Thursday, December 6, 2018

Maximum Profit for Minimal Effort

I was skipping around on YouTube the other day, going from video to video with no particular rhyme or reason to it, when I came across this video from back in May 2018 by Falcon on Gameranx:



The TL;DR of the video is that EA doesn't understand that people want to play different types of games, and that EA is letting their own desire to promote a steady stream of monetization (via loot boxes and other items) get in the way of what might be really good games. As examples, Falcon pointed to games such as God of War --and tons of Nintendo games-- that were linear in design with a definite ending yet were also extremely popular.

The video was partially in reaction to yet another Star Wars game getting the axe after a lot of prepublication buzz, Visceral Games' untitled Star Wars game developed by Uncharted 1 through 3 Creative Director and writer Amy Henning. The idea that a linear, story based game wasn't going to "keep people coming back to it," paraphrasing EA EVP Patrick Söderlund, is what Falcon believed to be code for utilizing lootboxes and other monetization methods to keep milking the player base. And to be honest, I think he's pretty much dead on here.

The concept that a story driven, linear game wouldn't have people replaying it have honestly never played the Uncharted series, the isometric RPGs of Bioware, and the aforementioned God of War or Nintendo games. But these days, it's all about the money, because the business world is attuned to maximizing quarterly profits.

***

On the face of it, the desire from the major software houses to jack up the monetization by DLC and lootboxes (or even introducing mobile games which have tons of the "cash store" type of stuff) is amusing. After all, I do happen to know a class of video games that are pretty much tailor made for this sort of thing, and I'm betting you do too.

You know... This genre:

Ah, Thrall. Will the Green Jesus save us
with WoW Classic? (From worldofwarcraft.com)

MMOs, that subgenre which is no longer quite so hot these days, is pretty much tailor made to separate gamers from their money on a consistent basis.

MMOs, that subgenre defined by World of Warcraft and their obsessive fans*, toxic world chat, and "the game begins at max level" ethos.

MMOs, that subgenre that game studios are refusing to touch with a ten foot pole.

***

The funny thing is, you can have both a satisfying linear, story-based experience in MMOs as well as a rich, wide-ranging world where you can wander at will (and there's always people who are willing to indulge in a cash store.)

As for the drawback of MMOs, it's the development costs involved. It is much easier to code the next iteration of Call of Duty rather than World of Warcraft. Because MMOs are so all encompassing, their development costs tend to skyrocket. Not so much with the more narrowly defined yet highly profitable annual Madden release.

Cheaper to make than Battle for Azeroth.
I went with Madden 15 because I refuse
to put a Steeler or a Patriot on the cover.
From Wikipedia.
***

In it's own way, EA is confirming the basic business ethos: build cheap, sell dear.** The article I wrote the other day about Blizzard is another pointed comment about the approach of modern software development to cut costs as much as possible and maximize profits any way you can, and here is a (frequently vilified) software development house that chose to eliminate a game that might have sold well but didn't have:
  • The latest hotness in game design
  • Maximum long term profit potential
  • Maximum output for minimal effort

This movement toward a more naked attempt minimize development and maximize costs is starting to remind me a bit of the lead-up to the Great Video Game Crash of the early 80s. Back then, in the interest of cashing in on the video game market, development houses rushed games to production that were cookie cutters in design, cheap to develop, and designed to maximize profit. The market was so flooded with games (and platforms) that people stopped buying new games, creating the push that started the avalanche. While the modern game industry has avoided a similar crash so far, there becomes a point of diminishing returns, particularly when gamers are going to be asked to buy new console platforms in the next couple of years. Eventually there comes a point where people say "okay, that's enough, I'm tired of the BS", and the industry suddenly has major issues.

We're not there yet, but eventually a course correction will happen. People will eventually say --in large enough numbers-- that we're tired of the treadmill and we want something different. And immersive. And something we don't have to continuously pay money for. Nothing lasts forever, but it seems that the major development houses aren't paying attention to that credo while they're laser focused on the next quarter's results.





*Full disclosure, I am one. I may not subscribe right now, but I do like the game. And besides, that comment was fully tongue-in-cheek, because MOBAs are even worse these days.

