The Mad Max User Experience


I recently was looking for a new job. While searching I came across loads of open roles for UX designers. 10 years ago, that job title pretty much did not exist. Now everyone wants to hire UX designers.

UX, or User eXperience, has become a big thing. A buzz word. Lots of research goes into it. A lot of software (and hardware) developers have entire test labs, ensuring their latest product meets the latest UX standards. And a lot of this research has delivered some great results which can be felt (experienced) in everyday life.

Just have a look at some of the examples here. Hell, have a look at your own gadgets, websites you use, software you work with. You can find great (and not so great) UX everywhere. It was arguably Apple’s massive leap in UX for smartphones with gave them the edge, and still does to some degree.

But even before UX became fashionable and an actual discipline in game development in it’s own right, our users still had an experience and we developers still wanted that experience to be good.

For the most part it was down to game, level and UI designers to do their job right. Intuition, experience and the ability to look at a product from the outside, as a new user might, were the key marks of a good designer and often lead to great user experience in games.

User Experience is hugely important in games, just like with other products out there. We have huge competition and the market is saturated with games our customers can choose from. If gamers have a bad experience, particularly early on in a game, they are less likely to stay with the game, recommend it or purchase additional content. They won’t ever champion your game and become an enthusiast.

Some of the key considerations when designing a the UX and UI of a game:

         Ease of use: a new player should be able to pick up the controller and just get on with the game. There should be no barrier between the player and the game. Any new things a player might learn for a specific title have to be introduced in a natural, non-intrusive way. Do not confuse ease of use with easy gameplay. A game can be easy to get to grips with, understand and control, but can still be hard to play!

         Readability: Every element in the games UI needs to make sense and, at a glance, convey all important information to the player when they need it most. Icons, abstractions and text need to make sense. If players have to pause to look up what something means, or even guess, that’s bad. It gets worse if anything to do with second to second gameplay (the immediate game moment) can’t be interpreted at a glance (such as health, ammo, stealth status etc.).

         Help the player to project: Once a player is in the game and understands what is going on, they need to understand what it is they can/should/must achieve in the near and far future. Being able to project where they can be in 10, 15, 20 hours of gameplay, allows the player to form a plan, to keep engaging with the game even when not playing it. If a player can see that with a little more time they can get a new upgrade and maybe a few hours down the road they can get a brand new weapon, they will make plans while at school or work on how best to achieve that. Keep those things hidden or obscure and players will switch off from your game when they switch off the console.

         Give feedback: if a player is doing something wrong, or could be doing something better, make use of the information the game has collected and present it to the player in a way that helps them get better at the game (without being condescending). Don’t overload the player though. Constant pop-ups with feedback and information, particularly during core gameplay loops, is confusing, distracting and the player will have no time to absorb.

         Celebrate player actions: This goes beyond the “Achievement Unlocked” moment. Whenever players achieve or accomplish something, this should be celebrated and reinforced – it has to become a memorable moment, which also serves as learning experience. Something players remember as having done well, they can apply further in the game again. It will stick with them. And of course games are largely there to entertain us, and make us feel good, and celebrating special moments in the game reinforce that. Again, don’t overuse this or it become meaningless.

No game ever gets everything spot on. It’s hard to do. Not even Apple, who are (as much as I hate to admit it) amazing at UX, get everything right. UX is an area where improvement can always be achieved.

However there are some clear examples, even in this day and age, where UX is done in a less than ideal way, and I think we can learn from these examples. With that in mind I am going to talk about Mad Max, and open world game recently released by Warner Brothers.

Ease of Use:

If there is one thing which is crucial, particularly in the console market, it is the ease with which players can pick up a game and just get stuck in. The first 10 to 15 minutes of a game often determine whether a consumer sticks with the product. First impressions count and they last. If the initial impression is a bad one, players will be less likely to overlook smaller issues later on and are far more likely to stop playing a game, perhaps even returning it to the store. If the first 15 minutes are an amazing experience and players feel masterful straight away, they get the game and how it’s played, they are far more likely to ignore issues later or, or even not notice them at all. They are also more likely to praise the game on social media, promoting sales (rather than contributing to second hand sales).

Let’s leave aside that the first 10 minutes of Mad Max are actually made up of cut scenes and don’t present any gameplay at all (which I feel is a missed opportunity). But when you finally get to play the game for the first time, it is anything but easy to use.

The game completely throws out existing standards of controller mapping and instead opts for a radically new layout and I am not entirely sure why. Sure, the game has a few mechanics on top of, say, a standard shooter, but after looking at it in detail I could not see anything that really stood out which warranted why some of these atrocious button mapping choices were made. Even considering that the game essentially has an on-foot and a driving mode, the button mapping is weird, cumbersome to learn and leads to many issues during gameplay.

Even if the buttons would make sense and be easy to use, which they do not and are not, presenting the player with a non-standard button mapping for a console title only serves one thing: creating a barrier to entry.

Rather than picking up the controller and immediately feeling like you are in control of Max, you struggle to get to grips with the buttons while (important) content in the world is lost to you. The player is put on the back foot of the learning curve straight away.

Example: firing your shotgun is default mapped to “B” on an xbox controller, while the triggers are used for sprinting and jumping.

It’s as if the driving controls were designed and set in stone and the on-foot controls shoehorned on top. In game where bullets are rare (and require a 3 second canned animation, button hold) firing your gun by accident because muscle and brain reflex make you press B for different things in combat, that’s bad.

Whether this poor decision is down to the UX designers being inexperienced, wanting to do something different or simply being too close to the project (and thus “used” to the controls to a point where it ceased to be a problem), is neither here nor there. The end result is something that delivers a poor experience. Players actively have to spend time to learn the controls.

When it comes to button mapping, I feel it’s ok to copy what other games, in particular mass market games, do. To a degree I think it’s a must do. Players are used to standard controls for certain games and it is this knowledge which greatly lowers the entry barrier to the games we make. And the more we can lower the basic entry barrier, the more gamers can enjoy our games – and that’s what it’s all about. We make games for others, not just for us.

Now whatever the reason really was, or perhaps it was a mix of reasons, the controller layout for Mad Max is simply horrible. There is no other way to describe it.


This is another key point at which Mad Max falls flat on.

From the actual on-screen HUD to the large map, the game is incredibly hard to read at times and it asks the player to learn and memorize a lot of things. Not only that, but in an attempt to cram as much content as possible into the game world (something which was not always commented on favourably in the reviews), the map becomes overly cluttered and it actually takes time and effort to read it. In an attempt to show just how much gameplay the game packs, it also leaves not much to be discovered IMO, which is one of the great aspects of open world games – going into the unknown!

Because the HUD has to display quite a few things, particularly when driving (Health, Water, Ammo, Boosts, Car Health, mini-map, level of currently selected weapon etc.), it was separated out into 2 sections. These are on opposing sides of the screen – bottom left for health and minimap, bottom right for ammo, weapons and car status. This is fine when playing on a PC monitor, but try playing this on a 46’’ or bigger TV and you will find our head going left to right to try and gather information. A more elegant solution would have been to combine health, ammo, weapons etc. in one and have the minimap (which is something players need the least during fast action paced gameplay) and plonk it in a top corner. That way players could have scanned up and down (shorter distance) rather than left to right.

The main map is simply cluttered. Too many icons, many of them looking similar, needing the player to hover over them to identify what they do. Getting info at a glance is an almost impossible task for new or casual players.A very simple thing would have been to not populate the map with all loot/scrap locations and leave those on the minimap only, and only when close by. This reduces clutter and encourages exploratory driving, rather than just driving to a location, looting and picking the next location. 


The other big issue when it comes to readability in Mad Max is the upgrade screen, both for Max and the car. The car upgrade screen is incredibly convoluted. The game gives the player a lot of choice, but those choices come at a cost. That cost is time and usability.

Some icons are understandable, others are not at all. It takes several steps to get to the upgrade you might want, and when you get there you find out that you don’t have enough scrap or, even worse, that “You need to continue the story mission to get the upgrade!” – Which you see a LOT when you first get into car upgrades.


The last part is an interesting one. In theory showing the players all the upgrades they can get is good, as players are able to project where they eventually. But artificially blocking access through storyline missions, and showing this to players, can be quite demoralizing, particularly if players have no way of telling how long it will take to complete the story mission. Players don’t know if they can get an upgrade in 10 minutes or 10 hours.

Additionally many people play open world games to have fun, for the sandbox part, not for the story. So if they can see, right from the start, that they can’t get the majority of upgrades unless they do the story, they are immediately negatively affected. Particularly if they can also see that actually have enough currency to get the upgrade already. In short: Mad Max forces players to consume content, which, IMO, is the exact opposite of what an open world game should do. It is strange game design to say the least.

When it comes to the upgrade screen, the game could learn a lot from the likes of CSR Racing, where a player is immediately notified when he has enough cash to buy an upgrade and, at one click, is brought to the right screen to purchase it. It is a smooth experience that also highlights when a player as achieved something! 2 birds one stone.

These are the things I noticed in the first 2 hours of play. To be honest now, I did not play beyond this and have since given my copy away, with no intention to return. Which is a shame really because the game looks stunning, has a decent story and some great characters. But the frustration I felt in trying to control the game and trying to get information I needed simply was too great to make it enjoyable to continue. Which is just as well, as I probably would have gotten frustrated at the repetition of the mechanics and content as well.

A quick final note regarding the other 2 points I mentioned above, Feedback and Celebration:

I cannot actively remember the game giving me any feedback when I did something wrong. I often used the wrong buttons, blocked too late or could not land a heavy blow. Beyond the initial tutorial messages, the game never told me what I could do better, or which upgrade I should get to get better. I could have missed those, or they could have come later, but that is also kind of the point – I did not experience them when I needed them.  

The celebration on the other hand I can remember. Far too much. I constantly got pop ups telling me how awesome I was, even when all I did was take out the 10th scarecrow with my car, which was trivial by then. Celebration became meaningless to me.
In summary then, Mad Max feels very much like a dated game when it comes to user experience. A game where trying to be unique and different with controls backfired in my opinion. It feels like in an attempt to cram it full of content little attention was paid on how to communicate content to the player in a meaningful, easy to understand and elegant manner. Under the hood there are some great moments in the game but Mad Max is a perfect example of a game that hides all that awesomeness behind an entry barrier that, I feel, will prove too high for a wider audience.

Games Journalism


Games journalists. Don’t make me laugh.

No developer likes the gaming press. I don’t think I have ever heard any games developer actually speak positively about gaming publications, printed or online, or the so called games journalists. I will refer to them as journalists throughout this post, because that’s what they call themselves. But few, if any, of the people currently writing about games or the games industry are actually journalists in the true sense of the word. In reality, most of them are nothing more than glorified bloggers given a bigger platform to stand on. I don’t doubt that there are some genuinely honest and good journalists in the industry, and there might even be the odd real friendship between a journalist and a developer, but I reckon those cases are rarer than a football trophy going to Arsenal.

