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Sunday, January 05, 2014

PS4 Shooter Shootout: Ghosts VS Shadow Fall VS Battlefield 4

Shooters are probably one of my most consistently favorite genres of gaming.  Both Wolfenstein and Doom were big influences on my early PC gamer habit and I played nearly every possible shooter that ever came out for the Amiga, so while I haven't played every shooter ever made - I've played the vast majority released for the PC, Nintendo 64 and every flavor of the PlayStation produced ... and the Amiga.

Thankfully for me, FPS has become something of the summer blockbuster of gaming genres.  They're the easiest to make the translation from "big budget movie" to "big budget game with movie-like sequences in first person".  As such, the games have gone from being a way to show off technical prowess in gaming (remember that Doom was a 2D world made to look 3D, which is why it was particularly awesome) to single and multiplayer experiences with huge cinematic potential.  They've also become what once the sole domain of the mouse and keyboard set to hugely popular on consoles.

For PlayStation 4 launch titles - FPS fans get Call of Duty: Ghosts, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4: Battlefield 4 has no subtitle.  As was inevitable, I've had a chance to put all three through their paces and these are my thoughts on them.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

I've had a pretty uneven relationship with the entire Call of Duty franchise, I'll admit.  I've generally bought them because the titles guarantee a large online audience which makes it easy to jump into a game.  And there's no doubting that at its core ... these are good games, very solid shooters.

They also feature just absolutely terrible writing and online mechanics which while popular - are also just not very good.  Unsurprisingly, Ghosts doesn't stray far from this heritage - however I will say it feels better at both of those issues than most.  The writing in Ghosts feels like something from a Bond movie - approaching more spy fi than military fiction.  You'll need to suspend your disbelief when it comes to both science and basic character development.  However this title doesn't have anything nearly as disturbing as No Russian and the chapters feel less like awkward excuses to change from a desert level to a snow level and more like a cohesive narrative.

Likewise, a little more care is given to balancing my least favorite multiplayer mechanic of all time: kill streaks.  It's easier to get better kill streaks earlier, there are support kill streaks which culminate over time instead of one life, and in general it just feels like while occasionally you might get attacked by random dogs ... it's unlikely that someone is going to just camp over the map in a gunship and kill waves of people for a massive score.

The mechanic is more fair here, and while still not my favorite - seems less likely to disrupt the game in general with a couple of high level players being able to dominate an entire map.

My biggest complaint about Ghosts is that the multiplayer maps feel small and overly tuned to deathmatch to me.  The game actually ships with 14 maps, but while they offer a lot of different textures - there's a overwhelming feeling of sameness for me that makes you wish for even more right out of the gate.  This is compounded by the voting system which seems to keep a rotation of about 4 or 5 maps in heavy rotation.

Verdict: It's Call of Duty.  Ghosts is slightly better than many in the franchise, but it stays true to the core and pulls of a solid, even if somewhat campy, single player and strong mulitplayer offering.

Killzone: Shadow Fall

Killzone is one those "other" shooter franchises that only PlayStation users really care about (it being an exclusive and all).  I've generally enjoyed the titles and Killzone 3's multiplayer was a routine of mine for some time.  The games always felt like a little bit of Halo blended in with Battlefield.

Shadow Fall has been publicly stated to be a "reboot" for the franchise.  You can tell.  While the game sports some pretty impressive eye candy, gone are the squad level mechanics / narrative and the maps have changed from relatively linear maps with large combat areas to smaller maps with multiple routes (the closest equivalent I can think of design wise would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution but on a much, much smaller scale).

While very pretty, the single player suffers from both writing and mechanic decisions that would make even the worst chapter from Call of Duty blush.  Let's start with the fact that the premise is that after nearly killing every Helghast on Helghan the ISA decide to house the refugees on their home planet.  However, they also realize what a volatile and dangerous idea this is they erect a wall around the entire planet in what I'm pretty certain was a political decision stolen from a Brady Bunch episode.

Then after committing near genocide and parking the survivors next door (behind a massive wall) - they apparently decide it is OK for the Helghans to keep their guns.  And kill people as they see fit.

Years later, this all goes to hell.  Nobody can imagine why.  It was only like the worst idea ever to begin with.  And that's just the game's premise.  More implausible moments follow.  Seriously, this story makes Black Ops II look a bit like Moby Dick.

There is some fun to be had in the single player, if you tune out the storyline.  The level design will occasionally let you think about your approach and there are little twists like following instructions to avoid guards or pointing out sniping targets.  But then there are these abysmal moments like the "free fall" scenes - where you can mysteriously maneuver in both air and space and shoot an unlimited number of rockets (which oddly disappear once you land).  The free fall moments are all about showing off the PS4's GPU and nothing about actually having fun.  Then there are odd tradeoffs.  For instance, your floating robot OWL companion is often fun - but Killzone also seems to really want to force you to use the default gun, including enemies which most effectively taken down using one mode of the gun.  It's pretty much the opposite of fun gun design mechanics.

As for multiplayer - Killzone has also clearly taken the Call of Duty blueprint and walked backwards from the larger, more open levels to smaller and tighter levels.  While this keeps the shooting frantic, it also makes the previously interesting objective based moments feel like just a bunch more deathmatch.  

Verdict: Fun, but as a "reboot" I would say Shadow Fall is actually a step backwards for the franchise.  Instead of proving itself, it's taken the Call of Duty formula wholesale and managed to make a sci fi alternative that feels less than Ghosts at nearly every level.

Battlefield 4

If I was being fair, I would probably give BF4 its own article complaining about EA's moronic installation concepts - similar to my A Realm Reborn review, which was mostly about how the beta was nearly unusable.  I bought BF4 online and then proceeded to download it - which took about 4 hours total, and then downloaded the patch, and then installed all of that and then .... still could not play the game because the game told me it still had some installing to do.

For some reason, EA decided this next generation of installing had to be done by the game itself, despite nearly every other game on a console letting the system OS handle it.  The result was having to let the game run and fix itself for another four or six hours (I actually don't know how long it took - I went to bed).  After like two hours I could play one mission of the single player, and then just had to watch a progress bar (so much for that "play while it downloads" next gen concept).

Sadly, Battlefield's technical issues don't stop there.  The remarkably short single player campaign crashed a few times.  Sometimes servers just seem to stop communicating with sessions, I've had to quit while joining one several times.  Client side prediction occasionally goes wonky in multiplayer, creating that weird jerky movement while running.  There's this one great bug where if you press the wrong button at the wrong time, the deploy screen goes black (hard to tell where to deploy that way).

And for one game, all of my progression was forgotten.  Thankfully it returned after quitting and returning to a new server.

Thankfully, once you get past the idiotic installation scheme these bugs are generally minor (this is post several patches, my understanding is that the bugs were worse at launch).  The game behind the bugs is actually very good.  While the single player felt like the shortest of the three, it also offered a decent storyline which felt like an actual military action narrative and lacked any serious need for suspending your disbelief.  It also kept Battlefield's trademark large map design which helped the levels feel more like combat areas than linear maps with conveniently placed guards everywhere.

BF4's multiplayer has a strong emphasis on squads and teams working together and while it can be annoying to get sniped by that guy with a 40x scope - there's very little in the progression design which keeps new players from enjoying a game against veterans.  The veterans will probably still win, but they aren't winning by chaining one ridiculous kill streak after another one.

Verdict: Technically frustrating and while the single player campaign is arguably the most solid of the three - it's also not quite as fun as Ghosts and is shorter than Shadow Fall (though not by much).  Multiplayer is top notch, especially the level of destruction that can be applied to maps and watching jets crash into tanks.

Final Verdict

Which is the best?  I think that depends on one question: do you like smaller maps with more of a focus on deathmatch or larger maps with a wide variety of tactical options?  Ghosts and Battlefield feel nearly on par with each other, even with BF4's technical problems.  Personally, even with those issues the game I keep going back to play is Battlefield 4 - because I like that feeling of a vast combat landscape as opposed to small deathmatch arena.  

The clear third of the bunch is Shadow Fall, because while not a bad shooter - it's basically a Call of Duty clone with a sci fi outfit tossed on it.  The single player is a symphony of highs and lows, moments where you're having a lot of fun followed by doing nothing but literally falling out of the sky.  Killzone's new multiplayer is basically just Call of Duty's old mulitplayer with a couple of twists ... but nothing which is really an improvement. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to Fix GTA Online's Free Roam

A core portion of the 5 Huge Problems previously discussed center around one large problem: GTA Online's Free Roam is effectively broken.  Not broken in the sense that it's glitched beyond repair (any more) - but broken in the sense that the game punishes people for running around, shooting each other, and having fun.

