My Love/Hate Relationship With Steam

It is crazy to think that Steam initially launched roughly 12 years ago. While it has existed for over a decade, the presence of Steam as "the PC gaming platform" of choice has really only existed since roughly 2007/2008. The power of Steam as a platform has only gotten stronger and stronger every year. It is to the point that many game players, even the more hardcore ones don't even notice a game on PC unless it has been released on Steam. Having your game on Steam is pretty much make or break for most indie devs just from a sales perspective. At this stage, it has a full command over the PC gaming market.

I'm not going to debate whether I think this is a good thing or not, because honestly that is kind of irrelevant. It exists and does what it does regardless of the opinions of really any of us. However I wanted to talk about my constant love/hate relationship with Steam. There is very few things in games that really passionately push me to both support something and despise something at the very same time. Even concepts that exist inside of steam are things I find something loving and hating at the same time.

You can look no further than Early Access. I love it. But I hate it. On the one hand it is a fantastic idea to allow fans of genres, developers, and games in general to support an ongoing project and get a first hand look into the development of a project. On the other, it basically kills all momentum a game could have on release with a finished project. Very few games that exist early access get any buzz what so ever, and very few of the people who may have tried the project early on ever go back to the completed version. I have had to personally start controlling myself by merely trying out games in Early Acess and jotting them down as a "to get to when completed" just because I feel I owe it to the developers to actually play and try to finish their completed project.

There is another thing that Steam does that is both great and awful. Games. How many god damn games do you think the average steam player has in their library? I know friends with anywhere from 200-500. The numbers are staggering. Steam stales provide us with the ability to buy things at super cheap prices, load up on things we may be interested in. It is fantastic. But it also isn't. While most developers won't complain about sales, how does the gaming industry as a whole get better? Through a development system that constantly progresses. How does it progress? People play the games that are released, talk about, talk about what they like and dislike about them, and developers pay attention to that. How can people talk about things they haven't played? Again those huge Steam libraries may lead to increased sales; though at discounted prices. However so many people don't even touch half the games they buy on Steam.

Then like the entitled audience we generally are, we still complain when things don't change or progress. "How many indie platformers can we take?" "Really another survival style game?" "Oh look a puzzle game." "Another cover based shooter?" It goes on and on. Developers are releasing what sells, what tops the top of the Steam charts. Sadly audiences never really play a lot or any of what they buy. The "I dabbled in it for a few hours but I have so much to play" excuse is becoming constant.

I myself have tried to make it a mission of mine to play and beat every single game I purchase. My mind set now is if it looks like it is something I want to play, I need to give it the fair chance to actually try to complete it. There are some games that you can't actually finish. However I always try now to put enough into the game to get a grasp of what it is so I feel fair to make an opinion on it.

Ultimately my love/hate relationship with Steam stems down to a core idea that I think it both empowers and devalues games at the same time. The benefit and the damage it is doing to the industry has begun to take shape all over. A lot of people who play games have become more impatient with games. If something doesn't grab them in the first hour, they move on. However people are willing to try more and more games. Pricing for games has changed to the point where a lot of time developers and publishers now don't know what they should be pricing. Perceived value is now about more than just the experience. One the one hand some middling AAA titles are now being priced lower. On the other, games that have limited scope/experience get ragged on for being priced to high. They get forced to be compared with other games, even from different genres. The "well this game has 10 more hours of actual gameplay but is 5 dollars cheaper" style of argument you see more and more.

Games can't stand on their own any more. So many are released big or small year to year that rarely do people look at a game as singular. As one project, and evaluate it based on the merits and flaws it has. While I don't think this is the only reason, I do think this does play a part in why games seem to get more middling. Expectations play a role in that, but an inability to give proper criticism to the strengths and weaknesses of a game because it is nearly impossible now to look at a game by itself hurts future development. Feel free to share your thoughts by the way, I'm eager to see what other things Steam has done that people may love or hate.


Kickstarter A True Look Into What It Means to Be a Publisher?

Given the recent news of Double Fine essentially announcing that their Broken Age project which was Kickstarted for over 3 million dollars will need more funding for the project to be delivered the way the audience would hopefully like I figured I'd give some of my thoughts on Kickstarter and all of this in general.

If anything all this stuff really just makes me take a good hard look at how game are made. We criticize games that are made in a year being full price, and want more games where they give the developers time to make the product they want to make. But at the same time, how expensive is that? Those real true big AAA titles that break new ground and get all that development time, how much funding does that require on the publisher? Not just initial funding either, all of it. Quality takes time from people who know what they are doing and love to do it. Those people cost a decent amount of money for their time and that time obviously costs the publishers more and more money.

