What a crazy year! For the world, for the game industry, for games culture, in my own personal life and for RetroNeo Games.
I really can’t pick a topic for this month so I’m free-styling a bit.
There’s no shortage of topics to choose from.
It’s been the year of the Loot Crate, but that’s been done to death. Even my blog of lost month dealt with it indirectly.
Relatedly, EA has been seeing nothing but negative headlines all year even apart from the Loot Crate issues, due to Mass Effect Andromeda, closing Visceral Games (and shutting down the single-player Star Wars project), and more, but I don’t really see the fun in rehashing that out.
Reportedly, the new Assassin’s Creed was great and sold twice what its predecessor did (proving the benefit in breaking the yearly release cycle), but I haven’t played it so I can’t really talk about it.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the top games of the year, but I haven’t a PS4 so I can’t speak about that either (borrowing one is top of my to-do list though).
The Nintendo Switch is doing far better than anyone expected, and Zelda and Mario are another two game of the year contenders, but I’ve no Switch so I haven’t played them either.
One thing I can say is that I was wrong in my predictions of this time last year that the big shooters would be 50% off again this Christmas. The sale prices this season on Battlefront “2” (it’s 4, really) and Call of Duty are decidedly more conservative, with only Wolfenstein 2 being discounted all the way down to 50%.
Today’s news that a man was killed in Kansas during a swatting “prank” is very newsworthy but I don’t exactly want to end the year on that note. Though I will link to the PC Gamer article. An arrest was made, at least. Conventional wisdom is to keep your business channel quiet on anything political or controversial, but I don’t fully subscribe to that idea. If something is plainly wrong and needs opposing, then staying silent helps the offenders, not the victims. I hope the perpetrator goes to prison for a very long time. I personally can’t believe that the ‘set an example’ harsh sentencing of another swatting case last year didn’t stop swatting in its tracks. In that case, police non-fatally shot the swatting victim. The perpetrator, a teenager, was charged with domestic terrorism and given a heavy sentence (if I recall correctly. I can’t find the older articles today as the current tragedy is dominating the search results). He cried for his mother as he left the court room. Anyway, now a man is dead, and we have toxic gaming culture and manchild streamers to thank.
That segues into a personal note. I like coding, and I like creating, so making games is a great fit for me, but looking at the problems of the world this year, and then looking at the types of people I’m creating disposable content for (whiney sexists & racists and swatting scumbags) really turned my stomach all of a sudden. I’ve struggled with feelings of anger, frustration, and depression on and off for years. While I’m coming through it, I used to use playing games as escapism, and making games as my way of fitting into the world productively. Lately, though, I’ve felt an urge to help the world more directly. To stop contributing to distractions and start taking positive action – whether that be for charity, fighting toxic gamer culture, or something else. I’ve wrestled with the idea of leaving this industry (that I’ve fought very hard to become a part of – more on this next month) and beginning a coaching practice to get unhappy young men out of their gaming escapism and give them meaning and purpose. Then, as fate would have it, a couple of amazing opportunities came my way from the games industry and so I’ve stayed – though I still feel the call to do more. As I said, more on this next month.
I want to update the world on what all of that previous bullet point has meant for Sons of Sol, but, next month.
I’ve also barely played any games in the last 5 months (reasons next month, again) and when I do I’ve only managed to enjoy the ones that I know I can beat in an evening, like What Remains of Edith Finch or Tacoma. Just why this is, I’ve a few ideas on, but that’s a blog I’ll write another time. I was seriously looking forward to Wolfenstein 2 as I loved the original remake, but after a few hours playing it over Christmas, I was just stressed by playing it, which defeats the purpose. Great game though, and I’m all for its themes and marketing. Would like to hear if other non-parent gamers (because the reasons for parents not having time are obvious) experience the same thing.
My main goal for Christmas (and my reward for the year) was to play through XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, along with several other games, but with it more than half over I feel I’ve barely started.
I asked a friend who’s staying over what I should blog about, and she said to write about “how to find more time to play games”. Together we joked that the first thing in the article would be “stop writing blogs”!
So, I’m actually just going to go with that and stop this one here!
Happy New Year to all of you fine readers, especially the regulars. Thank you. Your support is greatly appreciated, especially the notes or the comments when we meet in person. They keep me going.
I’ve a lot more life changes coming up shortly and some Sons of Sol questions to be resolved in the next month, so I’ll fill in all the blanks next time. It’ll be a sort of a follow-up to the quite-popular first blog I wrote after starting full-time development on Sons of Sol.
Everyone’s talking about loot crates and gambling mechanics sneaking into games. Even $60 full-price games. It’s a bit too obvious to make that the topic of this month’s blog, so let me just say this: Loot boxes are terrible in all their forms. Even cosmetic. Even free. Even in Free To Play.
That’s my personal opinion on the flashy flashy “dangling your keys over the dog’s head” (as I think of it) ‘mechanic’. At their best, loot crates break immersion and treat the player like they’re an idiot. At their worst, they teach children how to gamble and can lead families into some serious debt very quickly.
So, as someone trying to be an ethical human being, as a player, and as a game designer, I think loot crates should just die. They should have no place in games.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book that resonated with me on so many levels.
It’s called “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” and it’s written by John Mackey (the CEO of Wholefoods) and Raj Sisodia.
It speaks to how taking a more holistic view of your business’ activities, and its long term sustainability can demonstrably be a better way of doing business.
The book is filled with case studies on how profit-driven CEOs ran once-successful companies into the ground by striving solely to create shareholder value, and not caring about the other stakeholders (meaning anyone who has any interest in the business, including customers, employees, the government, and even the environment) of the business.
Reading it, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with how EA, Activision, and Warner Bros. have been milking their once loyal and enthusiastic customers to the point of maximum frustration and past ethical boundaries. They’re burning bridges with former fans in the hopes of maximising returns this fiscal year, and to the smug satisfaction of many, we’ve just seen EA’s share price take a $3 billion (yes, with a ‘b’) drop in value as a direct result.