Let's take a case in point:  I finished a mission with a fellow criminal.  That mission netted us $5K.  After the mission, we got dropped next to each other.  He shot me, stole my ride.  I spawned around the corner and shot him.  He then proceeded to chase me around Blaine County where I killed him two more times and he kill me one more time.

Thankfully, he had a $5K bounty on his head, so I still ended up ahead.  But he probably didn't.  In a matter of minutes, he probably wiped out all of the money he made during the mission.

Interestingly, the fact that free roam is nothing but a money sink doesn't keep people from playing like it is the new wild west.  This is probably the most telling fact that illustrates the players want GTA Online Free Roam, they want to run around and steal cars and shoot at other players ... even if it means it could be costing them thousands of dollars.

So instead of Free Roam being a huge pain in the ass and drain on the bank account, why not reward players for running around, shooting each other and having fun?

Way back when, I wrote a mod for Unreal Tournament called Bounty War.  The whole idea was to re-balance deathmatch scoring.  Better players got higher bounties associated with them and the goal of the game was to end with the most money in your account.  This meant that lower level players had a chance of catching up by fragging higher level players - which in many ways is more fair, since fragging someone who is better at the game is harder than fragging someone who is not good at the game.  

It effectively solved the noobie vs. veteran problem while keeping it fun for both.  And it could totally work for GTA Online.  Here's how:

Fix Passive Mode

Passive mode should be the real deal - not some odd Venn Diagram of how you might possibly get killed. Instead of making you semi-invulnerable but not really, passive mode should:
  1. Remove the player from the map
  2. Remove other players from the players' map
  3. Remove the name float above players
  4. Make the player bulletproof from other players (always, not just out of cars)
The entire "remove players" mechanic could be also be configurable, similar to how you can lock your car now - so you could remain visible to your friends and crew if you wanted.  This would let players roam around without other players stalking them and basically keep them safe from anything but getting run over and falling.

Change the Free Roam Death Penalty

Update: In the 1.04 patch, the death penalty is getting capped at $500.  Which is a good compromise, though some of the below is still plausible.



The worst part about the current penalty is that it is often not associated with skill, but circumstance.  For instance, if you quit out of a session before it starts, you could get dropped right next to a complete stranger who just did the same thing.  The last time I had this happen the guy instantly pistol whipped me.  Bam, I lose over a $1K.  For literally doing nothing.

And for some reason Free Roam really likes to spawn you next to your killer (not to mention the whole "1 on 1 Deatchmatch").  So now the whole thing might happen again.  This makes death so common in free roam, and potentially costly.

Instead, let's give players options.  On death, a player could:
  1. Wait for ambulance.  If the ambulance is destroyed, or medics shot, player goes to hospital. Medium to Long spawn delay.  Risky.  Free.
  2. Go to Hospital.  Short spawn delay.  Not risky.  $500.
  3. Instant Revive.  No spawn delay.  Risky. $1,000.
This would penalize (more heavily) players who are distinctly trying to stay in the fight, while giving a middle ground to players who just want to either get back in the game or not spend any money.  It also reduces the previous cap from $2K down to 1.  Early players or players low on cash would have an incentive to go the low cash route.


OK, so now we've made Free Roam less of a hassle and less of a penalty in general.  Now let's make it fun.



Add Wanted Rewards

I'd just call this a bounty, but the current bounty system would actually work well as something additional to a more fully fledged mechanic.  So let's add that mechanic and call it a Wanted Reward. It could work like this:
  1. An enemy is defined as someone not on your friends or crew list.
  2. Killing an enemy raises your wanted reward by $500.
  3. Killing an enemy gives you their wanted reward.
  4. Getting killed by an enemy resets your reward back to $0.
  5. Player icons go from white to red slowly (instead of just one or the other) to indicate how high their current reward is.
  6. After $5K (this is 10 kills in a row without being killed by an enemy) - the player becomes Most Wanted and the reward goes up automatically $500 every game hour.
  7. Wanted Rewards max out at $10K.
  8. Players killed by law enforcement have their reward reset to $0.
  9. Players can get their Reward removed by visiting a Police Station and paying a $2500 fine.

Now players who actively running around and causing chaos in Free Roam are slowly becoming more valuable targets.  Players can opt out of the system by dropping into Passive Mode.  More deadly players become more valuable, making it a higher reward to take them out.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Making Money in GTA Online

In my previous post, I noted how a lot of the big issues in GTA online amount to one thing: the economy works against.  The death penalty can add up quick, ammo isn't cheap, and some of the most common things to do in the game offer little payout for the amount of time you can spend completing them.

If you are trying to move on up to the next luxury condo - here are few tips to get you along:

#1: Play Solo

You can enter into a solo session by joining GTA Online via the Pause menu instead of the quick character select.  Solo is effectively the passive mode that Rockstar describes in the main mode, except it actually works - even if by brute force.  It might seem counter-productive to play by yourself in an online game - but the advantages are huge.  Firstly, you completely remove the possibility of getting involved in the vengeance-fueled killing frenzies which aren't uncommon when playing with others in free mode.  It also means that you have free reign over events in free mode like Simeon's high priority vehicle and convenience stores to knock over.

It also means that bounties can't be claimed against you, and the AI will occasionally set one on your head.  Since after a period of time you get the bounty against you, this translates into random free money for stealing random cars.

#2: Franklin's Early Years

Two of the fastest ways to score cash in GTA Online include what Franklin described as his early years: knocking over convenience shops and stealing cars.  

Each store will net you around $1100 on an average, with the occasional spike into $2K or so.  While this isn't a huge amount, if you only hit two in a row - you only have to fight a two star chase.  Once you get used to where the stores are and the easy escape route associated with them, this means you can punctuate your play with cash that takes about half the time of doing a mission or race, while giving you the same payback.

That said - there's some misinformation going around about knocking over stores.  One is that you'll bag more money for killing the store owner.  That hasn't been my experience and you'll get three stars instead of two right away - which will usually make the chase go far longer than you really want.

As for stealing cars: there are a few select brands that are found around the Vinewood Boulevard area which can net $6 - $9K.  You can sell a car every game day, which is roughly once an hour.  I recommend looking for Ubermacht cars - they're fairly common compared to other high end cars and always net more than $6K.

#3: Easy Missions

After your second store theft you'll need to cool the cops down a bit (or risk a three star chase off the bat), you can hop into a mission and try to do it by yourself.  Setting the mission to easy will make it simpler for the solo run and only seems to reduce the amount of respect you get from the mission, not the cash.  If you're handy with a gun, many of Gerald's missions can be done fairly quickly and will net a decent haul.

#4: Higher Level Missions = Higher Level Rewards

This one is a no brainer, but one of the factors that works for the player when it comes to the game economy is that as you level up, you'll get more access to missions which net higher cash rewards.  Keep an eye on which missions give you the most cash for the time you spend in it and make those a priority.

#5: Earn it, Spend it, then go online

My recommendation would be to spend a couple days in solo mode, and then buy one of the luxury condos with a 10 car garage.  After that, these tips become somewhat obsolete as you've purchased one of the more expensive items in the game - and once you spend your cash on something big, it can't be stolen away from you.  We netted about $180K over the weekend with the above, bought one of the better apartments and now have a lot less concerns when it comes to playing in the normal session.

Of course, now we just hope that Rockstar isn't going to randomly delete our character.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Game Review: 5 Huge Problems with GTA Online

Preface

First note that this is for just the online portion of GTA V.  I may have another post on the main game at a later date.

Second, some may say it is unfair to review GTA Online since it has been out for less than a week and Rockstar had warned ahead of the launch that unexpected demand for the game was going to cause issues.  And yes, some issues - like the fact that I can't currently sign into the game ... are probably due just to demand and will be resolved as Rockstar throws hardware at the problem.

Others, however, like the incredibly bugged tutorial missions that blocked the game for a majority of users - were clearly not because of high demand.  You couldn't even get into the game in offline or "solo" mode (and in fact, oddly - I had 5 people show up to my solo mission...).  We're now a couple patches in and if the servers are up, you can play - but the experience still has many issues.  Many of them aren't bugs, but simply design.

