GamerGate and arguing on the internet

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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

zegerman1942:

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…

View original 838 more words

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!

 

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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.

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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)

 

Spoiler Alert

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It’s Tuesday morning, you get to work, you have yourself a cup of coffee and you start talking to your work mates about the latest Game of Thrones episode (yes this happens on Tuesday in Europe). Next thing you know, you find yourself on the floor, 200 pounds of sweating, angry, colleague on top of you – Terry Tate style:

 

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“NO FUCKING SPOILERS IN THE OFFICE!!”

Hands up who has had this happen to them (minus the Terry Tate tackle perhaps). Hands up who has been told to not talk about a film, book or game in a social environment because you might be revealing spoilers. I bet most of you have been in this situation.

And you know what? i think it’s fucking bullshit. Take Game of Thrones. People who don’t watch the latest episode on the day of release (Sunday or Monday depending on where you live), expect a large part of the population who have watched it, to keep quiet, to not discuss it, to essentially refrain from referring to it at all. And if those who have not seen it come across a spoiler, no matter how tiny it might be, they react violently, often out of any proportion to that fact. Heated arguments, tears and (in some rare cases) actual violence follow.

And for what? A bit of entertainment?

Realistically lets look at this, because i understand that everyone wants their entertainment as spoiler free as possible. We all love to discover things on our own, see the twists and turns, see the plot reveals and find out what happened next. I can see that someone telling me ahead of time that Rob Stark was going to die in the Red Wedding could have been a downer (of course that would have had to happen about 5 years ago or so – when i read the book).

But at the same time what do those people who hate spoilers expect? That the world stops until they catch up with all their entertainment products and sports events of choice? That social media enforces a black-out, nobody is allowed to post? That people can’t have water-cooler moments at work and are only allowed to discuss the weather? Or at the very least that we have to wait until we have these water-cooler moments until everyone and their dog have caught up with the shows they watch.

That simply is not going to happen, nor should it! People have a right to post, blog, tweet and say anything they want about any entertainment product or sports event that has been publicly broadcast and has been available for consumption. Those who are in there first, those who watch shit as it happens, as it is broadcast, should not have to shut up or consider those that come behind. That is just stupid.

If people can’t be bothered to pay for SKY or HBO to watch Game of Thrones, if people can’t be bothered to pay 10 Euro to watch a film in the cinema, if people can’t be bothered to pay full price for a new computer game and if people can’t be bothered to get up at 5am to watch a sports event on the other side of the globe, then that’s their own problem really. Those of us who do pay for entertainment or who go the extra length to experience these things as they happen should not then be gagged by those who are not as committed or fanatical. Essentially those that are not there first simply can’t be bothered enough to be there first. So why should the rest respect their wishes for a spoiler free environment?

So in essence what i am saying is: if you don’t want spoilers you have 2 choices. Firstly you can actually show enough interest in something to ensure you are there when it happens. Secondly, if you can’t be there when it happens (for whatever reason, including if it’s not your fault at all), stay clear of all social media. Don’t read the news, don’t read forums, don’t read reviews. Stay clear of anything that could mention something about a program or event which you want to consume later on.

But don’t expect people to shut up about something that they are clearly excited about, something they want to discuss, something they are burning to discuss the moment it finishes – often times something they are burning to comment on via social media while it happens, because it is so good and so exciting and so amazing.

If you cannot consume at the very moment something happens, it is up to you to stay clear of spoilers.

There is only one exception to all of the above that i can see, and that is if people deliberately post spoilers so that others can see it, for no other reason than to be a dick. I.e. someone goes on a friend’s Facebook page and posts the plot for the latest GoT episode, knowing fully well that his friend has not seen it yet. Since it is posted on the friend’s wall, it can’t really be avoided – so that is a dick move. Deliberate spoiling like that is wrong, no question about it. But these, i think, are rare moments and to be honest, if you know people who are dicks like that: you should avoid them altogether.

 

Notplayed review: Wolfenstein New Order

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Developer: MachineGames

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Platform: 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC

Release Date: 20th May 2014

Well then, it’s been a while since there has been an actually review on this site. No game really has tickled my fancy enough to write a pre-release review. But Wolfenstein New Order certainly tickles my fancy. It appears to be a dark horse this year. While there has been some marketing buzz about it, and quite a big presence both at E3 and Gamescom last year, this has tapered off a little bit over the last few months, potentially because the game got yet another delay and marketing money might have started to run dry. So i think it’s worth having a look at this game, the first release of fabled MachineGames, a studio full of high profile developers (it essentially being the offspring of Starbreeze Studios).

Wolfenstein is a classic for me. The franchise is one i grew up with, and i actually enjoyed the last installment in 2009 (released the same year MachineGames was founded). So when i heard that some of the devs who had worked on amazing games like The Darkness and the Riddick series, were working on the next installment of a Wolfenstein game, i was well excited. I was expecting over the top gameplay, killing Nazis, taking down the German Reich single handedly, wrapped up in probably the industry’s best through-the-gun experience and with great AI. All in all – i was expecting a total hit, a game that would be an all time great, an amazing debut game by yet another fantastic Swedish Developer.

And in a way New Order delivers on those expectations, at least somewhat. It is a solid and fun shooter, with over the top brutality, an interesting idea for the story, decent AI and above all great guns.The problem is, that with few exceptions, the game never really goes above and beyond. By any modern day standard, the game is average. Which does not make it bad, but it also does not make it special. In many ways the game appears to have been made in the 1990s with some truly awful and clonky gameplay elements coupled with questionable level and game design decisions. The game has fun elements and charm, but it certainly does not stand out.