**Yeah, it's actually "buy cheap and sell dear", but the point is to create a product as cheaply as possible and sell it as high as you can.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Remember the Days of Kill Ten Rats?

I remember playing through my first toon on SWTOR back in 2012, a Smuggler/Gunslinger, and thinking that Bioware didn't hesitate to show the grey morality of the Republic, particularly on Ord Mantell and Belsavis. SWTOR pretty much hit you over the head with that in Ord Mantell with the woman looking for her locket, and the Cathar woman stealing medical supplies for the refugees, not to mention the embedded videographer you're supposed to "rescue" from the Separatists. However, the one thing that I believe SWTOR did shy away from was the usage of tragedy to propel a story forward.

It's not that the Star Wars Universe is incapable of tragedy as a plot device --the television shows and the "Star Wars Story" films show that in spades-- it's just that the emphasis of SWTOR is more on heroism and getting to be the hero in a galaxy divided between Republic and Sith Empire. Despite all the gray, you do have moral choices to make (Light vs.Dark) that are baked into the system, and one of the choices the Bioware devs decided when working on SWTOR was to simply not use tragedy very much.*

Given the nature of the backstory, I expected more of this in Age of Conan, where in Robert E. Howard's stories the secondary (and frequently major) characters would meet untimely ends in the same way that people in H.P. Lovecraft's stories did. The Sword and Sorcery ethos of "magic = things that mankind was not meant to meddle with" pretty much demands it. On the flip side, when major players died in WoW it would frequently feel forced, and for a while most of the major deaths happened offscreen in the novels. The most notable exception for this was the Wrathgate event, which turned everything in Northrend on its head, yet the full event was so well done it felt completely organic to the situation. Anyone with a brain could see the Apothecaries were working on their own "secret projects" since Vanilla, that long game they were playing finally came to fruition two expacs later.

All that being said, The Elder Scrolls Online hasn't really hesitated into utilizing tragedy --and borrowed from a lot of Sword and Sorcery ethos-- to propel a story forward.

Having played the Main Questline through to completion, it was notably absent of much in the way of sacrifice. Yes, I'm aware of the ending, but even then it wasn't much of a sacrifice if you ask me, because I wasn't so invested in those characters. To be honest, I was more invested in their voice actors than the characters themselves. But the zone stories are an entirely different animal.

It is here that I differentiate between the Main Questline and the entire Coldharbour questline. While I suppose it might count as part of the Main Questline, it certainly has more in common with the other Zone Questlines, as the utilization of tragedy is much more common there than in the Main Questline.

I was thinking about the utilization of tragedy as a plot device last night, as I entered into Stormhaven the other day and was finishing up some quests on the western part of the zone. There I ran into yet another tragic outcome (sorry, no spoilers) which got me to thinking that the Elder Scrolls Universe has absolutely no problem utilizing tragedy, particularly when Daedra are involved to any extent. For all the Mary Sue-ism that your toon embodies, and believe me there's quite a bit of that,** the ESO zone stories temper that with things that you can't control and events you can't stop. Even when you're given a quest to make things right, events are never so simple as it seems.

Kill Ten Rats this ain't. More like "Kill Ten Rats, and oopsie, the original questgiver had that wrong, and you really need to do a Fetch and Carry, and uh-oh, maybe this is an Escort quest as well because the original questgiver decided they couldn't wait and got themselves in a crap ton of hot water (sometimes literally). Oh, and there's also a pretty decent chance that the subject of the quest is either in cahoots with the Daedra or is going to be killed by the Daedra or the Daedra had that subject's buddies killed. Rocks all; everyone dies."

ESO Rule for NPCs #1: Unless the Daedric Prince's name is Merida or Azura, don't even bother. Just don't. And if someone promises to make your problems go away, you're screwed, because it's likely a Daedra. Unless it's your toon doing the promising, of course.




*No, I don't have a pipeline to the SWTOR devs, but looking at the result shows that they did avoid tragedy. It's not like Bioware won't use tragedy as a plot device; after all, look at their other games --including KOTOR 1-- as proof otherwise.

