Before I start, I just want to thank everyone who read last month’s blog and voted for Sons of Sol on Greenlight. We got through on March 16th and are very appreciative of the support.
So with doing Greenlight recently, setting up our preorders, applying for competitions, funds, chatting with publishers, and doing some general reading of material from entrepreneurs like Daniel Priestly, Mike Dillard, and Richard Branson, something that’s been on my mind a lot is exactly how we’ll sell our game. How can we stand out in such an oversaturated marketplace and is there any way we can think laterally to avoid simply joining the race to the bottom that games are currently suffering price-wise.
When a market is over-saturated you need to innovate to stand out, after all, yet we don’t see an awful lot of that, and I can’t think of any particularly encouraging examples.
That said, we’ve nevertheless been assuming a traditional approach with Sons of Solso far. I priced our preorders on this site at €5 marked down from an estimated final price of €15 or €20 (and showed this info). Anyone I’ve spoken to is pretty much of the opinion (and so am I) that we need to be on Steam and selling for €15-20.
However, as I wrote about in December’s blog ‘AAA-pocalypse?‘ I’m very conscious of the nosedive that the industry is taking regarding the value of games, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the problem. After all, I don’t want to come to a place where I can toil away for years making a quality product that can’t pay me a decent wage for the time I put in. Indeed, that’s where a lot of indie devs and even AAA studios find themselves more and more, but there is still money to be made if you do everything right and have a little luck (getting into games isn’t the most sound business decision you could ever make, but you can make the best of it).
Squeezing out variety and fostering homogeneity
While there is still money to be made from games, I worry about the direction it’s taking. As we see with Netflix for TV/movies and Spotify for music, people are all too willing to forego ownership of a relatively expensive copy of some entertainment product in favour of unlimited access to far more titles as long as they keep paying a small fee.
I think this has been disastrous for the music industry. While digital distribution and the rise of piracy hit the music industry hard, it’s virtually impossible to make any money as a new artist since Spotify came along, no matter your talent. I can’t think of a single music venue in Dublin that actually pays a band to play nowadays (excluding traditional Irish music). Instead, you now have to pay the venue to play. If you want to be a big music success, you almost have to go through some trite reality TV contest where a couple of moguls take all the money and tell you what to sing.
At the risk of sounding old and cranky; music (on radio and TV at least) all sounds ‘the same’ to me now. The only interesting stuff seems to come from acts that established themselves 10 or more years ago and are still going. Record labels won’t take a risk on the unknown and so they’ve distilled pop music down to a succinct money making formula. At the moment, the only new music I’m really interested in is games music, and I come from strong music background before I got into games.
A quick aside: While you’re reading, have a listen to my incredibly talented friend Ódú, who doesn’t gig very often and doesn’t get radio play because she can’t afford to! Talent doesn’t get paid any more. It pays. We’re living in the upside down. 🙁
Almost all new bands you hear are hobbyists, because nobody will pay them to actually hone their craft. Therefore they’re not as polished and practised as they could be, and can’t get their music out there because the radio only plays the same few identical chart toppers.
The same for games?
We can see the games industry beginning to turn perilously towards a Spotify-style model with EA Access, Humble Monthly, and Xbox and Playstation’s online services also giving you a collection of free games each month in return for a flat fee. It seems like they’re trying the Netflix/Spotify model on for size.
Thankfully, the games industry is enough of an oligopoly (a small number of large companies, rather than one big monopoly) that while EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft, etc are all pulling in different directions we won’t likely see one service like Spotify scooping up all of the games. If that were to happen some day you can be sure that we’d lose the amazing variety of games that we have nowadays.
Imagine the amount of talented indie developers already who learn so much by making one game, but it flops, and they can’t afford to bring their experience to bear on a second title so they go get “a real job”. We might have one good game out there because they made it on their savings with the hopes of turning a profit, but we’ll never have another, better game. The talent has moved on to some office cubicle somewhere, never to emerge again.
Now imagine that at the outset, they knew their game would only net them a few hundred dollars at most, and that virtually nobody would ever own it, because it was only available on a subscription service and netted only a couple of cents per play. Would even that one game still get made? Probably not.
Steam already feels a bit like this since Greenlight opened in 2012, and I don’t think that Steam Direct will change the situation all that much, personally. But imagine if Steam were to offer you access to all games on the site for just $12 a month. Would you do it? You probably would. Personally I like to own a copy of my game that doesn’t need to be verified and that I can play in 10 years if I so choose, but it’d become a more expensive way to go, for sure. By the way, I don’t have a Spotify account and still buy music I like.. I just don’t really like any any more :P.
Games take a lot longer and cost a lot more to make than a music EP, but there are a lot of similarities between both industries. Music and games are both substitute leisure goods. Generally, if one game or artist is too expensive, you’ll just buy a cheaper one. There is a huge amount of choice, so artists have very little power, and the value placed on their work only ever goes down.
There are exceptions, of course. Jonathan Blow made a name for himself with Braid, so when The Witness came along in January 2016, he decided that his reputation could demand a higher price for his game, and he set it at $40 instead of a more ‘normal’ $20 for an indie game, in order to fight the downward trend in indie game pricing. In his case, it worked out. That said, just over a year later, it’s the lead game in next month’s Humble Monthly bundle, so you can get it (and several other games) for just $12, so the higher price was very short-lived.
Titans of the industry EVE online and World of Warcraft, both going for over 10 years, used to command monthly subscriptions from all players, but have since introduced Free To Play elements, up to a certain level cap. This is to help combat a dwindling player base, which makes sense in games that old, but newer subscription-based games haven’t really taken their place. They’re just “too expensive”. Or at least, they are seen to be by an entire generation of gamers that expect everything for free or close to it.
The near future
Some say that we’re heading for another games industry crash. We’re not. It’s a $100bn industry that isn’t reliant on physical distribution any more. Games can be produced and distributed cheaply, which wasn’t the case the last time the industry crashed.
However, we are going to see some major shifts and a lot of big companies (not to mention thousands of smaller ones) will likely go out of business. Monopolies aren’t good for anyone so I really hope we don’t see a single Netflix-style company taking over. We won’t any time soon because there are a lot of powerful companies in the ring who would have to go under or be bought out first, but in 10 years, who knows. Nokia was the leading name in mobile phones just a decade ago. Times change, fast!
Games have one advantage over music, at least. They demand your full attention. They’re entire other worlds that you can immerse yourself in. Players therefore are usually quite discerning about what they buy. It’s not just background music. While games are substitute goods to a degree, there are huge numbers of gamers who play one game and nothing else (League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2, etc), so they’ll cooperate with whatever payment model that game uses and other models won’t really affect them.
Spotify managed to seize most of the music market very quickly, and only certain gigantic artists such as Taylor Swift or Prince had the power to turn them down for their tiny commissions and continue to make a living from their existing fan bases. I can see that while EA might be happy to shift everyone over to EA Access, Blizzard won’t feel the need to do the same because their players are very loyal and tend to play their games for years or decades, rather than just a few months.
Right now there’s too much money to be made and too many ways of making it for any one payment method to come out on top just yet, but it’s going to be a very disruptive few years to come.
Adapt, Engage, Survive
Well, at least EA are experimenting; taking their 2007 hit Crysis‘ tagline to heart. So are other big publishers, though usually by just overcharging for Season Passes and adding microtransactions.
Regarding the EA Access approach, I just don’t happen to think that a subscription service model will be good for developers, or for consumers who want variety in their games. Not in the long run. As a gamer I’d much rather pay more and value a game, than suffer the choice paralysis and actual stress that comes from playing a game when you know you have fifty more lined up to play that month. I already have this just from Steam Summer and Winter sale purchases that I haven’t gotten to yet! I don’t need more choice, frankly. And as a dev, I’d also like to think that my efforts will be worth money to somebody when all is said and done.
That said, times are changing. Companies big and small should reconsider just how long the $20-$60 premium pricing models (and others) will be viable in the face of never ending sales, bundles, and subscription offers.
I wanted to get into some alternatives today but this preface has already turned into its own thing so I’ll leave that for a follow-up post.
What do you think of all this? I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you like as consumers, and where you think the industry is headed. Comment below, and consider signing up for the newsletter to be emailed when the next blog is posted.
It’s February 28th, 2017. Last day of the month, second day of GDC (the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco), and our Greenlight campaign for Sons of Sol (please vote here) is 15 days old, but was born prematurely. The original due date was approximately February 26th.
So this month’s blog is a bit more personal than usual as a major industry change affects RetroNeo Games directly.
What is Greenlight?
If you already know, consider skipping this section, but to sum it up quickly; Valve are the company behind Steam, an online digital storefront responsible for 90+% of all PC games sales. If you want to have a business that develops PC games, you need to be on Steam, basically.
Up until 2012, it was very hard to get on the store because each game was vetted on its way through to the platform. This takes time and so the bigger titles from bigger studios/publishers were prioritised. That’s probably an oversimplification, but it’ll do..
In August 2012, Steam Greenlight launched. It’s a process where first-time developers pay $100 to place a game on a community voting subsection of Steam, called Greenlight. They can’t sell their game from here, but instead throw up early videos, screenshots and a description of what the game will be, and the community vote on whether or not they would buy the game if it became available on the actual store.
To this day, nobody really knows what it takes to get through. A few thousand votes and waiting a few weeks is a virtual guarantee, but a few hundred can get a completely fake scam game up as well, or see real games languish in limbo.
Even Valve said that it was an imperfect system, and was basically a stop-gap, but it’s taken them nearly 5 years to move past it. The theory of crowd-sourcing some quality control and democratising access to the platform was solid enough, but in practice it allowed all sorts of scams and asset flips (where you buy a functioning game prototype or several assets, intended for learning or fast prototyping, then try to sell that as an original game on Steam with a minimum of effort to get from A to B) to flood the store and give Greenlight a bad name.
To be sure, Greenlight is also how the real indie successes got through to Steam as well (“over 100 Greenlight titles that have made at least $1 Million each” – do the math on that!), whereas before they may never have had a platform to be noticed, but the rubbish gets through as well. Greenlight has done a lot of good, but it’s broken, with all sorts of workarounds (trading game keys for votes, for example) gumming up the gears of a well-intentioned system.
There are community groups and YouTube channels like Jim Sterling dedicated to highlighting the scams.
Red Light for Greenlight
On Friday February 10th, Valve announced that it would be shutting down Steam Greenlight forever “this Spring” and replacing it with Steam Direct, a system that does away with the community involvement in favour of a verification process “similar to setting up a bank account” and then a recoupable fee for each game submitted. Greenlight used to allow the same developer to submit additional games for free once their first had passed through.
This is intended to reduce “noise in the submission pipeline”, which most would agree is a desirable goal. The problem is how much the fee will be set at, and how exactly it can be recouped. It has to be high enough to dissuade the scam artists, but low enough that legitimate small-time studios (and especially ones based in countries with lower average incomes) can still manage to get their games on Steam.
To be blunt, there is going to be no good number here. Valve are taking feedback and mentioned that they’d been advised on fees ranging between $100 and $5,000! No matter what it is, some scams are going to get through, and some developers are going to fail to get on the store. Since profitable games are meant to be able to recoup the fee, perhaps less well off developers who believe in their game could borrow to pay the fee, but frankly, game development is already very expensive and risky. A high fee here is quite an unwelcome added expense for the little guys.
In true Valve style, they seem to be prepared to make sweeping changes and “listen to the community” (which is good, but also points out that they don’t really have a solid plan) just to see what breaks, and fix it later.. well, that’s one way to do it, and it’s their platform so what can I say?
They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater and waiting to see what the next baby looks like, basically.. and it’s not actually the worst idea..
Re-emphasis on publishers
..for them at least. They can set this fee quite high to try and clean up their store. This just means that serious indies will have to go to people with deep pockets to get their games published. Re-enter the publisher!
The Kickstarter revolution (also circa 2012 – for games anyway) meant that games could raise lots of capital from the public, without needing to be beholden to a publisher. But with the success rates for Kickstarter campaigns (for digital games) falling off in the last couple of years, and with a potentially high barrier to entry to the commercial storefront in this Steam Direct fee, we may see the power back in their hands.
Publisher Raw Fury announced just days after Valve’s statement, that they would cover the Steam Direct fee for developers who couldn’t afford it, without obligation. They won’t own part of the game or anything. Their aim is to develop closer ties with talented developers, and to garner good will and make a bigger name for themselves, generally. That’s a great idea, since personally I hadn’t heard of them before, and now I think of them as quite a forward-thinking publisher who isn’t gunning for your back pocket. Good will earned!
How many others will do the same, or similar? That’s when I realised..
Raw Fury will obviously be vetting the submissions that they get to try and put through the games most likely to recoup the Steam Direct fee. That means they will be doing quality control for Steam!! Think about that! Valve have just outsourced their quality control department, and Raw Fury will pay Valve for the privilege!
People were long arguing that Valve, a multi-billion dollar corporation that employs approximately only 360 people (2016 figure) should hire more staff to oversee Greenlight submissions. They could most definitely afford it. The number of new Greenlight submissions averaged just a few dozen per day normally. That’s certainly something that a small new department could handle. Valve just don’t want to say ‘no’ to anyone truly deserving, or ‘yes’ to any hate speech or copyrighted material that sneaks by a human worker. They’d prefer instead to let their automated systems take the blame for any missteps.
Again, that’s probably fair enough, though.
How this all affects RetroNeo Games
RetroNeo Games’ plan was to launch our Greenlight campaign to coincide with our new ‘vertical slice’ demo of the game that shows off our home carrier, some characters, new sound design and music, and a bit more gameplay. This same demo would be ready for GDC for any publisher or press meetings we might stir up.
But with Valve’s announcement that Greenlight would be gone during Spring (when I was in school in Ireland, I was taught that Spring was Feb – Apr, so we were already in it by my count..) and that it would be replaced with a potentially very high pay wall, the team had a quick emergency meeting over Skype on Saturday and decided to shift focus to doing a Greenlight trailer and page, sprucing up the website, and launching by Monday. The trailer would basically be the one we’d released just weeks before but with a Greenlight logo at the end. Previously the plan had been to shoot new footage from a playthrough of a newer demo and put that on the trailer.
We chose to move up our timeline because we knew that hundreds of other developers would be thinking the same way as us, and that the Greenlight servers would be absolutely flooded in a matter of days. We were only a few weeks from our intended launch anyway, so we figured we had an advantage in terms of the quality of the submission that we could make.
It’s a pity because I’ve done a lot of research in the past year (one 2016 Gamasutra blog stood out in particular) as to how to maximise your launch on Greenlight. This included having a playable demo ready, having YouTubers play said demo, try to get press to talk about it, translate the page into multiple languages, and hook up Google Analytics.
Now, just two weeks shy of accomplishing all of this, we had to go off half-cocked. Seeing the green light turning red, we basically had to rev the engine to try and make the amber, because the red might be too expensive to… eh.. this metaphor is falling apart, sorry!
So, without translations, a press mailing list, a MailChimp campaign, or a demo, we launched. About the only thing we did get from our list (because it was the quickest thing to set up) was the ability to take some preorders on the site to prove to certain legal bodies that we’re “in commerce”. They’re still available at the time of writing, heavily discounted, but limited in quantity.
How have we done so far?
Well in the first week we got about 300 votes and made it 18% of the way to the top 100. There’s no specific target to meet, but thousands of votes and being in the top 100 is certainly desirable (and normal for games getting through in the past).
The problem is that now, after a second week, we’ve gotten almost no further!
The reason we wanted all our ducks in a row was to maximise the ‘yes’ votes while Steam’s algorithms were still sending natural traffic to our site. Just by launching, you’ll get a certain number of referrals from normal Greenlight users browsing, but after that you’re on your own to generate your voting traffic. In normal circumstances, the Steam algorithms send people your way for a few days.
Our natural traffic died off in under 12 hours. That’s a measure of just how many other new Greenlight games were going up just 3 days after Valve’s announcement. At that stage we were closer to 200 votes. The next 100 votes we got during the first week were basically from friends and colleagues through Facebook and Twitter shares.
I’ve heard similar stories from many developers who are struggling with the campaign because they were forced to launch early and are just drowned out by the noise.
What did we try?
Since the launch I’ve been working every day for at least 12 hours, but not so much on the Greenlight campaign. Getting the demo ready for GDC to wow press and publishers was still a better priority – after all, nobody knows how many Greenlight votes you really need anyway, nobody knows when Greenlight is actually shutting down, and we had a request from a publisher to see a new build of the game. So, after launch and until yesterday, a new demo was priority number one!
I suspect that once Valve stops taking new submissions for Greenlight, they’ll probably let through a lot of what remains in the following weeks, though they have kept their options open by declaring that anyone who has paid the $100 Greenlight fee and who doesn’t get through will be reimbursed. So, who knows?..
