Does Inventory Management ruin RPGs?

So, my biggest problem with RPGs is that I don’t have time to play them. In the last few years I’ve started but not finished The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Dark Souls, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and numerous others. As I wrote about two months ago, I also started Mass Effect: Andromeda and have since finished that (I think I just get more immersed in space opera than fantasy RPGs). And I’m not someone to abandon a game lightly. I even now keep a spreadsheet of games bought vs started, finished, and abandoned or dropped in favour of watching a YouTuber finish it. There’s just been an increase in releases, sales, and bundles, and a decrease in the free time I have that’s taking a toll on my game completion, especially in RPGs.

This problem, though, is exacerbated by my second biggest problem with (most) RPGs – inventory management. Actually, this would apply almost equally to most survival/crafting games, but I’ll focus on RPGs today.

RPG stands for role-playing-game (or rocket-propelled-grenade. Just for the sake of pedantry). You’re supposed to get very involved with your character, whether they’re an original creation of your own, or a given hero like Geralt of Rivea. You’re meant to come to see the world through their eyes and get totally immersed in the experience of deciding what that character would do in hundreds of given situations.

Designers go to great lengths to make actions and dialogue choices affect the world around you minutes, hours, and even years later in the case of the original Mass Effect trilogy, where some minor choices could resonate into the sequels. Huge budgets often go into making the worlds vast and sprawling, with dynamic weather, super-realistic lighting and shadows, and natural NPC and animal AI. This is all to make us feel more invested in the world; like it’s a living, breathing place that we’re really escaping to for a few hours.

The problem is that (and I’ll take The Witcher 3 as a recent personal example), every time I do get a few hours to come back to my save file, I take a look at my inventory and between the dozens of clothing items, clubs, swords, foods, potions, and wolf guts that I’m apparently fitting inside my pockets, I can’t remember if I’m wearing optimal armour, or checked to see if I’m using the best weapon, and the first thing I get, before any gameplay enjoyment, is the frustration of choice paralysis. I’m certainly not immersed, yet.

Then I think to myself, if I’m role playing a demon hunter riding around the countryside on horseback, why am I even carrying this much stuff? I should be travelling light, with only vital supplies and potions. You could argue that it’s my fault for picking stuff up, but that’s a pretty central tenet of all RPGs, which is actually my main problem with the genre (me not having enough time isn’t really the genre’s fault). In fiction, Geralt even repeatedly mentions that he carries two swords. A silver one for monsters, and a steel one for humans or animals. Why, then, would he pick up and carry a dozen clubs and maces (that he can’t even wield in the game), ten other steel swords, and whatever else he’s got?

Don’t say ‘Economy’

It’s an RPG trope to just hoard everything until you can get to a shop to sell it, so you can buy new things. In most games there’s an ‘overburdened’ mechanic that slows you down or otherwise impedes your abilities if you carry too much, but that’s a weak ‘fix’ to the issue of being incentivised to carry around half of the world’s economic resources in your backpack.

Just because it’s a trope doesn’t mean that it’s good design, or even that players would miss it if it was gone. Yes, if you gave less ‘loot’ for kills and treasure chest raids, then shop items would be harder to afford. There’s a very simple fix to that. You either lower the game’s prices for items, or give more gold for quests and less for selling loot. Solved. That’s part of the game balance process during production anyway. Players will never see it.


I see The Witcher 3 praised (and rightly so) all the time for its story, gameplay, animations, etc, but nobody that I’ve seen has ever talked about why Geralt would/could carry so much stuff around and raised that as a negative. Each time I came back to the game this got in my way and ruined my immersion a bit. In a game that has magic as a world element, you could argue that the items are shrunk, and that’s okay, but I don’t think they do it here (correct me if I’m wrong). And either way it’s not fun. In a sci-fi game you could say that nano machines instantly form the item you want when you want it, and return to a dormant state when you’re finished so you’re carrying around less mass but have access to several blueprint items that form and reform on command. But still, inventory management is just not fun when compared with the main game’s activities. Why must it take so much time?

Magic bags and nano machines are ‘okay’ answers by themselves, but I do think that they need to be addressed by the story in order to be acceptable, and I still think it’s preferable to make the player make interesting decisions about what to carry.

I would like to see you carrying less items in most RPGs. Elements of RPG design (specifically experience curves and customisation options) have snuck into most other game genres in the last decade, especially first person shooters, but not as many action elements have come into real time RPGs.

For example, a lot of shooters like Spec Ops: The Line or Gears of War will only let you carry two main weapons (and maybe a pistol as a third), plus grenades. Ideally you’d want something for close, medium, and long ranges, and probably something for heavy targets like an RPG (grenade, this time) launcher. This makes it impossible for you to hoard items and instead has you make interesting decisions about what you think is coming and what your play style is.

In Fallout 4 I wound up carrying so many different weapons that I thought I was playing a 90s FPS, and I often got overburdened.

Steal everything!

Another symptom of this problem is that because the game is balanced (presumably) to have good items available in shops for lots of money, you’re encouraged to loot everything from everywhere just in case that last cooking pot represents the last few credits you’ll need to afford the gold plated armour in the next town.

I actually hate this about RPGs. It’s fine to role play a villain or nefarious character, if that’s your thing, but I usually go paragon/good, and it’s totally at odds with the character I’m role playing to do a side quest to save this poor, starving person from the gang who’s threatening to rob her apartment, just to turn around, break into her home, and take everything myself, as she thanks me walking out the door. I didn’t even want her vase, I just took it because I could.

Someone will now tell me I’m playing it wrong. Well, I’m not, really. What’s the right way? That’s the point of RPGs, isn’t it? But it does feel wrong to me. Gamers become experts at min-maxing game systems. It just becomes second nature to find the most efficient ways to do something, and stealing to get free resources is just good gaming (because an NPC isn’t going to care or be affected the vast majority of the time), but it completely ruins the game’s immersion while you’re doing it, and when designers are trying to have people reach flow states, that’s a cardinal sin! It needs to be designed against.