I have a Commerce degree. I’ve studied economics. I understand capitalism (you know, basically), and I believe in the free market and (for the most part) lack of government intervention, at least in normal trade. But I’ve also been hugely affected personally by the Global Recession since the day I graduated college and continuing even until the present day. This has given me very socialist sympathies. It’s also soured me (and so many others) on ‘capitalism’, yet this book argues, quite correctly, that what we think of as capitalism is more often perverse ‘crony capitalism’ that is ultimately unsustainable as it exploits parties to the business (including the environment) and poisons the environment that it operates in. It’s not what capitalism means at its core, and it’s not how it has to be.
In the 1970’s, economist Milton Friedman argued that a firm’s sole responsibility was basically to maximise profits for shareholders. This doctrine has since been taken as gospel by the corporate world at large and has been hugely damaging to the environment and the stability of poorer nations from which we get so many of our resources (see last month’s blog on Venezuela, though I don’t get very political in it).
Another book that I haven’t yet read, but intend to, is Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins. I heard him speak on a podcast and (as well as some other startling confirmations) he mentioned how, before Friedman, corporations were presumed to have a responsibility to their local communities. That responsibility was (apparently, though I haven’t looked it up) even mentioned in the original Declaration of Independence.
Wait, isn’t this a games blog? Get to the point!
Okay! So clearly EA and other AAA publishers, judging by their actions of the last few months and years, still subscribe to the Friedman school of business ethics, and they’re losing their supporters in droves. Even those that stick around and pay are hardly becoming ardent fans of the companies.
Then take a company like CD Projekt Red, creators of The Witcher series, who, to date, have seemed perfectly happy to offer outstanding value to their customers and who truly invest in the intangible ‘Goodwill’ line of the Balance Sheet (yes, it’s a thing on the balance sheet, but how do you really calculate it? (rhetorical question)).
Their core $60 experience in The Witcher 3 was over 70 hours of gameplay with no microtransactions. Then along came two expansion packs (pay once, play forever model) of 10-20 hours each! Not a microtransaction or loot crate in sight!
They clearly care about customer satisfaction to a degree that the other major games publishers can’t claim. This gives them so many intangible benefits, including customer loyalty, more predictable sales numbers, and free marketing via positive word of mouth.
Note: CD Projekt aren’t a perfect example because they’re known to have some internal problems with crunch time, and employee welfare is a core part of the Conscious Capitalism approach. Still, they’re still probably the best example.
“Games Cost More To Make”
AAA likes to argue that games cost more to create now, so they have to charge more somehow, but I don’t buy this at all – not as the only option. Undeniably, the games become less enjoyable when compromised by loot crates and microtransactions. The experience is soured, at least according to a huge subset of gamers. When disenfranchised gamers stop buying the games at all, they cease to be customers, and that’s a huge additional cost to doing business.
The best approach is to grow the market, not to exploit the current one to the maximum possible level.
Many would say that loot crates are the business model of the future so get used to them! I say ‘why’? As a gamer, I hate them, and know that many others do too. As an entrepreneur I know that there are countless alternatives and ways to innovate. The “games cost more” excuse only keeps getting used because some gamers have started to believe it.
Games have budgets. Conscious Capitalism argues that you budget for all stakeholders, including, very importantly, the final customers. If they don’t want loot crates, you can plan not to give them to them. Rule them out completely! After that, your budget adjusts. Now just don’t make a game that exceeds that budget and projected profit levels. It’s actually quite simple business. You can sell to more final consumers if more of them would be happy to buy your product.
Many, such as myself, just won’t touch a game with loot crates. But I bought Wolfenstein 2 and the XCOM 2 expansion happily. Firaxis have fostered so much intangible goodwill from me over the years that they’re the only company I’ll pre-order from. At this point I won’t even buy Battlefront 2 if it went 90% off.
Hey, I think this is my shortest blog ever! I’ve been trying to cut them down. I’d better get back on point, quick!…
My conclusion? Don’t support business practices you don’t like, and don’t presume that the example set by EA, Activision, Warner Brothers, and others, is the only way forward. Vote with your wallet as a consumer.
As a game developer, use your conscience and innovative spirit to think outside the box. Trust in goodwill as a long term pillar of your business strategy.
And yeah, consider buying the book ‘Conscious Capitalism’. I’ve no affiliation with it whatsoever, I just really enjoyed it. My apologies to the writers (yeah, like they’re reading this blog..) if I misrepresented any of its ideologies in my paraphrasing.
The initially apparent absurdity of this topic may be bewildering to some, but on further investigation and understanding, it should be of interest to everyone. Also, the inhumanity of certain scumbag first-world gamers you will find infuriating in the extreme. But then, it’s 2017, and the world is a messed up place.
Not a happy topic today, folks, but an important one that raises many questions about the world we live in.
Venezuela in crisis
Not to dwell on the history or political details here, but the facts on the ground are that Venezuela’s economy has been in a critical condition for years, and it continues to slide. With inflation rampant, their currency is close to worthless. Unemployment is widespread. Protests frequently turn fatally violent. Crime is an epidemic. Murder rates exceed those in war-time Iraq. Food shortages abound. People are eating out of rubbish bins (or often not eating at all). Three quarters of the population report involuntary weight loss, and deaths through malnutrition are common, particularly amongst infants.
For the uninitiated, ‘farming’ gold involves playing a multiplayer game (usually a Massively Multiplayer Online game, or ‘MMO’) and deliberately collecting large amounts of the game’s primary or secondary currencies, which can be exchanged for in-game items. Let’s refer to all of these currencies as ‘gold’ for simplicity’s sake.
The farming players then go and sell in-game gold for real world currencies like $US or Bitcoin, thereby turning gameplay (albeit usually very unenjoyable parts of the game) into a paying job. The payout isn’t very much, typically, but Venezuelans at the moment report earning $2-3 per day, which can be enough to buy some food and stave off starvation.