The games press only exists because we developers make games. The games press lives and feeds off of what we produce and the buzz and hype we generate (through our own marketing and advertising campaigns). The games press lives from the money development studios and publishers pump into advertising on their websites and printed magazines.

And what does the gaming industry get in return for all this? Not really a fucking lot to be honest. If we are lucky we might get a good review. If we are really lucky, and there is no click-bait topic ready to be published, a game we work on might feature in a preview or article. But for the most part, we get criticized and antagonized by a bunch of (self) glorified bloggers. At times these “journalists” can’t even be bothered to fact check what they write about.

Example: A gamespot crew once reported on a game I worked on. After a demonstration session, where the game was shown and talked about, they got several elements completely wrong and, despite myself and others being fully available to them, they could not be bothered to ask ONE question. Any of the things they “misunderstood” could easily have been cleared up, if they had actually cared. But it was easier (and more sensationalist) for them to report “shortcomings” of the game.

And the worst part? We have to pretend we like it. We have to pretend we love the gaming press and want to work with them, because in a vast ocean of games released every year, we hope that by being nice to a journalist and sucking that blogger dick, we might just get a nice article and stick out from the crowd.

It did not always used to be this way. Before the rise of online games journalism (everyone and their dog with access to the internet can become a media critic these days), people reviewing games actually had integrity and often a background and education in the journalistic field. Admittedly there were also fewer games and stories to cover, so more time and detail could be spent on each piece. But articles felt well researched and balanced.

These days being first is more important than being factual. Writing the 100th article about Sarkeesian brings in more clicks (and thus money) than a review of an actual game (400+ comments vs. 18 comments). It no longer is about what the games press should do, but rather what they have to do. Money talks. Controversial topics generate heated debates and comments, they generate lots of clicks, they generate lots of revenue.

Barely a week goes by without major publications posting about GamerGate, Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn or Brianna Wu. Yet at the same time those same publications can’t find the time to review potentially great games. Freedom Planet for example has gotten 3 reviews in 8 months – none of them from one of the big publications (for small/independent teams this can be devastating)

No, unfortunately it’s the big titles, the big developers/publishers and the big controversies that matter. In many cases the gaming press does not even have to bother with the truth or research anymore. Just look at how often a “news article” has to be updated, as new (and different) information starts coming in. Week on week we see more “opinion pieces”. Unlike reviews or interviews, here the authors view and perception matter, and the author is not required to give equal representation to either side. Essentially most of these opinion pieces are just blog posts, but due to the space they are posted in, they are given far more credibility than they actually deserve.

This place here is a blog. Nobody is under any impression that anything I write here matters more than the opinion of someone else. I write it how I see it and I try to back things up where I can, but what I write here is still my opinion. I do not get paid for this, I do not have companies paying for advertising on this site. But when a publication which is meant to be all about gaming, and thus attracts an audience interested in that subject, starts mixing in more and more opinion pieces, the lines start to blur.

There is a perfect example of this – an article by Patrick Garratt, regarding a petition from Mark Kern (who is an incredible industry veteran). Not only did the article go to town on the petition itself (a petition which actually had no impact on VG247 at all), but neither the writer nor the website bothered to actually talk to Mark or give him any space to express his thoughts. Essentially it boiled down to this: Patrick Garratt disagreed with the petition and posted a long article about it, abusing the platform provided to him by VG247 and claiming it was journalism. #letmarkspeak was born and lets see where it goes – sign the petition while you are at it.

Another recent example of an opinion piece, abusing the platform provided to the “journalist”, is Ben Kuchera’s piece on game length. In it there is one paragraph in particular which irked me:

This creates a terrible tension in our hobby; $60 for a single piece of entertainment is a huge price, especially when combined with the fact that it costs hundreds of dollars for the console needed to play the game. Heck, each console only plays certain games on the market, and you’ll need at least three machines to play everything in our hobby.

I can’t expect Kuchera to have read my piece on entertainment cost from a few years ago. After all he is a busy man, turning his “hobby” (playing video games) into a job (writing opinion pieces, complaining about video games). But as someone a background as esteemed as his, working both in retail and in “journalism” for such a long time, I would have expected to see beyond the 60 USD price tag.

Yes 60 USD seems like a lot. For any product, it is a price tag which can make people pause and think about a purchase. However 60 USD for 7 or 8 hours of entertainment is still good value for money. Not to mention that, unlike say a cinema ticket (20 USD or more for a 2 hour experience), you can pass the game on to your friends or even trade it in again. Raising the cost of consoles, or the fact that 3 consoles are “needed” just shows that Kuchera is grasping at straws. Of course there are exceptions, and sometimes games can feel like a rip-off. If poor Kuchera felt that way about The Order:1886, then fair enough. But for the most part games are still incredible value for money. He complains about the price of games, but does not understand that his very salary also comes out of every single game we (those who MAKE the game) sell. And what is his contribution for that cut? Fuck all. A big fucking finger to the developer – that is his contribution. Well Mr. Kuchera: get off your high horse, make a game and sell it to the public. But please don’t complain about how unfair the industry is and how much we rip people off, while you suck on our tits for your daily milk.

There has been lots of talk about a “rift” between the gaming press, the developers and the gamers. That rift did not exist 10 years ago. Back then we developers created games, some good and some not so good, and the gamers bought them and enjoyed them. Games journalists played them and gave their (honest) opinion in reviews – the gaming press, in theory, was on the side of the gamer. But with the rise of opinion pieces, with giving people like Kuchera and Garrett and others a platform to write their ridiculous blog posts, that rift started to appear. And rather than try to fix it, games publications actually fan the flames and encourage the arguments – because that is exactly what generates traffic and revenue. I would argue that without the gaming press there would be no GamerGate and far less controversy and anger.

It feels like the gaming press feels entitled to something. After the whole DorritoGate episode, when games media outlets had to adopt ethics rules, perhaps they are missing the free handouts, the flights to special press events, the hotel parties and being treated like kings. I guess that could be it. Maybe it is because all those freebies were taken away, or could not be obtained as easily, the games press slowly but surely turned against us developers, and even their readership. Maybe drying up the free stuff meant they were more dependant on click-bait articles and the revenue stream those generate. I don’t know. But in the last 2 years or so the gaming press, in many cases, has become openly critical of not only the gamers, but also of developers.

It’s not all bad news though. There are some people who, independant from major publications, concentrate on what’s important: the games. People like TotalBiscuit built a following by focusing on games, being honest, being funny and (oh shock!) by researching what they talk about. That is why they are popular on youtube, twitter and other social media outlets. As a developer, these are the guys I would want to talk to about the games I make.

I think it’s funny in a way that people like TotalBiscuit, who started essentially with opinion pieces, are now more reliable, honest and more about games than traditional games publications. Websites like Polygon, VG247, Eurogamer etc. who were founded to be all about games, have changed to be more about opinion pieces. It comes at no surprise to me that Total Biscuit has close to 2 million subscribers, while traditional outlets close or try to reinvent themselves in an attempt to stay current and edgy, in order to stay relevant.

With the circus of shows starting up next week with GDC, another year of “be nice to the journalists and butter them up” is about to start. There will be hundreds of developers talking to thousands of these so called journalists. For the most part we won’t enjoy it. It will be a necessary evil and the best we can hope for is that what we say, is actually reported on correctly. But we will smile, answers some of the most stupid questions imaginable. This is not for the benefit of the gamer. This is purely to try and maximise the PR for our games, to stick out from the crowd.  


IMAG0216 sniper_elite_3_day_one_patch

It’s Christmas, or soon it is anyway! And despite the fact that shooting people in the face seems to be, yet again, the top choice for most gamers, it is the time for reflection and forgiveness. So this blog post is all about forgiving really. And to be quite honest, we gamers are a very, very forgiving lot.

Don’t get me wrong, gamers are quick to anger and a lot of us are very vocal when it comes to, what many of us think of as, “our games”. But in reality it’s as if it was Christmas all year round. Gamers forgive everything, and are happy to pay for the privilege.

2014 has been an average year for gaming in most respects. It being the first full year of a brand new console generation, combined with a leap forward in PC hardware specs (again), we have not actually had that much of a packed and outstanding array of games. There are a few games that stuck out (and each has their own favourites, so I not going to list the special ones for me), but for the most part it’s been mediocre.

What 2014 was all about though seems to have been massive day one patches and incredibly buggy software. It seems then that what the new generation of consoles has brought us, is even lazier developers/publishers and even more disregard to the actual consumer. 6 gigabyte day one patches, Assassin’s Creed:Unity bug disasters, broken content for Destiny, huge glitches (for some) on Alien:Isolation – in fact I cannot think of a single game I bought/played this year where I could simply insert the disk in my drive and start playing straight away and do so without having any issues at all.

But that’s ok! Because the average gamer is the most forgiving consumer on the planet. I would put this down in part to hope, hope that it will be fixed at some point, and fandom. Fans of a genre or game simply WANT their game to be good. Due to eager anticipation and all the hype before a launch, gamers often don’t even see the issues present or gloss over it. The number of times I have heard a version of “If you only look past…” or “Just play about 10 hours and then…” this year, is insane.

It is incredible really, because in general we (the consumers) have little patience for broken things and in general are very careful about how we spend our hard earned money and spare time. Just have a read through some restaurant or holiday reviews. I think most have seen some of the hilarious reviews people write on Amazon. We read these reviews and we trust them. Businesses have to change, because people will avoid them based on these reviews (I sure as hell won’t eat in any of these restaurants).

This system generally does not exist for video games. AC:Unity sits at a low 70s metacritic. That is well above average. Most reviewers don’t even mention the obvious bugs. No review I have ever read has lowered their score based on the fact that there is a 4+ GB day one patch. Imagine  if you bought a DVD, got home and popped it into your player and then had to wait 2 hours (not everyone is on fast Scandinavian internet) to download the high resolution version, or half of the audio files, which did not make it on the DVD in time.

Imagine if you bought yourself a new gadget and half the functions it advertised were not accessible yet, needed to be patched or simply were glitchy – what would you do? Probably the same as me, which is go to the store and demand a refund. Most of us will test drive a new car we buy before we purchase it (there is a reason there are so few demos these days for games – any marketing/sales guy can tell you that the vast majority of games sell less if there is a demo).

But gamers do not do this, or only very rarely. Sure, they leave scathing reviews on metacritic, but the user review options there are not reflective or controlled. Unlike TripAdvisor or Amazon, they are largely anonymous and you can’t be held accountable for false info. Which is why, as soon as a game launches, you get 200+ positive reviews (number depends on the title and team) from those who made the game and the marketing team robots – all with fake, new accounts, giving the game a 10, because it’s their game. Then you get the haters who give it a 0 without having played it, simply because they hate the developer, the publisher or the game itself. So Metacritic is out as a useful tool. And game review sites obviously can’t be trusted either, not because they get bribed or are biased (some are, some aren’t), but simply because they don’t seem to take broken content or patches into account.

