The Paid Mods Question

This post concerns a lot of hot topics from about this time last year (April – May 2015) but the reason I’m speaking about it now is that it came to mind recently and is bound to come into the public spotlight again sooner or later.


So, recently, a mod was released for Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013) called TemplarGFX’s ACM Overhaul. The original game was a hotly anticipated Aliens game (based upon the second Alien movie, directed by James Cameron) that turned out to be a steaming pile of rubbish that had been grossly misrepresented in pre-release footage at E3 and elsewhere. It was even up in court in a class action suit over this.

According to the mod’s description on ModDB it “reworks, reprograms and rebalances xenomorph [the alien] AI, human AI, weapon mechanics, ballistics, animations, shaders, particles, decals, lighting, and engine features to get the best out of the game possible. This is truly the ultimate Aliens gaming experience!” By all accounts, this description doesn’t exaggerate. It makes the game actually worth playing, according to many of the original’s toughest critics. It’s now a scary Aliens shooter that visually looks a lot closer to the misleadingly touched-up pre-release footage we were shown, and plays a lot more like what Alien fans wanted.

I’d be one of those fans; one who boycotted the game originally as I wouldn’t support the dishonest practices of the game’s developers. So because of the mod I was tempted to now buy the game. Terrible sales figures have seen numerous price drops and the retail price is now just €15 instead of the original €60.

But then I realised: TemplarGFX (James – the guy who made the mod) won’t see a penny from the sale. Gearbox and Sega will. The offenders. The guy who stepped in to finish their jobs for them is working for nothing and the offenders benefit. Now, you can donate to James separately if you like, but as far as buying the original game is concerned I believe that you vote with your money and I don’t want any of my money to support shady business practices that diminish the gaming industry. I also wouldn’t condone pirating the core game (for the exact same reason). 

Maybe they’ve learned their lesson. Maybe a few extra sales 3 years on at 75% mark-down won’t encourage a repeat performance of misrepresentation. In fact, maybe if sales roll in now in light of the mod it would encourage developers to make sure they finish their games. You decide for yourself. This post isn’t actually about that. It’s about paid mods.

Do Modders Deserve To Be Paid?

That’s the big question. I’d argue ‘no’. At least not formally. Hear me out. Will I donate to TemplarGFX if I start playing his mod? Yes. He definitely deserves to be rewarded for services rendered to the community. But he has no legal right to charge or expect payment. He doesn’t own the Intellectual Property and wasn’t involved in any of the legal agreements that brought about the game’s development.

Mods can be anything from audio tweaks to new graphics or even entire game conversions. The eSports phenomenon Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) started off as a Half-Life mod. Mods have traditionally been free and done by the community for the community out of a common love of a given product. The fact that money didn’t change hands made the complicated legal situation easy to overlook and many developers encourage modding of their games.

To change this opens a Pandora’s Box of complications. Valve opened such a box in April 2015 (then promptly threw themselves bodily on the lid screaming “undo, undo”).

Paid Skyrim Mods

Via Steam Workshop, a community mod outlet for the Steam platform, Valve started allowing modders to charge for their work on the game Skyrim, with the agreement of Bethesda, Skyrim’s developer. According to my research today (and it’s in line with what I remember hearing) a modder would get 25% of the revenue for a sale of their mod (let’s say it’s a set of armour), Steam would get 30%, and Bethesda got 45%.

As far as big games companies go, I consider Bethesda to be one of the good guys, and I don’t think they try to cheat their customers, but this made me sick. Mods for a game require that core game to play. By their very existence they contribute to boosting sales of the core game, which benefits Bethesda. They then take almost double the cut from the modder’s work as the modder gets when that work is already benefiting Bethesda and costing them nothing. And that’s not even the big problem. Not even close.

Incentivising Incomplete Work

The Skyrim paid mods debacle received a huge backlash and was shut down in just a month, but it will come back again in some way or form, mark my words. If there’s a way to make money from other people’s work, big companies will figure it out. This will be bad for us. I think the only reason the system was removed and not replaced yet is because they realised how many legal issues could arise. 

The worst result from paid mods that I can see is that games will deliberately release in even buggier and less finished states than they do now. You might argue that this would never happen as it would destroy consumer confidence and trust. Sadly, you’d be wrong. The success of pre-order culture despite the broken launches of an increasing number of games in recent years proves my point. People still seem happy to pay in advance for games despite there being no guarantees that they will work as promised. And there’s an even bigger reason that you’d be wrong. Paid mods incentivise developers not to finish their games. If you financially incentivise something, businesses will make it happen.

Let me paint you a picture. Late last year Bethesda released Fallout 4. It won Game Of The Year from a few outlets (though The Witcher 3 often beat it) but it launched with a tonne of minor bugs and glitches. Some modders were quick to fix some of these and Bethesda later patched many of them. But imagine if the paid mods system of just 6 months prior were still in place? Modders fix the broken game in different ways, maybe they charge for their work (as they’d deserve to) and then Bethesda get 45% of the money. This is instead of them paying their own staff or paying for an extra month of development to get the job done themselves. They’ve saved money by releasing earlier and got paid to do so.

Skyrim was already 3 and a half years old when they tried paid mods with it. It was in good shape. Can you imagine if paid mods had been around when Aliens: Colonial Marines came out? Or what if Skyrim came out without the dragons, but they’d dropped enough hints during development to make you want them (“you could mod anything into this game, even dragons! How cool would that be?!”). Instead of paying staff to develop them, they can sit back and get paid to let the community finish their game.

And where does that go? Where does it end? Certainly nowhere good!

  Fallout 4  bug. We could have been in a situation where Bethesda were actually paid to let someone else fix this. Less scrupulous companies would certainly think that's okay.
Fallout 4 bug. We could have been in a situation where Bethesda were actually paid to let someone else fix this. Less scrupulous companies would certainly think that’s okay.

If paid mods are ever going to work, and I don’t think they will, it has to be a situation where the original developer gets nothing! Zero! No money! They must acknowledge that an active modding community increases the value (and sales) of their game and be content with that. The potential for abuse is just too high for this to work any other way.

The Legals, and Consumer Protection

There are other reasons it won’t work. Who are you dealing with when you buy a mod? You can be sure you’ll never meet them, and almost as sure that Steam and Bethesda will never have met them or dealt with them either. If you pay for a service and it stops working, most countries have consumer protection laws to cover you. It’s one thing to try and enforce them when dealing with one or two big companies, but how do you police a myriad hobbyists? Many of their mods may break when the next official patch for the main game is released. Or one set of missions might be incompatible with another and so one paid mod breaks another, unexpectedly. If you have an open platform of paid mods, some building on top of each other, and others mutually exclusive, there’s no way to feasibly test for compatibility. It would be the Wild West!

 Mods have always been silly
Mods have always been silly

One of the earliest mods that I’m personally aware of is for id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992), where Barney the Dinosaur was modded into the game as an enemy. The music from the show was also used. If this were a paid mods situation, the modder is using copyright material without permission to make money for themselves. That’s illegal in most countries in the world.

And what if somebody took recordings of a lot of local small-time metal bands and put them into the new Doom? (okay I’m really using too many Bethesda examples today, but they started it!) The bands may never know that their music was used without permission until months or years later. Then Bethesda and Valve have taken money for illegally-used material. Now what? 

I think there are some ways around this by having a closed platform and vetting the modders (Steam’s Early Access doesn’t inspire confidence in this area though) but it’s still a mess. Because there wasn’t originally money to be made in mods, people made them for fun. Putting Barney in Wolfenstein was just funny. Mods have a history and culture of copyright infringement. How do you separate that?

Apart from all of that, what the hell is the value of a mod? Is a sword worth €2? What’s a new level worth then? €10? €20? What about a total conversion? And some mods are definitely worthless, or even repugnant.

Mods can proliferate a lot faster than games can. Economically I could argue that this increased supply should drive price way down to where they’re not much worth pursuing anyway, rendering the whole argument moot, but that seems like a lazy way out. I also don’t feel it’s true enough to get us out of the situation. Valve didn’t, after all.

 What's this worth to you?
What’s this worth to you?

How should/could developers get paid?

A moment ago I asked what would a total conversion mod be worth? Let’s explore that.