That doesn’t mean that I’ve ignored Greenlight either, though. Not at all. Over the coming days I ran a tentative €5 Facebook and €5 Twitter ad campaign (well targeted, with video) to see what happened. We got about a dozen clicks total and about 2 new votes. So, probably not worth investing too heavily there, then. One issue is that you have to log in to Steam (if you even have an account) and often have to be emailed a security code for a ‘new device’ (so sick of doing that!), so anyone clicking a mobile or browser link would not likely be logged into Steam, and probably wouldn’t bother doing so.
I got the Greenlight page translated into Russian, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese and German. Even though the algorithms had stopped sending us traffic, I hoped that a new language detected might send us users from those territories. It didn’t. Absolutely nothing! So I decided not to proceed with French, Spanish and Italian.
I also contacted about two dozen Greenlight community user groups who exist to highlight legitimate Greenlight games. I especially targeted groups interested in space games. We did get included in four collections, but I saw no corresponding increase in traffic to us, unfortunately.
Well, with the GDC demo complete, I now get to turn my attention to contacting proper press outlets and YouTubers. I’m a big fan of grassroots marketing and using your own networks, but having tapped the social circles and developers that I know already we seem to have reached the limits of what that can offer us – namely, 320 votes.
Contacting press and YouTubers is a very low probability game, but one good bit of coverage can do wonders, and there are some existing relationships that I can leverage. That’s now the stage that we’re at to try and get more votes.
I have confidence in our game, our trailer, our demo, and our team, but we’re fighting in an oversaturated market.
This has felt like a bit of a weird blog to write. I often write about the industry somewhat abstractly, but I’m right in the middle of this one, and it’s an incomplete story. Greenlight isn’t gone yet, we haven’t yet been accepted for or refused press coverage, and nobody, including Valve, knows much about Steam Direct yet.
I do hope I can do a positive follow-up to this blog in the near future. Until then, I can just thank you for reading, ask that you vote for us if you haven’t yet, and consider sharing our Greenlight campaign with your friends.
Thank you! If you’d like to hear the end of this story, sign up to our mailing list below to be notified when new blogs go live.
I’ll leave you with our Greenlight trailer. And don’t forget to try our free demo. Download it from the Sons of Sol page.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog lamenting the decline in first person shooter campaigns in favour of multiplayer components. Last month, in a blog addressing predictions of a games industry crash, I gave a little time to arguing that single player content may well be the way forward for the AAA industry. I’m writing today to give a bit more time to that idea and to act as a counterpoint to my blog of a year ago.
I won’t be giving much attention to the (awesome and always-inspiring) indie scene today, but everything that I argue for AAA here can apply down the foodchain as well.
As I wrote last month, 2016 left us with a lot of high quality AAA games that reviewed well and sold poorly. This could have been down to genre fatigue (‘sequelitis’), consumers being more wary of the hype machine, or just saturation of releases. Most likely it’s a combination of all of those things.
Even though Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (COD:IW) picked up its sales slack a few weeks after release, Activision were surely hearing alarm bells when they realised that the multiplayer servers were underpopulated because most COD fans were still playing last year’s Black Ops 3. This was further exacerbated on PC by the fact that Steam owners were unable to play with Microsoft’s paltry number of buyers on their Windows 10 games store.
So many games in recent years have reduced or foregone single player content in favour of focusing on multiplayer audiences. The problem there is that without hitting a critical mass of players, those who want to play your game will have nobody to play the game with. There are only so many players to go around, but they’re being offered more and more games to choose from, and then often being subdivided into those who have bought DLC maps and those who haven’t, and usually further divided by what platform they own the game on. Late 2016 may have been the early warning needed (whether it will be heeded or not remains to be seen) to alert these companies that current trajectories may not be sustainable.
Earlier Warnings and Reversals
We saw some foreshadowing before 2016, however. Titanfall (2014) was well received but criticised for its lack of any single player content, and that story came full circle when Titanfall 2 (TF2) released with a short (normal length for AAA nowadays, though) 5-6 hour campaign to great critical acclaim (but, sadly, poor sales) and was praised as one of the best AAA campaigns in recent years. Having played it, I wholeheartedly agree!
Star Wars: Battlefront in 2015, rushed out to coincide with The Force Awakens movie, was similarly criticised for being multiplayer-only, though later added a single player element. Its sequel is set to release at the end of 2017 and seeminglyis reintroducing single player content as a selling point.
While most of the Battlefield games in the last few years have featured single player campaigns, their delivery had been seriously under par until Battlefield 1 (BF1) last year, and again, critics and fans praised the focus on this.
While single player content is more expensive to produce, developers must realise that its absence from a €60 title is a deal breaker for a lot of customers (the price should at least be reduced to reflect this, many feel). More than that, though. Single player content leverages risk for the consumer. As we’ve seen recently, if multiplayer only games don’t have enough players, then there is no game! It used to be the case that players bought games primarily for their single player content and then spilled over into the multiplayer for a little more of the same, but with a twist. Now that trend has probably reversed for many, but not all. I, for example, have no interest in multiplayer only games, especially at the €60 price point, but I did want to play COD:IW, BF1, and TF2 for their single player, and in the case of BF1 and TF2 I spent a little time on multiplayer as well.
But even if I’d bought them primarily for multiplayer, and the servers then shut down from lack of players (whether in 2 months or 5 years), I’m glad to still have a game to play. Without single player, some gamers aren’t prepared to pay top dollar for that risk, and that’s worth developers considering.
We sadly saw Dead Star, which featured a great multiplayer twist, shut down in October 2016 – just 6 months after launch! Evolve has also shut down, and Battleborn looks to be treading water as well, despite being a perfectly solid and enjoyable game!
I’ll note that Overwatch is an exception to my argument, but Blizzard seem to be the exception to every rule anyway. Indeed, their success is part of why all these other games are failing – especially Battleborn.
So what about 2017?
It’s looking good for fans of single-player content. If you allow that coop modes are hybrids of single and multiplayer (usually single-player-style crafted content intended for 2-4 players), then Ubisoft are releasing Ghost Recon: Wildlands in March (and it’s listed is playable in single player), and For Honor in February, which has single and multiplayer.
A big one is Mass Effect: Andromeda from EA and Bioware in March. It has a multiplayer mode, but its main focus is a 20-30 hour single player campaign. The last Mass Effect game was 3 in 2012.
I already mentioned that the new Battlefront will have single player, and the end of the year will likely also see a new COD game with a 5 or 6 hour campaign. These aren’t terribly exciting for the purposes of this blog, but the fact that they’re holding course instead of veering towards multiplayer-only is noteworthy.
We’ve also just had Resident Evil 7, and this year will also see Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Prey for the PC, Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4, and Red Dead Redemption 2 for consoles (and hopefully the PC later, as with GTA V). So there’s no shortage of single player games releasing this year, and they seem to be getting greater focus, but how they perform will be crucial.
The way forward for AAA publishers?
If these games perform well, and doubtless many of them will, one hopes that it will convince developers that single player is not only not a thing of the past, but that these titles can produce their own runaway successes and that they can help publishers leverage their risk with more predictable sales figures. Players won’t often buy a multiplayer game if their friends aren’t playing it, so sales are vulnerable to a cascade effect. With a single player game, people buy just for themselves, and sales should be more easy to predict. Multiplayer-only may often have a higher profit potential (by eliminating campaign creation costs) but one thing we know about AAA publishers is that they’re more concerned with reducing risk than innovating. That’s not a criticism. It’s a necessity for them.. mostly.
With single player games, in the same way as with cinema releases, people will often buy in immediately for fear of having the story spoiled from them. This can protect against launch slumps. With multiplayer, people are more likely to wait for a sale as they won’t miss much. We saw this at the end of 2016. I would think we’ll see at least a couple of developers attempt to put greater emphasis on a great story with an unbelievable twist, in order to increase day one sales. Pre-order bonuses aren’t cutting it in the same way as they once were, seemingly.
I pretty much already concluded in the last section, actually. All that’s left for me to say is ‘thanks for reading’. This is a very uncertain topic, of course, and these are only my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. If you liked the article, do consider sharing.
Oh and if you haven’t seen it, we’ve just released a teaser trailer for our own game ‘Sons Of Sol’. I encourage you to check it out below and like/subscribe/share/all that good stuff.
How can one blogger adequately sum up 2016, and what even to write about?..
A ‘memorable’ year
While 2016 has been a harrowing year for most (who survived), it’s actually been probably the best in recent years for gamers. We saw the long-awaited releases of Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian. Hideo Kojima’s new studio teased something in Death Stranding that looks as inaccessibly nonsensical and impossibly crazy as anyone could have hoped for. Overwatch has delighted millions. Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 were great offerings, and even the less popular COD: Infinite Warfare was, I found, trying new things in the single player. Doom blew everyone away with a spectacular 20 hour single player campaign of the kind that shooter fans had been starved for. My new favourite game, XCOM 2 (sequel to my old favourite game) was released early in the year. I lost several weeks of productive work to it, but it steeled me for the year ahead, teaching me how to deal with loss and what to do when everything turns to shit (hint: keep fighting!).
On the indie games front we’ve seen incredible successes and a more mainstream acceptance of these games as a result. Games of note include That Dragon, Cancer, SuperHot, Stardew Valley, Owlboy, Firewatch, Inside, Abzu, and dozens upon dozens of others.
I’d planned to do a game of the year article this month, but the sheer volume of quality games made this impossible. One problem was that I couldn’t play them all. Another was that, after increasing my efforts during the Holiday break and playing all the main shooters, there were then just too many to talk about! (In short, Doom is the best single player shooter, I largely liked Battlefield 1’s single player and multiplayer, Titanfall 2 does have a great campaign, and Overwatch is probably where to go if multiplayer is your only interest, though it isn’t for me). In my book it’s a good gaming year when there’s too many titles for one writer to approach even a best shooter or best indie game list.
So, what to write about then?
Well, I recall that as we entered 2016, there was still talk of the Indiepocalypse – 2015’s hot topic. It was still on everyone’s lips (either seriously or derisively) for the first half of the year. Talk of it then petered out as people accepted that game dev would always be hard, and you just have to commit, build a game worth building, plan wisely, reach your audience as best you can, and see what happens. I’m paraphrasing, of course.
In the closing weeks of 2016, Steam Spy released a statistic that approximately 40% of all games on Steam were released in 2016. This news hasn’t exactly run its course yet, but it’s clear from most reactions that this number is considered ‘high’. Many consider it to be a bad thing; for AAA, but for indies particularly. Consumers have said that the Steam marketplace is just flooded with crappy games and asset flips (partially true), that Steam needs better curation (ideally, yes), and many businesses have been somewhat alarmed, realising that this high an increase in competition can’t be spun positively. Optimists (it appears some have survived 2016) say ‘the more games the better’.
The interesting thing is that I, for one, haven’t really heard more about the Indiepocalypse since that statistic was released. What I have heard about in the last few weeks is talk of disasters coming to the AAA world!
The final quarter release schedule was jam-packed with huge titles, and the news from most of them was that they were under-performing. Battlefield 1 was first, and did pretty well, actually, but Titanfall 2 came out straight afterwards and has performed extremely poorly despite great reviews. This is most likely because people were already playing EA’s Battlefield 1 still and/or waiting for this year’s Call of Duty (Infinite Warfare) to release just a few days later, or Dishonored 2 a few days after that. Infinite Warfare’s reveal trailer was the 2nd most disliked YouTube video ever, signalling either (or both) a dislike of the move to space, or complete apathy towards the 12th annual COD in a row.
Apparently Infinite Warfare has sold only half as well as last year’s Black Ops III and a leading reason why is that many COD players are still playing BLOPS3. Activision are competing with themselves! The multiplayer in each game is extremely similar, after all, so there’s really very little reason to move on.
Should Activision give COD a break for a few years? The problem is that they have 3 studios creating a different COD game all at once, so we’ll probably see one next year and maybe one the year after even if they decided today to apply the brakes.
Ubisoft did wisely decide to give Assassin’s Creed a break this year, but in its place we had The Division and Far Cry: Primal early in the year, and then Watchdogs 2 releasing in that same crowded end of year schedule (not to mention the Assassin’s Creed movie). Watchdogs also performed way below expectations. This could be because people are tired of Ubisoft open world formulaic games, or because there were too many games to choose from at the end of the year (Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian also released in this same period for PS4 owners). However, it’s also quite likely that people’s disappointment over Watchdogs 1 caused them to adopt a wait-and-see approach with the sequel.
Back to back releases!
The problem is that most gamers don’t wait and see, even if they mean to. They wait and move on to the next giant title in a few weeks, maybe picking up the forsaken game at an 80% discount 12 months later and playing a few disinterested hours.
Ubisoft alone are continuing to push Rainbow Six: Siege and The Division content, while their next big launch, For Honor, is due in just over 6 weeks, with Ghost Recon: Wildlands due later next year, and let’s not forget that Assassin’s Creed will likely make a return. They’ve also numerous smaller titles like South Park, and multiple sports/racing games like Steep or The Crew.
Most of these games, and many similar ones from other publishers, are multiplayer focused, hoping to keep players engaged long term and buying DLC and other microtransations until that company’s next big game comes out.
These current AAA strategies ignore the fact that there are a half dozen other massive publishers doing the same thing, and the market is getting carved up into smaller and smaller pieces while game budgets grow and grow.
It’s unsustainable! The games market in 2016 was most definitely over-saturated, and that’s even if you count only AAA releases and ignore the indies. Gamers didn’t have enough time or money to play everything that they wanted to. You could argue that Final Fantasy, Overwatch, The Last Guardian, Battleborn, Doom, XCOM 2, and others weren’t annualised releases and so next year won’t be as busy, but you’d only be half right. Those same publishers will have new games next year even if they’re in different IPs. And people may still be playing Black Ops III, or finally have moved onto Battlefield or Infinite Warfare. You also have to consider that many who drank the Overwatch cool aid in May haven’t played a single other game since!
So, AAA-pocalypse? Can the indies take some guilty pleasure in seeing the big guys fail for once? Well, no, not exactly. But something has got to give. CryTek, admittedly less of a content creator and more known for their CryEngine engine, just announced that they’re closing 5 studios. One of these, in Sofia, Bulgaria, then announced that they’re becoming an indie studio. So for every major studio that does suffer poor sales and has to close down, we should remember that many of the talented and experienced developers in that studio will decide “now’s the perfect time to try to make my dream game”, and suddenly where you had one big competitor, you now have a dozen smaller ones, all of whom are likely to be more talented than the vast majority of Steam’s overpopulated developer base.
What might we see?
That’s all assuming that we will have companies failing left and right. Despite disappointing performances, Infinite Warfare and many of the other games mentioned still grossed millions upon millions of dollars. After breaking even, profit is profit. Profitable studios don’t usually close. But companies who see declining profits do usually try new things.
I would think that we’ll see some shift away from the constant focus on multiplayer games and user retention. As a gamer, this year I more and more appreciated short games because they let me experience something in its entirety, and move on to the next thing. Most people who played Doom loved it and would recommend it to anybody, but nobody is talking about its multiplayer mode. It has its players, sure, but it’s not the main draw. Gamers acknowledge that there’s loads of games that they want to play, but AAA developers are still trying to keep them locked into just one or two titles for as long as possible. There’s an opportunity to listen and adapt here.
While single player content is expensive to produce, it can be a safer sale, with gamers knowing that this one game won’t demand all their time or hook them for the next 6 months. Single player games also don’t need to reach a critical mass of players to populate their servers, and can have a much longer sales tail because the experience will be the same whether the game is bought at release or in ten years. iD’s Wolfenstein and Doom reboots are my two favourite shooters of recent years because they gave me a high quality experience with a fun, passable story, and then let me move on. They’re worth the money and I’d buy more of the same. I can’t play 6 different (‘different’ being a generous word) multiplayer games simultaneously. I also sadly can’t afford to pay €60 a pop for multiple games with only 5 hour campaigns. It’s just not worth it. Black Ops III did start selling their multiplayer component cheaper if you didn’t want the single player stuff. I’d love to see that in reverse!
Sales sales sales!!
One sign that the big publishers are sweating is the size of discounts on even their newest releases. I picked up Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 just a little over a month after their initial releases at 40% and 50% discounts respectively! Infinite Warfare was also heavily discounted and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was a whopping 67% off on Steam!
That’s unprecedented! It’s also self-destructive as now next year there’s likely to be even less pre-orders and early adopters for the new games, as they know they can probably get huge savings if they wait until the Holiday sales. So the early COD adopters may have nobody to play with and abandon the game by the time the Holiday sales purchasers arrive, who in turn will themselves have nobody to play with. That’s short-term thinking on the publishers’ parts, and they’ll definitely have to think smarter to compete in an oversaturated (as proven by their discounts – increased competition decreases prices, after all) marketplace.
Pre-orders of most of the later games of 2016 were down too and I’d suspect that the massive disappointment that many felt over No Man’s Sky and Mafia 3 earlier in the year has a lot to do with it. Square Enix’s ridiculous pre-order campaign surrounding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (adjusted after considerable backlash) wouldn’t have helped things either, and I’ve already talked about why Watchdogs 2 had low pre-orders.