The problem with doing this is that the introduction of more and more currency into a game’s economy has the very same effect as just printing unbacked money in a real economy – inflation! This can destroy a game’s balance/difficulty curve, and since that’s kind of the point of playing, it can ruin the game for people. If left unchecked, this kind of activity can collapse a game’s economy and potentially drive away all its players, basically ending the game and potentially putting the company out of business.
Gold farming by (predominantly) Chinese farms has been a major problem for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, that readers may have heard about before.
So what we’re seeing at the moment is a very large number of Venezuelan players choosing to farm gold in the 2001 MMO Runescape. Personally I’m not sure why they chose this game in particular, though it seems to be that, being an older game, it can run on cheaper, older hardware. I’m reliably informed that electricity in Venezuela is cheap, but computer components are fairly expensive, so this would make it preferable to modern MMOs for new farmers
Importantly, the game also has dedicated players spending money in the game. That’s the key. The game is alive and money is changing hands.
Runescape’s regular players are understandably upset about their game becoming unbalanced. Their hobby fantasy world is being invaded by new ‘players’ who don’t care about the game at all and are just there to farm their gold and log out. This ruins immersion for the players and is just generally disruptive of their hobby. The game gets easier and less fun as stat-boosting items get cheaper due to more of them appearing on the in-game market.
First world problems!
We’re talking about a situation where these gold farmers are trying to feed themselves or their children, choosing to ‘work’ inside instead of risking mugging or murder on the streets of Caracas, and even still they have to queue hours for food that might have run out by the time they get to the front of the line.
One can understand anyone being upset if their hobby is being ruined, but an ounce of human empathy (an increasingly rare commodity) would surely put these concerns in perspective. Sadly, this is beyond certain people.
One should rarely read ‘the comments’ or certain seedy corners of Reddit, but what can be found there on this topic is a vile new low (well…let’s just pretend that it’s a new low, shall we?). Guides have been posted on how to identify and attack specifically Venezuelan players deliberately! Not only that, but some useful Spanish phrases have been shared so as these loyal Runescape players can insult the starving Venezuelans while they do so.
Okay, PvP (player versus player) is all part of the game, and virtual death is a risk associated with farming the gold in these PvP areas of the world (that’s why the gold holds any value to begin with, because it’s not that easy to obtain), but to deliberately jeopardise a starving person’s sole source of income and mock them while you do it is sadistic in the extreme. It’s not good fun. It’s fucking sick. Side note: this post is, to my knowledge, the first time that I’ve committed profanity to print on this blog, but there’s a time and a place for it, and this is it.
I’m not saying to let the farmers away freely. There has to be a risk to their players’ safety or the farmed gold has no value because everyone can get it, then the gold decreases in real $ value, and then nobody can make a living from it. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it’s the racist insults and, more than that, the sheer glee exhibited by some of these first-world players (including YouTubers) at being able to cause real people real pain that sickens me. “That’s what makes it so funny” writes one Reddit user.
I’d like to quote from a Kotaku article on the topic: “I was expecting people to empathise and for once realise that games might just be a way to change people’s lives,” said Yasser, a former Runescape farmer who moved to the US a year ago, in a DM. Instead, he said, “the whole thing just made feel rage. Not your normal ‘political debate’ kind of rage but something more personal, especially because my family is still [in Venezuela], and I know what starving feels like. To see these guys that had the luck to be born on the right soil dehumanize Venezuelans, man, that tore me.”
Me too, Yasser. Me too.
You might argue that they’re killing ‘bots’ and not players, but according to what I’ve been able to discover, most of these farmers seem to be just one player farming away themselves. Not an army of AI bots designed to enrich one human person/company through nefarious means that more directly violate the Terms of Service.
So, let’s be clear. Farming is bad for the game, and is against the Terms of Service, but this is also an unprecedented situation that has some very interesting considerations.
The game’s UK-based developers Jagex are reportedly banning a whopping 10,000 farming-related accounts per day!! That hurts those banned, but that’s fine. Frankly, it has to be. Jagex have a fiduciary responsibility to keep their company afloat, and banning farmers is an important part of that. If they were to allow the farmers to operate unchecked, they’d lose their actual playing and paying community, gain more and more farmers, and then there’d be huge amounts of gold to sell with nobody to buy it, and the game would be dead.
Getting banned is just part of the calculated risk of operating a farming scheme. These farmers know that they’re ruining (or contributing to disimproving) the game for people, but, to again quote the Kotaku article, a farmer by the name of Fhynal said “When you don’t know what the future promises, and you fear for your life and the lives of those you [care about], you kind of don’t care about people’s opinions.”
There are a lot of issues tied up in this one topic. I’ve mostly written it as if I’m trying to explain to non-gamers such as my parents (or the Irish government – still waiting on that investment and tax credit..) just how important a role games can play on the world stage.
Games aren’t just ‘pew pew’ time-wasting. They can literally be life and death for people now. That’s the world that we live in.
I’d like to thank my Venezuelan friends Carlo and Claudio for fact-checking this article.
Jump is a brand new monthly subscription service for playing a curated selection of indie games. “Think of it like Netflix” says company chief Anthony Palma. It will support PC, Mac, and Linux games, as well as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive VR titles.
In March I wrote about this very topic. So I get to say “I was right”. It wasn’t a radical guess or anything, but my fridge is all out of humble pie so I’m going to take that prediction as a win.
Well, is it a win though? Wasn’t I arguing that this would bring on the end times… or something? Well, sort of. I invite you to read that article, and its follow-up in April on potential Alternate Payment Models of the future. To summarise, change is inevitable, so fighting the tide is ultimately fruitless, but the direction we appear to be heading is to devalue games to the point where they’re not worth making any more, and only the most generic, risk-free games will be invested in and made in future. That is worth resisting.
Tell us about Jump
Okay so there are a few things I like about Jump.