And this is what developers and publishers have come to realize. And this is why 2014 has been a year of massive patches and games full of bugs. And it’s only going to get worse. Of all the new powers and features the new generation of consoles have provided developers with, they have seized on one: the massive internal storage. This, plus the easing off on first party restrictions, has allowed developers to essentially print a known turd on a disc and simply provide a day one patch that is as big as the game itself. It allows publishers to hit their release dates and, while the discs are printing, keep working to actually fix the game. It used to be a naughty thing, delivering a day one patch. Developers used to apologize for it. Patches used to be a few megabytes at the most. 100+ megabytes was considered a large patch. No more! Now we simply deliver the basic installer and most of the audio files on disc – the rest can be delivered magically via the internet! Anyone who is not connected will just have to live with sub par content – our customer service team can always advise them to get the patch. That is if they do actually call customer services. It’s all about hitting that target window, hitting your launch date. Get the game out before the competition, or in time for Christmas. Do some fancy trailers, spend lots of money on marketing (one some high profile titles marketing spend equals or exceeds money spent on development) and hope enough people are lured into purchase and then forgiving enough not to throw the game back in your face.

In reality the vast majority of gamers is not exercising their consumer rights. Gamers allow developers and publishers to serve up products which are sub par. Any other product or service, delivered at this quality level, would be returned and shunned. But gamers are, to their own detriment, a forgiving bunch. Because they just want to play “their” game.

Perhaps, if this trend of day one patches and broken content continues, 2015 will be the year in which we see more class action law suits. Where we see developers and publishers shunned as they should be. Perhaps gamers will bring their purchases back to the shops in droves and demand a refund. Or perhaps the season of forgiveness will be extended another year. Publishers and developers gleefully rub their hands at the stupidity of the consumer, knowing that a turd can definitely be sold as long as it has a little golden shine to it. Perhaps patch it later if it’s really needed, or give away an old title for free to generate some good will and good press. Because our beloved dear little Jesus (whose birthday we celebrate in 2 days) knows, the games industry definitely does not really care about the customers at all.

The games industry should be asking for forgiveness this Christmas, and hope that the customer base is in a festive mood.


Merry Christmas everyone and check back in 2015!

30 Minutes of your time


I was going to write about Call of Duty: Advance Warfare. Then I was going to write about Dragon Age: Inquisition. I could not make my mind up really. I recently picked up both of these games and managed less than 30 minutes on each. And there I had it – the common thread.

What both these games, and a few others I have had a go at recently, have in common, is that they do not hook me within the first 15 minutes, not even within the first 30 minutes to be honest. Quite the contrary, they are shining examples of (what I think) is horrible design choices for the opening moments of the respective game. And both games have bad beginnings for different reasons. Let’s have a look at them in turn. There are very minor spoilers ahead. Really minor. I did not get far at all. This might be a bit of a long post.

Call of Duty

CoD has been a yearly staple for some time now and this time around it was the turn of a new studio at the helm, Sledgehammer. It actually follows in the footsteps of the last few iterations of the game quite neatly. It does not do anything radically different or better. By all accounts it is a solid, if not groundbreaking, game in the series. Personally I think other games do certain elements better (Titanfall for movement, including jump-pack, Battlefield for multiplayer), but that is purely subjective.

The opening however I feel is a great example of what not to do with a video game. There is the inevitable massive cut scene, desperately trying to establish the relationship between the player character and his buddy,  and then the player is plunged into action. Only it’s not really action. You are in a drop pod with a few other marines. You descent towards Korea (North or South I can’t remember). Something goes wrong and the very first action of the game you have to perform: a quicktime event. Not only that, there is no real consequence of the quicktime event either (not gonna spoil more than that). You eventually crash land and guess what! Another quick time event! This time you can literally hang in your harness for as long as you want – I went and made myself a cup of tea and a sandwich – before you press the button to release. When you finally do, you are on the ground, but it takes another 2 or 3 minutes before you see action.

So what’s wrong with this opening? Well it depends on what you see in CoD. To me, first and foremost, the game is a first person shooter. Yet I do not get to shoot until I am 5 minutes into the game. The very first thing I do as a player is a quicktime event with no meaning. The entire opening of the game is framed around a cinematic set-piece, indeed the entire first level is. It is meant to WOW the player, it is not meant to let the player PLAY the game or learn anything. There is a tutorial which teaches all the new stuff the game has to offer (jump-pack, smart grenades and all that jazz), but you don’t actually get to see that tutorial (which comes in the shape of a rifle range) until 20 to 30 minutes into the game. By which point you should really have used all those gameplay elements if you want to survive.

CoD does 3 things in the beginning of the game:

  • It gives me a cinematic set piece
  • It throws me in the deep end of gameplay without teaching me any relevant elements
  • It tries to force a supposedly deep and meaningful relationship on me, which actually means nothing to me at all.

In my book CoD does everything wrong. Gamers don’t buy CoD for a quasi relationship and shitty story telling. Gamers buy CoD because they want to shoot stuff. But the game does not allow me to do that until it forces all that sappy story stuff and the quicktime events down my throat. I am sorry CoD, but I am not pressing X to pay my respects.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

I was really looking forward to DA. I actually loved the first one, though only managed a few hours in the second before I gave up – it was utterly rubbish. So when Bioware decided to get back to work on it and change things, I was happy. What I had seen in trailers and interviews excited me and I have friends working on the game. I lasted slightly longer than 30 minutes (but! I might go back to it).

Dragon Age starts very much like CoD: It’s a big cinematic experience. It has character creation woven into it and it’s done well, but essentially it’s a big cut scene. The difference between CoD and DA though is, that at the end of the CoD intro I know what’s going on (shitty as the story is), with Dragon Age I have not got a clue. There was some green explosion. My character now has green glowing hands. I have been arrested but, through awesome conversation skills (which seem to offer choice, but don’t really as the outcome is the same), I managed to convince my captors to trust me and let me free.

The game then throws me in the thick of it and, unlike CoD, does explain a few more things along the first mission. The problem is: there is far too fucking much to learn and it’s explained at breakneck speed. There are different followers and their abilities, tactical views, combat strategies, special attacks, consumables, character upgrades (which a highly convoluted and unreadable menu) and many many more things. The game completely overloads the player with things to learn, while trying to convey story at the same time. It does not help that the voice actors for the first part are quite bad and the dialogue is wooden.

30 minutes in and I have no clue who I am, why I do what I do, who the enemy are and, most importantly, how I do the things I need to do. It’s a shambles. A friend of mine pointed out today to give it 5 or 6 hours and you’ll get the hang of it. Are you fucking serious??

As another friend of mine said a few days ago: DA:Inquisition is like Stockholm syndrome. You fall in love with something that is actually bad for you, hurting you, and you desperately want it to be good.

Am I just a rubbish gamer?

Well yes and no. I am certainly not the world’s best gamer, and my gaming habits and preferences certainly have changed slightly over the last few years (due to age probably, due to lifestyle definitely). I am busy in life, I have things I like to do other than gaming. For me gaming is like any other form of entertainment (movies, theatre, TV, gigs and books), something enjoyable to do when I have spare time. Occasionally there will be a game which simply takes over my life. A game I can’t wait to get home to play, a game which I think about when at work, a game I will say no to a session in the pub for. But these have been rare in the last few years.

But I am a gamer, and a designer, so I LIKE games and I want to play games. I cannot think of a time where I will ever stop playing games. I am just a lot more picky these days and I have no time for games that don’t grab me, in one way or another, within the first 30 minutes.

What do games have to do then, to achieve that?

How to create a good game start

It’s easy for me to write this, it’s harder to actually pull off. There are many people involved in making a game and everyone has their opinion on what they need to convey to the player early on in the game.

  • Story
  • Characters
  • Gameplay
  • Setting
  • Visuals

All these, to one degree or another, are valid points. But I think game developers consistently get it wrong. They attempt one or more of these points and get the emphasis wrong, or convey it in the wrong way. Games focus on one element over others. Some which focus on gameplay go too far and create hand-holding tutorials that everyone wants to skip. It’s not easy getting the mix right, but it has to be done.

Essentially it boils down to this: Establish the setting, story and character but never at the expense of gameplay. Don’t focus on gameplay to such an extent as to break immersion. And never let visuals and reveals dictate anything else, instead visuals are there to reinforce the other parts.

Sounds easy right? Sounds like common sense right? Well it’s hard to implement properly, depending on who is in charge and what the focus is on.

So here is how I would have done CoD and Dragon Age differently, and why.

ZeGerman’s Opening of Call of Duty: Advance Warfare

Start the game in boot camp. Do not have a big fuck off cut scene at the start. The game obviously intends me to feel something about my character and my marine buddy. So do the tutorial first, in boot camp, on the shooting range. In the first 30 seconds of the game, give me a weapon to shoot with. Tell a story how these new suits of armour are being introduced. I am a brand new recruit and, what is going to be my best buddy helps me learn the ropes, teaches me. Introduce all new tech in an environment where you are naturally MEANT to learn weapons – it makes sense from a context point of view. Then have a radio, TV or public announcement of the Korean war. Introduce the reason for why we are going to deploy.

10 minutes in the player knows who he is, knows who his buddy is and knows how to operate the most sophisticated weaponry known to infantry soldiers. Above all he knows why he is going to deploy to Korea. THEN show me the kick ass cut scene. You can even do the silly quicktime event if you absolutely must.

And for the love of god, cut the gameplay event at the funeral, it’s embarrassing. The reality is, players of games like CoD will have a hard time relating to or feeling for their own character. Asking them to feel something for an NPC who dies is just never going to happen. It’s wasted time and effort to try. Cut scenes are great for that, as players feel they are a reward for playing the game. In games like CoD they can also be a nice way of “relaxing” after some intense combat.

ZeGerman’s Opening of Dragon’s Age: Inquisition

This one is actually a lot simpler in many ways. One of the biggest problems the game has is lack of context. Players new to the series will have no fucking clue at all about anything. So in this case a big cut scene in the beginning is actually a good idea. But rather than show what is happening in this instalment, take the time (and money) to give vision back to the previous games. If you make a game part of a series and the setting, story and characters have a history, you need to make sure that every player is aware of that history. Do not expect new players to have seen trailers, read websites or go back and play the old games. Double points if you make this “what happened so far” cut scene optional when a player first starts the game. “Would you like to be reminded of what happened so far?” – yes it will cost a bit extra to make a cut scene like this, but with a budget of DA that would have been peanuts.