It can only be a good thing if consumers are finally doing as the watchdogs (and other consumers) have been urging them to do for the longest time and not pre-order, as it perpetuates a cycle of releasing less and less finished games at release time and only maybe fixing things later.
In a crowded marketplace, this sort of thing won’t fly for much longer. So that’s one positive. Pre-orders also just don’t make sense for digital goods. The store can’t run out!
Much as I couldn’t resist ending the year with a twist on how we started it (AAA vs Indie -pocalypse(s)) I don’t think we’ll see either, really. Studios large and small will continue to make games, grow and shrink, hire and fire, and just do as businesses do. Talk of a repeat of the game industry crash surrounding Atari in the 1980s is just alarmist and ignores the fact that digital distribution removes the need to shift physical cartridges from actual shelves. It also ignores that, unlike the 80s, when a games company goes out of business there are literally thousands of developers ready to take their place. Almost anyone can make and publish a game nowadays without the same skill or distribution barriers to entry. While consumer confidence is being eroded and genre fatigue is setting in, reviews, Let’s Plays, and refunds do a lot to combat that problem.
No, I think the industry will be fine, though it will see some uncomfortable shifting, for sure. Companies who listen to their fans and innovate are likely to do well, while most suit-driven ventures to make the next big MMO or eSport are likely to fall by the wayside. We may also see a lot of lower-cost, smaller AAA launches that focus solely on single or multiplayer as publishers try to protect themselves while figuring out just which way the winds are blowing. It’s an interesting time to be a gamer.
Unrelated, but I just want to add this. 2016 has been a harrowing year for most people in the world, for all sorts of reasons – certainly for anyone with an ounce of empathy. Games are a great way to escape to another world, to switch off, and to protect your mental energies from the whirlwind of negativity that plagues our media (social, real, and especially fake media).
Use that to protect yourself if you have to, but don’t use games to hide indefinitely. We have to be able to still cope with the real world (because that’s where the eyes, ears, and hands that we use for gaming live). Don’t neglect your health, and don’t neglect the world around you. It needs good people to stand up for what’s right. We’re more educated and have access to more information than any generation before us. We have to be able to find the right ways forward for all, and it will take your (yes, your) involvement in the real world.
If we could all act from a place of equality, reason, and conscience, the world would be a much better place to live in, and playing games might feel like a reward instead of an escape.
Now get pumped for 2017 with my favourite trailer from 2016. Fight Like Hell!
Hello again. Boy, this Player Too thing is really going well! At the end of the last episode (two months ago) I said that Claire had said she’d write a foreword to this episode, so you can hear directly from her that I haven’t had to chain her to a laptop to play these things (there were rumours… okay no, there weren’t). But anyway, here she is!..
No need to send help, I’m here of my own free will. I promise that Kev is not holding a Duck Hunt Gun to my head and making me write this. I’ll start by saying thanks to you guys for reading. I probably wouldn’t have been tricked into playing otherwise. In this episode we are looking at Oxenfree, Super Hexagon, Stardew Valley & The Beginner’s Guide. Yes, Super Hot was supposed to be on there too and we had Abzu all loaded up and ready to go but something really interesting happened.. I sorta fell in love with a game and I couldn’t be dragged away from it. Yep, I’m surprised too. I started out this experiment with an idea that I was too busy to give too much time to gaming. Granted, I’ve encountered a bunch of games that have defied my expectations but I have had no problem shutting down a game before its end if I felt I’d given it enough time.
But now we’ve found a game that I got hooked on. Don’t judge me, but I may have stayed up past my bedtime playing more than once for this one. I’ll leave Kev to fill you in on the details. Writing the blog is his “problem”, so to speak, but we do always talk about the games together before he writes, so I’m happy that he gets my opinions across fairly.
Thanks again everyone for reading, for the recommendations, and the encouragement. I’m having more and more fun as we go along, hopefully some of you have tried the games we recommend (maybe with a loved one?) and have had some fun too.
Okay, me again. See? She’s real!.. I probably should have done that in a video or something now that I think of it.. but anyway, let’s get started. I always try to make the blog shorter every month and it never works, so let’s get to it!
This crazy thing! This epilepsy-inducing impossibility of a mind-shatterer! There’s actually very little to it. You rotate left or right (that’s the sum total of the controls) to avoid the inwardly shrinking hexagonal walls, always trying to move just fast enough to find the gap and not lose time.
It’s a very ‘more-ish’ game. If you live longer than 5 seconds on your first try I’d be surprised. My own high score on easiest mode was only 16.17 seconds. Easiest is a relative term. The game’s easiest mode is labelled ‘hard’, with ‘harder’ and ‘hardest’ following that, and three further unlockable difficulties. Strangely (it must have been a fluke, because I couldn’t do it again) on my first try on ‘harder’ mode I got 23.12 seconds.
The game has a super (no pun intended) soundtrack by Chipzel, but every time you die the music stops until you restart the level. This I found quite annoying, as I was enjoying it, but not living long enough to hear the tracks uninterrupted. I have sought out the soundtrack separately though and am enjoying it.
Here’s the problem with the game though. There are basically no early wins. And after half an hour there are no later wins either. If you don’t have ‘it’ (extremely fast reflexes. Colour blindness might actually help too) you’re going nowhere with this game. There are no easy levels. It took me twenty minutes to get my 16 second high score, and I’ve never gotten there again.
The levels are always the same, so you can master them with time (in theory) but unlike similarly difficult but fair games (Devil Daggers comes to mind) you won’t get much of a feeling of improvement without serious commitment, and it’s hard to commit to a game with just two buttons and flashing lights when the most attractive aspect is a soundtrack that keeps muting every 5-15 seconds because you died.
The controls also felt overly sensitive to me. Most of my deaths came not from not seeing the gap on time, but from seeing it, rotating 180 degrees towards it, and then overshooting and smashing into the far side of the gap. I tried keyboard buttons and controller stick and shoulder buttons. Nothing felt good to me.
There’s not a lot else to discuss. Claire pretty much said all those same things, but had even lower scores than me, and just didn’t enjoy it. It’s overly frustrating.
In its defence, it’s not really a game you sit down to, and we bought from Steam. It’s more suited to having a few goes on your mobile on the bus. And I’m not sure how well touch screen controls are tuned. We didn’t play there.
Also in its defence, I’ve enjoyed it each time I played. I always want “one more try”, especially when you die just short of your high score, but the frustration does set in quickly, so it depends on what kind of gamer you are, this one.
If you’re an Irish reader, it might be worth saying to you that both the game’s developer (Terry Cavanagh) and the composer (Chipzel) are Irish. So you know, do support, and all that 🙂
Player Too Result
Swing and a miss! I didn’t expect success here actually, but Claire had enjoyed those quick-restart, one-more-go kind of games before (Race the Sun, and to a lesser extent Super Meat Boy), but those games did have easier first stages to give you a taste of victory. Super Hexagon just kicks you off every 5 seconds and it’s hard to get any better at it.
I do recommend trying it on your mobile, or especially in the current sales, but don’t pick it up expecting to beat it for the achievements or anything.
The Beginner’s Guide
So, next we continued with the first-person branch of our Player Too campaign. Last time we played The Stanley Parable and said this would be the next one; a logical progression since this was developer Davey Wreden’s follow up game after Stanley.
I won’t say much because it’s only short and, like Stanley, it’s an oddity. I talked about the “it’s not a game” thing before (I am planning to do a proper blog on it some day) but I think it’s very fair to say about this one, no matter what your view on that label. Because this is literally a collection of older, discarded game ideas, thrown together as an exhibition. “Walking simulator” fits, and I don’t mean it as an insult. If you’re a regular reader you know that I never do. I think we should just own that term and enjoy the great games of that new genre.
The Beginner’s Guide is unlike anything you’ve likely ever played, and that alone makes it worth a look. It’s short (about 90 mins) and you don’t have an objective other than to be led through the game by the narrator. You can’t die. You’re just following a story.
It occupies a space somewhere between ‘based on a true story’ and ‘biography’. Like Stanley, “to say too much would be to spoil it”. Unlike Stanley, though, this isn’t a comedy game, but it’s very engaging and interesting. Curiosity and novelty definitely pull you along. The trailer tells as much as I’m really willing to give away here, other than to say that the game is about sequentially exploring all of those games in the folder, made by a person referred to as ‘Coda’. Viewing their work as snapshots of the person in time is a very interesting way to be told a story, and you’re accompanied the whole time by Davey Wreden’s audio narration.
You may replay it once (worth doing, take it from me) but if not you’ll appreciate the 90 minutes the first time anyway. I recommend it as long as you’re happy with what you spend for a 90 minute experience. The price of a cinema ticket definitely seems fair.
Player Too Result
Claire enjoyed this, as did I. It’s quite an interesting way to tell a story. Certainly unique. The true elements definitely increased our interest in it, and I found myself scanning forums and Wikipedia after finishing to learn more.
We’ve already learned from earlier Player Too episodes that Claire appreciates that games can be more ‘interactive experiences’ or works of art than just “pew pew” wastes of time. She likes her walking simulators like Gone Home and Firewatch so this was a predictable success.
The aspect I cared more about was training her first person movement skills, because I’d love to enjoy games like Minecraft or Portal in co-op with her, but she’s not used to moving around with WASD and mouse. Walking simulators are helping there. I’ve noticed that she doesn’t really lose the fingering or have to look down at the keyboard anymore, and while she doesn’t really strafe/look around corners, she does now use A and D a little. You’ll notice if you watch someone using WASD and mouse for the first time that they’ll pretty much only use W and if they need to strafe around an object, they’ll awkwardly turn to face the direction, press W, and then re-orient, instead of using all the commands available.
First person movement is second nature to me, and nearly all PC gamers, I’m sure. But when you try to share certain games with someone who’s new to that movement style, it’s a major hurdle. The numerous walking sims we’ve played on Player Too definitely seem to be good low-difficulty training wheels (and good games to boot) towards slightly more challenging experiences that we could hopefully play together.
Whether Claire will enjoy those games when we get to them is another story, but I’m happy to report that she’s enjoying the journey, at least.
Oxenfree is some combination of an adventure, 2D, puzzle, mystery game. You can tell from the trailer that there’s a distinctive and appealing visual aesthetic going on here. That’s the first thing that’s easy to appreciate. The second thing you’ll likely appreciate, only minutes into the game, is how well written and performed the dialogue is between characters.
Okay, I’m not, and never have been, an American teenager, but the way these teens speak to each other seems very natural, and authentic. There’s no dialogue that stands out as wooden, and no cracks in the performance.
The game centres around a bunch of teens who sneak onto an island to go drinking overnight (it’s an annual event / rite of passage of sorts) and then spooky goings on occur.
It’s not exactly a horror game, but it’s close. In tone it feels a lot like Super 8 or Stranger Things.
You control Alex, and interact with the world and other characters entirely from her point of view. Your main control over the game comes from dialogue choices, and a couple of “where do we go now? A or B?” choices. A criticism I have of the dialogue is that you don’t usually have much time to choose your responses, and most of the time you actually interrupt if someone else is speaking as soon as you’ve made your choice. If the other character finishes speaking, your options usually disappear about 1 second later and the other character comes back with a response tailored to your silence, which can be things that result in the character liking you less or whatever.
Basically, I didn’t find using the dialogue to be a smooth experience. I found it stressful to have characters interrupting each other and losing parts of conversation or losing dialogue threads. The constant interrupting and bitching may be a realistic way to represent teens talking to each other (read with a sense of humour), but I didn’t like how it worked in the game. Claire didn’t care much for it either, but despite the mechanic being clunky, we both still thought dialogue was something to put in the ‘Pro’ column for this game.
You walk around the island manually, with the control stick or arrow keys. It’s presented as something of an open world, but progression is fairly linear. Whatsmore, you walk every step of the way yourself with almost nothing to do (maybe a puzzle the first time you go, but nothing when you’re backtracking) along the way. Sometimes the time is filled by a conversation with a companion, but often they remain silent (you nearly always have at least one friend by your side during the game, especially on long treks) for long and boring sections of the game while you travel from A to B. This can be extra frustrating when they’ve just talked the ear off you moments before setting off, when they could have saved up that spiel for the long road ahead.
The game is about 5 hours long. Claire played it to completion with interest, and she enjoyed it, but without loving it. She was just engaged enough to keep going. There is a mystery to the story that tempts you along.
Personally, about 90 minutes in, I was frustrated with the dialogue mechanic. I’m also not really that interested in supernatural or ghost stories generally, so I didn’t care about the story as much. Because there wasn’t much input required of the player, I stopped playing and let a YouTuber finish out the game for me on the 2nd monitor while I did some work.
The main, and arguably only, non-dialogue mechanic is tuning your radio to the correct frequency to tap into the mysterious energies and spirits that are haunting the island. But the frequency doesn’t move. There’s no skill required to finding the frequency. It’s a nice mechanic, kind of, in that it’s a bit of fun and requires some input, but it’s pretty shallow at the same time.
You can have an effect on the game world, though. There are multiple endings, or at least combinations of character outcomes. Does this person survive? Do A and B get together? There are a few things you can affect, at least.
Player Too Result
For me, I played it because I’d heard so many great things about it, but that also makes me (and most people I’m guessing) quicker to play devil’s advocate against all the positivity and try to find the faults that nobody is talking about (or is that just me?..). I found enough game design faults to critique that I wasn’t as impressed as others appear to be. I didn’t dislike it, mind you. But it’s not for me. That’s okay.
Because I’m such a nice guy, I think I usually recommend nearly every game on Player Too, even if I phrase it with a caveat (“I recommend this game IF..”) so in the interests of balancing the scales a bit I’m going to say that I recommend giving this one a miss unless you’re really into your supernatural mysteries or you’re really looking for a good example of well-written and performed dialogue in a game.
Claire played the game first and actually had all the same critiques and praises that I had, but she just found it interesting enough to continue with. It might be that I had about a dozen games sitting on my desktop ready to play that I chose to move on when she didn’t.
This is a ‘casual’ game I guess. Its gameplay is laid back, but its tone is tense. It might be for you, but if you identify as a ‘hardcore gamer’ then I suspect it’s not. Do decide for yourself. The game has plenty of positive reviews to counterbalance my opinion.
As for a Player Too result, as a genre, as a direction, Oxenfree was just ‘fine’. Engaging story (if it’s your genre. Claire liked Twilight Zone etc more than I ever did) and good dialogue usually sit well with Claire, particularly when paired with a very pleasing art style and low difficulty. She appreciates games like this, but they’re nothing to write home about for her.
That’s in contrast to this next game, which Claire gushed about when we recently spent time with her mom and sister.
Released in February this year, Stardew Valley is possibly this year’s biggest indie success story. Certainly one of them (it’s been a good year for indie games.. and for quality AAA games – though not for sales of the latter). It dominated the start of the year anyway, with half my Steam friends constantly “playing Stardew Valley” and even this glowing piece (not a review, more like a special interest piece) from GameSpot piqued my interest. I’d have picked it up then but the reported 70 hour game length put me off. Not that you have to take that long with it, but I didn’t want to risk getting hooked on it while there was work to be done (Xcom 2 alone tanked 2 weeks of productivity for me). Stardew recently won a Golden Joystick Award for ‘Breakthrough’, so you know it’s good.
The 70 hour length is amazing when you learn that this is a game made by just one person over four years! It’s an homage to Harvest Moon. A harvest simulator-cum-fantasy RPG. Its SNES-era pixel art is very pleasing, especially as the seasons begin to change.
This blog post is getting very long in the tooth so if you somehow don’t know much about Stardew Valley then do check out GameSpot’s 5 minute video that I mentioned above. I’ll move on.
Player Too Result
Personally, I’ve only spent about 4 hours on the game yet, which is barely scratching the surface, but I liked what I saw and if the week were 70 hours longer I’d soon finish this game (and Witcher 3, AND Fallout 4, AND two dozen others). I knew about the game but hadn’t played it. In real life, this year Claire has gotten into planting trees and started a campaign for a #plasticFreeBray, to ban single use plastics from our town. She’s already planted 62 trees by herself! So as Winter rolled around and the days got shorter and the ground got harder, she was planting less and I thought it might be a good time to try this game out on her.
At first, she had a few frustrations with the controls and inventory management (and I agree that there’s a few niggling inconveniences in the inventory/shopping design) and an early game crash when my Steam account booted her off playing my copy of Stardew on her laptop (FYI you can share games with a few people via the ‘family’ option, but only one person can play (any game – if connected to the internet, at least) at a time) she lost (skipped, actually) a couple of days near the start of the game, overshooting an in-game event (Spring fair) that she was preparing for. Annoying.
Thankfully, this didn’t put her off the game and now she’s planting trees, spelunking caves, loving her dog ‘Floof’ and chicken ‘Toto’, winning farmers’ produce competitions, making mayonnaise, keeping bees, getting to know the townspeople, and generally loving the game.