The player takes on the familiar role of BJ Blazkowicz and once again the task is to thwart the plan of the evil Nazi empire. And this time round, there really is an empire. New Order mixes things up nicely story wise right from the start and instead of going full throttle occult like the 2009 outing, MachineGames opted for an alternate history approach. In New Order, Germany’s technological advances helped win the war and the Nazi empire extends far beyond Europe.Expect robot dogs, mechs and giant alien looking mechanical constructions.

In a prologue mission BJ gets a big ole knock on the head and ends up in a mental institution. Years go by and it takes a brutal event happening in front of his eyes to wake him up from his stupor.

But wake up he does and what follows is one of the most fun and satisfying as well as one of the most boring and frustrating experiences computer games can deliver.

BJ himself has not changed much. Macho, gung-ho and stereotypical as ever, he has not evolved much since his first inception, down to the one liners which might have been fun 20 years ago, but will only entertain a small and geeky crowd in the 21st century (“Fuck you moon!” he exclaims when realizing the Nazi’s won the space race). This is a missed opportunity by MachineGames as they essentially created a blank slate for themselves by creating an alternative history. Yet they completely fail to capitalize on this opportunity and do nothing to drive the character or franchise forward in that respect, maintaining that one (very flat) dimension. Sure, you might ask how much personality a character really needs when all he does is shoot Nazi’s, and you’d have a point. I just feel that given the way the story of the game goes, the opportunity would have been there to do more.

Waking up in the mental hospital the player quickly gets down to business. The knives come out and Nazis soon die left right and center. And once the player starts picking up guns, that’s when the fun really starts. One of the best new additions is the option to dual wield pretty much every weapon in the game – a sheer sign of mad brilliance by MachineGames, who understand the core of fun, arcade first person shooters. Give the player the tools to have fun, and let him have fun. Wolfenstein New Order definitely ticks that box. Running around with 2 heavy machine guns, pumping tons of lead into nazi soldiers puts a massive grin on your face. The guns feel meaty, the feedback feels amazing, the audio is perfect – it is a joy to fire these virtual weapons and every single one feels slightly different and the variation is great.

But that smile on your face can just as easily become a frown, the fun turn into frustration, when clunky ammo and health pick-up elements rear their heads. You run out of ammo too fast, obtaining ammo and reloading, as well as getting health packs (yes, health packs…) is another thing that does not seem to have moved on in the last 20 years. It feels awkward to pick up ammo, to pick up health packs and to reload. It takes too long and it distracts from the fun to be had. MachineGames gives us the tools to have fun with, but every so often, like a stern (german?) teacher, they seem to shout “nein nein nein BJ, zis is enough fun! You must pick up some ammo now, ja? We can’t have you shooting all ze time!”

Guns, awesome as they may be, also get in the way. Dual wielding everything definitely sounds like a great idea, and for the most part it works, but when the guns are bigger than a persons leg, it can become an issue. Wielding 2 massive weapons, both with particle effects like muzzle flashes and even fancier stuff, at times can mean you have no clue at all what is going on. You can literally not see past your weapons. And in environments which are semi dark on a lot of occasions (why do Nazi’s prefer the semi dark?), levels which are constructed partially unreadable and for which you will need a chaperon to help you through, as well as enemies which often blend into the environment (hello same colour palette!) this can be an issue. If you really want to see stuff, and want to know where you are going, i recommend you just stick to your knife! MachineGames seem to think the same, because they made a knife-kill an especially gruesome and detailed experience – almost as if to say: this is what you should be doing all the time!

The game can look stunning at times (using the same tech as Rage though, it does have it’s limits), but the simple truth is: a lot of times you just don’t notice it. Either through pace of action or simply because everything blends together or is obscured, a lot of the attention to detail that MachineGames have obviously put in, is simply lost. Even high quality videos of in game environments make it clear that the game was never intended as a full next gen experience. The only reason it seems to land on next gen consoles is because it kept getting delayed. And as of yet iD-tech 5 does not look stunning on next gen. Perhaps another year would have helped with that.

One of the things that stand out is the AI. Again the heritage of former Starbreeze games shines through and it is clear that opponents in New Order can think, at least somewhat, for themselves. There does seem to be some inconsistency though, both with AI senses as well accuracy. AI for example never really seem to hear you approach from behind and the ease with which knife kills are achieved appears to be slightly on the comical side. Similarly whenever the game veers into a more open setting and there are multiple enemies firing at you, their accuracy seems to be ridiculously low, giving you plenty of time to pick up the uber weapon, conveniently placed nearby, and unleash a rain of death and destruction on enemies and environment alike. The AI works best in mid to close range when aware of the player. Then they behave like proper soldiers and they can be lethal.

Overall then Wolfenstein: New Order is a frustrating title. You can clearly tell the dark and edgy story underneath is done by a crew who helped to make greats like The Darkness. You can clearly tell that guns, AI and environmental art are lovingly crafted and well designed. You can clearly tell that MachineGames understood the essence of what Wolfenstein is: a light hearted, arcade, fun and fast paced shooter. All the elements are there, but it appears to me that in almost 5 years of development MachineGames have failed to bring all these ingredients into the 21st century. It jumps from being fun to being insanely frustrating when you get lost, when you run out of ammo, when struggling with some of the dated game design elements.

