Friday, 29 July 2011

Grahf Reviews - Killing Floor

Some of you might have thought that I was going to do Team Fortress 2 as an online review. But even I’m not that predictable. A huge reason behind my choice to not cover TF2 is also that it recently turned Free to Play, so there is literally no risk aside from a wasted download in at least trying it for yourself. That put the game that was actually the second game I ever owned on Steam ahead on the priorities list.

Title: Killing Floor
Platform: PC
Release Date: May 2009
Genre: First Person Shooter

Overall Grade: B- a cheap niche title that still updates with free content and has an active and ongoing development going on. That being said the difficulty level and grinding for perks can and will turn off a lot of people. Might be worth a try if you enjoy Left 4 Dead and don’t mind getting your ass handed to you, a lot.

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Zombies, Zeds, the undead, the living impaired. Whatever you want to call them, the main point of Killing Floor is turning as many of them as possible into bloody piles of hamburger whilst not having the same unfortunate fate visited upon yourself. It’s a lot easier on paper than it in in practice, trust me.

There is a story here, but it’s absolutely bare bones. Mad scientist creates some bad juju, and now it’s time to shoot, stab, explode, burn, snipe, and otherwise gain victory through vicious and delicious violence.

One of the first things you’re going to notice about KF is that the game is almost the antithesis of what most would call a “graphical powerhouse”. Running off a modded Unreal Engine 2.5, if you’re coming in looking for silky smooth visuals and hi-def gore, then you might want to go elsewhere, because you’re really not going to find any of that here. The game isn’t going to give you eye cancer or anything, but the visuals are never going to be impressive unless you get a time machine and hop back at least a couple of years. That being said the design is well represented, with all the Zeds you fight being visually distinctive and the environments capturing that suitable sparseness of a post-outbreak war zone.

In terms of audio, you’re getting stuff on par with the video: industrial metal pours through the background; music that will put some in a killing mood but that others won’t be able to turn off quickly enough. There is voice acting, but for the protagonists there’s only two actual VA’s both of which are heavily British (which makes sense because the game is in the land of double-deckers and lifts) and also almost comically awful at times. It might not be as cheesy as “Fill your dark soul with light!!” but listen to this for a minute and tell me that it’s quality and not QUALITY. There’s a chintzy charm about it, but again it’s nothing to really write home about.

Now, the gameplay itself is where this game shines. Presented as surviving waves of Zeds that you must exterminate to eventually make it to The Patriarch - the mad scientist turned hulking monstrosity behind this entire thing - and it’s up to you to determine how best to survive through each wave. You can run and gun, or try to buckle down and control an area and let the shambling masses come to you.

Of course, some of these masses aren’t really shambling at all. It all starts out easy enough with the Clot, a slow clumsy thing that doesn’t do much damage but that does have an annoying grapple ability. From there though you start getting Gorefasts, which are limber gents with swords strapped to their deformed arms, Sirens, whose screams cause explosives to fail and do massive damage that ignores any body armor you might be wearing. And there there’s the big guys: the chainsaw wielding Scrake, who gets faster and more aggressive the more damage he takes, and the Fleshpound: best described as “Oh God, run!” this cheerful thing has meat grinders for arms, can take a ton of damage, and is easily capable of one shotting a team member after it flies into a rage upon taking too much damage.

Killing Floor offers a variety of baddies and places to fight them, but what it offers in spades is a challenge. Expect to due quite a bit, even with an experienced team. Finding a bunch of people that you can actually depend on is essential, or learning to be some sort of self sufficient super player could also possibly work. I admittedly was luck enough to be introduced to the game by a friend, and so I had a group of capable players backing me up from the start.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. Since I mentioned that even with a good team the game is quite difficult, with a bad one it becomes a completely frustrating mess. Losing people who wander off and take stupid risks becomes grating. There’s also the double-edged sword of the perks system. Perks are the levelling system of KF, and range from the automatic based Commando, to the melee intensive Berserker. Each of these perks can be levelled to give greater damage with the chosen weapons, better weapons off the start, and other benefits. The only problem is that levelling up a perk takes a long time. Millions of damage or kills, and then sometimes secondary requirements as well. While I’m not saying that a person with only low level perks can’t contribute to a group, it’s definitely something that might turn off a lot of players not interested in grinding in order to be a fully useful member of the team.

Those that do stick it out, find a good group and their niche in it will be rewarded with a game where winning is tremendously satisfying and can be something to brag about in a lot of cases. That being said, this game isn’t for everyone, so if you have your doubts you might want to wait until they offer a free trial, which they do every couple of months. Get together with some friends and see if the game is to your tastes; if nothing else you’ll be able to quickly discern whether this is your type of title, or if your lust for murder is better fulfilled elsewhere.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers Part 6: The Protean Village - Online Communities

In what will probably be the last (at least for now) entry in terms of reviewing, I’m going to talk about something that isn’t actually tackled a whole lot in terms of reviews: the online community that is an absolutely essential element to Multiplayer Online Games. After all, although some games like Everquest and World of Warcraft can cater to a solo adventurer, much of the high level content can only be accessed by larger groups of people. Games like Team Fortress 2 don’t even really have an option for playing alone, because if you want to play an FPS by yourself there’s already plenty of single player narratives out there.

There is of course a reason why reviews rarely talk about the community though: because the community is by far the most mercurial and fickle element of any online game. The communities that I’m a part of for example might not be appropriate for another player, and there are some people that are part of communities that are inaccessible to me for various reasons as well. It can be skill, familiarity, or even just whether you actually know the right people or not.

What a reviewer might be able to do is recommend a friendly enough place to begin a game, but even in this there is an element of danger, because if a place that is recommended as novice friendly is suddenly flooded with people, it’s likely to become a lot less so.

There are players that go out of their way to hassle neophytes, just like there are players that will go out of their way to help them. The important thing is finding a community that jives with what you want to get out of the game, and not overstepping your bounds. You’re not going to be one of the team captains right off the bat unless you’ve got somewhat of a natural knack for whatever it is you’ve picked up. At the same time being new is also not an excuse for being stupid - no one in TF2 appreciates the Sniper using the SMG and dying every five seconds (the other team might, but they’re not the ones you’re aiming to please) - so learning the ropes and just in general being not an idiot is something that will earn the appreciation of veteran players.

By far the easiest way to get into a game is to have friends that already play it. Having people that you hang out with in real life beside you in the virtual world means that they’ll generally be more understanding of any potential flubs, as well as more willing to show you the ropes and the more advanced tips and tricks when the time comes to learn them.

Your friends can also introduce you to their communities, or of course there’s the possibility of forming your own guild or team with enough people around you. I know plenty of people that play as much to socialize with the people they enjoy chatting with as they do to beat that next boss or get that next kill, and in the end there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it might be one of the best ways to use an online multiplayer game. Get together with friends over dragonslaying.

Again though, turning to actual reviews. The community can be unaccountable at times, but I still feel the need to mention that a review should at least feel some obligation to saying whether or not a person is going to be able to find any good footholds, whether the majority of people out there are accepting of new blood or if they’ll find those first couple weeks or levels really harsh but ultimately worth it.

It’s certainly a wild card, but it’s still part of a hand that the reviewer can tell anyone who to play, or if it’s worth even keeping in the first place. And in the end, that’s all that anyone might want when they look for a review for guidance.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers 5: The Protean Man - Reviewing Multiplayer Online Games

Now, for the most part a review for an online game isn’t going to be much different from that of a what I’m going to dub a “static” game. Games such as Team Fortress 2, World of Warcraft, Eve Online and even games like online Chess and Scrabble can still be judged by a variety of quantifiable degrees.

But with online games, we often run into cases where the game can change significantly in a short period of time. Expansions whether they come in huge instalments like the WoW ones, or are doled out over shorter periods of time like those of Team Fortress 2, Killing Floor and their ilk. These changes can mean anything from graphical improvements, to massive innovations to gameplay via new classes, weapons, and changes to previously existing examples of such.

In a strange paradox, gameplay for online games is both infinite and at the same time not infinite. There is no standard hard ending to an online game, and even if there were, such as say, defeating the Lich King in WoW, the next update will involve some new looming threat. And even if a party kills the Lich King, he’s sitting there waiting for the next group to try their luck. Nothing in the in game world really changes aside from those who are victorious perhaps getting some achievements and some decent gear. If you really wanted to you could go an beat up the “end boss” of any online game - assuming that there even is one - as often as the game allows you to, which in some cases is often as you’d like. Likewise, you don’t “win” in TF2 beyond winning an individual match or round. You’ll keep coming back.

Until you get bored.

This, in a sense, is why games must release new content when they are marketed as online primary. Especially games like WoW which are pay-to-play. If your players have seen and done it all, they start losing some of that incentive to login and play, and eventually if nothing new is on the horizon, you lose the fan base and thus your financial base as well. Games like TF2 and Killing Floor don’t quite operate on the same level, but by releasing new content on a constant basis they help establish brand loyalty, thus getting more people to buy their game via word of mouth and positive press, as well as media coverage for whatever upcoming additions are in store for players.