Take the game Squad. It’s a 50 v 50 multiplayer shooter that champions realism and is available on Steam Early Access currently for $40. It’s based on a mod for Battlefield 2 called Project Reality. The mod changed virtually everything about BF2. It was just loosely similar gameplay and built on the same engine, but it was a fan community project. You could donate towards its development but the money was peanuts!

These talented developers then decided to make their own game. There’s no shortage of game engines out there. They already had a working prototype and knew they could work together, and they had the skills required. So they created their own original IP and sold that

Modders are people with the skills necessary to make games choosing to apply those skills to someone else’s product. When they make mods, there’s no money in it. They usually just do it after their day jobs for the love of the project. I know the Operation Flashpoint, Command & Conquer and Xcom tweaks I made were just for fun, and I never expected to be paid.

If modders want to be paid (not all do. Many were against the Steam/Bethesda move) they should try to apply their skills to making their own IP or getting jobs in the game development industry. Many have used their mods as portfolio pieces to get a foot in the door before. 

In Summary

Let’s be clear about me. I have done a little modding in the past. I’m also a guitarist, a writer, an events producer, a game developer and I’ve a lot of photographer and performer friends. I hate the term “for the exposure”. Do people deserve to be paid for their work? Yes! But should we formalise a system for paid mods where the developers get a cut? Absolutely not! It’s just a terrible idea for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, though it pains me to say it.

Modders deserve to get paid, but I don’t think they should expect to. The existing system of voluntary donations and free mods is, I think, the only healthy system of rewarding modders. Nobody gets into modding to make a living, and generally speaking no living can be made from it. This isn’t an injustice. This doesn’t need to change. Modders do what they do for love (and to keep their skills sharp) but appreciate a bit of cash if you have it. They’re like a lot of buskers in this way. We shouldn’t formalise a system where if you use a main street and there’s a guitar player busking that you have to pay them and the town council get a cut. No, you just pay the person singing because you feel they deserve it. 

And let’s remember that modding isn’t a whole trade. It’s art, sound or programming skills applied to changing somebody else’s game. By choice! Modders have valuable skills. They can seek payment for these skills in other areas within the software or gaming industries.

I didn’t start this blog expecting to give my own verdict. On this blog I usually just discuss without drawing too many conclusions. As I wrote today, however, I just couldn’t see a situation where paid mods would be a good thing, and I didn’t see anything unjust enough about the current system to warrant changing it. 

Incentivising games companies to any extent not to do their jobs is one of the worst systems we could introduce. Even if developers like Bethesda agreed to 0%, Steam would still take a cut and then they’re incentivised to flash mods for the big games up on the main store front, forcing out smaller legitimate games. We already see it with DLC for games being listed separately from the main game and collectively filling up sales charts with basically one game, forcing others off the Top 10 list (or whatever list).

So donate to your modders. Support them. They’ve done good work. But please never support a paid mods system that could damage games for us all. The next time it comes up (and it will come up again) take a look at the profit splits. Ask yourself what’s being incentivised. If it’s anything other than 100% for the modder, please oppose it, loudly!

Vote with your money. Donate to modders. Don’t buy mods.

Until next time..

Virtually a Reality: My thoughts on VR

 VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.
VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.

We’re almost there!

Hello folks! Myself and 27,000 other people are just home from GDC 2016 in San Francisco. For many, myself included, it was our first GDC. This year also marked GDC’s highest attendance to date, and there was no small focus on VR. They even went as far as to have an entire VRDC branch of the conference laid out with many talks and demos available for conference goers.

Personally, I was eager to try as much of the VR tech as I could, but more as a consumer than as a developer. My game is a 2D space sim, so VR is hardly going to have a major impact on it. Even further down the line, I can see myself favouring retro-style games (look at the company name, after all) than cutting edge VR, but I’m certainly interested in the area, as are many.

All the big players were at the conference and while many of the companies’ wares were on display by (very) advanced appointment only (Virtuix Omni, Playstation VR, Raw Data on the Vive) there was still a lot that I got to try out. I was very undecided about the future of VR before GDC. How the game industry evolves still remains to be seen, but I certainly now have an educated two-cents to throw into the conversation (Don’t mix metaphors. Don’t mix metaphors. Okay, sorry).

We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but is VR truly about to arrive for the masses, and if so, is it here to stay?

First Thought – Price

Before and after GDC, my thoughts on the cost of entry to higher-end VR gaming are that it is madly expensive. Even if I have now seen more of what I’d be buying in to, the cost is still a major obstacle.

The Oculus runs at $600 + shipping, and that’s without the Oculus Touch controllers which aren’t even released yet. The HTC Vive is $800, though it includes the VR controllers and the headset does have a camera, allowing AR (Augmented Reality) options that the Oculus can’t provide.

Both of those options require a high-end PC in the first place which will run easily over $1,000. 

The Playstation VR might lead the charge when it comes to user adoption. At $400 for the headset, it’s only about as expensive again as a PS4, and half the price of a Vive. While the quality is a little less impressive than its pricier counterparts, reports are that it’s not that inferior at all (I didn’t get to try it at GDC, unfortunately). Console gamers are already less concerned with having “the best” as compared with PC users and so I think here is where we’ll see the biggest early adoption of VR, at least when it comes to gaming.

There are several cheaper options again, and these lead me to my next point.

Ambiguity & Choice Paralysis

Even for those who are willing to buy one expensive VR headset, they may well wish to wait and see what takes off in a year’s time. The Vive can do things that the Oculus Rift can’t, but some of those things require an 8ft x 8ft room. Many people will need to buy a house before they can make use of that particular VR offering!

The Oculus Touch controllers (which I did try with the game I Expect You To Die) do seem somewhat more natural that Vive’s controllers, though I haven’t spent a large amount of time with either.

 I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren't released yet, but they're looking and feeling pretty darned cool.
I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren’t released yet, but they’re looking and feeling pretty darned cool.

Then you have the cheaper Samsung Gear VR into which you simply insert your phone (certain models of Android only) and you have instant VR. However, it only tracks your head movement and takes a single button input. This is not for advanced gaming. It’s more the evolution of mobile games in that regard, but the lower price makes it very viable for people who just want experiences like 3D movies, guided tours, or VR porn (yes, it’s already a thing. The porn industry has traditionally been on the cutting edge of technology – seriously).

Google Cardboard, the cheapest VR entry, can’t even compare with the Vive or Oculus in terms of what it can do, but anyone can afford it and it works with a far wider selection of phones. 

What is VR?

So, what is VR? Well it isn’t just one thing. That’s a problem and an opportunity. The fact that there’s an affordable VR option for everyone may lead to high adoption, but whether it robs the higher end companies of their desired market share or primes the public for that more exciting stuff remains to be seen.

I would guess that it will create a low-level interest in VR and as prices fall, we’ll see more adoption of the better headsets eventually.

For the rest of the article, I’ll focus more on the higher end products.

The games industry has been making the most noise about VR, so it’s easy to forget its myriad other applications. Hospitals have tried adopting it to reduce depression and anxiety and ease recovery in patients. Architects are using it to show their designs in more detail than ever before. Even Six Flags theme parks have started using VR on actual roller coasters

I wouldn’t be surprised if Google are working it into their Street View technology and all sorts of documentaries, concerts, and sporting events are sure to be recorded and broadcast in 3D in the coming years. Its use for mediation (see Deep – coming to the Tribeca Film Festival this year) or perhaps to treat forms of autism are very exciting also. And there’s the porn..

Thinking of VR as being “the next thing in gaming” is an extremely narrow way of seeing it, and many games developers are bravely leading the charge when time could very well show them to have had been headed the wrong way entirely.

This is my opinion only, but I don’t see VR treadmills designed for first person shooters as being the right way to go. I haven’t tried any, admittedly, but neither have many other potential customers, and that’s what counts. The FPS genre was pretty much fine as it was. It’s run its course, even! VR doesn’t lend itself well to lively first person movement. Older arcade shooters like Time Crisis may see a very positive revival because in those games you were tied to a single point in each section of the game, and then a cutscene moves you to the next. They worked just fine and as I watched demos of Raw Data (video below) and listened to the (very lucky) happy people coming away from their demo sessions, I think this is where VR shooters are heading.