The game appears to have been made by hard core gamers enjoying shooters for hard core gamers enjoying shooters. It is not a game for novices to shooters or someone who simply wants to dabble and give it a go. It is a must have for any Wolfenstein fan and for anyone looking for a few hours of fun with amazing through the gun experience. But anyone looking for more, looking for depth,  anyone looking for replay value, better look elsewhere. I think the game severely lacks in usability and i feel for that reason it will fail to find mass market appeal. It is not the Wolfenstein iteration which finally will bring BJ Blazkowicz to the masses. And i think ZeniMax knows this, which is why it tried to give the game even more time and now has coupled any purchase with a Beta pass for the next Doom game, in an attempt to generate interest. Unless you are a hardcore fan of the franchise, pick this up second hand or wait for a sale. Due to little to no replay value the first used copies should in stores within a week of launch and i would not be surprised to see special deals with this game reasonably quickly.

As a first outing by MachineGames it is an average one. With the pedigree of the studio, 5 years of development time, an established engine and the backing of ZeniMax, they should have been capable of delivering more. It will be interesting to see if this project will manage to break even and what the future will hold for MachineGames. Will they be able to try again, or will they become a porting studio for ZeniMax? If they try again, they should get some fresh, young, blood in that helps them move out of the 1990s of game making.

I certainly would not mind a true 21st century version of Wolfenstein.

 

6/10
Disclaimer: nobody at notplayed.com has actuallly played the release version of Wolfenstein: New Order. This is a mock-review purely based on material available on the internet (marketing, game-play videos, articles and interviews). 

Social Accountability

In my last post as well as some previous blogs i talked about gamers acting out, using the anonymity of the internet to their advantage to harass and threaten others. We have all seen how people behave on the internet, mainly because they don’t have to worry about consequences and repercussions.

“Don’t read the comments…” or “Just read the comments, they are hilarious…”- hands up who has heard someone say this about an article on the net in the last few years. As a developer i have heard these statements a fair bit. Comments on reviews and news articles, in the gaming industry in particular (but not exclusive to it), can be a source of frustration, anger, disappointment, joy and entertainment. The public being able to state their own feelings and emotions without any (or little) form of censorship or consequences can lead to comments which are frightening, painful, embarrassing and fun. Internet comments can show humanity at it’s best or worst. People can come together or tear each other apart.

The internet is brilliant. It connects people, it allows for instant communication across the globe, it gives information to people, it allows us to be more transparent, it allows us share data and it allows us to grow and evolve as human beings. Imagine a world where there is no internet. Even now, thinking back to about 25 years ago, when nobody i knew had access to the internet, i can’t really remember how that was. It feels strange even thinking about it, as if there was a mental block in my brain saying “No, the internet always existed. There was no “BEFORE”!” Sure i enjoy being away from all the digital noise for periods of time, being out of reach, but to contemplate a prolonged absence of all things internet is impossible.

But like almost everything in life, the internet also has it’s bad sides. Direct human interaction is reduced. It provides new opportunities for fraud and other forms of crime. It has made gambling easier than ever. Entertainment is provided effortlessly and often at reduced quality. “News” outlets spring up left right and center where contributors have no training, no moral compass and no requirement to vet their “news”. Fiction is often peddled as fact and once it’s on the internet it becomes fact, as long as enough people share the information.

I grew up without the internet. Which means i grew up having to interact with other human beings through other means, often face to face. People knew who i was when i talked to them. When i had an opinion on something, when i agreed or disagreed with something, and when i  voiced that opinion, i generally did so in a respectable fashion. Why did i do that? Simple: because people knew who i was and if i was anything less than respectable, there would have been consequences. I would have been socially shunned. My friends might well have distanced themselves from me. In short, if i had been a dick, people would have treated me like a dick.

This behavior actually is mirrored and adapted by the internet, at least to some degree and in social circles. If their real name is on the line, if their real identity is behind an interaction of any sort, if a certain accountability applies, people are a lot more conscious when they post. Facebook is a good example for this. Yes there is a lot of junk on facebook and at times it feels it was created purely for the sake of sharing cat pictures, but look at the content and form of comments people leave. The vast majority of comments is generally what i consider “clean” – free from excessive obscenity and free from threats. I have yet to come across a person threatening another with murder on Facebook (i am sure it exists, the sheer number of users dictate it exists, it is just a lot less frequent). The reason for that, i believe, is that your friends on Facebook would hold you accountable. They would tell you it’s not on to behave like this, they might even unfriend you. So there is a risk of consequences and the average human being stops and thinks before doing something, if there are potential consequences.

Now take something like NeoGaf, Reddit or any random internet gaming news site. People create anonymous accounts and there are no consequences. This is when the worst in human beings comes out. Things they would never say in front of friends and family, things they instinctively know are wrong to utter, come out in a fit of rage and anger. Anonymity on the internet removes a certain check-box. It removes the need to stop and think “what would my friends/family say”. It removes the need to stop and think about possible legal ramifications if a threat or comment was made in real life. People have been convicted for abusive language and death threats made in real life.

It is not enough to ask users to stop and think if they would make a certain statement in real life. Users won’t stop. The fact that they are anonymous is so ingrained, the power they feel about being able to say whatever they feel like, without the fear of consequences, is too alluring. Some sites and forums use a voting system to allow a certain user policing. Comments voted down will disappear from view for example, discouraging abusive comments. On a lot of moderated forums bans and blocks can be used, but they only work in the short term. Services like Twitter, in the name of freedom from censorship (which in theory is a good thing), continue to allow users to abuse other users, even issue death and rape threats. All you need to do is check Anita Sarkeesian’s twitter space. As far as i know, nobody abusing her in this manner has faced any kind of consequence so far.

As my generation is growing older and face to face interaction is taking more and more of a back seat, the next generation of internet users is growing up with this lack of accountability. It is natural for them to be anonymous, hide behind gamer handles and harass those they disagree with. In fact they feel entitled to this and they never ever are put in a position where they have to consider other people’s views, thoughts, beliefs and requirements. In short, people are getting more narrow minded rather than more open minded.

