Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion – Anthem Coop Works Best Without Friends?

With E3 come and gone, it’s now time to peel back the glossy advertising and review what we’ve seen with clearer eyes.  The game I am paying the most attention to (though not one that I’m excited about) is Bioware’s Anthem, a four player coop experience promising the deep, quality storytelling we used to expect from the studio.  With the failure of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s hard not to see Anthem as the fulcrum upon which Bioware’s gold developer status rests.  What concerns and intrigues me most about Anthem is a) we’ve seen very little of it given how close we are to launch and, most importantly, b) it seems to think it can combine storytelling and multiplayer.  It is the latter to which we now turn.

Storytelling and multiplayer often clash with one another due to the competing nature of their foci.  Storytelling is often a personal experience with the player focusing (or not focusing) on the elements they find most compelling.  Whether its cutscenes, logs, scenery, or dialog, players gravitate towards the parts of the story they enjoy the most.  To make stories more compelling, games give players choices, try to create personal bonds with the player, and otherwise make the whole experience about the player holding the controller.  The whole goal is to make one person lost in a magical world.

Multiplayer goes a different route.  Rather than focus the game on the player, it focuses the players on the game.  By giving players a common objective, multiplayer games create a sense of teamwork and comradery as players seek to achieve a common goal.  That goal also provides a metric for progress with players succeeding or failing at the same speed.  In this context, player chatter, coordination, and team exploration all further the player towards the ultimate objective.  These are the exact things that kill a good video game story.

Combining the two styles works at cross purposes.  A game can’t simultaneously make a player feel like the most important character in the story while making the game about the teamwork with three other players.  “You’re special!” doesn’t work as a message when there’s clearly a crowd.  Nor do the basic mechanics work either.  Players in multiplayer games need to communicate, trade stories, and otherwise talk about elements of the game that destroy a sense of immersion.  Even if a team somehow gets on the same wavelength in terms of immersion, there’s the problem of keeping everyone synced.  Players excited about a story will still approach it at different speeds and times.  The resulting clash just doesn’t work.

Imagine a team of players just completed a mission and headed back to town.  Player A completes the quest and settles in for a drama fueled cutscene between characters they love.  Just as the scene reaches its crescendo, Player B gets excited about a piece of loot they found.  Finally, quieting Player B, Player A starts getting back into the groove when Player C starts laughing at a hilarious cutscene they’re enjoying.  Once the laughter subsides, Player A starts crawling to the finish when Player D complains that they want to get back out and do quests.  Goodbye story.  Hello hating friends.

Bioware plans to address some of these issues by keeping story areas single player.  Players will interact in instances all their own.  While that sounds like a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the chatter issue or just general coordination with teammates.  The multiplayer part will interfere with the story mode and weaken it.

…unless you aren’t playing with friends.  The irony of this particular cooperative model is that it might well play best with strangers whom the player can dump once a mission concludes.  Without the need to coordinate beyond the current battle, there’s no need to worry about politely sharing a chat channel or keeping up with the team.  A player can putz around a story area for hours without angering a friend who just wants to get some exp.  It’s weird, but maybe that’s how Anthem works.  We’ll have to wait and see.

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Opinion – When Less is More

I’m pretty close to finishing Far Cry 5.  When I write that, I mean that I am pretty close to completing the main story and all of the side missions.  By the time I am done, Farcry 5 will have nothing scripted left to amuse me and the best part of that is, I enjoyed every minute of it.

The mantra of open world games seems to be “more is better”.  More collectibles.  More mindless missions.  Shoot 5 bears.  Retrieve 10 ingots.  Open world titles are chock full of meaningless busy work that, by some alchemy which I cannot fathom, is supposed to add up to a better game.  Far Cry 4 was a fine example of this thinking with tons of things to find, yet no real reason to do so beyond checking a box.  Even worse was Mass Effect: Andromeda which put in so many pointless quests that they obscured the meaningful ones.  Some games are not much more than one giant level with nothing but mindless crap to do.  On the other hand, Far Cry 5 seems to get that less is more.

Far Cry 5 still has collectibles and mindless quests, but it’s smarter with each.  Collectibles exist, but they’re part of single quests that don’t clutter up the map or hang over the player’s head.  Collectibles aren’t tied to a side line story or key to unlocking a super special ability.  They’re merely there for the player that wants a little direction while exploring.  The side quests fulfill a similar role.  Side quests come with a little exposition, end quickly, and aren’t much more demanding than the collectibles.  Meanwhile, the story and broader structure of the game chugs on with its own gravity.

This all works because these bits of busy work augment the main quest rather than serve as the focal point of the game.  When side quests and collectibles are a part of a broader open world with deeper activities, then the smaller quests serve as a nice break.  Players can find lighters or mow down enemies instead of save the world or figure out the next challenge.  With the pressure off being the dominant part of the experience, the little quests can serve their intended role.  When the busy work dominates, then the game itself becomes busy work.  While there are plenty of things to do, none of them are entertaining and the player often bounces from one to the next out of a sense of OCD like obligation rather than out of any feeling of fun.  Players want to clear the map rather than actually perform the activities that would result in that outcome.

And this is why I’m happy about completing Far Cry 5.  My completion isn’t a reflection of my compulsion to clear the map, but rather a demonstration of how I enjoyed the experience in its totality.  I completed the game because it was fun, and that’s how it should be.

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Opinion – Archetypes and the Need for Change

I complain a lot about the rigid archtypes found in Japanese anime and games.  I complain even more when I’m watching or playing said anime and games.  I am playing the Switch JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2.  I am about to complain.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A plucky young boy with a heart of gold meets a submissive, buxom women who enlists him and his friends in a quest against a nefarious gang of super warriors up to no good.  That should sound familiar, if only because it’s the plot of any number of JRPGs and pretty much every Tales of… game.  I have often wondered why plenty of games reuse the same archetypes with the same boring stories resulting in the same boring outcomes.  I now realize how the two are linked.  Rigid archetypes force the same type of story.

Story elements can be ranked along a scale of dynamism with most elements central to the plot changing while less important elements are held constant to avoid overwhelming the reader.  The characters may grow as they face challenges, but the first town they visited will likely get no further attention once the plot moves on.  The player is meant to invest in the characters as they change and not worry overmuch about extraneous details.  The end result is a story that continually provides new ideas and experiences.  The end result is a story that is more interesting.

JRPG’s such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 hold central plot elements rigid resulting in a static and predictable story development.  Elements that cannot grow continually perform the same actions as a result of a variety of stimuli.  Rex, the hero, will always charge into a fight against all odds because his character is a static version of brave and noble.  Rex will likely fight tens of times for the story and yet will have the same reaction each time because he cannot change.  As a result, the player has a good idea of how each encounter will go and most conflicts resolved as soon as an enemy steps on screen.

Even worse is the fact that Rex’s static nature warps the story around him.  Since Rex must be BRAVE and NOBLE, the story has to accommodate that, resulting in implausible scenarios to continually reward these traits.  When Rex faces an empire’s best warrior, he has to win to continue to validate the BRAVE and NOBLE elements of his character.  To fail to reward Rex’s traits would cause the reader to question their value and the developer would either have to allow Rex to adapt or face a questioning audience who wonders why he won’t.  Rather than surmount that challenge, the developers take the easy way and create scenarios where being BRAVE and NOBLE is the solution.  XC2 twists its story and world to ensure Rex retains his static nature rather than have him respond to it.

As a result, XC2 retells the same story that countless other games have told.  By holding key elements still, XC2 lacks enough material to do anything new or interesting.  The setting varies and the names change, but XC2 must follow the well-worn pattern of its predecessors because there aren’t enough mutable elements to allow for the difference.  The end result is a boring outcome that is all too familiar to any JPRG fan or player of Japanese video games in general.

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Opinion – Super Mario Odyssey Does Difficulty Right

I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES.  Six year old me was delighted by the bright colors, the neat challenges, and the whole newness of it all.  To the shock of no one, a young child playing his first video game wasn’t very good at it.  I’d constantly play, getting a little further each time until I ran into one level that I just couldn’t beat.

And that was it.

Game over.

SMB’s approach to difficulty was static and linear.  The game gave the player no options to modulate the challenge (static) and forced the player to face each challenge in a specific order (warp pipes excluded).  This mean that, when players faced a level they couldn’t surmount, it was game over.  The rest of the game’s content was locked behind a challenge the player would never beat.  SMB had nothing left for them.

Some games still operate to this way and to good effect.  Plenty of players love to test their mettle against a seemingly impossible challenge until they finally figure it out.  The challenge is the point rather than the obstacle to fun.  Other games use linear modeling to lay out sequential story beats or achieve a particular thematic progression.  It’s worth noting that these games generally have lower difficulty curves to ensure most players can get to the end.

Both styles have their virtues, but neither fits the Mario games particularly well.  Mario is historically family friendly making the hardcore approach contrary to the fun and accessible ethos of the series.  Alternatively, dumbing down the challenge would rob Mario of its entire reason for being.  More than any other series on the market, Mario sets its focus on pure fun through game mechanics.  The fun comes from figuring out a puzzle, executing a tough jump, or beating a boss. Making the puzzle easier, the jump shorter, or the boss slower reduces the feeling of accomplishment.  The challenge for Nintendo is always trying to include enough difficulty to make the player feel like they’ve overcome a real hurdle, but not to the point where it becomes frustrating or simplistic.  Given the wide variety of player skills, this seemed like an impossible task.

At least, until Super Mario Odyssey.

The genius of SMO’s difficulty is that it effectively allows the player to set the difficulty by choosing which challenges they want to face.  Players must collect a certain amount of “Power Moons” on each level, but which Power Moons are largely left up to them.  SMO’s level contain a plethora of levels to complete ranging from the dead simple (butt stomp this hill) to the fiendishly complex (jump from rotating platform to rotating platform while dodging enemies).  Low skill players can pick up the simple Power Moons while their more skilled counterparts can grab the more challenging ones.  Even better, the hard levels can get even harder by putting additional collectables in even harder to reach places giving the more committed players something to reach for.  One game can meet all needs without sacrificing any part of their audience.

And that is the true genius of SMO.  Nintendo has finally figured out how to appeal to a broader audience without alienating another chunk.  As an added bonus, SMO is now a game that can grow with its players giving new challenges that 9 year old me or his 12 year old successor would have loved.  Well done.

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Opinion – Video Game Gambling is a Bad Business Model

….okay, so it actually is an excellent business model.

Video games have undeniably undergone a number of important additions and changes to their business model such as the rise of free-to-play games, pay per month MMOs, and the old standby of pay once.  These models have allowed for the development of unique and different games that might not have worked otherwise following previous practices.  Riot Games’ League of Legends stands out as a beneficiary of these changes, but plenty of other games rely on them too.  The video game industry is adding another new strategy in the form of loot boxes.  Unlike the previous strategies, loot boxes and their spinoffs rely on the same mechanics that fuel gambling and addiction.  The industry is now faced with a very real question:  Is addiction a worthy strategy for monetizing video games?

Economically, gambling and addiction approaches make a lot of sense.  After all, it works for a wide range of business including casinos, racing tracks, and organized crime.  By targeting the mental makeup of addiction prone individuals, these industries accrue enormous sums of money despite severe legal restrictions and often returning to the consumer nothing for the cost of their services.  Since the mechanisms for addiction are reasonably well understood and aren’t tied to the quality of the game (see: slot machines), developers can consistently produce high quality addiction mechanisms while not worrying about making a high quality game.  Finally, addictive games tend to review well as critics and players alike take the “addictive” nature of the game as a sign of how compelling it is rather than an example of targeted manipulation.  Seen in this light, introducing gambling mechanics into games makes the same strong economic case as they do in casinos.

If the economic benefits are the same, so too are the moral hazards.  The business model is designed to take advantage of the addictive personalities of big spenders (“whales” in developer speak) regardless of the very real damage that the addiction does to these people’s lives.  In enhancing the addictive nature of games, developers are deliberately preying on the weakness of certain individuals to extract as much money as possible.  It’s not hard to see how that creates very thorny moral issues that gaming hasn’t yet had to deal with.  Games have relied on gambling mechanics in the past (Diabloesque loot drops come to mind), but they’ve never tied those mechanics to real money.  The addition of money means that games can now do real damage like they never could before.

Gambling also harms the games themselves.  Developers are now looking for ways to include gambling mechanics into their games regardless of whether a game actually benefits from it.  The most obvious example is EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II where key elements of the multiplayer were stuck in loot crates to promote their usage, but that’s hardly the only game.  Genres that don’t have space for these mechanics are pushed aside in favor of those that do.  The push among major game makers is figuring out how to squeeze more money out of addictive people rather than create good games that incentivize the broader gaming crowd to buy them.  Like the open world fad before, we can expect developers to invest heavily into this market to the exclusion of everything good that came before.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making money.  There’s nothing wrong with providing extra content for gamers who want more from a game.  This is all a normal and desirable part of the video games industry.  The problem is when the developers cross the line from convincing people to give them money to preying on addictions.  At that point, the game developer is no better than the casino that advertises to gambling addicts or cigarette companies that target people with mental illness.  It’s a disgusting business model that should have no place in the gaming world today.

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Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – The problems of Mass Effect: Andromeda

I didn’t finish this game and, god willing, I’ll never have to.

Don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  If you loved the earlier entries in the series, really don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  ME:A is a dizzying collection of technical problems, terrible writing, mystifying design choices, and concentrated disappointment.  As an enormous fan of the ME series, I can honestly say that ME:A manages to, not just fail as a Mass Effect game, but also as a use of anyone’s time.

But don’t blame animations.  Yes, the wooden facial immobility and odd lip protrusions are jarring, but I ultimately got used to them.  They are merely the appetizer to a buffet line of minor technical problems that constantly overwhelm the player’s immersion.  We’ve got texture pop in, idiotic AI, teleporting team members (also with idiotic AI), conflicting dialogue that sounds at the same time, NPCs just randomly walking in place, interactions that have to be accessed at specific angles, and I’ve even heard of bugs that lock the player into dialogue.  I could look past any one of these problems, but the sheer number of them ensure that I’m dealing with at least one at any given moment.  It’s hard to lose yourself in a world when the game goes out of its way to remind you that it’s fake.  Hold on to your butts folks, because that’s the least of Andromeda’s problems.

Andromeda’s design is an undiscipled mess.  The founding template is Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The player follows a broader narrative through a series of smaller, open world levels choc full of characters to meet, enemies to kill, and side quests to explore.  Beyond the functional combat, Andromeda fails at all of these.  Let’s make a list of the horror.

  • Side quests – There are hundreds of these little guys and they’re mostly ripped from the blandest MMO handbook you can find. Kill 15 enemies, find X object, go on a wild goose chase, etc.  It’s all mindless busy work that feels like mindless busy work.  Every quest is a transparent sheath between the player and resource acquisition.  If there are meaningful side quests, they’re hidden by the shear amount of crap.
  • Side quests 2 – The side quests are so miserable that they deserve a second entry. In addition to having no real purpose, they also waste time.  Side quests inevitably separate objectives for no discernable reason.  The unnecessary traveling only adds to the feeling of pointlessness that pervades the entire game.
  • NPCs – The ME series historically seeded its world with interesting characters whose paths briefly crosses the player’s. Andromeda instead reserves its meager character development for the main team and a few major characters while everyone else is a quest dispensary.  What’s the point of talking to people if they’re just going to tell you to mine ore?
  • Unskippable cutscenes – We solved this one in the Playstation 2 era yet ME:A leaves no flaw behind. Whenever the player’s ship takes off, lands, or moves, you have to watch it.  Oh, and elevators are back.  ME1 was roundly criticized for using elevator scenes as a cover for loading screens and now Andromeda shoved them right back in.  Good job!
  • No quick save – Yup. You read that right.  Every PC game on the planet has quick saves but ME:A doesn’t.  It’ll even block the player from saving during main missions.  “But the checkpoints!” you cry, “surely they make up for it?”  Don’t worry, dear reader, developer Bioware is so committed to mediocrity that even the checkpoints are poorly placed.
  • Scanning – Here’s another mechanic that was decried in earlier entries and reintroduced here. Not only does the player scan planets for small outlays of resources, but now they scan parts of the open world.  Scanning is incredibly dull and only serves to ensure OCD gamers will see the world purely through a grainy, orange haze.
  • Research and development – Why add scanning? So you can get research points! Researching blueprints allows the player to then expend resources on developing weapons.  This might have been fun, but Bioware flooded the research queue with tons of indistinguishable items.  The queue has piles of dreck with no clear marker for is actually worth pursuing.  As an added bonus, the fun new weapon you just developed must be equipped at the opposite end of your ship.  Enjoy the jog.
  • UI – The Mass Effect games have always had poor user interfaces, but Andromeda makes it look like that was the goal. The menus are the Windows Explorer with a blue tinge and everything buried folders deep.  Even comparing gear requires an awkward, one way cycling through all of the player’s weapons.  Come on guys, Diablo 2 figured this out in the 90s.
  • Limited character design – Character design options are shockingly limited and of poor quality. What’s worse is that this could have been copy-pasted from Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Seriously, just go talk to the people down the hall.  There’s no need to reinvent a crappier version.

So that was a needlessly long list, but even terrible game design doesn’t win the “Biggest problem in ME:A crown.”  That honor goes to every component of the amateurish narrative.  From the writing, to the plot, to the voice acting, every aspect of Andromeda’s narrative begs for an experience editor with a lot of free time.  The first steps on the game’s hub, the Nexus, neatly sums up the flaws.  In this scene, the main hero Ryder talks with the leaders of the Nexus about the apparent failure of their mission and the steps ahead.  This ought to have been a moment to establish important characters and frame future challenges.  Instead, it almost made me quit the game.

The first jarring moment is the exposition dump right out of the gate.  Militia leader Kendros meets the player and throws down a history lesson as they walk through the halls.  The moment had all the subtly of a jackhammer.  Still, the scene didn’t really offend until Director Tann and Superintendent Kesh spoke.  They combined Andromeda’s penchant for including every accent in the world with a strangely detached delivery.  In particular, Kesh felt like the voice actor delivered her lines next to me while I watched the character model’s mouth moving on the screening.  It wasn’t convincing.  It didn’t help that the lines were poorly written.  Every word was stilted and without emotion.  The dialogue conveyed naked functionality.  These weren’t characters exasperated by their ordeal or excited about the arrival of a new hope; they were NPCs who needed to relay specific information.

The information they conveyed was the broad outline of the early plot.  The first problem with the plot was that Kendros, Tann, Kesh, and the human Addison delivered it.  The four major races of the ME universe were front and center.  The plot too often draws from the old ME game and doesn’t take advantage of the new situation.  The writers keep shouting “Look!  Mass Effect lore!  Isn’t that cool?!” rather than develop anything new.  That’s probably for the best because the writers had no idea what they were doing. The Nexus leaders immediately identify the main character as the solution to their plight.  Small problem: there’s no reason to believe the main character can help.  The main character received their role after the death of their father and has zero experience exploring planets, much less resolving all the problems now sitting on their shoulders.  This is how Andromeda sets up its plot.  It creates a scenario and quickly contrives a reason for the main character to fix it.  It’s the chosen one shtick we’ve seen since the 80s.

The disaster that is Mass Effect: Andromeda is truly heartbreaking.  This storied franchise deserved better than a shoddy, visonless mess.  Perhaps even more troubling is that there isn’t a way to fix this.  Bioware will probably sort out the bugs, but they can’t solve the miserable design or terrible narrative.  To fix Mass Effect: Andromeda is to create an entirely new game.  As much as I hate to say this: don’t buy Mass Effect: Andromeda.  It’s just a pale reflection of a once great series.

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Opinion – Problems with the game factory

I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it.  That ends today.

Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games.  They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map.  The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides.  For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model.  It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.

The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it.  The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development.  The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy.  Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays.  The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time.  With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround.  Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.

That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround.  While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements.  The mini games are a perfect example of this.  The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player.  Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game.  After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay.  At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing.   Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle.  Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow.  To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together.  As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.

The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more.  Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside.  The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do.  Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time.  Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places.  The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage.  In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative.  In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late.  In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything.  They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get.  With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before.  EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures.  Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success.  If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside.  With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.

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Opinion – Fixing Steam

That’s a big pile of shit.

Steam has a problem.  The now dominant delivery method of computer games can’t seem differentiate good games from bad.  Once the light of hope for all computer gamers, now Steam is clogged with half finished “early access”, buggy trash, and crap left over from yesteryear.  Indie developers used to rely on getting to Steam’s front page for instant wealth, but now must compete with the dreck of the community.  How does Steam deal with the flood of terrible games?

Welp, it would help to learn from the past.

This isn’t the first time the video game community has dealt with this problem.  Back in 1983, the video game market crashed after customers stopped buying games.  The consoles of the day got greedy and decided to allow large numbers of low quality games as a way to take advantage of the video game “fad”.  As a result, the developers flooded the market with low quality products and the unsavvy game market couldn’t tell which games were worth buying and which games were shit.  After buying several bad games, customers pulled out of the market resulting in the devastation of most of the North American video game community and an effective reset of the market.  This phenomenon happened again with the Wii.  Nintendo produced an ultra-popular console that brought in tons of new players.  Studios produced terrible games to take advantage of the fad resulting in the unsophisticated players buying bad games and leaving the market.  Interestingly, it was the same console maker, Nintendo, that found a solution to this problem 20 years earlier.

After the 1983 crash, the North American market lay dormant until the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  The NES boasted better graphics, a brilliant game bundled in, and the Nintendo Seal of Approval which gave Nintendo’s guarantee that the game met a minimum standard.  Nintendo knew that Atari and its compatriots lost their market due to the flood of bad games.  As a result, Nintendo both limited the number of games a developer could make and played them to ensure they weren’t terrible.  By limiting the number of games, Nintendo incentivized publishers to focus on the quality of their games (as they only got five shots a year) over dumping as many games on to the market as possible.  By playing the games, Nintendo weeded out the shovelware and ensured that customer’s knew the game would work if it had the seal.  Finally, Nintendo published the Nintendo Power magazine to review games and provide strategies to both bolster its quality assurance efforts and help players get the most from their games.  The effort worked and laid the foundations for the games industry as it stands today.

In many ways, Valve, the creator of Steam, has it easier.  The decades old game market educated many gamers on how to recognize quality products and the healthy reviewing ecology ensures that reviews are available for those who want them.  Steam doesn’t need a “Steam Power” to educate its customers.  What it does need is a Steam Seal of Approval and a limitation on the number of games a publisher can make.  Unfortunately, the Seal requires something that Valve is very bad at: people.  Valve generally strives to automate its processes which is why all of its business initiatives (reviews, curators…Steam itself) have little human intervention and the bits that require people (its god awful customer service) are weak or lacking altogether.  To implement a quality review process, Valve would need to get a handle on hiring and managing people rather than just automating everything.  Understanding that isn’t likely to happen, limiting the number of games per publisher would help.  Many bad games come through shovelware publishers and limiting said publishers to a few games a year would force them to support better games or rely solely on the meager profit of a few terrible titles.  This system would still require additional people, but would only need a savvy few over the numbers a quality control system would take.

Whatever Valve decides to do, it needs to act fast.  The digital distribution market has grown in the past few years with major titles now available on a number of sites.  Steam still commands most of the market due to sheer size, but that need not continue.  If customers find it too difficult to discover the games they want, they can move to greener pastures.  Valve has time to fix this problem, but they don’t have forever.

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Opinion – The Final Fantasy XV Opening

It’s like sticking the bread between two slices of salami.

The beginning of a game should set the tone for the early part of the adventure.  Many games choose to do so with an explosive introduction which often throws the player into an exciting scene.  The Final Fantasy series is known for this including one of the best intros of all time, Final Fantasy VII.  In that game, the players goes from a tranquil skyscape to participating in a pulse pounding strike against the Shinra power plant (it was the innocent days before 9/11).  Successful intros have similarly thrilling beginnings, even including the much maligned Final Fantasy XIII.  Surprisingly, Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) went the exact opposite route.  It is an interesting attempt at doing something different, but, sadly, it doesn’t quite work out.

FFXV begins with the protagonist Noctis joining his friends/bodyguards in bidding his father, the king, goodbye.  Noctis and crew hops into their car and drives away only to have it break down.  One of the earliest pieces of gameplay is the playing pushing the stalled car down a highway.  The experience is about as thrilling as it sounds.  This extends into the opening area where the only arching narrative is a fetch quest to get Noctis to a pier so that he can sail to a faraway kingdom to marry a princess for the sake of peace.  The intervening missions are largely fetch quests to explore a small, peaceful part of the kingdom and to get used to the gameplay.  Battles are limited and straightforward and the whole area feels like a waystation for something bigger.  And that’s the problem.

FFXV is a game about a road trip (at least, so far).  Unlike previous entries in the series, this one clearly wants to focus on a small set of characters and their interactions.  Developer Square Enix limits the characters and plot by keeping everything focused on the daily affairs of the local population.  By narrowing their view, Square Enix probably hoped to forge a bond between the players, the world, and the characters before embarking on the larger quest.  Rather than overwhelm the road trip theme with the story of invasion (you know it’s coming if you’ve seen Kingsglaive), FFXV starts at a moment in time when all is quiet.  This isn’t a bad idea, but the execution is questionable.  While the base gameplay is fun, the early quests don’t go out of their way to establish the all-important relationships that Square Enix wants to carry this game.  The chatter between characters begins that process, but the real stand out is the beautiful environment and breathing world.  Square Enix wants players to hop in their car and experience the ride before settling into the exciting parts of the game.  It feels like the road trip, more than anything else, is the focus of FFXV and everything that conflicts with it is pushed aside.

That’s unfortunate because shedding the story makes much of the later development incomprehensible.  A number of plot beats strike before, during, and after the opening section that lack support from the previous cutscenes and dialogue.  Without having watched Kingsglaive, the player will have no clue what’s going on.  At a bare minimum, this is poor form.  Completely offloading the introductory story line to a different media altogether isn’t just shifting the emphasis, it’s neglecting a key part of what an intro should do.

The introduction plays a very important role in setting out the themes and tone of what’s to come.  It should wet the player’s appetite for the game world and get them invested in its stories and characters.  In neglecting these duties, the introduction to FFXV feels more like a piece of filler midgame.  The basics of the game are all on display, but there’s nothing to suggest this area couldn’t have been 10 hours later in the game with minor tweaks.  I intend to keep playing, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t a great start.

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