**One questgiver says at the completion of a quest that she will erect a statue in your honor, which is more than a wee bit over the top. And really, your toon is trusted by people (commonly known as "your betters") who ordinarily have no business whatsoever trusting a random person who just happens to show up on their doorstep asking if they can help out. From my perspective, that is the laziest part of the writing in the ESO universe; I shouldn't be able to simply waltz up to a Captain of the Guard, much less nobility, and have them simply accept that I'm going to help out and do their heavy lifting. Even the Jedi get less initial traction in SWTOR than your toon does in ESO.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Farewell, Nexus

I won't be seeing this guy again.
The Caretaker zapped him along with
the rest of Nexus

I managed to get online with 5 minutes before shutdown, but my screenshots never took. I wasn't surprised, as the servers were overloaded with people trying to say goodbye.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Slow Creeping Onslaught of the Bean Counters

Jason Schreier has been busy, following up the Diablo mobile game announcement at Blizzcon 2018 with an indepth article about Diablo, and by extension, Blizzard itself.

The Past, Present, and Future of Diablo dropped on Wednesday, right before Thanksgiving in the US, so it is understandable if you happened to miss it then. But go and read it, then come back here.

I'll wait.

***

Pulling the Diablo expac from development speaks volumes to me. It tells me that upper management was feeling the pressure from the lousy D3 release, and they didn't have confidence that the first D3 expac would right the ship. That was a big departure from Blizzard's previous behavior, where they were willing to wait and work on something before it was good enough to release.

As much as Titan was considered a "failure" by many internally because they never got it across that goal line, it does provide a big peek into Blizzard's thought process. Because Blizzard had the WoW money coming in --as well as a lot of customer goodwill-- Blizzard could afford to throw money at something that ultimately became a "failure", although the release of Overwatch from the ashes of Titan proved that Blizzard could still make a fantastic game from the leftover pieces. I realize that people would argue that Blizzard could afford to do that because of the WoW money, but that ethos was baked into Blizzard's culture from the get-go. The WoW money only allowed Blizzard more space to try to make a failure work.

However, once Activision Blizzard struck out on their own, there was bound to be a culture clash from the two entities as to which vision would ultimate win out.When A-B was part of Vivendi, this sort of clash wasn't necessary because A-B was a small part of the Vivendi conglomerate. When A-B went solo, however, they couldn't afford "poor sales" like they could in the past. So how would this end up?

Well, we do have a previous merger that provides look into the dynamics of how this would work out, and ironically enough it involves two major computer companies, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

***

In one corner, there was Compaq; the maker of the first PC clone that challenged the IBM for dominance in the PC space. In the other was HP, which built its reputation first on lab electronics and calculators, and then later on PCs. The two were big players in the PC market, and when HP's Carly Fiorina first announced the merger the business analysts weren't so sure about how the merger would work out, suggesting that the companies didn't complement each other very well. However, in spite of a revolt led by Walter Hewlett, son of one of the two founders Bill Hewlett, Carly got her wish and the merger happened.

The two corporate cultures, however, couldn't be more different. Compaq was very much a "fly by the seat of your pants" outfit that would throw products against the wall to see what would stick and then patch things to make them work, while HP was more ingrained in a slower, methodical, make-sure-it-works-before-releasing style of development, based on openness and trust, the legendary HP Way. (Does this sound familiar?) Perhaps bruised by the revolt and stung by the criticism from analysts, Carly used the merger to throw out most of HP management and replace them with Compaq people, leading to the eventual loss of the HP corporate culture within its own company.

With Activision Blizzard, we are seeing a similar fight appearing. Activision is very much a "release every year with some changes but with a formula that doesn't vary very much" type of outfit. Blizzard works on things until it is perfect enough to release. Alas, the signs don't look good for Blizzard in the long run, as the killing off of the second D3 expac was the first unofficial sign that Blizzard's management was starting to feel the "what have you done for me this quarter?" that seems to infest publicly traded companies the past 3-4 decades. The end of the article, where Blizzard's new finance person has started talking about "cost cutting", is another ominous sign that Blizzard's management is starting to lose its battle to remain independent from direct control by Bobby Kotick's and the bean counters from the Activision side of the company.