This is clearly another beta being rolled out as a product.  Now, GTA Online is a free component to a game which is already larger in scope than most titles in its price range.  Still, it is a product - and while one that shows a lot of promise (and I've already spent many hours on) ... is still deeply flawed.

However, in fairness to Rockstar I'm not even mentioning huge outstanding bugs like your character simply disappearing - under the assumption they'll fix that in short order.

Quick Overview

GTA Online is where players of GTA V can create their own criminal and run around Los Santos (and the greater Los Santos area) with other criminals created by players.  A bevy of activities await: Deathmatch, Last Team Standing, Vehicle Deathmatches, Races of nearly every variety, Missions (more on that later) and what seem like the entire set of activities from the main game (Tennis, Parachuting, etc).  Some of these open slowly as the player levels up.

At its core, it is a lot of fun.  It brings the RPG/Customization angle from San Andreas (but with a complete character and not just making CJ fat) and mashes it into an expanded online offering that goes well beyond the already surprisingly fun online mode in GTAIV.

Problem #1: Dying

Dying is pretty much expected in a game like GTA Online.  And when you have a bunch of people on the server which think the game is mostly about crashing cars into players to steal the $100 that drops out of their pocket ... it can happen a lot.  Especially because the game seems to egg on revenge tactics by always dropping you near the person who killed you.  We've had people hunt us down repeatedly for seemingly no other reason than us being on the radar.

This would be fine if it wasn't for the 5% death tax, which appears to max out at 2K.  I believe this is the same tax as in the story mode, but the online mode currently lacks any major heists to have large sacks of money laying around where even though you're paying more ... you have plenty.  No, here once you have managed to stockpile a decent amount of cash (you'll want $75-100K to buy a decent apartment, for instance) ... your cash becomes a huge liability.  We had about $80K saved up over the course of hard playing all afternoon and night ... but about 10 minutes of getting caught in the middle of some crazed bounty hunt, we were back down to ~$53K.  About five hours of play were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

If Rockstar expects the offset to this to be players buying cash with real dollars, then GTA Online will go down as one of the largest missed opportunities in online gaming.  And it will join such modes as Mass Effect 3's online component as being sacrificed to the idiot blind god of microtransactions.

Problem #2: There is no Passive Mode

Rockstar will tell you that if you want to run around and not get capped, you can just go into passive mode.  Passive mode costs $100 to get into (for some bizarre reason never explained).  Passive mode is also completely worthless as other players (and AI) can still run you over, shoot you from their cars and we think still pull you from vehicles and punch you.  It basically just means they can't shoot you while outside their vehicle.  Which is really not worth the $100.

Whether this is a deeply bugged or simply horribly designed feature is difficult to tell.  Rockstar has not as of yet mentioned any changes or fixes to the mode.

Problem #3: The Weird Bounty System

The other odd thing about having online players run around in free mode killing each other is ... there is very little point to doing it.  If you die, you lose ... some of your cash?  It is actually a little unclear - once you have $5K in walking money, Rockstar will warn you that players can steal your cash. Update: it sounds like it is $100 (always) + whatever you have over $5K. 

Course, there is no reason to run around with cash since you can deposit and withdraw money to your bank right from your phone.

However, none of that means anything since the death tax extends to your bank account.  So if I kill you, I'm unlikely to get any cash for it - but you'll lose 5% of everything you've got, or $2K, despite where it is.  After a certain level, you (and oddly, AI's) can put bounties on another player's head.  These seem to range from about $1K - $10K but are usually less than $5K.  

This is actually a horrible system, designed to do nothing but drain capital across the server.  Let's say you have a player with $80K in the bank.  They stand lose $2K just from dying once.  Someone puts a $3K bounty on their head.  Chances are players are going to die more than a couple times trying to kill them (especially since players often kill each other trying to get to the bounty).  So basically one player gets a slightly subsidized death and everyone else who participates loses out (potentially severely).

The only time I have ever profited from bounties is when I was lucky enough to get a $3K and $9K (which is very rare) bounty back to back.  Even then I died enough to eat up the $3K bonus.

So in short, one of the things players are most likely to do on the server - run around, cause mayhem and shoot at each other ... appears primarily designed to keep bank accounts low.

Problem #4: The Capital Throttle

This is all compounded by the fact that Rockstar has clearly made making cash a very slow process.  If you have a decent session going with lots of players, you can bounce from deathmatches to races relatively easily.  These will net you around $200 - $2000 depending on how well you do.  They can also take up a lot of time, especially some of the multiple lap races.

You can, as the title suggests you could, steal cars and sell them.  Without this being couched as a mission, you can only do this once an hour.  It is, however, one of the quickest ways to make money if you get the right car.  You can also holdup liquor stores, gas stations and the like - although time to completion there is highly dependent on how well you can evade the police.

There are a few choice missions which net a high profit, but you can't really select those voluntarily.  You have to hope one of your contacts hands them to you (more on that below).  The result is that activities that are the easiest to get to, but conversely can take up the most time ... actually offer the lowest profits (especially after you factor in buying ammo and armor).

Problem #5: Missions

All of the above compounds into the final huge issue: the mission structure.  Since deatchmatches and races are time consuming and not very profitable, it can be difficult to get players to actually play them. Worse, the goal based missions are easily the most entertaining and often offer higher rewards - but you can't select them.  After you do a goal based mission, you can vote on another session - but are limited to deathmatch and races (even though Last Team Standing sessions are labeled as Missions, which they really are not).  Most people just drop back into free mode.

This makes the best part of the game: performing goal based missions with a decent number of online players, something of a rarity.  You can call your contacts and hope for the best, but the result is something of a pot luck between who will respond to the Jobs text.

TLDR

GTA Online has a great core to it, but well beyond the issues of connectivity - it has some serious design issues.  Rockstar has currently turned off both the Stock Market and GTA$, so that players can't lose real money in the virtual game.  There are two unfortunate trend to all five problems: they all factor into keeping you bank account hard to grow and easy to deplete, and they're easily solved if you are willing to pony up some real cash to bankroll your virtual criminal.  

I really, sincerely, hope that this is not Rockstar's solution to the game.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Beta Review

Yeah, so far ... I can't say that I'm a fan.

Here's why:

This game wasn't really on my radar, to be honest.  I've never been a big Final Fantasy guy.  But I had heard about some people talking about it and one day I get a message in my PSN box from Square Enix inviting me to the beta (I think I entered originally by like downloading a video off off PlayStation Plus or the like).

Great.  So I click on the attachment in the message.  This is what this message looked like:



It downloads a 28MB launcher, which in turn sits there and downloads some untold gigs of actual game software.

Slowly.  OK, so there went using the PS3 for a while.  I go about and do ... some other Friday night thing for a while.  I come back.  Still downloading.  Wash, rinse and repeat about five times.  Finally downloaded.  It's late now, but I can stay up for a bit to smoke test the first few moments of the game.

Except, there's no play button.  Instead I first have to enter in my Beta Code.

What Beta Code?  I don't have a Beta Code.  I have a huge amount of software that got downloaded from a small amount of software that I downloaded from that ....

Oh, right - that message.  So I go back to the message.  The Beta Code can be found if you artfully scroll down a bit.  It's 20 characters long.  There is no concept of cutting and pasting on the PS3.  Thankfully I've got an iPhone with a camera and a USB keyboard.

OK.  Beta Code in.  Time to kill some ... I don't know ... bird things.  Whatever they kill in Final Fantasy a lot.  Seriously, I haven't played Final Fantasy since like ... well at least before they needed more than a few Roman numerals.  But now I can play - right?

Nope.  Now I get to create a Square Enix account, and then I have to tie that to my PSN account. Usually typing in a promo code isn't really needed if you get it through PSN because it just gets passed through - but OK.  And sure, I've had to link accounts before - but usually that can be done pretty smoothly either through my browser or through the PS3 - this was pretty much neither.  I had to create account information, confirm account information, follow my confirmation instructions, confirm my other account information and so on.

Usually "closed beta" means "exclusive rights to download", not really "fill out enough forms to get a new rate on your loan".   After about three more screens and a couple user agreements, though, I've got it.  I'm all signed up, linked up, and I have every single code I could possibly have entered in.

Time to kill some Cocoa Birds, right?

Wrong.  I just get a message thanking me for joining the Square Enix community and come back when there's a beta not already in progress.  Don't call us, we'll call you.  We'll do lunch.  So days turns into weeks and I get bored with having this downloaded beta I can't play ... so I delete it.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I get this in the old inbox:

Now, there's just one teeeeny tiny little problem here.  I mean, really, so insignificant that I hesitate to mention.  Really, it might not be worth your time.  I should just go, really.  I mean - oh, well, OK - here's the thing.