1. Its price and revenue share
Your one monthly payment of $10 gets you access to everything on the platform. It’s a little more expensive than Netflix, and I like this. Games are pricier than movies and TV shows already. However, games are constantly going on sale and approaching worthlessness. Jump itself might make games worth even less, true, but that’s happening anyway and at least they’re not racing Netflix to the bottom. $10 is a respectable fee. I’d pay it.
One of my key complaints about Spotify in that blog was that artists apparently get a terrible share of revenue. I might be wrong, but I think it’s a predatory percentage share of the revenue that Spotify take, and if I am wrong, it’s still a worthless payout that most artists actually get.
Jump are taking a 30% cut and leaving 70% to the developers. I like this. Either they’re nervous about how they’ll be perceived and accepted, and by extension their success, or more likely they’re just happy to maintain the status quo. Steam take 30% of the cut on all game sales on the platform; why should Jump go lower? Good that they’re not going higher either.
So 70% of all membership fees go to the developers, according to how muchtime players have spent on their game. This means that if players just try out your short game and (if it were on Steam) would have just refunded it, you still get paid.
2. It’s a meritocracy
Just to drag that last point out, if your game is better and gets played more, you get paid more. The hidden danger with this is that it might encourage developers to make the game artificially longer, by having excess grinding or backtracking, just to run up the minutes spent, and thus the pay-out. In the same way that Free-To-Play models negatively affect game design, so too might this. However, it’s counterbalanced by two things. Firstly, people said the same about games needing to be particularly engaging and polished in the first two hours after Steam brought in refunds, and I haven’t really noticed much change being reported on there. Secondly…
3. It’s curated
Jump will launch with 60-100 games and add 10-12 more each month. It is not going to be an open platform. Apparently, only games of a certain quality and popularity will be allowed on. This solves Steam’s major problem of discoverability and quality, but only for a select few.
You can be sure that the platform will be inundated with requests for access from developers. Maybe we’ve come full-circle, back to before Steam launched Greenlight and opened the flood gates. This is good for developers who get on the platform, but bad for those who can’t. It is pretty good for consumers though, which will be essential to the adoption of this platform.
You also don’t disappear just because your game is a few months old. In their algorithm, older games get jumped back up to the top of the discoverability queue periodically.
How do they pick the games that make it on the platform? Apparently they’re looking at 3 things. Critical response, peer response, and market response. Basically, are there good reviews, any awards, or good sales? Apparently having one of these things is enough for consideration, with two or three being better. I would guess that the vast majority of games will have either none, or all three. Good reviews lead to good sales and awards often follow (or precede, like getting Best In Show at EGX or PAX).
4. It’s just for indies
On Jump, a user is there to play indie games. They pay for that, so you can be sure they’re there for you, and maybe less interested in what EA are doing over on their subscription service. It’s great that a user here isn’t choosing between the newest AAA launch and your indie darling, as they would be doing over on Steam. It really is somewhere that indie games have a chance to shine, and this is one of the big fears that I brought up in the March blog, originally.
5. It’s not exclusive
Being on Jump doesn’t mean you can’t also sell elsewhere, which is great for fans who want to have their own copy of a game, and great for devs who’d still like the option of trying to win big on Steam. It’s been stated that a developer can launch on Steam and then come to Jump after six months if they wish, when they’re starting to see sales really die off. Good for devs. I like.
However, if you got lukewarm reviews and didn’t sell, you may not have the option to get on Jump anyway.
6. It’s an online service
I’m actually not sure if I like or dislike this, but I’ll leave it in this group, anyway. There is no download and install of the games. That’s a big plus if you’ve a slow connection, and great if you want to try out a game immediately. But it’s not a streaming service either (where the game runs on a server somewhere else and you get sent the results to your device) which can also have latency issues, especially with slow or unreliable connections.
Instead, it pulls enough of the game down from the servers within about 20 seconds, that you can start running it locally, but without storing it locally or constantly checking in with the server. It’s not a Unity-exclusive platform, but if you’re familiar with Unity’s Web GL builds – that.
But there is one thing I really don’t like.
WebGL is the future, but speaking as a developer I’ve still found it to only suck hard! I did a blog (now partly outdated) about migrating older Unity projects into WebGL-friendly formats and getting around certain inexplicable bugs people were having.
Many improvements have been made since, but even still, the last time I tried to put Sons of Sol into a WebGL build (last week), it wouldn’t even build, let alone run. I do believe that it’s due to having XInputDotNet stuff in there, which I use to make the controllers vibrate, but how can it be that this futuristic platform doesn’t support vibration?
Actually, Unity doesn’t support vibration in controllers normally, anyway. Sort it out, already, please!
In addition, all the old Unity Web Player (since deprecated in all major browsers) games that I’d updated to WebGL and replaced on this website have since broken. I discovered this yesterday. I don’t know how long they were out for. I monitor game news and Unity blogs for updates on this sort of thing. It’s possible I missed it, but I was unaware of any newer Chrome, Firefox, or Unity updates that should have broken these once-painstakingly-fixed game builds. I’ve had to remove them or provide only PC builds for download on the site. It’s very frustrating to try and keep up with.
I’ve just found WebGL to be a nightmare so far, though I know it works for some people with no problems, so your mileage may vary. A developer will have to get their game working in this format, with a reportedly simple Jump plugin, to get on the platform. I’ve actually no idea if Sons of Sol will ever get on the problem. At one stage I made myself a WebGL expert and still couldn’t get that game to work on it, though there is a lot more going on in Sons of Sol’s code than there is in the other game jam games that I fixed.
My message to any devs is this: “If you think you’d like to get on Jump, test today if your game actually works on WebGL. If it does, keeping testing it regularly. If not, good luck to you”.
This will be a very interesting one to watch. I would like to see everything remain as it was a few years ago, with people paying for games they wanted, and games holding value enough for serious, dedicated developers to actually approach game development as a business. But the only constant is change, as they say, and this is the way the winds are blowing. Given that, I think Jump is looking like a fairly benevolent new force in the marketplace.