The sheer amount of mechanics, art assets, characters, options, locations, and dialogue is staggering, again, especially considering it was made by one person. The game is a gem!
When Player Too started I usually had to negotiate out an hour or two to try a game together. Now with Stardew Valley it’s the first thing she wants to do when she gets home, and she’ll play until well after her bed time. Some nights. She’s already about one game-year (or 20-30 hours, estimated) in.
No other game has had this effect on Claire. Ever. And this game does include the frustration of ‘death’ in the caves with a respawn causing a loss of equipment and currency. This was a deterring feature of other games, but it’s not having a negative effect here.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve found “her” game. She’s loving it! I’ve even heard her whistling to her in-game dog and celebrating the upgrade to iron tools. She’s even now had instances of “game brain” (you know what I mean) where in the real world she was thinking of picking up 100 plastic bottles on her walks through the woods. I asked “can you carry 100 plastic bottles?” and she realised she was thinking about having this gigantic inventory that real people can’t have (we’re going with 25 in a bag instead).
Apparently the game does ‘end’ after two in-game years (edit – I’ve also heard now that it’s three years). That is to say, it has some sort of resolution of your story and ending-style event, but, like many open world games, you’re free to continue playing and exploring afterwards.
At her current trajectory, I’m sure Claire will finish the game, but I wouldn’t be sure when she’ll finish with it. With most unending games, like myself with Minecrat, there comes a time when you just decide to stop, and that’s it. You might revisit once or twice, but you’re done really. For me with Minecraft it was after spending 3 full real days building a giant pyramid (in survival mode) that nobody would ever see. When I was done with that I was like “okay no more. This has to stop”. She does say she wants to 100% the achievements though, so that’s pretty awesome.
Claire’s initial objections to her gaming at all were basically that she didn’t have the skills to play them (which we’ve gotten around quite easily), and that she was worried she might get hooked on something and that it would be a real time suck. That’s basically now happened, but what else would you be doing in Winter anyway? It’s a debate for another time (the whole compulsive game addiction thing) but suffice it to say that spending a few hours a day enjoying a hobby is not something that’s detrimental to anyone’s life, in my opinion. It’s not all she does (it’s only been about two weeks anyway), and this game does have an ending point and limited content. Proper game addiction is really the domain of online round-based games or MMOs, if you ask me. It’s just always good to be aware of, I guess.
My one regret with Stardew Valley is that I can’t play it with her. It’s single player only. We play in the same room, and I might be playing that or something else at the same time, but it’s not the same as building a farm or castle together, as you can do in Minecraft.
On one hand I wonder would she like Minecraft. It’s first person, but not too hard (survival mode, I mean), and has farming elements, and creative expression is at that game’s very core. Then on the other hand I’m wondering will she ever stop playing Stardew Valley, or want to play another game after that when she does.
This may even be the end of Player Too as a project. I’d still like to get to where we play co-op games together, but we are now sharing our gaming time in the same room together and having good chats about what we’re liking in the games, so I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted out of Player Too already.
Claire thinks she may never play another game again, but those of us more seasoned probably remember thinking the same thing about various games. For me I said it about GTA 3, Operation Flashpoint, and Planetside 2 before finally learning not to make outlandish statements like that. But we’ll see..
In short, we can’t recommend this game enough!
Next Time on Player Too
Let’s assume, despite what I just said, that Stardew Valley neither occupies the rest of Claire’s life, nor turns her away from gaming entirely because there’ll never be something better.
In that case, it’ll probably be a while, but we’ll have Abzu lined up to follow Journey’s success. We have Never Alone to follow the puzzle platformer trend (with a cute snow fox, because canines are really killing it for her), and in the first person genre we have Super Hot. Edit: I started playing Never Alone and realised you can play co-op as the girl and the fox, so we’ll definitely be playing it together, not solo.
We normally play four games. Happy to take suggestions for the fourth. I’d personally like to try something in co-op for once because we haven’t yet. But a non-First Person Shooter co-op is harder to come by. Co-op games that I can think of are usually quite difficult, particularly for 2 players if it’s built for 4. Thinking about Clandestine or Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime. Have any readers played those before, or something else you’d recommend?
In the event that we don’t play more games for a while, I’ve a few other ideas for series lined up, so I do hope you’ll keep reading and enjoying these monthly posts as they go up.
Actually, the new demo for Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest (my game) has gone up on the site, so Claire said she’d play that (despite it being somewhat unbalanced as of yet and quite hard until you get a grip on the flight controls). Do please give it a go, though. I’d love the feedback.
Anyway. Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed, do please consider sharing in your social places.
Allow me to present my opening argument in the form of a screenplay.
[Setting the scene. Entertainment media news room. Young anchor seated at a desk covered in Nintendo Ameebo and (new) Star Wars stormtrooper toys, smiling and speaking animatedly into the camera]
Anchor: “..in other news, this week saw the release of Battlefield 1, the first game in the new Battlefield franchise. While it’s unusual to actually give the number ‘1’ to a new intellectual property, it shows a bold confidence on Dice and EA’s part in their new…”
[Anchor pauses, puts one finger to their ear]
Anchor: “..wait.. my producer is saying something.. sorry about this folks..”
[Mumbling ensues ]
Anchor: “.. THE FIFTEENTH Battlefield game?!?! NOT including expansions?!”
[Anchor glances nervously at the camera, then turns aside, pressing one hand to their ear and speaking more quietly to producer off-camera].
Anchor: “Is this a joke? Seriously, tell me now. Is this just a prank on the new recruit or…. you’ve got to be joking…. so Battlefield Hardline was the same ser… and Battlefield 4 was actually Battlefield 13?? Holy mother of… I suppose next you’ll be telling me that Assassin’s Creed 4 was…. it was the 6th?…”
“So, wait, what do I say about Battlefield 1?…..”
Anchor (now shout-whispering):“..JUST BECAUSE IT’S SET IN WORLD WAR 1?! THAT’S THE STUPIDEST THING I’VE EVER HEARD!!”
“Okay, okay. Yes, okay. I got it”.
[Anchor lowers their hand, turns slowly back to the camera and recomposes their “tv-smile”]
Anchor: “Ahem.. excuse me. Battlefield 1 released to great critical claim this week, with reviewers calling it ‘the best Battlefield game since..”
[Anchor looks confused for a split second, but ploughs ahead]
Anchor: “..Bad Company 2.“
“And lastly, new DLC has just released for Doom, the new shooter IP from id Software and Bethesda that took the world by storm earlier this year…
[Anchor pauses and their smile half drops as they appear to listen again to their producer. Turns aside again]
Anchor: “..not new?…. 1993?.. But surely nobody would remember one solitary game with crappy graphics from over 20… FOURTH DOOM?!… So why didn’t they just call it…? ..who the hell are the ‘two Johns’??… ‘Quake’? No, Quake is coming out next year, I’m sure of that!… no.. no.. look, forget it…
[Anchor stands up, head now out of the shot, and begins to remove their clip-on microphone. Banging noises can be heard as fabric rubs against the microphone]
Anchor (now less audible):“.. No, I quit! Forget it! This is ridiculous! Until you can grow up as an industry, how is anyone going to take you seriously?”
[Now free of the microphone, the anchor walks out of the shot, becoming increasingly less audible as they leave the room]
Anchor: I’m going to try get that internship back with Fox. At least Fant4stic had the right number somewhere in the name.
[Someone can be heard replying]
Anchor: “Only the third?!”
[Shouted curses can be heard receding, ending with a door slamming]
Ain’t satire fun?
So there’s a humour to how ridiculous game names are becoming, as we live through it, but there’s also a real threat to game preservation, or historical research for those who come after us, or even just twenty years from now. Most people don’t care about the problems of tomorrow (that’s what made us the world we are today, after all) so I’ll focus on the humour, but please also open your mind to what this will all look like to someone in the future. Will they see this time as a golden era of game creation, or will it be marked as a time when ravenous consumers didn’t seem to know or even care what they were playing, but were in fact every bit as gormless and fickle as the big marketers presently seem to think that we are?
To be clear, I’m not saying anything against any of the games mentioned here. Most of them are brilliant! My only issue is with how games are getting named, and it’s the more successful series that create the problems, because they have so many entries.
Hopefully from my “screenplay” above you can see the problem I’m highlighting. I could say “naming conventions are out of control”, but in truth, there appears to be no naming convention in place at all in the games industry other than “marketing think that the target demographic likes this number this week”.
What are movies doing?
The movie and games industries get compared all the time, and I don’t relish doing it, but I will be doing so today because there are great parallels and lessons to be learned.
The movie industry most definitely seems to have a more mature approach to naming conventions where long-running franchises or reboots of old ones are concerned. Despite the fact that the problem (if you agree that it is one) of seemingly constant reboots in both of these entertainment industries originated (at least as a recognisable pattern) in the movie industry, to their credit, they did seem to handle the issue far more tidily. With the exception of RoboCop (2014), most reboots pick an altered title or subtitle to clarify (Batman Begins, The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk – and yes, it is mostly superhero/action movies that seem to get the reboots).
Where numbering sequels are concerned movies now seem to dodge that bullet by rarely adding a number any more and instead favouring a subtitle. Marvel is a good example as their interwoven movie narratives can be quite complex and it can sometimes even be hard to figure out who the lead character is. Take Captain America: Civil War. Was that The Avengers 3 or Captain America 3? Or Civil War 1? Well, ignore the numbers and give it a name. That works.
To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that naming conventions used to make more sense or be more consistent either (Jaws used numbers, then number/names, then subtitles: Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws: The Revenge) but what I am staying is, that with the notable exception of RoboCop (and probably a few others that aren’t coming to mind), franchises are rarely so muddy that I couldn’t tell which exact movie you were talking about if you use the correct name. And I can’t think of any examples where “Movie-name 3” is not actually the 3rd movie, or at least the 3rd in the current reboot.
There is no common convention, but there does seem to be a deliberate attempt to clarify when rebooting a series or making sequels. This is far from the case with games.
Clarification Note: ReMAKES in film often carry the exact same name as the original, but they’re usually a once-off remake of a classic 40-50 years old (3:10 to Yuma, 101 Dalmations, Alice in Wonderland). ReBOOTS usually follow several related sequels, by starting a new string of sequels related to each other but not the older works. Take ‘Star Trek’ (2009). The original 1979 movie was called ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. They haven’t used an identical name. Although admittedly they could have used a subtitle in 2009 if they wanted to make my point better for me.
What are games doing?
Well, as I see it, there’s two approaches that both muddy the waters to varying degrees (and a third in movies where series-related movies don’t share a name, eg. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal). These create problems when using search engines, or even just talking to someone and trying to communicate which game you actually mean.
Throwing Numbers Around, ‘Whenever’
I’ve never seen a movie do this, but games series seem so ashamed of their age that they’ll constantly fiddle the numbers. While the reasons for doing this could be both to hide the quantity of games (to counter the perception of over-saturation), or to differentiate between split story lines (Command & Conquer: ‘Tiberium’ series and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 1-3), or even between releases on different devices, it’s still a messy practice.
Movies, once they abandon the numbers, tend to stay away from them. After 6 numbered Police Academy movies, the 7th was just subtitled Mission to Moscow. Superman hasn’t had a numbered movie since IV despite having a later sequel and an even later reboot.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the 4th GTA, and before GTA IV (TWO games later) I used to refer to Vice City as “GTA 4” for short. 5 is really the 7th, and so on.
Assassin’s Creed III was the 5th game in that series.
The recent Gears of War 4 is the 5th GOW, also.
If you’ve read my last few articles, you’ll have seen me snipe at the name Battlefield 1. I’m getting it out of my system today, okay?
My satirical ‘screenplay’ already picked on Battlefield – probably the worst offender. 3 games deep is the earliest that you can really get inconsistent and they did so by going: Battlefield 1942, then Battlefield Vietnam, and then screwed the pooch with their 3rd game, Battlefield 2. The numbered games have been meaningless since then, only highlighted (for me anyway) by the fact the I’ve seen nobody else bat an eyelid that the new game is called Battlefield 1. It’s so ludicrous, and it’s actually a world first, as far as I’m aware, to name a newer title ‘1’. It’s all the worse considering that, given that with this game they were very much returning to their roots by moving away from modern or sci-fi settings, they had an opportunity to return to their original naming convention (Battlefield 1942) and call this one “Battlefield 1916″ (or anywhere from 1914-1918, I just say 1916 because a recent trailer made a point of being set then, and the year of release, 2016, is a nice, round century after that). I don’t care what anyone says, the marketers definitely missed a trick with that one. And I’ve a degree in marketing so I feel I get to say this with at least a little authority:
If they were so dead-set against a year in the title for whatever reason, Battlefield: The Great War would still have been less of a joke than Battlefield 1, as a name. Okay, I’ve had my say. Great game, horrific name, moving on..
The thing about this trend with all those aforementioned games is that the only way to fix it is to own up and call the next game the correct number. Like “Battlefield 16“, which they’ll never do, especially coming straight after 1, in their case.
Preferable to that would be to continue using subtitles forever once you’ve started, but the problem there is that sales will be lost because less die-hard fans might lose a named game through the year-sized cracks without realising it.
As ridiculous as that all is, it doesn’t exactly cause a major problem for searchability, and a Wikipedia search can quickly inform you if you forgot that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood existed, if you really wanted to know. I mentioned the benefits of being dishonest-thus at the top of this section anyway.
On to the bigger problem.
Naming Reboots The Same As Originals
Doom, Star Wars: Battlefront, Battlezone, and the game that actually prompted this article, Prey are all guilty as hell here.
At E3 this year, we saw a teaser trailer for a new game called Prey. I thought to myself “people seem a bit overly excited at this. What do they know that I don’t? Hang on, the name sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a game named something like that just a few years ago?”
Ten years. It was only ten years ago, no sequels since, and they’re putting out a game with the exact same name. What are fans supposed to say after the second comes out? “Oh I hate Prey, I much prefer Prey.” Ridiculous! Even if there’s were a discerning in-fiction reason (parallel universes or something) that gave an actual good reason to call the games by the same name (let’s give a lot of benefit of the doubt here, for the sake of argument) then you still have to worry about marketing to the general public and internet searchability, and the uninitiated aren’t going to be as sympathetic to your confusing of the issue by ‘staying in character’ or whatever.
Maybe someone more in the know can tell me a good reason to confuse traffic in this way (like there’s already an established number of searches for that topic, thereby making it cheaper to piggy back on the old game’s presence), but if there is such a reason, it seems ludicrously short-sighted and cynical.
Which brings me to Star Wars: Battlefront, which is actually Battlefront3. The fact that it’s made by a different studio doesn’t change the fact that I bought, played and enjoyed two prior Battlefront games, one of which was called Star Wars: Battlefront. However, Disney does seem intent on overwriting absolutely everything bar the movies from pre-2012 Star Wars. When the reboot was announced I tried to Google the name of the original game to see what year it was released, as it seemed too recent to be smothering up the name in the same manner as you might get away with in a 50 year old movie.
2004. *weeping* “It was only twelve years old! It had its whole life ahead of it”. Comical as that sounds, there’s a point to note there. Any distinctly named game will presumably be searchable for decades to come. At a time where the preservation of digital art is becoming an increasingly hot topic, knowingly smothering the presence of any game that came before is irresponsible, and seems almost even callous.
By the way, to find the answer ‘2004’, I had to search for Battlefront 2 and work my way back from there. If I hadn’t known of the sequel, let’s say I’m a 10 year old, not 29, those two older games may as well never have existed, unless someone tells me about them.
Now try this on for size: The Playstation VR title Battlezone is a reboot of the original Atari Battlezone from 1980, and not of the 1998 Battlezone or its 2016 re-release “Battlezone 1998 Redux”, nor of 1999’s Battlezone II: Combat Commander. Do you see how complicated this starts to get? And historically, these are very interesting games! Often underappreciated, yet doing all sorts of new things each time the name appeared. This is a prime example of games we should want to preserve and research in the future. Why the newest version couldn’t just have been called Battlezone VR is beyond me.
You’ve gotten my point by now. Doom (2016) should be called Doom 4 or even “Doom 2016″, but it wasn’t. Sorry, Doom is a game that already existed and that still has thousands of concurrent players daily. In five years time, I’ll be you anything that more people will be playing classic Doom than current Doom, as great as the new one is. You don’t get to steamroll the older title and pretend it didn’t exist. Which is ironic to say because 2016’s version is clearly such a love letter to the original. It seems a shame to me that it copy/pasted the name. Imitation is the best form of flattery, but not when it extends to cutting off and then wearing your idol’s skin.
In Conclusion – What have I missed?
It’s clearly a growing trend to name newer games the same as the originals, even after as little as 10 years, and I can only think of negative consequences for doing so. Is it just more ‘hip’ to drop the number?