As a side note, Fallout 4 is actually the first game I’ve ever played where I was more immersed  as a result of not looting everything that I could. I started out that way, but found quickly that there were actually too many locations (and shopkeepers had limited funds) for me to bother hoarding items just for currency. So, kudos there. And that’s not even in survival mode, where your inventory is vastly more limited. In Deus Ex games, the levels are far more linear and so you can quite easily do every side quest, help every NPC, then rob every item. The interesting choice about what to buy in a store is usually lost because the decisions becomes not “item-A, or item-B”, but “let’s steal items C-Z then come back to sell them and buy both A and B”. It basically generates busy work (to go steal C-Z) and artificially lengthens the game. That could almost be seen as a plus if you can stay immersed while doing it, but I can’t.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda I didn’t even look at what I was picking up any more after a few hours. I rarely went to shops and when I did I’d buy the most expensive stuff, sell all my ‘junk’ in a single button press, throw in a few extra shotguns and rifles I had lying around, and walk out with more credits than I went in with, plus the new vehicle upgrades. I like a lot about that game, but I had utter contempt for the inventory and the god-awful layout of the research and crafting trees. I just found weapons and armour early on that I liked and pretty much used them for the rest of the game, without ever feeling like the enemy were too powerful for my current gear level. How many hours of work went into just a couple of mechanics that only got in my way and made me feel contempt for that part of the game? Not worth it! Simplify! Cut the fat!

Define the problem

I think I’ve been pretty clear so far, but when trying to solve a problem, it’s good to be very clear about its definition. So allow me to suggest:

“The glaring weak point in the RPG genre is its looting and inventory systems, which slow the game’s pace and break immersion”.

For me, that statement is complete enough. As an example, I find that in many RPGs I spend about half my time (or at least far too much of it) considering what to loot, reading item descriptions, going back and forth between different gun stat listing to weigh the pros and cons of changing my primary weapon, and generally not playing the game!

Talk about solutions

 Must every RPG Protagonist's fatal flaw be that they're a KLEPTOMANIAC?
Must every RPG Protagonist’s fatal flaw be that they’re a KLEPTOMANIAC?

This is just me talking, but I know from pervious chats that others agree with me. There are dozens of us! Dozens! I’ll confess that I’m not traditionally an RPG guy. I didn’t get into Baldur’s Gate back when it was big, I haven’t played Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity, or any Bethesda game before Skyrim, and I don’t think I’ve ever played a table-top RPG yet (though I really want to). So I’m an RPG-pleb coming from the shooter world into this great genre, which really first captivated me when it went sci-fi and first/third person. So maybe there are purists who love the systems exactly the way that they are, but I think there are improvements to be made.

I’m not about to tackle making an RPG myself, but I’d encourage any designers reading this to approach their next RPG from the ground up. Take out looting completely and see if the game is fun. Then add back in interesting decisions around looting, weapon management, and the economy, with a very deliberate focus on “what would our lead character do in this world?” instead of “it’s an RPG so you have to be able to loot lots of stuff”. Have looting and weapon management for good, synergistic reasons, not just because it’s a genre norm.

In Conclusion

I think I already concluded, really. But I don’t hear others talking about this much, especially not in relation to The Witcher 3. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and whether you’re a classic RPG player, or a recent blow-in.

Until next time…

Empathy For Pixels

 Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.
Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.

Truthfully, I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this. Turns out it’s about two things: ways to deepen game characters, and reasons why it’s important (as well as when it’s not.. so okay three things).

Let me tell you a story. It’s about a boy who was born into a fairly poor family who eked out a passable existence on a family plot in the mountains. When he was only 12 years old, his father was killed in a tragic farming accident, and as his mother was too ill to work, he became the sole breadwinner for a family of six younger siblings.

He had a talent for singing. His deep and melodious voice, paired with a deep well of emotion bought from years of personal sacrifice, won him many admirers in the taverns and dance halls around the local villages. It wasn’t long before the girls started to notice him.

As his younger siblings matured, he dreamed of leaving the farm and pursuing a career in music, until one day a paramour told him she was pregnant with his child. Dreams of a life of travel and singing were forgotten. They married and his love gave birth to twins some few months later. He was the happiest man alive!

Unfortunately, the harvests had been poor for years, and the bank reclaimed his family’s farm as the twins neared their first birthdays.

With not one, but two families to support, and no means of doing so, he joined the army, one of the few employers who was always hiring. He moved both families to the city as he began boot camp.

His first post was guarding a hydroelectric power plant. It was hard to be away from his family, but he knew that they were safe and provided for.

One day on duty, as he quietly hummed a lament, thinking about the night he first met his beloved, this happened…

 GIF recorded from tommytep's YouTube Channel. Click image for source.
GIF recorded from tommytep’s YouTube Channel. Click image for source.


Like that one? Let me tell you another (shorter) story.

A class sits idle in some code, waiting. Its name is Soldier 4. It’s basically frozen in time. It doesn’t even look like anything yet because its mesh hasn’t been rendered because the player camera’s frustum hasn’t come across it yet. Suddenly, the player enters a trigger area around the corner and the class springs to life in glorious pixelated detail. It starts playing an animation, shifting its weight back and forth on two legs. Then a raycast determines  that it’s just been shot 3 times. A rather slow and painful looking death animation is chosen from a small list of predetermined death animations. After a few seconds, Soldier 4 lies still, fades to nothing, and the garbage collector erases any trace of his existence shortly thereafter.


Okay, which story do you like better? Which is more true? Which is more believable?

Which would you tend to think of when playing a game? I suppose that would depend on how immersed you are, and what lengths the game goes to in order to inform you about non player characters (NPCs).

I used Goldeneye because it’s one of the earliest examples I can think of where my mom was a bit upset that I was shooting people in games, rather than speeding through checkpoints and jumping on robotic animals. It’s also one of the first games I can recall that put some real effort into showing pain in the enemies. You could shoot them in the foot, hand, or crotch, and they’d stop shooting, grab the injured area, make a pained noise and hop around (if they still could).

I was too busy at the time being blown away by the speed and the technology (I’d also never played Doom or similar 3D shooters at that time) to think of the enemies as anything more than obstacles to progression, but I can see now in games what my mom saw then. And it’s got nothing to do with graphics, or realistic animations. It’s partly a question of emotional maturity, of course, but also of storytelling. Where I just saw ‘baddies’ my mom saw me walk into a room and gun down a random young man in a Russian uniform with no provocation. Goldeneye didn’t really give you reasons to kill most of the game’s enemies other than “you’re James Bond and they’re Russian. Duh!”

Twenty years later, we have plenty of room on the disc to fit even a little audio that can precisely let you know why you should (or shouldn’t) want to kill these dudes. Yet in those situations where we have the opportunity to do better, how often do we actually strive to?

When to dehumanise

There are so many games of all sorts. I’m not at all trying to argue that we do want backstories for all game characters in order to make them better. That could often do the opposite.

  Brutal Doom 's ott gore doesn't exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!
Brutal Doom ‘s ott gore doesn’t exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!

Take Doom (new or old). It’s an unapologetic power fantasy, delivered through the medium of speed and violence. Killing demons removes any need for cumbersome storytelling. It’s black and white. Demons are evil. Kill demons. A game shouldn’t try to do too many things. If the extras conflict with the core idea, cut them.

We often dehumanise the enemy in games. Literally. Whether to simplify story, avoid moral debates or to sidestep local censorship laws, we turn our targets into zombies, monsters, robots, or aliens. It works really well. Robots and zombies can also relieve the impact of bad AI, since they’re not meant to be particularly intelligent to begin with. Great! Over the top violence and power fantasies can be fantastically fun, and I wouldn’t change Doom 1 or 4 one little bit.

The topic I’m addressing is what to do when we have human adversaries, who are meant to represent believable people. Because this is the greater challenge, and it’s likely that you seek to tell some sort of story when you’ve chosen to have human antagonists.

There are two types of games that use humans as enemies; those with either fictional or non-fictional settings.

Fictional Settings

GTA V is one of the most realistic, alive open world games that’ve ever been created. But players have zero empathy for the citizens of Los Santos. The game’s over the top satire, occasionally wonky physics, and amazing yet vastly imperfect AI, prevent any great depth of immersion. That’s not to say that you can’t get lost in the game for hours, but you’d never mistake it for a real experience, and you wouldn’t really start to feel for the characters. The emphasis on driving fast across a world populated by pedestrians is fundamentally incompatible with any sort of attempt to make you care about individuals in this world. And that’s fine. GTA V is incredible for what it is, and no game can be everything (though it’s not far off, to be fair).

Now take Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I just finished playing yesterday. As in most games, you’ll mow down hundreds of enemies, but narratively there’s something interesting going on. If you listen to the idle dialogue and/or audio records, you’ll come to appreciate a depth to the enemies. There are the core villains but also their paid and oblivious contractors. Trinity are out to do bad things and don’t care who they kill, but most of the enemy army are hired mercenaries who don’t know about or don’t believe in the religious fanaticism that drives their employers. Among these contractors, many start to realise that their bosses are nuts, and say that they didn’t sign on to round up and shoot local tribespeople. Some talk about trying to get out asap. Some other contractors are psychopaths themselves, and then Trinity are always evil. This approach did make me want to avoid killing certain guys, or at least regret having to do so. A little. It also made me more eager to hear what type of group I was about to go up against, by stealthily sneaking up on their positions instead of opening fire early. It’s a pity that there aren’t any non-lethal options or other mechanics to expand on this narrative theme. Once the bullets start flying, the good ones and the bad ones all want to kill you just as much.

Still, it was a good effort at adding some depth to the game, and I appreciated that it was there. Because personally I’m usually (when facing human game enemies) thinking that they’re probably not all bad and they don’t all deserve to die. It was nice for a game to respond to this.

Of course, other games have done this, and done it better. If you haven’t yet played Spec Ops: The Line then do it now! Even if you think you know all the spoilers, it’s a masterpiece in subverting player expectations. The whole journey through the game is brilliant.

Fundamentally, I think that most conflicts only occur due to a lack of understanding or empathy (including an unwillingness to share resources). With better communication and patience, most could be avoided. Games so rarely attempt to show this, but if narrative is a serious part of the game you want to deliver, then it should be strongly considered.

Games are such a powerful medium for delivering understanding and empathy because the player actively takes part in them. I’m not saying that every game should be doing this, but we could certainly be faring better as an industry.

Historical Settings

Real world armies have forever attempted to dehumanise the enemy in order to make it easier for your own troops to kill them. They’re all savages. They’re all baby killers. They’re all rapists, thieves and murderers, and God is on our side. War films are almost universally anti-war films (especially since Vietnam) and they usually tap into the folly of these lies. Yet war games still seem to find it more convenient to buy the lie hook, line, and sinker.

Maybe it’s because you’re asking the player to do the killing directly for hours on end that designers have felt the need to retain these lies. I remember that in the opening minutes of Call of Duty World at War you’re being brutally tortured by Japanese captors before being rescued by Kieffer Sutherland and his band of more morally upstanding brothers. It’s set up so that you will have no problems killing Japanese or German pixels for the next several hours. Of course, the Japanese and German armies were conducting genocide and torture, and stopping that is a fairly justifiable goal (as long as we’re clear that no side was squeaky clean), but I’m just saying that I’ve never seen a game take the opportunity to do what Letters from Iwo Jima by Clint Eastwood did.

This is why I’m a bit concerned that Call of Duty are returning to World War 2 as a setting this year. For the last several years they’ve been doing fictional settings and usually have some big opening set piece showing you exactly how evil your enemies are and why you should kill them all (they blew up your house and neighbours, usually). Their games are so formulaic that I’m concerned they’ll miss their chance to advance the genre of war games by just ticking all the same boxes in a new (well, old) setting and perpetuating the notion that Americans are always good, and Nazis are always bad. That said, they seem to be heavily influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan so maybe they will have some shades of grey in their narrative and do something new.