I’m actually unsure if a drop in your wifi would boot you out of your game. I don’t think WebGL would, but maybe Jump’s proprietary software might. I don’t think so because they seem to be fairly measured in a lot of their decisions so far, and an always-on connection would be a deal breaker for a lot of people. Having to log into the site at the start of your game session each time isn’t much better though.
How frustrating is it those times when your router goes down and you realise that you’ve suddenly nothing to watch, listen to, or play, because you can’t get onto the servers to start a movie, album, or game? I do like to own copies of the things I want to use.
Or what if you lose a job and all of a sudden you’ve all the time you want to play and watch everything you couldn’t before, only to realise that you’ve to cancel all your subscriptions and you don’t own hard copies of anything any more because it’s [current year argument].
I would like to see the option to download locally and play without internet access during the month of your membership. I just don’t know how that’s going to turn out.
It’s telling, however, that I currently feel like I would probably subscribe to the service, and that I would want my own game on it. As a consumer and a developer, I’m cautiously optimistic about Jump.
Let’s see how it goes. What do you guys think about it? Do please let me know in the comments.
Jump is currently in Beta and launches in “late Summer 2017”.
Sorry about the title. It’s a little inaccurate but I couldn’t resist. This article is about the game Mass Effect: Andromeda and the fact that it’ll never be fully appreciated because of bad management decisions.
Andromeda, the 4th game in the Mass Effect series, and supposedly the first of a new trilogy, released on March 21st, 2017 in a broken, bloody mess, and has factually killed the series dead (well, cancelled and “on hiatus” is as dead as a gaming franchise ever officially gets).
So it must be a bad game, right? Well, no! Not the version I played (v1.08).
In an era where “games as a service” is increasingly becoming the norm, and hardly any big game is ever finished on release day any more, we see more and more games releasing in broken states or missing features and getting patched later. A large part of the reason is a (I argue) misguided adherence to schedules, budget and targets set by marketing departments and management, rather than listening to development teams who actually have their hands on the product.
It’s very easy to criticise, of course. There are good arguments to be fairly rigid with deadlines. Maximising the value of expensive marketing campaigns that are planned months in advance is one. Not making the development team complacent and feeling like they’ve infinite time to “get it right” is another, but when reviews still happen in and around launch day, and review scores are permanent, surely it must be better to take the financial hit of delaying the game than releasing a travesty and killing one of gaming’s biggest franchises of the past decade.
Not the first time
EA, Mass Effect’s publisher, frequently seem to be one of the worst offenders in this regard, with the infamous Sim City and Battlefield 4 botched launches being among the worst examples of the last 5 years. You’d think they might have learned a lesson. To a degree, they did, but not well enough. Andromeda was delayed once, initially scheduled to release in 2016. EA even said that they would consider delaying the game again if it made for a better experience. Evidently, they should have. It’s not clear how collaborative the decision to release was between EA and developers Bioware, but undoubtedly, the wrong decision was made. That’s evidenced by the fact that just 3 months after launch, I’m playing an enjoyable game that I’d rate 7/10. It has its problems, but has none of the embarrassing animation gaffes that defined the game’s release.
This is, unfortunately, how Andromeda will forever be remembered, and it’s something that was only in the game for a few weeks around release. You won’t see that now (or at least, I haven’t) but things like this predisposed players and critics to see the game’s other faults in a worse light. There are some cringe worthy lines of dialogue here and there, but there’s also tens of thousands of good ones. “My face is tired” is the one that will be remembered, though, because it’s early in the game and while it passed me by without major upset, anyone already totally unimmersed by the animations would just see it as another nail in the coffin.
Still not perfect
I must say that audio problems persist and playing with subtitles is essential in v1.08 or you’ll miss a lot of response lines from anyone standing more than 2 metres away. Similarly, the dynamic camera zoom, which supposedly focuses the camera on the speakers when a non-cutscene conversation starts, all too often fails to frame either speaker and leaves you staring at a desk or a wall.
Another early complaint was that planet exploration had these unskippable flying transitions between planetary orbits. While they look cool, they get tedious. You can now skip inter-planetary cutscenes, but not inter-system ones, and not ones for entering or exiting a planetary level. I can only presume that they’re necessary to hide loading times, but other games would allow you to skip after maybe 5 seconds when the loading is done, instead of watching the full 20-30 second identical cutscene every time you come and go from the Nexus (which will be a lot of times).
More playtesting and development time could have fixed these issues, led to positive reviews, greater sales, DLC, a sequel, and the continuation of the franchise. Instead, the game was sold at 50% discount less than 3 months after release, after the series was cancelled.
There are a few things I’m trying to say here
1. To developers & publishers: “Prioritise quality, because gamers care!”
From what you’ve read so far, I’m sure you’d agree that in hindsight (or if they had just learned lessons from other failing releases) the better decision here would have been a second delay of 3-5 months. Sometimes smaller companies have no option, financially speaking, but to release now, but this isn’t true of EA/Bioware.
Players forgive and forget delayed releases, but a bad launch is bad forever.
2. To gamers: “PLEASE stop pre-ordering games”
I feel a hypocrite to write this, so let me first disclaim that as a developer, I currently do offer Sons of Sol for pre-order on this very site. I don’t push it, and I don’t particularly encourage you to buy it (though I do appreciate the support if you did) but it was necessary to sell a few units to prove that we’re “in commerce” for business-y reasons.
BUT! As a gamer, I never pre-order, and I always wait for reviews. You contribute to a culture of bad releases and broken games if you support this practice, particularly in the AAA world. When developers already have your money, they don’t need to make the product any better than ‘passable’. You’d think that, for their reputations, they’d want to deliver the best possible quality, but it’s not always the case. Look at Arkham Knight, Dead Island, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, No Man’s Sky, ornow, Mass Effect: Andromeda. These are all games that you’ll find on lists of all-time bad releases, and all have earned their creators considerable scorn. It can drive gamers to piracy as well with the logic “I paid you for a good game. You didn’t give me one. I’m stealing your next one”. Never mind the illegality, and the paradoxical logic of ‘once bitten, go back for more’ – it happens, and it affects bottom lines.