These innovations though, can be a double edged sword. Although I don’t play WoW I’ve heard of the difficulties, the pains and pleasures, of each new patch or gameplay overhaul. People complaining that staple classes have gotten nerfed or that the improvements intended to get people to play the less used races have now completely overpowered and thus ruined the game’s balance. Likewise, in Team Fortress 2 these days you can hardly tell if you’re going to run into a Demoman that’s equipped to only use melee, or a Soldier firing lasers instead of rockets. Each new change brings as much derision as it does praise, sometimes much more derision.

So, how does one judge these releases? In some cases, like with WoW, it is easy to judge each expansion in terms of what it adds to the base game. But for games like TF2, the decision is significantly harder. Is TF2 the same game that it was at release. Well, yes and no. At its core it still is a class based multiplayer online shooter, but the assortment of weapons and accessories has changed it from the game that it started out as, and it’s even fair to say that the game may be massively different even a year from now, with each class getting new tricks and the release of more gameplay styles and maps.

This is the difficulty with being the Protean Man: trying to hold significance without losing what has drawn people to you to begin with. It’s a hard and delicate balance to strike, and it’s not the only problem either.

Despite all the innovation that can occur, another major, uncontrollable factor to online play is, of course, the people that you play with.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Grahf Reviews - Devil May Cry

Well, I’ve spent long enough talking about reviews that I figure that it’s time that I actually, you know, do one.

Right here at the onset I have to say that I’m probably not going to be reviewing recent titles anytime soon, due to location and circumstance (read as: I’m poor and live in the ass end of nowhere). But that shouldn’t stop me from providing at least a couple of reviews now and then to refine my style and let it be judged. So, with that in mind.

Title: Devil May Cry
Platform: Playstation 2
Initial Release: October, 2001
Genre: Action

From Double Dragon to Streets of Rage, there has never been a lack of action titles. But when it comes to shift from 2D to 3D, Devil May Cry stands as one of the original progenitors of the way the genre has changed; games like Godhand, God of War, Heavenly Sword, the upcoming Asura’s Wrath, and many others have taken lessons from Devil May Cry in what to do and what to avoid, and for good reason.

The story is fairly simple: the world is threatened by the possible return of Mundus, a demonic king who was defeated by Dante’s father Sparda a couple of millennia before the events of the game start rolling. Dante is a brash, cocky but also skilled devil hunter who is approached by Trish - a woman claiming to know when Mundus will rise, and also baring more than a passing resemblance to Dante’s long dead mother: Eva.

Let’s be completely honest here, the story is probably the weakest aspect of this game, in that it generally is one of the weakest aspects of any action game. It does serve its purpose in that it gives an introduction and serves as a thread that holds the action together, but if you come into this expecting something riveting, you’re going to be disappointed. The character of Dante is a generally likeable guy, and wholly badass through and through. Aside from Dante though, none of the other characters are really fleshed out, mind you not that they sort of need to be. There’s some plot twists that are generally pretty inevitable, but aside from some occasional cheese (warning, spoilers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8qG4AlK1qk)  there’s nothing either exceptional or abhorrent enough write home about. But then again, the story isn’t really why anyone will be here, now is it?

No. What you’re here for is the combat, and it is my belief that DMC offers some of the most satisfying combat in the entire genre even when held up today against the modern contenders. Something that this series has that a lot of others, including many of its own sequels, don’t is a certain weight to combat. Hits that you both dish out and receive have some real oomph to them that isn’t present in a whole lot of the other titles. The weapon selection is limited, mainly composed of the lightning enhanced sword Alastor and the fire infused gauntlets Ifrit, but these weapons both have a varied assortment of abilities that serve their own purposes. Alastor has a solid balance between speed and power, while Ifrit is slower but packs a hell of a lot more of a punch. The combat is extended as well by the inclusion of a Devil Trigger: a super mode that gives access to more powerful and unique moves for each weapon. Dante’s arsenal is rounded out by an assortment of firearms that range from his pistols Ebony and Ivory, to a high impact Grenade Gun.

Of course, Dante himself is only half of the experience. The enemies that he fights make up the other half, and the original DMC has a large variety of unique and well designed enemies. The most basic enemy is the Marionette and Bloody Mari, human sized puppets that are clumsy but can move with frightening speed and punish players that don’t take them seriously. From there the enemies become more varied like the Shadow, a bestial creature that needs to be attacked with firearms before moving in to hack away at their exposed cores. A lot of the enemies are well balanced, and provide a challenge that is never simple or bland. I’m a great believer that a game doesn’t need to be cheap to be challenging, and while DMC is a game where you WILL die, a lot of the time it will be something that you recognize you could have prevented. Cheap enemies and deaths are something that drain the fun right out of these types of games, which is why it’s important to avoid them.

Of course, there are a variety of bosses as well. You will find that you will be fighting a lot of them multiple times, since of the bosses there are four that are recurrent. But enough different elements tend to be introduced each time to keep the fights from being tedious. From the giant lava spider Phantom (strange choice of a name) to the esoteric blob monster Nightmare, the challenge presented by each of the big baddies will prove more than enough for a lot of players, and bringing them down will have you shouting victory as you whittle that last millimetre of health off their bar.

Of course, the game isn’t without flaws. Although it’s almost a cliché at this point it stands that you will be struggling against a the camera system, an enemy that no amount of skill can overcome at times. Devil May Cry was originally envisioned as the next instalment in the Resident Evil series, so it uses a fixed angle camera that can make some battles more difficult than they really should be, as well as making some of the plat forming elements more frustrating than they normally are as well. Also as I mentioned above, the game - while not cheap from my experience - is quite challenging. Some players will find that they are dying too much for their liking, and some of the grinding that’s needed to buy abilities that might save your ass in the long haul will be tedious and might make some quit out of frustration at the stalling of progress. The graphics are solid for the time, but of course these days there’s very little to write home about. Also, the controls are solidly put together, but there’s no option for total customization. Some of the context sensitive moves are also difficult to pull off when the camera switches and maps new directions, so you’ll find yourself holding back instead of forward. These normally isn’t a huge concern, but can be quite an annoyance.

All in all, there should be about 15 to 25 hours worth of gameplay, with replayablility added for those that want it via being able to take on the harder difficulties with their skills intact. Fighting through Hard and then Dante Must Die difficulties is an immensely difficult but rewarding challenge for those interested in testing their skills.

All in all, Devil May Cry is a game that still fares well despite its age, and is well worth playing for anyone who’s a fan of the genre or who wants to get to some of the origins of the current way the genre looks. While it might be on a somewhat higher difficulty curve than some might be used to, it’s a pleasurable and challenging experience that is worth tracking down.

Overall Grade: A-  A solid Action title that will be a no brainer for fans of the genre and a good introduction to anyone looking to get in or see how the current generation developed.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers 4: Raters Gonna’ Rate

Now, a review might be well or poorly written. Done in a highly formal or completely informal style. But sometimes things like that won’t matter; hell, sometimes nothing that the reviewer even really said is going to matter. I’ve done it from time to time, and I’m sure you have as well. Skipping the review to simply get to the rating. Perhaps you’re in a hurry and you’ll read the review later, or some other convenient excuse. Like I said, I’ve done it too, so don’t feel bad.

The fact of that matter is that for all the talk about a game, that people crave that seemingly quantifiable snippet that summarizes everything: 4 out of 5, 7 out of 10, Buy/Rent/Skip, however you sum it up, the rating is kind of like the cherry on top of the sundae that is a review: it is, at a glance, either an endorsement or rejection of everything that a game encompasses in and of itself. That’s why the type of rating is so important.

There’s actually a few different types of rating systems, all of them with their own pros and cons. First and perhaps most rarely seen is a sort of unique rating system. Perhaps this system is sort of themed or has a gimmick. For example for this site, I could go with little blurbs for ratings like “Grahf Good” “Grahf Great” “Grahf Garbage” and so on. But I won’t, mostly because I think it sounds absolutely insipid, but also because these kinds of ratings might be the most useless overall. While any rating that you give a game is going to again be a personal reflection that cannot help but be based off your own opinions, using a personal rating system puts another level of minutia where it isn’t really necessary. With only those three ratings above for example, it’s extremely hard to tell where a game falls. Like, if a game is “Grahf Good” then is that anywhere between say 55% to 75% on a 100% scale? Or are those ratios even more skewed? Without a lot of definition it’s hard to tell.

This is why the point rating system is the industry standard. It comes in many forms: from the outright ridiculous like the 100% with decimal places, to the minimalist five point scale with no half places. This scale is ultimately appealing because it’s extremely easy to understand and employ: a one is utter garbage on a five or ten or even hundred point scale, where as on those same three, anything above a four, seven to eight, or 75 to 80 is probably going to be something worth looking into. This system is not without its faults though. For example, when breaking into a 100 digit range, as some systems that rate from either 0-100 or 0.0-10.0 do, it becomes extremely tedious to attempt to discern what exactly separates games that score only a decimal place or two apart. While this normally isn’t a huge concern, it does raise some issues if there’s a lot of competition on the market - especially between games that are from the same genre - and can lead to a larger sense of redundancy if seen a lot. The other far more prevalent problem is that when using a system like this, reviews will tend to be given an average that is weighted more towards the positive side of things.