The only other thing that DA would need to do at the start is to not introduce everything at the same time. Within the space of 5 minutes the player gets introduced to combat, group combat, tactical overview and (after leveling up) to player upgrades. Very very very simple solution: Slow. Things. Down.

Introduce the player to personal combat first of course, just basic controls. This can easily be handled in the context of the player recovering from the shock of the explosion. The character is slow, dazed, so not much else is available. Next introduce health, consumables, allow the player to regain health. Now the player is no longer dazed, so special attacks are available. Teach the player how to use them, how to map them. Once that is done, ensure the player has leveled up and introduce the character upgrade system (make sure ONLY the character upgrade screen is available at this point and make it actually readable…).

Now you can get the player arrested. Do your story bits as needed. Following that, give the player another scenario where he has to test the skills learned early on – solo combat, healing up and perhaps even another upgrade.

Then it’s time to pick up the pace and introduce group combat, but with one follower only. Have a couple of combat scenarios like that, make sure you introduce shifting between characters at this point, it’s much easier to keep track with only 2 characters in the group. Following that, add another follower and  repeat the process, again for a few small battles. Then you can finally introduce the tactical element and different camera position.

In short: Space things out, make sure the player learns one thing at a time AND has time to practice what he has learned before introducing new elements. It’s an RPG. Even players who are familiar with these games, and the series, won’t mind the slower pace if it’s done well and if it is good content.

Not only does this retain the player, learning things, unlocking things and seeing new things are all little rewards that get the player into the “oh just one more” state, but spacing it out also gives the designers room to introduce storry, characters and context slower. This means you can make sure the player knows who he is, who his team are and what is going on. Telling me in my very first conversation choice that “Person X” does not approve of my choice, does not mean anything to me if I don’t know who Person X is or why I should care.

Final Thoughts

Getting the start of a game right is not always easy. But it is hugely important. Hardcore gamers aside (and as an industry we should not ever really care about them, because they do not represent the widest possible market), it is important to capture the player in the first 15 to 30 minutes or risk losing him for good and risk ending up with another copy of the game in the “used” section.

I think a lot of developers try to do just that, capturing the audience, by blasting them with all the features and a couple of great cut scenes early on. But I believe the opposite might be a better option. Slow things down, focus on what is important. The opening of a game is not an E3 or release trailer. The opening of a game has to be designed to tell the player all he needs to know to set him up for the rest of the game. Pacing, gameplay and context is more important there than in any other part of the game.

Alienated and Isolated


NOTE: This “Review” might contain some minor spoilers, but considering I only played about 30 minutes into the game, they would be VERY minor.


This is an almost not-played review of Alien Isolation. Almost not-played because I did attempt to play it, but less than 30 minutes of game time later I decided it was more entertaining to play with the cat flap. Or, to get some popcorn, a beer and pop on the original Alien DVD.

In a short and sweet and unambiguous statement: Alien Isolation is probably one of the biggest turds of a game I have come across in recent times. The fact is that 5 minutes into the game I wanted to turn it off again. I only played longer because I wanted to see more from a professional point of view. But after about half an hour I could not even use professional curiosity as an excuse to keep going.

Those of you who have read some of my other games reviews and design posts, will probably have realized by now that I have little to no patience when it comes to games. I am not a hardcore gamer that enjoys being challenged overly much. Now in my mid to late thirties I see games as a form of entertainment, I do not want to turn a game into a second job. I don’t mind thinking, and in fact I quite like it, but “puzzles” need to be presented properly and make me feel clever and good about myself to keep my interest. I consider myself an average, mainstream, gamer – and I think I am part of probably the biggest potential market share.

So I have to clarify. I THINK Alien Isolation is probably one of the biggest turds of a game that I have across in recent times, and that is because it is clearly not aimed at people like me. And that is ok! As long as Creative Assembly have consciously made a game which is not easily accessible and not very user friendly and their budget has reflected the smaller, much more niche, audience that is likely going to be attracted to the game, that’s totally fine and in fact, it’s good games like this exist! See one of my previous posts!

Having said that, essentially justifying Alien Isolation’s existence (not that they need me to justify it, but I do it anyway), I still think it’s worth taking apart the few bits and pieces of the game that I did see.

The first thing to talk about is the mixed bag of reviews the game has gotten. It was clear that the game would review well in the UK, Creative Assembly being a UK studio and with a massive Alien following and fan base in the country (in Europe in general it seems). The game fared less well across the pond, with bigger US publications generally giving itaverage reviews, highlighting some of the key pitfalls, which European publications seem to have overlooked thanks to rose-tinted spectacles.

You see in Europe we are content with old stuff. As long as the game faithfully sticks to the original canon, as long as it does not fuck with a masterpiece, as long as it gives players what they would expect from an ALIEN game, it’s gonna be pretty flawless. Add a bit of difficulty and punishing game-play elements, as well as throwing the player in the deep end and European reviewers (and to be fair a lot of European gamers) will love you for it.

In the US? Not so much. Alien is still seen as a classic, a masterpiece. But gamers of today, while aware of the movie, see it as something from 30 years ago. Which it is. Ancient. Who cares? So having a game, which really just replicates experiences and emotions and set pieces that a movie did 30 years, does not impress the average American critic nor the average American gamer. And why the fuck should it? Alien Isolation does nothing unique and new – it just copies what has been done before, and does so badly.

As much as i hate to quote Polygon, (Note: I have not read the entire article – this is a quote i took from Metacritic but felt obliged to link the entire article) but they have it spot on with this:

Alien: Isolation seems content to appear as a collage of borrowed elements from the films, with nothing new or original to say or show, eager only to get to the next reference.

And even in the short time that I played the game, that much was obvious to me.

Alien Isolation clearly is an Art driven game. Art direction, faithfulness to the original film, stands head and shoulders above all else. From materials, textures and colour palette to the actual assets, terminals, corridors and space suits – everything looks and feels authentic. It feels like you are on the Nostromo. The game is one big homage to the film and it has no identity of it’s own to speak of and it’s game-play actually suffers because of it.

The game starts with your character being brought to a massive space station, in orbit of a planet. The ship you are transported on is an exact rebuild of the Nostromo (a fact that is actually highlighted in dialogue) and the space station looks exactly like the refinery the Nostromo was towing in the film. There is no particular reason for this, but the game seems to scream “LOOK! We can rebuild what we see in a film! And we are capable of not adding any flavour and personal touch to it!”. The visual style and artistic direction simply is one of emulation and copying. The game looks good, even great at times, but where art should have allowed gameplay in, it seems to shut it out with a simple “It looks like this in the film! Tough!”.

This starts in the very first room. You, playing Ripley’s daughter (did it HAVE to be a Ripley?), wake up in an exact replica of the Nostromo cryo-sleep room. It being an exact replica of the film unfortunately means that it is extremely tight to navigate. Being told to walk around it, i did, and promptly bumped into every single sleeping chamber, bobbing camera and generally feeling like i did not want to move around.



How hard would it have been to extend the space by about 30%? Accept the fact that it’s a game and the player will walk backwards, run around and generally move through the space – not see it on a 2D screen. 99% of the players would not have noticed the difference. But of course it would not have been authentic.

The same is true for the bridge of the ship you are on at the start. It is an exact replica (as far as i can make out) of the Nostromo bridge. As is the canteen area. Same rules apply: it’s a pain in the arse to move around freely and you get stuck or snag constantly. Yes, some die hard fans of the film will appreciate the level of authenticity. But from a game-play point of view it is just very uncomfortable.

Which brings me to the next part of the game which is influenced heavily by art and actually hampers game-play. They call it “Lo-Fi”, which in theory makes sense, because that is what the film had. Believable technology, almost analogue, mechanical – it looked beautiful in the film and, more importantly, it was futuristic for the time.

Watch this clip:

“If it couldn’t have been built on the original ‘Alien’ set in 1979, it won’t be in Alien: Isolation”. Many of you might well think that’s great and admirable. But in reality I found it to be horribly limiting. It’s probably the biggest load of pretentious shit an artist can come up with. “Oh look! Not only do we not have an idea of our own, but we actually think that’s cool and hip! Never mind that it means gamers will have a harder time! Who cares! We are making an interactive movie!”.

You see I play games on consoles (predominantly), on 47 inch TV, sitting about 3 to 4 meters away from it. All these little CRT screens you see in the clip? They are tiny on my TV. The text is pixelated, hard to read and trying to decipher button prompts or text in the game gives me a headache. It might well be ok on a PC screen, with the player less than 1 meter away, but on a console device and bigger TV it simply does not work properly.

There is a fine line between authenticity and playability and Creative Assembly does not even bother toeing that line – they go authentic all the way, with not a care in the world for playability. No obvious consideration for console users. It is clear they are, and always have been a PC developer at heart.

But it is not only playability that has no place in this game. It is the game itself which really has no place in this interactive movie. I honestly think that if Creative Assembly would have had the choice, they would have preferred to make this entire project into a movie. They clearly expect the player to go about in a very linear fashion and do exactly as the content developers (I refuse to call them designers) expect them to do. The game falls apart when you do not do as you are expected to.

Take dialogue for example. Ripley initiates dialogue with a random crew member. If the player walks off during the conversation, like i did, they will still talk to each other. It does not even matter if i am 3 rooms over and there are 2 closed steel doors between me and the other character. I am still having this conversation and i can still hear it. Obviously the content creators did not want me to walk off. But i did.

Then there is inconsistency. Some objectives are marked on the map, others are not. The first 2 objectives are clearly displayed on the map (you are not told how to bring up the map though – that only happens about 30 minutes into the game, when you don’t really need the hint anymore). But then it stops with objectives, or at least some of them.Having talked to some friends who played the game, several of us were stuck when first arriving on the Sevastopol Station – we were tasked to “Find Help” and ran around in circles for 10 minutes before finding a very small crawlspace we had to go through. There was nothing marked on the map – if I had not been fucking around with the fire (trying to suicide jump into it – which I could not, thanks to invisible collision), I would never have seen it.

In the first 30 minutes of the game I have experienced more inconsistency and hampered game design than i have in any other game in the last 5 years, if not longer. Judging by videos, reviews and comments from some of my friends, the game aims and delivers an authentic Alien experience – it is an Art driven copy of a film. For that audience it will probably be a gem. For anyone else, expecting to have proper game-play mechanics, for game-play to take the lead from time to time, for usability and common sense to overwrite the requirements of copy/paste art; for those of us who want a GAME and not an interactive movie, Alien Isolation delivers nothing at all, and we better stay away from it.

If I want an Alien experience I can watch the movie. It is condensed nicely into about 2 hours. I get scared and excited and I can see all the amazing Lo-Fi. I don’t have to force myself through hours and hours of painful and un-intuitive interaction to get the same result. I’d rather just suck on an alien egg.