I don't own a PC.

And I really would have thought you would have known that from the thirty minutes of paperwork you forced me to do just to have the privilege of not playing your game.

Sigh.  OK, probably a simple misunderstanding. Whatever, no big deal - like I said.  I mean, I spent all that time registering with Square Enix, surely I can just download the beta again and then login and then we'll be fine.  I go back to my PSN inbox, click on the attachment.

I get prompted for a 12 digit promo code.  I don't have a 12 digit promo code.  I have a 20 digit beta code.

 I got to the support center noted in the email.  I log into my account (which at this point I assume that Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn might just be the most subtle ARG ever made).  I fumble around until I find some forums in English.  I put a post there, and a fellow gamer tells me that I should have gotten a 12 digit code in my email.

You know, the email inviting me to download the beta client for my non-existent PC.

So I find Customer Support.  Square's concept of Customer Support seems to embrace the often used tactic of "fend them off with FAQ's and then ignore them completely".  I get past their measly FAQ's and submit a "ticket".

Of course, a "ticket" would imply that a) someone received it and that b) I could go back and check the status of the "ticket".  Only, there is no open tickets area in Square's Customer Support mindset.  So what they've really created is email.  And since I have no confirmation email, it might be email that goes nowhere.

So now I stumble onto the Technical Support forums, where I find the grandest of all the grand punchlines this little saga could have ... a thread entitled:


OK.  now we are getting somewhere.  Surely out of eight pages of Internet wisdom will be the answer, or at least some kind of response from Square Enix on the situation.  Right?

Right?

Oh, hell no.  There are, and I shit you not because I respect you as a person and would not do that you this late in a long post, eight pages of people posting their public email addresses to an international Internet forum in the hopes of someone sending them a beta key.

Because, I should mentioned, these forums do not have private messages.  So the thing is - I don't even really blame people for posting in the hopes of getting a code.  Several have.  Square is completely silent on the issue and have left them no other choice.

Eight pages ... and growing.  Of personal email addresses.

Nicely played, Square, you have managed to fuck up a process the gaming industry has been honing for like decades into a process where people are willing to forego their personal information for a 12 digit code.

So yeah.

First of all, if you are going to force me to jump through so many registration hoops - I should get some benefit of it.  That I had to create like three accounts, pinky swear four times and what not - but you have absolutely no way of giving me a beta code except email? Ludicrous.  Absolutely ludicrous.  This is like when the phone company asks you to put in your phone number so that they can put you through to a human whose first question will be what is your phone number.

Second - I am so tired of first rate game companies with third rate customer support systems.  I'm kinda glad I already played Tomb Raider - because now knowing that Square Enix basically has no customer support, I am far less likely to buy their games in the future.

And thirdly ... Square, if you are reading this - don't even respond to me until you have responded to that forum thread.  Like you should have done at least a day ago.


The Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Beta?

I am not a fan.

Not at all. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

OUYA Review

I've had my OUYA for nearly a month now, having been a backer on their famed Kickstarter campaign.  For me, the OUYA was an easy buy - I've always wanted to be able to easily code something and play it on the big tv.  In this sense, for me, the OUYA is like that workout machine in your basement - even if unused, it serves as a constantly nagging reminder of something you ought to be doing.

So I'm basically OUYA's ideal consumer - I've bought into the whole message about an "open console" and would almost feel guilty not owning it, in a weird way.  However, I'm a reformed modder who doesn't mind tinkering around with something for hours and hours with very little payoff - the real question is how well does OUYA sell to the average Joe?

Well, it has sold out on Amazon (at least at the time of this writing), but like bragging about the Xbox One suddenly passing the PS4 on Amazon - we don't really know how the math plays out there.  For all we know, Amazon only had 20 in stock.

So let's talk OUYA.

OUYA Hardware

The console itself is a small cube that fits more or less in the palm of someone's slightly meaty oversized  palm.  "Well constructed plastic" seems to be a theme here, whereas nothing about the OUYA feels cheap outright, but plastic all the same.  The console has a power button on top, an ethernet port, a USB port, an HDMI port and the power port.  Getting started with the console is dead simple - put some batteries in the controller (more on that later), plug in the console, get it online (either through ethernet or Wifi) and download the obligatory update (which has some pretty funny status messages).

The guts of the console are likewise simple: an 8GB flash drive handles all your storage and most of the heavy lifting goes through a nVidia Tegra 3 chip.  To say that OUYA doesn't have the same processor power as a PS3 or Xbox 360 is a ridiculous overstatement - it barely swings in the same park as higher end phones or tablets.  However, to expect a $99 cube to outperform a subsidized phone or tablet costing hundreds of dollars is a bit ridiculous as well.  The bottom line is that it plays Android games fine, even if it isn't going to impress anyone in the process.

The Controller

The OUYA controller is the very definition of a mixed bag.  It falls into that "well constructed plastic" vibe, has a decent heft to it and feels responsive enough - if possibly a bit laggy at times.  Sadly not rechargeable, which I almost think should be some kind of engineering crime at this point, and the batteries are inserted into the grips by prying off the cover ... which also feels odd.

One of the more innovative bits is the touchscreen residing in the top portion of the black band.  It is, again, a bit of a mixed bag.  It's a great alternative to purely joystick style controlling of a mouse-like interface, but is burdened by a somewhat iffy response rate.  However, since it is also almost completely optional (except by the rare game which is effectively designed solely for mouse-based UI's) - it falls squarely in the "nice to have" camp, even if it is not a killer feature.

It's a good controller, well OK a decent controller - but I'm just not sure it is $49.99 decent.  That put its in the same camp as a replacement PS3 or 360 controller, and the construction just doesn't seem to be on par with what Microsoft or Sony puts out.

In theory, you can use other devices - including said PS3 and 360 controllers - in lieu of the OUYA one.  Have not tried it myself, but it sounds straightforward enough and is actually a pretty nice benefit that OUYA doesn't really market.  It does mean that, in theory, if you wanted to try a four player game and you have existing controllers laying around ... you don't have to shell out another couple hundred bucks.

Update: I've tried using a PS3 controller.  It pairs easily enough, but it seems the actual control is completely up to the application, so it's of minimal benefit.

Software: OS

The OUYA OS is very clearly a custom Android build and it doesn't take terribly long to notice (for instance, when a game says it might need phone permissions granted).  OUYA has taken that Metro UI boxy style which is such the rage today and applied it to a streamlined interface for browsing and playing games.

If OUYA has one real strength, it is that it is crazy easy to just turn the device on, download games and start playing.  Everything in the library is a freemium model game - which means you don't even need to offer up your credit card to start playing around with the system.  It also speaks to the kind of digital centric market that apparently would make Microsoft drool.  You browse, you hit play, you wait, you play.  If you don't like the game, you delete it just as easy. 

The OUYA was sold as an "open console".  This means you don't have to ask OUYA nicely to develop and play games on it, only to get on the marketplace.  This is true on the surface, you can put whatever you want on the console and the SDK (or more specifically the Android SDK add on) is free to download and use.

The reality is that getting software on the console via USB (called side loading), i.e. outside of the OUYA market, is pretty complicated.  At least more complicated than one would like, as it requires jumping through hoops and setting up your own app manager.  In theory if you have the SDK setup you can use the Android Loader to move things directly - which I guess would be the party line from OUYA.  It is "open" as in "develop and go", not necessarily designed for "try to load any old app".

Update: Theory somewhat confirmed.  Basically if you are comfortable with the Android SDK, you can load apps quite easily.  Otherwise, hoops.

Software: Apps and Games

Making side loading a pain would be less of an issue if the OUYA market was launching with a wider array of quality apps.  There's no Angry Birds, no Plants Vs Zombies, no Netflix, no Pandora, no Galaxy on Fire, no ... well, virtually any big name apps.  For listening to music, you can use TuneIn Radio - which isn't bad.  There's Twitch.tv for watching other people play games.

Just recently, OUYA Market added Shadowgun, which is the first game I've seen there that resembles a really well known modern offering.  That isn't to say there aren't other decent games.  Chrono Blade, originally a Facebook browser based brawler, makes a very impressive import over to OUYA.  There are some notable indie favorites like Canabalt to be had as well.

But as it stands, the best way to describe the OUYA Market is an indie playground.  Quality is all over the place, and it is a good thing the OUYA has a strict freemium model - because "try before you buy" isn't even really an optional step for most of the games here.

If I had one very strong recommendation for OUYA, it would be to court the open source project XBMC for a proper OUYA app.  I've "side loaded" (though technically it was more of a download via browser, install, config and run) XBMC on my OUYA and it is easily the #1 use I have for the console.  I've got my OUYA hooked up to a TV in my study where I work and the XBMC is pretty much on full time - and it is probably the closest thing to a killer app the OUYA would have, if only it was truly OUYA friendly.

Finally, I have to say that the OUYA browser is completely abysmal.  It's not even an official app, and it seems like a really hasty port of the standard Android browser.  It seems like an odd thing to have been done so poorly on a device like this one.

TLDR

The OUYA is basically a cheap box ideal for hackers and fans of the indie scene, be they developers or gamers.

So, WTF?

Do I recommend the OUYA?  I do, actually, even if this review does not sound like I do.  It's not the little David of console that will kill off Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo with a sling and rock.  It is, however, a $99 investment that provides an easy way to get a little experimental with the kind of content your HDTV might not normally see.  My biggest problem with the OUYA is the price tag on the controllers.  If they were more solid, rechargeable, and had a killer touchpad - I might see a justification to the price tag, but as it is the controller stands as an oddly expensive offering for an otherwise budget-friendly package.

However, if you're looking for a console to play some casual games, try out some indie titles and hack a few Android apps onto your TV - it's a decent bargain.  But beware - the OUYA is still a work in progress and will by no means replace your normal gaming needs.


Friday, June 21, 2013

How Xbox One's "Family Sharing" Probably Worked

This is a rough draft, but I'm publishing it anyway.

In my last post, I talked about the Xbox One's sharing model might have been a simple timed demo, based largely on follow up reports from a pastebin post.  I've been reading a lot of different posts in various places.  Much of it does not add up.  This is how I see it.

How Microsoft Sold It

Microsoft made it sound like family sharing would allow you to have a list of ten people, and anyone of those people could play any game in your library - as long as only one person on your list was playing the game at one time - indefinitely. Specifically:

Just like today, a family member can play your copy of Forza Motorsport at a friend’s house. Only now, they will see not just Forza, but all of your shared games.  You can always play your games, and any one of your family members can be playing from your shared library at a given time.



How "Heartbroken MS employee" described it

"Heartbroken" is an anonymous source, claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on their "Always On" strategy (which has now been dropped).

  1. First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy.  The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library.  Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world.  There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone.  When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour.  This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to.  When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game.  We were toying around with a limit on the number of times members could access the shared game (as to discourage gamers from simply beating the game by doing multiple playthroughs). but we had not settled on an appropriate way of handling it.  One thing we knew is that we wanted the experience to be seamless for both the person sharing and the family member benefiting.  There weren't many models of this system already in the wild other than Sony's horrendous game sharing implementation, but it was clear their approach (if one could call it that) was not the way to go.  Developers complained about the lost sales and gamers complained about overbearing DRM that punished those who didn't share that implemented by publishers to quell gamers from taking advantage of a poorly thought out system.  We wanted our family sharing plan to be something that was talked about and genuinely enjoyed by the masses as a way of inciting gamers to try new games.  


http://pastebin.com/TE1MWES2


How the Internet interpreted Heartbroken's description

Access to the full game was only allowed for a time period up to 60 minutes, after that you have to buy the game.

The problem with Microsoft's story

As advertised, I actually have little incentive to buy titles - especially at launch.  Why buy when I can just wait to see people who have put me in their sharing plan might have bought it?  And then when I see that, why not just wait until someone else isn't playing it?  For publishers, which apparently MS was in negotiations with (https://twitter.com/aegies/status/347748309550645249) - why would this be an improvement over the used games grey market?  With this plan, I might actually forego buying a new game at all ... much less buy it and then resell it later.

To put it simply, if I have access to different libraries that I didn't pay for - and I can "check out" one of those games as long as nobody else is playing it (other than the original owner) ... there is a very strong chance that I could find a game to play for free rather than pony up $59.99.  Especially as time goes one and those libraries get bigger and there are more games and older games that others have probably finished.

The problem with Heartbroken's description

On the surface, the description seems like a plausible misdirection on Microsoft's part.  You can share your library (as advertised), but that game is really just a demo (not advertised).

However - this seems like a lot of engineering work to replicate what Sony already has done this generation with timed demos, with the added inconvenience that the game being demoed must be in this family Venn diagram to start.  More work, less benefit ... does not sound like much of a value add for either the consumer or even for Microsoft.

Aaron Greenberg said Heartbroken's information was "confusing and not true" (https://twitter.com/aarongreenberg/status/347911202057379840).

Why is the Internet buying an anonymous post?

The most compelling reason is that a user named CBOAT on NeoGaf confirmed it, and CBOAT has apparently had a very high rate of success predicting information - leading NeoGaf users to believe he is probably a reliable Microsoft insider.  Neogaf also apparently is very quick to the banhammer with false rumors, and CBOAT has managed to hold an account for years.

CBOAT's exact post: "60sigh--"

He (or she) is known for posting in odd ways to defeat search engines finding the leaked info.

So WTF?

Here's my guess:

Family Sharing was never a demo program like PSN's timed demos.  Rather it was nagware.

First - accept the fact that the publishers would have always had final say in this program.  This falls in line with the rest of the Xbox One's DRM policies.  Can your game be shared?  Up to the publisher.  How can it be shared?  Up to the publisher.

Second - take Heartbroken's description of "beating the game through multiple playthroughs" not as a hard limit, but rather as a limit which could be set by the publishers to be sure that a game with 20 hours of play could not repeatedly be finished by constantly going back to the library 20 times every hour and having a save game that keeps their progression.

In other words, this is not a timed demo - but a full game that is gated every X minutes for Y number of times.  Every X, you are prompted to buy the game.  When you have played the game Y number of times - you have to pay the publisher.  Maybe some games you can play once for 15 minutes, maybe some you can play once every hour ten times.  All up to the publisher.


Why does that make sense?

This fits with Heartbroken's description - or at least that it was what Microsoft was still considering.  If fits with CBOAT's complaint that the max a user could play was 60 minutes (reading between the non-lines, as it were).  It fits with Greenberg's denial that these weren't time limited demos (because whether they are or aren't is completely up to your definition of the term, not to mention how the publisher decides to play it).

In some ways it is actually mutually beneficial to the gamer, the developer and the publisher.  The gamer gets (potentially) a kind of extended demo to try out games, the publisher is already guaranteed to block profits from used games which will cover if they don't get the uptick from shared games, and the developer sees the extra cash from the publisher.

All of this falls in line with all of Microsoft's messaging - from CBOAT to Greenberg.  It's a full game. It's not a demo.  At least not technically.  But yes, eventually you have to pay for the content.

It's not as consumer-friendly as the current model - but is an interesting feature made possible through DRM.

So why didn't Microsoft sell this better?

Try going to E3 with the message that you have a features which might be awesome - but only if the publishers let it be awesome.  Especially added onto an already negative campaign being warred about your DRM policy being too publisher friendly.  Add in your biggest competitor shoving the fact that none of this is a problem on their console in your face.

What do you do?  Do you overplay your hand by giving a lot of details which might be turned into fodder about how your great new feature is really just another publisher boon?  Or do you give out just enough information - but do it in a soft sell approach that won't raise too many questions?

I think Microsoft went with the former, which seems rational.  If I'm right - they would have been better served with the latter.

So why can't this happen now, just with digital downloads?

No profit motive for the publishers.  If Microsoft is going to allow the grey market back into Xbox One, why take the risk that someone might play a game for five hours and not buy anything?  That might have been something they would have stuck a toe into when Microsoft would guarantee that all transfer of ownership would go back through the publisher - but they've given that up now.  Along with giving that up, they're putting a (theoretical) chunk of change back into the red for the publisher.

Or in other words, if Microsoft returns to the status quo - so will the publishers.

SO WTF?

I don't see this as a bad thing for consumers - right now.  Microsoft's biggest problem this generation is trying to force a "digital lifestyle" with a big stick, but no real carrot.  This could have been their biggest carrot, but it was obviously flawed.  Even if this theory is totally wrong - it was clearly too flawed to communicate correctly.

What Microsoft (and Sony, to be honest) need to do is not try to force gamers down a path of DRM policy to sell more digital content and make games obsolete - they need to figure out how to make buying digital content more attractive.