I was very surprised to be asked “do you think VR will change the face of gaming” at GDC. For me there’s no question. It won’t! Look at the resurgence of 2D games, and the popularity of first person shooters. These games aren’t going away and they don’t need VR. Many 2D games exist because they’re cheaper to produce and almost everybody can run them. It makes no sense to develop the next FTL or Spelunky as a VR game. Indies already struggle to make ends meet (okay, maybe not those two) so they won’t limit themselves by developing for a smaller audience.

VR is a new peripheral (when it comes to gaming). It enables new types of games to exist, it will improve certain game genres, and it flat-out won’t work for other genres. The gaming world as we know it won’t change overnight, but it will slowly open up new territories.

Where VR shines for gaming

For me, any game where you are piloting or driving a vehicle will benefit well from VR. Being able to glance over your shoulder in a race car or fighter jet is something we’ve been missing and VR will really add to the experience. However, this is a very niche market. Headsets will sell well to the types of people who buy high-end joysticks or steering wheels, but these sales wouldn’t be enough to buoy up the VR industry.

We need new types of games.

I’ve tried a bunch of VR games that I’d describe as neat but I wouldn’t buy a headset for them and even if I had one I wouldn’t play the game for more than a little while. The first game I saw that I could really see myself playing every day was Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight.

You play as an eagle flying around an abandoned Paris. You hold a controller with buttons for acceleration and an attack, but all steering is done with the headset and it feels incredibly natural, smooth, and fun! There are single player and multiplayer game modes where you hunt down other birds who are attacking your nest (amongst other modes).

I queued for an hour to play this at GDC and I’m glad I did. I came away feeling for the first time like I’d really found a new type of game. The sense of flight, the field of vision, and the agility the player could quickly learn were all very compelling. And say what you like about Ubisoft (I frequently do) they know how to make compelling games that keep you coming back for weeks – at least! I can really see this one being big on Playstation, Oculus and Vive.

The problem of Fragmentation

Eagle Flight is a simple game with simple controls that works very well. I think it’ll be one of the biggest early games of the VR generation. This is because most people, whatever they own, will be able to buy and play it. 

The Vive in particular is guilty of encouraging the development of games that simply won’t be possible to play on the Oculus or PSVR. All the systems can track head movement and accept basic input, but the Vive can make use of a physical boundary scanning technology and front-mounted camera. This enables you to safely (if not yet ‘confidently’) walk around your living room while playing an experience, thus allowing types of games that we haven’t even imagined yet to be created. While that’s very exciting in theory, it’s in no developer’s interest to make games that can only be played on the Vive, when they could make simpler ones that will run on all (or most) devices.

Pushing the limits of the technology will yield great experiences, but someone who’s just dropped a grand into the Oculus isn’t likely to go over and buy a Vive for one new game. Who, then, is going to make the amazing games, and which platforms will they be available for?

I would predict a banality in the types of games that come out in the first couple of years until one platform or another really pulls ahead in terms of market share. That’s when developers will choose their dev platform and really start pushing the technology.


As if the headsets themselves weren’t expensive enough, there’s a whole subset of companies developing movement controllers for VR devices.

I’ve already mentioned Virtuix Omni, and my lack of belief in the product’s viability long-term. There are similar treadmills on offer, too, from other companies. I’ve even heard of virtual hang-gliders that you lie down and strap yourself into. I can only imagine how much floor space is required for that one! Presumably you wouldn’t get much use out of them, either. Games get boring, after all. This has always been true.

I say that without having tried any of those aforementioned. What I did try was VirZoom.

I’d seen GameSpot’s video (above) previously, and I was sceptical. How can you pedal a horse? That’s bound to feel stupid! Same goes for a race car. I tried this at GDC and was pleasantly surprised.

You wear your chosen headset, then sit up on an exercise bike. There’s a left and right trigger, and the pedals. Those are your main inputs. Tilting your head or looking at something directly is also a form of input. VirZomm provided five 1-minute demos back-to-back for attendees. I started off pedalling and the horse started moving. I was to lasso bandits off their nearby horses by catching up to them, looking at them and pressing a trigger. Simultaneously I had to avoid certain obstacles in the street.

After about ten seconds, I didn’t even realise I was pedalling any more. The gameplay just took over. The same went for driving the race car and even flying the helicopter. When you’re in it, it feels totally natural, despite how it looks to an observer and despite how unconvincing it must be to read about.

I finished the demo with a good warm-up done and a new appreciation for the types of games that could be created.

We run into the fragmentation problem again, here. Any games designed to work well for this exercise bike input will likely not be very convincing as a traditional game with an ordinary gamepad. Thus for the developers to make back money, one might expect the games to cost a lot, or at least to have been cheap to produce and probably lacking in variety. On the other hand, we see here that there are legitimately whole new directions to explore with VR. The retail cost of the bike is $400. Another steep investment. However, here you can weigh the investment against the cost of a road bike or gym membership. Maybe in colder climates where you can’t cycle or jog in Winter, the gamification of exercise could really take off. The bike also folds down pretty small so it doesn’t take up much space in your house.

If I already had a VR headset, I could honestly see myself making this the next purchase. I know I need more exercise, and while the best gameplay motivation in the current demos is merely to place on a world high-score chart, savvy developers could make some really compelling narrative games based around stories like Easy Rider, or Mad Max style road warrior games.

Update, 13/01/2018: If you’d like extra reading on the VR cycling space, I’ve recently been contacted by Eric from Bikemunk who read this article and offered a link to his own article on cycling software..

In Conclusion

I personally think VR will be a big part of our futures, but not that it will revolutionise gaming. I doubt it will revolutionise any particular industry. I think it hasn’t quite arrived yet but that when it does it will be here to stay. The internet and the smart phone will likely remain the largest technical and social milestones in our recent history, but VR will certainly shake things up a bit and make the world a more interesting place to live in.

I can’t wait until I can afford it..

Until next time..



First Person Shooter Campaigns Dying off?

I read an article during the week by Ryan McCaffrey at IGN (video format below) positing that the single-player first person shooter game might be dying off. It’s hard not to agree with Ryan’s points. While the ultimate fate of campaign modes in FPSs hasn’t been decided yet, we do see more and more shooters releasing without single-player modes, or with lame, half-assed campaigns. It’s a while since I’ve played something that really wowed me, and longer still since that was a game that didn’t feature multiplayer.

I just wanted to share my own thoughts on the questions raised by the IGN article, and hopefully get some of yours too. Note that that article and mine both focus on “first person shooters”. Not third person shooters, cover shooters, or first person RPGs. If you want to watch the IGN article before reading on, feel free:

What I love about Single-Player

So I love single player shooters. They’re pretty much my favourite genre (or have been, at least). When I started playing games I didn’t have internet access, and once I got it I was nearly 20 before connections in Ireland near my home were good enough to reliably play multiplayer. I grew up with single-player games and so developed a fondness for ones that draw you in as an individual; whether it’s with great gameplay or story, I don’t really mind. Preferably both! 

I’m a gamer with limited time so I like to commit to some sort of journey for 6 – 20 hours and know that it will resolve satisfactorily and let me get back to my life. I’ve less interest in multiplayer games because they never end. You can sink way more time into them and merely wind up frustrated at your defeats or pissed off with hackers, griefers, trolls, n00bs, or just ignorant adolescents with big mouths. There’s also the danger of becoming addicted to the progression systems. I don’t like how I feel about myself when I’m working and I can’t wait to get back to the game just so I can unlock a new scope after about 3 more hours of online play. I’ve done it, mind you, and enjoyed it. There’s some great multiplayer experiences out there, but that’s just why I prefer the single player, anyway.

I’ve been feeling a lot in recent years that my interests are being under-served, as shooters become more and more focussed on online play. Take Call of Duty, for example. The biggest kid on the block! That series started as a WW2 shooter to beat Medal of Honor with the focus on the single player campaign. Multiplayer wasn’t a big genre yet, though the game had it. The campaign story was great! You could play it again and again. The same with CoD 2 and 3, and a few since.. CoD4 (Modern Warfare) had a stellar single player story, but it also had great multiplayer and that’s when the public started flocking to the series in earnest.

 A titan of the genre
A titan of the genre

While I enjoyed the stories in Modern Warfare 2 & 3, and Black Ops 1, I feel (personally) that less and less time has been going into developing the single player sides of the games. They’re getting shorter and shorter, and the stories worse and worse.