The sad thing is, most of those games have gotten better with patching, and reached a state that gamers would have been happy with if they’d received that version at launch, even if launch were delayed.
If you don’t pre-order, developers will be more concerned with having good initial review scores and word of mouth, and will have to earn your money before taking it. Listen, forget about the horse armour, the classic skin for your character, or the unique handgun that you’ll never use in multiplayer. Just stop pre-ordering.
3. To gamers: “Consider waiting for sale”
I don’t think this will do the industry any favours if you’re already waiting for release and not pre-ordering, but if you’re a thrifty bargain-hunter, know that EA in particular are showing that they’re willing to discount their biggest releases to 50% off within just weeks of release. In December, I wrote about how Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 (both critically acclaimed but released in a busy pre-Christmas cycle) were selling at 40% and 50% off respectively in the Holiday sales. The same has happened with Andromeda in the Summer/E3 period, and I would suspect that the same will happen with Star Wars: Battlefront 2 at the end of this year. If you want to wait to see how that game is reviewed, you may as well wait a little longer in case there’s a hefty discount at Christmas time. This seems to happen a lot with multiplayer games, which can die on the vine if they don’t get a critical mass of players fast!
4. To EA: “Is Origin Access really doing you any favours?”
EA, and so many companies like them, want to move their customers onto more predictable monthly subscription models. I don’t like this as a consumer (it’s basically the same as pre-ordering everything the company do, and losing access to everything any month you don’t pay up), but I can see why it makes business sense, too. EA’s version is called ‘Origin Access’.
So, one of the incentives they offer to members is to “try new EA games before they’re released”. Maybe those words sound good in a board room, but it’s actually a horrible thing! This is because it means either
i) The game is ready and you’re holding it hostage an extra week so you can try to lure people into anti-consumer subscription models, or
ii) The game is not ready, and you’re letting the internet(!!!) get their hands on your unfinished game and tear it to shreds with memes, scathing YouTube videos, and negative reviews.
This is the very definition (totally in the dictionary, just take my word for it) of a double edged sword. EA hoped to cut into the market with one side of the blade, and instead got sliced with the other.
Never ones to learn, though, this offer still remains on the Origin Access website at time of writing.
The motives I’ve mentioned above are of course just my opinion, but if you have another way to read the situation, I’d love to hear it in the comments.
So I’ve barely talked about the game itself, and that’s kind of my point. Nobody knows Mass Effect Andromeda as the good game that it’s actually turned into, because you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, and the internet has an incredibly short attention span.
So, to give the game its due, my two paragraph review is that it’s quite enjoyable, and definitely worth the sale price I paid for it. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m well into the second Act, and it’s been reminding me a lot of the feeling of the first two games, of which I was a big fan. The breadth and depth of character interactions that you’d expect is there. Those awe-inspiring moments of stepping onto a spaceship bridge or a sheer cliff top and beholding magnificent vistas are the high points that make you feel the fantasy of being a space explorer. Andromeda didn’t lose that from the originals. The combat is a lot of fun. There’s less tactical squad management in combat (con, in my eyes) but it’s replaced with a verticality and movement focus that feels fresh (pro). There’s also nothing stopping you from hanging back and just sniping. The story is compelling (if a little too similar to ME2 in parts, so far). Unfortunately, excessive inventory management from ME1 came back, but I’ve been largely ignoring my armour pickups and R&D options and doing just fine at surviving. There’s also a fun co-op multiplayer segment very similar to ME3’s, though it has micro transactions so… look I just hate ‘reward crates’ in general, but the multiplayer doesn’t require that you buy and it is quite fun.
There are plenty of frustrations, though. Some still unskippable transitions, inventory management, poor menu layout for Research, some jarring dialogue, bad camera work and audio problems, but they all speak to merely a lack of polish, rather than a bad core game. The core game is good, and the polish has been improving with patches. I wouldn’t write this off if you haven’t played it yet, but don’t pay full price.
Concluding the conclusion
Game good. Silly corporate decisions bad. Hopefully both will get better. You can help by not pre-ordering or joining subscription services.
Until next time..
PS Sons of Sol (our game)has its final weekend on Square Enix Collective this weekend (July 1st & 2nd) and we’d love your votes and comments! Thanks!
So I wanted to follow on from last month’s blog and continue to discuss the possible future of games monetization. To briefly sum up what I’ve said before, I’m concerned by an increasing trend towards heavily discounting games earlier and earlier (Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Titanfall last Christmas, for example) and the effect that this has on the perceived value of games.
The success of Spotify and Netflix’s models in other industries concerns me and we see a bit of a move in that direction with things like Humble Bundles, EA Access, and console equivalents.
If we’re not careful, we’ll get to where there’s no money to be made in games and only the most trite, generic, relatively low cost and mass-appealing titles (the Call of Duties and FIFAs) will be financially viable. We stand to lose so much as gamers if certain trends take root over the next decade or so.
The problem as I see it is that there’s a race to the bottom happening with the traditional pricing models, and while many, including myself, still prefer to pay for and own a copy of the exact game they’re looking for, the margins are shrinking all the time and in the future we may have far less games to choose from as smaller developers may no longer be able to afford to run studios, and even larger ones will be far less willing (even less than they are now) to innovate with their games.
I want to look at what is being done, and what might be done about this.
What’s Happening Today?
This is where you basically pay a subscription and get access to a library of games as long as you’re still paying. The Spotify or Netflix model. In the last post, I mentioned how things like EA Access or a potential Steam equivalent could be disastrous for smaller games, but this is one way that EA is already trying to battle the downward trend in the perceived value of games. Hats off for trying, but I really hope they don’t succeed with this. Imagine you get laid off from work (as is quite the modern reality). Suddenly you’ve way more time to play games, but now have to cancel your subscription because you can’t afford it. You’ve got nothing.
End of Game Subscriptions(?)
Eve Online and World of Warcraft have both been retreating a bit from their monthly subscription models, chasing after their dwindling player bases. Both now offer the game for free at lower levels of play, but retain the subscription if you want a more complete experience. Granted, these games are both over a decade old, but if these titans don’t think that a subscription fee for their games is completely viable any more then it’s doubtful that newcomers will adopt the model either; though it remains to be seen if this F2P/subscription blend will do the job for either of them.
AAA has been trying for years to squeeze extra pennies out of their fans by charging more for more content, and it’s gone as far as the total DLC costs sometimes now even costing as much as the core game. This was never a popular approach, but it did work, and it helped AAA games remain viable despite their massively inflated budgets.
Now, however, they’re beginning to realise that charging for extra multiplayer maps, and having only some players migrate over leaves all of their map servers underpopulated. We don’t have details yet, but Battlefront 2 this year seems to be saying that they won’t have DLC, or at least none that prevents all of their fans from playing together.
So we’ll see some changes to how DLC works, it seems, but it’s likely to stay around in some form for a long time yet.
Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Battlefield and countless others are tapping into the dark side of human psychology by charging players to maybe win something they want. They’re actually working gambling into their games to keep the coins rolling in. Well, it had to happen eventually, and because it works, we seem to be stuck with it. The disgusting part to me is that they charge you money for the chance of winning one instance of a digital good that costs them nothing to produce. I hate this (which is ironic because of what I’ll argue for later, though it’s mainly the gambling element that I dislike). I have never and will never go along with it, at least not in a game I’ve already paid for, but this article is about how games are going to make money in the future, so this stays, and my personal tastes be damned.
Free To Play (F2P)
This is really looking like it may become the most popular payment model in future (it pretty much is now, especially in the East), but there are so many variations on it. On mobile it often means that you view ads or pay to unlock new levels, whereas in online traditional games it often means paying for cosmetics, XP bonuses, or in-game items.
We’re seeing that on YouTube, advertisers increasingly try to sponsor a video directly so that their message is given by the host, instead of in a skippable ad which usually isn’t worth their time. What will happen to mobile F2P when advertisers decide that they’re not getting the return they need in paying everyone else’s way? Because make no mistake; advertisers pay for the party, and we all hate looking at ads. Mobile payment models will have to change, and largely I have no problem with that. With the vast majority of mobile games that I’ve played, it seems that the payment model infects the game design and almost dictates that many of these games feel the same as one another. This might just be me, but the only mobile games I’ve truly enjoyed are ones that I’ve paid premium for; namely 80 days, Reigns, Monument Valley and some others, where I pay to get in and they cease trying to sell me things. I can get immersed then.
Players by and large don’t have a problem with these payment models except for when you can pay more to have better items than other players (“pay to win”) or when they’re mixed in with premium models (“fee to pay”. This is sadly becoming the norm, it seems).
Okay and there’s more examples and more combinations, but let’s move on.
I mentioned at the start how the value of games seems to keep falling. In traditional economics, the price is set where supply meets demand. The problem we face in the modern age is that with digital goods, supply is infinite (for all intents and purposes. Ignoring potential server costs). Demand for games is still a finite number because it’s based on people, but since we’re not tied to a limited print of 1 million physical cartridges (or whatever), one extra game code has no inherent value in the eyes of many. It has even less when you consider the sheer volume of games on offer nowadays.
People attempt to justify piracy and theft on this basis, but others are also less willing to pay the asking price for their digital copy of a new game because it doesn’t cost as much to produce as the physical copy on the GameStop shelf (they’ve got a point, but that’s another topic).
Whatever the extent of the problem today (we could argue on that) I doubt you’ll disagree that gamers seem willing to pay less and less for games, but are still willing to pay the guts of $1,000 (those who can afford to) for a new iPhone. Physical goods hold value because their supply is limited. Classic vinyls or SNES cartridges are more valuable now than when they first sold, but people think nothing of pirating The Doors’ Greatest Hits or emulating Zelda digitally.
So how do we shore up the value of our wares to prevent a crash when supply is unlimited? Appealing to consumers’ generosity and sense of idealism isn’t the answer. Pay What You Want models are rarely successful and we’ve seen CryTek almost go out of business attempting it with their game engine.
Well, just for fun, let me throw out a few ideas and we’ll see if there’s anything to be said for them.
What Might Be Done?
Let me disclaim that I’m not necessarily hoping to see many of these in practice, and currently gamers would never stand for many of them, but since I’m talking about radical changes to how games are sold anyway, let’s just go with it. The idea that everyone should be able to afford a game and that all games should cost around the same as their peers is fundamentally flawed, doesn’t apply to many other luxury goods anyway (like sports cars, watches, hotels, food, seminars, online training courses) and will likely be something we leave behind in the future. Just saying.
Limit the Supply anyway
What if you announced that you would only sell 10,000 copies of your game, but that it would cost $100? Could you sell it to your true fans? Probably. They wouldn’t want to miss out. Okay it would depend on what the game is and the reputation of the creator(s), but I do think it would work. The economic theory is sound, anyway.
What if you built an online, living, open world like nobody had ever seen and made a bounty hunting game, but you only allow 100 access codes to the game at any one time? Access costs $2,000 and when you’re done with ownership you can auction off your right to play (so its value may rise) and the developer gets 50% of the resale? I’m only throwing around numbers, but the theory holds, I think. Could I find 100 rich YouTubers who would pay a premium to be one of the few broadcasting this historical new game? I think so. They’d make their money back on the stream, then resell their access and make more.
Virtual Real Estate
Let’s talk about the apartments in GTA V Online, but this could apply to any hub world. You pay in-game currency to buy swanky (or not-so-swanky) safe houses to store your cars in and launch heists from. The suburban bungalows come in pretty cheap but the penthouse apartments cost a lot more. You buy them with in-game cash so it’s more of a progression reward than a monetization, but since you can also buy game currency with real money the lines are blurry.