If Creative Assembly set out to pay homage to Alien and stay as authentic as possible with not a single fuck given to playability, they have achieved just that. It won’t be for everyone. Hopefully it’s for enough people to allow them to at least break even.


If you are a die hard Alien fan and want to be able to walk around a virtual copy of a movie set and you are also a fond of taking a cheese grater to your nipples: 9/10

If you like Alien but care more about game-play than hyper-authenticity and you also think creativity should be more than copying what came before: 3/10

No more wars


So you might have heard of this thing called #GamerGate recently. I am not going into why it exists or how it happened or who said what – there are plenty of sites on the web that already do that. I don’t intend to add to the plethora of views nor do I aim to abuse the hashtag to make a point and/or gain exposure.

What I want to write about is the fact that this is being portrayed as a conflict, even a war, when in reality it is actually all very pointless and fabricated out of thin air. All this #GamerGate furore shows, is how easy it is to rile people up and manipulate them, even if the intentions behind the idea might have been worthy once upon a time.

And don’t get me wrong I do think the initial idea behind #GamerGate is noteworthy – namely that the gaming press is biased, corrupt, did (and probably still does) take bribes and that they most certainly try their best to promote controversy and conflict in order to drive traffic and thus revenue.

And, as I will point out, it’s really all America’s fault.


Us vs. Them – The War on.. something

American culture is different. Anyone who has ever spent some time there, particularly lived there, can attest to that. Almost every single thing you do in America can be boiled down to or linked to, a competition, a struggle, a conflict of sorts.

This starts in school, where kids compete to be honour students, so parents can put bumper stickers on their cars. It carries over the higher education with college sports and it is incredibly predominant in the workplace, from simple things like “Employee of the month” and to the ever present bonus culture and companies undercutting each other to get the bigger share of the market. The American society thrives on competition and American’s probably think it brings out the best in people. Survival of the fittest, the strongest and all that, not to mention it keeps things cheap (the “loser” of these competitions often fall below the poverty line and are forgotten about).

A lot of American lingo and rhetoric these days reflects that – listen to any news report, or articles, sports broadcasts, business conversations in general and you will hear phrases like “War on X”, “In the battle for..”, “It is a fight for…” – everything is a conflict. We had the war on christmas, the culture war, the social justice war, the war on terror (of course) and the war on women – and god knows how many other wars we have had or are having or are going to have in the future. WAR!! makes a great headline.

But more than that, war and conflict has an additional “benefit”. People must take sides in a war. There are always at least 2 sides in every war. Conflict allows, even forces, people of a certain mindset and ideology to band together, to form a group and unity. It becomes easy to say “You are either with us or against us!” – this is true for the war on terror (and was used frequently by Bush and Co) as it is on the culture war, the business war, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on….

There is a clear line, drawn in the sand (or on an internet forum or other online space) and people are either on one side or the other. Unless of course people don’t take a side…

Because the ONLY thing that these so called “wars” have in common with a real war (you know the one where people actually get killed), is that there are plenty of people in the middle, who do not take sides. Those people in the middle, who tend to be the absolute majority, are often ignored, marginalized and attacked  – and suffer the consequences for not taking a side and just wanting to get on with life. People in the middle are pressured to take a side.


The people in the middle

If you have actually been following #GamerGate on twitter, through news outlets and social media, one thing you might have noticed is that the majority of hate speech, loud shouting and posting in general comes from the US side of the Atlantic. This I think is a direct reflection of what I wrote above – that conflict culture, the need to belong to a side, and the absolute need to establish that one’s side is the right (righteous) side to be on. And the louder you shout, the more right you are, clearly.

You have people on both sides making sweeping generalizations, trying to speak for a much bigger audience than they actually represent. These people will shout down anyone who dares to oppose or even question them. Some of these people will go to extremes and threaten opposition.

Anita Sarkeesian has received threats. Definitely a horrible thing and whoever is behind this should be exposed and dealt with by the law. But a statement like this is not accurate nor is it helpful:



What she does, is lump everyone who ever thought positively of an aspect of #GamerGate together with those who take things too far (by far a minority would be my guess). Sarkeesian, in a way, is no better than those people she opposes. By generalizing, by lumping everyone who disagrees with her in the same pot, she makes it clear that she does not leave space for opinions other than her own. She (and those that support her) makes it clear that questioning her arguments means joining the war against women. Having an opinion, in her mind, is on the same level as harassment and threats of violence.

Nor does it help when games developer (who was threatened as well), makes statements like this:



There is no literal war on women, at the very least not in the games industry. Men and women (because a lot of GamerGate supporters are actually women *gasp*) are NOT out on the streets with guns and hatches, wading knee deep in the blood of their female victims. I work with several women in my current studio and I can assure you they are quite safe, I have not brought weapons to work and I do NOT plan to hurt them in any way, neither does any of my male colleagues. Women in my work place are NOT my enemy.

Last time I checked we have not started to marginalize women, fire women, reduce wages or in any other way lower equality in any way – i.e. we have not started going backwards on all the equality gains we have created over the last 100 years. Last time I checked the vast majority of people were still working together, peacefully and with the hopes of continuing to do so in an equal and friendly environment.

Because the majority of people sit in the middle of this bullshit argument. The majority of people do not send threats. The majority of people do not even participate in the debate.I would argue the majority of people actually supports arguments from BOTH sides. Most rational, normal, calm, human beings can understand that there are issues that have to be addressed – on BOTH sides.

But the biggest problem of all is that people who sit on the either one of the sides – people heavily invested in the conflict – cannot accept people in the middle. Those of us who have an opinion of our own, those of us who question what we hear, think for ourselves and pick and choose the best arguments. We don’t have an affiliation and we reserve the right to change our opinion if we hear a better argument. We in the middle are either seen as enemies or potential allies. We either need to be fought or won.

The sad thing is, it is us people in the middle who keep the world running. I have met some of these extremists. I have worked with them. And one thing I can tell you: a lot, if not most, of their energy and time goes into their “war”. It takes time to read all the social media and articles, it takes time to come up with counter arguments, rants and blog posts (I know it does – I do write a few myself after all) and above all – it preoccupies the mind. Extremists, those who want to fight a perpetuous war, can’t stop thinking about it – everything else moves into the background. For some, the war actually becomes their work and life – often with financial, health and other consequences.

Those of us in the middle are the ones though that actually make society work. By being more open, being more tolerant and by simply getting on with life, we probably do more for society than extremists on any side will ever do – and we do not need the publicity or acknowledgment either.

The truth is, there is no war. The truth is, there are are a handful of people (on both sides) who try to perpetuate conflict, who WANT a war, and they do so for 2 main reasons.

  1. Because they want to feel better. Ranting, raving, threatening others – it is all done as a self defense mechanism and it is designed to deflect problems onto others. Venting makes us feel good. Venting on a bigger stage (such as Twitter) can make people feel elated, even wanted or desired – something they might be lacking in real life.
  2. For personal benefit or gain. This can be in the form of publicity and acknowledgement or, as it the case for many publications, real life money. Controversial news reports, interviews and articles bring readership. Readership brings advertisement money. This has been true since the start of news papers – headlines sell. These days it just includes comments.

So on the one side you have individuals who feel the need to vent, to deflect personal problems, insecurities and issues and on the other side you have people who can financially benefit from that – in hindsight, I think these conflicts do have more in common with conventional war than I might have realized. It’s all about ego and money.


Alternative Option

So what is the solution to all this? Well it’s really quite simply, at least in theory. Might be harder to fully implement. In one word: Abstinence.

If you consider yourself a moderate, if you think you are open to more than one view. If you see good arguments on both sides or you simply don’t want to take a side, the best thing to do, and in fact the only thing to do, is to abstain.

Don’t participate in discussions, stay away from news sites and outlets that perpetuate the conflict (either based on ideology or financial gain) and don’t listen to the voices of the extreme crowd.

This does not mean you have to stay clear of twitter and facebook – we live in a time where you can’t fully avoid certain things if you are online. But don’t subscribe to those who tend to fight on one side or the other. Don’t actively participate in debates and comments and above all, if you do see something that would normally rile you: ignore it and move on.

It is of course possible to still frequent news site and read all these comments and still not participate actively. But I think this takes a lot of willpower and restraint. The sheer volume of comments at times and the incredible stupidity of those who make them, can make it incredibly hard not to respond.

But imagine a world where every moderate, everyone in the middle, would do just that. Soon it would only be the extremists fighting each other. If there is no crowd that pays them any attention, if there is no ego stroking and if there is no financial gain to be made, they would quiet down quickly enough I believe.

And the sooner that happens, the sooner we can get on with life. The sooner we can all be friends and work towards sorting out real issues like Climate Change, Food Shortage, Poverty Healthcare and yes, total Equality and Humanism. Compared to any of those, how important is it really to have a “war” about anything to do with video games…


What am I going to do?

Well I am not strong enough to read certain articles and comments and to resist from replying. I am not strong enough to ignore what I read, I would dedicate at least some of my time and energy on thinking about stupid arguments from either side. I would get frustrated and that would probably lead to anger. And I have no space in my life for frustration or anger. I don’t think anyone should have space in their life for frustration or anger.

So I will take my own advice. Abstinence. I will no longer visit website which carry articles about #GamerGate or any content that talks about sexism, violence or other elements in games or the games industry. I really don’t care what other people think or what the media writes. I have no influence on these people or the media. So why bother with their views or waste time contemplating them in the first place? Have YOU ever convinced ANYONE online?

I will do what I have always done. Treat people I interact with in real life with the dignity and respect they deserve. I will continue to work with and hire people who are the best in their field and who are decent human beings (and avoid working with people who are not). I will continue to not give a fuck about a person’s gender, ethnicity, relgion or sexual preference. I will not be labeled and I will not label. And I bet you anything, the less time I spend with these issues, the happier I will be.

I will try to keep content for this blog coming, but I will no longer post on any social issues. Anything going forward will be related to content, design or the industry in general. There should be plenty of stuff to write about anyway!

Entertainment vs. Challenge

dark-souls-ii-soon_o_2214693The topic sounds confrontational, probably more so than it really is. Also, it’s not actually a completely black and white affair, it’s not an either/or situation, though to many people (developers in particular) it might well feel like it. Additionally, and this right at the start, gaming interests vary widely and there is a particular distinction between games from the asian market and the western (european/american) market. As someone who develops games in europe and predominantly plays western games, those are the games I primarily talk about.

There are many, many, factors that make up game design and determine how “good” a game really is. In fact how “good” a game is can’t be defined easy in itself – fun, scary, easy, difficult, entertaining, visually beautiful, amazing audio – all these elements contribute to how good a game is and all these aspects are judged by individuals, with their own opinions and ideas of what a good game should be like.

Over the last few years I have increasingly been looking at a very fundamental part of design, something that is (or should be) established early on when coming up with a new game concept: How accessible, how easy or how difficult do I want my game to be? How challenging should it be and challenging for whom?