Multiplayer used to be a bit of a sandbox where you take the levels and assets of the single player game and let players have fun with them after they finish the main game. Now it seems like the CoD games are developed the opposite way. More like “oh we need jetpacks and lasers for multiplayer. Cram them into the single player too and try make it make sense”. Ghosts’ story was pretty underwhelming. I can’t accuse them of cheaping out on the Advanced Warfare story (hiring Kevin Spacey and all) but the cracks were really showing in that story too. It just didn’t come together. Most of the marketing now focuses on selling the multiplayer.

The newest game, Black Ops 3, even shipped without the single player mode on Xbox 360 and PS3, proving which half of the game is the priority when compromises must be made. If players on those consoles buy the game anyway then Activision will have their “proof” that players don’t really care about story modes in shooters, as long as they have multiplayer.

The Business

I’m actually surprised that Activision and others haven’t scrapped story modes already. It’s an expensive side of the game to develop, needing the bulk of the writing, voice recording, direction, and set design, all for a mode that most players only get their 6 hours or so out of and then never play again. If players would still buy the game with multiplayer only, a lot of time and money could be saved in producing these annualised titles without single player.

Releasing both seems like splitting attention. I often cringe when I see games that are supposed to be primarily single-player experiences just tacking on multiplayer. Batman: Arkham Origins and Max Payne 3 arguably didn’t need multiplayer, and I’ve heard nobody say good things about them. Money was spent to create half-assed modes and the best reason I can think of for doing this is to justify the ‘full’ price tag. €60/€70 for a single-player only game is probably hard to justify. The same goes for multiplayer-only.  Full priced games have usually had both modes, and publishers/retailers want to charge full price, so both branches of a game are usually developed to varying standards. I can’t justify spending €60 on the new Star Wars Battlefront, for instance, because it’s just multiplayer. Where’s my single player? Not to mention that the DLC pass is €50!! I protest! But I digress too..

Alien Isolation could have tacked on a ruinous multiplayer mode and upped their price from €50 to €60 but they stuck with single player only and crafted a masterpiece! Its 20 hours of play also justifies the price tag when compared with 6 hour games for the same money.

 Alien Isolation wasn't really a shooter. Like my friend Niall said, the pistol is like
Alien Isolation wasn’t really a shooter. Like my friend Niall said, the pistol is like “throwing Tic Tacs at the alien”. Evasion was the only way to win.

I think it makes the most sense to make either a single player game, a multiplayer game, or some co-op half way point. Not as an absolute rule, mind you, but a developer can focus on making their primary game better, save costs by not developing a secondary side, and still charge 5/6 of the price without batting an eyelid. Battlefront are even charging a premium despite having no single player and a very shallow game overall. We know that developers are very keen to do what makes the most business sense wherever possible (especially the big boys!) so I’m surprised we haven’t seen more devs trimming the fat yet. I do believe it’s coming, though.

We Can Already See The Split

The point the IGN article made was that we are seeing more titles focus on just one side, but unfortunately, that seems to be almost exclusively the multiplayer side, prompting the article on whether single player shooters will become a thing of the past.

Star Wars Battlefront, Titanfall, Evolve, Rainbox Six Siege, and the upcoming Battleborn, LawBreakers, and Overwatch are all multiplayer only (some have some 1-4 vs bots, technically allowing “single” player, but have no story mode).

Even Halo, traditionally both a strong narrative game and a strong multiplayer game, has fallen with the rubbish (my opinion, yes, but come on!) Halo 4 story mode. Halo 5 has now been designed with the story mode focussed on being a multiplayer co-op experience, with squads of 4 in all story missions (I haven’t played yet, correct me if I’m partially wrong).

 Halo 5. Master Chief is no longer such a lone wolf.
Halo 5. Master Chief is no longer such a lone wolf.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that single player first person shooters are dying off. I mentioned Alien Isolation earlier, and that’s not even a shooter. Deus Ex is a first person stealth-RPG with guns; not a shooter. Even Fallout 4 isn’t really a shooter, though I won’t argue if you want to treat it as one.

The only (AAA/ high quality/ high-exposure) games I can really place on the scales as honest-to-God single player shooters from recent years are the Metro and Wolfenstein: New Order games. All fantastic, by the way! Play them! They have no multiplayer at all, but instead focus on really high quality campaign modes (and challenge modes in Wolf). 

Reasons to include single and multiplayer modes

Plenty of games are still doing both modes, and there will always be good reasons to have single and multiplayer modes. Multiplayer is where most of the time is spent by players, and it’s where developers can make more money with microtransactions or cost-effective DLC. But multiplayer-only worlds like the ones seen in Evolve and Titanfall lack depth and character. Single player modes are needed to lend credibility to a narrative setting and really create hardcore fans. Without emotional investment in the world, the setting is all just white noise. Sci-fi games in particular need single player to make their worlds come to life.

 Something something, reason to shoot, don't care!
Something something, reason to shoot, don’t care!

The new DOOM game will have both modes, though how story-driven the campaign will be is unknown. DOOM’s story (and Quake‘s) was traditionally a mere paragraph of text followed by non-stop blasting action until another paragraph at the end.

Battlefield (originally multiplayer only, or single with bots) has had story modes for a while, but let’s be honest, they’re pretty crap. Battlefield 3’s story wasn’t up to much (how do you make nuking Paris lack drama) and my all-time most hated single player game is Battlefield 4. The Bad Company games were good though; humour helps.

The Far Cry games are still strong AAA single player shooters, it must be said, but are also trying to bring in more multiplayer elements with each title. Dying Light deserves an honourable mention as a primarily single player FPS from 2015, though.

The Real Question

Where the hell is Half Life 3?! HL1 & 2 were both total game changers for the genre. What will 3 have to say about all this, if it ever comes out?

Okay, the “Real” Real Question

While it may look like shooters are slowly moving towards being multiplayer-only games, we have to recognise that this creates a vacuum. A shortage of supply of narrative-driven single player shooters will be created, yet demand for these titles will presumably remain pretty steady. All sorts of games are made nowadays, serving all types of interests. While AAA studios have traditionally cornered the markets on shooters (because graphics are very important in first person games, and big studios can afford better graphics, models, and animations), what could smaller studios do with the genre if the bigger developers move on?

We might lose some scope and spectacle if single player shooters start becoming the domain of indie studios (and that will sadden me), but I don’t believe the genre will ever die out. It’s too much a main-stay of the games industry. Also, indies are the ones who take risks and create genuinely interesting new titles. There’s no particular difference between Black Ops 3, Modern Warfare, and Battlefield 3. Nothing major. They all offer the same basic gameplay. We could actually see some great new stuff!

What could indies do if they take over the single player first person shooter genre? Will it ever happen? Will the AAA studios ever totally cut out single player modes and would you stop buying their games if they did? I know I already have, as I’m less and less willing to spend €60 on a crappy 6 hour story when I could just replay Metro or Wolfenstain for my shooter fix. 

Please discuss in the comments, anyway.

Until next time..

The Phantom Pain. A thought on Sutherland as Snake

So one of this year’s biggest releases will be Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain due for a PS4 and XB1 release on September 1st, and for the PC on September 15th. There’s been no shortage of drama and spectacle surrounding the game, but I’d just like to focus on the Hayter-Sutherland aspect.

To briefly sum up the aforementioned spectacle first, though, I’ll just do a short summary.

  • Producers Konami have axed director Hideo Kojima as an executive from their company, making him a contract employee until the game is released and presumably ending their working relationship thereafter.
  • There have been huge, dramatic trailers released at each of the last three annual E3 shows, and several more besides.
  • It’s been unpopularly announced that the full-priced game will include micro transactions.
  • The game is reported to be gigantic; one of the biggest and most alive game worlds ever created and definitely the biggest Metal Gear game made so far. Production has been so big and taken so long, in fact, that the prologue to the game, Ground Zeroes, was released separately in March 2014 as a stop-gap game that could be beaten in an hour. A unique move, for sure, and again, not one without its detractors.
  • One could add that Kojima said of most of the last big Metal Gear games that they would be his “last game” and that’s always turned out to be untrue. Well, until now I suppose. He’s not likely to be working with Konami again and they own the franchise despite it being Kojima’s baby.