***

In my personal opinion, I think it's time for Blizzard to spin off and become a privately held company. They may not need to do it to develop games, but if they want to develop games the way they've always done it, they'll need to be free from the influence of an alien corporate culture (Activision) and the pressure to perform by shareholders (publicly traded on the market). The freedom to fail is a powerful thing, because it leads to risk and innovation. If a company becomes risk adverse and settles for churning out products that vary little from year to year, they may make money but their dreams become smaller, concerned with focus groups and earnings per share and not rocking the boat. If Blizzard wants to continue to dream big, they need to control their own destiny.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Steam [Don't Call it] Black Friday Sale has Arrived

You know a big sale is going on when I open up my email and find a "25 Items From Your Steam Wishlist are on Sale!" message in there.
I wish the Autumn colors looked like that around
here. It was hot until way late in Fall, and then
suddenly switched over to cold weather, with the
leaves not giving much color at all.

I'm personally debating as to what to do with Steam sale; whether to wait for the Winter Sale or pounce on this one. There are a few games I'd like to nab when they're on sale, such as Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, but there are also some others that I know I'd be tempted to purchase for the mini-Reds.*
Deadfire, because chasing after a rogue
god can be fun. From GameRevolution.


There is the Pathfinder: Kingmaker game out there that I'd really like to try, but I keep saying I'm going to wait until the release is a lot more stable. It seems to be getting there, but I'll likely wait until December before moving forward with P:K.
Well, I'll have to wait a bit longer before
having Pathfinder Barbarian Iconic character
Amiri in my party. From the Kickstarter.
Then there's also a discount on ESO: Summerset, even though I'm likely not to reach there on my ESO main for quite a while.
Because you can't have an ESO expansion
without everyone's favorite Morag Tong
agent tagging along for the ride. From
playstation.com.

Or maybe I'll go purchase a game I'd purchased ages ago for a PC back in the Vista days, such as Total War: Medieval, that no longer plays on current machines because of graphics code changes.** Before you ask why I'd want to play the first version of The Creative Assembly's Medieval games, it's because Medieval 1 is a completely different design than Medieval 2. Medieval 2 follows every design after Total War: Rome and has armies roaming through the maps in fine detail --you can go across terrain and roads, for example-- while Medieval 1 is an area control game in the same way that Risk is. Sometimes you want to play one style, and sometimes you want to play the other.

Sometimes you just wanna slam down some
armies and say "Egypt is MY territory!"
From steam.com.

But you know, I realize that whatever I choose I'll have time for playing later, as we've got the Steam Winter Sale coming in about a month. And I'm fine with that.






*Well, except for the fact that they don't need distractions heading into the final weeks of the Fall semester.

**When that first arose when I'd replaced the graphics card on my old Athlon system, both NVidia and The Creative Assembly pointed fingers at each other, but it turned out that it was NVidia at fault, as they chose not to support an older graphics ruleset. The net effect was that I was no longer able to play the first Medieval: Total War (before they changed the name around) until the Steam version appeared.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The End Comes for Nirn

I finished the endgame for the original portion of The Elder Scrolls Online yesterday. While the final battle at the endgame --and afterwards, your personal story-- took about 8-10 hours of playing time* for a player experiencing it for the first time, the overall storyline for ESO from your initial starting zone through to the end was much faster than I expected. By comparison, my original toon on SWTOR** took probably about 4 months of steady play, and WoW.... Well, lets just say that WoW took considerably longer to get to L60.

But I now know the reason why the opening up of the other faction's zones was so critical to ESO's future: the original game was too short compared to other MMOs.

Believe me, I'm not a "I'm bored, there's nothing to do!!" person, because MMOs by their nature have a lot of side items such as crafting and whatnot, but when I finished the original game I thought, "Huh. That really was too short!"