Battlefield 1 at least lets you play as both sides in a conflict and although human lives are reduced to mere ‘tickets’, I do admit that I felt remorse when sitting in a machine gun nest, mowing down a charge across the trenches by the players on the other team.

Yes, it’s a game, but it represents something. Yes, the players will respawn and so it’s more like a game of paintball or virtual tag than an actual battle, but this is where my empathy for pixels idea comes in. Real lives were ended doing exactly this kind of action that I’m doing right now. I sincerely hope that when you watch the last hour of Titanic you feel a lot more moved than when you watch Con Air. Similarly, I hope than when you play games based on the world wars or Vietnam, that a part of you doesn’t glorify the killing in the same way as you the glory kills in Doom.

They’re different beasts, I think, and deserve different treatments from the creators. I hope that Call of Duty: WW2 gets some of that.

Games with more moral weight

I’ve referenced more linear games here so far, but RPGs are traditionally much better at giving weight to your moral decisions, even if they are nearly always set in fantasy or post-apocalyptic worlds.

I recently played Westerado, an indie cowboy RPG/ murder mystery in an open world that you have a lot of agency over. It doesn’t take itself fully seriously, but because you can go anywhere and kill anyone, you feel like you’ve some real responsibility in the world. Because of this responsibility, when I found myself riding out with some US Army soldiers who’d been fighting with native American tribes, and we than happened upon said tribes in a sudden ambush, I said “oh fuck no I will not be killing native Americans and still pretending I’m the good guy”. I ran from the fight. I failed that side quest. I think the army were all killed but I’m not sure. But that was my story. The game didn’t establish that these natives were out of line in any particular way, just that the army were fighting them. So my own knowledge of history filled in the rest.  While I was happy enough to help the army bring food to settlers (or whatever we were doing in that quest) I was not taking part in any genocide. Pixelated or not.

Here is an example of an extremely unrealistic looking game reaching me on a real level. An historical setting (fictional as the specifics are) and a game where my choices can have a lasting effect can create real empathy even for pixelated characters.

Mechanics for deeper, more sympathetic NPCs

Assuming you want some moral ambiguity or emotional weight in your game, particularly if you’re making a war game, what tools could be used to advance this agenda?

Just having NPCs chatter together is a very simple way of humanising them (for better or worse) before you go in guns blazing or not. It’s tried and true in linear games, but challenging in open worlds where the dialogue inevitably can start to repeat, and feel insincere.

The opening level of Battlefield 1 had you fighting a pitched battle on the Western front. Each time you died (in this level only), as the screen faded to black, you got your character’s name and the year of their birth and death. What it would say on their tombstone, basically. You then respawned as a new soldier elsewhere in the battle. This gave a weight to death that most war games (and the rest of this one) usually can’t deliver. If you add to that system something like “loving father and husband” or “always dreaming” you’ve a better system already.

Valiant Hearts has you play as characters from both sides of the trenches, and actually never has you kill anyone. It shows your Franco-German family in tact before the war, then watches as, torn apart by circumstance, they struggle to reunite.

This War of Mine has you play a war game from the point of view of starving families trying to survive amidst the rubble, where you make decisions to kill innocents because you need food for your own kids. The shocking reality of the unseen other side of war games was powerful.

Apart from historical settings that bring their own moral weight (and ethical dilemmas in terms of storytelling) to the table, you could use procedural generation to fill out backstories for each and every NPC that lives or dies. It’s its own challenge, but it’s possible. Watchdogs had a system where you could hack the phone of anyone in the open world and get a little summary of that person as an individual. That’s not an end in itself, but it’s a tool in the box.

Dwarf Fortress procedurally generates its entire world and history when you launch a new game. Co-creator Tarn Adams and Kitfox Games’ Tanya X Short have some great GDC talks and blogs about procedural generation, including a book they co-wrote called Procedural Generation in Game Design coming out soon. Do check some of it out if you’re interested in the area.

I’ve experimented myself with generating a small town’s size of population. Everyone gets a name, age and job. Every year people grow up and either die, marry, have kids, or do nothing extraordinary. Over a few seconds I grow this town by several generations and all of a sudden have a family history for every character still alive at the moment I start playing the game properly. I’m planning on using something similar to this in Sons of Sol to flesh out your wingmates’ backgrounds, though we don’t yet know the extent of player interaction with wingmates outside of the main missions.

In Conclusion

There are many more ways we could flesh out NPCs. Better AI is one. We could even get as far as giving NPCs the levels of interactivity that the hosts in Westworld have. Though I think the point of that show is that some people will just refuse to acknowledge the humanity in artificial things, while others can empathise with them very naturally; less because they’re fooled by looks or behaviour, but more because they’re emotionally invested in the story.

Humans have always loved storytelling, and creators have always found new and better ways of expanding our toolset for crafting them. We have amazing tools for creating empathy and understanding through interaction now.

Games are chief among the most consumed media in the modern age. Violence and conflict are a core part of many of our games, but also a significant part of the real world that we live in. In a world that too often seems to lack empathy and a willingness to understand our adversaries, games could be our best tool to foster a willingness to understand other sides in a conflict. I think it’s important that we start to do this more often. It doesn’t suit every game, but where killing humans is the main activity, and especially in historical war games, I think we can and should do better than we have been. We’re moving the right way, I think, but let’s keep it up.

Until next time..

Alternate Payment Models for Games

 Deus Ex Mankind Divided tried some new ideas... in a premium game... it didn't go down well.
Deus Ex Mankind Divided tried some new ideas… in a premium game… it didn’t go down well.

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?

Library Subscriptions

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(?)

 If WOW has gone Free To Play, that's saying something... then again, it's 10 years old so...
If WOW has gone Free To Play, that’s saying something… then again, it’s 10 years old so…

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.

Loot Crates

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).

Etc, etc..

Okay and there’s more examples and more combinations, but let’s move on.

Economics 101

 I drew it myself. You like?
I drew it myself. You like?

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.

 It's a pretty nifty safehouse to be fair.
It’s a pretty nifty safehouse to be fair.

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.

 Airsoft pay to win. Click for the video.
Airsoft pay to win. Click for the video.

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Until next time..

Single Player Campaigns Bounce Back!

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog lamenting the decline in first person shooter campaigns in favour of multiplayer components. Last month, in a blog addressing predictions of a games industry crash, I gave a little time to arguing that single player content may well be the way forward for the AAA industry. I’m writing today to give a bit more time to that idea and to act as a counterpoint to my blog of a year ago.

I won’t be giving much attention to the (awesome and always-inspiring) indie scene today, but everything that I argue for AAA here can apply down the foodchain as well.

 Titanfall 2 had the best single player campaign in a AAA shooter last year, hands down!
Titanfall 2 had the best single player campaign in a AAA shooter last year, hands down!

2016’s Legacy

As I wrote last month, 2016 left us with a lot of high quality AAA games that reviewed well and sold poorly. This could have been down to genre fatigue (‘sequelitis’), consumers being more wary of the hype machine, or just saturation of releases. Most likely it’s a combination of all of those things.

Even though Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (COD:IW) picked up its sales slack a few weeks after release, Activision were surely hearing alarm bells when they realised that the multiplayer servers were underpopulated because most COD fans were still playing last year’s Black Ops 3. This was further exacerbated on PC by the fact that Steam owners were unable to play with Microsoft’s paltry number of buyers on their Windows 10 games store.

So many games in recent years have reduced or foregone single player content in favour of focusing on multiplayer audiences. The problem there is that without hitting a critical mass of players, those who want to play your game will have nobody to play the game with. There are only so many players to go around, but they’re being offered more and more games to choose from, and then often being subdivided into those who have bought DLC maps and those who haven’t, and usually further divided by what platform they own the game on. Late 2016 may have been the early warning needed (whether it will be heeded or not remains to be seen) to alert these companies that current trajectories may not be sustainable.

Earlier Warnings and Reversals

We saw some foreshadowing before 2016, however. Titanfall (2014) was well received but criticised for its lack of any single player content, and that story came full circle when Titanfall 2 (TF2) released with a short (normal length for AAA nowadays, though) 5-6 hour campaign to great critical acclaim (but, sadly, poor sales) and was praised as one of the best AAA campaigns in recent years. Having played it, I wholeheartedly agree!

Star Wars: Battlefront in 2015, rushed out to coincide with The Force Awakens movie, was similarly criticised for being multiplayer-only, though later added a single player element. Its sequel is set to release at the end of 2017 and seemingly is reintroducing single player content as a selling point.

 We hope you like other players! The later addition of a free single player mode was welcomed by many.
We hope you like other players! The later addition of a free single player mode was welcomed by many.

While most of the Battlefield games in the last few years have featured single player campaigns, their delivery had been seriously under par until Battlefield 1 (BF1) last year, and again, critics and fans praised the focus on this.

While single player content is more expensive to produce, developers must realise that its absence from a €60 title is a deal breaker for a lot of customers (the price should at least be reduced to reflect this, many feel). More than that, though. Single player content leverages risk for the consumer. As we’ve seen recently, if multiplayer only games don’t have enough players, then there is no game! It used to be the case that players bought games primarily for their single player content and then spilled over into the multiplayer for a little more of the same, but with a twist. Now that trend has probably reversed for many, but not all. I, for example, have no interest in multiplayer only games, especially at the €60 price point, but I did want to play COD:IW, BF1, and TF2 for their single player, and in the case of BF1 and TF2 I spent a little time on multiplayer as well.

But even if I’d bought them primarily for multiplayer, and the servers then shut down from lack of players (whether in 2 months or 5 years), I’m glad to still have a game to play. Without single player, some gamers aren’t prepared to pay top dollar for that risk, and that’s worth developers considering.

We sadly saw Dead Star, which featured a great multiplayer twist, shut down in October 2016 – just 6 months after launch! Evolve has also shut down, and Battleborn looks to be treading water as well, despite being a perfectly solid and enjoyable game!

I’ll note that Overwatch is an exception to my argument, but Blizzard seem to be the exception to every rule anyway. Indeed, their success is part of why all these other games are failing – especially Battleborn.

So what about 2017?

It’s looking good for fans of single-player content. If you allow that coop modes are hybrids of single and multiplayer (usually single-player-style crafted content intended for 2-4 players), then Ubisoft are releasing Ghost Recon: Wildlands in March (and it’s listed is playable in single player), and For Honor in February, which has single and multiplayer.

A big one is Mass Effect: Andromeda from EA and Bioware in March. It has a multiplayer mode, but its main focus is a 20-30 hour single player campaign. The last Mass Effect game was 3 in 2012.

 Are we looking forward to this? Despite earlier skepticism, yes!

I already mentioned that the new Battlefront will have single player, and the end of the year will likely also see a new COD game with a 5 or 6 hour campaign. These aren’t terribly exciting for the purposes of this blog, but the fact that they’re holding course instead of veering towards multiplayer-only is noteworthy.

We’ve also just had Resident Evil 7, and this year will also see Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Prey for the PC, Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4, and Red Dead Redemption 2 for consoles (and hopefully the PC later, as with GTA V). So there’s no shortage of single player games releasing this year, and they seem to be getting greater focus, but how they perform will be crucial.

The way forward for AAA publishers?

If these games perform well, and doubtless many of them will, one hopes that it will convince developers that single player is not only not a thing of the past, but that these titles can produce their own runaway successes and that they can help publishers leverage their risk with more predictable sales figures. Players won’t often buy a multiplayer game if their friends aren’t playing it, so sales are vulnerable to a cascade effect. With a single player game, people buy just for themselves, and sales should be more easy to predict. Multiplayer-only may often have a higher profit potential (by eliminating campaign creation costs) but one thing we know about AAA publishers is that they’re more concerned with reducing risk than innovating. That’s not a criticism. It’s a necessity for them.. mostly.