So what can be done about this? After debating my last blog entry with a good friend of mine, he planted a seed in my brain. A seed of a possible solution. So i can’t claim credit for the idea, i am just fleshing it out a little.

In theory it is possible to use the very systems that make the internet great to enforce a certain measure of social accountability. All the hooks and functionality are already in place, it is just a matter of someone having the balls, and the money, to bring it all together and form an underlying architecture will allow for a certain level of internet decorum. Many sites and services at the moment allow users to sign in with their Facebook details (i.e. Spotify, Songkick, Eurogamer etc.). This is currently mainly done to allow ease of use as well as to collect further marketing data and, i the long run, make money. But it is that very functionality, linking a user to an existing real life profile, which can enforce a certain level of social accountability!

Imagine if, going forward, people had no choice but had to use either a Facebook or Google+ account to sign into the vast majority of services on the internet. Twitter, news websites, gaming websites, gaming console profiles – the works. Every comment, every tweet, every reply would show who posted it. Each comment would be a public statement by the person who made it – an open public statement: “This is who i am and this is what i think!”

Additionally every single comment and interaction would be posted on the news-feed on Facebook or Google+, so that friends and family can see and read comments, statements and tweets. After all – if you post it in a public domain, why would you not want your friends, family and co-workers to know?

Imagine this in full flow. Imagine if every single comment you make online is peer reviewed by your friends and family and you are judged and evaluated on those comments. Wouldn’t that be something? This accountability would usher in a new wave of respect i feel. People would actually pause and think “should i really post this? is this how i really feel, or do i just post this because i am angry right now? what will my friends think?”. This can make all the difference.

Heavy handed policing and censorship is bad, which is why i am not totally against Twitter not taking action. The freedom to post ones opinion, regardless of what that opinion is, is important. But i think what should be removed is the ability to hide behind anonymity. If people want to post hurtful comments, if they want to rant and flame, if they want to harass and threaten others, they ought to do so when everyone knows exactly who they are. Let the internet be policed by peers. Let peer pressure work it’s wonders. I think the results would be quick and they would be permanent.

All the functionality is in place. All the hooks and systems are there. All it needs is some person or some company, or a group of companies and people, to step up and make it happen. Facebook and Google should get their heads together and work with some of the biggest names in news (gaming and otherwise). Enforce login using a verified account and get this thing rolling.

Yes, there will be people setting up fake accounts, there always are. But the more hoops you throw in the path of someone who wants to be abusive on the internet, the better. The more hassle it is for them to be abusive, the higher the chances they won’t bother.

Us vs. Them

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I have been blogging about entitlement a few times before. Gamers feeling like they are entitled to content, feeling like they have the right to behave a certain way. We certainly saw a lot of that attitude in the last few weeks after Facebook announced it had bought up Oculus.

The outcry from gamers (many of whom never supported the original Oculus Kickstarter in the first place) was out of any proportion and even involved death threats to one of the Oculus founders. This is where we are at right now, in the 21st century, with widespread internet access and no ramifications for behavior at all.

People can hide behind their anonymity (take my own case, this blog as an example), and write/say what they want, with little to no consequences. People can make death threats and harass others via services like Twitter and won’t even get their accounts closed down, let alone face criminal charges. Prosecution is extremely rare and from what i gather it’s mostly terrorism which seems to be taken seriously. I guess this might change if a game developer  or their family actually will come to harm.

But it should not have to come to that. Why should people like Luckey and others be exposed to this hatred in the first place? What kind of action warrants such hatred, directed not only at the developer alone, but also their family, friends and even pets.

What is it that makes gamers so fanatical over an entertainment product? what is it that makes them blow up so massively that they threaten someone they have never met before, someone who works hard to produce more entertainment, with rape and murder? I honestly believe that it is this sense of entitlement which has been growing among all human beings over the last 20 to 30 years. I would argue that my parents never really felt entitled to anything. They worked hard for everything they got and i would guess most people born in the 70s and early 80s would say the same about their parents.

I was born in the 70s. By the 90s i already felt entitled, at least to some things. I felt entitled enough to consume some entertainment for free, copying video tapes (a friend of mine had all Star Trek episodes on original tapes and i copied them). By the end of the 90s it was Napster and free music download. Throughout, on my C64 and later on PCs i was playing pirated games, expecting games to be free, feeling entitled.

Now think about kids being born in the late 90s and early 2000s – bombarded with entertainment and marketing. Is it any wonder the current generation of gamers in the mid to late teens, and even early 20s, feels a personal slight when a developer does something they don’t agree with? Change the sniper rifle slightly and the gamer crowd goes nuts.

I honestly have no idea on how to fix it. Perhaps we can’t fix it. Perhaps it’s a runaway train. Consumers presented with too much choice, developers constantly trying to make everyone happy, in order to get the sales needed, instead of delivering games they want to deliver. I am not sure we can change this internet experience without consequences. Thanks to sites like Imgur, twitter, facebook and similar, it is easier than ever to spread a rumor, with no need to back it up with facts. Facts no longer matter, telling “your side” of the story no longer matters. What matters is information, “news”, regardless if they are true or not, spreading like a wildfire, generating hits, links and thus revenue. It’s much better to get 10.000 hits on a rant that  does not contain a single shred of evidence, than 10 views on a properly researched article.