It actually disgusts me. The notion that we’re so fickle that we’ll forget about the originals, or somehow appreciate the newer versions more because they didn’t have the number 4 or 5 in the name. You might argue that new players are more likely to pick up a game if they don’t feel like they’ve already missed 5 instalments, but to hide your game’s ancestry for that reason alone is so sardonic! That theory also sounds like something that overpaid marketers may have merely convinced themselves is true rather than something sales data has actually backed up. After all, I bought Assassin’s Creed IV, Civilization V, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 all without having played prior games. And I know many who have done the same.
Fudging the numbers in this way is being done by the biggest companies with the biggest marketing departments. There must be some logic to it. It doesn’t seem like something that someone convinced themselves was now trendy while sipping on a 50% hops IPA that is actually brewed in old French wheelbarrows (I’m trying to say “the latest thing that someone suddenly decides is hip”). I’m convinced that there must be real concerted logic at work, here, but I can’t figure it out.
Whatever the logic, or lack thereof, it’s damaging to the preservation and searchability of games. I can hear the response “don’t care, old games don’t sell well. I’ve a monthly bonus to stretch for. I’m not concerned with history”, but can I counter with this example?
A new player comes to Gears of War 4. Loves it. Decides they want to play all the other Gears games. You know; 1, 2, and 3. You’ve made 3 extra (albeit lower-priced) sales on the back of 1. Well done. What about Judgment? You lost that sale didn’t you? Why, because it wasn’t very clear that it existed, and that’s the most recent and thus highest-priced of the previous games that you failed to sell.
So, what of it all? I’m afraid my advice is simply “just be honest with the damned numbers or don’t use them! And never use a name that’s already been used”. Hell, if you use a name even similar to somebody else’s you get sued. Bethesda initiated legal proceedings against Mojang when they announced Scrolls a few years ago because it sounded too similar to their series The Elder Scrolls. But you’re allowed do it to yourself because it’s your property? Legally, okay, sure, but what about the consumers?
I’ll leave you with a section from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)’s website about trademarks.
What is trademark infringement? Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark on or in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion, deception, or mistake about the source of the goods and/or services.
“Unauthorized” doesn’t apply, but the rest is worth thinking about.
Hello again everyone and thanks for coming back to read these sort of mini-reviews that are Player Too, as I document the journey (word choice! foreshadowing! real writing!) to hopefully foster in my girlfriend, Claire, a real interest in games so we can share one of my favourite ever hobbies together.
At episode 7 I have to say we’re really getting somewhere. At this point she’d be tired of humouring me and I’d just be being cruel to pester her this much just for writing material. No, we’ve actually had a great couple of months for the games, following a very positive period for Episode 6 as well.
So during the last couple of months, my good buddy Ian lent me his PS3 so I could finally get around to playing some games that had been on my list a long time, but I hadn’t had a TV or PS3 console to really use them. We worked out that I could use my PC monitor for the visual, and output the audio separately into a portable speaker. This hassle was of course just weeks before Sony made PS Now available on PC anyway, but whatever.
I finally got to play a whole host of games over a few weeks. Uncharted 1-3, The Last of Us, MGS4, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Killzone 2 & 3, Resistance, Flower, and of course, Journey; a game people still haven’t shut up about to this day. It must be good!
I didn’t play all of those games to completion, but I did most of them. Claire joined for for the evenings I played Flower and Journey. If anyone’s wondering, this was a couple of weeks before Abzu came out. I knew they’d be good games to try with Claire as they were chill, beautiful, short, and didn’t really have failure states. These are all things we’ve mentioned that Claire sees as positives in previous Player Too episodes. I’m increasingly appreciating short games too, as you get a well crafted experience that doesn’t eat up all your time over a few weeks – just one or two evenings. When you’re trying to play as many trending games as you can, that’s a Godsend.
Anyway, let’s get to it!
Journey, by ThatGameCompany, is a visual masterpiece from 2012 that still holds up, and it also now has a HD remake. It’s a gem of a game that throws many gaming conventions out the window while mastering others. For instance, there isn’t a single line of dialogue, nor popups, wrong-way warnings, health bars or even instruction. Everything you need to know is communicated visually or by example. There’s a very floaty feel to the controls as you soar, slide, and glide across magnificent landscapes towards a mountain in the far-off distance. Why we’re trying to get there isn’t directly explained, but is implied enough through environmental story-telling and short, wordless cutscenes that you can come to your own conclusions – and everyone’s theory will be a little different.
One of my favourite things was the multiplayer implementation. As long as you’re connected, this will work seamlessly. You start the game solo, but may be paired up with just one other player at at time, at any point, and you travel in tandem. There’s no indication that someone has joined you until you literally spot them moving around nearby, and there’s no indication that they’ve left until you look around and really can’t find them any more. There isn’t even a name tag until the post-game credits when they mention all the other users who joined you. Claire and I were debating as we watched another player move about if they were really another player or just an NPC (I had to look it up, and there are no NPC journey-ers). You have one way to interact with them. You have a sort of jumping, twirl animation that sends out a small pulse. It’s basically your only way to say hello. But, correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to charge your companion’s flying ability, and not your own (again, this isn’t explained in-game), so they’re encouraged to stay near you and you’re encouraged to reciprocate their charge.
This also means you kind of miss them when they’re gone. Aww.
Another nice thing is that your character’s gender is non-defined and you couldn’t tell by looking as they’re so stylised (and also they fly a bit so they’re clearly not exactly human), so again the game insists very little upon you and it’s easy to get in to. Claire saw the character as female, but me, having seen that character all over games media for four years, just saw them basically as “the Journey avatar”, though I do find it easier to lean towards female than male if I had to choose. The stylised skinny legs and graceful movement just imply that to me. Anyway.
The game is only 2-3 hours long so I won’t spoil anything other than to say “just play it”.
And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which sort of means that it did its job perfectly. It’s only watching the trailer again today while I wrote this that I remembered how gorgeous and seamlessly integrated that it actually was, sitting in with the visuals and theme at any given moment without ever demanding your focus directly, or worse, lifting you out of it by being overly dramatic at the wrong moments.
Claire and I played together just swapping controls every other level and it’s so passive and low-skill level that we both advanced at the same pace and just chilled while watching the other. If this was Super Meat Boy or something then our gaming experience would mean we’d advance at totally different paces and might have gotten frustrated watching the other.
So yeah, this game is great for playing together, though I don’t mean online together as you’ve no solid way to know who the other player is or deliberately join their game.
Player Too Result:
We both liked this a lot. There’s something universally appealing about a game with nice controls and visuals and it’s short enough that you just don’t get the chance to get bored with it. I can see why people replay this a lot. I’ve since given back the borrowed PS3, but if there’s ever a PC version I’d give it another go, for sure. As would Claire, and she hasn’t said that about many of the games so far. Often she’s been willing to try something like that, but not that same thing again.
What would you call this game genre though? Meditative? Journey-like (from now on)? The Playstation Store page says simply ‘Adventure’, which fits, but in a 100% different way to how Broken Age is an Adventure, game. I’m going to say “Chill-sim” for now, okay?
As a play experience it feelsa little bit close to the walking-simulator (we’re taking that term back, by the way. I mean it positively) narrative games, for me at least, but where Firewatch and Gone Home are asset-light, easy-to-use games and emphasize story, Chill-Sims would be story-light, easy-to-use games that emphasize aesthetics and environmental storytelling.
Abzu, the diving Chill-Sim 😉 from Journey’s art director Matt Nava (new studio is Giant Squid – not ThatGameCompany) has come out recently and I’ve played it myself, loving it for all sorts of similar reasons to this, and some new ones. Claire is looking forward to playing that, and thinks the trailer looks gorgeous! So that’ll be next.
Are there other chill sims out there besides the following?..
I was so eager to play Journey, it was the first thing I did when I got the PS3, so it was a week or so later that I came to ThatGameCompany’s earlier 2009 game Flower. There’s a lot of similarities and I’d call this a chill sim also, but it’s definitely the inferior product, albeit with its own merits.
As such, I hadn’t planned to see if Claire would play it for the blog, but she came in near the start and we wound up playing together and swapping control each level, as with Journey.
In this game you start the levels as a petal floating on the breeze, and, quite uniquely, use only the controller’s tilt functions, and not the sticks, to steer. What you control is essentially the breeze, as you travel around the level sweeping up more and more petals from other flowers to bring more colour into the world. Controlling the game really was a joy and I still remember Claire getting way into it and raising the whole pad up behind her head in that unnecessarily-full-bodied-controlling sort of way that is iconically associated with ‘people enjoying games’.
The minimalist instruction approach and lack of fail states made it unmistakable as Journey’s forerunner, and I really enjoyed the early levels, but I thought the last few did get repetitive and lose the run of themselves a little. And this is only a 2-3 hour game as well so that’s a real criticism. For me, I like the early levels where you were literally a petal on the wind and the simplicity of the meadows and the beauty of nature were great themes. But unlike Journey, there’s less contrast from level to level, and when the aesthetic actually does change, I felt it was for the worse.
More literal magic is introduced as you start to somehow move rock formations by ‘activating’ enough of the other flowers. For me the game spoiled a little there. Then in later levels you’re introduced to deliberately ugly electricity pylons and city-elements that, while the contrast is deliberate, really didn’t sit well in the game for me. They’re used in unnatural shapes and the city parts, rather than just being a dilapidated urban environment, was closer to a Picasso painting in terms of how the urban elements were arrayed. It deviated from the ‘natural’ part of its ‘natural beauty of the world’ theme where I felt it could have perfectly contrasted itself by sticking closer to the real world.
Even though Journey has more of the unnatural going on, it begins in that way, and so doesn’t feel like it changes direction on you. I actually have this same criticism of Abzu, but that’s for next time (and don’t let me stop you, it’s a gorgeous game).
Player Too Result:
We both enjoyed the game early on and started flagging about half-way through, wishing it was over by the last couple of levels. Because I knew how short the game was, though, we powered through. There’s no point suggesting how they might improve, as they next made Journey, so every possible lesson was learned perfectly.
If we’d played this game first, we’d each have said “I like that, but I’d like to see it done bettter”, then played Journey and said “perfect, give me more!”. So there’s not much worth saying here that I didn’t say above. Look to Abzu next. If you’ve played both Journey and Abzu, Flower is still worth your time if you want more, but you won’t get as much out of it.
The Stanley Parable
Since as far back as episode 2, I’ve been saying we’d get to The Stanley Parable sooner or later. It appears ‘later’ was correct. Claire did play the demo late last year and really enjoyed it, but it’s somehow taken this long to play the real game. We’ve had our walking simulators and I’ve explained that they’re a good way to get used to first person movement in a “safe” environment. Claire doesn’t have decades of FPS training. She had none before we started Player Too, in fact. So these games, enjoyable on their own merits, are hopefully getting us closer to where we could play Portal 2’s co-op mode together, which I’d love to do. Baby steps though.
The catwalk jump is actually the only skill-based thing you can do in the game, and while it took her a few goes not to go splat, she did get there and experience an extra 10-15 minutes of the game’s content that lies down that direction. Including the part where.. ah, just play it yourself. One word though, ‘Portal’. It felt like foreshadowing and I forgot it was there since I first played.
If you don’t know what The Stanley Parable is, as the trailer says, to say too much would be to spoil it. It’s unlike any other game (well, that was more true before Beginner’s Guide and Dr.Langeskov came out). It’s sort of like what I imagine the Monty Python guys would have made if they made games instead of a TV show and some movies.
If you know nothing about games, you’ll really enjoy it. If you’re aware of gaming tropes and criticisms then you’re likely to love it. The joy is in trying to subvert what the game wants you to do (as we often do in other games – to see what happens) and realising that the designers were one or two steps ahead of you. Every time! They’ve every single thing handled, and you’re in a constant state of contention (well, sometimes cooperation) with the game’s narrator, with hilarious results.
Again, there’s no failure states (even the two places where you can try kill yourself are handled) but the game is simultaneously all about failure.
I’m really not doing it justice and don’t want to spoil anything with specific examples. All I can say if you haven’t played it is to make sure you do. Play the demo too. It features none of the same content as the main game so it’s like a free mini-game. Even the trailer is its own beast, with little to none of the game’s actual content, but all of its character, featured.
Player Too Result:
I really enjoyed this game when I first played it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly different as a gaming experience, and I really enjoyed watching Claire experience it for the first time, too. Her first instinct was always to not do as instructed, and getting stopped in her tracks, or dismaying the game’s narrator always resulted in outbursts of laughter.
We’d already played Dr.Langeskov so when I was asking would she like to play games like this, I couldn’t readily think of any. So I’ve suggested The Beginner’s Guide, which is more an autobiographical drama than a game, and with very little comedy. She’s interested to play that, though.
She explained to me then that her resistance to games was always that she saw them as very skill-based ways to entertain yourself, and that she had neither the skills, nor time to develop them, to start enjoying games. Seeing things like what we’ve been playing on Player Too has shown her that there’s all sorts of gaming experiences out there, and that they’re a great alternative way to tell stories, to challenge your brain, or in this case to experience comedies, without needing lightning-fast reflexes or platforming skills. She’s really enjoyed a lot of the games that we played recently. I believe that there’s a game out there for everyone, and it seems more true than ever today. Hooray!
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
The trailers for the game are a little cringe worthy, and this one actually implies a few things that don’t actually happen, but they’re touching all the same.
Okay, this game. I love it. I can’t believe I passed it over for so many years. I was actually starting to watch a Let’s Play of it once, but from the first few minutes I knew it deserved to be bought and played. Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell also recommended this game for Player Too around that time and so I’ve had it waiting in the wings for a couple of months. Thanks guys!
I played the first level or so, but because of the Steam + U-Play sign ins required, it meant that Claire had to play using my profile and so playing simultaneous saves at the same time wouldn’t work, so for once, she played a game that I hadn’t. I only beat it last night. It’s not exactly a short game either, emotionally it’s a roller coaster (if you’ve any soul at all – and I’m not known for mine so that’s an extra strong recommendation), and there are more than a couple of quite difficult skill-based segments, as well as a couple of more challenging puzzles, so after beating it myself, I was more than a little impressed that Claire had done it all before me without referencing guides or asking for help to beat any of the harder sections. I know she got frustrated with it at times (we played in the same room while I played Punch Club) but it didn’t stop her, whereas Talos Principle and Telltale’s Game of Thrones had, so that says a lot for either her growing skills, or the quality of the game that kept her coming back. Both, most likely.
“Valiant Hearts: The Great War / Soldats Inconnus: Mémoires de la Grande Guerre” (to give it its absolute full name, which I feel it’s earned. The second half is French for “Unknown Soldiers: Memories of the Great War”) was made by Ubisoft Montpellier (France) and released in 2014. It centres on the lives of four playable fictional characters and is set in France and Belgium from 1914-1917 (for once a war game actually mostly excludes the US period of the war, rather than focusing solely on it), during World War 1. It plays like an adventure/puzzle game most of the time, but with a lot of other types of sections like dodging bombs in a tiny car driving down a country road, or administering medical aid to soldiers with a rhythm-style mini-game. You can even drive a Mk1 tank, and it’s as unexpected as it is fun when the moment arrives.
It’s presented in a stylised, almost comical fashion, but in no way does it make light of the war. On the contrary, it handles its subject matter with the utmost respect, and even goes so far as to attempt to educate players by offering them to read short passages with real-world photos, whenever something relevant shows up in the game, though this is optional. Before playing, I actually thought this was an indie game. I was a little surprised to see a AAA label, Ubisoft no less, using stylised 2D art, and I was all the more impressed when I saw the educational segments. The fact that a AAA studio made a war game that doesn’t glorify war, in which none of your characters ever handle a rifle or directly cause the death of anyone on screen, and that then actively seeks to educate players, is a small miracle in and of itself. I’m so encouraged that this game exists. I’d never have believed that that pitch would get past Ubisoft higher-ups, so my hat’s off to them for that. I’d love to hear more about how it came to be. Edit: Here’s some further info, but it doesn’t cover the pitch or approval.
We should be so lucky if the upcoming Battlefield 1 (name sounds no less stupid to me this many months later) handles the Great War with any hint of delicacy. They’ve already relegated the contributions of the French and Russian forces to the DLC. However I am eager to see what they do in the campaign. BF3 and 4 certainly didn’t try very hard to humanise the Russians or Chinese in their fictional wars, but maybe they will be more considerate of a WW1 setting. Edit: This new gameplay footage has me a little encouraged as to the more respectful treatment of the war, but I do think it’s only for one level, and I’d far rather the narrator were a British, French or German soldier who’d been in the trenches for 4 years, rather than America-washing a largely European war. And I can’t resist to nitpick this: It says that these events happened over a hundred years ago. Some of them did. But 100 years ago we were in the middle of the war (1916), and the Americans hadn’t yet entered (April 1917). This gameplay level is clearly set in 1918, which is less than a hundred years to the time of the game and trailer’s release. Hey, I’m detail-oriented. Particularly when it comes to important history.
Most war games seem to try and say “war is hell, sure, but look how many dudes you can roast with a flamethrower”. Valiant Hearts says “war is hell, and real tragedies happen to real people like you who don’t deserve them. Now here’s a little info on how chlorine gas reacts with the water in your lungs to create acid and burn you from the inside”. I love that this game exists, and wish more games would follow its lead.
Despite the heavy tone, the dog companion is with you throughout most of the game to lighten it a little and make you feel love and care for something in these hellish settings. The credibility of the story does sometimes flounder, like when you’re reassigned to a new front, but get to take your dog, or you’re leading a charge in a new battle, but still don’t have a gun like everyone around you does, or when the dog puts on a gas mask and they’ve still animated its tongue hanging out, but these are small complaints.
The game paces itself well, too. After a tense opening chapter, we go back in time a bit and solve a puzzle involving repairing a taxi so as Anna can transport soldiers to the front (there is info available on how thousands of taxis were requisitioned to bring soldiers from Paris to the front during the Battle of the Marne) and the next section involves dodging speeding traffic to the sound of can-can music, before anyone has realised just how horrific the Marne is going to be, and patriotism was still the order of the day. Indeed, one the game’s final moments is sure to make a note of the mutinies that soldiers eventually carried out over continually being sent “over the top” to their deaths, and how the subsequent courts-martial were handled.
I could continue to gush over this game, but I should stop. It’s worth a play if you want to play either a good looking game, a different war game, an educational game, the most indie-style AAA game I’ve yet seen, or just a game that will make you feel.. things.. emotions. Claire was near-bawling when it was over, and even my cold cold heart-strings were tugged upon.
Player Too Result:
Something amazing happened with this game. Claire would come home from work, and straight away take out the laptop and continue playing, eager to beat a challenge from the night before, or to see what happened the characters (there are cliffhangers). This is real gamer behaviour and I haven’t seen Claire as eager to play something in this way since Race The Sun back before episode 2, and with that she soon grew tired as the game doesn’t really take you anywhere in a narrative progression sense. So I’m encouraged. With everything else she might play if I suggested it, or join me playing as with Flower, but so far she hasn’t been this eager to pick up and play any of the games. So major success with this one!
Her single favourite feature was hands-down the dog companion (she even repeatedly whistled to it) but she loved the game for what it was, too. A respectful war game and a challenging adventure. It’s probably the most difficult adventure game she’s played so far, and it definitely sharpened her reflexes somewhat (Level Up!!), but the love for the characters pulled her though the harder sections.
It would be great to hear of games on a par with this for emotional weight. The characters in Valiant Hearts are just too sympathetic because the context really happened. Karl, for example, is a German married to a French woman and living in France. At the start of the game he’s called up to fight for Germany, and then the woman’s father Emile is called up to fight for the French, leaving her alone with the harvest in a soon-to-be-occupied St.Mihiel, with the two dearest men in her life shooting at each other. These are real people’s stories and that’s hard to compete with.
I struggle to think of many games with a good dog companion (not COD: Ghosts) that would interest Claire, but maybe something will come up.
Essentially our take-away from this one is that adventure games are still good, furry companions are great, slightly more challenging games are now maybe an option, and that games with an interesting angle are worth considering for Player Too.
Next Time On Player Too
So, great success this time! I already have Abzu ready to go, hot on the heels of Journey, and we’ll keeping sharpening those first-person skills by next looking at The Beginner’s Guide. After that I think Claire could try her first ever “shooter”, with Super Hot, which is really more of a puzzle game, but is also definitely a shallow step into the shooter pool that would move us towards Portal.
We tend to play 4 games for an episode, so are there any other suggestions? 4 is a lot to write for at once (though it makes a nice square picture at the top) so I might actually reduce to 3 anyway.
I liked Punch Club and it’s quite accessible, but it’s quite long and grind-y and while I know Claire would appreciate the humour and references, I doubt she’d put the time into the mid-game to get through it.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an option for a puzzle/adventure with the feels, but we’ll see.
Can anyone recommend games with low-ish skill and good canine (or maybe robo-canine) companions? How’s the recent ReCore, if you’ve played it?
I got Spore and I know the first stage is a lot like Agar which Claire liked, so that may be an option, but I haven’t yet played the rest and I know that game isn’t the most wildly popular game out there, so maybe not.
Anyone played Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime? I keep seeing it and thinking that it might be appropriate but I really don’t know how it would suit 2 people with different skill levels? Is it friendly to all? It seems kind of hectic.
In real life, Claire’s also gotten really into planting trees. I wonder if Stardew Valley might get her through the Winter, but we’ve really not tried a game anywhere near that long..
All recommendations appreciated, guys. And thanks so much for reading! Hope you enjoyed it and try some of these for yourself!
Until next time..
PS Claire says she’ll write a foreword for the next Player Too, so I can finally stop feeling that little pang of guilt about putting words in her mouth every other month. We just think it’d be nice for readers to hear from her for once.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to make up their mind about an article in the first sentence and then stops reading, then for your benefit let me extend this sentence awkwardly and state that there’s nothing wrong with Free To Play (F2P) games and I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ game. Read on.
The ‘classic’ that I refer to in the title is just the classic paid model of a complete game. Not the type of genre or the period of the game’s release. As for F2P, for today’s article I’m entirely focused on mobile F2P, not other platforms.
So I’m 29, and I’ve been playing games since I was about 7. 1994 is when I got my first computer so I’ve a 22 year career in playing games. The majority of games that I played in that time were games I paid for once, as complete experiences, and played to completion (less so in recent years. So many more games, so little time). So that’s normal for me anyway, and it’s still the way I prefer to play games.
I don’t want to pay for a subscription where you’ll give me 6 or 7 mystery games (Humble Monthly Bundle). I don’t want to pay €60 for a half a game then another €50 for the ‘Season Pass’, the value of which remains to be seen (virtually all AAA games these days), and I don’t particularly want to download the game for free and pay real money to change the colour of my character’s hat (other than to show support if I did enjoy it. Don’t care about the hat colour per se). I especially don’t want to pay for the game and then pay more for ‘loot crates’ or new character skins (aka ‘Fee To Pay’) because I’ve already paid the entry fee and why should I pay more?
That’s just how I feel about how I consume games. It’s entirely subjective. There’s nothing automatically wrong with any of those models (though some can give rise to pretty dubious practices) and they’ll suit some people more than others. I work from home but if I commuted daily I might be a bigger consumer of Free To Play mobile games (though I still doubt it).
So yeah; in gamer-years I’m an old grump who doesn’t like change. Why is this? And what prompted me to write this article?
Trying out mobile games again
I’m primarily a PC gamer. For lots of reasons. I don’t own a TV. Most of what I would want to play on a console I can get on PC anyway. I like space games. I like indie games. My first gaming experiences were on PC. I prefer keyboard and mouse. All of that!
I’ve owned a console each generation since the Megadrive/Genesis until now. I just prefer PC.
I do go outside of my comfort zone to try new games though, especially now as a game designer I want to play what people are talking about, at least a little, so I can see what’s hot and what’s not, so to speak. For instance, I recently finally got my hands on a PS3 and got to try the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, Journey, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 as well as a few others. This was only days before Sony announced that Playstation Now is coming to PC, but whatever. I’m glad I did. Great games, all, and a few long-standing items ticked off my To Do list.
I also pick up mobile games from time to time, like if a friend made it, or if enough people won’t shut up about it. Angry Birds was my first mobile game and it was probably the one I enjoyed the most. I’ve also tried Jetpack Joyride and Crossy Road but while I can see the fun, they’re not games I felt like playing more of, and I certainly wasn’t compelled to spend money in them (I wouldn’t be around long enough to get anything out of the purchase).
More recently (relatively) I tried a new batch. I haven’t tried Pokemon Go yet (I will, but I hear there’s virtually no ‘gameplay’. Its popularity stems from its novelty of the ‘Go’ part, not its strength as a Pokemon game. Personally I look forward to other ‘Go’ games that really explore the gameplay side a bit better) but I was catching up on a few other games that won’t seem to leave me alone until I try them.
80 Days is so far my favourite mobile game but it’s a paid game. You pay, and you get the whole experience. One that isn’t artificially slowed down to compel you to spend more money to speed it up. For this blog post though I’m trying to get to a point about F2P games with microtransactions, so I won’t go into 80 Days. Just wanted to give the shout out. It’s now also available on PC if that’s your thing.
I’ve a lot of time for Bethesda, so I tried Fallout Shelter. I found it to be an extremely compelling Skinner box of a game that occupied me for a couple of days, but that ultimately went nowhere. You build up your vault to protect your settlers from nuclear fallout. You expand it, attract new settlers, build weapons to protect against raiders and infestations and… just keep doing that really. Once I’d seen a few of the mechanics and realised that I was now just clicking the thing so that I could click more things I lost all interest in the game and stopped dead. Endless games don’t really do it for me, as fun as this was early on.
It tries to earn its money (and succeeds, just not with me) by selling cheap-ish loot drops and upgrades like legendary weapons which ultimately just save you time in getting those things through ‘gameplay’ (mostly waiting) and with no ultimate goal in mind other than to buy/earn the next thing. One thing that I hate about the type of drop they use (“lunchboxes”) is that what you get is random. You might want something in particular. Pay them money and you might get it. If not, pay them more money and try again. It’s gambling at its ugliest if you ask me (all sorts of games are doing this now so I’m not just picking on Fallout Shelter). The ‘house’ (developer) doesn’t risk anything. They create a new instance of a virtual good and give it to you, whether it was the one you wanted or not. You always spend money and can never get it back. You’d be better off in a casino.
The free game is fun enough for a day or two though.. I guess. It’s really well designed.. I just struggle to find anything truly nice to say about it because of how much its monetisation method turns me off.
Clash of Clans
Next up was this phenomenal success. And again I really can’t see the attraction. Sure there’s blips and bloops when you press things (positive reinforcement for the easily impressed, or just good game polish for the more cynical) but there doesn’t seem to be any end goal. You can attack the clans of other players but with feck-all control of your units in battle. It’s not an RTS (which might have been interesting). You build up your village/clan and get better defensive structures and offensive units.
I always find it frustrating to get trolled by more advanced players in games, though getting revenge can be fun. But then they’ll just do it back to you. It’s an endless cycle that goes nowhere. What is this game?
You can pay to speed up the process of earning things. Which, as I sometimes see it, is paying not to play the game.
Clearly, I haven’t found the magic that hundreds of millions of other uses have. If anyone would (seriously) like to try to ‘sell’ it to me or explain something I’m missing, feel free.
I once played a Facebook game that was similar. Can’t remember the name but it took after Red Alert a bit in terms of units and art style. It was fun, and I actually spent a few bucks on it at the time, but ultimately it just becomes about getting attacked by the same couple of local players every other day, and attacking them back in between. Whoever pays the devs more can do the better attacking, and ultimately there is no winner. The devs are basically Lord or War in this regard, arming both sides and watching them go nowhere. Knowing that Clans was basically the same thing with a theme that I found less interesting, I didn’t play much past the tutorial (can you tell that I crave story or some sort of overall goal from my games? Yeah, I think you can).
Oh that’s the other thing. Mobile tutorials (yes, I generalise)tend to be sooo patronising. Like “press this button if you would want to do this”, yet you can do literally nothing else. The first half hour of the game is just pressing the one available button as and when you’re told. There’s no room to experiment or make choices. Very dull. You do nothing but read and tap, read and tap. I know you’re learning but Christ that’s a boring way to do tutorials, and I’ve rarely found the post-tutorial gameplay to be much more compelling when games start out that way. It’s a prejudice I’ve picked up, yes, but it’s held true for me so far. I always find it a bad sign.
Kings Of The Realm
Made by Digit in Dublin, I know many of the team from the Irish Game Dev community so of course I had to play this at some point. I haven’t a tablet, just a Galaxy S4 so I liked that I could take my same profile and play on the PC with larger screen and mouse controls.
There’s a bit of a story going on, which I definitely appreciated, and there’s pretty good systems in place to ensure that you can’t attack or be attacked by players of a vastly different rank than you.
In an over-simplified way it’s like Clash of Clans, or at least it sits in the same genre. You have a base, you upgrade the base with better defences and more advanced barracks to build better units to attack other players or NPC camps to gain resources and level up.
The art is far superior to Clash of Clans. This is a much prettier game in my opinion. Your castle and grounds look amazing. You can even see villagers working in the fields and walking around. You feel like it’s a real place and start to imagine enemy hordes streaming through the gates and feel compelled to boost your defences asap to protect your subjects. But that’s the problem. You have to imagine it. The battles are all auto-resolved. You don’t see what your attacking armies or defending troops are actually doing, and you can’t directly command them. Again – it’s not an RTS.
I lasted longer on this than Clans and I do think it’s the better game, but the gameplay was still too shallow and repetitive for me, in many of the same ways. If I could actually have more involvement in the attacks (and you do have some..) that’d be it for me, but that would require building a whole other game on top of this one so it’s not going to happen.
Again, microtransactions allow you to skip build times.
My takeaways from my latest round of mobile gaming
I’m willing and trying to embrace more facets of gaming. For instance, thanks to Xcom, I now like turn-based games, whereas I never did growing up (except Worms. That was hilarious). But mobile gaming, at least those games that adopt the F2P model and design around it, still fail to do anything for me.
To me it just feels like you’re levelling up to level up, whereas in games like Fallout 4 or Pillars of Eternity you actually use your level. You fight at that level for a while and really feel a boost when you get a new ability at the next one. It’s not that mobile games are somehow inherently unable to deliver on this, it’s just that, for me, I’ve never seen one that does.
Computer games added the tabletop RPG ideas of levelling to make core mechanics like shooting or spell-casting more interesting. Deus Ex and Mass Effect are great examples of levelling in games that aren’t just solely about achieving the next level. There it’s a companion to gameplay. Intended to be the icing on the cake; not the entire cake! Levelling for the sake of levelling feels very empty to me when I can’t actually play any part of the game.
The best mobile games are of course technologically inferior to most PC and console games, but there’s no rule that says they have to be inferior in terms of gameplay. I’m aware of that. I’m not trying to be a snob. I’m making an effort. But I’ve never found a free to play mobile game that held interest for me.
So I started to think about this and I asked myself “is it me?”.
Just for the purposes of discussion, let’s say I’m a “classic gamer”. Ever since I was 7, I’ve had at least one game on the go at a time. I’ve always played games and for the most part, certainly during my formative years and throughout all my school and college years they’ve all been of the classic paid model. So I paid for the game and played the crafted experience (majority were single player) without even the option to pay to see more parts of the game or buy new characters, weapons or skins.
Why, in my day, DLC (or “expansion packs” as they were known) weren’t necessarily even considered for development until the core game seemed to be selling well. They certainly weren’t planned in advance as season pass hostage material.
So with that as my norm, I’ve been trained to think of games in a certain way. As a business/marketing graduate I’ve no problem acknowledging that things change and have to change and that alternate models are viable, if not superior. I’m just saying that I like what I like and I’ve been affected by my experiences, as has everyone.
I’m kind of taking ages to get to the point, but what I came to realise (half-jokingly, half-seriously) was this:
Classic Games trained me against F2P
There are all sorts of studies into how we can teach through gaming and a growing area of the industry is focused on the “gamification” of things like education. Games can train us to do things and think certain ways. In a good way (though like anything it can be used for evil. But never mind that for today).
Games can improve our reflexes and reaction times, even in the elderly. They can improve our ability to track multiple moving objects. They encourage lateral thinking. They can teach us about history, physics, warfare, how do drive a car or how to fly a plane. Games are especially good at teaching logic and efficiency. Any sort of game with a combat encounter to be overcome trains you how to best use your resources (weapons, time, money, environment, allies) to overcome a problem.
So I think it was while playing Fallout Shelter that I started thinking about one of the common ways that F2P games monetise, which is to place a removable build timer in the game. They say “you’re building this building, which will be ready in 4 hours, or you can pay us money and it’ll be ready now”. Aside from that feeling a little bit like extortion (the person asking for money set the build time after all), it’s also a no-brainer to me. Well my cash is a real-life resource. I can save that resource by waiting for 4 hours. Not 4 gameplay hours, but just turning off my phone and doing housework or reading a book or going to bed for the night. The most efficient thing for me to do is to set buildings building, wait, and never pay for them. I’ll have the same result in a relatively short amount of time.
Of course, the value I place on €1 is different to the value a higher-earner does, and everyone’s time is valuable. But the games I’ve played have trained me in lateral thinking, and lateral thinking leads me here: I’m not being asked to weigh time against money, since I don’t have to actually spend my time watching the building get built. It happens anyway. So it becomes more like weighing money against no money, and that equation works out the same every time. I can achieve something else in the same time. Thereby getting two tasks done and saving money. Efficiency for the win!