With single player games, in the same way as with cinema releases, people will often buy in immediately for fear of having the story spoiled from them. This can protect against launch slumps. With multiplayer, people are more likely to wait for a sale as they won’t miss much. We saw this at the end of 2016. I would think we’ll see at least a couple of developers attempt to put greater emphasis on a great story with an unbelievable twist, in order to increase day one sales. Pre-order bonuses aren’t cutting it in the same way as they once were, seemingly.

In Conclusion

I pretty much already concluded in the last section, actually. All that’s left for me to say is ‘thanks for reading’. This is a very uncertain topic, of course, and these are only my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. If you liked the article, do consider sharing.

Oh and if you haven’t seen it, we’ve just released a teaser trailer for our own game ‘Sons Of Sol’. I encourage you to check it out below and like/subscribe/share/all that good stuff.

Until next time..

Did ‘Classic’ games train me against Free To Play?

If you’re the kind of person who likes to make up their mind about an article in the first sentence and then stops reading, then for your benefit let me extend this sentence awkwardly and state that there’s nothing wrong with Free To Play (F2P) games and I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ game. Read on.

The ‘classic’ that I refer to in the title is just the classic paid model of a complete game. Not the type of genre or the period of the game’s release. As for F2P, for today’s article I’m entirely focused on mobile F2P, not other platforms.

So I’m 29, and I’ve been playing games since I was about 7. 1994 is when I got my first computer so I’ve a 22 year career in playing games. The majority of games that I played in that time were games I paid for once, as complete experiences, and played to completion (less so in recent years. So many more games, so little time). So that’s normal for me anyway, and it’s still the way I prefer to play games.

 X-Wing. My first ever game.
X-Wing. My first ever game.

I don’t want to pay for a subscription where you’ll give me 6 or 7 mystery games (Humble Monthly Bundle). I don’t want to pay €60 for a half a game then another €50 for the ‘Season Pass’, the value of which remains to be seen (virtually all AAA games these days), and I don’t particularly want to download the game for free and pay real money to change the colour of my character’s hat (other than to show support if I did enjoy it. Don’t care about the hat colour per se). I especially don’t want to pay for the game and then pay more for ‘loot crates’ or new character skins (aka ‘Fee To Pay’) because I’ve already paid the entry fee and why should I pay more?

That’s just how I feel about how I consume games. It’s entirely subjective. There’s nothing automatically wrong with any of those models (though some can give rise to pretty dubious practices) and they’ll suit some people more than others. I work from home but if I commuted daily I might be a bigger consumer of Free To Play mobile games (though I still doubt it).

So yeah; in gamer-years I’m an old grump who doesn’t like change. Why is this? And what prompted me to write this article?

Trying out mobile games again

I’m primarily a PC gamer. For lots of reasons. I don’t own a TV. Most of what I would want to play on a console I can get on PC anyway. I like space games. I like indie games. My first gaming experiences were on PC. I prefer keyboard and mouse. All of that!

I’ve owned a console each generation since the Megadrive/Genesis until now. I just prefer PC.

I do go outside of my comfort zone to try new games though, especially now as a game designer I want to play what people are talking about, at least a little, so I can see what’s hot and what’s not, so to speak. For instance, I recently finally got my hands on a PS3 and got to try the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, Journey, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 as well as a few others. This was only days before Sony announced that Playstation Now is coming to PC, but whatever. I’m glad I did. Great games, all, and a few long-standing items ticked off my To Do list.

I also pick up mobile games from time to time, like if a friend made it, or if enough people won’t shut up about it. Angry Birds was my first mobile game and it was probably the one I enjoyed the most. I’ve also tried Jetpack Joyride and Crossy Road but while I can see the fun, they’re not games I felt like playing more of, and I certainly wasn’t compelled to spend money in them (I wouldn’t be around long enough to get anything out of the purchase). 

More recently (relatively) I tried a new batch. I haven’t tried Pokemon Go yet (I will, but I hear there’s virtually no ‘gameplay’. Its popularity stems from its novelty of the ‘Go’ part, not its strength as a Pokemon game. Personally I look forward to other ‘Go’ games that really explore the gameplay side a bit better) but I was catching up on a few other games that won’t seem to leave me alone until I try them.

80 Days is so far my favourite mobile game but it’s a paid game. You pay, and you get the whole experience. One that isn’t artificially slowed down to compel you to spend more money to speed it up. For this blog post though I’m trying to get to a point about F2P games with microtransactions, so I won’t go into 80 Days. Just wanted to give the shout out. It’s now also available on PC if that’s your thing.

Fallout Shelter

I’ve a lot of time for Bethesda, so I tried Fallout Shelter. I found it to be an extremely compelling Skinner box of a game that occupied me for a couple of days, but that ultimately went nowhere. You build up your vault to protect your settlers from nuclear fallout. You expand it, attract new settlers, build weapons to protect against raiders and infestations and… just keep doing that really. Once I’d seen a few of the mechanics and realised that I was now just clicking the thing so that I could click more things I lost all interest in the game and stopped dead. Endless games don’t really do it for me, as fun as this was early on.

It tries to earn its money (and succeeds, just not with me) by selling cheap-ish loot drops and upgrades like legendary weapons which ultimately just save you time in getting those things through ‘gameplay’ (mostly waiting) and with no ultimate goal in mind other than to buy/earn the next thing. One thing that I hate about the type of drop they use (“lunchboxes”) is that what you get is random. You might want something in particular. Pay them money and you might get it. If not, pay them more money and try again. It’s gambling at its ugliest if you ask me (all sorts of games are doing this now so I’m not just picking on Fallout Shelter). The ‘house’ (developer) doesn’t risk anything. They create a new instance of a virtual good and give it to you, whether it was the one you wanted or not. You always spend money and can never get it back. You’d be better off in a casino.