Steam has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It's also the easiest and sometimes the cheapest way for PC gamers to buy games now.  Microsoft was not selling that.  Apple's App Store has a DRM friendly, digital only model.  It is also the only choice for iOS users, and with the Xbox One having a big fat Blu-Ray drive ... Microsoft was not selling that.

If consoles are going to go to a DRM friendly, digital only model ... gamers must be sold something.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Xbox One's "Family Sharing" ... actually a timed demo?

Microsoft has not been having a good time over the last week or so.  They effectively handed Sony one of the most brutal E3 victories in recent memory (and possibly like .... ever), to the point where Sony can even add in details like requiring a PlayStation Plus account for online play (but not, Sony is quick to point out - online apps like Netflix).  The Internet then proceeds to spend nearly every waking hour after E3 trying to come up with the best visual meme to ridicule the Xbox One.  Somewhere in the middle, Amazon quietly pulls a poll from their site because the PS4 was voting out the Xbox One to the tune of 100:1.

So Microsoft goes into damage control and reverses their DRM policy completely.  At the same time, they also remove some features, like disc-free gaming (when originally bought on the disc), voice activated game swapping (since apparently Kinetic is too stupid to know if the game actually exists now) and ... family sharing.

Family sharing could have been Microsoft's ticket to a better user story.  In fact, by all measures - it should have been.  The idea that up to ten people could effectively play your games without actually buying said games seems like the kind of pro-consumer story that Microsoft's DRM nightmare needed to give it a softer side.

It would have made such a great commercial:

"Hey have you played X"?

"No, can't.  No money."

"No problem, just say 'Xbox One, play THIS AWESOME GAME'"

OK, maybe it doesn't write itself - but you get the point.  That's something people might be able to get behind.

Problem was - instead of a really commercial, Microsoft just left big questions open.  How is "my family" defined?  Can I play the game while they play?  Is it my entire library or is there some other limit?  Certainly with the release still a few months out, some of these details might need to be ironed out first ... but Microsoft never went past the elevator pitch on this one.

Turns out, their might have been a good reason why:


First is family sharing, this feature is near and dear to me and I truly felt it would have helped the industry grow and make both gamers and developers happy. The premise is simple and elegant, when you buy your games for Xbox One, you can set any of them to be part of your shared library. Anyone who you deem to be family had access to these games regardless of where they are in the world. There was never any catch to that, they didn't have to share the same billing address or physical address it could be anyone. When your family member accesses any of your games, they're placed into a special demo mode. This demo mode in most cases would be the full game with a 15-45 minute timer and in some cases an hour. This allowed the person to play the game, get familiar with it then make a purchase if they wanted to. When the time limit was up they would automatically be prompted to the Marketplace so that they may order it if liked the game.
-- Heartbroken MS employee

 That's from a Pastebin post being circulated around, apparently from a grief stricken Microsoft employee lamenting the demise of the "Always Online" vision. Neogaf grabbed it, and seem to confirm its authenticity ... not in an official Microsoft way, but apparently a user (possibly an MS employee) there quelled an Internet forum's doubts.  Which is actually pretty compelling, if you think about it.  They also point out that this neatly fits into the whole "one hour online" check if you were playing on an Xbox other than your own.

The sad thing - this is actually pretty plausible.  Why have such a strict DRM policy just to basically allow only one out of ten people actually buy the game?  Sure, GameStop won't see the cash ... but neither was the publisher.  And if you weren't keeping track - that was pretty much the entire point of the DRM.

For the record - PlayStation Plus members already get these, although not for every title.  They're called timed demos and they don't have to be shared - any member can just grab them and go.  With Gakai added to their toolkit, it will probably get even better with the PS4.

If this is true, it is painting a very sad picture of Microsoft being completely out of touch with gamers.  For one thing, if people bought the Xbox One and found out when they got home how this great feature actually worked - the media backlash would have been a sight to see.

It's bad enough that they went through all of E3 without really being able to sell pretty much anyone on why DRM might be positive - it seems like they've gone out of their way to try to sneak some fast ones past gamers, especially on top of the cloud computing hocus pocus they've been schilling about.

Update:
I have my doubts about this being a purely timed demo.  More here:
http://cathodetan.blogspot.com/2013/06/how-xbox-ones-family-sharing-probably.html

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Microsoft Reverses Xbox One DRM Policy

Wow.


Reacting to "feedback from the Xbox community," it appears Microsoft is reversing course and changing two key components to policies for its new Xbox One video game console. All disc-based games can be played without ever connecting online, and the 24-hour connection requirement has been dropped, according to an update to a May post concerning questions about the new console. Additionally, there will be no limitations to using and sharing games, Don Mattrick, president of the Interactive Entertainment Business division, says in the post. People will be able to share, trade or resell their games in the same way they do for Xbox 360 games.

Microsoft backtracks on Xbox One sharing policies (CNN)

I think "feedback from the Xbox community" can be roughly translated to "getting completely slaughtered in pre-sales" - for Microsoft to reverse this fast after E3, they had to be getting punched hard in the money-maker.

This is excellent news for consumers.  They haven't mentioned anything about removing region locking, but that might be part of this ... but at least your discs are your own again, and the console flamewars can stop being so decidedly one sided for the next generation.

Update: Apparently no region locking either.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It Came From E3: Sony Versus Microsoft

This next generation of consoles is proving to be far, far more interesting than I would have thought.  Early rumors and expectations seem to suggest that if anything - this generation would basically be two consoles with little distinction except a brand, and something called a Wii U.

But then Microsoft had to go and throw sand in the face of my long standing prediction that no console manufacturer would be so stupid as to actually try and block buying used games.  My assumption has always been that eventually everything would just go disc-less ... but just not this generation.

Oh no, Microsoft is proving to be just that stupid.  The Xbox One (more on that later) will require an Internet connection at least once every 24 hours to play even offline games and the ability to use a game has been left completely to the mercy of the publisher.

Microsoft has made a clear stance: you do not really own any actual physical media.  You are paying for a license to use software and perhaps that software happens to come on a disc - perhaps not, but it does not actually matter.  Once you've bought a game, you are only buying the privilege to use that game in the manner the publisher desires.  Technically and legally, Microsoft is on strong footing - this is actually pretty much how software distribution has always worked.

But nobody ... nobody, has ever considered taking it to the draconian levels the Xbox One will enforce.  Purchasing an Xbox One is effectively voting against your rights as a consumer, plain and simple.

Microsoft's missteps don't end there.  First of all - I don't know what marketing genius decided on "Xbox One" as a name ... but it is clearly someone who thinks of themselves as a "marketing genius".  It is an utterly moronic name only held aloft by a cool factor in itself supported only by clever advertising.

The Xbox One is the third Xbox.

The Xbox One has two distinct pieces.

The Xbox One has many different purposes.

In short, there is nothing "One" about the Xbox One except that it sounds cool.

Sony has made it pretty clear that they don't share Microsoft's beliefs about sharing your games - and that alone is going to give them miles and miles of traction with gamers.  Also, "PS4" has a very nice logical feel to it.  But then they had to go and give the coup de grace:

The PS4 will also be cheaper.  Even though it will probably be marginally more powerful.

If you twist your crystal ball around just enough, you can maybe, almost possibly, perhaps see what Microsoft was thinking: They assumed that Kinect would be a huge value add, one that Sony can't compete with.  They assumed Sony would probably duplicate their mistake with the PS3 and charge a premium.  They possibly even assumed that the lucrative potential of DRM was too attractive for Sony to pass up and that gamers could hard grumble much if both major consoles had matching handcuffs.

Except none of those would seem to be true.  Finally, Microsoft seems to have fallen back on their original strategy - dating all the way back to the first Xbox:

You'll buy our console because of the exclusive games on it.

And why wouldn't they think that?  Halo single-handedly launched a million Xboxes, or you know - something like that.  Gamers might forgive having their purchasing power tied behind their back, a console that is more expensive with less power and name that reeks of marketing stiffs if only they can play the next Halo.

And while Microsoft's exclusives - which comprised the majority of their E3 keynote if you have no doubt that this is there main strategy - are interesting, the flagship title appears to be Titanfall.

Titanfall looks interesting, but brothers and sisters - I've played Halo and Titanfall is no Halo.  Halo was a ground-breaking shooter on many levels whose mechanics still echo through virtually every FPS game on any platform.  Titanfall is pretty, but it is basically a futuristic shooter with parkour and mechs.

