The Problem with the Used Game Argument

In case you haven’t been following the hi-larity on the discussions about Used Games on the XBox One (aka XBO from here on out, as that at least sounds not-shit) and potentially PS4, well, there hasn’t been any.

Oh, there’s been plenty of arguments. Plenty of ranting, plenty of attacks, plenty of petitions and PR speak and all of that, but there hasn’t been any actual DISCUSSIONS.

On one side, you have the corporate monolith of Microsoft, who have been more or less outright hated for the last twenty years by the people who use their products, and have developed something of a thick skin about it. They listen, of course, because they’re a successful company with capable employees and executives, but you don’t see them shed many tears about how they’re treated.

Their attitude about the Used Game stuff more or less reflects that. They’re not trying to mollify the crowd much, and its not like there’s much they can do, since the policies on used games is almost certainly in flux.

On another side, you have Sony, which is being very mum about their plans, and generally trying to at least appear to be listening to the players, and I have no doubt that they are. They’re also almost certainly speaking to Microsoft and Gamestop about the Used Game Plans.

Then you have Publishers and Developers for console games, who… are saying nothing, as far as I can tell. They almost certainly want a cut from used games, because they’re professionals who feel they are owed some money by the people who are enjoying their hard work.

Of course, you have Gamestop, which ostensibly the good guys on this subject to the consumers, but they are almost certainly in talks with MSFT and Sony, and don’t want to jeopardize things by making any press releases about how terrible used game restrictions would be.

And you have the consumers, aka the players, the people who make the industry possible. And they HATE this notion, and want it killed immediately. There’s already stuff like the PS4 No DRM movement trying to get Sony to not have this sort of thing with the PS4, there’s lengthy diatribes out there about how the evil and money-grubbing corporations want to do anything to boost their profits.

Which is the problem. There’s no middle-ground. No dialog. Microsoft and Sony gain nothing by talking with the consumers, because they can’t answer questions about the details, and the consumers don’t care about any problems that used games might actually be causing.

The consumers, meanwhile, don’t care because they don’t KNOW. There has been no shred of evidence, no examinations of used sales patters, no attempt to justify why used games and Gamestop need a few shots in the leg.

Which is what’s saddening me about the press coverage of this debacle. This is the group that’s supposed to stand between the money-grubbing corporations and the money-grubbing consumers and help one side understand the other. In this case, why has there been no story out there trying to determine if there is any damage being done by used games?

You’d need help from the developers and publishers, of course, to check the story, but the numbers have to be out there in a database somewhere. Compare the number of XBLive accounts that played a game in the first week of release, and how many new sales there were. If you can’t get the number of accounts, then fudge it with the number of players that got the easiest achievement in the game, or something else like that.

Or try to get information from developers and publishers on the subject. Or, hell, maybe press Microsoft and Sony for evidence and justification? They can shout “It’s the Principal of the matter!” from now until the end of time, but that won’t win anyone over that doesn’t agree.

Because I’m not entirely against restrictions on Used Games on principal, but what I want is the evidence.

Show the losses. Show the Used Purchase Rate. Show how it affects different genres. Show when the used sales tend to take place. Show some bloody numbers. Right now, all we have is rhetoric, and if things keep going this way E3’s going to be an explosion of hatred coming from all sides, and I don’t think anyone wants that.

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XBox One (or 3) and Used Games

First, need to get this out of my system: XBox One is a terrible name and whoever came up with that is a complete idiot. It makes the Wii’s name look well thought out, and Nintendo apparently forgot about the countless piss jokes that could be made! Microsoft, you named you system so that people could make “Who’s on First” jokes with it! Come on!

…but I digress…

As part of the clusterfuck of an announcement launch that was the XBox One’s debut, there was a large number of other questions that got posed to the Microsoft PR department, one of the biggest involving the question about Used Games.

For those that don’t know, Used Games are somewhat divisive in the industry. Consumers love them, because it’s a cheaper way of buying the games and they get money back for trading them in and you can loan games to friends without issue and all sorts of other fringe benefits on top of all that. Developers and Publishers tend to hate them, because they get no money from the used game sale, and unlike used cars, furniture, appliances and even books, there is little difference between a New copy and a Used copy of a game, assuming that the people that had the game before you didn’t take a grindstone to it, meaning that there’s little consumer-side reason to buy a game New if there’s a Used version.

And Gamestop REALLY loves them. In 2010, Gamestop pulled in $2.5 Billion in revenue from used game sales, and $1.14 Billion in profit. Compare that to $3.97 Billion of revenue from New sales but only $0.82 Billion in profit. No doubt 2011 and 2012 saw similar numbers (I could only find the numbers from 2010, thanks to an excellent analysis by Silverstorm at GameRevolution).

So, there was little surprise that Microsoft announced that there would be anti-used game restrictions for the X-Box One. Little surprise, but still a lot of outrage, because there are a LOT of benefits to Used Games, just as there are a lot of drawbacks to them. Microsoft’s plans are still very nebulous at the moment, as what little we’ve heard has been quickly retracted as only one possible scenario, and we have no idea if Sony will do the same thing, although it seems rather likely that they’ll have some plan in place as well. But for the moment, I seriously doubt that Gamestop’s current Used Game practices will be untouched with the new console cycle.

But you can’t forget that the industry does need Gamestop to sell new games. If Gamestop went out of business tomorrow, the industry would take a massive blow. That $4 Billion of revenue from new game sales is a pretty big piece of the industry’s pie, one that no one wants to see disappear. Any Used Game Solution is going to have to be made with Gamestop’s long-term health in mind.

…and as this is my blog, I have a few thoughts on the subject…

Not All Used Games are Created Equal

Basically, there’s, at minimum, four types of Used Games:

Type 1: I loaned Halo 4 to my friend!

This is a largely harmless practice, honestly. Most gamers have fond memories of taking an awesome game over to their friend’s house to play and how much fun it was. Or a game night at college in one of the common areas, or going wild at a LAN party. I don’t know anyone in the industry that really minds this practice, but it gets screwed over by most of the Used Game Solutions. If it becomes organized and monetized, then it might enter a gray area, but as it stands? It should be left alone, and it seems like Microsoft is aware of that to an extent (they’ve stated that, if you are logged in on a friend’s system, you can play your games there).

Type 2: Rentals

I love Rental games! I haven’t played any in a long, long time, but I love them! They should stay around! It’s a good industry that fills a need by people who want to play the newer games but can’t shell out $60 bucks for them!

But…

According to Gamefly’s own website, Publishers and Developers do not make money from Gamefly’s rental fees directly. They have to buy the game discs, sure, and maybe it evens out over time, but it might be a good idea to reexamine how that works. If Gamefly got “Rental” game disks for free, that could be tied to any user for a limited amount of time, and Gamefly kicks back some money to the publishers/developers/Microsoft, it would probably work out pretty well. Details would need to be massaged out, but it’s certainly workable.

Type 3: Old Used Games

This is what most people think of when it comes to Used Game Sales: Someone picking up last year’s Call of Duty on the cheap because they heard it’s good and want to give it a play, or buying a used copy of Final Fantasy VII on eBay because they never played it when they were younger and want to see what all the bloody hype is about.

And I have no problem with that.

My issue with EA’s Project $10 was always that it didn’t address this fairly legitimate Used Game sale scenario. They wanted that $10 from everyone that played their game, even if it was years down the line, past when people really cared about that game’s sale’s figures. And it becomes even MORE of an issue when you look at older, out of print games. That FF7 example was ME some odd years ago. It’s probably the only way I’ll ever actually be able to play Silent Hill 2, because good luck finding a disc for that in a Gamestop or Best Buy, new OR used.

This practice should not be hampered much, if at all. I can understand Microsoft wanting to squeeze a little money out of them, but it’s probably not worth it. Most modern games will have a few bits of purchasable DLC anyway, that’s still money you can get from them if they end up really liking the game (and you can throw up a bit of an advert about the available DLC during the install process anyway). More importantly, it’s a bone you can throw to Gamestop, so that you’re not completely wrecking their business model.

Type 4: New Used Games

This is the type of “Used” game that I outright hate. This is the “1 week after release, there’s a dozen Used copies in Gamestop that are $5 cheaper than the New price, and most of that is pure profit”. This is the practice that Microsoft, Sony, and the major publishers want to clamp down on, because it doesn’t feel right for a $5 discount to be taking away the $60 purchase from the people who made the game, during the sales period that means the most to a new game. It’s probably how Gamestop makes a lot of its profits honestly, but I’ve never liked it, I have never taken advantage of it (I’m pretty sure, at least, maybe excluding a couple times in College, if at all), and it’s something I’ve always steered my friends away from.

Have Gamestop Help

Look, Gamestop is a part of this industry right now. You want them to stay around and stay strong for the New Game and Hardware sales they give you, even if you wish their Used Games racks would die in a fire.

And Gamestop isn’t stupid, either. They have to know that they’ve been riding a wave that won’t be around forever, and sooner or later, well, THIS was going to happen. Microsoft and Sony need to go to Gamestop and ask them “We’re going to be shooting Used Games in the kneecaps with the next console generation, but lets try to find a way to keep you afloat. You can even leverage this to make things easier on the customers too! After all, people who buy Used games are going to have to unlock them somehow, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to do that with a card that can be scanned by Kinect, than by entering a 16 digit credit card, SVC code and address, especially since the user might not HAVE a credit card.

How Would I Do It?

Leaving aside Rentals and Borrowing scenarios and just going to the Used market, because I kinda already brought up how to deal with Rentals and Microsoft seems to be at least aware of the Borrowing scenario…

First, make the Used Game fee dependent on how long the game has been out for. I’ll throw out some numbers so you know what I mean, but don’t treat them as canon, ‘kay?

  • First Two Weeks of Release: 50% of MSRP ($30 for Halo 4, for example)
  • Weeks 3-4 of Release: 30% of MSRP ($18 for Halo 4)
  • Second Month of Release: 20% of MSRP ($12 for Halo 4)
  • Third Month of Release: 10% of MSRP ($6 for Halo 4)
  • 4th-6th Months of Release: 5% of MSRP ($3 for Halo 4)
  • After that: No Used Fee

This is, of course, done with the intent of cutting into, but not outright killing, the first month Used Games Sales, giving Microsoft, the publishers and developers a cut of the sales for the first 6 months of the game’s release. And, yes, those numbers should be negotiated with Gamestop (and maybe other used game retailers) to find a good scale.

Second? To make the process easier for the players, give Gamestop a discount on a variety of cards, that can be scanned by Kinect of course, that are the value of the various Used Fees (possibly that can be generated by Gamestop themselves). Microsoft and the Pubs/Devs would lose a bit of money from the discount, but it would be a good use of Gamestop’s physical stores, and might dampen the blow to Gamestop a bit.

I’m sure there are people that will say that there should never be any restrictions on Used Games, that selling licenses for permission to play the game that a player bought is a travesty, and anyone that supports such a practice is a money-grubbing asshole of a businessman…

…and they might be right. I understand the reasoning behind that claim, and I can’t exactly ignore it. You should have the right to play what you purchased without restrictions, games can be really expensive, and being able to sell back a piece of crap game can be quite cathartic, and at least make you feel like you didn’t lose all of your money from it. But I make my living from the video game industry, and while I thankfully don’t need to worry about Used Game sales for what I work on (Hell, I actually benefit from Gamestop’s presence 😀 ), I completely sympathize with the developers and publishers who HAVE lost money from the $55 Used Game Sales, because I know just how hard it is to make money in this industry.

Used Games are almost certainly going to take a hit in this next console generation, from both Sony and Microsoft. But it can be done properly, and not outright kill Gamestop and those trying to find and play the classics five years from now.

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Starcraft 2: Heart of The Swarm: Afraid of its own Gameplay

(No spoilers this time, honest!)

Now, I’m a pretty big Blizzard fanboy. Way back when, I used to consider my favorite developers to be the Three B’s: Bioware (for KOTOR and BG2), Bungie (for Marathon and Halo) and Blizzard (for… more or less everything they’ve released).

One of my favorite games back in High School was Diablo II. I played Starcraft like crazy too, although largely sticking to the custom maps with bizarre gameplay styles. Hell, I even created my own campaigns for Starcraft and Warcraft II! Not exactly pinnacles of plotting there, and that I was a gamer with a Mac kinda meant that they (and Bungie) were my only real source for non-console gaming, but there’s a reason why Blizzard is the powerhouse it has been more or less ever since Warcraft I burst onto the scene…

…19 years ago?

*shudder*

…in any case.

Of course, I was one of those that was eagerly awaiting Starcraft 2. Even though my RTS skillz were outright horrific, I still enjoyed the original, and really wanted to see how the story continued to play out, especially given how Starcraft: Brood Wars ended.

So, I picked up Starcraft 2 pretty much on release day and, aside from a little online play, mainly stuck to the single-player campaign.

And… yeah, it was kinda good. Some plot details anyone with half a brain saw coming a mile away. An ending that seemed to sap one of the main characters of the series of their dignity, but the strategy gameplay was quite well done, the missions varied and exciting, a strong cast of characters (especially Matt Horner, who really stood out for me as a needed counterbalance to Raynor’s pessimism), and a massive promise of what was to come in the first of two expansions, Heart of the Swarm, which came out in early March.

Well, of course I picked that up (part of one of the most amazingly awesome spring months for gaming I’ve seen…), and I eagerly played through it. And, like so much else that I’ve seen from Blizzard as of late, the results was…

…eh.

Now, some of the ‘eh’-ness I should have seen coming. The RPG-ness focus on making Kerrigan more powerful was going to shift things away from the RTS action, with some missions focused entirely on that (and it didn’t bother me much anyway). It was the middle-segment of a trilogy, so its rather underwhelming ending wasn’t too surprising (…although it seriously could have been better handled). That you need to buy and read a book in order to know what happened between the Wings of Liberty campaign and Heart of the Swarm is as bloody frustrating as it has been ever since Blizzard started doing that for WoW (expect a rant on THAT in the near future), but the big beats were referenced in the first few missions, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.

Also, it’s a Zerg campaign. I never played the Zerg that great in Starcraft 2, just something about the styles clashed whenever I needed to do something besides Select-All-Attack-Move. And, as the Zerg kinda default to being bad guys (as opposed to the “Assholier-Than-Thou” Protoss or the “Redneck Bastards” Terrans. Starcraft is a universe where everyone is a complete SOB, really), which has always left me a little uncomfortable when we end up committing war crimes on the enemies. It didn’t help that the efforts by HotS makes in getting the protagonist to not seem so horrifically evil just don’t get through properly. And it doesn’t help that all of the Zerg characters are completely unlikable, with the possible exception of Kerrigan, and the occasional bit of dark comedy that manages to work.

But, no, what ended up bugging me most? The gameplay.

…that’s right, bitches. I’m talking about gameplay in this video game blog, and not story. Bring it!

The Core Gameplay of Starcraft 2

So, Starcraft 2, for those of you who don’t know, is a Real-Time Strategy Game. In the case of standard Multiplayer matches, and standard non-campaign vs. AI matches as well, gameplay largely consists of the following:

  • Start with a single building that can make workers, and some workers already made
  • Gather resources with your workers and create new buildings that you can use to create combat units
  • Use the army you’ve built up to destroy the enemy’s army and bases

Granted, there’s more to all that at times. You have to defend, after all, and there are defense-specialty units, and different units fight in different ways, and there’s scouting, expansions, a long-term war over resources, different types of resources, small-scale-tactical movement, etc. Because this is an RTS, and for that matter a good game, there’s plenty of nuances and complications to explore and consider. The interplay between attack and defense becomes quite apparent, as an army is usually strongest when fighting from their base, and a routed attack can cost you the match, but you have to keep attacking expansions to keep the enemy honest, otherwise they will simply outspend you to victory.

But, again, at its core, Starcraft 2’s combat is about those three bullet points. And it’s a shame that the actual Campaign forgot about that.

Side-Quest-Itis and ‘Exciting’ Complications

Looking back at Heart of the Swarm’s campaign, I can think of only a handful of “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” missions. Now, a base, an army and killing dudes is frequently required in the campaign, but once you get past the first few missions that are still tutorial-y, all of the missions fall into the following categories:

  • No base, you just have to use the minions you’ve got and what additional ones you get through the level to beat it (the “RPG-Style” missions that I generally like, honestly)
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but you have a restrictive time limit on the mission, where if you take too long you automatically lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, but there’s something or somethings super-critical that you have to focus on defending, otherwise you lose.
  • Base, Army and Dudes, on both sides, but periodically you’ll be prevented from attacking and have to go on the defensive

There’s a few here and there where the complications aren’t quite as restrictive, of course, which are honestly quite refreshing to encounter.

And this is only talking about the MAIN objective, because one of the things Blizzard did to spice things up in the missions was to add side-quests in almost every mission, whereby completing them would level-up Kerrigan, making her more powerful and giving her access to new abilities. Eventually, doing these would make her able to destroy whole armies, which means that these ‘optional’ missions quickly become anything but. If you don’t do them, you run the risk of falling behind on the leveling curve, which is not a nice place to be in the later stages of the game.

So, not only are you having to deal with the normal, Core Gameplay complications that come with just playing Starcraft normally, you also have to deal with the added mission requirements that normally would be there to shake things up, and THEN have to make sure to get the Side-quests done. On higher difficulty levels, it becomes downright obnoxious that you’re constantly having to keep moving  to attack a specific position right now or defend a fragile thing, instead of doing what you came there to do: Build up an army and kill their dudes.

There’s another problem with this: These ‘exciting complications’ that get thrown your way stop being exciting rather quickly. You’re spending all of your time dealing with one twist after another after another for the gameplay that you can never really settle into things. One mission will require you to move your army around quickly on short notice, while another favors hardened defense (or at least as hard as Zerg defense can get). Other missions give you time to build up your army by preventing you from attacking for a while, while another will keep shouting at you to keep attacking, or you’ll immediately lose. It all just becomes routine, a matter of trying to figure out what this new twist is that’s dominating the normal gameplay this time.

There never becomes time to figure things out and experiment with what will and won’t work, unless you feel like endangering the mission. The pressure is kept up so continuously, that there’s really never any time to breathe. This is especially notable in the final mission, where you have two secondary objectives, protect a VIP from periodical attacks and eliminate non-critical bases to supply yourself with reinforcements.

Compare this to the Brood War Campaigns. While each one is smaller, 8-10 missions instead of 25 or so, they still had the occasional “gimmick” mission, where you needed to overcome some significant obstacle here or there. But regardless, for the final mission of the Zerg and Terran campaign, as well as the second to last mission of the Protoss campaign, it’s a straight-up “Use a base to make an army and kill their dudes” mission, with the lone gimmick being that the Terran campaign doesn’t even require you to kill all the enemy forces, just get certain units into the right place (which is behind the enemy lines, of course).

None of those missions have an Instant Lose gimmick holding you back. The only way you’ll lose those missions is if your entire base is destroyed, and possibly because you’ve run out of resources needed to keep on the offensive. The final mission of the entire Brood War campaign is quite simple in its brilliance: You’re surrounded by enemy forces and need to kill them all to win.

That’s why it’s the final mission: It’s the final exam after all the smaller tests that came before, the peak of the Real Time Combat you’ve been working with the whole time, and a shining example of what will be needed for you in multiplayer.

You’ve got a base. You need to expand, build up your forces and crush your enemies.

That’s it, and it made for a grander finale than throwing a few gimmicks at the screen to finish things off.

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Focusing on Bioshock Infinite

(Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite spoilers abound, of course)

So, it’s been a while since my last post, mainly because nothing’s really grabbed me firmly by the ears and forced me to fling my thoughts into the endless void. In this case? Bioshock Infinite hasn’t done that, exactly, but it instead left me with a massive question-mark in my mind.

It’s not that I don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t, not fully, but that’s partially because it’s not made to be fully understood by us mere mortals (at least, not without buying every bit of DLC!). It’s not that I didn’t like it, because I do. It’s certainly one of the most gripping games to come out this year, and there’s a reason I powered through it like I did, and why I fully intend on going through it again, because the nature of the story nearly requires such a treatment.

So, why the question mark?

For the sake of an analogy, lets take the movie Independence Day. The movie that kinda introduced Will Smith: Action Hero to the world, a blockbuster smash, a huge special effects showcase, one of the classic popcorn flicks and a plot that can be charitably described as “Kinda dumb”. Easily Roland Emmerich’s finest work, throughly enjoyable despite the flaws.

…now, let’s say that, in an alternate universe (of course), it was Orson Wells who directed Independence Day. Same actual movie, same acting, same script, same alien-ships-that-run-a-Mac-OS, every single moment in the film the same… but with Orson Wells behind the camera, instead of Roland Emmerich. Instead of being the one crowning moment of glory for a pedestrian director, it’s a blemish on the career of one of the defining artists of the medium, every flaw with the piece a great disappointment instead of a triumphant success.

That’s kinda the problem I have with Bioshock Infinite: Stripping out everything I know about the people behind the scenes, BI is a great game, fun combat, engaging story with great characters and a wonderful female protagonist (shut up, Elizabeth’s the protagonist, it’s her story, Booker just comes along for the ride and does the shooting), not to mention the amazing setting.

But… I was expecting more.

Far, Far Under the Sea

Now, Bioshock was hardly a flawless game. The final third of the game, after the masterpiece “A man chooses, a slave obeys!” scene is complete drek. The story falls apart, the villain is only a few steps above a Captain Planet bad guy, the final boss fight is devoid of the symbolism that the rest of the game was engrossed in, and it has one of the worst escort sequences in video game history. It’s not merely a poor ending, it’s an abysmal train-wreck that goes wrong in nearly every conceivable way.

But everything up to Andrew Ryan’s demise was amazing. The city of Rapture was gorgeous, fully developed and a masterclass of how to create an engaging world. Learning about how the amazing city fell to ruin was thrilling, if somber. The combat was a great combination of gun-play and a diverse set of not-magic powers, and most of all EVERYTHING felt tied into the narrative theme of Objectivism and the flaws inherent. It was positively dripping with atmosphere, and it felt like every area, every section of the city, every enemy boss was carefully designed to embody an aspect of this failed dream. Even the not-magic powers, aka Plasmids, which were a symbol of the ultimate reach of the Objectivist philosophy of “I should be allowed to be as strong and grand as I possible can be!”, and how it brought the city down around it.

In short? The story was about Objectivism, and every element of the story, the gameplay, the setting, the characters, EVERYTHING was tied into that.

A Tale of Two Games

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that feeling, though, largely because it doesn’t HAVE a central theme that binds everything together.

The setting of Columbia is another grand city, this time in the clouds, just as detailed and having just as much wonderful imagery and gorgeous design-work as Rapture. This time around, the city is the supposed pinnacle of America, the embodiment of American Exceptionalism. The Founding Fathers Franklin, Jefferson and Washington are all deified, the city has a firmly set and mostly ubiquitous religion (not exactly Christian, and although there are allegories of Mormonism to it, I’m in no hurry to open up THAT can of worms) where purity and freedom and cheerful people are everywhere…

…well, if you’re white (and not irish), at least. Because there’s plenty of wage-slavery, segregation, racism and classism on display here. It’s every aspect of the turn of the 1900’s compressed into a city, including all of the darker aspects on display, enhanced to the point where it’s given rise to a Communist-like rebellion against those ideals. With the Founders, led by the Prophet and leader of the city Father Comstalk, on one side, and the rebellious and hated Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, on the other, it’s fertile ground for an honest, fair look at 1900’s America, both the good and the bad, and how those excesses and triumphs might reflect on our own future…

Of course, the actual plot doesn’t give two shits about that. It’s all about quantum mechanics, bitches!

It’s a little hard to describe (…as any plot based around Quantum Mechanics should be), but the basic nature of the story is a discussion of the shape of the universe, based on the power that your companion Elizabeth has to see tears between realities and open holes to summon things from elsewhere to come to your aid, and through the course of events you and Elizabeth will end up going through at least 5 different realities, and ends with a fantastic ending, answering most of the remaining question and throwing one twist right after another at you.

It’s actually a rather brilliant exploration on the matter, requiring very little knowledge about the subject, and truly being one of those games that encourages you to discuss it and its implications with others. I really just wish the rest of the game was also about that.

Coherent themes

As I said, damn near everything in Bioshock was about the expoloration of Objectivism. The gunplay, the enemies, the setting, Andrew Ryan’s booming voice, even the Little Sisters and the somewhat-hamfisted moral dilemma involved in dealing with them.

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that same treatment, though. Columbia, the Founders, the Vox Populi and all the people in the middle? That’s just setting in the end, no different than New York in a Spiderman movie. Columbia’s story ends about half-way through the game when, after several missions of the American-Exceptionalism-Story and the Quantum-Mechanics-Story clashing and stealing attention away from each other, the American-Exceptionalism-Story just curls up with a whimper and dies (along with two of the major players), leaving the two sides on the war over Columbia to be little more than differently colored enemies you need to kill, a fetid, rotting corpse of the tale that just about everyone had come to see in the first place.

And even then, it wasn’t like things were that consistent to begin with. So many of the fascinating questions about Columbia do end up getting explained, but more as a resigned shrug, without any actual connection to either major theme of the game. I mean, let me put it like this:

Me: What are these amazing powers, Vigors? Where did they come from, how do they work?

Bioshock Infinite: Oh, uh… Fink cribbed the notes about it from the alternate-universe Rapture and ADAM.

Me: Oh, okay. Wait, why is no one else using them but like two different special bad guys?

Bioshock Infinite: …because. They’re limited use for everyone but you and something something plot hole?

Me: Well, everyone gets a few. Oh! What about that Barbershop Quartet in the beginning, singing “God Only Knows” 44 years before the Beach Boys wrote it?

Bioshock Infinite: Some songwriter heard it through a rift. Man, wasn’t that scene cool?

Me: Well, yeah, but… what does it mean? (NOTE 10/08/2013: After rethinking this, the song DOES have a meaning, about the whole “Who would I be without you” aspect of quantum mechanics, so you get a pass on this one, Bioshock Infinite!)

Bioshock Infinite: Mean?

Me: Well… okay. But what about the Songbird? Surely that big guy, the focus of half the story, has to have a huge purpose behind its origin, fitting into one of the themes that-

Bioshock Infinite: It’s a really big Big Daddy. Fink cribbed those notes from AU-Rapture too.

Me: …huh.

Bioshock Infinite: Yeah, and you only see him like five times. Wasn’t he unique though?

That’s the problem with Bioshock Infinite. It has ideas, wonderful, grand ideas, but it doesn’t do much with them. There’s no real overarching theme throughout the game, almost like it either got bored of the Columbia plot and wanted to try out that other awesome idea they had kicking around the office. In the end, the city of Columbia is wasted. The plight of the Vox Populi, and the legitimacy of their revolution? Completely irrelevant in the end. The symbolism of Columbia as a sort of representation of how 1900’s America really was? Ignored outright. The religious themes only get by by having a huge role in the ending (and in the creation of Columbia), but even then are really just set aside until the end arrives. There’s so much they could have done here, and it’s disappointing to see Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games tossing most of it aside half-way through.

It does make sense, though, given the five years of development the game had. If it came out that they were aiming for a take-down of American Exceptionalism, and changed their plan a few years into development because the story just wasn’t wrapping up like they wanted it to, and so whole sequences were cut that would have slotted into the game early on? It would hardly surprise me. And it’s a shame, because that would have made for a wonderful, poignant piece with a timeless message on the errors of nostalgia.

And instead we got a very well made, above average game.

#firstworldproblems

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Max Payne 3: Why is this Max Payne 3?

Spoilers for Max Payne 1, 2 and 3 within, as well as Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2.

…ah, non-sequitor titles.

So, I finally finished Max Payne 3 last weekend. Before its released, I was really excited for it, honestly, although no nearly the same level as my excitement for Mass Effect 3 (…and we all know how well that turned out…).

You see, Max Payne 1 is probably one of the first games that I truly, genuinely loved, and the game I felt would best translate to the silver screen (that is, if it was done by people who gave a rat’s ass…). It was a third-person shooter that pretty much was the first major use of ‘bullet-time’, where on hitting a button the game would slow down, bullets would make visible trails in the air and you would be given plenty of time to aim and make your shots, allowing you to simply tear through the enemy. The combat was gloriously vicious and gorgeous, showing Max Payne taking apart the enemy with an incredible style. The story might not have been Oscar-worthy, but it was a classic-style film noir, with frequent references to  Norse mythology, taking place in a New York City that’s in the midst of the most brutal snow storm in ages.

It was dark and mature (in the classy sense) and filled with great lines and scenes, and a real sense that they understood how over the top some of it was, but without making any apologies about it. One of my favorite lines from the game, for example…

 After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil, out to right a grave injustice? Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you.

Max’s narration throughout the game was often dark and brooding, but there was also a sense of wry humor to it all, an awareness of how insane things have gotten and how insane he himself is also acting, providing an occasional bit of comic relief amongst the tragedy, often helped by Max’s own occasional snarky line. And the impetus of it all, him being framed for murder, and later hunting down the people responsible for the murder of his wife and child? It made the hero tragic and relatable, helped most often by drugged out glimpses into Max’s psyche, as he is tortured by drug-induced nightmares. In the end, Max Payne was a dark, thoughtful film-noir style game, and the comic book style images that served as cutscenes fit quite well, an effective way to tell a great story without spending a few million dollars on CGI.

The first sequel, Max Payne 2, subtitled “The Fall of Max Payne”, wasn’t as good, of course. The story wasn’t as strong, the gameplay wasn’t as revolutionary and different as it was in the original, and too many of the themes were being reused. It felt like a normal sub-par sequel: Riding the coattails of the original, trying to recapture what made the original work so well. Not to say it was bad, though. Just forgettable and derivative, a  bit of a wasted opportunity.

And boy howdy do I like it more than Max Payne 3.

And Now For Something Completely Different

So, what does Max Payne 3 have to do with Max Payne 1 and 2?

Um…

  • Bullet-time
  • The main character is named Max Payne, who’s wife and child were killed a long time ago. He was a cop with some incredible deeds of valor, who got fired, presumably after the events of Max Payne 2.
  • There was a character named Mona Sax that Max had a brief relationship with. (…because she died, and apparently, according to MP3, it was just a ‘fling’. Grumble.)
  • There’s Mob stuff going on in New Jersey and New York, and there’s two levels set in New Jersey, flashback levels.
  • Max Payne monologues like a MoFo.

And the things that are different?

  • No other characters, besides Max, return for Max Payne 3. While, yeah, most of the cast from MP1 and MP2 kinda died, there were a few others that they could have brought back.
  • The drug Valkyr is never mentioned, which was a major part of Max Payne 1.
  • The ancient conspiracy “The Inner Circle” that was a huge part of Max Payne 1 and 2, is never mentioned. Any conspiracies are of the normal criminal sort (or at least on that level), no far reaching government or such conspiracies.
  • If there’s a reference to Norse Mythology in Max Payne 3, I didn’t see it.
  • Mona Sax is mentioned ONCE, despite being a significant character in MP1 and Max’s full on love interest and femme fatale in MP2. She was even on the cover!
  • Aside from two flashback levels (out of 15 levels total), and a pair of other missions that also take place outside the US, the game takes place in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Not a speck of snow visible, despite being a huge symbolic element in the previous two games.
  • Max Payne is private security now, not a police officer. Again, private security in Brazil.
  • Max’s hyperspace arsenal is gone, he can now only carry two one-handed guns and one two-handed gun at a time.
  • No Femme Fatale. In fact, the style has very little in common with “Film Noir”, instead going for a more “Hollywood action movie” feel. Hell, it ends on an action-movie-esque explosion ridden car chase.
  • No dream sequences or drug trips to delve into Max’s character, what little there is of it.
  • Max’s dead wife and daughter are almost NEVER brought up, and did I mention that the love interest from the previous game who DIED IN HIS ARMS gets a single “It was a fling” mention?
  • Cover-based shooting has been added to Max Payne 3, something that was nowhere in MP1 and 2.
  • The comic-book style cutscenes from the first two games are gone entirely, replaced with full motion cinematics and the occasional ‘important word’ being thrown up on screen.

I mean, just look at the box art!

So, yeah. Basically, the only thing that connects Max Payne 3 to Max Payne 1 and 2 is… well, Bullet-time and Max Payne, and even then only the superficial details about his character. The art style is different, the setting is different, the plot elements are different, the combat is different, etcetera etcetera.

So, What?

This leads to something I like to think of as “Dragon Age 2 Syndrome”. Rather than people coming into the game with a blank slate, not having many expectations about the piece as a whole, they come in expecting it to have strong connections to this other game that they know and possibly love. While they’re probably not expecting just ‘more of the same’, they’re going to be expecting SOMETHING. And so, as the new work deviates more and more from the previous parts of the series, the viewer’s opinion of it gets worse and worse too.

Dragon Age 2 suffered badly from this. While its greatest failings were its reliance on waves of respawning enemies in most fights and the over-reliance on reusing the same map styles 50+ times (and that is NOT an exaggeration!), it took a lot of flack for being very different from Dragon Age Origins, as the first game was a straight-up epic about a heroic warrior (or mage or rogue or whatever) saving the land from an unstoppable evil menace, and the second game was about the rise of a refugee to become one of the most powerful people in this city, and the city’s eventually downfall, partly as an inadvertent result of the hero’ s actions. One’s a heroic Epic following in Lord of the Ring’s footsteps, and the other is a rather dark tragedy. That’s not to say that either is better, story wise, they’re just different, and the changes to the combat system didn’t help matters either.

Max Payne 3 is the Grade A version of this problem. The gameplay is great fun and fantastic to behold, especially once you start abusing bullet-time like a golden god. The story is a bit formulaic, but hits its beats well and the execution is rather impressive, making up for some weak spots. It gets a bit joyless at the end, particularly when Max is reaching new Emo depths with the “I suck” narration, right after you just dove out a window, down a flight of stairs, taking out a half-dozen enemies with headshots before you hit the ground, but even that’s not too horrible, and mainly just suffers from too many filler fights in the later parts of the game. Its honestly to the point where my recommendation to others is “Go ahead, play it, its really good, just don’t think of it as about Max Payne.”

If Max Payne 3 was about a grizzled ex-cop that got tossed out of the force, and signed up as a mercenary in order to make a living, that’s not Max Payne but some other well-named character? It would be far better, and the plot would work just as well. There’s nothing in the game that really requires the Max Payne from the first two games, no plot arcs that are carried over, no other characters that make an appearance, nothing. The game is strong enough to hold up on its own merits, and it really is a shame to see it weakened so much by the attempted connection at a game that did really really well a decade ago.

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The True Tragedy of Diablo III

Spoiler Warning: Diablo III (seriously, I’m going through the whole plot here…), Diablo I and II (But Rosebud rules apply here…)

So, as you may have noticed from my last post, I’ve been playing Diablo III a fair bit since its release. Faults aside, it really is a very good game, with strong visuals and exciting gameplay and an absurdly addictive loot system. Blizzard really should be commended for the game’s quality.

But I’m more of a story guy, honestly. I tend to care more about the narrative of a game than the actual action of it, and am more willing to forgive a game with weak gameplay but a good story than most. That said, I don’t require every game to have a strong story in it. A sparse story that exists solely to drive the action can be quite enjoyable if it doesn’t get the way. Its like Independence Day: Terrible plot, but no one really cares when the action’s so fun. This is kinda what Diablo and Diablo II had, as well as most other games of that era: The plot was thin as hell, pretty much existing to explain why thing X needed to die. Settings and characters were made up on the fly and no one really cared.

And, honestly? Diablo III’s a bit like that, especially given the number of locations that are just made up as needed. While still much more than in Diablo I and II, Diablo III spends very little time on the story, focusing heavily on the action. There’s a lot more characterization and dialog when compared to Diablo II, and the player characters actually say things to the NPC’s, which never happened in Diablo I or II, but its still very lightly touched upon in III.

And its such a shame.

Hope and Tragedy

The thing that really gets to me about Diablo III is that, if you look at the plot of the game, action by action, it probably had the potential to be one of the strongest stories I’ve ever seen in video games. We’re talking about KOTOR, Bioshock and Mass Effect levels of story quality (well, less the last ten minutes of ME3, of course, and yes I’m still bitter) .

(If you’ve already beaten Diablo III, go ahead and skip down to the next section, just giving a plot recap here)

At its core, its a story about perseverance through tragedy, and quite often tragedy that the hero’s have a hand in.

The action that kick-starts the whole plot is when a meteor, in actuality an Angel who has become mortal and is being cast out of Heaven, crashes to the world of Sanctuary. This raises the dead as zombies, because the Angel that fell was Tyreal, the Angel of Justice, and his coming signaled to all those killed by the legions of Hell that they would have Justice. This ends up killing a lot of people, of course, including the wife of one very important NPC. And it turns out that Tyreal willingly turned himself into a Mortal, because he was disgusted that Heaven refused to defend Sanctuary against two Demon Lords, Belial and Azmodan. The chain of events in Act 1 even ends up killing Deckard Cain, a long time standby of the series. Think  Obi-Won Kenobi if the prequel trilogy hadn’t existed, and he died in Return of the Jedi.

This ends up shaking Cain’s adopted niece, Leah, voiced by the always fantastic Jennifer Hale. After briefly refusing to follow in her uncle’s footsteps to help the hero’s defeat the demon’s, Tyreal’s sacrifice so moves her that she ends up agreeing to help Tyreal and the heroes. And throughout Act 1, we’ve been fed tidbits about Leah, about how her mother, the witch Adria from Diablo I, is said to be dead, and she doesn’t even know who her father was. She also has this strange power that seems to manifest all on its own, generally resulting in powerful explosions and massive flames. Anyway, the heroes, in Act 2, journey onto the jewel of the East, Caldeum, where they have to find Belial, the Lord of Lies. During their efforts, they discover that Adria is really alive, and has discovered of a way to destroy all Seven Evils forever (the other 5 dying in Diablo II), with a dark artifact that was created by an incredibly evil dead man, Zoltan Kulle.

Of course, being Diablo, the dead guy gets brought back as a ghost to help find the artifact, the Black Soulstone aka the Ebon MacGuffin, and during their efforts the heroes learn more about Zoltan, also about how the  thing that was destroyed in the end of Diablo II was meant to keep humanity’s power dampened, how Heaven strongly considered wiping out all of humanity (1 vote away from going along with it, of course), and how humanity was the truly powerful race in the world and that the Heroes were the first of the new Nephalem, the old name for the incredibly powerful humans.

But, he’s obviously evil, so once he gets access to the MacGuffin, and discovers that its been tampered with by someone (Adria) adding the souls of the five slain Evils, he tries to take it for himself and kill the Heroes. This doesn’t work, and the Soulstone gets brought back to Adria, Leah and Tyreal. Of course, at this point, they’ve figured out who Belial is impersonating and kill him, trapping him within the Black Soulstone along with the other Five Evils that have been slain.

And so, there’s one Evil left, Azmodan, who of course launches a massive attack on Sanctuary to capture the Soulstone to claim the power for himself. All the while, you see Leah doing her best to hold the power of the Soulstone in check, and its clearly taxing her, despite her mother’s assistance. But the Heroes fight on, sometimes with the direct aid of Tyreal, who has a badass sword and knows what to do with it, and eventually kill Azmodan, and trap his soul in the soulstone. Now all that is needed is for Adria to do a ritual to destroy the Black Soulstone and destroy the Evils forever.

Everyone’s expecting a surprise twist here, of course. Its Act 3 out of 4, and the game’s named after Diablo, who hasn’t shown up yet. Still, its an incredible shock that, while the Heroes are trecking back home, Adria has subdued Leah, attacked and disabled Tyreal and announced that Leah’s father was actually Diablo himself. She then stabs Leah with the Black Soulstone, turning her into the host for Diablo, and in fact a gestalt of all of the Evils. Diablo then announces that with his newfound powers, he’s going to attack Heaven itself.

And that’s where Act 4 comes into play. Diablo pretty much trounces all resistance in Heaven, leaving only the super-powered Nephalem Heroes to save the day. Tyreal comes with you, but he’s shaken by seeing Heaven, his old home, so devastated, and that mortal fear rears its ugly head, and he can’t go on. The Heroes do, which inspires Tyreal to join them. After rescuing some named Angels, and getting glared at by the head honcho Angel that really hates Humanity and the Nephalem, the Heroes save the day by killing Diablo, which of course purifies Heaven and leaves Tyreal to rejoin the council of Angels with the Wisdom of mortals, and it was happily ever after (except for the countless dead)

Everybody Got All That? Good!

Sorry for the exposition dump, but I really wanted to put down a baseline of knowledge, because it allows me to go into the strengths of this story.

In essence, this story is driven by the actions of the good guys who, while trying to do good, often end up helping the cause of evil. Tyreal’s fall in Act 1 is the first, pure case of this. His actions, his willingness to become a Mortal, causes a lot of horror and a lot of death, even in the death of his old ally Deckard Cain. But this doesn’t seem to faze him too much, as he knows what he has to do to save humanity. And while the end result of his actions, Diablo’s invasion of Heaven, nearly breaks him, he overcomes it fairly quickly and aids the heroes until the end (well, you still have to kill Diablo yourself, you know).

Diablo’s revival only occurs because the heroes helped Adria, whom they trusted without a second thought. And wasn’t a case of the Heroes being incredibly stupid, either. Adria was found being tortured, she pointed the way to the only avenue to victory, and she clearly seemed to care about her daughter, she just felt like she couldn’t be around her in the years prior. While I was expecting a twist, and I knew Leah was Diablo’s daughter early in Act 1, I still didn’t think the twist was going to happen like that.

And then there’s poor Leah…

If anything, throughout Act 1-3, Leah is the protagonist. She’s friendly and as cheerful as one could expect, given the circumstances. At no point does she seem to have an evil bone in her body, always striving to do whatever she can for the sake of victory, and at points it becomes clear that the effort is overwhelming her, but she won’t stop trying. Her uncle dies, and after finally realizing the stakes, she takes up his charge to aid the Heroes. It is only her power that can keep the Black Soulstone subdued, and even then only just barely, but she does so without a sign of doubt that it must be done. To see such a heroic character die, and not only die but become the new vessel for Diablo… in retrospect it’s simply heart-wrenching.

There’s the minor NPC’s as well. The Blacksmith that aids you throughout the game had a raw as hell deal. His father was murdered before his eyes by a vengeful mob, for a crime he didn’t commit. He had to flee his hometown as quickly as he could. He found a wife, but had to escape persecution because she had some magical talent and thus people thought her a witch. And finally in Act 1, she becomes a zombie, and he has to put her down himself. This would break anyone, and it nearly does for him as well, but he knows he has an important job to do and must see it through.

The Followers (NPC’s that you can have fight alongside you) have similar tales. The Templar thought he was a great sinner before the Templar order found him and cleansed his sins from him via brutal torture, but he finds out during the game that the order lied to him, that he was an up and coming soldier that they recruited and beat, and that the Templars were even planning a war against Heaven (…not without reason, of course). This might break another’s faith, but for the Templar? He keeps fighting, knowing that what he is doing is right, and that when it is all done he will visit justice upon his former order.

The Enchantress is a thousand years of of her time; she and her sisters were powerful wizards who were put in a stasis by a mysterious prophet so that they could help the Nephalem Heroes, but in the end only she survived. Not even the prophet can be found. While this troubles her, as it would anyone, she knows why she is there, and carries on.

And then there’s the Scoundrel. Classic thief with a heart of gold, really, but he carries heavy guilt about his past, as the only woman he ever loved married his brother, and a misunderstanding led to his brother’s arrest, with his love blaming him for it, of course. He’s really the most normal of the Followers, and that makes him shine all the brighter, really. He’s thrown into this impossible situation with the world on the line, and he carries on without hesitation.

There’s also the knowledge that humanity really is all alone in this tale. Heaven constantly refused to assist the mortals of Sanctuary when the demons threatened them. They considered wiping out all of humanity, given the power that the old Nephalem had, and humanity was spared only because of Tyreal’s vote. When the last two demon lords attacked Sanctuary, only one Angel would help the humans, and he had to shed his wings to do so. To know that even Heaven refuses to help, and to keep on fighting? That takes true bravery not often seen.

By all rights, this should be a true epic, with grand stakes, powerful characterization, and a truly moving theme that, no matter the odds, there’s still something that can be done, and there’s nothing else you can do but try.

So, What Went Wrong?

Execution.

My god. The story was served TERRIBLY by the execution. In the end, Diablo III has five ways of telling its story:

  1. Expository notes that can be found throughout the game world, although these generally just go into background information on the world.
  2. Voice Over narration of mostly static imagery, generally serving as shoe-horned in exposition dumps.
  3. Dialog between the PC and NPC’s, either triggered by the Dialog option, brief quest conversations (generally 4-5 lines of dialog per quest) or random party chatter when the player is exploring the world.
  4. In-Game Cutscenes where the camera moves up, existing animations are used to show what’s going on, sometimes with a lot of dialog but often not much more than 7-10 lines.
  5. Spectacularly done 4 Full Motion Cinematics, one after each of the acts.

Now, this sort of treatment isn’t too uncommon in video games. In-game cutscenes often have to be used for time constraints. and to not break the game flow. Cinematics can be spectacular but are VERY expensive, and simple voice over without lip movement is cheap and can be done en masse.

But, first of all, there’s just not much talking. The followers and their plot arcs have, maybe, 50-75 lines of dialog in the entire game, with no actual in-game interaction. You progress through the game, and a new Dialog option appears for your followers, and… apparently they’ve done something on their own since their last chat option. They don’t ask you to go anywhere, they don’t insist on following you into specific areas, and after their introductory missions there’s never any areas that have a reason to favor one Follower over another. The quest information breezes by, with no real discussion taking place between characters, and no sense of effort behind character knowledge. A lot of plot points just come out of nowhere, like how Tyreal’s amnesia will totally be cured by reforging his shattered sword. A lot of important elements, like how Tyreal’s fall causes all the zombies to rise, how Heaven seriously considered killing all humans, and Tyreal being overwhelmed by despair at seeing Heaven under siege, are pretty much brushed over.

The narration over mostly static imagery is… wretched. Granted, most of it comes as “This is how your class is reacting to the stuff that just happened”, but it’s clunky, forced exposition that adds little to the story.

The in-game cut-scenes are okay, for the most part, but the camera’s still too far back, it feels like you’re watching a cheap machinima, and almost all of them are very short, doing little actual story telling or characterization. A lot of them literally translate to “I’m going to kill you!” “No, I’m going to kill you!”

And then there’s the cinematics, and the source of one of my biggest complaints. Don’t get me wrong, they are freaking gorgeous, expertly created and clearly with no expense spared (aside from the small number that are used)

By far, the three most important scenes in the game are: Tyreal’s Fall from Heaven, Deckard Cain’s death (partly for those who player Diablo I and II, but its significant for Leah’s character), and Adria’s betrayal.

Now, since you start off with Tyreal already having fallen, and how there’s supposed to be a big secret about his identity for the first act, they can’t show that as it happens. And Deckard Cain dies in the middle of Act 1, so its hard to work a Cinematic in there without hurting the game flow. As such, the end of Act 1 Cinematic deals with Cain’s funeral, and Tyreal showing Leah (and the player) why he’s not an Angel. It’s a powerful scene, and it actually left me genuinely surprised and touched by Tyreal’s sacrifice.

Cinematic 2? It deals with Leah being overwhelmed by the power of the Black Soulstone, and how the last Lord of Hell is sending his armies to take it. Its not that great, since it involves the finest of Hell’s Generals saying “I’m sending my armies from this crater to crush all of Sanctuary! Ready or not, here I come!”, but it does a great job showing how out of her league Leah truly is. And there’s not much else you could put here, so it works.

Now, Cinematic 3, the one that plays at the end of Act 3, where Adria has betrayed the heroes and killed her own daughter, to bring back Diablo…

Takes place AFTER all that boring stuff has happened. Instead it deals with Leah!Diablo stepping into Heaven, turning into Diablo proper, and having a flashy fight scene with the Head Angel, Imperius (not a nice guy). The end result of this cutscene is the player’s introduction to Heaven, the fact that Imperius got his ass kicked by Diablo, and that shit’s really hit the fan now. All well and good, but it doesn’t do much to advance the story.

Adria’s betrayal is the centerpiece of Diablo III’s story. This is when the cards are laid down and we find out what Adria was really doing. This is when Leah, the protagonist for the whole game up until now, gets brutally murdered by her own Demon-Worshiping mother, as her mother crows about how this was Diablo’s true plan all along, and how she knowingly had Diablo’s child. This is when the ultimate victory is snatched from the Heroes’ hands by a trusted ally, especially since we watch Adria, a character we had to rescue, thoroughly whoop Tyreal’s ass with her magic. This is when we realize that everything we’ve been doing for the entire game has only aided Hell’s plans for domination, and how we have inadvertently created the most powerful monster in all of creation. All of the old rules are now out the window, and the Heroes have to now figure out how to salvage this impossible situation…

And it gets the same treatment as finding out that the ghost who laughs maniacally every time he teleports is actually evil.

What the hell.

There’s no mechanics reason to make this an in-game cut-scene. Immediately after it ends, there’s a big portal there, you enter it, and you get put into Act 4 and see the flashy fight scene that has absolutely no bearing on the plot, aside from showing how badass UberDiablo is. They could have done the Adria scene as a Cinematic, end with Diablo entering the portal, and simply have the player show up and see Angelic corpses strewn about everywhere, with a clearly injured Imperius present cursing the player out. All you lose is some meaningless eye-candy, and you give Adria’s Betrayal the time it deserves to really make an impact on the player.

Obviously, narratives in video games have a long way to go, and they’ve come a long, long way already. We’re still figuring out all the rules. But… if I may make a suggestion, Blizzard?

Save the cinematic money for the most important scenes in the game. These are the scenes that players will remember and talk about, not some pointless fight scene where Diablo kicks an asshole-Angel’s ass.

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Diablo III and Real Money Trading

Spoiler-free, I hope!

The third game in the fairly legendary Diablo series was released last Tuesday, to much fanfare, an insane amount of sales and a few million jokes about how no one can play the damn thing because all the servers died 37 seconds after release. And while I want to take a hard look at the game’s storytelling at some point down the road, right now the juicy topic is the Real Money Trading aspect of Diablo III that is proving to be fairly controversial, even if it hasn’t been released yet.

The basic story here is that Diablo III, a sequel to a game that basically revolved around loot, will be giving players a way to sell items that they found in-game to other players, either for the in-game currency (Gold) or for real-world money, with Blizzard taking a modest cut of course. The Gold auction house is currently in the game, and is seeing a lot of use, generally being considered the most reliable way to get gear while leveling.

I imagine that Blizzard’s hope for this feature is to provide a modest amount of revenue, primarily to keep the servers running, while also raking in enough after to fund additional development of in-game content (they’re probably going to need it…) and to, of course, bring in a nice profit. The inspiration for this idea was, no doubt, the large amount of underground item selling that existed in Diablo II and is still around in World of Warcraft. As always, if something’s happening underground, there’s usually a good reason behind it, and bringing it above ground can lead to some massive profits.

…obviously, not the perspective to take with EVERYTHING in the black and gray markets, but its nice to see Blizzard taking a shot.

Guinea pigs and all.

How Microtransactions Change a Game

The big elephant in the room is that Blizzard is now trying to make money off of player actions within the game, instead of from box sales or subscriptions. Calling this a massive change may very well be a serious understatement.

With most retail games, you make a game and you sell it. Shocking, I know, but the order is important: The game gets made and (for the most part) finished before its actually sold. As such, you’re really just focused on making the best game possible, maybe with some concessions made to increase the breadth of the game’s appeal. Of course, there’s a lot of things that go into the sales of a game, but the developers really only have to be focused on making the game as good as possible.

Keep in mind, broad strokes here. There are always exceptions, such as sequel baiting that can weaken a plot, or introducing characters and gameplay elements designed to make the game more ‘hip’ or something. DLC can also often fall into this trap, such as the DLC for Assassin’s Creed 2 (…all three Assassin’s Creed 2’s) which had non-critical but still interesting bits of the story left out of the overall game, in order to develop and sell post-release.

But once you start trying to make money off of player actions in-game, entirely voluntary sources of income that don’t add content? Then you run into a sadistic choice: Do you improve the quality of the game, or do you try to improve the potential for revenue?

Always Online

Obviously, the Always Online aspect of Diablo 3 has been… unpopular. The general gist of this is that you must be logged into Battle.Net in order to play Diablo 3. You can play by yourself, of course, and in fact that’s the default option, but you still have to connect to a server and stay online in order to play Diablo 3.

For comparison purposes? Diablo and Diablo II were completely playable offline, but both also were playable online via Battle.Net, and a ton of people did, since you could join up with other players, trade items and take on the legions of hell as a group. The popular reaction by players, possibly because the industry has been rather savaged by poorly implemented DRM, is that Diablo III’s Always Online play is a form of DRM, in order to prevent nasty pirates from stealing the game for free. And, well, there’s something to that argument. After all, its probably impossible to crack Diablo III right now, since the server runs the game for the most part. So, yay for a form of DRM that doesn’t cause pirated copies to have a better version of the game, but boo for its flaws.

But, the real reason? Probably has to do with the online marketplace and the RMT. Extra Credits did a great piece on this: By going all-online, everyone is a potential customer of the auction house, and everyone is also a potential seller.

And all it cost them was the inability for a lot of their players to play the game at launch. Or if they have a server downtime. Or if the player has a finicky internet connection. Or any number of other problems.

And what happens in the future? 15 years after release, I can still play Diablo I on my computer (…well, on A computer. Backwards compatibility from Windows 7 to Windows 95 isn’t perfect). 15 years from now, I’ll probably still be able to play it, even if Battle.net has shut down (again, assuming I have a Windows 95 machine around…). But Diablo III requires the server to be there, and will not be playable, at all, if Activision-Blizzard goes bankrupt, or Diablo III stops being profitable to run.

Simply put, the game is made weaker by forcing everyone to play online. But it will likely increase revenue. And someone, somewhere, felt that was an acceptable trade-off.

Not to say it won’t be a good trade-off for Diablo III. After all, the numbers might be completely right, and a company can’t develop content and pay employees without making money. They can’t keep servers running without money. Money is not evil.

Please repeat that. Money is not evil.

The Little Things

That’s not to say that the Always Online aspect of the game is the only situation where Auction House Revenue was looked at in the design process.

In all honesty? I would wager that, once they decided that the Real Money Auction House was going to be in Diablo III, someone at Blizzard went over every part of the game with a fine tooth comb to make sure that everything in the game either went towards encouraging Auction House use, or at least didn’t contradict it.

Just a few examples…

  • Gold: Gold is much, much harder to get in Diablo III, compared to Diablo II. This is primarily because non-magical items, the bulk of what drops from monsters, is worth a handful of gold. The best sources of gold are now: Killing monsters for dropped gold (which will have a very predictable formula), raiding treasure chests in caves for the gold and magical items within (which will take a lot of effort and time) and selling powerful, rate items on the Gold Auction House.Also, there’s a lot of gold sinks in the game. Diablo II just had armor repairs, which could generally be paid off by killing a handful of enemies, and gambling, where you throw money at a vendor for a random magic item. In Diablo III, the Gold Auction House takes a ‘service charge’ of sorts from items sold, you have to spend gold to increase the size of your stash (a LOT of gold, too), you need to spend gold to upgrade your craftsmen to unlock stronger patterns that they can make (which also require Gold to make), and you can change the color or visibility of your equipped items for a fairly nominal charge, at least in comparison to the 100,000 Gold needed to unlock a new Stash tab.All of that means that you’re not going to get filthy rich in in-game currency very easily. And if it becomes easier to tap yourself out on Gold, popping down 2-3 bucks on an item in the Real Money Auction House? That starts to sound more appealing…Or maybe its just a balance decision in order to prevent the need for alternative currencies, like in Diablo II when the Stone of Jordan became a defacto currency amongst item traders, and it sure is nice for Gold to actually be useful for things…
  • Inferno Difficulty: Diablo II came with three difficulty settings: Normal, Nightmare and Hell. In order to reach Nightmare, your character had to beat the game on Normal, and to reach Hell you had to beat the game on Nightmare. This was generally for the best, as you needed the extra levels and stronger gear in order to beat the higher difficulties. Diablo III adds a fourth difficulty, Inferno, which is intended to be, well, nigh-impossible for most players to beat (Of course, Inferno difficulty was beaten in the first week by a team of dedicated players…).So, what’s the evil part of this? Well, Diablo III is very, very, very, VERY gear based. Obviously, skill is needed too, but the old math still applies: Skill + Gear > Skill. Having a hugely difficult game mode will only entice players more and more to try to beat it at any cost. And if their gear isn’t up to the task, and they can’t suddenly get ‘better’ at the game? Some are going to want to spend money in the Auction House to boost their stats.Or maybe they just wanted to add a super-hard mode, beyond even Hell difficulty, to provide an extra challenge to people once they hit level 60.
  • Arena: This isn’t in the game yet, of course, but… yeah. PvP combat. Diablo II had a bit of this, but it was not a focus of the game at all for the bulk of its players. Diablo III is aiming to make this a major feature, once it gets finished and properly balanced.Ha. Properly balanced.In a game where you can buy powerful items for real-world money.There’s a general rule when it comes to micro-transactions: Don’t sell power. This isn’t as hard a rule as some would like, as it can be very tempting to sell a minor boost in power, but for Diablo III? This is likely the big revenue enhancing feature. A lot of players will be at the level cap of 60, and thus the only way to get more powerful would be with getting better gear.

    Then again? People like PvP, and having stronger support for PvP can only be a good thing for the game as a whole.

The fun thing about all three of the above? All three changes are an outright improvement over Diablo II. Gold was truly worthless in Diablo II. 4 difficulties is definitely a step up from 3, especially since the barometer for true success in Diablo II was getting to level 99, not something so pedestrian as beating the final boss on the hardest difficulty. And PvP was barely supported in Diablo II, generally an afterthought. But that’s not to say that tweaks weren’t made here and there for the sake of improving revenue.

There’s other little things, too…

  • Bosses in Nightmare for me haven’t been dropping Rare items, is that a mechanism to prevent boss farming from being a reliable source of powerful loot?
  • Is the lack of an EXP penalty for Nightmare and Hell (Something that Diablo II had) the result of Blizzard not wanting to punish players too much, so that they feel okay to keep pounding their head against a boss and take the Gold penalties from death, making it harder to use the Gold Auction House?
  • Is the presence of a somewhat accessible level cap at 60 (instead of the nigh-unobtainable level 99 in Diablo II pre-expansion) there to make sure that the potentially VERY profitable Arena is something players will shift their focus to?
  • How much of a focus in playtesting and QA was there to find areas too useful for grinding GP?
  • Did the lack of permanent build customization factor into things, to prevent players from starting from Level 1 repeatedly, and thus prevent there from being a severe drought of high level items being sold on the Auction House?

There’s a streak of paranoia running through all of that, of course, and much of that is probably completely wrong. But some of those questions, particularly the ones relating to farming, were definitely considered by someone at Blizzard. This is what Micro-Transactions can do to a game, it gives you another level of problems to worry about, and sometimes, you want to make a choice for purely financial reasons.

Not all of them are bad, of course. Blizzard is likely going to release content for Diablo III post-release, in order to keep the game feeling fresh. The Arena, for example, is going to be 100% post-release. They might throw in special bonus bosses here and there, unique events on occasion, anything to keep players playing, and the development and production costs of that is going to be paid for from the Auction House.

And I really should be fair here: the best way to encourage in-game purchases by players really IS to have a good game! If you take too many money-based short-cuts, you end up hurting sales because the game isn’t good enough! I have no doubts that Blizzard considered and rejected a lot of ideas that would have increased the attractiveness of the Real Money Auction House, but at the expense of players actually wanting to play the game. I’m loving Diablo III right now, and while I probably won’t spend money in the Real Money Auction House, I definitely understand the appeal of such a system. But its also not worth ignoring the potential player abuse that can go into the development decisions when micro-transactions come into play, and the Always Online “Feature” was almost definitely an example.

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