Kickstarter effectively turns the audience into a pseudo publisher. Now we are starting to see that being a publisher isn't all bells and whistles. Maybe the big reason publishers deal with it is because they actually have hundreds of millions in the coffers and can determine if they want to make the risk. But when it is put on us as an audience who simply wants the game we are interested in funding, we now have a new layer to ask ourselves. Do we want the game bad enough to put in the financial risks involved with this project? Not just initial funding either as stated. To deal with delays, the idea that the studio and project we are funding may need more from the consumer and it's audience again and a risk everyone is forgetting. What if the audience doesn't like the game? That happens. Even some of the best made games in the industry have troubles finding a big audience and not everyone likes them. What if you go through all of this risk all of this funding, delaying, getting asked for more and at the end of the day the product they deliver you is something you don't even enjoy?

That is Kickstarter and people would be wise to remember it. Your investing in a long term project idea, not a delivered product. That project and the ideas that make that project change and grow and evolve with time. It is very easy of us to take to this with open arms because screw the publisher but their job isn't exactly as EASY as we would like to think it is. Going through all the hassle involved in getting a project off the ground and into development only to find out that an audience may not like this product or that it is too expensive to keep funded probably sucks on everyone ends, not just on the developers. Regardless if people think publishers are evil and only care about money I imagine people working at those places a ton of them care about quality games. But you need money to make a game for a living, that is how the system works.


Are We Ready For The "All Digital" Future?

Microsoft has done the unthinkable and reversed their entire always online used game DRM policies that everyone seemed to be in an uproar about. I tend to think this was a smart move but there seems to be a growing movement of people frustrated by the fact that consumers seem intent on keeping the push for physical media alive. So I figured I'd take some time to discuss my thoughts on the inevitability of an all digital world and why we don't seem to be there quite yet.

For starters, regardless who you are in this industry everyone and anyone can agree that at some point in the future all digital will happen. It will simply become far too quick and convenient and the idea of zero cost to make the physical resources is too tempting for companies to not push for. But just because something is inevitable doesn't mean we should rush right into it. There are always sacrifices to be made when you make big drastic changes and the push from consumers to keep used games sales alive to me shows a clear sign that they are not ready to give up what little power we have left in this market space.

Those that may disagree about the lack of true consumer power I ask you to consider a few things. The video game industry walks a fine line between "art" and "business". While it functions in a capitalist system, is it truly competitive? Sure there are competing products, but each game functions on it's own merits. Generally speaking you can only get that unique experience from that specific game. Thus if that game were to suddenly become overpriced, or do something that would upset the consumer what competition do you really have to choose over them to allow the nature of capitalism to actually work? There is nothing. You can only get the Halo experience by playing Halo. You can only get the Call of Duty experience by playing Call of Duty. The list goes on.

Therefore, the only real consumer power the industry has had, is used games. Did you know that the EA sports franchises are one of the most popular games to consistently be traded in year after year? Some might argue, well of course...they release a new game every year. That may be the case but they release a new game every year at full retail price, often times with very minor or limited changes to the previous title. The case of consumers trading in their old copies to reduce the price or cover the price of the new one is an easy consumer reaction to how little control they have. I mean, can you play Madden anywhere else? Nope. EA has ensured that sans for a few sports they own the rights to making games exclusively for the "big leagues" in those areas. Thus the consumer is exercising the only real power they have left. Trading the games in, to take less of a hit on something they can't control.

Ultimately if we rush into an all digital future without acknowledging and making the proper adjustments for consumers we could end up in a very scary world. People talk about how they could make the prices cheaper, and how sales will then go directly to developers. Sure, all that sounds gravy. But the only reason we can think that will happen is based on simple good faith. So your asking me to trust EA, or Microsoft or Sony or Activision once we enter the digital paradise to have the good consumer faith to lower their prices. What is stopping them from raising their prices at that point? Hell, why not $100 games? Again, there is no real competition. You can only get their franchises from them. See Marvel Heroes as an example. They own the Marvel license and are charging stupid amounts for heroes. While a section of the audience refuses to buy and a section vies for changes to be made they still make money back on people who are willing to pay those prices. If the cost of games were to double in a market such as this a company could lose half the amount of consumers and still make the same amount of money. How likely is it that they even lose half?

Thus far Steam is the only example of a all digital platform that works. But it works on very key principles. Steam does not mistreat consumers. Steam gives absolutely crazy sales to it's consumers. Tell how many people games have you bought on Steam for $60 versus reduced pricing? Valve and Steam have build up a relationship with it's user base so they trust them with an all digital platform. Trust. Something that I truly think Microsoft and Sony and the big publishers of the world do not have, and do not care if they have. They care about the bottom line. Money. Until we address these issues I don't see the consumers just walking hand in hand into all digital. Not until we get the type of service and value a platform like Steam gives us.

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Has Free to Play influenced the design choices of games too much?

I have given a lot of attention as of the last year/year and half to free to play games. Almost all of these games have some type of online component intended to keep you around so they can get whatever hooks into you as possible to get you to engage in the micro transaction section of the game.

An entire years worth of debating could be had over the pricing models and just how the micro transaction stuff in free to play games has influenced the industry as a whole. Particularly how disguising it can be in certain cases (See: Marvel Heroes) but that isn't what I'm here to discuss.

I have noticed a tend that I would like to think is a concern that continues to grow as free to play games become more of the model for a lot of games. That trend is the design choices that allow free to play games to operate in a way that pushes people to spend their money on them. That trend is barriers, walls, and general game punishment for your time investment. I have noticed this trend grow to other games, such as Dead Space 3 as an example. But other non free to play games like Guild Wars 2 or even Assassin Creed 3 have developed these game strategies at some point. As we enter the next generation it seems to be even affecting the nature of how the big companies like Microsoft are using it for using their console.

First of all, I want to ask the what point did it become a crime to enjoy content? If your kind of in the dark to what really the problem I'm talking about then I'll explain. In a lot of games now we are asked to play the content the way they want us to play the content or not play it at all. I don't mean just linear. Fail states in AC 3 if you don't do the mission the way they want you to do it. Level barriers in RPG's to ensure you don't go ahead in areas and force you to grind out their content. Limiting your abilities and then flashing the big "micro transaction to make this better" button to try and mil you for your dollar. Hell even with Microsoft and their new console with the rumors of installing games to the hard drive for DRM, online every x amount of hours and have to have Kinect plugged in. Again, it all speaks to the "this is our product and you will only be allowed to use it thew way we want you to use it."

Why does this exist? Why do we the gamer community let this exist? It is about more than just consumer rights as well. I have always struggled with how the entertainment industry, whether it is movies or games or even music to an extent seems exempt from other business philosophies of the consumer comes first. I mean if you look at other areas of business, even say tablets or phones....user bases complain and clamor for features in their devices and they get them. The focus in almost every other set up is to create a product that the consumer wants and continue to give them what they want without any barriers.

Yet with games particularly lately we are shown various things we like and then told we have to do this and this and this to get to the content that we like. Anyway I've ranted here enough. What do you guys think of this issue? Do you see it persisting and becoming a more popular thing as the next generation of games comes in? What if anything can we the gamer community do to try to fight this issue?


Thoughts on EA; Mistakes, Missteps and Good Ideas

With the recent news of EA's now former CEO John Riccitiello stepping down I felt I would have my next blog be about EA over this console generation.

EA has really been a tale from two different sides this generation. It is no secret that when Riccitiello took over the original plan was to try to revamp the perception of EA by creating some new IP's and doing more to please the consumers. This was a noble idea but one that did not bear the financial fruit that I'm sure EA had hoped. From there EA has consistently had a repeated pattern of good game, bad game, good decision, bad decision, and wrapped it up with one of the biggest financial mistakes of the gaming industry all together in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Some would maybe call all this karma, but I think for most there is some pity for EA. But keeping the consumer happy, creating quality games, and getting the sales number stakeholders require is a delicate balance. One that isn't easily achieved in this industry by many big publishers. One of the more interesting conversations I had regarding how EA who's reputation has been dragged in the mud specifically with the internet community over the generation is how they differ from other publishers/studios. Some of whom have made many of the same mistakes EA has.

Blizzard a company that is one of the more well respected made decisions a lot of the community despised for Diablo 3 as an example. Activision continues to beat sequels into the ground, as does Ubisoft. Day one DLC, DLC that should be in the main game, and even micro transactions in games all things EA has done are apparent all over the industry.

What I think is the difference setter though is that most of the studios who are generally forgiven for their mistakes are because of a standard. Say what you will about what has become of Call of Duty, but Call of Duty 4 is one of the most well reviewed, respected, and industry setting game you can get. Blizzard still knocks a game out of the park like Starcraft 2 and it's expansion Heart of the Swarm. To me that is the key difference between most who get a pass on these mistakes and EA.

When we look at EA's new IP's and all the good they did. With the exception of Mass Effect 2 which was almost universally accepted as brilliant, all of their game ideas and games in general are usually good...but never great. Mirrors Edge? Some loved it some hated it, most thought it was a neat idea that wasn't executed to perfection. Dead Space? Good survival horror game, fun concept. Skate? Good game. Again...but nothing industry setting.