In a lot of gaming magazines it’s not uncommon to see a seven and be able to read it as a five. Whether or not this is the fault of the reviewers or pressure from external sources is anyone’s guess, but it often comes that the average will fall more towards the middle high standard which in turn devalues the scale somewhat, because if an otherwise unremarkable title can achieve a six or seven, then getting an eight, nine or ten seems to have less of an impact. This actually was the argument that EGM used when they abandoned the numeric scale some time ago, in favour of the last kind of scale I’m talking about: the letter grade.

Like many, I was at first quite confused about the switch to letter grade that EGM employed. I remember believing that the ten point scale was more than good enough criteria to judge a game by. But in the years that have passed, I have considered the reasoning behind the change and I believe that there is some good rationality behind it. First of all, using a letter grade scale with plus/minus variance somewhat eliminates the problem of decimal places causing a general apathy in regards to scores. It also avoids a more long term problem: the perfect score dilemma. Although (it should) only happen rarely, when a game gets a 10 or 100 or what have you, it’s a big deal, especially if it’s from a publication with some clout behind it. But a 10 or 100 means that a game is, well, perfect… that is the perception at least. Where there things that these games could have done better? Of course there were, there always will be. And when the next game that gets the coveted perfect score comes along, the comparisons to past perfect games will be inevitable.

Using an A+ breaks this cycle. It denotes that game is a definitive example of how a game of that genre should be, without placing the burden of having to be “perfect” on that game’s shoulders. It means that it’s the peak of what has been accomplished to date. Those last two words are the most important part there. It means that it’s good, great, fantastic even, but that there is and always will be room for improvement.

Letter grades also have the added benefit of supplementing a written review well, and making the reader curious about the content of said review. For some reason a letter grade makes us ponder just why the recipient was judged so, more than a number grade tends to at least.

Of course, again, no system is perfect. But I believe that as with all things, that the systems we use can make strides forward much like the games that they are reviewing, and while things might never get perfect, perhaps they can always get better.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers 3: Dude, Where’s My Non-biased Objectivity?

Before I even say anything about this I need to reiterate that a completely objective review is and will likely forever remain impossible: everyone can and does have differing tastes. Things that can seem like a grind to one player enthral another, while other things that get some gamers adrenaline pumping prove to be immensely frustrating to others.

That being said though, there are a fair number of things that you can say about any game regardless of whether it’s from your favourite or most loathed genre. These elements are part of what can help make even a controversial review stand up against the inevitable criticism that will be levelled against it: because all criticism does have at least a hint of legitimacy to it, even if only a tiny one in some cases.

Most obviously a genre needs to be established: a lot of games tend to dabble in more than one these days, but there always should be one main genre that can be pointed out, lest you be playing a very strange game indeed. It could be a first person shooter with a smattering of RPG elements - a combo which is popular these days - or an action game with a lot of world based exploration - games like Infamous, Prototype, and Assassin’s Creed fall into this one - I know it may seem obvious as to what genre a game is, and going out of your way to mention it might invoke a “Hey, I can read the back of the box myself, thanks” reaction from some people, but sometimes there are things that go somewhat unaccounted for. Maybe the game starts off as a straightforward shooter, but then gets those RPG elements introduced a quarter of the way in as a “surprise”. Some people simply won’t appreciate that kind of thing cropping up, because it’s sort of bait and switch. So letting them know really does them a favour while constituting perhaps minimal spoilers at best.

Another thing always worth mentioning is how long the game will last: this can take the form of two very different sum totals. The first is how long it will take to beat the game at a bare minimum, with the second being likely an estimate of just how long it would take to attempt to find every secret and complete every side quest. Again, this comes down to choice: some people just want to play a game through to the finale and don’t care about what they might overlook as long as the core experience within the game was enjoyable. For others it’s going to be a matter of hunting down absolutely everything to get that fabled 100% (or more) game completion. Both styles of play are valid, but someone might be unwilling to spend 60 hours just to be able to finish a game, while others might think that a game that can be beaten with 100% completion in 30 hours doesn’t provide enough bang for their buck.

Other things that can be looked at from a mostly objective standpoint include graphics - they don’t have to be bleeding edge, but do they stack up well to the current industry norms, exceed them, or not meet them at all? - Of course if the graphics are meant to be stylized that needs to be taken into account: games like Katamari Damacy and Minecraft hardly have graphics that will blow out processors, but the way they are presented constitutes part of their charm. It’s the same thing with cel-shading and certain other uncommonly used choices. They may sell some people while turning off others, but mentioning them ensures that people know what they’re walking into.

Although it’s not as much of an issue they days, control and camera interfaces are important: is the HUD (assuming there is one) too cluttered? Are there rotes upon rotes of unnecessary sub menus when one would do? Is the camera overly finicky, making fights and puzzles that should be simple tedious and frustrating? What about the controls, assuming they’re not mapable are they intuitively designed, or will most people find themselves fumbling trying to get used to a scheme that should be simple to grasp from the outset.

Also useful, if perhaps somewhat unfair, might be comparing it to the games that currently define the genre that the reviewed game is a part of and seeing how it stacks up. You have to remember that no game is ever going to be perfect - the top games of any given genre only remain as such until something comes along to replace them that performs better and sets the new standard. It’s incredibly rare of course, but it can and must happen. This already even takes place when it comes to series that have more than one instalment, which covers a lot of games these days. There should never be regression from a high point, even if the high point was the very first game in a four or five game series.

All of these things are capable of being written about while keeping your own personal feelings about any given game or genre aside. There are of course questions of whether any given amount of time you play will be equal to an average gamers time, given that after a while of reviewing you might both become very thorough in your playing time, but also much faster than average due to the need for a high turnaround. This aside though, these are the ways to keep a review objective. Whether or not a nearly completely objective review is a good thing on the other hand…

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Reviewing the Reviewers 2: Breaking the Pedestal

Now, for all I’ve said in that last posting, the fact is if you can write worth a damn and can actually comprehend gaming journalism as a serious job rather than some sort of super magical hyper fun time, then you’ve got just as good a shot at the entire thing as anyone else.

What separates a person like me and a person like Yahtzee (just to use an easy name)? Two large things that come to mind are time and recognition. One does tend to follow the other, as the longer you’ve been around the more people are likely to hear about you, even in passing. Yahtzee admittedly had a huge break: his acerbic stylings on Youtube caught the eye of The escapist staff and he’s been in good sorts ever since. Most people can’t count on breaks like that although of course they do happen. Most of the time though you’ll need to build a solid fan base and portfolio of work. But when it comes to reviews building a fan base is sometimes a lot easier said than done, and in some regards that strikes me as something very confusing.

Here’s the thing that bothers me: I do not for the life of me understand why some people hate reviewers for disliking a game or franchise that they love. Yahtzee is again a very good example of this: I can only imagine all the unpublished bile that must drop into his inbox on a daily basis given some of the stuff that has seen the light of day. Anyone who is familiar with Zero Punctuation probably remembers the episode when he ran the fan rage at his review of Super Smash Brothers Brawl. I will grant you that some of the comments were fair; he did rattle on some arbitrary stuff. At the same time though, Yahtzee’s counterargument makes a fair degree of sense: that being that if people enjoy the game and would have bought it regardless of what he said, then why should they give a rat’s ass about what he has to say about it?

I tend to see this often on various gaming boards I visit: someone who lauds Yahtzee’s reviews suddenly becomes his biggest and most outspoken critic when Yahtzee reviews a game that they like unfavourably. Considering that Yahtzee’s whole shtick is pointing out - and let’s face it, over inflating - the poor qualities of anything he reviews, I’m stymied as to why this once upon a time fan would be shocked that Yahtzee didn’t pull an about-face and declare that Random Game #3 is flawless and the best thing ever.

And it’s not just Yahtzee either. Think about the infamous 8.8 Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess review on Gamespot. The fan base went absolutely insane over that review, a huge overreaction considering that as far as a score goes 8.8 is pretty solid to begin with. It’s not perfect, but then again no game ever is regardless of how good it might be. Hell, if I was taking a class and someone told me that I got an 88%, I’d be pretty happy with myself, I wouldn’t freak out over not having gotten 97% or above because 88% is still beating the crap out of a lot of the other grades out there.

What it all boils down to is that really, reviewers aren’t here to hand down mandates like Gods regarding what you should and shouldn’t play. If you happen to play a game that a reviewer panned it doesn’t mean you have poor tastes or that the reviewer was just being negative for the sake of being negative. People seem to forget that reviewers are people to, and that in the end no matter how hard they might try they’ll have their biases: likes and dislikes along with different priorities from what you yourself might have in regards to playing games.