Honestly - what all the talk about Titanfall reminds me of?  Brink.  Think on that for a moment.

The thing is - Sony is doing nothing terribly revolutionary here.  The PS4 is a PS3 with modern hardware and something more akin to PC specs and less Cell Processor weirdness.  The next generation PlayStation Plus will be pretty much this generation of PlayStation Plus.  The OS will get some updates.

Sony isn't going to win the next generation - it's more that Microsoft is going to lose by constantly punching itself in the face.  For Microsoft to even keep pace with Sony at this point, Titanfall would need to be the best game ever made in the history of gaming ... but unfortunately for Microsoft, Bungie is already making Destiny.

Don't get me wrong - the XBO will sell plenty of units for sure ... the brand has too much raw weight and inertia.  But it's going to sell like ice for igloos abroad where its already-too-high price point will be painfully-that-much-higher (one forum comment noted that the XBO would be higher than than their month's rent by far too wide a margin) ... and even here in the good old US of A, loyal 360 users are going to start wondering about their ability to buy cheap games from the used racks between now and the holidays.

Nintendo has basically nailed third place into the ground with the Wii U being far too little and way too late.

Microsoft apparently found second place too tempting to pass up.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Game Play: XCOM Enemy Unknown




I know I haven't been blogging much on Cathode Tan, but you had to know I would write about this game.  The original XCOM (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown)  is almost certainly my favorite game of all time, and I've played it on an Amiga, a PC, a Mac and PlayStation.  Even as emulators brutalized the experience, I found it irresistible to return to the fight against the alien threat - usually resulting in the lethal reduction of my own forces.

The allure of the original game is difficult to overstate.  One might think that the game's mechanics are so old school that the strengths would be self-evident, kinda like saying "Pac-Man was addictive".  However, the real test at how subtly the original XCOM balanced the core design between management, turn based strategy and war strategy is more evident in the string of failed XCOM sequels.  It seemed that nearly any change to the formula, be it simplification, complication, adding real time movement, or even changing out the types of enemy - would throw the whole thing off.

So it is pretty fair to say that the job Firaxis had before it was a daunting one ... the original was already an incredibly complicated game with a winning formula and a completely rabid fanbase.

As a member in good standing in that rabid fanbase, how did I think they did?

Best Remake Ever

No joke, this game is incredibly impressive in updating the design of the original game for the modern age.  What has been streamlined should have been streamlined, what has been kept should have been kept, and what has been added should have been added.  Everything done under Firaxis' hand feels like the intentional stroke of a surgeon - not some sloppy edits or cuts made to fit a similar experience under some budget or time constraint.

Let's take a specific example: you only get one base.  I can't imagine how controversial of a decision this one piece of design alone might have been for the team.  In the original XCOM, starting up new bases was a core mechanic - it allowed you to spread your coverage out, swap resources around, attack UFO's more effectively.  It also felt realistic, as if you had to keep your strategy broad and wide to stretch out the entire globe.

So what does forcing one base do?  It greatly simplifies the base management mechanics, however since there are strike bases already setup around the globe ... you lose practically nothing from the overall base mechanic.  And with one base, Firaxis is able to consolidate a lot of menu and UI choices that otherwise felt like a burden.  I am glad not to have to check ammo supplies at every single possible turn just in case that HE heavy I rely one would go out useless on the next mission.

Memorial Wall

In the past, I used to say that I didn't really care how someone updated XCOM ... make a shooter, an RTS, a board game - don't care.  Just make me care when a soldier dies.  This was one of the most incredibly impressive parts of the original game - you got attached to soldiers who fought well.  It took time to train those people, and when got their head chopped off by a Chryssalid - you really felt it.  Firaxis clearly understood this - and they warn you early on that losing squaddies is probably going to factor into plenty of missions.  While I think a lot of the streamlining on the base management works very well, the true test of an XCOM remake is how you, the commander, interacts with the squad.  I'm actually willing to say that the RPG style ability tree introduced here is a real improvement - it clearly identifies the growth of a squad member from rookie to Major and adds even more attachment for the player.

So it's perfect then?

From a purely mechanic or game play point of view, I have only a few complaints.  Probably my biggest one is that while scientists seem to have equal footing with other aspects of base management, I think they're actually hugely devalued in the game (at least on normal difficulty).  I didn't once need to construct another laboratory or seek out additional scientists and I frequently had no research projects to work on.  This seemed a striking difference to the original where trying to balance between being able to research and being able to build was always difficult.

Also, I wish there had been more emphasis on the narrative in general.  Especially towards the end.  The end cinematics kind of feel like just an excuse to roll some credits with no real emphasis on epilogue.  Plus, as an extremely specific example - I think the climatic end battle feels a bit lazy ... particularly the very last one which seems to suffer from the old Dungeon Master "screw it, I'm making this interesting by making it three times as hard" to it.

The wrong kind of bug hunt

But those are small, specific critiques - the biggest problem with XCOM is the number of bugs apparent in the game.  I stopped producing tanks, one of my favorite tools, because of the number of times they would not be able to be added to a mission.  I had one mission where the wrong textures were loaded, creating a weird trippy LSD experience.   I had squad members disappear and at least one mission completely lock up the game.  These aren't small bugs, they were ones that were really impacting the game in general and I really hope Firaxis is hot on a fix for them.

Summary

But still - best remake ever.  Highly recommended, for everyone.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Notes from Management: We'll be back. Sort of.

So many of you may have noticed that posting on Cathode Tan has been reduced to an extremely random affair.  This is largely because for the last couple of years I have a job which actually wants me to write, which means that writing is less of a stress reliever than it was when I would just keep a tab open most of the day to jot down notes which would eventually get turned into blog posts.

I can't say this is going to change anytime soon - I really enjoy the job, and the writing ... so I can't really say "well, I'll probably be devoting more time to Cathode Tan real soon".  I have noticed that I am microblogging more, though so I'm considering revamping Cathode Tan into something more personal.  A sort of output of a Venn diagram consisting of the other things I put out in places, but keeping aside the things which are overly job related or too personal.  I.E. there might be more politics and vacation pics at some point.

Anyway, it's a side project I'm considering - writing a framework which makes it easy to coordinate in between all the other writing/blogging/tweeting I'm doing ... but nothing will happen for a couple of months.

In the meantime, I've been playing the hell out of Dragon's Dogma so expect a post on that at some point.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Diablo III And The Age Of Always Online

For at least the moment, I'm not going to actually tarry on with yet another Diablo III review.  I think I might have a purely mechanics based review later, when I've beaten the game at least on normal.  Instead, I think we can focus on one of the more controversial aspects of the game - the fact that it requires an net connection to play.

For Blizzard, this might not actually seem like much of an experiment.  After all, they are responsible for one of the most popular games in video game history, World of Warcraft, which is the grand-daddy of requiring a net connection to play. Most gamers, however, easily distinguish between the action RPG genre of Diablo and the massively multiplayer RPG of WoW - after all ... it is right there in the genre title. Massively.  Multiplayer.

For Diablo III players looking to solo - the always online requirement is nothing but a burden.  There is very little benefit aside from the credibility of the Auction House being maintained.  The big problem here is that the Auction House doesn't seem to really be taking off.  Sure, some people have gotten far enough ahead and they're already farming legendary items for decent amounts of gold - but for the common player there just isn't much action either in selling or buying items.  It's decent enough, but I think if you had asked solo players if they wanted the ability to play their game whenever they wanted or if they wanted access to the Auction House ... you would have gotten a nearly unanimous vote for the former.

For players with solid Battle.net friends or those who like to do Pick Up Games (PUGs) - the requirement is far more of a mixed bag.  If there is one place Diablo III shines in this regard, it is the lobbying and matchmaking system.  Want to solo?  Just resume your quest where you left it.  Want to pick up some players a half hour later?  Just open it to the public - you'll get some new players nearly instantly.  Want to PUG right away?  Just look for public games, you'll be in a game very quickly.  Want to send a direct message to your friend to see what class you should play?  Just a few clicks away.

If Diablo III has any defense for being always online, outside of the the technical bits about piracy and cheating (more on that later) - it has that it has managed to create an action RPG with a lot of the best trappings of an MMORPG without the hassles of an MMORPG.  There is no monthly fee, you don't have to stand around an area like a tart for an hour flashing "LFG" (Looking For Group) to get into a PUG, you don't even have to feel guilty about ditching that group ten minutes later when your pizza arrives.  However, you do get the team mechanics, proper loot sharing, and the ability to start forming a community.  You might not be able to build a guild house - but the online components of the game are fairly compelling and so tightly integrating that it begs the question as to whether there is any point in playing Diablo solo at all.  There's no griefing, it's simple and easy, and you get better loot.