The Harvester Effect
Take almost any Command and Conquer game. You need to build harvesters to collect ore or tiberium. The more harvesters you have, the better. They cost c1,400 to build from your War Factory. But they also come free with a Refinery, which costs c2,000. However, all buildings can be sold for half of their purchase cost, so building and selling a refinery has a net cost of only c1,000 and still leaves you with a harvester in the end. Think laterally and maximise your resources.
Games are full of examples like this. I went in to many of them (and even finished writing this article) but even though I saved my draft, it was somehow forgotten when I returned. I haven’t the heart (or recollection) to fully rewrite it so suffice it to say that games teach us to get the maximum efficiency out of our resources and assets, be they that you have a ranged weapon against hordes of unarmed aliens, that you’re outnumbered but can use cover to your advantage, that you can focus fire on units in an RTS to kill one unit more quickly to reduce the number of guns facing you, that you have a stealth character and don’t need to take a dungeon entrance head-on, or that you’re more agile than the giant, lumbering boss you’re facing down.
You take the resources and abilities you’re given, and use them to overcome a challenge. Do so in the most efficient way possible and you’ll even get the high score or unlock secret levels. Every day of my gaming life I’ve been trained to think smarter and waste not. Then along come games that offer little of this same worthwhile gameplay that I’m referring to, and try to convince me to pay them to make the game go faster. In the case of build timers, paying to remove them isn’t the best use of my cash, because I can get what you’re offering simply by going to bed for the night, and if your gameplay is a shallow loop I place very little value (‘utility’, since we’ve ventured into the realm of microeconomics now) on having the new asset, or even playing the game any further at all.
I see avoiding the payment as almost a further aspect of gameplay. You’re already trying to save your units and buildings from danger, so you’re already in management mode and saving your cash resource by planning your play sessions becomes just another challenge. I know that goes against the intended payment model that the devs envisioned, but it’s how I feel games have trained me to play up to this point.
I’d like to restate that if you enjoy something you were given for free, and the mechanisms are there to reward the creators, you should engage with it if you can afford it. However, with F2P games, I ask myself “now that I know what the game’s about and how fun it is, would I have been happy to pay for it up front”? If the answer is no, as is so often the case with me and mobile games, I don’t feel any guilt skipping the transactions. F2P games I have paid for are usually on the PC. Heroes & Generals and Planetside 2 come to mind.
I know that in the F2P model, the devs count on having players like me just present in the game so that they can attract and retain the “whales” who will spend hundreds on their game, and if that’s the model they’re going for then more power to them. I don’t even really feel expected to have paid at that rate. I’m worked into the model as a short term ‘+1’ to the monthly active users for that month, which is part of the plan anyway.
It’s clear that I’m fairly down on my mobile gaming experiences to date, though I do try open-mindedly every now and again to get into it. For me there’s just nothing that offers the depth that I normally seek in games, and the endless Skinner box loops, meaningless levelling, and transparently worthless microtransactions turn me off even more.
I know not all mobile games can be like this, and I know they can do better, but with all I’m hearing recently about the fact the premium mobile games (pay once up front model) are all but dead, I’m not encouraged for the future.
Crossy Road had the best payment model that I’ve observed. You can opt to watch ads which gives you game currency that you can spend on new skins that don’t affect your ability to play the game. It’s non-intrusive, honest, straight-forward, not tied to gameplay, and the ads are only short. This also suits the mobile space because play sessions are inherently shorter than a typical console or PC play session.
I’m still happier paying for a good game and experiencing it though. On that note I can heartily recommend 80 Days and Guild of Dungeoneering as games you won’t regret paying for. They’re both now on mobile and PC, so whatever your preference, go for it. I think 80 Days is best played when you’re already on a holiday though. The travel theme just fits so well.
I know I’m a bit of a grump, and my theory about older games training me against engaging with these newer payment models is only a vague notion, but I’d love to hear peoples’ theories on it. Does it make sense? Are other people as hesitant as I am to engage with microtransactions even in free games?
And can anyone please explain what I’m missing about these games that really gets people engaged? It can’t just be that the mobile players have never tried anything better and think Clash of Clans is the pinnacle of multiplayer strategy gaming… can it?
Also please recommend any mobile games I should be trying out. If I add Danger Mine and the adorable Ship Antics to the games I’ve mentioned here, that’s pretty much every mobile game I’ve ever played, so there’s plenty of room for recommendations.
Well it’s been about four months since the last episode of Player Too, so as a reminder, or to anyone new, let me explain that Player Too is me documenting the attempt to get my girlfriend Claire to share in the wonderful world of games with me. I believe without a doubt that there’s a game out there for everyone. If you’re a gamer and have a friend, partner, or sibling who you’d just love to sit down and play something with, but who doesn’t share your passion, maybe you’ll find something in this series to recommend to them. We’ve certainly had some successes so far.
The reason it’s been so long since the last post is basically that old excuse; “life happens”. We hadn’t played many games together until the last few weeks, both having been too busy for more than the occasional episode of something on Netflix. You may notice, then, that the games I’m writing about this time are pretty short. The Steam sale led to me picking up a few titles that I thought we could try whenever we’d a free half an hour, without feeling the need to have to finish the game (Firewatch being the exception – though it was short enough to be manageable).
Firewatch is a beautiful, beautiful game. If you need to classify it, it’s a mystery / walking-simulator (if you can stand that term. I see no shame in it. Just embrace the irony. Own it, and move on). But the game is recognised first and foremost for its stunning art style. Not that it’s photo-realistic (it’s closer to cell-shaded, actually) but the colour palette used is perfect for capturing the stunning vistas of Wyoming’s great outdoors.
After an Up-rivalling introduction, setting up your character’s desire for some time away, you begin your Summer job as a fire lookout. Your only other real companion is your boss in the next tower a few miles away, which is always visible, yet always just out of reach. You really are alone in the tranquillity.. that is, until the plot turns from at-one-with-nature towards alone-in-the-woods as it becomes apparent that someone is watching you, messing with you, and you’re unsure of their intent.
The game’s story is linear, 4 hours long roughly, and any puzzle-solving elements are purely token gestures, but the plot is gripping. Claire and I, playing together, did continually stop to discuss our theories on who we could trust or who the antagonist might be, even questioning our only friend in the game, the woman on the radio. You do get to choose your dialogue responses, which carry some moral and ethical weight to them. Claire and I, each role-playing the same character at the same time, were often at odds over what the character’s mindset was, and what was the right thing to do, given the game’s prologue.
The world is semi-open, but not in an Ubisoft kind of way. There’s no side quests or radio towers to unlock, but as new climbing equipment gradually allows access to new parts of them map, you’ll find that you’re allowed the freedom to explore and approach your objective from multiple directions, actually using your map for orienteering. The game only has 5 achievements and they’re all given for progressing the story. It’s just that kind of game.
It’s a lot like Gone Home, but better. If you liked that, you’ll love this! There’s more character here, more suspense, and a far superior world to explore. It does occupy the same corner of the market, though. Indeed, the game has an easter egg – a book from Gone Home that you can find in the world in Firewatch. The Gone Home devs even reciprocated by putting a Firewatch easter egg into the newer console version of Gone Home.
Player Too Result:
Claire and I both liked Gone Home, and Firewatch is an improvement in every way. It’s a short game, good for busy people. The plot pulls you right through and you’re never bored. The scenery is one-of-a-kind, and the characters are compelling.
Claire and I would both play more games in this vein. Recommend if you know any.
Whatever your feelings on walking simulators and saying things “aren’t a game” I’ll accept no chastisement when I say that Proteus isn’t a game. We have to start defining things a big better than “If it’s digital and interactive, it’s a game”. An architectural program could be a game, then. Mario is to Proteusas chess is to ironing. The former both involve a screen, the latter both involve a board. You can’t say they’re all games. If you ask Claire and myself, Proteus is interactive art. It’s like a painting you can walk through. It’s a digital way that you can calm down, relax, and just enjoy what’s around you. It’s certainly experimental. That said, for simplicity, I’m still going to refer to it as ‘the game’.
My first impression, and later Claire’s, were actually identical. I’ve so much to do that without a goal to accomplish I feel I’m wasting time. This is why I’m not into many multiplayer games. When I started walking around the world, I was rushing, looking for an objective; a thing to do that would let me say I’d ‘beaten’ (or ‘finished with’) the game. But I quickly realised I was playing the game wrong. It’s not about a goal, or doing a particular thing. It’s about just seeing what can be seen.
Graphically, the world is a bit simplistic, but acoustically it’s rich! The world is so musical. Everything makes a sound. Rain makes plinky plonky xylophone sounds, bees drone up and done like a theremin, and startled flocks of chickens make a rattled bell noise. It really is quite a treat for the ears, and very soft too. No harsh sounds.
As little as there is to ‘do’, you can still interact with a lot of the creatures. Most are startled and run or hop away, and I frequently found myself chasing a bunny or flock of chickens around the island for a couple of minutes before something else would tickle my fancy. Something like a sunset, a cloud bank rolling in, a bat flying by, or a magical particle effect swirling in the distance leading me to wonder “what’s going on over there”. It’s hard to pick a point to stop playing the game. You just kind of stop after a few minutes, I suppose when you haven’t seen something new for a while.
There’s a lot to see though. Day and night cycles, a plethora of wildlife, a few structures, storms, magical creatures, and even an aurora borealis. I haven’t seen this last one yet, which leads me to wonder what else I’ve missed.
It’s hard to describe the game, but if you’re really into your games, or you’re a designer or audio person, this is definitely worth a look.
Something happened to me while playing it, also. I actually started to nod off. This may sound normal to some, but I’ve literally never fallen asleep playing a game, or watching a movie for that matter. I’m just not wired that way. I did play this around bed time, but I can play games all night when the mood takes me. This was just so calming and directionless that it was like meditation. Claire also fell asleep playing, but she often does, so it didn’t surprise me. Maybe there’s meditative merit in this game. Try it out if that’s your thing.
Player Too Result:
I played this first, and just thought I’d show Claire because it’s quick and easy. I think I only played it again so I could show someone new. Claire’s the same. She can see value in the game, but wouldn’t necessarily ever go back to it other than to show another person. And that person would probably not play again it other than to show someone else.
There isn’t really anything likeProteus (and that’s where its main value lies) so we can’t exactly play more of the same, though I have many times started a new Minecraft world just to explore the random generation and see something that nobody’s ever seen before.
Claire wouldn’t be pushed to play this again, or more of the same. She never really liked the simple Minecraft aesthetic, and Proteus also isn’t graphically that impressive. While she found the procedural element intriguing, she says it would take the world looking more like Firewatch to really get her interested in playing. I’m sure that kind of game is on the horizon (No Man’s Sky, if stripped of the combat elements, might be what we’re talking about) but for now, Proteus was a miss for finding a game Claire wants to keep coming back to.
I often go for a walk to clear my head and get some exercise. If it was stormy out I can see myself maybe playing this to center myself, though it’s usually reasons to get away from the computer that I’m looking for, not another reason to stay, so I don’t know. I really like the beauty of procedural generation and I’m an audio guy, so I’d probably play this for a few minutes from time to time, but if someone came up with a similar but prettier idea, I’d likely never come back to Proteus. It’s a weird one. You can probably already tell if it’s for you or not, so I’ll leave it there.
Mushroom 11 is a physics-based puzzle platformer that brings something new to the table. You play as an amorphous blob that can shape shift to solve puzzles, and you’ll have to do so with increasing skill and rapidity as the puzzles become more complex. There’s even boss battles.
The movement controls are truly unique, and give the game its main value proposition. You don’t even directly control the blob. Your mouse is an eraser with a large and small brush. You erase one side of the blob, and it grows out on the other side. So you erase the right side of the blob to grow out to the left.
The world is a nuclear wasteland with all sorts of crazy new lifeforms trying to survive – yourself included. Neither Claire nor myself have finished the game yet (I’m on level 4) so I can’t say if there’s any humans in the game ever, but I doubt it. I suspect that your blob is some sort of human creation. It looks like a printed circuit board crossed with flubber. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re some sort of science experiment, but you could just be nuclear sludge.
Interestingly, you move from right to left, not left to right as you would in almost every other 2D platformer ever. I do hope they work in a deeper meta meaning for this as the game goes on (like trying to go back and undo the disaster), but from what I’ve seen it’s just a series of puzzles, not a story-driven experience. There may be no reason for the decision to reverse the traditional direction.
Claire was playing on the laptop with a track pad, not a mouse. She played before I did. It looked extremely difficult, but when I played with a mouse we realised it really was just down to the imprecision of the track pad. The game is fairly easy to control with a mouse. You don’t use arrow keys at all. It’s actually quite a pleasure to move the blob, especially as it squeezes rapidly up narrow cave or vent sections. It feels a bit like squeezing toothpaste out or something. Definitely quite different from other games.
The puzzles start simply enough, just to get you used to what you can do with the blob, but they do get more complex. Unfortunately, a few of them I think I just fluked by rapidly moving the mouse/eraser around to try force my way past an obstacle quickly, but others really did make me feel clever, like forming a claw shape to hang from a ledge while trying to carefully extend past a lava pit.
Player Too Result:
Claire was still on level 1, but did play enough to make the game worth mentioning. The controls were fun, the puzzles were fun, the visuals were nice, and the game really was unique. We’ve learned that Claire likes puzzle games already, and the skill required in Mushroom 11 isn’t too prohibitive (if you use a mouse, anyway).
She does think she’ll play more of this and so do I. But as a puzzle platformer we both preferred our next game.
Limbo was briefly free on Steam for a day or two a couple of weeks ago. I made sure to grab a copy for myself and Claire. I didn’t know why it was free but a few days later I first heard of developer Playdead‘s new game Insidewhich released last week. It’s clearly coming from the same place so renewing interest in Limbo was a good way to generate some buzz about Inside. I’m just giving it the shout out in gracious repayment for the free copies of Limbo we availed of.
Limbo is a 2D puzzle platformer with a silent-movie and horror vibe. Pretty much every puzzle you have to figure out by dying first.. gruesomely. The puzzles I figured out without drowning, getting decapitated, impaled, or crushed really did make me feel smart. The violence is made all the more disturbing by the fact that you’re playing just a young boy whose only motivation (at first anyway, seems to be to get out of the scary woods by travelling to the right). If you’re afraid of spiders or squeamish, stay away.
Claire actually really likes spiders, and given that an early boss involved you removing all the legs from a giant one, I thought she wouldn’t like it, but I was really enjoying the art and the animation so I wanted her to at least try it for a few minutes.
The main appeal of the game is the art style first, and the game feel second. When you start moving around and making little jumps, your arms reach out to grab the nearest ledge and you scramble up them. It’s hard to see from the video, and even harder to describe in words, but the game feels incredibly smooth to play, and all the jumps and collapsing hazards are timed extremely well so as to feel tense and close, but not be overly difficult. You can clear most obstacles on your second attempt, if you were fooled by an unnoticed bear trap on your first.
Player Too Result:
Great success. Since the spider was evil, it was okay to kill it to save the innocent boy, according to Claire. With that sorted, Claire really enjoyed the feel of the movement and the spooky look of the game in the same way that I did. It’s one of the few games that she keeps going back to herself to beat. With many of them we’ve beaten them together or finished with them in a single sitting. She’s almost beaten the game now, and will.
After death, the restart checkpoint is always very close, and the respawn time is very short. This quick reset time is very important to stave off frustration. There’s also nothing to break the flow other than death. There’s no loading screens or levels. You can load the game at specific ‘chapter’ checkpoints, but the game constantly moves from left to right in a single, giant, continuous level. This really just keeps you in the game, which is a great strength.
The game is hard, but not in a Super Meat Boy kind of way. Both are violent (ish) puzzle platformers (indulge me – I know there’s less puzzling in SMB), but Limbo doesn’t frustrate. Claire said that once you figure out a puzzle, it’s pretty easy to get it right. And most aren’t too hard to figure out. I got stuck myself a couple of times and checked a guide, but Claire didn’t ever get blocked for too long.
Since she really enjoyed it, I asked her if she’d be tempted to play Inside, and she said that it looked like exactly the same thing. What’s the point in playing the exact same thing? (Take that CoD fans! :P) She said that she would likely play it in the future but not as the immediate next game. So that’s encouraging anyway.
Mid-low difficulty artistic puzzle platformers for the win, then!
Next Time On Player Too
I bought Valiant Hearts (thank you Jack Gallagher and Michelle Burrell) so we’ll get to give that a go soon. I’m a big history fan and think war games and movies are very important to be done right, and not overly-glorified. This looks like a good one. Very excited for it!
I’ve been saying it for a long time, but the full game of Stanley Parable (we played the demo) has yet to be played. I’d love to play Portal 2‘s co-op mode with Claire but it’s a high-skill game, so it’ll be necessary to build up her first person movement skills with games like Firewatch and Stanley first if we were ever to get there. Just because the humour and puzzles are something I know she’d enjoy, and playing together is always more fun.