So what can we developers do? Well first of all i think we developers can treat each other with respect and tolerance. Because that is actually rarely the case it seems. A bit of friendly banter and competition is natural and actually good, it keeps us on our toes and can spurn us on. But over the last few years i think this banter and competition has slipped down right along with the behavior of our gamers.

Gamesindustry.biz was (and to a degree still is) a good source of industry news, interviews and opinion pieces. But ever since the site opened up a comment section for each article, i feel the site has degraded. There are some guidelines in place and open hostility is not tolerated, but what the comment section shows is very much an ego centric attitude and open hostility to all that is “other”. There is very little tolerance for views which are different, for developers who happen to follow a different path.

Nothing illustrates this better than an article on F2P i think.  The very first comment reads:

“because you cannot have the same fun for 50 dollar in a f2p game. the same amount of fun (=same kind of round game experience) usually costs 500-5000 dollar in f2p games and these games have a less good quality in compare to AAA games. “

Grammatical and spelling errors aside, it is the absoluteness of the comment that strikes me. “cannot have”, “500-5000 dollar in f2p”, “have less good quality” – absolute statements, not really allowing for exceptions, let alone a different view. The person behind this comment lives in the extremes. That person does not consider the literally hundreds of AAA games that turn out to be rubbish, but where the player has no refund available (and there was no demo). It does not consider the hundreds of F2P titles where players can get hundreds of hours of fun in return for not a single cent spent.

In short: narrow minded. A lot of developers these days seem to be so absorbed by what they do and what they believe in, that they simply do not care about what other people think. They don’t even consider that another view might be possible, that something can be seen from different angles.

Not everyone is like that of course, and gamesindustry.biz is not all bad (also i am just using it as an example, the likes of gamasutra etc. are exactly the same). There are some moderate voices out there, preaching and practicing tolerance, understanding that game development, like the market it tries to reach, must be diverse and that there is room to for pretty much every game we can think of.

So you don’t like F2P? That’s totally fine! Nobody forces you to like the concept or even play a single F2P game! F2P games will not kill off AAA games development. All sorts of games, developed in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of platforms and with all sorts of monetization models, can quite happily co-exist.

As an industry we are reaching a wider market than ever before. In 2006 people were laughing at F2P. Today F2P has brought people into the gamer fold that would never in their life would have bought a console, let alone a boxed AAA game. As with everything else in life: how can diversity be a bad thing? How can more choice, more options, more diverse content, be a bad thing?

So what’s the moral of this post? I don’t know. I really don’t. Personally i am just fed up with this Us vs. Them attitude between a lot of developers, in particular developers who create along the lines of more modern monetization and design ideas, compared to more traditional developers. I am fed up with developers not respecting each other’s opinion and work. I am fed up with people feeling like their opinion matters above all others. And i am fed up with gamers thinking they own developers or have the right to threaten and harass them, just because they spent some money on an entertainment product.

Perhaps if developers start working together, respect each other and support each other, we can present a unified industry and ensure those we produce games for can’t act the way they do now.

Virtual Reality is here

FarmVille

Last week Sony announced the Morpheus headset. A VR device designed for the PS4 and a major step forward from the Oculus Rift. By all accounts VR was the hot topic of GDC 2014 and there was a positive buzz from everyone who got to try Sony’s hardware as well a the new Oculus Dev Kit 2. There was a hint in the air that VR of the 21st century would not go the way of VR 1990s.

There are a number of developers already busy making games and experiences for the new hardware, even though it is not commercially available. Dedicated websites are up and running reporting on the latest news and games surrounding the new tech. There has definitely been more interest and more force behind the new wave of VR.

But until yesterday it was still seen as a bit of a geeky thing, something for the core gamer and early adopter, perhaps reaching the mass market in 5 to 10 years time. Then Facebook bought bought the Rift maker Oculus for a whopping 2 billion USD (including stock options). 2 things happened:

First millions of people around the world for the first time heard of the existence of the Oculus VR headset.

Secondly the core gamers, who to this point supported Oculus and all it stood for, started taking the the internet in a wave of shock and anger.

How could they have done this! Oculus was a grassroots thing! We funded it on Kickstarter! It was meant to be all about games, our games, core games! I wanted a deep and meaningful experience! ME! ME! ME! ME!

It was, frankly, not surprising to see this happen and it’s frankly not surprising to see just how narrow minded the “core” gamers can sometimes be. They don’t care about the industry, they don’t care about long term. They care only about their own experience and their own expectations. Some of them are incapable to stop for 1 second to think about what all this actually means for the industry, what it can mean for games. No, they immediately see FarmVille on VR and, worst of all, they think they will be forced to play games they don’t want to play. Facebook has killed VR for everyone, forever.

And core gamers are not alone with this. Some developers even spoke out negatively with regards to the Facebook takeover of Oculus. Most notably Notch of Minecraft fame. “I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook.” He writes, before summarizing: “And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”

Harsh words indeed, and definitely his prerogative to not do business with facebook. But thankfully not every developer is like that. Cliff Bleszinski wrote a great article about the news and went as far to call out Notch. “Notch, your cancelling Minecraft makes you look like a pouty kid who is taking his ball and going home. It’s a bratty and petty move and it saddens me greatly.”, he wrote. And he was not alone. Palmer Luckey responded and shed some more light on the Minecraft for VR story.

Not to diminish the effort Notch has made when it comes to the rift. His donation was generous and his publicity has helped undoubtedly to gather more supporters. But i think CliffyB was spot on when he called the reaction childish.

In particular i have a problem with Notch’s statement about investment. That argument has come up a few times in the last 2 days, quite a few people commenting on Oculus essentially funding their company through Kickstarter, building value, only to sell it off. But is that really the case? First of all Oculus did not start from scratch when their Kickstarter launched. Those involved put down their own money to found the company and get started. Secondly the Oculus Rift Kickstarter delivered all it had promised, and then some. There were no shares promised, there were no partnerships as part of the pledge rewards. People pledging do not own the company or have any rights beyond the rewards they signed up for. It was inevitable that Oculus would be bought , anyone  with half a brain should have seen this coming. Facebook might have come out of left field, but a purchase was unavoidable. What did people expect? They deliver the Oculus and then shut down again, because making a profit might have been unfair to those who pledged?

As awesome as Oculus are, as much as they have done to revive VR and bring it to the 21st century, they did not have the means to really catapult it on the mass market scene. And, as much as core gamers might hate it, that is what is needed not only for the platform to be successful but also to ensure a wide variety of content. Core gamers don’t understand this. Game developers who let their hatred for Facebook and all things commercial and social take over, don’t understand that. All they see is the next wave of FarmVille on VR. But lets look at an example using numbers (and i am just pulling some numbers out of my arse now to simplify):

Let’s assume i make a VR game. Unless i sit in a basement at my mum’s place and do everything myself in the evening, while working a different daytime job, before i even start i need to look at budget. It does not matter how good my idea is, i need to be sure i can pull it off without ending up on the street or starving. Even more so if there is more people than me involved. I am not talking big salaries and expensive cars, i am talking just the basics. Do not forget dear core gamers, we devs love making games, but we also do need to eat and keep the lights on.

So lets assume the game i make, which won’t have a lot of marketing, will sell to 1% of all people owning the hardware (and that’s actually generous considering less than 8% of console owners purchase games like CoD with massive mass market appeal and marketing). Now lets assume Oculus manages to sell 1 million units after a year or so (so far they sold 75 thousand dev kits – so again i am being generous). So with those assumptions i expect to sell 10.000 units. Lets further assume i sell the game for 20 USD (which is mid range) – i would earn 200.000 USD. Subtract engine/tools cost, distribution cost (steam is not cheap) and i will be left with about 120.000 USD. If i am on my own, that’s a good chunk of money! But even for a small team of 4 or 5, factoring in running costs, office costs etc. this chunk of money could be gone quickly.

Sure there is a chance the game could be huge and all 1 million Oculus owners buy it, but not every game is an Angry Bird. Those games that for some reason or another (no matter how simple or shit people might find them) take off, are rare.

Now lets change the playing field. Say Oculus manages to sell 10 million units. All of a sudden (1% sales still remaining the same), my units sold raises to 100.000 and my earnings to 2 million USD. All other things remaining equal, i have just made a ton of money. I can take that money and invest in more people, more games and all the funky stuff.

But more importantly, and this is what the core seem to forget (because they think we just want to make more money), i no longer NEED to sell to 1% of the consumer base. If i am alone and make my own game, i can get away with selling to only 0.1% of the installed base. I will still make enough money to survive and make more games, maybe even grow a little. And what does that mean? It means we developers can be more experimental! We don’t have to try to hit the majority of consumers, we can make games we feel passionate about and believe in, and if only a fraction of the user base buys our games, that will be enough, it means we break even and keep doing what we do.

And this is what Facebook and Oculus together can potentially bring to the table. Oculus will be able to break out from the geek niche it currently sits in and thanks to money and marketing might of facebook has a potential to reach a billion people like no other product has done before. And if only a fraction of those people who own a PC and use facebook pick up a Rift when it comes out, it will mean a much larger installment base than what Oculus could have managed on their own.

What this will mean is that the Rift will be a viable platform to develop for, for a lot more studios and a lot more developers, and not just the hard core enthusiasts.

And so what if there will be games which try to go full-on retard commercial, including ads and microtransactions? That’s the beauty of choice. There will be games for every taste and every person. Overall this purchase is a great thing. The Rift gets the funding and marketing power it deserves. Millions of people will be aware of just how amazing a VR experience can be and with the money and expertise that Facebook bring on board, i am sure the device will be extremely user friendly and probably a lot higher spec than Oculus could have achieved on their own.

5 years from now, instead of a few hundred thousand rifts gathering dust in the shelves of a few geeks and core fans, we will have millions of devices in people’s homes and we will have a new way of experiencing and making games. We might have budgets to create VR games that will blow people’s minds. I am not talking AAA budgets, but budgets that mean we can go beyond the current breed of VR games in development. Instead of going the way of 1990s VR, 21st century VR will entertain and amaze us.

And then the geeks will come out and say “I was one of the first to fund it!”.

Match made in Heaven

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I have been playing Titanfall since launch now and by all accounts it is a great FPS game that has brought some new elements to a largely stale genre, as well as revived a few old classic mechanics that have been spurned for far too long.

It is a solid game where, regardless of how you perform in any given match, it is simply fun to wall-run and double jump (Hello Quake and UT) and magnificent when you get into your own Titan. At least for a while…

Because, if you are a player of average (or below) skill or of a casual nature, chances are you are not alive long enough to really string things together and get into the flow. You spawn into a map, ready with your burn cards and eager to try out the new gun-sight you just unlocked, just to be picked off by an opponent already in a Titan, because hey, he got a  much better burn card to start the round already strapped into his Titan. These are rare of course, but those that play a lot are favored. Or you finally get your Titan dropped, which looks and sounds AWESOME, climb onboard and are just about ready to lay waste when your alarm bells go off and you get ejected. Because an opponent is using the biggest and baddest Titan there is and before you even know what’s going on, your own Titan has gone up in flames.

In a game that hands out upgrades and new equipment based challenges and level, those that climb to the top faster get an advantage. And that advantage can be devastating. In theory unlocking upgrades like this makes sense, because everyone, eventually, can get all the upgrades – just invest enough time and you too can have the most powerful weapon, the most powerful Titan.

In theory. Because what the design did not seem to incorporate, or something that was dismissed or that was too difficult to implement properly, was a good match making system.

If you buy Titanfall right now and log in today, you are likely going to play against opponents which have unlocked everything. They are in tier 2 of ranks (post level 50) and they know the maps by heart. The game does apparently have a match-making system in place, but i have not been able to figure out just what exactly it does and what stats it takes into account. It certainly does not seem to be skill based, or even win/loss ratio based. But i simply don’t know. Respawn has acknowledged the problem, but for a studio with such a long history of making PvP shooters, how could this not have been obvious?

But Titanfall is not alone with this. I have not played an online shooter with automatic server assignment and matchmaking where it was a truly balanced affair. Games which allow you to chose servers, and some servers are labeled as “beginner” or “max level only”, work better (though you do get the occasional jerk), but automated matchmaking seems to just be broken across the board.

Even games like Battlefield suffer from it, though you do notice it slightly less depending on game mode due to the slightly slower paced nature as well as the fact that unlocked guns are not automatically more powerful than previous ones. You get a rank based on individual skill, and that is supposedly used for matchmaking, however after a few trial runs (deliberately going down in skill) i still joined servers playing against the same people when choosing quick match. Checking the battlelog of those people revealed they were considerably higher skill.

And here is where my theory comes in: matchmaking in console online shooters is a scam. It does not actually exist. Working in development i know it would be easy to actually check for skill in the case of BF or even rudimentary for level in games like Titanfall, and assign players accordingly. Why is this not done? Because the top priority of the developer and publisher is to fill up servers. This serves 2 functions:

- Give the players the “optimal” experience for the map, ensure there are enough opponents and sides are evenly numbered.

- Give players the illusion that every server they join is full, or close to it, that the population is healthy and that it’s worth sticking with the game.

Now games like BF and CoD (and no doubt Titanfall) do extremely well. However it would be interesting to know the drop off rate for online players. How long do casual and below average skill players engage with the game on a session by session basis and in the long run.

My current maximum tolerance for Titanfall is about 3 to 5 matches. Because i don’t play 6 hours a day, i am not rank 50 yet and my equipment is mediocre at best. Less than 2 weeks after launch i am already at a huge disadvantage compared to the hard-core gamers. So in 3 to 5 matches i get about all the fun i can out of the game. I might get one or 2 good movement combinations, get a decent run in my Titan and rack up a few kills. Mostly i go for AI, as i know i can get some kills. After that, i am too frustrated to continue and the pool of fun is exhausted, at least for a day, perhaps longer. I love the game, i love a lot of the mechanics and some of the designs are simply beautiful, but thanks to matchmaking and imbalance, Titanfall is not the type of game where i sit at work thinking about it, not a game that makes me run home, switch on my Xbone and game for hours. It is a game i now play if i have nothing better to do.

And here is the thing. Getting the player to understand how to be better and proper matchmaking are very very simple to do. Yet no developer seems to really care.

Games like BF and Titanfall track ALL the stats needed to accomplish both. Battlefield in particular actually has it’s own battle log, where players can see their stats. Here is an independant site which has been tracking BF stats since at least BF2. Everything is there. Other sites deal purely with guns. Look at the detail on this site. That’s for ONE weapon (incidentally my favourite assault rifle). Isn’t it incredible?

Now if games track all these stats, most of which are extracted by players themselves and fed into these wonderful charts, trackers and documents, why can’t developers use these stats to make the game more enjoyable for more players?

Player stats such as kill/death ratio, win/loss ratio, hit ratio and level can easily feed into a properly designed skill stat, which is then used to actually match up people on the same server. As an added benefit, or a more elaborate system, the game could suggest to a player to change server if skill is increased or decreased beyond the margin on the currently matched server.

Player stats such as hit ratio, accuracy, kill vs. ammo used ratio etc. (tracked by sites like symthic) could actually be used by the game itself to teach the player and suggest changes in playstyle:

“Hey ZeGerman, we noticed you switched to the AK47 and your accuracy has dropped by 7%, we suggest you level up some more and get the M16. Alternatively you could unlock the grip and heavy barrel for the AK47, this should increase accuracy. Also try using shorter bursts instead of keeping the trigger pressed. According to your stats your average burst is 20 rounds. Burst of 5 or more increase muzzle drift and reduce accuracy. You could get about 2.3 more kills per round with either suggestion.”

How about that? The game tracks anyway what i do and how i do it. What if the game actually made use of all that information it tracks and exposes it in a meaningful way to the player and helps the player get better? Wouldn’t that be something!

It’s not that much work. And it could even be done offline – on sites such as battlelog, so the system can evolve over time. But no. Players are left entirely on their own to try and get better. They are given weapons with multitude of stats and the majority of players don’t understand half of it. Battlelog is awesome for stat bragging and seeing what you have achieved, but it does not tell you how to get better. The core gamer gets better simply by trying, by reading up on 3rd party websites and by playing for hours and hours and hours. The less than core and casual gamer does not do this and is left wondering why the opposition is so much better. In Titanfall this is even worse, because the opposition simply is more powerful by playing longer and ranking up more, skill does not immediately come into it.

Titanfall, in my opinion, was a great step forward for the FPS genre. I think the next big leap forward is when we see an FPS game that actually cares how their players perform, teaches their players to be better and matches them up against equal opponents.