The real problems come with being directly tied to Battle.net.  If you have time to play, but there's a maintenance window - tough luck.  Lag seems to occasionally pop up and it can be difficult to tell where the cause is - but lag can be incredibly deadly when the hordes of hell are on your heels.  Of course, the Diablo III launch itself is now infamous for having about an entire day of downtime ... meaning Diablo III didn't really launch when it said it launched.  It launched when it was finally ready for players.

And of course there is the one main reason to solo: you're simply without a net connection.  On a plane.  On a train.  In a random room with not net connection.  Gaming powered laptops are becoming more and more commonplace and there are lots of Diablo III gamers on the go.  Blizzard should know this - it has been true for WoW players for years.

So the real question comes down to: does all of the MMO mechanics which are baked into Diablo III offset the fact that you simply cannot play whenever you want?  It's really a very tough call - but it is a question I think gamers should keep in mind.  I think it would be foolish to assume other game publishers aren't eyeing Diablo III to see how it all works out for Blizzard.  Forcing an always online requirement is a dream for game publishers as it neatly puts piracy, cheating and griefing issues into a neat little box for them.  If Diablo III players are willing to give up the right to play their game whenever - you can bet that other publishers will be looking to see what features they could put into their games to have them do the same.

For the time, even though I myself had a rage post on the whole launch thing, I'm still giving Diablo III a big thumbs up - but that is mostly because it is a neatly evolved product of the action RPG genre and less that Blizzard can simply pull the game out from under you whenever they want.  However, I wouldn't be surprised if always online is the next thing from publishers to come under the crosshairs of gamers (right next to day one DLC).


Fun Fact! While writing this post, Diablo III was offline from 3AM PDT to 11AM PDT for the 1.02 patch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

[Mass Effect 3] Oh, Dear Yahtzee

I've been somewhat amazed at some of the aggressive response against the Mass Effect community's desire to see a different ending for the epic franchise.

Then I read this ... and yes I know I'm like a month late to the party, but I've been travelling.

"But I doubt the fanbase of Mass Effect were dismayed because they wanted an appropriate ending to the story. Rather, they wanted some kind of appropriate closure for the many-storied and I would argue unnecessarily lengthy process up to this point. Perhaps some epilogue where we get to see what all the characters we met along the way got up to after the events of the series, which I imagine would be easier if they hadn't pretty much all been killed off. I've been given to understand that Bioware are talking about changing the ending under the massive pressure from the idiot fanbase, and I hope like hell they're just talking about doing something like that, an epilogue appendix style thing just to square away the subplots.

Because it would set a horrible precedent if they're serious about actually changing the ending in line with some kind of democratically agreed upon alternative, rather than merely expanding or adding to it."
-- Mass Effect 3 Gets An Ending

At this point, I should probably warn that this post will have some swearing.

Yahtzee ... you can bite me. To try and mount an argument by reducing a very large group of people with a shared and reasonable opinion about what might possible be the most disappointing ending to what could have been a crown jewel of gaming writing as the "the idiot fanbase" absolute devalues anything you might have had to say in a two page article. That you end the article also referring them as "cockheads" who "are just going to have to accept that there are people who know better than them" and by association I'll just have to assume, you mean yourself ... you've clearly devolved from a somewhat unique entertainer to your typical Internet troll with an atypical megaphone by which to broadcast your trolling.

The fanbase of Mass Effect, or at least a large contigency of it, is dismayed not because they wanted one specific thing or another, or that they would have preferred character X had story ending Y, or that they wanted an epilogue which neatly ties everything together, or that they're a bunch of entitled whiners or pretty any of the other theories that I've heard assembled out of thin air and then wailed against the objecting fans.

Since you don't have (according to you) have a cock for head, it shouldn't really be that hard to grasp. But since it seems to be, and it seems to be beyond a lot of games journalists to be bothered to actually try and read through the Bioware forums to ascertain what the gamers are actually complaining about - let me put it into troll terms for you.

Gamers are upset about the Mass Effect 3 ending because the Mass Effect 3 ending was pure bullshit.

100% low quality pure bullshit. It stinks of being written, produced and delivered under concerns related to budget and timelines and showing absolutely no evidence of having any concern for the actual integrity to writing that the rest of the series has been known.

That any gamer is fine with the ending is less of an indication of the possible merit of the ending, or even a any insight into the mind of said gamer, and more of a reflection on the otherwise low quality of gaming writing in general.

That there are now reams of prose being spouted out about how changing the ending in a way that might actually reflect the quality of the rest of the series is a "dangerous precedent" set by "gamers which have no rights to request it of game publishers" is absolutely nothing shy of simple fearmongering and absolutely unqualified and unjustified devotion to the game publishers. You suggest that if Bioware were to go back and rewrite the ending that it would effectively have no ending.

Are you fucking kidding me? Did you actually write that and publish it?

If Bioware changes the ending, according to your non-cock ridden head it will effectively have no ending because the "sanctity of the creator's original intention is made meaningless".

Are you that full of yourself? You're willing to snap logic in half to make the point?

Again, let me put that in terms that a troll will understand.

Let's say you are at a play. And the play is going pretty well. Good lighting, good acting, good writing.

Then in the last ten minutes, the grand finale of the play is one of the actors taking a dump in your lap.

No! No! Says Yahtzee! You don't understand ... despite how utterly shitty this situation is, I am fine with it. For I must preserve the sanctity of the creator's original intention. I AM YAHTZEE.

Well, good for you sir. And how dare anyone else have an opinion that might differ. Surely that an ending might be so bad that it could result in nothing less than a full on player revolt, players who are willing to spend not just energy and time into expressing their opinion ... but money as well. And the movement has been a surprisingly positive one for the most part, despite being attacked by most of the mainstream (if there is such a thing) gaming press and non-cock crowned individuals like yourself.

There are two things that would occur if Bioware changed the ending to any degree, including a complete and utter rewrite (which is what I believe it deserves).

  1. A new ending would be available to players who download the DLC.
  2. For players who don't download the DLC, nothing would change.


And that's it.

That's fucking it.

Game writing isn't going to take a blow or be horribly disfigured. For one thing, that's kind of like saying that the chopped up corpse in the freezer might be inflicted with some frostbite. By pretending that game writing has achieved some kind of high art which must be defended by the idiot rabble at all costs, you've only proven that you are completely blind to the fact that most games still have pretty awful writing.

Mass Effect was supposed to be the game that bucked that trend.

Mass Effect was supposed to be better.

Hell, 99% of Mass Effect was better.

But what we got was a nonsensical ending with a color shift cutscene which looks potentially cobbled from footage left unused from other portions of the game. If that was Bioware's precious "original intention", it doesn't deserve to be defended. It deserves to be shot in the woods and left for dead.

People have made a lot of assumptions about gamers being unhappy because the ending is too bleak. You suggest that it is because they wanted multiple endings - which is kind of odd since one of the most common complaints is that the multiple endings are lifted directly out of Deus Ex, only handled far more miserably from a narrative point of view and displayed with some very shoddy cutscenes.

Personally, I would have been fine with a singular ending where the entire Earth exploded, taking with it the Reapers and even the crew of the Normandy - but the final cutscenes are of the other races taking back their homeworlds.

And if you don't think that's more suitable than the current ending to the themes presented in the game ... then I'm not sure you've really been paying attention. But that's not the point.

You, and many other professional game writers, pundits and cartoonists seem to think the point is this:
Fans of Mass Effect do not deserve nor should they have any avenue to rewrite the ending of Mass Effect 3.

The thing is - like most trolls, you fail to realize that nobody is actually arguing that point. It was never even up for debate. The point is this:

Fans of Mass Effect 3 deserve Bioware to go back and rewrite the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Because any cockhead can see that they did poorly, on the cheap and by ripping off a game published twelve years ago. That some gamers are fine with that ending is, again, not any kind of poor reflection on them. It's just proof of the awful low bar we have set for writing games, the very bar you have now so passionately defended. If you and I went to the same play, apparently you will defend the original vision whereas I will simply state it was fine for a few acts before it turned literally to shit.

Anyway, I just wanted to write and say that it had been a few years since I've seen an episode of Zero Punctuation and having read your opinion on Mass Effect fans, I'm rather glad for it.