Telltale games were a miss, unfortunately. Any other recommendations? Claire’s skills are growing, but she is not a Jedi yet; lower skilled games are the requirement.
How’s The Witness for movement difficulty, or is it all cognitive? Is Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime complex to control? How about the hacker role in Clandestine? Anything else?
Thanks in advance for any recommendations, and thanks for reading. Hope you got something out of these mini-reviews and that they help you find a game to share with a loved one.
This past week Los Angeles saw E3 2016 come and go in its usual flamboyant fashion – if a little less spectacularly than other years. Indeed, many worry about the future of E3. EA, Activision Blizzard, Disney and Wargaming all declined to exhibit on the show floor, though EA did retain their own press conference.
It seems that the rise of streaming events and online coverage is making the (sometimes) million dollar spots on the show floor less and less attractive to the big companies. Foot traffic was down to 50,300 from 52,200 last year, yet online streaming platform Twitch (alone) set a new record of 12 million unique views.
You know what they say; the one constant is change. Whatever the future holds for the expo, E3 2016 did happen, and here’s my overview.
Disclaimer: I couldn’t possibly mention everything, but I’ll give some of the bigger news first, then some items of interest to me, then wrap up with a quickfire section of headlines for you to follow up on if you like.
More of the same
I mean this insofar as a lot of the games we were shown were first announced last year, and the show certainly felt less spectacular that 2015’s when it came to new reveals. You can read my last year’s coverage here… you know, if you really wanted to.. can’t see why you would now, to be honest.
You may recall that in 2015 we were given a plethora of new reveals including Doom, Fallout 4, Shenmue 3, Scalebound, Sea of Thieves, The Last Guardian, Gears of War 4, Recore, Horizon: Zero Dawn, For Honor, Final Fantasy VII, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Dishonoured 2, and many more. All of those were brand new (or at least very recent) reveals for E3 2015 and from that list, this year (apart from Doom and Fallout 4) we were just seeing more of those games. And even one of Bethesda’s big announcements was that Doom and Fallout 4 will be coming to VR.
So it felt like we’d less new announcements and largely just updates on what we knew about. C’est sera, sera.
Top New Announcements & Gameplay
These are just a few of my pics of the brand new announcements or gameplay that aren’t VR related (VR follows).
Battlefield 1 (Gameplay)
I still hate the name for like the 19th Battlefield game just because it’s set in World War 1. It’s dumb as all hell! Moving on..
We already had the reveal trailer a few weeks ago but E3 was the first time we saw gameplay. You can find a star-studded gameplay event on YouTube where celebrities play a map from the new game. Plenty of streamers and YouTubers have gotten their hands on the demo by now as well so there’s a lot to check out if you desire.
The game and the destruction are looking beautiful visually and the zeppelin crashing down on the map (its fall location is based on where it is when destroyed, not preset) and crushing buildings is spectacular. The zeppelin also seems to spawn in for the losing team to try to help them claw back, which should help to combat the horrifically one-sided battles that can sometimes occur.
I loved Battlefield 1942, mostly because of the combined arms. The planes were slow so they actually were interacting with soldiers instead of being jets that scream past the entire map in two seconds. This is the first Battlefield game since the original where we have slow-moving planes again and that excites me, greatly!
There also seems to be a ‘driver’ and ‘pilot’ class to the game. Could Dice finally be focusing on lending some importance to the vehicles apart from having them just be expensive taxis to the front lines for Assault players who then just abandon them? Here’s hoping.
I gave up on Battlefield after 3 (played 4 a little though). This could be the one to bring me back in. Let’s hope the single-player story is nowhere near as f***ing stupid as Battlefield 3 and 4‘s. That stuff was hard to take..
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Again, we knew about this, but knew virtually nothing about it. Now we have a sweet-looking gameplay trailer, a glimpse of the female playable character and some Krogan, Asari and Salarian NPCs, and the Mako (the only directly pilotable vehicle) in action.
I don’t like how Mass Effect 3 left off, or how subsequent DLC was sold with the hint of clarifying it when it didn’t (see the Indoctrination Theory), but I loved the first two and a half Mass Effect games. The endings of 3 also don’t come into play in Andromeda, so I’m actually excited for this.
Bethesda opened their press conference with this video teasing Quake Champions. What do you do after a remake of Doom? Why, a remake of Quake, of course!! It’s set to be an arena shooter with eyes on the eSports market (and it’s not a MOBA. Apparently people somehow thought that. Don’t ask me why). We didn’t see any gameplay but the new Doom really delivered this year! This should have Quake fans excited.
New Elder Scrolls?
It wasn’t part of Bethesda’s conference, but in subsequent interviews we’ve learned that they’re working on a new Elder Scrolls game (a new Skyrim, for those who forgot that Skyrim was actually called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim).
They’re also working on two other unannounced big titles. I might hazard a guess that one is Fallout 5, and one could be a brand new IP? I’d be surprised if we hear anything about them before E3 next year though.
The Last Guardian Release Date
It’s coming October 25th, 2016. Playstation 4 only.
Hideo Kojima’s New Game: Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima made his first on-stage appearance since leaving Konami (which was nice to see. Almost like a prisoner of war returning home) and announced the new game he’s working on with this trailer.
Look, get as hyped as you want, but we know nothing about this game. We already knew he was working on something with Sony and that Norman Reedus was probably involved. Now we’ve just confirmed that it promises to make at least as little sense as his Metal Gear games, if not less. Nice to see a trailer, though. Definitely one to watch.
Halo Wars 2
The first Halo Wars I actually really enjoyed, and it remains the top selling console RTS of all time (though that’s not saying an awful lot). I’ve really gone off Halo since 343 Industries took over but if this is dealing with a different story line to that of Halo 4 and 5 then I could get on board.
The big bit of news about it is that it will be playable on Windows 10 (though not simultaneously with Xbox users, so no cross-platform multiplayer) with full mouse and keyboard controls.
I never thought I’d write news on a sports game, let alone the annual love-child of the most corrupt sports organisation in the world and EA (who we all love to give stick to but who are actually angels by comparison) but something actually happened in the franchise. Yes, I know they added female teams last year, but it was still the same game and gameplay.
Now the game has a story mode! ‘The Journey’. It’s optional, and it’s separate from the traditional modes of play, but finally – some innovation!
Apparently you can only play forward and mid-field roles because the story and dialogue require it. It’s not clear whether you control just the one character for the whole game (I somehow doubt it) or whether if you score too many goals you could fail the story objective (of losing, let’s say) and have to restart the match (I also somehow doubt that) but I’m very interested to learn what they did. How interesting would it be if Rocket League had actually convinced them to focus on single-player controls? I’ve always thought a sports game would be interesting done from the point of view of a single player.
It’s also shifted to using the Frostbite engine? Yes, the same engine as Battlefield and Battlefront.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo finally showed us some more of the new Zelda game and it’s been charming the pants off of people! Earlier this year it was announced that it’s been delayed until 2017. It was rumoured to feature a male or female Link but it’s now confirmed that you can only play as a male Link. I thought the gender was always unspecified before, no? People just assumed it was a guy? Made it more interesting I thought.. ah well.
It will be out on the Wii U and the new console, NX. There is also Amiibo functionality.
It focuses on open-world gameplay and exploration, survival, cooking, physics-based puzzles, and, of course, combat and boss battles.
For Honor showed off some story in a new trailer and announced a release date of February 14th, 2017. Valentine’s Day. You’ll play through the campaign and switch factions as you do so, starting with Knights, then Vikings, and finally, Samurai. It still has the multiplayer mode, of course.
Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord
I loved Mount & Blade: Warband for its melee combat, first and foremost, but beyond that it was an incredible RPG, open-world, trading, political, war simulator. Most simply described as a feudal-simulator where you could do just about everything.
Bannerlord seeks to take this further and their E3 trailer showed off a 500-person siege battle complete with murder-holes, siege towers, catapults, and crumbling castle walls. Siege battles were one of the weaker aspects of the original and they seem to be turning that weakness into a strength. I’m super excited for this next year!
Mirage: Arcane Warfare
It wasn’t a new announcement, but the PC Gaming Show at E3 was the first I’d heard of the new game from Torn Banner Studios, the team who made Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, an imperfect sword combat game, but still one of the best ones out there.
The new game adds magic and spells to the melee combat of Chivalry to bring a bit more movement and range to combat. Swords and close-combat are still a part of it, but this move seems to have spread the fighting out a bit. The big weakness of Chivalry was that sword fights in multiplayer became about just swarming a player and moving on. 1 vs 1 was always interesting but any other number ruined what the game was about, in practice. If you’re charging a powerful attack, getting hit with a quick, light one will cancel the attack, which should make the fighting more deliberate and considered.
I’ve heard this be compared to the combat of the Jedi Knight games, but it looks far more refined than that. It’s a third person open-world melee combat game with elements of Journey, CCGs, RPGS, and fighting games all rolled into one.
You choose a combat stance and build a deck of moves within that when fighting AI or other players. You can also team up with up to two other players with a gesture system, which leads to actual chat if you’re online with friends.
This IGN interview shows the trailer but also goes into some depth on the combat and the game in general. If you’ve any interest in melee combat, check it out!
Age of VR?
Everyone heavily invested in the VR space will tell you that 2016 is the year of VR. They would. The need it to be so. They might say that next year too, or VR might prove to be a very shot-lived thing in the games industry, as Oculus and Valve split the already tiny market either with exclusive titles or by virtue of the fact that games taking full use of the Vive’s movement controls may not work well on Oculus Rift. That remains to be seen. However, if you’re one of the few who have invested in a VR headset, there’s some nifty looking titles coming your way at least. First person games, especially.
Serious Sam VR, Killing Floor: Incursion VR, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Star Wars: Battlefront (X-wing VR mission), Final Fantasy XV VR Experience, Batman: Arkham VR, Farpoint, Doom, Fallout 4, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, and more. The problem I see is that VR still largely doesn’t know what it’s doing in gaming. Most of those games mentioned (especially if you recognise the brand or see VR in the title) are just short modes of larger games, of branches of larger games that they decided would make a nice VR spin-off.
I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on VR, but I’m just saying that I remain sceptical because very few of these games look like they prove VR’s worth. Most of the shooters have you standing still (Serious Sam was about fast movement and lots of shooting. Now it’s just about shooting) or using a teleport to get around. They clearly haven’t figured out how to get first person shooters into the VR world yet (perhaps they don’t belong there, but time will tell).
VR works better where you’re sitting driving a car or a plane. So the Battlefront X-Wing mission looks exciting, but it’s not a full game, either. Star Trek: Bridge Crew looks fun, but doesn’t necessarily prove VR. Games like Pulsar and Artemis are already doing the same thing without VR or the flashy brand name, and have proven to be a lot of fun. If Batman: Arkham VR is in third person view like the other Arkham games then it could work. The public haven’t seen it but a few reports say that it’s good. I say this because third person VR games like Lucky’s Tale have been proving quite popular. Again, though, VR isn’t a key component in something like Lucky’s Tale, it just happens to be a worthwhile way of experiencing the game.
Giant Copis one of the most “right” VR games out there I think.
PC Gamer have a good summary of some of the interesting VR seen at the IndieCade booth, too. Check it out for more.
My Favourite? Eagle Flight!
In my March article on VR I mentioned Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight. We saw a little more of this at E3 (it was the same demo I’d played at GDC). For me, this is the only game I’ve seen that convinces me of VR. The movement feels correct. You don’t trip on the wires because you don’t have to walk around. You don’t need to clear out a whole room to play. The steering controls (tilt your head to turn and look at where you want to go) feel precise and are the only way you could reliably pull off some of the precise manoeuvres seen in the video.
Other New Announcements
In the interest of speeding things along, here’s where I switch to bullet points. All entries are still newsworthy but these aren’t getting the full treatment either because we lack information, because we already had enough information, or because they’re fairly pedestrian announcements.
Referencing the tradition of shareware that made the first Doom (and other games of the era, where you’d get about 1/3 of the game totally free forever and developers hoped you’d pay for the rest) so popular, Bethesda launched a 1-week free demo of just the first level of the new Doom….. cough. Shareware and even the idea of demos are very dead, then. The week’s almost up as I write, too. I can tell you this, though: Just buy the game. You won’t regret it. Update: A few days after writing, Bethesda announced that they would leave the demo available for the time-being. Presumably in response to feedback like this. Good job, team. 😉
There will be a HD version of Skyrim.
Fallout 4 will be fully playable in VR.
Microsoft announces the 40% smaller (physically) 2TB XBox One S console, for release in August.
To soon make the S irrelevant, they also announced an Xbox One Scorpio which will be (to paraphrase) really really really really really good. It’s their VR-ready console but it’s a long way off and we don’t have specific specs. Just a video of developers saying that it’s great.
By contrast, Playstation announced before E3 that they wouldn’t be showing their advanced console (Neo) because they basically had no games to make it worth showing yet. Both companies’ approaches are valid I guess. Predictable, also, so neither announcement is particularly exciting.
Xbox Play Anywhere means you can buy a game once on either Windows 10 or on Xbox and play it on either. It follows Microsoft’s policy of bringing the two platforms closer together, but 99% of gamers don’t care, I wager. They’ll play on their platform of choice and see no need to use the other, a lot of the time.
EA showed a video announcing a lot of new Star Wars games, but not what any of them actually are. So this isn’t news. We all knew that there will be many Star Wars games coming down the pipe. We also knew that Jade Raymond and Amy Hennig were involved. Now we just… know it more?…
Watchdogs 2 was announced. It’s set in San Francisco, features a black protagonist, and lots of drone use. The first game was a total mess when it came to gameplay fitting with story though. It felt all wrong (pretty solid gameplay, but too GTA if you ask me). If you liked Watchdogs 1, get excited, but forgive me if I don’t just yet.
A new Spiderman game from Insomniac Games was announced for PS4. Not sure if we’re getting a PC version. The trailer looks great but there’s virtually no gameplay to be seen. Superhero games can be hit and miss but this looks good so far.
Gwent, the card game seen in The Witcher 3, is becoming a new game in its own right.
State of Decay 2 is happening. Hopefully it will be a bit less glitchy and come together better than the first one, but that’s good news for anyone not sick of zombie games yet.
Dead Rising 4, also, for Windows and Xbox.
Sea of Thieves was announced last year but little was shown. It’s starting to look like a lot of fun, though. Multiplayer pirate crew-based sandbox game for PC & Xbox.
Titanfall 2 will have a story mode and release on October 28th, 2016.
Day of Infamy, a World War 2 mod for Insurgency, is becoming its own game, but the trailer actually looked pretty poor with bad voice acting and graphics that looked about 10 years old. Still, gameplay is king.
Ark: Survival Evolved gets a new (gigantic) dinosaur and a mode where you can play as every creature in the game, from a T-Rex to an ant. There’s also a new ‘mate’ button to go with the ‘poop’ button.
Trials of the Blood Dragonis a new title from Ubisoft out now. It seems to be in the same faux-retro OTT testosterone-infused action vein as Far Cry Blood Dragon but based on the Trials Fusion bike platforming game.
Steep is Ubisoft’s big new sports title and is a socially-oriented snow sports game based in an open-world (ish) Alps area where you can ski, snowboard, hang-glide and even wingsuit race down custom race tracks crafted by players on the open mountain.
The Surge is a sci-fi action game inspired by Dark Souls. It should be interesting for those who have heard great things about the Souls games but for whom fantasy just isn’t their thing.
Dual Universe is an emergent sci-fi MMO that looks like it sits somewhere between Space Engineers, Star Citizen, No Man’s Sky, and Minecraft. Is there room for another game in there? Sure! Particularly if Star Citizen never comes out or if No Man’s Sky can’t live up to the ridiculous levels of hype surrounding it. (I’m not saying that either of those things are likely, just possible).
Tekken 7was announced, and actually is coming to PC and consoles.
Forza Horizon 3 is set in beautiful Australia, looking fantastic, and is coming to PC and consoles.
Fallout Shelter will have a PC edition, if you haven’t played it on mobile yet (it’s free but a tiny phone screen can be a bit awkward).
Dropzone is a Real Time Strategy (RTS) based on 15-minute rounds.
Warhammer’s Dawn of War 3 RTS was announced a couple of weeks earlier, but showed its first gameplay at E3.
Alienware showed off a portable PC for VR. It’s nice that they’re trying to solve the cabling problem, but I really think that this is not the way. The weight of the laptop on your back for extended sessions as well as the heat an Alienware laptop generates running high-end graphics would make this horrible to use. No thanks, guys.
There are so many more games that I didn’t mention. I didn’t go particularly deep on Nintendo, Playstation or Xbox exclusives or on smaller games that were announced before this E3. It may not have felt as impressive as last year overall, but there are some great games coming out soon, and you should be particularly excited if you’re a VR evangelist.
Thanks for reading. I hope my E3 summary gave you something to get excited about and look into. I’ll be back to more opinionated blogging next month.