Irrational Games Development

kenlevine

 

Irrational Games is no more. After 17 years and 3 big games, the studio closes its doors and around 100 people lose their jobs.

Massive news at the start of the week, yet the only article worth reading that i found was this: a blog post about the people who actually worked there, you know those that lost their job. Everyone else, after mentioning commiserations in passing, quickly moved on to the REAL topic: What on earth can Levine do next? O M G so exciting!! It could be awesome!!! I kid you not, sites like Kotaku and others read Levine’s rather short and unimaginative final post on the IG website and extrapolated potential awesomeness, started speculating and capitalized on a hot topic. That’s despite nothing at all being known and Levine having a track record of taking 7 years to deliver a game. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a bit early to start the Levine hype. 2020 will be soon enough.

And that, in my opinion, is exactly the problem. In my opinion it is the real reason why Irrational Games had to close down. Because it took more than 6 years to release Bioshock Infinite, it cost a massive amount of money and while it well may have broken even, it certainly did not make a massive amount of profit, nor did it push the franchise into a new market. The same people who bought Bioshock 1 bought Infinite. This is not really a bad thing, and 4 millions sales is by no means a bad achievement, but for a high profile project, a high profile “creative” and a budget like that of Infinite, it simply is not enough. It’s no surprise that 2K decided it’s time to end things. And the most valuable asset that 2K has from Irrational is Ken Levine. Not because he is such an outstanding creative, after playing all his games i would argue he isn’t. Not because he is an inspiring leader, after talking to some people who worked at IG i would argue he isn’t. No, it’s simply because he is a big name, the press love him and sites like Kotaku are already foaming at the mouth at him only mentioning a new project – Ken Levine is good PR.

I have never worked with him, but i have worked with other “big names” in the industry. Most of them made their name in 90s (like Levine) and my experience has generally been that they are not actually that good. And they are certainly not good for development. Their ego gets in the way and those that i worked with felt they could do no wrong and every idea they had was solid gold. That their vision changed every couple of weeks or months (depending on the movie they had seen or game they played) mattered little. The fact that months and sometimes years of work had to be thrown away meant little. The fact that people no longer believed in the vision, often did not even understand it even, meant little.

People like Levine, Molyneux, Braben, Black and others are great PR. They talk up a storm and the press laps it all up. They often cause controversy (none more so than Molyneux) outside the studio and chaos and terror inside the studio. Everytime someone like Molyneux or Levine make a public statement about the game, mention a feature or new idea, everyone actually working hands on in the studio and every marketing and PR person wants to strangle the lead creative.

Those big names often are indecisive, impulsive and most of the time have no actual clue about game development. They shot to fame in the 90s when making games was a much different affair and since then sat on their high seats when technology, tools and understanding of games, gamers and demographics passed them by. They took they higher budgets and used it to drag out development in the elusive hunt of realizing “their vision”. No thought was/is given to those actually making the project happen.

Look at Bioshock Infinite. It tries to tell a story, and by all accounts it’s not a bad story for a game, but it’s not nearly enough to mask the outdated core mechanics, which to a large degree are unchanged since System Shock. There were hints at new things, such as the sky-hook, but implemented half assed (it was not freely usable everywhere, which would have transformed the game in my opinion) and there was no multiplayer (which was promised at some point), so the game had no replay value and sales quickly shifted to second hand as the first wave finished their copy and returned it to the store. The story was not really compelling enough or provided enough choice to warrant a second playthrough. Levine tells a good story, but he uses the wrong medium to do it. He does not utilize the unique aspect of games: interactivity and player choice. According to his letter he seems to have seen the light, but honestly: after the last deliveries he did in 17 years, i won’t hold my breath.

All this took 6 years to make. It probably took thousands of unpaid overtime hours on the side of the team and, i am guessing here, a lot of that was down to Levine changing his vision, interfering with development and not having a clue. People slaved away, did not see family, probably could not even take sick or holidays in some cases. People sacrificed and now they got their reward. 

But it is the people like Levine who will always land on their feet, in this case even within the same publishing company. The rest of the people hopefully will find another job soon, and having Infinite on the CV will definitely help. I really hope so, because it was the team that created Infinite, not because of Levine but, in my opinion, in spite of him. They did what they could with what the had to work with, in a competitive and harsh environment.

So i don’t get this Levine or Molyneux or [insert other famous developer name] hype. Because, from personal experience, i think they are not actually that good and in many cases actually are a block to development. Real creative leadership does not come from promising the moon and constantly talking about a “vision”, which changes every few months. Real creative leadership comes from an understanding of the team that actually delivers the vision and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both team and tech. Understanding what can and can’t be done. Realizing where to push the boundaries and where not to. And also it comes from understanding the potential target audience and realizing that any budget available needs to be recuperated from that target audience. Of course people like Levine, Molyneux and Braben don’t care about this. All they care about is to realize their vision (which some of them might have had for 20+ years but never had a chance to work on ). Because they know if they fail, if the game gets binned or never sells well, they won’t be affected. They move on to the next thing, while the grunts on the ground are left with the ruins. Their names guarantee another top job. The grunts are not so lucky.

But thankfully not every studio is like this, not every creative lead is a Levine. One has only to look at Naughty Dog among others, delivering amazing games every 2 years or so. Innovating, telling stories and entertaining a much broader audience. Despite personally not being a big fan of their games, i have to concede that this shows creative leadership as it should be. I doubt we will see Nate Wells post a letter citing the “desires to do something new, with a smaller team”  or “leaving over creative differences” anytime soon. I doubt we will see Naughty Dog closing it’s doors, leaving behind 100+ exploited and emotionally as well as financially drained grunts.

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