Anyway I have rambled about that point long enough. I am curious to see what EA does next. We all know their sports games will come out every year despite the effects that has on the game. But I do wonder if the company as a whole may take a new shift towards how they make games as we enter a new era of consoles. We shall see.

What are you guys thoughts on EA and the situation ahead for them?


The Inner Turmoil of Tone versus Gameplay?

Video games are becoming more adult. That is to say, developers and publishers are working on trying to have video games as a medium be more well respected, deal with more adult themes, and be represented in more of an artistic light than they used to be. However with that mission as we age into a newer generation of consoles are seeing several issues.

The most notable issue from my perspective is the idea of tone versus gameplay. A recent example of this is the rebooted version of Tomb Raider. You play a character with very little combat experience, who is not accustomed to seeing a lot of death. The developers hyped up the tone of this game to no end. How this character would evolve over the game, but still be resilient in only doing the actions she was doing due to the circumstance.

Where this tone hits the wall is when it meets gameplay. In the game while you do a decent amount of puzzle solving, general adventuring, you also do a lot of killing. It makes the personal development of the character feel really hollow when after murdering 15 enemies, you get forced dialogue about how she questions her actions.

Tomb Raider is not the only game suffering this conundrum. Whether it is Nathan Drake questioning his motives and wanting to turn back only to still go on forward, Grand Theft Auto where your character converys interest in getting out of the crime life only to continue the crime life, and Assassins Creed where you are put into forced missions trying to imply the "scale" of battle only to be able to murder 20 guys in a single combat.

There is no mistaking that gameplay is at odds with the tones and themes of our video games more and more as we go on. While independent titles have the luxury to explore other avenues, such as Braid which tricks the user into misunderstanding the tone of the game, others sometimes explore whole new avenues of gameplay to try and match the tone or theme they are trying to convey.

The only recent AAA title I can recall that at least attempted to tackle this issue was Dishonored. You were given the tools to play the game your way, the more of a murdering psychopath you were the more they tried to reflect that in the game and world around you. While it was not executed in the perfect solution, all this left me wondering what is the answer?

I personally don't have it. But I do think this is a question developers should be asking themselves. When making a modern game that is attempting to deal with more mature themes they should always consider if the context of the gameplay matches with the themes they are trying. More and more we are seeing that gamers are getting sick of iterative gameplay as it is. I think now is as good as time as any to evolve the impact of gameplay onto the tone of a game while we continue to evolve the tone of our games.

What are your guys thoughts on this?


Has the Video Game Industry Become Too Meta?

Over the last several months I have started to ponder about where we are at in the video game industry. I then started to consider a theory that I will share with you. The theory is simple, the video game industry is too meta. Obviously I will elaborate.

In any industry and in particular in the video game industry what defines what is the next big revolutionary thing is almost never dependant on what a developer thinks, says, or does. If that was the case Peter Molyneux and David Cage would be credited for changing the industry a long time ago. No, the industry is changed by the consumer perception. We are the ones that determine what ideas are actually meaningful.

Consider now the last several years we have seen in game development. Motion control came into the picture. It was going to "change" the way we perceive video games. PR teams were overjoyed with the perspective. They essentially were telling us, what was supposed to be the next big thing in gaming. Motion control however didn't accomplish that. I don't think it is of any fault of it's own. At the end of the day it simply isn't something that the consumers felt would replace their current experience. At it's best, something like motion control served as a good one two punch, being able to exist with our other gaming experiences. At it's worst it was something untouched that collected dust. Sadly developers and companies seemed hell event on pushing the worst aspect of it.

Which made me consider why that is. I think it is simply because we have hit a wall. Years and years ago developers and companies could always look forward to the next consoles, new batch of hardware to try out some of their ideas. They weren't focused on trying to understand the industry or where it is at. It was all about making the best quality games, the best quality services and trying to get them to as many people as possible. But once the game industry started to rise and console hardware started to get exceptionally close to the PC level those in the industry started to crave more.

Which is basically where I think everything went wrong. I won't call it impossible, but in most cases anyone who sets to try to do create something that is going to redefine the way consumers look at anything is almost doomed to not do that at all. In some cases it may fail completely for usually it ends up as a mediocre idea that may of had potential if it wasn't hyped up to be the next gift to gaming. It almost makes me wish that there was still some mystery between developers/companies and their consumers. It just feels to me that the awareness of the state of the industry has gave way for several "big picture" ideas that based on consumer perception are anything but.

So I pose the question to you the Giant Bomb faithful. Do you agree with me? Do you feel that some of these companies and developers are too aware of the industry thus overextending themselves trying to make the next big thing?