I am not sure about other designers, but until recently I have mostly considered the difficulty of a particular game (as well as the pacing to a degree) towards the end of a project. The philosophy has always been to get all the content in, and polish that and bug fix it, before worrying about difficulty too much. After all it’s just adjusting a few values at the end right?

As I said, I can’t talk for other designers at all, but it was a bit of a revelation when i discovered that difficulty has to be taken into account from day one of design. That it permeates everything in a game and that each mechanic has to be evaluated with a view as to it’s impact on player experience as well as difficulty. If the player finds one mechanic or aspect of a game too difficult, she might not engage with that mechanic for example and this could have massive knock-on effects throughout, it could even lead to players abandoning the game.

Game development has changed a lot since the first few games were released. Games certainly have changed. But one thing that has changed very little is the fact that many game developers (and I’d argue that this is the majority) still make games based on their own preferences and their own abilities and gaming habits.

And there is nothing really wrong with that. Quite the contrary in many cases. Working on something you want to play yourself ensures enthusiasm, ambition, resourcefulness and enjoyment at the workplace – all absolutely amazing things to have. But it does very much depend on what kind of game it is you like to play. It does depend on what your target audience is, or rather it depends on the budget you want to spend and thus what your target audience has to be.

Regardless of their quality (both in terms of visual as well as gameplay), regardless of the critical acclaim they hold, games like Dark Souls for example are niche games. They are brilliant games, commanding a loyal following and a lot of respect from gamers, journalists and developers alike. But they are still niche games. Dark Souls has sold around 3 million units across 3 platforms. For a game with an 89 metacritic that is not a whole lot, considering there are about 160 million PS3 and 360 consoles out there and countless PCs, the game only has sold to a FRACTION of the available market. It is, by any account, a “great game”. The problem is simply that the vast majority of gamers does not enjoy that type of game – they do not get entertained by it.

This does not make people who buy Dark Souls wrong, nor does it make the vast majority right (contrary to what a lot of debate on the internet would lead you to believe), but it does give us a great example of what I mean with “develop for your intended audience”.

It is very simple really. If you are a developer (designer or studio,) and you want to make a game which (no matter how amazing it will be), can only attract a niche customer base, then your budget needs to reflect that. If your aim is to make the next “Dark Souls” and be as successful as they were, then your budget needs to reflect that you are likely to have 3 million or less sales. Ship a game with a budget that allows for that and you not only will have shipped a great game, but also one that is financially viable and will keep you in business to make more games.

The key thing is to be aware of difficulty and through difficulty often accessibility. To understand exactly what you build, why you build it and who you build it for. Unfortunately what happens more often than not is that designers and developers create cool mechanics (or, worse, a cool story) and develop away without any thought about target audience and budget correlations. And in the end, when it comes to difficulty balancing and pacing, they are so familiar with the game that the natural tendency is to crank it up, because they are gamers themselves and want a bit of a challenge. Only for developers who spent 2 years working on a game a “bit of a challenge” is something entirely than for someone who is brand new to the game. In the end you might well have an amazing product in many ways, but one that simply does not provide the accessibility for the masses. What good to create a masterpiece if nobody can squeeze through a tiny door to see it?

This does not just go for difficulty either. Mechanics which developers find self explanatory, natural and easy to master, will be alien and new to people playing the game for the first time. Developers see the game “how it is meant to be played”, but this rarely survives first contact with the consumer. So we developers (and to a degree I will always be guilty of this myself, though I am working hard to get better) tune games to our own skillset, difficulty likings and we take control input and mechanics for granted – in short: we got too close to our product and lose sight of bugs, usability issues and user experience problems.

As I mentioned earlier there are 160 million last gen consoles out there. God knows how many PC gamers there are. Yet few, if any, games truly break into the mass market. Some games, like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and similar break into the 20 million copies sold. The reason they do this is not just because shooters are so popular (which they are), but also because the entry level for gamers is very low. On an easy difficulty rating, everyone, even grannies, can complete CoD. Everyone can participate in online multiplayer, and thanks to some clever design, even feel powerful from time to time and at the very least progress steadily. A few more games (Skyrim, Assassins Creed, Batman) flirt in the 10 million range. These are still fractions of potential user base. These games make a lot of money, and are almost always profitable, but there is a lot more potential to sell more. I don’t think any console game will ever sell to every console owner – differences in tastes for genres alone does not allow that to happen – but I don’t see why 50+ million sales for a AAA title across 3 platforms (Xbone, PS4 and PC) cannot be achieved.

But it might take a bit of effort on the side of the developer. In some cases developers don’t want to spend that effort, happy with the sales they have/are likely to get (after all any changes are unproven and could just be a cost and offer no benefit – and risk is not a wanted thing in AAA), but in many cases developers simply do not consider other options. They make the game they want to make and they do not consider the target audience until it is much too late.

Another issue is that developers working on “proper games” (read: AAA or console/PC in general), often ignore mobile and social games and the information they can provide. Social and mobile gaming more than anything else has helped to grow the number of “gamers” in the world in the last 10 years. Angry Birds has downloaded more than 2 billion times across all devices. And while this might well be a one hit wonder for Rovio (and their business model based on their early success might well be flawed), it shows that there are a tremendous number of people in the world who want to be entertained. Who want to engage in gaming, even repetitive motions, for short amounts of time to have fun.

These “casual” gamers are often ignored by “proper game” developers. We often even make fun of them. Just read some press releases by studios and publishers alike: we aim for the core! Win the core gamer and you win the internet debate. The vocal minority still holds a lot of sway with developers and studios. But success for a game, in my opinion, lies with the quiet masses, the hybrid – the “casual” gamer who owns a console or a PC (which he or she uses for gaming as well). Those gamers who don’t necessarily call themselves a “gamer” on social media or when talking to their friends. Those gamers who don’t tweet or FB about the latest games they play or how long it took them to take down a boss.

If we create games that allow those quiet masses to have a great time, to enjoy themselves, to feel like they are mastering the mechanics and they can play the game in a way they want to play it. Do that, and by all means combine it with a “hardcore mode”, and you break into a whole new market, you can break the boundaries between core and social. You can create an experience that players across the divide can enjoy.

But in order to achieve this it is essential that the game is designed from the ground up for this. As I said, the ideal scenario is to create a game that allows both core gamers to get a challenge as well as the more mainstream (I don’t like to use the word casual) gamers to just dive in and enjoy it. Almost every game I ever worked on at some point used the line “easy to get into – hard to master” – none of these games ever delivered.

At the end of the day the vast majority of players, core and mainstream alike, want to be entertained. They want to boot up the game, feel powerful, feel like they progress, feel like they master the mechanics, understand them and apply them. Picking up a controller has to feel natural, the UI must support this and the game needs to be adaptable enough (either automatically, under the hood, or through difficulty settings) to allow for different types of gamers. Get this right and the sky’s the limit.

One of the best examples out there is World of Warcraft. It does not matter if you like it or hate it, if you have played it or not. Just looking at the game, and in particular it’s evolvement over the years shows that Blizzard not only is willing to spend the extra development time to create an experience for a much wider range of people, but it also shows that collecting data, analyzing how players engage with a product, makes sense.

When World of Warcraft first came out it was a natural evolution from games like EverQuest – hard core MMO games with tough as nails raiding, punishing death and grinding leveling. World of Warcraft changed that drastically. Raids were 25 man (compared to EverQuests 72) and split in instances (no more competing with other guilds). Death was a bit of an inconvenience, but you never lost XP or gear. Leveling was much faster and there were a lot of quests supporting your XP gain – so it did not feel like work.

WoW also let people customize their UI and create add-ons that worked with the UI and game mechanics – boss mods told players exactly what to do, quest helpers showed where quest NPCs where, map add-ons helped with gathering. Couple that with the fact that the game essentially ran on every PC in every household and it is no surprise that it broke every record for MMO games and many PCs games out there (at least in the western market – and WoW is to date one of the few MMOs successful in asia).

There are only about 400 guilds in the US which have currently cleared the entire high end raid content in WoW for 25 man raids (the tougher one to get people for). Even if you average 50 people raiding in these guilds (double of what is needed) that would only mean about 10.000 people have killed every boss in the game on highest difficulty – in the US. Double that for EU and Asia and you get between 20.000 and 30.000 people out of currently about 7 million who have done it all, completed the game in it’s current form. Those are the core, the hard core, the first, the achievers. If you want to know what it takes to be there, watch this:

If Blizzard would only cater to these people, WoW would have gone the same way as EQ and other western MMOs – they would have been successful to a degree, but eventually declined. The MMO world is littered with plenty of corpses to show this.

But WoW has always been casual and inclusive to a degree, and then it adapted. With each expansion new tools, new mechanics and new content came along, which allowed players who did not have 8 hours or more in one sitting, to still enjoy the same content and make progress. To feel powerful, to feel masterful and to project how awesome they too could be in a few weeks and months. Grouping was made easier, dungeons gave more powerful loot, special events were put on, world bosses were brought in. And then finally, 2 expansions ago, the LFR or Looking For Raid feature made it in. Players did not have to be in raiding guilds. They could consume and experience the raid content, previously reserved to those with dedication and extra time on their hands, in short chunks. Bosses were dumbed down a bit, loot not quite as powerful, but it was all there.

In it’s current incarnation WoW offers something for everyone. Regardless of whether you have 30 minutes or 20 hours available to play – you can always find something to do.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is still not flawless, there are plenty of things which can be improved (Crafting, quest rewards, even some loot drops), but Blizzard is on it. With each expansion the game caters to more and more people. Pandaria introduced pet collection and pet battles and the next expansion will introduce base building. And all this time the core gamers still have their raids, still have the challenges, still can die repeatedly to the same bosses if they so wish – the (estimated) 5% of hardcore gamers get the difficulty they want.

So, in closing (this ended up longer than intended – it felt shorter in my head), i think we developers need to consider, from the start, who our audience is and who we want to include and exclude. We need to make this a conscious decision and that decision needs to feed into all the mechanics and systems of our game. Personally i think many developers need to actively try to include the non core gamers, realize the potential market out there and look at how they can be brought into the game in addition to, not instead of, the core gamers. There are plenty of options through design to achieve this. It does not need to be an either/or decision. Catering to the mainstream gamers does not mean we have to abandon the core. If casual gamers play our games, it is not a blemish and does not take away from the hardcore. The ideal game allows all types of gamers to gain enjoyment from it, regardless their skill level and time investment.