The thing is, the game just puts you into your own instance of the penthouse apartment. It might be the most exclusive high-end safehouse in the city, but pretty much everyone has it after a bit of play time or direct payment. What’s the value of that? There’s no exclusivity/scarcity. So what if they only allowed one instance of each safe house? Now, okay, since you can buy in-game cash with real world money then we would probably just have some entitled little troll lording it over everyone, and that’s not much fun for players, but I’m just trying to point out some lateral thinking. The game’s developers would be selling virtual property for real money. Real property holds value pretty well because it’s limited. Virtual property doesn’t offer real shelter, granted, but when limited in quantity it would suddenly be something that creates value. If it could only be transferred within the game, and the developers took a cut, then suddenly MMOs are still games, but now monetised by rules similar to real estate economics.
Say what you want about Star Citizen, but it’s proving that traditional payment models aren’t the only way to go. When they sell an Idris mini-carrier for €1,000 and say that they’re only selling a dozen of them, they’re snapped up in moments because the goods are (or will be when released – whatever) unique.
Pay for bullets
My friend Colm Larkin (Guild of Dungeoneering) suggested jokingly the other night that you could charge for bullets. Although he was joking, I’m going to address it earnestly. What’s the difference between a round of deathmatch and a round of paintball? Sweat and limited ammunition. That’s basically it.
Airsoft is a hobby where those who can afford it buy all the best gear, sidearms, grenades, etc, and the others just rent the site’s bog standard gun and try to conserve ammunition over the day. Nobody really complains that it’s “pay to win”, yet it kind of is. What if you had an F2P shooter where you charge admission to the servers for a day, or a reduced rate for a month’s membership? Or if extra ammo cost real money?
Nobody would go for this because shooters are a dime a dozen, but fundamentally there’s not a whole lot of difference to the entertainment value of how you spend your Sunday afternoon. I pose the question: why couldn’t it work? After all, before home internet was much of a thing, my friends and I would often pay to hang out in the local internet cafe and play Delta Force, Unreal Tournament or Half-Life on a LAN. If you think that that’s a thing of the past, just take a look at South Korea, where going to a café with friends to play League of Legends all night is very much a common past time.
Rent the hardware
Speaking of internet cafés and the like, I’ve recently heard how VR is really taking off in China and Japan. They love it, but the size of the average home or apartment is way too small to house a VR system, so they go to shopping malls and arcades that have set up high-end VR PCs that can be rented by the hour (or so).
Here we have a limited amount of real estate and hardware being rented, so it’s not the case that digital games are providing fixed value here, but we’re still fundamentally talking about games and, if anything, this just proves my point that limited supply is how value can be created, and infinite supply is a problem for the future of video game pricing.
Cloud Gaming is becoming a thing, too. It’s now possible to have your games running on high end PCs “in the cloud” and streamed directly to your smaller, cheaper device that could never ordinarily run them. You can essentially rent someone else’s gaming PC as desired, and stream the results to your TV or tablet. Again, we’re talking about renting hardware, but you can imagine how certain specific games or controllers could only be provided by one proprietary company, and they then charge for access. Here, supply is limited, and price well be set where that supply meets demand. Think of the hang-gliding VR tech or the Virtuix Omni which most people couldn’t fit in their home. Tying your game to custom hardware may be more difficult to produce, but it does ensure that you retain value in the units that you do supply.
Competition Entry Fees
Here’s another quite simple option. You run tournaments in your game. Fighting games, sports games, or deathmatch games seem likely candidates for this, but it could even work with single player games where victory is determined by the highest score or fastest completion time.
Let’s say 50 people pay $5 to play. There’s $250 in the pot. The winner takes $100 and the next two runners up take $35 and $15 each. The developer then has the remaining $100 per tournament to pay server costs, staff, and recoup development costs.
Would that work? Why not? Games are pretty social now, so I don’t see a whole lot of difference between this and going to bingo or a table quiz, especially if some of the money went to charity.
Be a Superstar
You know how most actors wait tables and earn very little from acting but Brad Pitt earns millions for the exact same job? It’s not because he’s a million times better than the next guy, it’s just because he’s not subject to the market forces of supply and demand for actors. He’s not in the acting business. He’s risen above that. He’s in the Brad Pitt business. He can sell watches or fragrances or cars. It doesn’t matter.
If the vast majority of games were being sold for 99c, and Hideo Kojima made a new game, do you think he’d also sell for 99c? No. He’d charge $50-$100 and (as long as the game reviewed well/was finished/etc) people would pay it. Gladly. Because his name carries weight. In a world where any simpleton like myself can teach themselves how to make games in less than a year, it pays to be a celebrity.
Jonathan Blow managed to charge over the odds (for an indie game) for The Witness because he’s the guy who made Braid. It didn’t have anything to do with The Witness being twice as good as the next indie game out there.
Isn’t that a little uh….?
Sort of. I mean, I’m happiest when I pay GOG a fixed fee (under $60) for a DRM-free copy of a game that I want to play and replay whenever I want. I’ll be very sad if this goes away, but things are shifting too. I hate Season Passes, most DLC, and especially fee to pay or loot crates, but I also don’t want to see my games on a service like Spotify-For-Games earning me $100 in their entire lifetime, because then I won’t be making games. I’m just trying to look ahead here.
We have to remember that games used to be extremely difficult and try to kill you off quickly so that you’d keep pumping quarters into the machines… and we loved it!! It was the birth of the modern games industry, but you could see that approach as being pretty nefarious, too. The fact that we want everything free now because it costs less (not ‘nothing’, remember) to produce each additional unit is a fairly entitled view and, I suggest, it would lead to the destruction of the games industry in the same way that it’s gutted the music industry.
This topic is wide open to debate and interpretation, but the core idea that got me thinking was “what happens to the Supply and Demand model when Supply is infinite”? Price has to drop. When the price drops too low, games will cease being made. There’s no arguing with that core logic, but what happens over the next decade is fairly wide open and hard to predict.
What trends do you see emerging or disappearing? I’d love to hear from you so hop into the comments.
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.
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!
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.