Monthly Archives: August 2015

Opinion – Problems with the Playstation Store

Bolding exploring the aughts.

Did you know that Duck Dynasty for the Playstation 4 is a quality game? It is! Do you know what I’ve purchased before? I don’t! Do you think matching prices matter? Sony clearly doesn’t. The PS4 online store is a collection of outdated design decisions that haven’t been seen from their PC brethren for years. It’s shocking given the importance of the online store and the obvious examples from which to draw from.

Let’s get back to Duck Dynasty. Metacritic rates it at a 2.1 user rating and has zero professional reviews on record. Screenshots show a game that wouldn’t look out of date on the PS2. In short, Duck Dynasty is yet another cheap cash in designed to separate naïve show fans from their money, yet it’s got a solid 4 out of five stars on the Playstation store. It’s hard not to conclude that Sony believes that artificially high ratings in its store help it sell more games. Unfortunately for Sony, the Internet exists. It only takes a few minutes to determine if a game is good making inflated ratings seem quaint and useless. Even if the high ratings convince a few poor souls to buy the game, I have to wonder if that actually helps Sony in a meaningful way. Any purchaser is unlikely to remain dazzled by the high score for long. As soon as they figure out that Duck Dynasty is a terrible game, they are likely to also realize that the online store ratings are manipulated. Whatever benefit Sony derived from their deception is lost along with some goodwill. Compare that with Steam that has actual user reviews that are helpful to determining the value of a product. When I find an unknown title on Steam with a good rating, I’m happy to impulse buy. If I find the same on PS4, I’ll probably pass it by.

Since we’re on the topic of Steam, now is a good time to mention how effective it is at inventory management. Steam presents a one stop screen that has all the games that I have purchased, lets me know if they’re installed, and allows me to categorize them to my liking. The PS store has…well…a worse version of that. In its attempts to be everything to everyone, the PS4 lumps all media together along with a slew of features that merely clutter up the screen. Finding just an alphabetical list of games I own is damn near impossible, particularly since the library screen comes prepopulated with every Playstation service. Programs are represented with blocks that both take up a large part of the screen and don’t include additional useful information beyond the title. It’s clunky, it’s cluttered, and it doesn’t come close to matching Steam.

One of the great advantages of the digital revolution was its effect of pushing down prices for consumers. Retail costs disappeared for the publishers while extreme competition forced vendors to reduce their prices. Sales spread at the speed of the Internet and checking prices is as easy as visiting a website. Sony finally got on board with sales, but still doesn’t seem to understand reducing the base price. Final Fantasy Type 0 regularly retails for $30 to $40 yet it remains its original sale price of $50 on the Playstation store. In fact, most things not on sale remain at their original list price. I can’t imagine that older games like Far Cry 4 or The Last of Us Remastered are really selling in big numbers, yet their prices are those of games just released. This is counterproductive. Sony doesn’t get new sales from the lower price point and gamers don’t get cheap games which means everybody loses. Once again, Steam just does it better. Prices decrease over time and the sales are regular. There is no excuse.

The short and long version is that Steam is playing the digital storefront game far better than Sony. While I could understand it if many of the Playstation store’s issues were new, they’re not. Sony is grappling with problems that Steam publically dealt with years ago. Sony has no good reason not to follow the Steam model. PC is already experiencing a resurgence and, with bone headed mistakes like these, Sony is helping them along.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – Starcraft: Brood War – PC

It was a very moody conflict.

The original Starcraft may have started it all, but it was the expansion, Brood War, that cemented the series as one of the finest RTS games of its time. The question is now, does Brood War still hold up or has the intervening two decades dimmed its luster? The short version is that Brood War refines the gameplay of the original Starcraft while making a few mistakes of its own. It remains a worthy game, though not the revolution it was when it started.