The game’s earliest controversy though was replacing the lead character Snake’s voice actor from David Hayter, who’s always voiced the Snake character (well, since Snake had a voice, at least), to Kiefer Sutherland, who portrays bad-ass, gruff, violent freedom-protector Jack Bauer in 24. This has been known since 2013 and it hasn’t sat well with fans who see it as a betrayal, particularly since Hayter was never consulted or informed of the change and learned about it at the same time as the general public. Dick move, Kojima.

Hayter has been commendably mature about the move. In a video interview from March this year (linked below) around the 15 minute mark, you can hear him say that he’s glad it took someone like Kiefer Sutherland to replace him in the role. The role obviously meant a lot to him though. Later (around 27:20) in the same interview when asked what he thought of the Phantom Pain in general and whether he’d play it he said that he wouldn’t play it as it would be “too painful”.

There have been no shortage of rumours and theories that Hayter will make an appearance in the game but he and Kojima have denied this several times in no uncertain terms and I think it’s just wishful thinking by the fans. The move has netted far more bad will than good so it seems extremely unlikely that they would continue to hide his involvement, if there were any to hide.

I remember Kojima saying that they wanted someone more dramatic for the role of Snake for this project. Sure, okay. That’s your prerogative as a director but you could have let Hayter down a bit more respectfully. He’s been Snake for 15 years. I had no sympathy, then, for Kojima when hearing earlier this year that Konami were basically firing him. 

But I digress, my point was that I’m coming around to the thinking that a new voice was important for this game. This game is set in the 1980s. The very first Metal Gear game was made in the 80’s and featured Solid Snake (a clone of legendary soldier Big Boss) fighting the villain Big Boss. 

In Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid (MGS), MGS2 (partly), and MGS 4 we play as Solid Snake , the clone and hero in settings from the 1980s onwards. In MGS 3, Portable Ops, Peace Walker and now MGS V we play as the original Snake who becomes Big Boss from the 1960s to the 1980s. In game-world time, Peace Walker is the last part of the story before V (which is itself Ground Zeroes AND the Phantom Pain) where Snake is still the hero, and presumably by the end of The Phantom Pain, our beloved Snake has to become the villain. Therefore, we’re bound to see some very marked changes in Snake’s character. We know from trailers and screenshots that mutilation and injury will have a part to play, but so too could the voice. This is bound to be a dramatic chapter in a dramatic game series and Kojima wants to play to that. 

The MGS games have always tried to be two things. One; cinematic, dramatic stories and two; grotesquely self-aware, exploding the fourth wall at every given opportunity. It’s hard to be both. It never sat perfectly well for me and I think that with Phantom Pain they’re gunning more for the dramatic elements. For me, I somewhat agree that Hayter wouldn’t be a great choice to deliver on the drama. Check out the video below for synopsis of Hayter’s Snake portrayals over the series.

I think he’s a great actor, and it’s a very distinct voice. It’s a classic by now! But for the last few games the voice has struck me as a little over the top, and seeing them lined up together like this highlights that. It’s become less realistic and more exaggerated, verging on silly at times. This likely wouldn’t work well for a villain. We’ve become so accustomed to Snake’s character as the hero with Hayter’s voice. Assuming that he has some difficult choices to make and evil things to do in Phantom Pain to become the villain Big Boss, it could seem too out of character for the Snake we’ve become so familiar with. That voice has also been party to the fourth-wall breaches I mentioned earlier and maybe the association would be too much. The character has to undergo huge changes over the course of this game. Why not the voice too? Would be be able to follow Hayter through those changes?

We already have a good example of the change in Snake’s character. There’s a bajillion trailers for The Phantom Pain but I refer you to “Quiet Trailer” below. In it, we see Snake do a good guy thing by ordering the men not to shoot Quiet, but also the foreshadowing of evil deeds with what he says afterwards. Also, notice the camera works here to show Snake’s “bad side” as he delivers the line. The shrapnel injury in his skull already looks like a devil’s horn.

How about that? Can you imagine David Hayter delivering those lines? I honestly can’t. If you’d like to try you can watch the Ground Zeroes ending with Sutherland’s Snake voice replaced with some old lines of Hayter’s. I know the lines are out of context, but even so I don’t think the tone fits. 

What I’m getting at is, maybe Kojima made the right call. As director it’s totally his decision, but it sure rubbed fans up the wrong way, and he definitely handled the switch like a world class prick, but for the game as art, I’m starting to think it was the right call. I never cared about the change quite as much as hard core MGS fans did. I just kind of cringed at Sutherland doing basically a Jack Bauer in the new MGS game (I’m a big fan of 24 bear in mind, nothing against it or Sutherland in general) seemingly just because he’s a bigger name than Hayter. I saw it more as a marketing decision than an artistic one, which bugged me, but I’m definitely starting to see the artistic merit to the decision.

That said, I still love Hayter’s classic Snake, and feel for him in the situation he’s in. Particularly with idiots constantly bugging him to confess that he’s in the new game somewhere secretly, or even more wildly, that Sutherland’s Snake isn’t the real Snake and we’ll see Hayter in Phantom Pain as the real Snake after some plot twist. Leave the guy alone, like! He can only say ‘no’ so many different ways, and he’s made it clear that, while he acknowledges the merit of directorial discretion, he still feels pained by the loss of the role. Read his statement from 2013 here.

 Where did it all go wrong?
Where did it all go wrong?

That’s all for this week. What do you think of the switch? Has what I suggested occurred to you before and what do you think of it? Do discuss. There’s comment boxes below for a reason. Peace! (walker)

Arkham Knight: The good, the Bat and the ugly

 Click for launch trailer.
Click for launch trailer.

Firstly, I won’t be apologising for that pun, so moving on..

I intended for my blog this week to be a simple review of the game, as I haven’t done a review on this blog yet and I’d had a lot of negative topics recently so that I wanted to start balancing them out. However, there’s far too much to talk about here that doing a simple review would be missing the opportunity to take this game as a case study on a whole load of issues.

I do want to separate the discussion though because basically there’s Arkham Knight as a game, a piece of art, and secondly as a product and its associated business decisions, and I definitely think that they deserve to be separated.

The Review Stuff

I wasn’t going to buy the game because of its pricing (more on that later) but found it at a hefty discount and so picked it up. I played it on PC with an nVidia GTX 970 graphics card, 16GB of RAM, an AMD 6300 3.5GHz processor and normal HDD hard drive. A good PC, but not top of the line either. I also did have the latest nVidia driver released the night before the game and tailored specifically to fixing a lot of issues with Arkham Knight. The game ran fine for me and didn’t affect my enjoyment, so I won’t discuss that aspect in the review part.

This may be controversial, but I liked the Batmobile! Let’s start with that. Many reviewers say that it’s a huge flaw, crowbarred-in as an extra selling point, that the drone combat and puzzles that get you to use it seem forced and aren’t that much fun, and that you’re faster navigating the city without it. I disagree, mostly..
Let’s be clear; the Batmobile wasn’t an afterthought and wasn’t done cheaply. It’s fully developed, has its own upgrade  tree, feels good to drive (maybe TOO good for something that weighty) and results in a lot of fun high-explosive gameplay that is the kind of thing we play games for in the first place, and Rocksteady fully committed to making it a part of the game. I can’t fault them for doing that. They could have gone half-assed but didn’t. The Batmobile plays as much a part in the game as the Predator levels or big-room fist fights do, which basically adds a fully-developed pillar to the game.
The question is; “did the game need it”?
Most are saying no, but I say yes. We’ve had Asylum, City, and Origins which have largely been the same game with new story each time (even if City opened the game into a more open-world style) and this formula was definitely getting tired by Origins. I’m glad they risked going for something new, and I’m glad it was the Batmobile. I’ve wanted to drive it ever since the first time you see it in Asylum. If they didn’t try it we’d all be slating them for going ‘Assassin’s Creed’ on the series, now wouldn’t we? For not taking risks!

 Avoid the lines to win drone fights. This turned me off the first time I saw a video, but when it comes to playing it you'll be glad that the batcomputer predicts firing lines. You'll still take a lot of hits and would be totally screwed without this and the Batmobile's other abilities.
Avoid the lines to win drone fights. This turned me off the first time I saw a video, but when it comes to playing it you’ll be glad that the batcomputer predicts firing lines. You’ll still take a lot of hits and would be totally screwed without this and the Batmobile’s other abilities.

