism has really hobbled publishers and developers alike. Gaming is a tremendously fear-averse and risk-shy industry. Consumers mostly go with what they already know and trust. This has led to almost every annoying thing about modern gaming:

  • Publishers obsess over brand equity, and jealously guard their precious “IPs” like dragons brooding over their hoarded gold.
  • Sequels are routinely more successful than the first, since consumers take success as a sign of quality, so games end up becoming massive yearly franchises even when they really shouldn’t be. Series, and whole genres, burn out very, very quickly. Look at Guitar Hero.
  • Marketing budgets skyrocket, as publishers do everything in their power to overcome consumers’ conservatism, and those without a AAA marketing spend get left out. Mid-tier publishers are basically extinct.
  • Adventurous creators are forced to either downscale to “indie” level, or to embrace the industry’s conservatism, and either way their creations will end up compromised.
  • And free-to-play has rampaged its way across the landscape, even though so many F2P games are exploitative dreck, since lying to consumers about a game being “free” has been one of the only ways to get past this problem that doesn’t involve billion-dollar marketing spends.

Having more adventurous consumers is a good thing: it’ll give us more adventurous creations. Current creators can become more adventurous, and more adventurous creators will have an easier time bringing both consumers and publishers on board. PC has always been the platform for creativity. Valve is reinforcing that.

But, yes, there are some issues.

(Besides “can’t make bank from a bad game with a deceptive trailer”. That’s the whole point of this exercise. That’s practically a scam and should be wiped out.) 

First, if your game is less than two hours long and has no appreciable replay value, you’re in trouble. Despite the endless complaints and whinging from some game journos—the sort that unironically use the phrase “entitled consumer”—people still really don’t like paying full price for short games. Nothing’s going to change that. There will be people who play a game, finish it, and demand their money back if it’s too short. Valve may rebuff them, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it. Portal aside, Valve may well sympathize.

Second, games that are “slow burns” are also in a bit of trouble. Some games do take a while to get good. Many classic RPGs, like SMT: Persona and Dragon Quest 7, take hours and hours before they hit their stride. They demand patience, and while they do eventually reward it, it’s a long time coming. But with this refund system, consumers are always going to be watching the clock, as they’ll know that their window for evaluation closes after a few hours. If they aren’t drawn in early and hooked well, they’ll bail.

Finally, if your game is DRM-free, it’s possible that consumers might scam you out of money by “buying” the game, installing it, switching the directory, then getting a “refund” and happily playing away. John Walker worried over it on RPS, but I’m not actually that concerned. If consumers are that intent on getting a DRM-free game for free, they’ll just pirate the thing. That’d actually be easier than scamming Steam, and if there’s one thing we know about prospective downloaders, it’s that they’ll take the path of least resistance.

(Easier-than-piracy is a big reason why Steam blew up in the first place! And Netflix! And Spotify! And Hulu! Heck, laziness-trumps-greed is half the reason capitalism itself exists!)

So, yeah. Steam’s giving you more room to bring people in—but you’ve still got a short window to prove yourself. And if your game ends within that window, you have to really justify it, in a way that makes them want to support you despite the opportunity to get their money back.  I think it’s doable, but it won’t be easy.

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Stick of Truth: Matt ‘n Trey make a Paper Mario of their very own

SouthParkTheStickOfTruthI just played and finished South Park: The Stick of Truth. Been a while; finally got around to it.

Reaction? Pleasantly surprised!

I knew the game was an RPG, and I knew that Obsidian were damned good at making RPGs. There’d been good buzz, and anybody could tell that the graphics were dead-on from videos and screenshots.What I wasn’t expecting was that Stick of Truth played like an old-school JRPG. And what I really wasn’t expecting was that it was going to be a Mario RPG!

Yep. That’s what it is: a JRPG. Stick of Truth doesn’t play like either your Skyrim or your Final Fantasy. It doesn’t have the wandering aimlessness of the former, nor the complex, baroque combat favoured by the latter. What it’s got is exactly what Nintendo’s been providing in their RPGs going all the way back to SuperStar Saga: two-person combat teams, a choice of two distinct direct attacks that use timed presses of action buttons, upgradable “magic” attacks that focus on QTE-style button prompts, and time defences that you must use if you want to survive.

Heck, it’s even got the swappable companions that you’d see in Paper Mario, and the companion abilities that you use for both out-of-combat puzzle and in-combat ass-whuppins!

See, what separates good JRPGs from bad ones, more than anything else, is that the bad ones make you slog through fights you don’t enjoy and wish you could skip in order to get dribs and drabs of storytelling, while the good ones make a point of having encounters be something you want to do and enjoy doing. There are lots of different ways to do that–Suikoden 2 and Panzer Dragoon Saga both pull it off, but in completely opposite ways–but that’s the core of it. So, yes:

Stick of Truth is a damned good JRPG.

It’s one of the rare RPGs where I actively sought out combat simply because the combat loops were intrinsically engaging, instead of extrinsically rewarding with levels and loot and such. Every attack cycle featured meaningful choices, tests of player’s system knowledge and hand-eye skill, and gave both kinaesthic and visual rewards for success. It’s a joy to play, just as Nintendo’s JRPGs have been.  It’s proof that the “JRPG” vs. “western RPG” concepts aren’t really about Japan at all.

(It’s really about the way that the game abstracts skill and handles the division between “exploration” vs. “encounter” mode of play.)

Most people probably don’t buy it because they’re JRPG fans, though. Who’d even know? Obsidian hasn’t made one before now. Obsidian’s proven that they know exactly how it works, and even provided some great nods to previous RPGs, but players won’t know that. No, they probably buy it because it’s a South Park game. How’s it stand on that? Here’s the answer:

Stick of Truth is also a damned good South Park game.

You probably already knew that the visuals are dead-on. It’s almost eerie. Excepting the camera-angle and camera-distance concessions made for ease of player movement, it could easily be an episode of the series. The voice work is just straight-up South Park, too. All the available voice actors return, and the character voices are handled with the same level of care that the series has. It’s South Park.

The plot is a continuation and resolution of the whole Game of Thrones-related plotline from a while back, so it fits into the series’ continuity, and the way that the player’s integrated into the whole thing as the “new kid” is seamless. It even has the standard South Park plot structure, where a relatively simple conflict between the kids in the first act escalates into absolute madness by the end. It doesn’t quite feature the social insight that makes the best episodes so good…but it also doesn’t have the complete lack of political insight that makes the worst episodes so painful.

Is it funny? That’s too subjective to say. laughed. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes out of shock–at times Stick of Truth was the most vulgar game I’ve ever played. If you’re easily offended, stay away. It is unapologetically offensive.  It pushed a lot of buttons, including buttons I didn’t even know I had. Be aware.

(Since I’m Canadian, but also spoiler-averse, all I’ll say is that, yes, the game’s moment of crowning glory involved the True North Strong and Free.)

I’m not sure how relevant all of that is, though. The strange thing–the funny(?) thing–is that I never really played Stick of Truth for the jokes, or the art, or the voice work, or the story, engaging as they all were. I played because I enjoyed it as a game. I enjoyed exploring and finding stuff. I enjoyed upgrading and customizing my gear. I enjoyed using my out-of-combat abilities to gain an advantage in combat, and in both taking down tough bosses and absolutely crushing the “trash mobs” in a few turns.

It also shows what was so wrong with Fez. Like Fez, it has winning, clever core interactions that are intrinsically fun to do. Unlike Polytron, though, Obsidian and South Park Studios took that core and placed it inside a framework of meaningful choice and engaging narrative-building.

I also feel that shows that the whole narrative vs. ludology thing may be a bit of a misdirect; that truly solid games do both. You can focus on one or the other, but even the most narrative-driven storyteller should maybe break out the ol’ deck of cards and test out some gameplay loops.

In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on all those old SP episodes I missed. Also going to need to start digging through Obsidian’s back catalog. I’ve been sitting on New Vegas for ages. Think it’s time to rectify that. And since Trey Parker gave EarthBound a specific shoutout as a design inspiration, it’s time to rectify that little gap in my knowledge, too. Wish me luck.

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So what’s the issue with Fez?

Yep, I finally got a chance to try Phil Fish’s Fez. Well, to be honest, it’d been on my steam list for a long time; I’d just never installed it, since it’s so obviously a controller-focused game. I got access to a controller, so I gave it a try.

This isn’t a “review”, though. I haven’t finished the game yet. Not sure if I’m even going to. See, there’s two things that jump out at me with Fez: it’s a great mechanic…in search of a game.

Yeah, Fez is kinda twee

Doesn’t look like much…until you see it rotate.

Fez is a mostly 2D retro-platformer. There’s lots of them out there. Tons. The indie scene is absolutely littered with them. It’s practically the go-to format, since it not only appeals to nostalgia and a hipsterish yearning for the authentic, but it’s damned cheap to make a retro-platformer compared to almost every other modern genre.

(The gameplay loops are well understood and intuitive, the art’s cheap, the music can be done on a Casio, nobody expects realistic physics, etc. )

The gimmick is that it’s only mostly 2D. It starts out 2D, but after some arcade-referencing shenanigans straight out of ROM CHECK FAIL, you gain the game’s signature ability: rotating these two-dimensional playfields along the Y-axis. 2D becomes 3D. Your little avatar also get a sweet hat.

This mechanic works. Wonderfully. You still move in two dimensions, but you think in three. Since you move the character in two dimensions but rotate the playfield in a third, players start feeling like they’re controlling two simultaneous avatars: the little be-hatted character, and the playfield itself. It’s almost a dance between the two: the character moves, and the playfield rotates, both moving back and forth, up and down, ’round and ’round, to accommodate the other. There’s a reason the demos of the game were lionized so much.

But what you’re doing with that mechanic…

The point of the game is to find cubes. That’s it. That’s all. You have to find two, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and (optionally) 64 cubes. Some are whole, some are broken into little “bits” scattered around the playfields. Some are normal yellow cubes, comparatively easy to get; others are “anti-cubes” that are harder to find, requiring players to solve obscure (and, frankly, often obtuse) puzzles.

There are things dressing all this up, like an annoying, time-consuming cypher substitution language and some odd retro-referencey nonsense involving tetris pieces and a possibly-duplicitous hypercube that’s this game’s Navi. None of it matters.  It’s just cubes, upon cubes, upon cubes.

Why on EARTH was this seen as a good idea? If your game is a big ol’ retro reference, I can see drawing on Super Mario 64….but why take away the absolute worst thing about Super Mario 64? It’s astonishingly boring. It sounded boring when I figured out what I’d need to do, Getting dozens of McGuffins was boring to think about, and even more boring to do. Hence why I haven’t finished the game yet. I just can’t see the point of it.

Sure, the mechanic saves the experience. Navigating the environment and solving its puzzles, character and playfield locked in their endless dance? That never stopped being fun. It never got old. Fez is like a dumb shooter with a great “feel”; what you’re doing is pointless, but it feels great. It’s got the “micro” down cold, but is flubbing the “macro”. Maybe that changes…but I honestly can’t see how.

It’s too bad. Fish clearly put a lot of thought and work into the game. There’s a lot of immensely obscure stuff going on; quick Google searches bring up stuff about cryptography and steganography and whatnot right out of an ARG. But I don’t see how it’s become this universally lauded classic, and I do wish that he’d spared some of that thought to ask whether or not a bit more variety in goals might have helped the experience. Even a more traditional structure of forward progress would have helped.

Guess I’ll scoop up some more cubes…ugh…and finish it. Maybe I’ll find out then.

(Image is from Wikipedia.)

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Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 


Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

So after about a year of waiting, I finally, finally got to try Bioshock Infinite! Joyous day! How I’d waited! How I’d anticipated! I’d even avoided (most) spoilers!

With no small amount of glee, the game got started, and things began in earnest. Great start, too: ominous lighthouse, neat ascension, and those early moments with the baptism and the fair were straight-up magical.  

Then the shooting started.  I started strafing and aiming and firing and whatnot. I hucked a few fireballs at people, and hid from automatic turret robotish things. I swapped out guns and bought ammo. And as I did all of that, the magic just sort of…leaked out. 

Don’t get me wrong. Not being any sort of Internet hermit, I’d heard this opinion before. It was a whole big thing in the reactions to Infinite from people whose opinions I trusted. What shocked me is that all of those people were people who were clearly sick of FPSes and that sort of gameplay. I’m not. I still like FPSes quite a bit. So what happened here? Wasn’t sure.

Sure, I was playing on a console, and I’ve never been a gigantic fan of console shooters, especially shooters that have aim-down-sight (ADS) mapped to R3. (WHY?) Once I remapped the controls so that ADS was sensibly mapped, though, I was able to play it like any other console FPS. It wasn’t really a problem. It even fixed Bioshock’s dodgy console aim correction. 

I kept playing, and kept shooting. I got to the section where you met Elizabeth, and started on my way with her. And, guess what? Elizabeth’s great! Irrational (RIP) did a good job of making her an asset instead of a burden. She’s one of the most visually expressive characters I’ve seen in gaming, rivalling Link in Wind Waker. She’s got personality to spare, and the scenes where she’s introduced and where you see her dancing on the pier were brilliant enough that they almost brought that early magic back. 

But, dammit, I’m still not having any fun.

I’ve just passed the section where you’re (avoiding spoilers here) “interacting with the soldiers and their general”, and it honestly reminded me of the amazing sequence in Bioshock where you’re dealing with that mad artist. And, yet, again, that was engaging, while this isn’t. I’ve just met the Vox Populi and their leader, and I can’t find myself caring. I’m neck-deep in a sequence mocking the hell out of company towns and “captains of industry”, and all I can think of is how much more I enjoyed it in Bioshock.

Maybe it’s the level design? Bioshock Infinite was sold as having expansive levels, and these ain’t that. It’s actually a step back from Bioshock’s intricate levels; these are basically corridors with a few mildly-large combat arenas scattered between them. The game doesn’t even bother providing a map; THAT’S how dull the level design is.

(Let’s not even try to compare it to System Shock 2. That’d just be depressing.)

Maybe it’s the “magic”? The Vigors also seem to be a step back from Bioshock’s plasmids. Bioshock’s very first Plasmid attack, the lightning blast, was not only easy to understand and to use but allowed for fun weapon/magic combos and devastating environmental attacks. It was your first ranged weapon, too, which tremendously encouraged its use. Infinite’s first Vigor is an overly-expensive (and temporary!) turret hack. The second one is a dressed-up grenade.  The third is a dressed-up stun. Woo. 

Maybe it’s the guns? They’re…guns. Aggressively generic guns. Pistol, machine gun, rifle, RPG, grenade launcher, etcetera. Even the upgrades are boring. “25% bonus damage”? “10% larger clip”?  Who cares? And you can only carry two at a time! In a SHOCK game!  Why is Bioshock making you upgrade weapons that you won’t even know you’ll have access to?

But I feel like all of those things are quibbles. I’ve played games that were objectively more annoying, and didn’t give a rat’s ass. Those things aren’t anywhere near enough to explain it. I’m not burned out on FPSes, I like the setting, and I like Elizabeth. I even like Booker, sorta. And this isn’t one of those games where you aren’t supposed to be having fun. I LOVE those. I have this whole huge writeup about Spec Ops: The Line that I still want to post up here. The thing’s clearly supposed to be fun.

So the question remains: Why isn’t playing Bioshock: Infinite fun?

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Rock Band creator Harmonix is making a new game…and you won’t believe the genre!

Harmonix is making a new game! Harmonix is making a new game!

And it’s an…FPS? A free-to-play FPS?

Anybody else get Rez flashbacks just now?

The hell?

From Rock Paper Shotgun:

It almost sounds like a joke when you first hear about it. How does Harmonix, creator of wildly far-reaching rhythm hits like Rock Band and Dance Central, go for a more “core” crowd? Why, they make a musical shooter, of course. Hoho, what a topical yet preposterous notion! Let us adjourn to ye olde Chuckle Hut, where we shall instantly acquire wealth beyond our wildest imagination.

Yet, here we are. And you know what? Chroma looks (and sounds, obviously) like a pretty darn cool idea. If you perform actions – from shooting to running and jumping – on song beats, you’ll do them with more aplomb. Moreover, different teams represent different musical genres, with weapons and environments creating sounds synced to a beat underlying each level. It’s a giant, rhythmically thrumming combat arena, with DNA that crisscrosses between music theory and Quake.

Put that way, it’s really exciting. One of my absolute favorite types of game is the synaesthetic one, where beat and music are incorporated into more traditional gameplay. It’s what made Rez (and it’s all-but-sequel Child of Eden) so beloved, and what makes games like Everyday Shooter so damned much fun. It’s gaming-as-dancing, true gaming-as-dancing without DDR’s often-hamfisted attempts to shoehorn quasi-dancing into a sort of gameplay.

Thing is, any decent game is already going to have a rhythm. Designing and playing games is all about loops; smaller activity loops, within larger activity loops, within larger activity loops. A well-made game will manage the pacing of those loops…and what is creating a rhythm other than managing complex, interacting sonic loops?

The free-to-play part is a bit concerning. We can only hope that they’ll take their cues from Valve instead of King, Zynga, or EA, and make the in-game transactions cosmetic and convenient instead of gruesome and annoying.  If anybody’s earned the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s Harmonix. So let’s see what happens.

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Hearthstone Impressions (And a wee bit of personal stuff)

It’s been far too long.

It’s been hard to write lately. I’d underestimated circumstances’ ability to affect one’s ability to sit down, focus, and communicate. Starting to think I’m a bit like Spider Jerusalem, who “never could write when [he’s] out of the city”. Urban and suburban/exurban life are more strikingly different than I’d ever known–and while I might still take up a standing offer to enjoy true rural existence for a little bit, this exurban exile reminds me of how much I appreciate and depend on the energy and vitality of the city.

I kind of sympathize with Andrew Ryan’s Periclean Bioshock slogan about how “all good things flow into the city”. An odd sentiment in a profoundly physiocratic country like Canada.  It’s still never felt truer.

(Oh, and if anybody from Bento Miso in Toronto reads this: I profoundly miss your space and the company I found within it.)

Anyway, I did get into the beta of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. It’s been a great experience. It’s amazing how such a slight game has revived my bruised faith in Blizzard.

Why “revived”? Several reasons:

  • It shows that Blizzard still understands game design. Hearthstone takes the core of Magic: the Gathering, with its strategic-level deck building and tactical-level in-game card management, and removes a lot of the difficult and idiosyncratic elements that make Magic so hard to learn. Resources are straightforward, interrupts are kept to a minimum, and card effects are easy to understand. I’d never played more than a few hands of Magic, and I was up to speed in Hearthstone after a few games.
  • It shows that Blizzard learns from its mistakes. The Diablo auction house was an absolute disaster, a disaster that I’d identified over a year ago and that Blizzard is only now rectifying. There was real danger that a free-to-play game Hearthstone would be as blatantly “pay to win” as Diablo 3 had been. It was quite plausible that Blizzard would (once again) dangle the prospect of profit in front of their audience, creating yet another ultimately unsatisfying metagame.

That didn’t happen. You can get by quite nicely without paying for cards, and cards aren’t tradeable at all. You won’t make money playing Hearthstone, and you shouldn’t.

  • It reveals that amazing Blizzard polish. The game is beautiful. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Cards have top-notch art and animate beautifully: minions transform into gamepieces and drop onto the board with a satisfying “thunk”, while spells really animate and fly across the gameboard with every bit of the dazzle of the World of Warcraft abilities they were based on.

If anything, spells and abilities are almost better than their WoW counterparts.  Almost all are immediately recognizable, even if you don’t look at the description. That’s a lot more like DOTA2 or League of Legends, boding well for Blizzard’s newly retitled MOBA, Heart of the Storm. That’s probably why Hearthstone is rivalling those games when it comes to streaming popularity right now.

Yes, the game still has balance issues. Rogues were overpowered and Priests useless right before I got in, and from what I’ve seen, the reverse is now the case. (Though I’d hate to see them remove Mind Control, since it’s one of the most interesting effects in the entire game, and used to great effect in a way that it never was in World of Warcraft.) There are still too many classes that are near completely dependent on rare cards to be viable. And I feel that the way the matchmaking rating system works could stand to be a bit more transparent.

Honestly, though…those are minor issues and almost certainly why this beta is happening in the first place. They’ll sort ’em out. I, finally, have faith in them.

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(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 


(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.


Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.


So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Falloblivion and the Weirdness of VATS

(Or, as it’s technically called, V.A.T.S.)

As I mentioned in the last piece on Fallout 3, the game really feels like a Elder Scrolls game. It feels a LOT like an Elder Scrolls game. The way you explore, the way you interact with NPCs, the way that you engage with the maps…there’s a reason I called it “Elder Scrolls 4.5”.  It really does feel like Oblivion, almost without exception.

VATS is the exception. VATS, for those of you (who are you?) who haven’t played a 3D Fallout yet, is the system where you pause the game, pick your targets, and the game shoots for you, with the success based solely on the character’s statistics, instead of your own reflexes and ability. It’s a callback to the turn-based nature of the old Fallout games, where they played more like Baldur’s Gate in that you were able to pause and give orders.

VATS is one of the main reasons I wanted to try Fallout 3. It sounded amazing. Calling your shots and watching it unfold? Awesome, right? No. Not awesome. VATS just feels weird.

First, it means that the game doesn’t really play out much like an FPS, since you don’t have the fire-and-response gameplay cycle. You can try to play it like an FPS, but it doesn’t work. You don’t have down-the-sights aiming, you don’t have aim correction (keep in mind, I’m playing on a console),  and the weapons feel like peashooters, which is a really big problem considering players have strong expectations of what assault rifles, pistols, and rocket launchers are able to do derived from thousands of hours of modern multiplayer manshoots. It’s understandable, since VATS means that the weapons would be totally unbalanced if they hit hard. But without VATS, the game’s just unpleasant.

Worse, though, is that I end up finding disconnected from the environment and what’s going on in it, because the game’s constantly pausing for these slow-mo shootouts. That sense of connection is what makes Elder Scrolls games work. You aren’t “directing”, you’re acting. You don’t tell your character “swing the sword”, you just swing the damned sword. That’s been the case going all the way back to Arena. Bethesda have been progressively learning this lesson over, and over, and over again, and each time they come out with a new Elder Scrolls, it shows they’ve understood and embraced it that much more.

(Plus, the fact that hunting rifle is a better close-up weapon than a machine pistol is ridiculous, yet that’s how VATS works, since you’re near-invulnerable while you’re inside it and there’s no way for them to get “inside” your range.)

What results is something that’s neither fish nor fowl. The “direction” element of VATS that was supposed to mollify fans of the old Fallout games won’t, because this is fundamentally an Elder Scrolls RPG, not a Baldur’s Gate-style RPG, so you don’t have that tactical feel that made the turn-based gameplay of those older games compelling. Yet the game can’t fully embrace its status as a FPS or as a modern, immersive, Elder Scrolls-style RPG, because the game simultaneously near-mandates the use of immersion-breaking VATS while making the non-VATS combat surprisingly unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t make it a bad game. I’m enjoying it immensely. It also doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy using VATS on occasion, though I never really find myself enjoying the non-VATS shooting. It’s just more than a bit of a surprise that something I’d looked forward to trying ended up being less of a blessing than a curse.

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