The campaign picks up after the events of the original Starcraft with the Protoss shattered, Emperor Mengsk controlling the Terran Dominion, and Kerrigan trying to unite the disparate Zerg broods. Once again, the player takes control of three nameless generals, in the service of each race, who participates in some of the key battles of the conflict. The story isn’t as compelling as the original, but includes a few neat twists and does a better job of involving the player in the highlights of the narrative. Kerrigan serves as the focal point of all three plot lines and while she is established as clever and ruthless, Brood War does little to flesh her out beyond that. She deftly manipulates all of her opponents, but the player never gets an end goal beyond world domination. Fortunately, her supporting cast has more depth to round out what Kerrigan is missing. Overall, the plot is compelling enough to keep the player invested and holds its own against modern RTS games.

One of the noticeable improvements is the level design. Blizzard tried to include both more variety and depth in the campaign missions which it only partially pulled off. Most of the best ideas are in the early Protoss missions including a standout level to disarm missile turrets using a handful of units and tactics. After that, the game reverts to the classic template of building an army and assaulting the opponent. In terms of depth, Blizzard had better luck. Maps are better at facilitating conflict and even the more standard levels include wrinkles such as assaulting multiple bases. It’s clear Blizzard had trouble calibrating the tension between giving the computer enough troops to annihilate the player outright and restraining their aggression in using them. The AI aggression is tuned to the starting unit amount making most stages difficult early on with the last half of the fight becoming a prolonged clean up mission. The one time Blizzard put in too much aggression, the mission was so hard I had to cheat to get through it. Blizzard’s inability to resolve this tension detracts, but does not seriously harm, the overall fun of the campaign.

Brood War introduces many of the series’ iconic units including the lurker and medic. The new units add a great deal of variety to the basic gameplay by shoring up each races weak points. For example, the Zerg get the Devourer and lurker which support air and ground superiority respectively. Sadly, the greatest arena for the new units, online, is barren. As one might expect from a 20 year old game, few are playing Brood War anymore making online matches all but impossible to find. Without friends drawn in from elsewhere, Brood War and Starcraft are best treated as single player experiences.

Combined, Starcraft and Brood War still represent a potent gaming experience. Brood War’s additions remain fun and interesting while the new campaign further develops one of the genre’s best stories. This remains a great game and is a worthy buy for any genre enthusiast.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Opinion – Buying Exclusive Games

Alphabet soup

Last week I wrote about some of the trends in the console wars.  I asserted that the console wars have changed due to a shift in the power from the console makers to the developers and publishers.  This article will explain how the basic economics of releasing a game have changed and why larger console makers can no longer sway publishers and developers to provide exclusive content for their systems.

Imagine that the total cost to create a video game for a single system is “c” and that the total anticipated revenue of a single system video game is “r”.  This gives us a very simple equation to determine whether a game is worth developing (in economic terms.  I make no judgment on other forms of value).  If the cost (c) is higher than the revenue (r), then there is no profit and the game isn’t worth making.  If it’s lower, then the game can turn a profit.  See the representation below:

c > r = lose money

r > c = profit!

or

r – c = total profit

Now, let’s say you want to port a game over to a new system.  We’ll represent that cost at “o”.  Let’s also say the anticipated revenue of the port is “p”. If the cost to port a game (o) is higher than the anticipated revenue (p), the game isn’t worth developing.

p > o = port too costly

o > p = port profit!

or

p – o = port profit

If a console maker wants to buy an exclusive title, they must cover the developer or publishers anticipated total profit of porting.  Now, if you’re a smaller developer, this might not be difficult.  Small developers may not have the money to port their game or may need to risk their profit on the original copy in hopes of getting more money on the port.  Since anticipated profit is difficult to predict, they may go for the console maker’s offer as a way to take guaranteed money over the risk inherent in porting a game.  Still, they may decide it’s better to take the risk.  If that’s the case, then they’ll need to assess the potential profit of porting.  The potential profit is the revenue (p) minus the cost (o).  Let’s represent console maker’s offer as “f”.