The drone fights can get repetitive, yes, but so can the Predator or combat sections, especially if you’re trying for 100% completion. Most of the drone combat I did was in optional side-missions, but the main story paces all the gameplay pillars pretty well and making things go boom-crash is fun now and again!

Also, city traversal isn’t slower in the Batmobile unless you’ve to reach a bridge to cross a river, so there!  It just depends where you’re going.
The Riddler challenges are tedious, and often involve the Batmobile, but they were tedious in all 4 games if you ask me so I can’t fault the car for that. I will fault the game for including over 250 trophies to collect though. And collection them is required to put the Riddler in jail and get the ‘full’ ending. 250 is too many when not a single one of them is fun to do! They’re the biggest chore and the biggest flaw in all 4 games, but they’re optional.

My one Batmobile-gripe is that despite all efforts by the team to show the Batmobile as a non-lethal weapon (because Batman don’t kill) there were tonnes of situations where I said “there’s no way that guy survived that” and I just had to get over it and enjoy the game.

So that’s the car, the big new selling point, and I liked it.

Story-wise, I think the game’s fantastic, and through all the Arkham Games (except maybe Origins) it’s been the primary thing driving me on. This is a dramatic and well-written conclusion to Rocksteady’s Arkham trilogy (i say ‘trilogy’ because Origins wasn’t a Rocksteady game, though Knight does give it the nod several times throughout, making it is canon). I won’t give spoilers but there’s plenty of drama going on, and it’s not all driven by discovering who the Arkham Knight must be. There’s lots of nods to and borrowings from the comics alongside new content. There are several set-pieces that I enjoyed. Rather than take me out of the game they enhanced the drama and I ate them up! The story also results in a number of sections where the entire game gets one major shift in how you have to approach it for a while, before returning to normal so you can continue your normal sandbox experience. More so than any of the other Arkham titles (possible exception of the first, Asylum) this game understands pacing and variety, and again, people may not realise that the Batmobile helps out in spades with this.

 I couldn't stop playing until I learned the Arkham Knight's true identity! I had my short list, but was never sure.
I couldn’t stop playing until I learned the Arkham Knight’s true identity! I had my short list, but was never sure.

The drama leads me to talk about boss fights. They’re still present, and varied, and I played several where I thought they must be the last fight of the game, because the stakes were getting so high. When the game didn’t end it drove me straight onto the next one. I couldn’t stop! This is huge praise for a story-driven game.

I loved how the Joker’s legacy/ghost affects Batman and the world in this game, too. Spoiler here until end of paragraph: And no, he’s not the Arkham Knight. That would be stupid. So Rocksteady didn’t do it. Because Rocksteady are smarter than Splash Damage.

I do have to say that the other games had more memorable boss fights, though. Too many of these were glorified drone or Predator sections, but all the same, none were bad. Just none were as good as the Copperhead or Deathstroke fights from Origins or the famous Mr.Freeze fight from City. There are also slightly less of the supervillains in this game because the Arkham Knight and militia take up a large chunk of the missions, but this isn’t to the game’s detriment I felt.

Graphically (assuming here that you’re on console or it’s worked on your PC) this game is gorgeous with so many wind, rain, paper, rubbish, and environmental destruction effects going on. I can understand plainly why performance has suffered slightly in places for how beautiful the game is, and the trade off is well-worth it. I never suffered enough of a slowdown to affect my experience and the visuals stunned me repeatedly. Add to this the musical score, the idle conversations between and about all the various gangs and militia members, and the top class voice acting from Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Jonathan Banks and John Noble, you have a game dripping with atmosphere. The complete removal of loading screens is a major help here too, and Origin’s fast-travel system has been removed, forcing you to traverse enemy-occupied streets to get where you’re going. The only downside to that is there’s no Batcave any more, but I didn’t even realise that until half way through the game as GCPD and a couple of other locations stand in for the Batcave’s functionality. The police station fills up with all the people you’ve captured or rescued too, which is a great touch!

 Gotham city is gigantic, beautiful, alive, and full of enemy aerial drones (which are fun to land on and explode) and watchtowers set up on skyscrapers.
Gotham city is gigantic, beautiful, alive, and full of enemy aerial drones (which are fun to land on and explode) and watchtowers set up on skyscrapers.

Lastly the combat. In each game Rocksteady expanded on their excellent combat system and improved it without losing the balance. With Origins, Splash Damage were so afraid to change Rocksteady’s formula, to their discredit, and the only memorable change they attempted was shock gloves, which were overpowered and unbalanced the combat.

Knight removes the shock gloves (you can find them in GCPD’s evidence room with a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why Batman didn’t keep them) and adds a number of new enemy types, enemy actions, and a few new player skills to counter them. Also, the upgrade tree is vast, and even after finishing the game I don’t have all combat abilities and gadgets, so more so than the other games this is one where you really choose and develop your own fighting style.

The Predator sections have been touched up as well with enemies now able to learn your tactics (better than before), flush you out of vents with incendiary grenades, pair off into teams to thwart your ambushes, place mines and gun turrets, and control UAV drones which can also attack you. Don’t worry though, you have the tools the handle the new behaviours if you use your brain and “be the Batman”. This has really made the section of the game that most bored me previously into a fresh experience.

All round, I think this game is a great sequel (a rare thing), a great end to Rocksteady’s trilogy, a well-paced and very-well balanced game, and a great example of what AAA publishers can do when they set their minds to it.

 The other games may have had some snow, but the rain effects on top of everything else make it readily apparent that you're playing a next-gen game. PC owners may not appreciate that statement as they don't like sharing space with console owners but they still have to understand that there's a common performance bar that has to be aimed for when making million dollar games.
The other games may have had some snow, but the rain effects on top of everything else make it readily apparent that you’re playing a next-gen game. PC owners may not appreciate that statement as they don’t like sharing space with console owners but they still have to understand that there’s a common performance bar that has to be aimed for when making million dollar games.

I don’t really have a personal scoring system in place but Metacritic, if I average-out the PS4 and XB1 scores, comes to 85% and I think that’s fair.

I just think that a lot of people, myself included, were far too ready to hate this game for other reasons. I’ll now explore those reasons without having tarnished the game itself as a piece of art that hundreds of honest developers poured their hearts and souls into.

All the other stuff

Warner Brothers published this game, and have made a lot of enemies with their policies in the last few years. Arkham Origins (the most recent Batman release in 2013) came out the gate with a host of bugs and issues, and Warner Bros. basically said they wouldn’t be fixing them because they were working on DLC for the game. Which is ludicrous! They expect people to pay more when what they’ve already paid for isn’t working!

Then, short on good will, they are charging €40 for the Season Pass (six months of DLC content) for Arkham Knight. This is 2/3 of the price of the main game, and brings it up to €100 all-in. Granted there were discounts for getting them together at €80, but still it’s a very high price for the Batgirl mini-story and a few racetracks and skins. Further, I don’t want to be drip fed my €40 back in six monthly instalments. I’d like to play the whole game this week please, and move on. I wasn’t going to buy the game myself in protest, but I did find it (with Season Pass) for €30 on and relented.

The practice of working on DLC and charging more for the content before the game is even out and/or working properly is hugely unpopular with consumers, and, paradoxically, hugely widespread with developers. It takes developer time out of making a working product, so that they can ask for more money for 1.2 or 1.5 inferior products, instead of one good one. They carve up one game’s content into the game, plus pre-order bonus content, plus later DLC content. Consumers lose nearly every time and they had no recourse.
Even with the ‘Premium Edition pre-order’ that I picked up, I somehow didn’t get the Harley Quinn pre-order story DLC bonus thing, which apparently wasn’t included in the more expensive version, only in the normal version. Just wtf?! Paying more up front in this case gets you less of a game on release than if you paid less!

 No I don't want to pay extra for this, thanks.
No I don’t want to pay extra for this, thanks.

In walks Steam’s brand new refund policy, the hero we deserved. This deserves its own blog post as there are many angles on it. I’m not praising Steam for finally giving users a basic consumer right, but I’m glad they have.

The ability for a buyer to return a product for any reason (within limits, as laid out here) means that if a game is released in a sorry state, the buyer can simply return it. This at last pushes developers to stop releasing games in a sorry state, and here Arkham Knight is hugely important.

After less than two days, the PC version of Arkham Knight was voluntarily removed from sale on Steam by Warner Brothers. Why? Because the game wasn’t fit to be released on PC in the first place. Not yet. As I said, I had no problems, but users with AMD graphics cards or just more average PCs found the game literally unplayable in many cases, or severely disappointing performance-wise. PC gamers tend to have an elitist, snobbish reputation, and having a game run less well than on a console rubbed a lot of them up the wrong way. The Steam user reviews for the game are “Mostly Negative” (I challenge you to find a positive one) and refunds were being demanded in droves.

 Testament to the botching of its release this header box on the game's Steam page says both that the game was released on June 23rd, and that it will be available in Fall 2015. 11,000 users are not happy.
Testament to the botching of its release this header box on the game’s Steam page says both that the game was released on June 23rd, and that it will be available in Fall 2015. 11,000 users are not happy.

With my finely-functioning game I’m actually in the minority on this one, and I still experienced a few bugs and body textures that never rendered properly when I got in-close. You always find some bugs in big games. There’s a certain leeway granted, which I granted, but the game has to actually work! Hours before it went on sale, Warner Brothers ramped up the recommended minimum settings for the game, which is a huge deal if you bought it expecting that you could run it, and then were told that you couldn’t. It’s unacceptable, frankly, and until Steam refunds came along, I’m sure Warner Bros. would have taken a “tough shit” approach to customer care.

But they didn’t. Instead they removed the game from sale. You can read their press release on why here but essentially it’s been removed until it works, with no clue as to how long that will take beyond “Fall 2015”.

 I have literally never seen this, and I don't think anyone else has either. That's PC gaming history right there, no exaggeration.
I have literally never seen this, and I don’t think anyone else has either. That’s PC gaming history right there, no exaggeration.

I’d like to mention that Rocksteady didn’t handle the PC port, and don’t deserve all the ire here. Iron Galaxy Studios did the port (or were still in the middle of it, it sounds like) and Warner Bros chose to publish it rather than push the PC release date back. The game had already suffered lengthy delays in production, but unfinished is unfinished! 

Okay, so bad decision there, obviously. It was a farce and will go down in gaming history as one of the most catastrophic releases of all time. I can’t actually think of another game that’s been removed from sale after release for performance reasons, and examples of games that should have been are in no short supply. Assassin’s Creed Unity, Sim City and Battlefield 4 all leap readily to mind.
But Warner Bros. are owning up to it. They removed their own game from sale and even linked readers to the Steam refund page directly in the press release. Would they be so eager to appease if not for Steam refunds? Hell no, would be my guess. But they are, and deserve a modicum of credit for that, at least.

Consumer faith in the industry, particularly in the bigger publishers, is at an all-time low. Delays, DLC, and broken releases are now expected and it’s hard to look at big upcoming releases like Battlefront with anything better than very cautious optimism, never mind fanatical hype. Publishers were incentivised, through the unavailability of any refund policies, to release unfinished games and move onto the next one, letting the game’s problems get fixed in a later patch, or by the modding community, or just never. This feels like the first time in recent memory that we can put a point on the consumer’s side of the scoreboard. Hopefully this will force publishing houses to cop on already! We need more faith in the industry because if consumer good will keeps being abused the way it has been, people will not be pre-ordering big games, will buy them less often, and expensive AAA games like Arkham Knight would simply not get made any more.

“Cut the crap, Publisher. This is my city”.

I, for one, am glad that Arkham Knight exists, glad that it had a botched PC release, glad that it was taken off sale, and am hopeful that this marks a turning point in publisher behaviour and consumer confidence.

If it does, who better to have saved us than Batman?

My Bumpy Road To Game Development

I really wanted to blog about Xcom 2 which was announced during the week and has me super-excited, but I thought it was a better time for this one. My blogs are usually opinion pieces on games or tech. Today I’m going more personal and autobiographical. After being told that the subject matter here would make for an interesting talk (I’m still going on faith on that, dear reader) I applied to give it at State of Play 2015 in DIT, Dublin. It wasn’t picked (thankfully, because there were some really great talks on that night)  but what follows is more or less the content intended for that.

So last Tuesday (June 2nd, 2015) I got this in the post. It’s a confirmation from the Companies Registration Office in Ireland that the indie games studio name I registered is unique, approved, and now mine. This means I’m a sole trader, trading under the name RetroNeo Games. I’d sent in my application a week before.

I won’t say I’d always wanted to start my own business as I was usually happy if working for a decent employer, but I had been open to it if the right idea came along too, so I was now well-chuffed!

I’d already bought the .com and reserved the Twitter and Facebook handles (all that is coming soon) so it was a real enough idea to me already, but the confirmation was sweet! As you can see in the picture, the form was actually approved on May 30th. This was huge for me. A real “ha! fuck you!” victory moment, and I’ll tell you why.

May 30th is one year on from the lowest I’ve ever been in my entire life. On that day in 2014 I wanted to die, very sincerely, and it took a while to level out again. I was in a new job in a Tax/Accountancy firm in Donnybrook and had just that week made the move from Greystones (90 mins commute each way) to an expensive apartment 10 minutes walk from work so I could have more time to study entering the final stage of my Chartered Tax Adviser exams.
I liked the new job. It was permanent with upward mobility and challenging work. I was getting on okay with people. Being outgoing. It was good. I went in to work a bit hung over (not the bad part) as the night before the whole office had been celebrating. The guy who’d done my interview (and phoned to offer me the job before I even got home that day) 6 weeks before had been named Managing Partner after his dad retired and all was positive as he spoke about how he wanted to grow and expand the firm. I was thinking this was great because I soon wouldn’t be the last-in and prone to be first-out at any moment as had happened in previous jobs when funds were low. Plus the guy who liked me was now in charge, basically.

That afternoon he fired me.

No reason was given. I’d never had a tiff with anyone. I hadn’t gotten a single complaint about my work. I know I hadn’t done or said anything stupid at the work party. They knew I’d no plans to travel or move jobs. I was solid. And I wasn’t even the last-in any more as a younger guy (also named Kevin. Considering our manager was a third Kevin, it was a very confusing room to work in) had just been hired. I was totally shocked. I agonised about what it could have been for months, but I never found out. Legally they don’t have to give a reason until you work somewhere 12 months. It was mental torture. Whatsmore they knew I was moving house that very week and chose the Friday to tell me (as firms often do). I had murder-suicide revenge fantasies for weeks. Months! Every time I pass the office on the bus line since I still want to burn the place down.

 Hm.. needs more petrol.. Probably click the picture if you feel like this too often though.
Hm.. needs more petrol.. Probably click the picture if you feel like this too often though.

That might seem extreme but everybody’s different and context is everything. To me I lost a lot more than a job. It was kind of the loss of all hope to me. One year before that firing I’d been unemployed and decided I needed to study again (already had a Commerce Degree) if I wanted a stable job. I’d already tried a year in Australia so that was no longer an option. I was thinking of going to Pulse to study games for two years but it was very expensive and not too likely to end in a job. In the end I chose the “safer” option of studying tax for 2 years, building on from my degree, instead of starting a new one. This would cost €5000 approx for all 3 parts, assuming I didn’t fail and repeat stages (50% do by the way).

So from mid-2013 to mid-2014 I treated tax study as my day job (apart from 4 months where I did temp work and studied in the evenings), and took lectures on the weekends (only time they were on). This was kind of rough because I saw very little of my friends on the weekends that year, and they were mostly working during the week (in mostly temporary jobs, typical of our demographic). I stuck it out though, got the 2nd highest results in Part 1, and passed Part 2  (way harder) first time (50% fail, remember). All that time I’d been applying for Tax Traineeships and I think I did six interviews until eventually I got the job in Donnybrook. I couldn’t get into the bigger places because I didn’t have a 1st in my initial degree, and I’d interviewed with most of the Dublin firms who were hiring already (they typically won’t interview someone ever again) so I was running out of places to go and thought that this (extremely boring) “safe”  course that I’d spent my savings on wasn’t going to pay off. So getting the Donnybrook job felt like my last chance. Annoyingly I turned down two interviews that were offered while I was working there. After I was fired I had one more offer for (the hated) Job Bridge version of the same job elsewhere, but even the Law Society of Ireland advise not to take them, saying it’s demeaning to the profession, particularly after you spend thousands on your education to be the skilled applicant that they want, just to work for free. I wasn’t about to work 60 hour weeks in crunch time, after spending thousands to be the ideal candidate, and then studying on the weekends for no money.

Further, the house I’d just moved to was also the first place I’d lived alone with my partner in nearly three years. For financial reasons we’d lived with friends or entirely separately over the previous few years, and so that was another thing snatched from us with that sentence “we just don’t feel you’re the right fit for us” (whatever that means). I won’t say I’ve had the worst recession by any stretch, but it’s definitely been rough. I’ve been 6 hours a week part time, emigrated, lost several jobs, been mostly un or under-employed, failed to get a permanent visa in South Australia and heartbreakingly had to leave a great job and life, got and had to give up two adorable puppies after that, lived separately from my partner, moved home, and for the few months of work I did have I was often commuting around 3 hours per day. I’d already moved house 6 times, twice that year, with 2 more to come because of the firing. There were more personal concerns also that I’ll spare us all. People have it worse, I know, but I was finally out of all of that, and for no given reason it was taken away. 

 Ishi and Weiler. Simultaneously the two most loving and boldest puppies ever. Now with a garden and family of their own.
Ishi and Weiler. Simultaneously the two most loving and boldest puppies ever. Now with a garden and family of their own.

So I spent the June bank holiday weekend catatonic in bed. I eventually set up my computer and played some Hitman and Max Payne 3 to focus my mind away from the dark places. I’d cancelled the house warming, talked to the landlord and prepared to move house again.

Once I was lucid enough to concentrate again, I downloaded and started taking tutorials in Unity3D. I figured I should have just followed my heart in the first place, because look at where my head had left me. I’ve always been a big gamer and wanted to make games, but everybody says that, don’t they? It’s not smart to do that, is it? Well I figured that since the next most attractive option at that stage was looking out the balcony at the ground three floors down for hours and hours, I may as well remember that the ground will always be there and spend some time doing what I’d always denied myself. I was going to learn how to make games, and finally see if it was for me. Money wasn’t a factor because there seemed to be no alternatives that were going to pay me anyway.

I really got into it! I found that I loved the magic of bringing something to life on the screen. It satisfied that same creative side of me that had loved playing in a band or running a burlesque show, neither of which I’d done much of since moving to Australia in 2011, three years previous. Also, I loved solving logic problems in the scripting. In school I’d loved French and been fond of Maths and Physics so language and logic seemed to be things for me and I took to programming Unity games in C# like a duck to water. Not that I or my career guidance teachers had ever copped this back in school. I realised immediately that I should have done computer science in college instead of business. I’d certainly be working now if I had. But there was enough online material that I could keep teaching myself and so I kept going. A family friend told me that I didn’t need to go to college to study game design if I worked hard on it myself and made games! I’ve a very nagging ‘sensible’ voice in my head that had never let me get into games, but the hard fall along with that advice and a newly discovered passion for something silenced that voice. I’d stay up past 4 in the morning, having made games all day, to continue making games.

I’d finally found what I wanted to do with my life.

 It's never too late, but it's only getting later
It’s never too late, but it’s only getting later

For the second half of 2014, I was a man on fire. I spent every waking minute learning all I could to catch up on years of “wasted time”. They say education is never wasted, but the €4k and 1 year I spent learning tax was definitely wasted. Ask me anything. I can’t remember it now. I put everything I was learning into a single project, pretty much. A top-down space shooter. I called it “Sons of Sol” which was a sci-fi universe I’d invented myself and started writing a novel in while unemployed in 2012-2013 after discovering that Disney were throwing out all the Star Wars canon that I was such a fan of.

I loved making games but I’d nothing to show people. I’d months spent on a single okay piece of a game, but had never finished something. If you’re a victim of this, make sure you get over it. The single piece of advice I hear most often for aspiring game developers is to “make games and finish them” and I have to fully agree. Try out Cow-Spiracy for a fun example of what you can do quickly. I made it in 48 hours with a friend.

In November 2014 I went to my first DubLUDO event with a couple of friends I already knew from the scene. DubLUDO is a regular-enough meetup of Irish game developers and was probably the closest thing the game dev community had to an organised structure in Ireland until Imirt was founded last month. At it I heard Brenda Romero (with husband John Romero) speak about game design documents, which was an issue I was then agonising over. Suffice it to say, she put my mind to rest. I also learned from others just how much she was doing for Irish game developers (I won’t detail, but it’s a lot!)  and she’s now on the provisional board of the aforementioned Imirt, which aims to promote Ireland abroad as a place for game development and represent for the community as a whole. I was very impressed and am ever-grateful to her and everyone who’s championing Irish game development. It gave me faith to start my own business, but we’ll get to that.

 Click for Fulbright article. And here's  Brenda's Twitter  and  John's Twitter .
Click for Fulbright article. And here’s  Brenda’s Twitter and John’s Twitter .

The community I met at DubLUDO and that I’ve come to know over the past few months are so friendly, accepting, and alive!! It’s invigorating and it pulled me further and further from the dark place. There’s a real buzz about the scene which gives me hope for the future. For my future and the future of Irish game development, which I hope are closely linked.

At the community Christmas party I met Paul Conway (the one in BitSmith making Frank n’ John, not the one working on Darkside Detective and doing art for Gunman Taco Truck with Romero’s son Donovan, though both Pauls are lovely, and all those games are awesome). Anyway Paul#1  gave me the advice to start this site and throw a few games up on it as a portfolio. Short but finished games. Paul’s advice helped me to no end. He gave me a focus. A direction! A week later ended 2014, and though I’d had the lowest point of my life in that year, I didn’t kick it out the door as I had with 2012 and 2013. Both rough years. But things were finally looking up.

In January 2015 I did the 48 hour global game jam, and started attending 1 Game a Month jam hosted by Colm Larkin who’s making Guild of Dengeoneering. (edit: you quickly see how in Ireland everyone knows everyone and chances are they’re working on something amazing and artistic. Small, talented country!)

These jams helped me fill up my site and all games can be played here. I also “finished” my original prototype for Sons of Sol in January and moved on to learn how to make other types of games. It’s also at that link.

 Claire's anniversary present to me with my game's spaceships on them! That's what support looks like. If you're wondering, support tastes like cupcakes.
Claire’s anniversary present to me with my game’s spaceships on them! That’s what support looks like. If you’re wondering, support tastes like cupcakes.

In the meantime all these great Irish games above (and Onikira too) are coming out this year, bodies are forming, the iDig games-music festival (with Video Games Live) happened in March and is becoming annual which in turn has copped Enterprise Ireland onto the viability of the games industry, and it feels like such a positive time to be an Irish indie. All these good vibes and the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly go do anything else with my life now has rescued me and given me the confidence to start my own business. I can’t thank the community enough for getting me here. To where I’m happy and alive again. I absolutely have to thank my partner Claire here too, because without her support and confidence this past year, I wouldn’t likely have stayed the course.

During the first half of this year I set about applying for Irish welfare’s Start Your Own Business scheme, which gives you guaranteed welfare income for two years while you set about your business, subject to the approval of your business plan. Mine was approved in May and the same morning as the meeting I had for it was the morning I thought of the name RetroNeo Games. The remarkable thing was that that day (I was told it was very likely to be approved), I stopped identifying myself as unemployed-with-a-hobby and started identifying myself as an indie game developer. That’s my job now!

I’m going to make “Sons of Sol: Crow’s Nest” as RetroNeo Games and I’m going to give it no less than everything I’ve got! This post has been the first half of a story. The next two years might make it a triumphant success story or just a sad, boring one. If you want to follow its progress though you can follow me on Twitter, or bookmark (site coming soon).

I know I could fail. I know I have to steel myself against the possibility of a huge let down and further financial hardship, but at this stage, I’ve survived worse, and I can’t look back now!

This is what I want to do with my life, and no fucker in a suit (note: I’ve nothing against suits. I like suits) is going to stop me!