Just because someone pans something you were interested in doesn’t mean you should suddenly lose interest. Hell, products like Gamefly and other rental services mean that generally you should at least be able to try something out for yourself to see whether you like it or not. Reviewers can offer you a guideline: if you find someone with similar tastes to your own you can generally begin to develop a track record, maybe one of their recommendations will lead you to something you wouldn’t have thought of trying otherwise. But both positive and negative traits can in some cases be in the eye of the beholder.

On that note though, in my next segment, I’m going to talk about whether an objective review is possible, and if it is not how close a review can be to being one.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? - Or in this case: Who Reviews the Reviewers?

In this case I guess that’d be me.

Welcome to part one of only god knows how many there might be of these. The process of gaming reviewing.

A lot of people look at video game reviews and tend to think “Hey, that doesn’t seem like such a bad job, I bet I could do that.” It’s a phenomenon similar to how people think that game testing must be the best job in the world, not knowing that the little details all add up to a workday that’s less of a “Wow, I can’t believe I played GTA6 all day and got paid for this. Do I have to go home now?” and more of a “Wow, I can’t believe I played the exact same section of this one level of a mediocre shooter which is entirely bugged and scripted by a monkey. Can I go home now?”

Likewise, even in a perfect world where you don’t have to worry about souring relations and staying on people’s good sides, it’s far from a gimme job. There’s a lot of considerations that need to take place:

1) You will be working under tight deadlines. Even with review copies you’re going to maybe be getting a week tops with any given game, and as a reviewer the best position to be in when you’re finally sitting down to write the finished article is to have played the game to completion. I’m not saying that every pokemon needs to be caught or that all the hidden bosses need to be defeated, but it’s best to know whether or not there’s anything that develops later that might make a relatively slow start worth it, or whether a game that has started off strong just barely limps over the finish line.

So, you’re going to spend hours a day just playing, testing things out, making notes the entire time unless you’ve got one hell of a memory, and then in the end putting all of that together, which brings me to my second point.

2) You need to be able to write well! This might strike a lot of people as an incredibly obvious statement to make, but it really can’t be stated enough. Especially since these days a lot more people than I’m comfortable admitting seem to think that they can write a professional review using the same terminology that they do on Twitter or in a drunken Facebook rant. A sentence like “I tink dis game rly sux” means that you can kiss any hope of being seen as a professional goodbye, as well as the idea that people will be willing to take you seriously. But beyond even the simple stuff like spelling and grammar basics, you need to find a style that works for you. Some people are comfortable giving long, extremely analytical reviews that dissect each section of the game before weighing in on the end product as a whole. Others are going to be happier using a more colloquial and informal - but again not too informal - style. Some will try to balance the two. There’s no perfect way to review a game, but finding something that works for you then honing it certainly never hurts your chances.

3) You have to be professional. This step is actually harder to do than you might suspect. For example right now I’m doing this blog, I’m the sole voice here so I can technically review whatever I please and don’t have to do any reviews of titles that I’m not interested in. But if I were working for a larger website as part of a cadre of staff, or for one of the major review outlets whether online or in print, then it’s a different story. Sometimes you’ll have to review games that you have no interest in, or that aren’t even close to your preferred genre. For example, I’m not a huge fan of sports games, but since there are so many released each year if I were in a group of reviewers that are doing a lot of new releases it’d be inevitable that I’d get one at least once in a while. In cases like this you have to know that even if a game isn’t your cup of tea, that there are things that can be objectively reasoned out for a score: are the graphics up to par or even above? How’s the A.I. is it balanced or is it a rubber-banding monstrosity? What about controls, are they well mapped and intuitive? In a way reviewing a game that doesn’t fall into your usual purview both gives you a chance to get some different writing under your belt and has the added benefit of giving a review that can be more informative to someone who might just be approaching a certain genre or franchise for the first time.

All of these things culminate to a solid reviewer. From there it’s a combination of skill, luck, and hard work to get recognized and perhaps get somewhere in the industry. Of course, even writing reviews - good or bad - is only one side of the story. The other side is how the public reacts, and how that might or might not make a difference. But that’s a story to be covered tomorrow.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Duke Nukem’ Forever: Seeing Redner

Another post about a game I’m not playing. Aside from obviously being on the drugs, I can also promise (hopefully) that this will be the last post on DNF for a while. Once again my focus is less on the game itself and more about the circumstances that surrounded its release. Specifically in this case I’d like to talk a little about the reaction and public debacle that the Redner Group caused.

For information about the Redner DNF incident, there are any number of articles written online, but I found this one to be both succinct and a little more personal than a lot of the others: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2011/06/duke-nukems-pr-threatens-to-punish-sites-that-run-negative-reviews.ars

Now, as everyone has made note of mentioning, getting blacklisted is nothing new. In fact the blacklists have probably existed ever since reviewers began their work. Are they a fair tool? Not under most general circumstances. But they are still used to exert pressure - especially on smaller outlets - to keep reviews positive or suffer the consequences of simply be unable to get review copies for anything decent for the rest of their lives: play how we want or we take our ball and go home at its best.

Now, even getting review copies of games can be a daunting task at best: you have to prove that you’ve got the right skill set and that you can work under the tight timeline that will probably sometimes mean that you have to turn in a mostly done review after only having had a review copy for two or three days: a game can become a lot less fun and a lot more frustrating if you’re trying to blaze through it because it’s something that needs to be done, rather than enjoying it as something that is a fun distraction from work it becomes the work itself.

Having to do all of this while knowing that if you write something that a company frowns upon that you may not find the next copy of “big game X” in your mailbox when it comes time to write that review that everyone that patronizes your site is expecting is a frightening thing, and the Redner incident really has only amplified that feeling.

While looking back upon the entire thing it is obvious that it was a huge gaff on the part of the Redner Group, it also marked the first time that a lot of people from outside the industry really got a taste of the kind of pressure that could be exerted on reviewers. This was a group coming out and saying that people were beyond a shadow of a doubt about to be blackballed for writing an unflattering review of a game. And the worst thing is that what might qualify as “venom” in Jim Redner’s eyes is simply an honest and unbiased opinion to most other people.

Certainly the back-pedalling that came after the fact that stated that all reviews are matters of opinion and thus can say anything they want (something that I do not personally agree with although that’s for another time) it was obvious that when that first angry tweet was made that it wasn’t clear just who could have been deemed to have crossed that line, and for what reasons.

It is one thing to lambaste a game simply for the sake of doing so. Zero Punctuation has just as vocal a hatedom as it does a fandom, because of Yahtzee’s need to accentuate the negative (it’s what got him the job, and probably what keeps him employed) means that nine times out of ten the company probably isn’t going to be too thrilled about his assertions regarding their game. This is his style, sure, but it doesn’t fit for everyone, and as I’ve mentioned before being needlessly negative simply for its own sake is almost as bad as being completely positive all the time.

There needs to be a balance. You can’t be afraid to be harsh when the criticism is well placed, nor should you be loathed to give a game praise where it’s earned it. The problem is that in a relationship that is already on tenuous ground, the Redner Group’s open admission of potential fallout has made people less likely to be honest simply by making its way into the environment as a whole.

I’m not pointing fingers here, but it’s fairly easy to say that you’ll be unbiased regardless of any pressure exerted upon you. But think of it from some of the perspectives of the journalists: if you get deemed too harsh, even if it’s a completely legitimate harshness, then your very livelihood is threatened. So, you start to self-censor, perhaps even without realizing it. Complaints become washed out and generic, while praise is often tacked on for the sake of not sounding too negative and for the most pedestrian reasons.

I’m probably painting a worse picture than what currently exists, but a world of sycophantic game reviewers is something that could be entirely possible if the industry becomes unwilling to take the bad along with the good. It’s a tenuous balance, one that the Redner Group proved can be upset more easily than a lot of people would like to admit.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Ending of Eras: Always Bet on the Duke?

Most of the hubbub about Duke Nukem’ Forever has come and gone. We shared some laughs, shed some tears, dug out Gamestop receipts for preorders that were practically disintegrating.

Well, not me, I haven’t actually played the game, and don’t have much interest in doing so anyways.

“Now, hold on just one cotton picking second, Grahf.” I hear you say (although if you’re the average member of my audience thus far feel free to replace cotton picking with whatever string of random expletives you desire) “If you haven’t played the game then what right do you have to talk about it?”

Well, you’re right, or at least you would be if I were going to review the game or trash or praise it. But I’m not going to do any of that. Instead, I’m going to talk about what surrounded the game, and today specifically, I’m going to get a little meta, because honestly regardless of how the game itself actually was received, it marked the end of an era.

There’s way, way too much for me to talk about in this blog post, so I’ll only be covering a select few things, but for a mostly comprehensive listing, visit http://duke.a-13.net/ you’ll probably be surprised by some of the things that you’ll find in those annuls.

I believe that DNF will ultimately be remembered not for the culmination of the development into the game itself - a game whose only sin is what if review sites are to be trusted is being immediately average and mostly forgettable - it’s everything that was accomplished in the interim both for gaming and the world at large.

I mean, just consider this: when DNF was first announced, the Playstation was still going strong. No, I didn’t forget a number there, because it would be another three years before the Playstation 2 came onto the market much to the delight of Sony and the chagrin of any of their competitors (oh how times have changed…)

Think of how many franchises have come to fruition in the fourteen years. When DNF was first announced there was no such thing as Grand Theft Auto, or Assassin’s Creed, or Halo, or Super Smash Brothers. There was no Metal Gear Solid (although of course Metal Gear was around since the NES) no Call of Duty. And that’s a really, really short list.

Think of it another way. Anyone who picked up and played their first video game after 1997 and until about a month ago became a gamer in the time it took for DNF to launch. We’re talking hundreds of thousands if not millions of people discovering this hobby for the first time. We’ve seen the fall and rise of Nintendo, the rise and faltering of Sony, Sega bowing out of the console race, and the Xbox go from being a glimmer in Bill Gates’ eye to being a the solid competitor for Microsoft that few thought possible.

So, where am I going with this? Well, it’s all really just a matter of time. I mean sure, 14 years is stupidly long for any game to spend in development, but consider just how much things changed for the industry and the world as a whole in those 14 years. Back when DNF was first announced online gaming was something that few had the technology to seriously consider viable, the very video game blog you’re reading right now would have been a somewhat ludicrous concept all things considered. The idea that there would be live concerts featuring video game music would have probably gotten you laughed at, and gaming was still mostly considered something that only kids partake in.

I don’t really have a doubt that in another 14 years that there will have been changes just as ridiculous to us as they would appear to be to anyone that would be reading this in 97. But we’ll all still be here barring that 2012 nonsense or any other shit going down, and we’ll all pretty much be comfortable with it. But I think that without something to pin down and say “Wow, you know this was started in 2011, and now that it’s finally out look at all we’ve done in the meantime.” that all that progress might go sadly unnoticed for the most part.

Am I saying we need another vapourware giant? Truth be told I’m not quite sure myself. But let’s face it, if nothing else The Duke has put the world into some perspective. Kind of insightful for such a low brow guy, don’t you think?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Microtransactions Week Part 5: An Interview with Chemical Alia

Well, I mentioned yesterday that there would be something special to cap off this week, and what could be more special than my first interview? I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Shaylyn Hamm, known to the Steam community as Chemical Alia. She's the designer of the Saharan Spy set, one of the first five Polycount sets made available with the unveiling of the Mann-Conomy in Team Fortress 2. You can find her work on her personal website as well as her deviantART account. As one of the Polycount winners, she has a unique perspective of being one of the first users to see profits from microtransactions.

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Grahf: To begin I wanted to ask you how you personally felt about the success of the Polycount update. I know that Valve mentioned that the sales of the items went beyond their expectations, but did you have any inkling that the "Mann-Conomy" would take off like it would?

Chemical Alia: I thought it was really cool how they implemented the microtransactions in an in-game store, this makes the items easy and quick to purchase and trade.  I honestly didn't know what to expect at all about the store, and didn't learn about it until shortly before they implemented it in the game, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Grahf: So, the Polycount creators, yourself included, were unaware that you'd be making any profit from your creations?

Chemical Alia: Yup.  I entered the contest as an excuse to make myself work on some portfolio pieces, and maybe a line on my resume if I won.  I thought it would be super awesome to have some of my  assets in one of my favorite games.

Grahf: I can see why Valve wanted to keep the fact they were adding in microtransactions close to their chest until release. It was a move that was met with a fair amount of scorn from the community. Despite this I think that I was overall a fairly good success, especially in terms of paying users for creating high end in-game content. To this end, I was wondering if you think a model like this could be applied more broadly, and if there are really any limits to what can potentially be created for profit.

Chemical Alia: I was quite satisfied with how they implemented the selling of items as an optional way of acquiring them, it seems fair.  I do think that people will complain when any new system or features is introduced, but the sales do speak to the success of it so far.

Ideally, I think it would be awesome if something like the contribution system with royalties could be applied to mapmaking as well, though I'm not sure how the problem of having to buy maps can be worked around.

Grahf: I know they are trying to implement some system of reward for the mapmakers, but I don't think it's been as successful to date.

Chemical Alia: Isn't it some kind of donation system?

Grahf: I believe it's buying a special hat from the store, and then stamps for each map.

Chemical Alia: Ah, okay.  I know some great level designers who wish there was a bit more incentive, considering the time that goes into making custom maps

But at the same time, I do think it's best when creative stuff is driven by the excitement of just making the product and wanting to share it with the community than just seeking profit.

Grahf: That's quite understandable. On that note, I'm curious as to how much time the Saharan Spy took to come to fruition, from concept to completion, including the things like the set props and the illustrations.

Chemical Alia: I started the contest about two weeks after it began.

Looks like I started it on 2 June and posted my final on 1 July.

A lot of it was just planning in the beginning, and I didn't have all of time since I was moving to a new apartment and worked til about 7 every day.

I think I ended up modeling the revolver in the last 2 days.

Grahf: So, due to circumstances you kind of engaged in it as a side project of sorts?

Chemical Alia: Yeah, though it seemed like a great opportunity for me, so I really wanted to make it work somehow.  I had a contract with id at the time as an artist intern, and I was spending all of my spare time working on my portfolio in hopes of getting a full time job by the time the contract was over.

My job didn't involve any actual modeling or texturing, so it seemed important to work on that stuff in the evenings.

Grahf: Would you say that the modelling and texturing and other in game work was difficult even with some familiarity of the system, or was it somewhat routine? As a bit of a tangent do you think that it would have made a difference if Valve hadn't somewhat limited things to be based off pre-existing weapons in terms of the broad strokes?

Chemical Alia: I was pretty familiar with the TF2 style and Source tools by the time I started on the contest, since I had just finished my first two female character models at the time.  And props/weapons are a lot less complicated in comparison.

If Valve expected us to come up with our own balanced gameplay mechanics, I might have been less interested.  I had enough time to focus on the art, and I thought what made the challenge interesting was finding a way to work with the restrictions of existing models and gameplay.

Grahf: So overall the restrictions were helpful and of course the modelling was something that you already had great interest in.

Chemical Alia: Yep.

Grahf: Without bringing figures into it, I'd like to know if the set has remained a good commodity in terms of sales.

Chemical Alia: I'd say so, way more than I ever expected.

Grahf: So long-term viability hasn't really been an issue.

Chemical Alia: I was expecting it to continue to sell for a while and drop off, but the tail is longer than I thought it would be

It's not something I would wish to rely on, though

Grahf: Of course. Given the success however, do you believe that in time there could be an emergence of freelance designers, developing content for games that interest them without being tied to one particular series or company?

Chemical Alia: It seems a little early to say

I'm sure other developers are looking at ways to implement similar kinds of systems in their game for community-contributed content, and I'm sure there's a lot of people who have picked up modeling books and tutorials as a result of the TF2 store's success, but who knows if it will become a new trend

Grahf: That somewhat answers my next question as well, that being whether you believe that microtransactions might become a viable alternative to the current one-time payment set-ups; do microtransactions have the potential to become the main way companies make income, or do you think they'll always sort of be tertiary?

Chemical Alia: I honestly have no idea.  I think there are a lot of factors, from the way games are distributed to what kinds of games a developer makes and if microtransactions are even possible

I don't really follow business trends in the game industry very closely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some developers and publishers  want to move more towards a model like that.

Grahf: Certainly the amount of money that companies like Valve and Blizzard have made is a powerful incentive to include microtransactions, as well as a great way to create interest within the community itself towards producing content with the potential to be published.

Chemical Alia: Yeah, their success has definitely shown the potential, and that it can be successfully implemented in different ways.

Grahf: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share on anything we've discussed? Or perhaps something you'd like to touch on that hasn't been already?

Chemical Alia: Well, I just hope that the community is satisfied with the result, whatever it is developers decide to do with their games.  I think that's most important, trying to find ways to make games more awesome and involving the customers.

Grahf: Indeed, we can only hope that both the developers and community can both keep open and friendly relations with each other.
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I hope that this will be the first of many future interviews, and I would again like to thank Chemical Alia for her time and candid responses. Hopefully this interview was both elucidating and enjoyable for you, the audience, as well.

That concludes microtransaction week. I'm sure that there will be more theme weeks in the future, perhaps even next week, but for now I'll just settle for saying have a good weekend audience, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Microtransactions Week Part 4: Putting Their Money Where Your Mouth Is

Now, love them or hate them, you have to admit that Valve doesn’t do anything half-assed. When they screw up, like with unusual hats, it’s a giant bloody mess. But I’ve ragged on them enough for that at the moment. Right now I’d actually like to tell them that they’ve done a great job of: making microtransactions a meaningful way to generate revenue for high quality user generated content.

When Valve announced that the winners of the Polycount contest were being paid, no one, not the community, not the artists, not even Valve itself, realized just how successful the model would become. With the pay for the initial two weeks being in the tens of thousands of dollars Valve proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that microtransactions can be an invaluable resource for motivating future contributions from the community itself.

Microtransactions can do harm, but they can also do a lot of good. While I of course wouldn’t call TF2 a game that was on it’s last legs by any means, the Polycount entries allowed Valve to sit back and let the users do a lionshare of the work for them, and allow said users to get recognition and finance from it.

Being paid a small royalty on the dollar is a great way to encourage users to try their hand at making content that they feel is of a high enough calibre that it will make the time and effort invested worth it, and by doing so everyone wins. The company gets new weapons/maps/whatever, the users get paid and also get something that they can put on a resume that makes an impressive impact, and the community gets to enjoy the new content. In the case of the Polycount you didn’t even have to pay if you didn’t want to, but given the amount of money generated, it’s obvious that people were just as happy to get access to the weapons early, and those that could wait for drops or crafts could catch up soon enough as well.

Sure, TF2 is hardly the first game with user created content, but in some games like Little Big Planet and countless online flash games the user created content is quite often lacklustre to say the least. But if people are given the proper tools and told that if they do well enough that they could make a comfortable living off of innovative ideas, then you’re going to starting seeing a rise in the quality of all content. Sure, there will still be low grade stuff, but I’d imagine that hardly anyone is going to make a straight level that simply has a giant penis made of wood at the end of it (putting aside how many people might still pay for such a level, depending…). The high end content will be pushed even higher, and the company can easily reward users that can generate competent ideas over the long term.

What it ultimately boils down to is that microtransactions aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s just how they’re used. We’ve seen examples of both, and of course the bad tends to stick out more like a sore thumb than the good does, but just because they do doesn’t mean the good can’t come to the forefront and justify its existence. Is this what it feels like to be optimistic? How strange…

Now, this may seem like sort of a short entry, because it is, but hopefully the wrap up to this week will be well worth it. What is it? That would spoil the surprise.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Microtransactions Week Day 3: Off the Rails for the Sake of Sales

This will likely be the last and definitely the darkest entry in terms of some of the problems that can arise when microtransactions get introduced or are the main payment component to any game. Allow me to set the stage.

Imagine that you’ve decided to take the plunge and finally get into World of Warcraft. You start the game and take a cursory glimpse around the starting area for whatever class you’ve chosen.

And then you’re killed.

Not by any computer controlled enemies. No, while you were minding your own business, maybe trying out a beginner quest or busy mining for fish (couldn’t resist) you’re suddenly annihilated by someone that’s at least 20 levels higher than you and probably more likely to be 80 or even 90 levels above you with all the requisite gear that comes with being that ridiculous. Every time you try to go out there and do something, you’re accosted by a high level player. Normally the solution would be simply to turn PvP off and give those guys the finger as you now go about your business unharassed.

Except there is no way to turn off PvP.

It seems that your game is over before it even begins. You have no chance to level up or do much of anything without being absolutely destroyed every 5 minutes by someone who can likely incinerate your character as easily as look at them.

But there is hope. There is an item that will let you pass through unharassed, at least for a precious small window of time. At least you can escape to somewhere else, maybe find somewhere that isn’t swarming with high level PvPers. All you have to do is pay for the item, which as mentioned before is limited use only.

This scenario probably sounds nightmarish to most gamers. Surely any game that did this would have most of its fan base leave overnight or never even get started.

Well that’s where you’d be wrong, because the game that I’ve been talking about exists. It’s not WoW. It’s a Chinese MMORPG called ZT Online, and it’s one of the most popular online games in China and still endures to this day.

I found this article talking about some of the elements in ZT Online, and I was shocked by what seemed like one of the endgame scenarios: that of a free to play game that ran microtransactions going completely out of control, with the players willing to pay top dollar bowling over anyone who tries to play the game for free, and literally hundreds of dollars a month needed to remain competitive in the atmosphere that encourages huge power levelling and hours per day spent to maintain any position of influence established.

The thing that struck me was the fact that at one point the article alludes to a player opening over 1,000 treasure chests a day. Like crates in TF2, these cost money to open. Unlike TF2 however, treasure chests seemingly don’t drop, you can open as many as you’d like a day. In fact, ZT Online offers a very sought after prize each day for the person that opens the most chests. You’d think that opening 1,000 a day would be enough to get this player the prize, perhaps even a couple of times. Yet she never got first place for chest opening, not even once.

At this point it isn’t even playing a game anymore, it’s essentially gambling, and as with gambling, the house always wins. Sure, the game was free to play for all comers, but at the point where if you want to take your play “to the next level” you need to start spending some serious cash. The article mentions that this player spent 10,000 RMB (also commonly known as Chinese Yuan). Although it doesn’t mention the period of time, I would like to go out on a limb and hope that sum is spend in a month, rather than a week or even a day, because that translates to roughly 1,500 USD. More money than someone on minimum wage generally makes was spent, and yet it’s not even the most excessive and extravagant amount that people were willing or able to pay in order to remain on top in ZT Online.

It seems utterly ridiculous to us, certainly. But it never starts out seeming that way. At first it’s perhaps a dollar or two a week for a couple of nice little extras here and there. The problem is that when the game has no balancing factors, it quickly becomes an arms race of who can spend the most time and money. Right now it’s not a huge problem because you have at least in most games, some clear differentiation exists between people who want to go PvP, and those that don’t. However, if that gets disregarded for more long term profits at the cost of turning players on each other for more and more increasing gains for the company, then it turns into anarchy.

Vigilance must be taken to ensure that this situation does not crop up with microtransactions becoming more commonplace. The developers must rein themselves in, but it will also take the monitoring of the players, the people that interact with the game on a regular basis and know its ins-and-outs to allow for a balance to take place, for there to be microtransactions, but also a game that is ultimately accessible to everyone whether they want to pay for extras or not.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Microtransaction Week Day 2: The Dark Side of Nickel and Dime Payment Plans

There’s no doubt that we all like to be optimistic about the content that we get from our games. We all like to believe that the greatest amount of effort has been taken to flesh them out and make sure that the money we put down on the latest shooter or RPG is well spent. And most of the time we do get what we pay for.

But recently some games have been released, only to have add-ons through microtransactions later. Normally this wouldn't be a huge problem, except that in these cases the content is either overpriced, or even worse, something that was in the game to begin with, but rendered inaccessible and used for less than scrupulous ends. But more on that second one later.

It’s one thing when, like COD:MW2, you release new content and charge for it. Certainly people might not like it, and for good reason: the map pack meant that the online - and thus most popular aspect - gameplay was drastically altered overnight, and anyone who wanted in needed to shell out the money or be SOL. The fact that the sum was a fairly hearty $15 meant that if you wanted to enjoy new content you were paying about a quarter of the price again. And for people who are trying to play the game at a competitive level, they have no choice but to shell out or get left behind.

This of course raises other concerns: for example what happens if one of the newly released maps becomes wildly popular? So much so that now a great deal of the gameplay within the online community takes place on that map? Imagine trying to hop online and seeing only 5 out of 50 servers that actually have a map that you can play without paying extra for; it’d be a little stymieing. As unlikely as it is to happen, such things are still a concern. Sure, later a price drop can mitigate some of the frustration, but only at the expense of those that now feel jilted for having paid full price (although of course there’s a counterargument that since they’ve been playing on the maps so much longer that the clear tactical advantage will be with them for a good long while). For this same reason things that were offered at cost will likely never be made free, because of fear of alienating the people that already paid for the product.

While charging a high price for newly created content does sting a fair bit to the people that believed they were paying for a completed game it doesn’t even hold a candle to what might perhaps be the largest dick move in terms of microtransactions: making people pay for content they should already have.

That’s right, I’m looking at you, Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

When MvsC3 first came out, it was quickly revealed that there would be future DLC that would add fan favourites to the game the first of which would be Jill Valentine of Resident Evil fame and Shuma Gorath a staple of the series. Fans were enthusiastic about getting the chance to get to play as these two for only a few dollars, until some people dug around in the code and discovered that at the very least Jill was already on the disc, just seemingly sans voice. Speculation that Shuma Gorath was also present but unaccounted for, along with two characters that might be part of a future DLC release: Frank West and Doctor Octopus. You can read more about it here.

Now, Capcom might have their reasons, but I am part of the large section of the gaming community that believes that if something is on the disc that we bought or part of the code of the game we downloaded, that we should be able to access it without having to shill out extra money for the privilege of doing so. Can you imagine if Capcom would have done something like create a poll asking the fans which characters they’d like to see? It would have turned out that if the fans wouldn’t have picked any of the characters that they already had pre-installed then would the poll results have been manipulated to make sure that the characters that were already prepackaged and ready to go would have been “selected by the fans” for release.

It shouldn’t take people hacking into the code and digging around to make sure that companies are honest about giving people the entire game that they paid for, rather than ransoming it off to them in chunks that they’re duping people into believing are actual add-ons, not just something that a toggle has to be made within the game code for.