We live in times where we are bombarded with entertainment products. TV shows, internet media, movies, music, games, mobile games, social games, social media – we are constantly on our phones, our devices, on the PC and on the TV. We have to fit the entertainment we enjoy the most into our busy schedules. So i think the vast majority of gamers out there simply has no time to be challenged unduly. Most gamers want to pick up the controller or device and get lost, enjoy themselves, get entertained. They don’t want to be frustrated, they don’t want to think (too hard), they want to feel empowered, masterful, bad-ass and they want to kick some ass. They want gratification and they don’t want to work hard for it – in short, they want everything they can’t get (easily) in real life.

Once again, there are exceptions, and i can already hear some of you bristling about my points, thinking no doubt that it’s all about the challenge. Don’t worry! I am not calling for Dark Souls to go the way of the Dodo. There will always be a need and a market for games like Dark Souls. But if you are a developer i would argue that you should always reflect on the game you are making. Be sure you know what game you are making, what your market is and how many units you need to sell, and are likely to sell.Is your target audience the 3 million people who play Dark Souls? Is it the 25 million who play Call of Duty? Or could it be the 100 million who play Angry Birds?

GamerGate and arguing on the internet


So it’s been a while since i wrote a post and in this time i have actually tried to take a step back from the discussions regarding feminism and sexism. I feel quite comfortable with my own view and my own position. I know how i treat people, and that i treat them regardless of who they are and what they are. I treat people based on how they are – their character, their attitude, their personality.

That step back does not mean i no longer have an opinion, or opinions of other people don’t result in a response of sorts from me. That step back simply means i have realized that arguing with extremists, particularly on the internet, has no use whatsoever. Anyone engaged in it, which to a degree included myself, is deluded that they actually have a shot at convincing people of a different opinion. The reality is nobody really convinces anyone.

Which brings me to the whole #GamerGate and Sarkeesian issue which has been blown out of all all proportions over the last few weeks.

It started with the whole Zoe Quinn debacle, where a spurned ex dished out the dirt on their relationship, which happened to include infidelities with games journalists and other influential people in the industry. It clearly did highlight that at least some games journalists are biased and anything but objective.

But why is this news in the first place? This is someone’s personal life, and personal issues. Regardless if Zoe Quinn has used her body to gain an advantage or not, this should never have become such a big news item as it has. It’s her choice, her life and her story – nobody’s business but her own and that of her partner at the time.

It was meant to point to the fact that the gaming press is largely untrustworthy, biased and has an agenda. Well who does not know this by now? I don’t think i have a single friend working in the industry who can tell me a single gaming news site that is 100% reliable and worth reading. I could list at least a dozen articles and videos on games i have worked on over the last few years which have blatant lies and falsehoods in them – not necessarily because the reporter is mean or has it in for the game, but simply because they were too lazy or too incompetent to ask questions or do 5 minutes of research.

The gaming press, for the most part, is utterly rubbish. And it only has itself to blame. It’s all about speed and competition these days in in a rush to beat the competition quality suffers. And then of course it’s all about money. Getting those clicks on an article, getting the advertising money.

But be that as it may. Sides were drawn – those pro Zoe and those anti Zoe waded in. The internet was full of homemade videos, pictures, conspiracy theories, linking threads and finding random emails and posts – years old. For what? For what purpose? Does anyone think that they can convince the other side they are right? People have made up their mind already – either you are with us, or against us!

Shortly after the Zoe stuff, Sarkeesian put up her latest video, followed immediately with a few tweets about online threats and police involvement. Again both sides of the argument sprang to life. Those against Sarkeesian pointed to the fact that the anonymous twitter account was posting too fast, Anita’s replies too quick – suggesting she had sent them herself. Those in the Sarkeesian camp branded every critic a misogynist hater.

It does not matter what is true. It does not matter who thinks they got it right. Does anyone actually believe that either side will convince the other?

No matter how many videos with evidence surface (true or not is irrelevant), the people who think Sarkeesian set the threats up herself to promote the launch of her new video, won’t convince a single Sarkeesian supporter that this was the case. Likewise, no matter what Sarkeesian or her followers say, nobody on the other side will believe a word.

Instead what we get is insults, threats, twitter stalking and hack attacks – from both sides. This actually will lead to nothing, and it’ll only get worse as time progresses. Firing off insults, threats and being nasty on the internet is simple. You never have to actually face your “opponent” – it’s all done long distance. People use language and actions they would never consider to use in real life, people behave like assholes. on both sides.

What is the disgusting part is that people make money off of all this. Regardless of what Zoe Quinn and Sarkeesian have done or not done, regardless of who is right – the spectacle around them has made them a ton of money. Zoe Quinn’s patroen has shot up to over 3000 USD a month in support of her plight. Sarkeesians video has received a much increased number of hits. Both have received a ton of media attention and favour.

And this is where the rub lies. Not necessarily that the gaming press is corrupt and actually not that good at reporting on games, but that a lot of the gaming press actually has picked up these so called “Social Justice Movement” stories, which are not at all related to games themselves. Simply because they are click bait. They are contentious topics and those bring in the cash.

An average news post on Eurogamer (you know, about games and stuff) will attract between 40 and 200 comments. A Zoe Quinn or Sarkeesian article attracts up to 10 times that. It’s not about games anymore. It’s about creating as much controversy as possible, stir up the shit, shout very loud and then see where it ends up.

Even some game developers can’t help but wade into the debate, or get dragged into it, taking sides. God knows why, because we should stay as far away as possible from any of these issues as we can. We sure as hell did when some aspects of the media and certain groups tried to claim that mass shootings are linked to violent video games. When THAT was raised, i can’t remember hearing a single game developer saying “yep! It’s us. we make games that encourage people to kill others!”.

The vast majority of male and female developers simply want to make games. Games and content they are passionate about. Not games and content which is tailored to suit either side of the Social Justice debates. We don’t want our games analysed on some arbitrary social or moral scale. We don’t need people who never in their lives have gone through the process of creating a game, putting blood sweat and tears (and many extra hours) in it, to tell us “oh well.. this scene is sexist”. We don’t need people taking elements of our game completely out of context to try and make their point – in fact using our materials to further their agenda, using our work to make money for themselves.

On the other hand we don’t need anyone to defend us either. We don’t need gamers sending hate messages and threats to people who don’t like what we make. We don’t need gamers threatening the lives of developers and their families when they tweak the balancing of a weapon.

All we want to do is make the games we want to make, with the content we believe in, the story we want to tell and the characters we have built. Let us do that and then judge us with your wallet. If you like what we create, if it entertains you, if it makes you cry, if it makes you laugh or if it gets your frustrated when you chase that high-score – then pay us for it. That’s all we ask. That’s all we want. In many cases we are just happy when we entertain you.

But please don’t wage this battle of social justice on our backs, using our products to fuel your arguments.

How about we all take a step back then? we accept that people can think differently, that people don’t necessarily see things the way we do and that they don’t necessarily have to. We also must accept that what we think of as normal, or moral or just even acceptable, does not necessarily apply to others. Just because we find something extreme or morally wrong, does not mean it is. There are laws for a reason and as long as creative content is within the rules of law, it is nobodies business to claim the moral high ground. Once you take a step back, you actually let go of the hate and anger, life becomes a lot more fun, games become a lot more fun when not viewed through a critical eye every time. It’s still ok to have an opinion, just stop arguing and trying to convince others of your opinion – it’ll never happen anyway and all that energy is probably spent better elsewhere.

Enforcing your worldview, your moral compass, on content you do not create, judging others for what they make and how they think, that is bordering on censorship. That never works and it only gets people upset. If you want content that conforms to your views, make it. Publish it, if enough people like it, you can life of it. And if you work in the industry and you make games you don’t agree with, but still bitch and moan about content – get off your high horse.

Stay away from content you object to. It’s quite simple really.

Anti-Feminism is the New Feminism


Great article – well worth a read!

Originally posted on elizabethkhobson:

I identified as a feminist because I believed in “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes” (Oxford dictionary). I read. Without, I hope, stooping to dualism I felt a kinship with other women, especially mothers once I joined those ranks.

Then I joined Twitter and I bonded with anti-feminists, Honey Badgers and other critics with whom I enjoyed insightful, progressive discussions about the movement. They were all ultimately respectful of my decision to defend my label but at some point I began to feel that I was spending a massive amount of time explaining who I was and where I sat- on the periphery of the movement- to the detriment of the amount of time I had to spend talking about things that really matter. At the same time I was contributing to feminist discussion on there and finding that as a voice…

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Elder Scrolls Online

New year, new exception. The last one was BF4 in December, but i am actually reviewing a game i have played! Don’t hold it against me, but there simply is a lot to say about Elder Scrolls Online and i do have this blog space. Besides, if i don’t get to break or bend the rules a bit from time to time, where would the fun be! In essence this might actually not really be a review as such, strictly speaking you see, but more my current experience of playing the game. No exceptions needed after all!



Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release Date: April 2014

Platforms: PC (Xbox One and PS4 to follow in June)

So Elder Scrolls Online then.  Mannander reviewed the last installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise, Skyrim, back in early 2012, after having not-played it. And his opening line was a strong one:

In all likelihood, the green-lighting process for The Elder Scrolls V was a very short meeting. They only needed to look at the progressive increase in sales between each sequel to validate the potential for yet another instalment. It’s no secret that publishers like money just as much as the next guy.

The exact same thing could be said for Elder Scrolls Online, the first MMO in the franchise developed by ZeniMax Online studios. After the huge success of previous titles, in particular Skyrim, it made sense to greenlight an MMO. Clearly the audience was there and as World of Warcraft has shown, there was an interest in MMOs, even monthly subscription based ones.

So has ESO, as it’s come to be known, succeeded? Has the game delivered a worthy installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise and have ZeniMax Online created a potential rival to World of Warcraft? These questions are actually not as easy and straightforward to answer as may seem. I will try to give my thoughts on each of the elements of the game, in an attempt to find answers to these questions.


Is this an Elder Scrolls game?

The first question and probably the easiest question to answer. Yes, i truly believe it is. From the moment you create a character and are dropped into the open sequence of the world, the game feels like an Elder Scrolls game. Everything you come to expect from the franchise is there. Story driven quests, great VO (including Michael Gambon and many other amazing actors), fantastic character development and a great element of exploration (including searchings crates, sacks, urns etc.) – the game literally is full of great content that all helps tell another chapter of Tamriel. It is not surprising to find some weak areas, considering the scope of the game as a whole (and also the VO can be a bit hit and miss), but the game provides a lot more depth than many other MMOs did at launch. And lets not forget it just launched, it did does not benefit from 10 years worth of content like World of Warcraft right now.

As with Skyrim, quests usually have a deeper meaning, a story and always some VO attached to them. The player gets to meet new characters and while not all are as well developed as those characters linked to the main story, they all have something to say. Rarely do you have to go out and just kill stuff or go on a random delivery quest, and if you do, there is a reason for it, and that reason makes sense. Questing feels interesting in ESO and quests are a main way of peeling back layer after layer of the story.