The story did have a taste of Mary Sue-ness to it at the end, especially given that your character pretty much came out of nowhere to do some amazing things at the end. However, to Zenimax's credit they weren't afraid to let some NPCs die in that final assault. Oh, it wasn't George RR Martin level of bloodbath, but a couple of NPCs that I really kind of liked didn't make it at the end.***

ESO did use a heavy amount of what I'd call personal phasing --where the story provides phasing while in plain sight of other toons, who obviously can't see what you're seeing-- to make the final assault more interesting. This is a grade up from what WoW implemented in Wrath through Mists, and it really takes some virtual sleight of hand to pull this off. Kudos to the dev team for doing just that.

Choice did have a bit of an impact on who shows up in the final assault. If you chose one group over another in the Coldharbour zone, that group was the one that showed up. (Sorry, I'm not giving spoilers away.) That happened numerous times in Coldharbour, and in at least one case making the "right" choice meant a critical quest sequence went a lot more smoothly. But whether it was the right ethical/moral answer, that's a different story.

The one thing that I found most interesting, however, was the impact that the so-called "good" Daedra have on Nirn. I'm pretty much used to Molag Bal, Sheogorath, and company having an impact, but the good Daedra have a pretty large impact as well. I kept wondering just where the Aedra are, and why they're not very active. In that respect, I felt that the world of The Elder Scrolls was more akin to a Swords and Sorcery setting --such as Age of Conan-- where the gods really don't seem to give much of a crap about the Conan's world, but the demons and demon gods certainly do.

Is it worth it to play? Yes, it is, if for nothing else than the voice acting alone. I was geeking out when I heard both Kevin Michael Richardson (Sai Sahan) and Jennifer Hale (Lyris Titanborn) as companions in the same way that their characters in SWTOR were (Jace Malcom and Satele Shan, respectively).
The two in the middle....
(From elderscrolls.wikia.com)
...are the same as these two.
(From wattpad.com.)

The one thing I'm not exactly sure of is just how active the game really is. It certainly seemed active, but there's apparently only one Megaserver for North America, so I don't know how active it truly is. Besides, I'm not playing in Summerset, which is the current expac, so there's that as well.

Anyway, I'm seriously glad that Zenimax opened up the other alliance zones, because otherwise I'd find myself in an uncomfortable situation of saying "this was way too short for me".





*That also included a few extra side quests in the final battle zones --in the same zone as the vampires-- which didn't take terribly long. Maybe it was an hour combined for those side quests, as the delve was fairly straightforward, but I tend to lose track of time when doing some of these side quests.

**This was 2012ish, and that meant all the original side quests were firmly in place and pretty much a requirement if you wanted to gear up your companions.

***And in true MMO fashion, the moment you walk out of the last phased story zone, there were all the NPCs back doing what they were doing.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

More Consolidation is in Order

In other CRPG news, Obsidian Entertainment agreed to be bought out by Microsoft.


I'm not sure what to think of this. On one hand, it's nice from Obsidian's standpoint to not have to worry about where the next set of paychecks is coming from, but I do wonder at the cost to independence and culture.

Obsidian's forte is the CRPG, having been involved with the genre for 20+ years*, so I'm not sure what Microsoft is expecting out of Obsidian, given that the XBoxOne's (and PS4's) forte is more heavily graphically oriented than what Obsidian works with. Don't get me wrong, an isometric CRPG can work well in a console format**, but that's more the exception than the rule for console games. And, truth be told, console gamers aren't exactly clamoring for a CRPG design style that dates back to 1998 and Baldur's Gate with the original Bioware Infinity Engine.

Still, what CRPGs like Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny have is story, and if Microsoft wants to take Obsidian's world building and storytelling, throw in some current-gen console magic, and whip up a new CRPG franchise, that's fine with me.

All I ask of Microsoft is to let Obsidian do what Obsidian wants to do also, because that independence will reap dividends in the long run. Yes, yes, I know Microsoft says that they will, and I'm sure that they'll try to at first, but the thing is that very few companies retain that independence over the long haul. By giving Obsidian the chance to fail without fear, Microsoft will be giving a software studio a chance to dare to reach even higher.

And who knows, maybe that'll provide Microsoft with the next Dragon Age or Witcher franchise.





*Obsidian was formed by former members of Black Isle, who'd created Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout 1 and 2.

**Just look at Blizzard's D3 port to consoles for an example.


EtA: Fixed a confusing grammar error.