Granted, it could be something more than simply changing one line of code from no to yes. But still, it’s the settling of the less than stellar precedent that if met with any degree of success will seem to indicate to game companies that players don’t mind paying extra to get things that they should have gotten in the first place, as long as they aren’t charged too much for each new map, character, or weapon.

These are growing concerns within the North American market, but even these seem like minor quibbles compared to some of what has been going on with some MMO’s overseas. But that is a topic for another day.

In closing this article, all I can really say is that while gamers can complain about this state of affairs as much as they want, it is ultimately the bottom line that shows just how much abuse or misuse the community is willing to take. While you've no doubt heard it before, the fact is that it needs to be repeated so that everyone can understand it. So if you think that a microtransaction is a rip-off just don’t pay for it. If enough people follow suit, then maybe things like $15 map packs and DLC for characters already on disc can be nipped in the bud, before it blooms into a larger, more rooted problem.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Microtransaction Week Part One: Valve, Unusual Hats, and the Free Market. What the Hell Went Wrong?

In what I hope will be a week that might culminate in an interview with a person or company that uses microtransactions in order to facilitate business, this week will at the very least include two entries. The latter entry will deal with microtransactions as a whole, whilst the one you’re reading now will be very focused. As I so prophesied in my introductory post a whole couple of days ago, it’s time to talk about Team Fortress 2 hats. (Huzzah!…?)

Although it seems like a much longer removed time, I remember the launch of the Mann-Conomy update at the end of September 2010. As much of an outcry as there was from the SPUF community - a group that for the most part will surely find a reason to cry out over just about anything ever - that this would ruin the game, the update and the addition of microtransactions to TF2 was for the most part well thought out and smooth.

By far the most successful part of the Mann-Conomy was and continues to be the various Polycount sets that have stood as an example that user-created content can take a prominent role in games beyond a sea of mostly poorly edited levels when map generators are given out. Like most people, I was blown away when a couple of weeks after the update the figures showed that the cut of the Polycount that some of the set creators took was according to some articles, anywhere from “$39,000 to $47,000” within the first two weeks. That figure comes from this IGN article: here.

While some players were rather dismissive, saying that buying items would give those that could afford them an unfair advantage, for the most part that advantage would be fleeting due to the drop system and crafting still being viable options to gain any missing items. Those aforementioned systems were also joined by the long awaited for trade system, which was pretty much just what was advertised: trading between users for nearly any available item.

It all seems pretty keen so far. But the one stumbling block that was introduced and still persists is a thorn in the side of both the players, and although they probably wouldn’t admit it, Valve itself. I’m talking about crates, and the rarest drops that come from them: unusual hats.

As any long term player will tell you, Team Fortress 2 is the best hat based simulation with added combat elements that money can (or rather used to be able to) buy. Hats were already rare - if purely cosmetic - commodities. Aside from the first four released Polycount sets, hats served no purpose other than simply being decorative. Of course this fact didn’t keep players from going insane over trying to get as many as they could. Unusual hats only exacerbated this problem, and turned what used to be a solely in game problem into an entire free market with its own agendas and concerns: one that Valve itself had absolutely no control over and only the most minimal stake in.

The concept seemed so innocuous: crates dropped just like random items, but could only be opened with a key. Keys on the other hand can only be purchased from the Mann Co. Store for $2.50 or so a pop, depending. Every time you open a crate you could get any of the listed items, or you stood a very slim chance of unboxing an unusual hat. Unusual hats are simply hats with various particle effects attached to them; again, aside from any Polycount hats which already had inherent gameplay value in their respective sets, these hats had absolutely no beneficial effect. In fact some would say quite the opposite in that some of the more obvious effects probably made you Sniper bait and also encouraged players to gun for you given the chance.

Now, I happen to be the kind of lunatic that doesn’t entirely mind people trying to murder my face off even harder - I main Medic, on Arena, it’s to be expected - and I really thought that a Vintage Tyrolean with the scorching flames effect was neat. The thing about wanting and even getting this neat hat though, was that even though I can’t say I regret the purchase (I no longer have the hat though) and I would admit that now that I even have a steady source of income I’ve been considering getting a new one. But what I can’t ever justify is the price.

Something that came from a crate that costs $2.50 to unlock was purchased for nearly $250 dollars. That’s right, a purely cosmetic (i.e. worthless) virtual item had a mark-up of over 100 times any purely objective value attached to it. Think that’s insane? You’d be right, but that’s not even the worst of it. Some hats can and have gone for over a thousand dollars. If you go to the unusual hat club or tf2items you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of people selling these virtual items for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Even as someone who has participated in this market and may very well participate again I can say without a mote of hesitation (and likely with a great deal of hypocrisy) that quite simply: that is fucking ridiculous.

Valve is a company that is known for the measures it takes in making sure that it has control over the situation, at least that’s a major facet of the image they like to portray after bouncing back from the Half Life 2 leak. And yet I cannot believe that given some of the fervour generated only months earlier over the Golden Wrench debacle that Valve could not have guessed that this would happen. Do they benefit from unusual hats? Sure, but only marginally. People might buy tens or hundreds of keys, but aside from the $2.50 it took to open the crate, Valve sees none of the money from the sale of these unusuals. However, that definitely doesn’t keep them from seeing a lion-share of the inherent problems.

When dealing with such a suddenly valuable commodity there is going to be people that are willing to use underhanded tactics. From scams that relied on bait and switch methods, to people challenging Paypal claims for virtual items they received - and in the majority of the cases succeeding at getting their money back - Valve has had to deal with countless complains from people that have been scammed, duped, or just made stupid decisions that they want reversed. It’s all a giant headache for the company and the gamers, and most infuriatingly of all, it’s something that could have been completely avoided AND made Valve richer in the process.

Keep the crate unusuals if you want, we’ll call them free-range unusuals for the sake of this argument. At the same time though, in order to counteract the ridiculousness of the current situation, something could have been simply implemented that although likely to inspire another round of rage from all comers would have and still could be ultimately a saving grace to both gamers and Valve as a whole.

In the Mann Co. Store give the player an option to buy unusuals. Start at a base price, something sane but not inexpensive. Let’s say $10 as a fair base. Throwing that money at the store gets you a completely random unusual hat: any class, any effect. Don’t like what you got? Tough cookies. But, if you’re willing to give a little more, say, $2.50 more, then you can choose the class. For $5 you and choose the exact hat, and another $5 gets you the effect you want. So to break it down: it’s a random unusual for $10, all the way up to the exact unusual you want for $20.

Now, I can guess as to what some of the objections would be to this plan. First and foremost is that it makes buying keys a moot point, not to mention rendering unusuals from something “rare and special” to something altogether common. The thing is that unusuals aren’t all that rare: more will be unboxed and the market is already saturated to the point where it seems at times to be nearly collapsing in on itself. Also, something I didn’t mention earlier is that any unusual you buy from the store will simply be bound to your backpack: untradable, much like community items or - ugh - a golden wrench. Unusuals unboxed can be traded to anyone for anything. But because anyone can just go to the store and get the exact unusual they want, they’d be remiss to pay anything in excess of say even $100 for one where the only difference is that it can be given away if you grow bored of it.

Another issue I see people bringing up is that $20 is still expensive. It’s a couple of cheap games on Steam, or a decent one when a sale pops up as it so often does. My counter to this is that people have been spending amounts that are easily 10 to 50 times that for one hat. As with all microtransactions, if you don’t want to buy an unusual you absolutely don’t have to, but if you do, this model would mean that you don’t have to choose between paying the rent or end up having to turn a couple of extra tricks after working at McDonalds in order to afford what is ultimately, a rather silly virtual item.

And of course, Valve benefits the most from this: they get $10 to $20 dollars for absolutely nothing, and if anyone complains that they got ripped off trading in free range unusuals, Valve can simply say “Well, that’s too bad, but hey, you could have just bought them from us if you wanted, and been absolutely secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t a scam.” Granted, Valve probably wouldn’t be as overtly smug about the whole thing, but they could afford to be what with the extra piles of money that would be coming in from implementing a plan like this.

Now, as acerbic as this rant was, on the whole I think I need to go on the record as saying that the Mann-Conomy is mostly a good example of how a microtransaction system should be implemented. The glaring issue of unusual hats aside, the store can get you items if you have some spare change and don’t want to be assed to wait, or it can get you some cute modifications for items or some seasonal swag. On the whole, Valve actually did a good job, which is more than can be said for some other systems. But the topic of microtransactions in general is one for another day this week, so with that I bid you adieu. Until next time may you find yourself not poor and Irish without the need to sell your kidneys.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Goggles Do Something: Nostalgia and Video Games

Let me start off by saying that I am in no way deriding the right that anyone has to fond memories of the things they’ve grown up with: be they video games, music, or anything else under the sun. That being said, I’ve come to believe that nostalgia is a tool; not only that, but it’s a powerful one that can be used both for good and ill.

Because I’m the ripe old age of 25, I can say that I remember growing up on the cusp of what would become an enduring evolution of the video game industry. I remember playing NES when I was but a tiny lad, bugging my mother to get all the backs of the Kraft Dinner boxes that had tips and tricks for Super Mario Bros. I also remember owning the original Game Boy, the immense frustration I felt at never being able to get to the last level of Super Mario World, needing help to get there let alone beat the final boss - as a strange aside I loved the chicken shooting cloud that you fought before him - and playing Tetris despite probably being too stupid to really understand how to not get myself killed by my own incompetence.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these memories, they’re in fact some of the happiest of my life. But at the same time I recognize that it’s a double-edged sword. Today I would be remiss to say that I feel the same magic as I did back then when I play Team Fortress 2, Assassin’s Creed, even whimsical games like Katamari Damacy. Is it a case of the magic being gone? Have video games simply gotten worse since we started playing them?

To put it bluntly: absolutely not.

I think that those gamers that have siblings significantly younger than them might understand this better than most: to see the joy on their faces as they discover video games for the first time, whether it be the latest incarnation of the Mario series, Angry Birds, or even free flash games. Surely there is some of that wonder in their eyes, showing you a mirror of what you no doubt must have experienced the first time you stepped into a virtual world.

But of course, as time marches on so to must we keep stride, and in doing so we start to lose that magic. It’s not that the games aren’t just as special as they always were, it’s just that to a gamer that has over 20 years of gaming under his or her belt there’s a lot of pre-existing, strongly ingrained strata that everything must compete with to earn that coveted chance to make them stop and be awe-struck for even a moment, let alone a whole play-through. This isn’t even going the ever increasing demands that life continues to put on everyone as they age, between school, work, and other non-gaming hobbies, the time to sit down and play a 40 hour RPG or even a 20 hour action game just seems to fade away, and of course when people quote total playtime they often assume that it’s either doing the bare minimum to get to the end, or aided with walkthroughs and the like, both of which while useful for saving time end up ultimately detracting from the overall experience of exploration and discovery via one’s own merit.

Added to this is the fact that as we grow and mature, our tastes change. Sure, I still enjoy any Mario game as much as the next guy. But the thing is games that younger players might find challenging and relish getting hard fought victories from are, for the seasoned veteran, something that only barely registers as challenging or even worse, seems like a monotonous grind.

The thing is that with nostalgia, it also runs both ways. Nostalgia can make something that was good but otherwise unexceptional seem to be great, the great seem to be spectacular, and the spectacular seem untouchably perfect. Likewise it can make the mediocre seem passable, the bad seem mediocre, and the worst of the lot seem somehow a lot more palatable. Hell, I remember thinking of a game for the Game Boy where you play a man digging holes to trap aliens. I remember the game as absurdly fun and challenging, and yet, if you take a look at it today (youtube a game called Heiankyo Alien, I’ll wait).

It’s not really anything to write home about, is it? Sure, it's not the worst thing in the world, but let’s face it that game is clearly showing its age, and while some games do hold up better, it’s the fact that they are among our first gaming experiences that decide what games will forever be remembered in the annuls of our minds.

Now, I’m not saying that Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario 64, and hundreds if not thousands of other games that we fondly remember are bad, it’s just that modern games often don’t stand a chance to compete, likewise why we’re often shocked when we introduce the younger generation to some of our favourites only to be met with raised eyebrows and chides of “how could you like that game?”. Getting the damn kids off the lawn won’t be far away, but then again given enough time the kids being raised on Ratchet and Clank will be saying the same thing to their younger siblings or, heaven help us all, their children, who will no doubt have their own cherished titles: they just don’t know it yet.

At this point I've no doubt given the impression that nostalgia is a terrible thing, when that's hardly the case, because it's the nostalgia that keeps us going sometimes, and that can even get us to try new things. When you hear that a game plays or is strongly reminiscent of something that you recall fondly that's all the more encouragement to give it a try, and while sometimes you simply end up disappointed, there are just as many pleasant surprises out of such discoveries as their are let-downs, at least on a good day.

In a roundabout way, the point I’ve been trying to make here is that there might be problems with the way the current generation is working out, but saying that older games were better just because is just passing the buck and doing no one any good whatsoever. That’s why in looking at games of current and past generations I plan to delve into what works and what doesn’t while hopefully avoiding falling into the pit trap that nostalgia often shoves under our feet.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Video Game Blog? How Original!

If you’ve come across this in your travels then welcome to Grahf Games. I realize that there are hundreds of video game blogs out there, and that a vast majority of them are underwhelming for one reason or another: not enough updates, too limited a scope, or written by people who, while meaning well, really aren’t cut out for a job in the industry. Let me say that I sincerely hope that this doesn’t turn out to be one of those blogs.

Of course, there’s a reason why there are so many blogs out there to begin with: the video game industry is larger than ever before. Three major companies compete for attention in a multi-billion dollar a year industry that supports hundreds of jobs that range from the creation of games themselves to their marketing and coverage. The sheer proliferation of gaming culture throughout the world has seen the title gamer go from being something applied to children and “geeks” to being accepted as a part of day to day life. Who’s to say that your co-workers or bosses don’t go raiding on WoW after work every night? Who’s to say that you aren’t in a guild with doctors, lawyers, even politicians, and that you just don’t know that CommanderDeathKill is Johnny Depp or some equally famous star, enjoying the anonymity of the internet and the games thereupon?

And of course, as gamers have progressed, so to must the games they play. This latest generation has seen multiple advents, such as the proliferation of motion controls, 3D gaming, the rise of the microtransaction, episodic gaming, and many other variables have entered the market, and only time will tell whether the entrance is for good or ill.

That is part of what I will inevitably talking about, because it is something that must indeed be talked about. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

At the moment what I’d like to address is the methodology of gaming journalism itself. From the large established portions of the community like Game Informer and Electronic Gaming Monthly, to the self run blogs and youtube channels run by people who want to get their name out there, there is no lack of coverage.  Of course, expansive coverage does not by any means guarantee the nature or quality of said coverage.

While I’m not going in completely blind, the water is still awfully dark, and here there definitely be monsters. So in my quest to start off on the right foot I sought some advice from a name that will undoubtedly be familiar to quite of few of you: WiNGSPANTT, the creator of Top Tier Tactics. WiNG was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions when others had basically ignored or otherwise stonedwalled my inquires, and what he told me was quite elucidating; it was also a tad frightening.

For example, WiNG was quick to point out that:

“the entire field of game journalism is basically a cycle of corruption/sycophantic pandering propagated by the public relations (PR) firms who represent major gaming studios. Insofar as that is concerned, your merits and degrees are not important to these people – their only concern is getting their target demographics hyped about their upcoming titles and to secure favorable coverage of said titles”

You might like to think that this might be an overly cynical view of the current state of affairs, but it doesn’t even take a hard look around to see that there’s a lot more veracity to this statement then a lot of people would like to admit. Recent scandals like the Duke Nukem’ Forever Redner Group fiasco and the Kane and Lynch Gamespot Review spring to mind as the most immediate examples. But even going to the mundane level you can see the taint of timidity: G4’s E3 coverage was a joke, with any nay-saying few and far between almost sickeningly high levels of adulation being given out for anything that came across their cameras.

G4 is a big name, which leaves little excuse for their actions, but what can a small-timer just starting out hope to do? Retain your integrity at the cost of losing any potential in-roads from fickle developers, or become an echo-chamber and get somewhere, but never be allowed to say what you really feel about anything, even if only slightly negative.

Frankly, given the choice, I’m going with the latter every time. I’d rather have the freedom to say what I want to say than have security at the cost of a gag-order. It means that this is going to be a hard road right from the gate, but frankly as clichéd as it sounds you learn a hell of a lot more doing it the hard way than you ever will the easy way, and I sincerely hope that the adage doesn’t fail me now.

As far as what to expect goes, your guess is probably only a little worse off than mine. I’m off to a running start without even finding my legs; so my style, my topics, and just about everything else might change wildly from what anyone least of which myself expected them to be at the onset.

There will be game reviews, of course. But for a while they might not be the main focus of the blog. Instead I’m hoping to share my thoughts on the industry as a whole: where it’s at, where it’s been, the good the bad the mediocre and the just plain ludicrous. While there will be honesty and there will be bile, anyone expecting diatribes to compare with a certain Brit known for his caustic outlook will be sorely disappointed. I’m not going to be overly negative just for the sake of being so, because it’s just as pointless as being overly positive. Again, that being said I will take no quarter and expect none given in return.

If you’re still with me so far I commend you for having the iron constitution to sit through what will undoubtedly go down as one of those painful first post memories. Hopefully our journey together will be long and fruitful, or that someone will at least get some laughs out of it (likely at my expense). I hope to become a familiar face to you all, and look forward to hearing your comments, concerns, and criticisms, lord knows I’ll need them all in the long run.

I'd like to finish this first post by thanking WiNGSPANTT for his time and tutelage, and thanking anyone who read this. I hope to update this blog at least three times a week, possibly even more if time allows, so stay tuned for talk about motion controls, nostalgia, sequels, the current console generation, and most imperatively of all, Team Fortress 2 hats.