And story is what Elder Scrolls has always been really good at. ESO is, thankfully, no different. There is the main story of course, involving the mysterious Prophet. There are also 2 other main story threads linked to the fighters and mage guild, which have chapters as the player progresses and levels up (every player can do all quests, these are not linked to classes). But more than that each new region has it’s own storyline, which the player can discover and participate in. From dealing with a plague that threatens a village to preventing an all out war between allies, the player’s actions are comparatively small, but add up over time. This makes it believable how one person can achieve so much, and it also makes the game addictive as there is almost always a “oh i wonder what happens next” moment.

The story at times is also quite mature and, like players of Skyrim might be familiar with, is not afraid to shy away from more controversial story elements such as slavery and racism. On several occasions you can make decisions along the way that are based on your views on these issues, either helping people or, at times, condemning them to death. You can even try to teach some characters a lesson and hope that in the future they will be behave better.

As you make your way through the world, learning about the areas, learning about current events and getting sucked into the main story, you also continue to grow your character. A very familiar level up and skill based system is in place, so anyone who has played an Elder Scroll game before will feel right at home. Similar racial traits and benefits as in previous games apply as well. Unlike previous games though you do choose an arch type when creating a character. This is more in line with traditional RPGs and MMOs and not something that was enforced as much in Skyrim for example, but it does make sense in an MMO environment to ensure players can fulfil certain roles in a group, at least to some degree. There is still a lot of flexibility to develop the character over time and plenty of skills to chose from to create a unique set of abilities though, so even hardcore fans should be alright with this approach.

Combat is based on some of these abilities and skills, again heading more into a traditional MMO space, again probably in order to sync up a group and provide synergy and co-op capability. It is up to the player which skills to learn but you can only ever have 5 active in a hot bar (plus an “ultimate” ability). It’s a mix and match of abilities that suit the players style and ideas, and abilities can be used from several trees (though realistically, to get the most out of each “class”, it’s best to focus on 1 or 2 skill trees, rather than spread skill points too thinly across too many skills).

Crafting on the other hand is very much in line with Skyrim. The usual crafting professions can all be picked up and there is a good amount of depth and usability for each one. Raw materials are gathered, items gained through quests or explorations can be de-constructed, traits can be researched and new items can be crafted, imbued and improved – it’s all there and it’s deep and meaningful. A good variety of skill points also tempt players to invest in crafting rather than combat skills and at least early on in the game that can be a tricky choice.

To round all this up the game presentation is very good as well. On a top end PC the visuals look stunning in places, and audio and visual effects are very good indeed. As mentioned VO is probably among the best in any game and the music, as always, is simply stunning. Carrying many of the familiar themes from previous games, the orchestral soundtrack is a perfect fit to the world. Animations range from truly horrible to very good indeed – depending on the context and character. Main characters and player characters are generally animated quite well, while some of the weirder creatures seem to slip and slide a lot.

All in all the entire game is a great package and for the initial purchasing price it offers a great installment in the Elder Scrolls Franchise. I like to think of it as a Skyrim on steroids, as it potentially holds more content and it certainly has a much bigger area. So as a game, as a single player game, ESO certainly is worth playing. But is it a good MMO. Is it worth investing 10 USD/Euro every month to keep playing it?


Is ESO a good MMO and can it rival World of Warcraft?

This is much more of a subjective question, but my gut feeling is: no.

I have played the game for about 3 weeks and i am well on my way to reach the current max level. In all this time i grouped once to clear one of the tougher dungeons. While the dungeon clearing itself was not necessarily a bad experience (and the game certainly has some interesting concepts with regards to group dungeons), it was also not really a pleasurable experience and it felt more like a chore than something fun to do.

I have not seen any higher end content or any PvP content, so i can’t actually comment on either of these, but i know for a fact that i will not bother doing another group dungeon again (the only exception being if i was forced to by the main story, towards the end).

And there is a very simple reason for it, and it’s almost painful to say it: it’s too cumbersome to find a group quickly. Over the last 10 years World of Warcraft has shown us a transformation. At launch people sat in cities and used public channels to find groups for dungeons. After finally finding the right people at least 2 had to run to the dungeon to summon the rest. It was tedious. Blizzard, over time, responded. Nowadays you open the “Looking For Group” tab, press a button and 5 minutes later you will be ready to join a group which has all the right classes. You press another button and you are transported inside the dungeon.

In short: the game has become a lot more user friendly, as has the interface. Elder Scrolls online feels like the developers never once looked at World of Warcraft, of simply failed to understand why the game works and is so popular. Elder Scrolls Online has taken us back in time about 8 years and made it harder to get into some aspects of the game, to enjoy certain aspects of the game. And it does not stop with the grouping tools.

The entire user interface in Elder Scrolls Online is horribly designed and extremely cumbersome. It feels like you are wrestling with it, as you try to do what you want to do. As far as i can tell it’s also not customizable. Trying to do any kind of social interaction becomes a chore, even just typing in guild or party chat involves several clicks and button presses. Navigating the group, guild and PvP pages in the interface is a tedious experience, to the point where i just don’t want to do it. It feels slow, sluggish and unresponsive. Some elements, like the PvP tab, also lack proper explanation and guidance.

But i think the worst of the lot is the entire trade and banking system.

You see, there is no Auction House as such. A feature which has been a core staple in MMOs for some years now, pioneered by World of Warcraft, is not present in ESO, a game which is heavily focused on crafting and actually provides a meaningful use for crafting (unlike large parts of World of Warcraft, where many crafting aspects feel utterly useless). Apart from using general chat as a trade channel (something i have not seen since the early EQ days), the only option to realistically trade is to join a guild and utilize the guild trade.

Guilds have an internal auction house. Guild members can list up to 30 items for sale and browse items listed by other members. Considering any player can join up to 5 guilds, this is in theory a decent idea. But it very much depends on the success of a guild. If you have 500 members or more, you might get a decent selection of items to chose from, and you might get some competition, regulating price. But if your guild is rubbish, or you chose to be part of a smaller friends guild, chances are you won’t have much choice or much of a market, and spamming general chat will be one of your main ways of selling things.


Of course you can join several guilds, but you never see an entire listing of all guilds. You manually have to switch between listings for each guild. To make things even more cumbersome there is no way to specifically search for a specific item (i.e. “Iron Ingot”) – you can only narrow down searches based on crafting materials, but that still can leave you with pages of listed items.

My character was part of 2 guilds and i have seen items listed in one guild about 500% cheaper than in the other guild. The current ESO system almost certainly will prevent the development of a proper market system where prices don’t fluctuate and you almost always have a guaranteed buyer. Instead the system caters to those who play the market, buying items cheap in one guild and selling at increased prices in another guild. Other players will never find out, as they won’t see price differences unless they happen to be in the same guilds. It is a shockingly bad design and how it ever made it into the final game i have no idea.

To top it all up, all these services are run through the banker NPC and there is no way to “go back” in the menu flow – the only way to switch between services on the same NPC is to exit and start from scratch by interacting with the banker again.

Speaking of banker, expect to spend a lot of time in banks and sorting through your inventory. In order to work better in an online environment, as well as create balance (and a bit of a money sink), EOS has introduced a bag slot limit to your character and your bank. Skyrim, by comparison had a weight limit on the character and realistically speaking no limit in various chests in your own house. You could store everything and you only had to worry about weight when out adventuring. In EOS you start with 50 (or 60?) slots in each bank and character. And that fills up very very quickly. Since the crafting is as evolved and deep as Skyrim, you can expect to collect a lot of flowers, cooking ingredients, potions, runes (for enchanting) and before you know it you are knee deep in wurmcult blood and about to loot an awesome new weapon, only to find out your inventory is full and you need 10 min to sort through what you can actually throw out.

Inventory has not gotten better since Skyrim. You can sort in categories, but it’s still just a massive list, and the user can not sort in any specific way. Again World of Warcraft says hello, where players can organize their own bags and will know exactly where they can find what they want. Expect to literally spend hours organizing your belongings, offloading from bags to bank and throwing stuff out you don’t need anymore. It’s not fun.

Skyrim (and other Elder Scrolls game before it), never were the most user-friendly games ever made, and their inventory and interface has always been lacking. But ESO made some changes in order to fit it into an online environment and create money and time sinks, and that’s only made it worse. Instead of finding clever solutions like player housing (which other MMOs have done successfully, as has Skyrim), they opted for a bank space. Instead of delivering a similarly powerful bank space as World of Warcraft, they created a far inferior experience which is frustrating and time consuming. Instead of delivering an amazing Auction House experience across a mega-server, they delivered guild based trading only. The list goes on, but essentially what it boils down to is this: ESO, as an MMO, simply is not very good. It could be forgiven a lot of it’s flaws as a one-off-payment single player game, but as a MMO with monthly subscription it simply does not compare with what else is on offer.

If ZeniMax Online would have actually analyzed what made World of Warcraft such a big hit, how and why it has changed over the last 8 years and learned some lessons from that, the game could be an outstanding MMO experience and it could truly challenge WoW – it certainly has a lot going for it.

ESO seems to punish players for wanting to use the very aspects which make the game an MMO, the social aspectts. Communication, trading and grouping is made harder for no other reason that bad design. It’s been done better by several games in the last 10 years and ZeniMax Online has no excuse. This cannot be blamed on a rocky start (and it has been a bit rocky), these issues are fundamental design flaws. The fact that there is no auction house, the fact that the interface to find a group is horribly convoluted and the fact that you can’t search for specific items in the guild store, are all designed features and functions. Skyrim was not perfect. Inventory management, HUD and UI and even the skill tree system were all a bit bloated and hard to access, but they rarely ever really got in the way of adventuring. When you have to run to the bank every 45 min to do inventory management, when THINKING about inventory management is the first thing you do before heading out to adventure, then you know the game systems are actually getting in the way of game fun.

I wish there was an offline single player mode, as it would actually keep me playing and probably buying potential expansions. As it is i won’t pay 10 Euro a month to keep playing, i prefer to just boot up Skyrim again.

Ultimately it will come to high end game content to a large degree. If the game holds enough interest and challenge for those who reach maximum level then it could hold a decent amount of people. But with accessibility being extremely poor and another WoW expansion scheduled for later this year and Wildstar lurking around the corner, i fear that ESO will struggle to maintain a viable user base beyond 2014. And this could end up in a downward spiral. Fewer users will mean fewer guilds and fewer members in each guild. This in turn will make grouping and in particular trading harder – which will only alienate even more people.

I would be very surprised if the game has more than 100k paying subscribers by the end of the year and I feel this game will go free to play before the end of next year.

If that happens, i’ll happily pick it up again and pay for new content and expansion packs.

Elder Scrolls MMO Score: 5.5/10 (score of the game as is)

Elder Scrolls Game Score: 8.5/10  (if this was just a single player game in the franchise)



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