The free game is fun enough for a day or two though.. I guess. It’s really well designed.. I just struggle to find anything truly nice to say about it because of how much its monetisation method turns me off.

Clash of Clans

Next up was this phenomenal success. And again I really can’t see the attraction. Sure there’s blips and bloops when you press things (positive reinforcement for the easily impressed, or just good game polish for the more cynical) but there doesn’t seem to be any end goal. You can attack the clans of other players but with feck-all control of your units in battle. It’s not an RTS (which might have been interesting). You build up your village/clan and get better defensive structures and offensive units.

I always find it frustrating to get trolled by more advanced players in games, though getting revenge can be fun. But then they’ll just do it back to you. It’s an endless cycle that goes nowhere. What is this game?

You can pay to speed up the process of earning things. Which, as I sometimes see it, is paying not to play the game.

Clearly, I haven’t found the magic that hundreds of millions of other uses have. If anyone would (seriously) like to try to ‘sell’ it to me or explain something I’m missing, feel free.

I once played a Facebook game that was similar. Can’t remember the name but it took after Red Alert a bit in terms of units and art style. It was fun, and I actually spent a few bucks on it at the time, but ultimately it just becomes about getting attacked by the same couple of local players every other day, and attacking them back in between. Whoever pays the devs more can do the better attacking, and ultimately there is no winner. The devs are basically Lord or War in this regard, arming both sides and watching them go nowhere. Knowing that Clans was basically the same thing with a theme that I found less interesting, I didn’t play much past the tutorial (can you tell that I crave story or some sort of overall goal from my games? Yeah, I think you can).

Oh that’s the other thing. Mobile tutorials (yes, I generalise) tend to be sooo patronising. Like “press this button if you would want to do this”, yet you can do literally nothing else. The first half hour of the game is just pressing the one available button as and when you’re told. There’s no room to experiment or make choices. Very dull. You do nothing but read and tap, read and tap. I know you’re learning but Christ that’s a boring way to do tutorials, and I’ve rarely found the post-tutorial gameplay to be much more compelling when games start out that way. It’s a prejudice I’ve picked up, yes, but it’s held true for me so far. I always find it a bad sign.

Kings Of The Realm

Made by Digit in Dublin, I know many of the team from the Irish Game Dev community so of course I had to play this at some point. I haven’t a tablet, just a Galaxy S4 so I liked that I could take my same profile and play on the PC with larger screen and mouse controls.

There’s a bit of a story going on, which I definitely appreciated, and there’s pretty good systems in place to ensure that you can’t attack or be attacked by players of a vastly different rank than you. 

In an over-simplified way it’s like Clash of Clans, or at least it sits in the same genre. You have a base, you upgrade the base with better defences and more advanced barracks to build better units to attack other players or NPC camps to gain resources and level up.

The art is far superior to Clash of Clans. This is a much prettier game in my opinion. Your castle and grounds look amazing. You can even see villagers working in the fields and walking around. You feel like it’s a real place and start to imagine enemy hordes streaming through the gates and feel compelled to boost your defences asap to protect your subjects. But that’s the problem. You have to imagine it. The battles are all auto-resolved. You don’t see what your attacking armies or defending troops are actually doing, and you can’t directly command them. Again – it’s not an RTS.

I lasted longer on this than Clans and I do think it’s the better game, but the gameplay was still too shallow and repetitive for me, in many of the same ways. If I could actually have more involvement in the attacks (and you do have some..) that’d be it for me, but that would require building a whole other game on top of this one so it’s not going to happen.

Again, microtransactions allow you to skip build times.

My takeaways from my latest round of mobile gaming

I’m willing and trying to embrace more facets of gaming. For instance, thanks to Xcom, I now like turn-based games, whereas I never did growing up (except Worms. That was hilarious). But mobile gaming, at least those games that adopt the F2P model and design around it, still fail to do anything for me.

 Remains my favourite mobile game to date.
Remains my favourite mobile game to date.

To me it just feels like you’re levelling up to level up, whereas in games like Fallout 4 or Pillars of Eternity you actually use your level. You fight at that level for a while and really feel a boost when you get a new ability at the next one. It’s not that mobile games are somehow inherently unable to deliver on this, it’s just that, for me, I’ve never seen one that does.

Computer games added the tabletop RPG ideas of levelling to make core mechanics like shooting or spell-casting more interesting. Deus Ex and Mass Effect are great examples of levelling in games that aren’t just solely about achieving the next level. There it’s a companion to gameplay. Intended to be the icing on the cake; not the entire cake! Levelling for the sake of levelling feels very empty to me when I can’t actually play any part of the game.

The best mobile games are of course technologically inferior to most PC and console games, but there’s no rule that says they have to be inferior in terms of gameplay. I’m aware of that. I’m not trying to be a snob. I’m making an effort. But I’ve never found a free to play mobile game that held interest for me.

So I started to think about this and I asked myself “is it me?”.

‘Classic’ model

Just for the purposes of discussion, let’s say I’m a “classic gamer”. Ever since I was 7, I’ve had at least one game on the go at a time. I’ve always played games and for the most part, certainly during my formative years and throughout all my school and college years they’ve all been of the classic paid model. So I paid for the game and played the crafted experience (majority were single player) without even the option to pay to see more parts of the game or buy new characters, weapons or skins. 

Why, in my day, DLC (or “expansion packs” as they were known) weren’t necessarily even considered  for development until the core game seemed to be selling well. They certainly weren’t planned in advance as season pass hostage material.

So with that as my norm, I’ve been trained to think of games in a certain way. As a business/marketing graduate I’ve no problem acknowledging that things change and have to change and that alternate models are viable, if not superior. I’m just saying that I like what I like and I’ve been affected by my experiences, as has everyone.

I’m kind of taking ages to get to the point, but what I came to realise (half-jokingly, half-seriously) was this:

Classic Games trained me against F2P

There are all sorts of studies into how we can teach through gaming and a growing area of the industry is focused on the “gamification” of things like education. Games can train us to do things and think certain ways. In a good way (though like anything it can be used for evil. But never mind that for today).

Games can improve our reflexes and reaction times, even in the elderly. They can improve our ability to track multiple moving objects. They encourage lateral thinking. They can teach us about history, physics, warfare, how do drive a car or how to fly a plane. Games are especially good at teaching logic and efficiency. Any sort of game with a combat encounter to be overcome trains you how to best use your resources (weapons, time, money, environment, allies) to overcome a problem.

So I think it was while playing Fallout Shelter that I started thinking about one of the common ways that F2P games monetise, which is to place a removable build timer in the game. They say “you’re building this building, which will be ready in 4 hours, or you can pay us money and it’ll be ready now”. Aside from that feeling a little bit like extortion (the person asking for money set the build time after all), it’s also a no-brainer to me. Well my cash is a real-life resource. I can save that resource by waiting for 4 hours. Not 4 gameplay hours, but just turning off my phone and doing housework or reading a book or going to bed for the night. The most efficient thing for me to do is to set buildings building, wait, and never pay for them. I’ll have the same result in a relatively short amount of time.

Of course, the value I place on €1 is different to the value a higher-earner does, and everyone’s time is valuable. But the games I’ve played have trained me in lateral thinking, and lateral thinking leads me here: I’m not being asked to weigh time against money, since I don’t have to actually spend my time watching the building get built.  It happens anyway. So it becomes more like weighing money against no money, and that equation works out the same every time. I can achieve something else in the same time. Thereby getting two tasks done and saving money. Efficiency for the win!

The Harvester Effect

Take almost any Command and Conquer game. You need to build harvesters to collect ore or tiberium. The more harvesters you have, the better. They cost c1,400 to build from your War Factory. But they also come free with a Refinery, which costs c2,000. However, all buildings can be sold for half of their purchase cost, so building and selling a refinery has a net cost of only c1,000 and still leaves you with a harvester in the end. Think laterally and maximise your resources.

Games are full of examples like this. I went in to many of them (and even finished writing this article) but even though I saved my draft, it was somehow forgotten when I returned. I haven’t the heart (or recollection) to fully rewrite it so suffice it to say that games teach us to get the maximum efficiency out of our resources and assets, be they that you have a ranged weapon against hordes of unarmed aliens, that you’re outnumbered but can use cover to your advantage, that you can focus fire on units in an RTS to kill one unit more quickly to reduce the number of guns facing you, that you have a stealth character and don’t need to take a dungeon entrance head-on, or that you’re more agile than the giant, lumbering boss you’re facing down.

You take the resources and abilities you’re given, and use them to overcome a challenge. Do so in the most efficient way possible and you’ll even get the high score or unlock secret levels. Every day of my gaming life I’ve been trained to think smarter and waste not. Then along come games that offer little of this same worthwhile gameplay that I’m referring to, and try to convince me to pay them to make the game go faster. In the case of build timers, paying to remove them isn’t the best use of my cash, because I can get what you’re offering simply by going to bed for the night, and if your gameplay is a shallow loop I place very little value (‘utility’, since we’ve ventured into the realm of microeconomics now) on having the new asset, or even playing the game any further at all.

 Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.
Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.

I see avoiding the payment as almost a further aspect of gameplay. You’re already trying to save your units and buildings from danger, so you’re already in management mode and saving your cash resource by planning your play sessions becomes just another challenge. I know that goes against the intended payment model that the devs envisioned, but it’s how I feel games have trained me to play up to this point.

I’d like to restate that if you enjoy something you were given for free, and the mechanisms are there to reward the creators, you should engage with it if you can afford it. However, with F2P games, I ask myself “now that I know what the game’s about and how fun it is, would I have been happy to pay for it up front”? If the answer is no, as is so often the case with me and mobile games, I don’t feel any guilt skipping the transactions. F2P games I have paid for are usually on the PC. Heroes & Generals and Planetside 2 come to mind.

I know that in the F2P model, the devs count on having players like me just present in the game so that they can attract and retain the “whales” who will spend hundreds on their game, and if that’s the model they’re going for then more power to them. I don’t even really feel expected to have paid at that rate. I’m worked into the model as a short term ‘+1’ to the monthly active users for that month, which is part of the plan anyway.

To Conclude

It’s clear that I’m fairly down on my mobile gaming experiences to date, though I do try open-mindedly every now and again to get into it. For me there’s just nothing that offers the depth that I normally seek in games, and the endless Skinner box loops, meaningless levelling, and transparently worthless microtransactions turn me off even more.

I know not all mobile games can be like this, and I know they can do better, but with all I’m hearing recently about the fact the premium mobile games (pay once up front model) are all but dead, I’m not encouraged for the future.

Crossy Road had the best payment model that I’ve observed. You can opt to watch ads which gives you game currency that you can spend on new skins that don’t affect your ability to play the game. It’s non-intrusive, honest, straight-forward, not tied to gameplay, and the ads are only short. This also suits the mobile space because play sessions are inherently shorter than a typical console or PC play session.

I’m still happier paying for a good game and experiencing it though. On that note I can heartily recommend 80 Days and Guild of Dungeoneering as games you won’t regret paying for. They’re both now on mobile and PC, so whatever your preference, go for it. I think 80 Days is best played when you’re already on a holiday though. The travel theme just fits so well.

I know I’m a bit of a grump, and my theory about older games training me against engaging with these newer payment models is only a vague notion, but I’d love to hear peoples’ theories on it. Does it make sense? Are other people as hesitant as I am to engage with microtransactions even in free games? 

And can anyone please explain what I’m missing about these games that really gets people engaged? It can’t just be that the mobile players have never tried anything better and think Clash of Clans is the pinnacle of multiplayer strategy gaming… can it?

Also please recommend any mobile games I should be trying out. If I add Danger Mine and the adorable Ship Antics to the games I’ve mentioned here, that’s pretty much every mobile game I’ve ever played, so there’s plenty of room for recommendations.

Until next time..