f > p – o = game makes more money as an exclusive

f < p – o = game makes less money as an exclusive

From the console maker’s perspective, the whole idea behind making a game exclusive is to sell consoles and receive a console owner’s fee for each copy of the game sold.  As a result, there is a quantifiable value to making a game exclusive.  Let’s make the anticipated profits from selling consoles as “e” and from console owner’s fees “d”.  If the console maker’s offer (f) costs more than the anticipated profits from consoles  (e) and fee (d), then exclusivity from the console maker’s perspective appears not to be worth it.  However, we must also consider that each console sold will encourage its purchaser to buy more games for that system.  The number of games sold per average system is represented by “#”.  Therefore, the console maker must also consider the future value of console owner’s fees.  The equation looks like the following:

f > e + d + #d = Exclusivity loses money

f < e + d + #d = Deal is profitable!

If we bring it all together, we have two scenarios.  The first is the console maker anticipates making more profit off of game exclusivity than the developer anticipates losing.  Therefore, the console maker offers more money than the anticipated loss in not porting a game:

e + d + #d > p – o = Game exclusivity

Alternatively, if the console maker believes they will make less profit off of game exclusivity than it will cost the game maker to not port, then the console maker does not make an offer and the game is ported.

e + d + #d < p – o = Game non- exclusivity

So, what does this all mean?  It means that the console makers no longer anticipate making more money via exclusivity than the game makers do by porting.  Not modeled here, but I think quite relevant, is that game makers also are more comfortable with the risks of porting than they were in the past.  Working off of years of sales data and flagship franchises, the big game makers now have a very clear idea of how much their games will make on a given system.  The certain gain or reduced risk that might make an offer from Sony or Microsoft attractive is offset by a clearer idea of how anticipate, deal with, and manage the risk.  As a result, I would anticipate console exclusives to be the domain of small game makers and new properties where risk is harder to manage and harder to anticipate, respectively.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Opinion – A New Type of Console War

Guys, you’re doing it wrong.

Shocking as it sounds, we’re almost two years into the most recent console wars.  With the PS4 and the Xbox One dropping in 2013 and the Wii U arriving the year before, we’ve had enough time to see some of the trends that shape the current generation.  It is now clear that this generation is drastically different than the one that came before and that the change is largely due to a shift in publisher power.  Unlike the previous generations, the current one is characterized by a lack of exclusives among both the consoles and the generations.

Consoles used to survive and thrive based on the exclusive content they could claim.  Console manufacturers paid publishers and developers to bring their games to the manufacturer’s console.  As a result, gamers who wanted a specific game often had to have a specific console giving them a reason to buy it.  If you want to play X awesome game, you have to buy our system.  This generation seems different.  According to VGchartz, only 8 of the top 30 selling games are console exclusives of which Nintendo developed Wii U games makes 5.  Sony has Bloodborne and The Order 1866 and Microsoft has only the retread Halo: The Master Chief Collection (which arguably fits in the “cross generation” category) to set the Xbox One apart from its competitors.  Compare that to 2007; the roughly similar mark in the last console cycle.  At that time, a whopping 19 of the top 30 games were console specific exclusives (Note: The Wii claimed 13 of those titles).  Of course, console makers would love to have exclusives on their system, so it’s clear that we’re seeing a decline in their ability to lockdown games or franchises.  Publishers and developers are moving beyond the single console market.

Actually, they’re moving beyond a single generation market too.  Publishers are dragging their feet on committing to the current generation in a big way.  In 2007, only 7 top selling games were published to the previous generation’s console as compared to the 11 of 2015.  Some of this is a response to the growing success of “remastered” editions (rereleasing older games with graphics polish), but it’s hard not to see that big publishers are pushing for every extra dollar out of their main franchises.  If they have the money, there is no reason for a publisher to focus on the current console generation when they can still port their game to the previous generation and make money.  This undercuts the need to transition to a new console as good content is still coming out for the old generation and likely represents a drag on sales.

What I find most interesting from this analysis is that the real winner of this console generation is actually the PC.  Though PC sales aren’t tracked, the data does show that 18 of the top 30 bestselling games also came to the PC as compared to 8 from 2007.  The PC is fast becoming the platform that has access to both the major console releases, its own dynamic indie scene, and an enormous backlog of games going back to the 80s.  Having resolved many of its major piracy issues with the rise of Steam, it looks like the PC is the fourth console.  Microsoft and Sony risk ignoring the PC at their peril as it becomes harder to justify a console purchase of any kind if one has a gaming quality PC.

This is not a decisive analysis.  VGchartz has its flaws and I’m only selecting from the top selling games.  Still, it’s telling that we’re seeing a major shift in the development of the once dominant console market.  Publishers and developers now have the means to move beyond the consoles and can afford to ignore the console maker’s money in favor of even greater profits.  Console makers need to start finding unique exclusives for their systems lest they become undifferentiated in the market.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Review – Starcraft – PC

You can never go home again…oh wait!  You can!

Starcraft is a game that needs no introduction, but it is a game that might need revaluation.  Given its regular inclusion on many “best games of all time” lists and the upcoming release of the final expansion to Starcraft 2, it’s important to revisit the genre titan to see if it still holds up.  The short version is, yeah, it kinda does.  While not the juggernaut it once was, the original Starcraft remains a fun, challenging game that remains fun, even when compared to its modern descendants.

The gameplay is the heart of the whole enterprise.  The basics are familiar to any player of the RTS genre.  The player starts off with a small base and a few workers and must build an economy and an army to defeat his foes.  The tension in the game comes in balancing the development of an economy, maintaining an army for defense, and punishing the opponent for their mistakes.  Players must adapt their styles and strategies to three different races (Terran, Protoss, or Zerg), each with unique units and buildings.  The three race balance still stands out as one of the finest executions of the concept.  Each race feels radically different, yet balances well with its counterparts.  Much of the praise for the original game remains true, but the gameplay does suffer a bit from age.  The player can only select 12 units at a time, skirmishes start with too few harvester units, and the unit pathfinding is atrocious.  Fortunately, the player can adapt to most of these allowing for the strong mechanics to shine through.

For the campaign, the player takes control of a nameless commander for each race following a continuing plot from each perspective.  The story has some interesting twists which the game oddly does not incorporate into the mission structure.  For example, rather than play out a mission where one of the lead Protoss characters defies his superiors and defends humanity, the game only tells the player about it.  This is even odder given that some of the campaign missions feel like filler and could easily be replaced.  Still, the overall story is solid with strong characters, pivotal moments, and a few intriguing plot twists.  Given that most RTS games push the story to the side, it’s nice to see a tale with a bit more meat.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the campaign mission design.  Almost every mission feels like a basic skirmish with only a few variations tossed in the mix.  Neither the mission parameters nor the level design change up the feel and the strategy of a basic skirmish.  What worked on mission 3 carries over to mission 10 with little variation.

Though the gameplay and story have held up well over time, the graphics do not.  Starcraft is filled with chunky pixels on top of bland backgrounds that measures up poorly against its modern competitors.  Starcraft feels ugly in a way that speaks both to its age and questionable art design.  Even if gaming hadn’t gone through an extended “brown plus gray equals awesome!” phase, it’s hard to imagine Starcraft’s bland aesthetic holding up.  Surprisingly, the cut scenes do.  While they are indisputably ugly compared to the current crop of games, the screen direction and stories depicted remain compelling to watch.  I looked forward to each new video and was happy with most.

Starcraft definitely has its flaws.  Considering it a classic really depends on how much the player appreciates the still compelling tight gameplay.  Still, that debate misses the more important argument that Starcraft remains fun to play and costs very little ($15 gets you Starcraft and the Brood War Expansion).  Whether you’re looking to relive the series before Legacy of the Void drops or just want a fun game to play, Starcraft is a fine purchase.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized