Repetitive Gameplay and MMORPGs

Despite the sheer popularity of MMORPGs, there seems to be a certain degree of backlash against the kind of repetitive and often passive gameplay that they employ. It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about quests that require players to kill X number of enemies or collect X number of things as bad game design, and the act of killing large numbers of enemies in very similar fashions is often shunned as “Grinding”. I also get the sense that some games enthusiasts believe the future of the MMORPG rests in working out how to cut this kind of repetitive action out of the games, and just leave the satisfying progression mechanics. However, I think there are sometimes misconceptions surrounding conventional MMORPG gameplay and what it means to change it, and I believe that there’s something genuinely good about the manner of “grindy” gameplay that these games are often going for.

The Problem

It's time to collect things from things.

Just to clarify, I’ll be using the term grinding a fair bit here, but I’m not referring to those situations where a game runs out of new quests, new locations, new enemies, and other kinds of content, and you’re consequently stuck killing the same kind of enemy in the same location for the next five hours with little greater goal. I’m talking about the core of MMORPG gameplay, where you’re going out into the field and engaging in a long succession of similar battles that are far more dependent on your character stats than any particular effort or ability on your part. You can argue that’s not really “grinding”, but for the purposes of this blog I’m going to need a single term to reference that kind of gameplay, and “grind” seems to fit better than anything else.

The basic reason why the grind has gotten so much flack is obvious; asking players to repeat the same few actions with little challenge to slowly progress through a game doesn’t have the moment-to-moment thrill of running, jumping, and fighting your way through most action games, or the intellectual empowerment of carefully devising and executing a plan that most strategy games have. A lot of people seem to think the problem itself is in the aforementioned “X number of Y” quests that these games often implement, but while these quests are representative of and contain gameplay that a lot of players don’t like, I don’t think they’re a problem within themselves. They’re really just a way of splitting up and framing the gameplay that already exists, and better distributing rewards within the game. Quests in RPGs are just a type of wrapper for other content; even if they didn’t exist you’d still be running around the world killing a lot of the same thing over and over. Again, the root problem is that most find that the core gameplay isn’t actively engaging.

Sometimes I become bored with MMORPGs too. If you talk to me in any given moment I’m probably going to opt to play something like Civ or Halo over an MMO, and if the style of gameplay that MMOs are offering just isn’t what you’re interested in, more power to you. My problems are really to do with the implied ideas that getting players to grind in MMORPGs is just bad design that needs to be eliminated, and people not recognising the positive things that this kind of gameplay has brought us.

The Positives

There's a reason people like MMOs in the first place.

Grinding is something that’s a part of MMORPGs and RPGs in general for a few reasons. For starters, it provides us a sense of productivity and progression that isn’t as present in the in-your-face mechanics of other games, but is part of a more laid-back and reserved gameplay experience. While I love the active kind of engagement that the majority of games offer, and believe a lot of people would benefit from not treating entertainment as something to just turn off their brains in front of, sometimes you want to sit down, relax, and feel the steady but reliable sense of advancement that comes with repeating slight variations on the same task over and over. There are plenty of hobbies in the world that just require a bit of patience and slowing down to get some enjoyment out of them, and we have so many games out there that are about keeping the player constantly highly stimulated, so I think there’s plenty of room for a more subdued flavour of gameplay in games. This kind of relaxed experience can also juxtapose another fairly passive activity. It’s pretty common for people to play MMOs while also consuming podcasts, music, videos, and movies, or talking with friends.

In addition, the focus on progression mechanics and loot, instead of skill-based gameplay, allows for players to receive greater rewards for dedication to the game, and makes items and their acquisition feel more important. It can also create a more level playing field in a way that a lot of other games can’t. In the large majority of games, the players who are most rewarded are going to be those who have better reflexes, greater special awareness, are better at making tactical decisions, etc. and almost all MMORPGs include some gameplay rooted in at least basic action and strategy, but they generally don’t hold withhold a reward from you because of a lack of skill, and aim to make you feel like it’s your productivity in the world that is more important than anything else.

It’s common for many MMOs to become more strategy-oriented in the upper levels, but essentially any two players can be the same level as long as they’re dedicated enough to the game. Even when one player outclasses another by having better items, all players have the exact same chances that any one item will drop for them, and any player can hypothetically collect any amount of gold to buy new items, if they play for long enough. It’s this commitment that you really feel like you’re being rewarded for a lot of the time, and this level playing field cannot only provide something beneficial for long-time players of video games, but can also create a much more welcoming experience for the casual gamer. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many popular Facebook games employing RPG mechanics. Maybe the gameplay experiences I’ve described here aren’t your thing, but I think we can all at least see how there’s some worth in them.

Eliminating the Grind

All praise to the late game content.

Interestingly, even in games that are largely based around it, there are motives for the designers to start filing away at parts of their regular repetitive MMO combat, just not always for the right reasons, or with the best results. Maybe the example I’m about to give is a little specific, but it seems important that we all realise this kind of thing can happen. At a point World of Warcraft ran into an issue. Blizzard wanted to bring out new expansions and add new levels and content onto the end of the game, but with new content only being available to the highest level characters, they were essentially placing a barrier between many players and the expansion content they wanted them to consume. This was especially true when it came to players making new characters, or players who were new to the game entirely, a group that Blizzard naturally value a lot. It seemed to be with this in mind that the developers made a number of changes to the game that made it much easier for players to quickly rush their way up from level 1 up to the expansion content.

In places it may have been that Blizzard were genuinely tweaking level requirements they’d set too high, but when people talk about being able to dash through the majority of the game’s levels in under 24 hours without particularly trying, that’s something else entirely. One of my favourite parts, maybe my favourite part of World of Warcraft and games like it, is the world itself, and to see games where they want to speed me through the beautiful world they’ve created just to get me to the high level zones is disheartening. Blizzard’s problem is only likely to worsen for them as they continue to bring out more expansions, and the level requirements for the content they want everyone to be playing get higher. Games that end up in a similar position to WoW run the risk of doing the same.

Now, if we want to remove the grindy bit from MMOs properly, the obvious solution is to replace the bit where you’re interacting with enemies by just clicking on them and periodically hitting the number keys with the more actively engaging kinds of systems that we’ve already seen in other types of games. The thing is, while this looks great on paper, the reality of developing these sorts of games can be pretty difficult. Let’s be clear, game development is already really hard as it is, and developing an MMO specifically, with their enormous quantity of locations, weapons, enemies, quests, etc., all of which have to work properly in conjunction with each other, is a bit of a nightmare. With these genre hybrid MMOs however, it has the potential to be even worse. To keep this simple, I’m going to use an MMOFPS as an example, but hopefully you should be able to see how these problems would extend out to other less conventional kinds of MMOs.

APB is a pretty good example of developers having difficulty with combining an MMO with another genre of game.

With our MMOFPS you’ve already put more on your plate just by the fact that you’re now trying to simultaneously get the MMO side of the game properly made, and ensure that the FPS gameplay is also enjoyable. The addition of gunplay also means that designing and balancing weapons is no longer just a game of drawing up regular RPG stats for weaponry, but that weapons are now complicated by having recoil, clip sizes, firing speeds, firing types, and other new variables. There are huge differences between a sniper rifle and an assault rifle in an MMOFPS that you just won’t find between two weapons in another kind of MMORPG, so imagine trying to account for hundreds or even thousands of different kinds of shotguns, assault rifles, and other guns in your game. At a more fundamental level, slamming two different games together, or splicing one set of game mechanics into another, is often much different in practise than most people perceive it.

Combining Games

It’s common to hear people say they’d like to see X game combined with Y or that this hot new game is X combined with Y, and yeah, to some extent you can combine games or mechanics like that, and that can be a perfectly useful way to describe games, but the idea that you can just smash any two games together and get the best of both is a myth. When you’re creating a meal you can’t just combine any foods you really like, you have to find flavours that complement each other, and avoid those that clash. On top of this, whatever you create out of all those ingredients is going to be very different to eat than if you were eating those ingredients on their own, or as part of another meal. The same thing essentially applies for game design, and really for design and working creatively in general. Successfully combining two games or types of games isn’t done by simply creating a game with all the mechanics from game X and game Y, it’s about finding the places where the elements of both complement each other and using them together in a way that works, and avoiding or coming up with creative fixes for where the game elements clash. Sometimes the same mechanics can even compliment in one way, but conflict in another.

RPG mechanics often suit the mechanics of other games well because the “RPG” genre label describes a set of wrappers for core activities in a game, as opposed to the core activities themselves. I.e. while a hack-and-slash game is defined by its central system of melee combat, or a turn-based strategy game is classified as such because of the way you’re producing and controlling units against an opponent, the “RPG” title doesn’t care about those core interactions; it just means a game with experience, levelling, character stats, gear, etc. So in our MMOFPS, we can easily see how we could make the FPS and MMORPG mechanics compliment by giving a player experience points when they kill an enemy, or have them acquire their new guns from an NPC instead of just unlocking them from a menu. However, things get more complicated when we look at the situations where the mechanics don’t line up exactly. For example, when you’re creating an MMOFPS it’s impossible to simultaneously have character stats be the primary deciding factor in combat, as it is in most MMORPGs, and have peoples’ skill with moving and shooting be the primary deciding factor in combat, as is the goal of other FPS games. Of course you can find a middle ground between the two where combat is reliant on a combination of skill and RPGish dedication, and create a new kind of game out of that, but this is kind of my point.

Note that Borderlands is an FPS-RPG, but feels distinctly different from playing any one FPS or RPG.

The game you create by putting two different games or kinds of games together isn’t just all the bits of game/genre A and all the bits of game/genre B, or all the best bits of game/genre A and all the best bits of game/genre B, it’s a new experience that is going to feel different from both of those original games/genres, and it will be one where elements of the original games or genres have to be cut out or altered to make sure that they fit together into this new template. You are not going to get a game that feels simultaneously like World of Warcraft and whatever other game you want to plug into that second slot. The MMOs that exist now which break from the WoW formula are proof of that.

Some elements also conflict in a considerably harsher way than the skill-based combat vs. progression-based combat situation I mentioned above. Thinking about how an MMORTS would work is a good way to see where more stark contrasts can occur. For example, look at how MMORPGs try to present an open world that all players are free to run around in, whereas most RTSs are about players claiming areas of the map entirely for themselves and plonking down buildings wherever they like.

All in all, I understand why there are people who want MMORPGs that subvert the traditional genre conventions. Hell, that’s something I really want as well, and I think there’s a lot of interesting and fun things to be done with MMOs that put something new in place of regular RPG combat, but we have to be clear on what exactly we’re removing from the game when we ask for that. It’s that sense of laid-back blissful productivity and a great focus on dedication that get lost. We can create new kinds of MMOs that provide things that “grindy” MMOs traditionally haven’t, but I don’t see these games as obsoleting WoW or simply improving on WoW as much as I see them providing an alternative, even if that alternative is one that’s more actively engaging, or even appealing to more people.

Cold Hard Cash

MMOS are expensive, yo.

The complications here go beyond just the design though; we know there are significant difficulties in getting new kinds of MMOs made and running from a financial perspective. Games cost a lot of money to create to begin with, but MMOs in particular require a huge deal of time, resources, and cash to build, and development costs for games are constantly rising. Investors are of course reluctant to put large amounts of money into anything that’s risky, and not only have some of the industry giants run into great trouble trying to create MMOs that play things relatively safe, but the MMOs that are going to try and break away from the traditional formula, and come up with new ways to do things, are by their nature particularly risky. There seem to have been more games in recent years that have aimed to break out of the standard mold for MMOs, with varying results, but it’s still hard to see this as anything but shaky ground. It must also be remembered that with almost all MMOs either relying on a microtransaction model, or a subscription fee, they need to not just have someone invest in them in the first place, but have to keep making money for their entire lifespan if they’re to stay in business. We can all think of MMORPGs that enthusiastically burst onto the scene, and then gradually withered and died as people lost interest in them and competition put pressure on them.

As impossible as it may seem to develop in the MMORPG space, there are a number of MMOs out there that have managed to remain afloat for a long time, even with significant flaws, largely because they’ve kept to a modest budget. From more traditional MMOs like Tibia or Runescape, to more experimental ones like Maplestory or Puzzle Pirates, we can see games that through careful design and low-end graphical technologies have managed to get along fine, even when many higher status MMOs have gone under. Granted, these games don’t rake in the profits of the successful higher-end MMOs, and many of the companies out there who are candidates for creating MMOs aren’t going to bother unless they know they can make AAA MMO money, but these kinds of games are at least making a profit. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be trying to create bigger budget MMOs, experimental or not, but we can see that there’s at least a kind of B-tier MMO that can exist which may be more practical for many of those developers looking to break away from the traditional MMO formula.

So to recap, I think repetitive MMO gameplay can be a good thing, bad things can happen if developers remove it within certain contexts, eliminating the grind isn’t always that simple, you can’t just slam two games or two sets of mechanics together, and big budgets are once again the Devil. Thanks for reading.

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Gone Fishin'

Phil Fish doing something controversial just seems to be one of those things that naturally and periodically happens. Every month we get a full moon, every year we get Christmas, and every now and then people get mad at Phil Fish being mad at something. In case you haven’t heard the story in full (if you have, feel free to skip ahead to the next section) this time round Fish has officially cancelled Fez II, citing the continual bashing he’s received as a game developer as the reason. He says that there isn’t one particular clash that has made him make this decision, but the thing that seems to have pushed him over the edge was his recent spat with GameTrailers’ Marcus “Annoyed Gamer” Beer and the series of interactions following that. You see, Game Informer recently reported that “Sources” had told them Microsoft would be reversing some of the Xbox One publication policies and allowing indie developers to self-publish on the console. The site tried to reach Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow for comment, as in the past the two have been very outspoken about the process of independent publication on Microsoft’s machines, but both told them “No” and took to Twitter to complain about the situation. You can see Fish’s comments here, here, and here, and Blow’s comments here, but the short version is that with some annoyance, both said that they saw little point in them commenting on rumours.

Phil Fish: Professional Rascal.

Fast forward a little, and on a new episode of GameTrailers’ show Invisible Walls, Marcus Beer reprimands both Blow and Fish for snubbing Game Informer, using terms like “Tosspot” and “Asshole” to describe Fish specifically. He stated that there’s nothing wrong with “Being an asshole”, but that it in rejecting the advances of the games press outlets, Fish and Blow were making a very poor business move, as they were threatening their chances to use those outlets to “Shill” their new games when the time came. This then spiralled into a Twitter argument between Beer and Fish that you can read here and here. Fish accused Beer of character assassination and telling outright non-truths, saying that he didn’t snub outlets, he just wanted them to wait until the actual news developed (the report was eventually confirmed by Microsoft), and he demanded an on-camera apology. He also threw some less professional remarks in Beer’s direction, including calling him a “fuckface”, a “limey fuck”, and declaring “Compare your life to mine and then kill yourself”. Beer responded to all of this by saying that Fish alienates people who communicate with him, that he would be happy to talk it out with him on camera, and that in the case of this breaking news story “A simple ‘no comment’ would have sufficed”. Some side-parties got involved, this argument went on for a little longer, and eventually Fish announced via both Twitter and the Polytron blog that Fez II was no more.

A Battle of Commentators

It’s a complicated situation and I think both parties acted pretty poorly, but let’s start with Beer. Beer was by far the more polite and rational side of the Twitter argument, but I think it needs to be highlighted that what he said on Invisible Walls was very questionable. His childish insults and condonement of himself and Fish being “assholes” were problematic for obvious reasons, but it was his statements about how Fish and Blow should have conducted their business with journalism outlets that I think harbour less obvious problems. I believe there is an issue with a lot of sites out there drawing traffic to themselves by essentially reporting non-news. By sticking “Rumour” or “Report” in front of articles, sites have for a long time been able to report dubious claims from sources that they can’t or won’t name, and profit from it. I think there’s real worth in reporting on some rumours or information from sources you can’t name, but they only deserve to be given so much attention if you can’t yet provide any evidence for them.

Now you could say that you trust Game Informer to not publish that type of piece unless they had solid evidence, but I also think it’s reasonable for a professional game developer to look at Game Informer’s “we heard from sources” claim and say that the story does not have enough substance to it to merit commenting on, and that doing so contributes to a bad practise where gaming sites rush to the rumour mill to print claims that they can’t properly back up. This is what Fish and Blow did and I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, while I don’t think Game Informer are some big bad guy in all of this, if they’d have just waited a little longer, they probably could have had a confirmed news story with input from Fish, Blow, or both. Again, it’s not as if those guys have exactly been hesitant about speaking on the issues of the Xbox and indie publication in the past. Beer might have called Game Informer’s piece a “developing story”, but I think the term “developing story” is a poor way to obscure that there actually was nothing within their news post to prove that any of what they were saying was true. Beer is also correct that Fish and Blow could have just said “No comment” and moved along, but while I think Fish went slightly overboard in exactly how rude he was about the topic, ultimately I believe he and Blow speaking out probably did more good than if they’d just shut up and said nothing.

I guess he's at least living up to his namesake.

Another problem wrapped up in this is that fans can become distrusting of gaming press outlets or developers if they suspect that they’re talking about what they are not because they want to, or because they think it’s good for their audience, but out of business interests that are hidden from outside parties. Beer says that both Blow and Fish should be doing exactly that and causing the press to do the same. I don’t know about you, but I think one thing that the world doesn’t need any more of is people who instead of being honest and open, are more marketers whose dialogues with others are actually thinly-veiled attempts towards financial gain. I also don’t think we need to see respected gaming websites advertising games in the form of news articles just to fulfil business partnerships.

Turning back to Fish himself, I’m not going to try to defend the large majority of what he’s said. Telling Beer to kill himself was a new low that made me lose a lot of respect for the guy, but among the insults and the empty attacks are a few genuinely insightful and emotional statements. Statements that if Fish had posted without all these acerbic strikes at others, might have come across as something that made a few people empathise with him. Here are a few quotes:

“You decided to personally insult me and my work. That causes me great pain.”

“I want you to know that you hurt me.”

“I don’t think you realise how much this shit hurts. What did I ever do to you?”

“I’m being attacked constantly. And I can’t fight back? Ever? Yeah that seems fair.”

“Consider how you’d react to this kind of shit if you were me. Consider it’s been going on for years now. You’d take the high road?”

Blowback

As much hurtful and ill-advised crap as Fish might have said to other people, he’s a human being, and when human beings lash out it’s usually because they’ve been hurt in some way. Just like any figure in the public eye, especially a controversial one, Fish has had to endure years of repeated verbal attacks from thousands of different strangers, people who’ve never met him and yet feel okay posting very offensive statements aimed at him, and it isn’t fair. The societal expectation seems to be that people are just allowed to throw hostile comments and serious insults at these public figures without any kind of personal consequences, and while I don’t condone Fish’s actions, his mortal sin ultimately seemed to be treating others the way people treated him.

People yell at man; man yells at people.

I find it interesting that when people call Fish all sorts of names or tell him to commit suicide that’s “Just the internet”, but when Fish shows the slightest bit of hostility in the other direction, he’s meant to be the arsehole of the industry. There’s a cognitive dissonance where people understand why some of the things that Fish says are so hurtful and offensive, but then mentally neglect the obvious conclusion that every time they say something similar directed at him, it’s also hurtful and offensive. Fish is in some ways the monster the gaming community created; he attacks others for a large part because they attack him. Some of us are being shown a little piece of ourselves in the mirror, and we don’t like it.

The Wrong Opinions

Heck, the attacks on many opinionated figures in gaming, including Fish, aren’t just about them throwing insults around, but them not having the opinion everyone wants them to. When he half-jokingly said “Fuck Japanese games”, there weren’t just people frustrated at how rude he was, there were plenty of people appalled that Fish wasn’t validating their opinions on Japanese games. The same applied when Fish lashed out at Nintendo’s consoles. Again, the way in which he chose to voice his grievance was not remotely okay, but the flood of people who felt that Fish was somehow socially obligated to like Nintendo products also didn’t represent something very helpful within the community.

We see this kind of mentality at work among gamers all the time. A reviewer doesn’t give a game the score fans want them to give it, and they’re out for his or her blood. Look at Jim Sterling for example. Think he comes over abrasive in what he says or has been unpleasant and ignorant to other people in the past? Fine. But there’s also a large group of people whose primary gripe with Sterling is that he gave games like Deadly Premonition and Assassin’s Creed II “the wrong scores”. Remember when Jeff worked back at Gamespot and “only” gave Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess an 8.8? Those kinds of arguments are still happening. It’s easy to forget because the smarter of us have largely managed to remove ourselves from the kinds of places where these arguments happen, but there are still people mad that reviewers “only” gave a game a 7, or an 8, or were one point off what the reader would have given them, or have any opinion at all that differs from what the reader thinks their opinion should be.

No caption here, I just love this shot of him.

There seems to be this a narrow-minded idea of what the subjective opinions on games are meant to be, and the opinions which fall outside of these patterns are seen as less valid, less worthy of attention, or just plain wrong. We should be embracing diverse perspectives and differences in opinion, not rejecting them, because we have so much to gain from them. We shouldn’t be telling Fish “Don’t say fuck Japanese games”; we should be telling Fish “Work out a more civil and constructive way to say fuck Japanese games”.

We also shouldn’t define people by a few bad quotes. Fish has made enough snappy and attacking comments by this point that I think it’s fair to say he is often off-putting and alienating to too many people, but there are also a lot of people who have judged Fish and people like him based on one or two bad things they’ve said. It’s a needlessly pessimistic way to look at people, and it doesn’t help anyone. There is an additional problem where the statements of public figures who are already infamous receive more scrutiny that those who are less disliked. Notice for example that everyone lashed out at Fish for the Japanese games comment, but that when Jonathan Blow agreed with and expanded on Fish’s point, or when Keiji Inafune commended Fish on his comment, those things didn’t provoke a fraction of the same outrage.

Demands

Then there’s an issue where people become outraged at developers because they’re not making exactly what they want or it’s not being made the way they want it. Gamer self-entitlement is not a myth; there were people everywhere who were attacking Fish purely because he wasn’t making the game they wanted fast enough. If you want to politely criticise him for that, that’s fair enough, good even, but creative professions are stressful enough for people without them being insulted for not bending to everyone’s personal whims (realistic or otherwise). This is not an isolated case. You can see the droves of people frothing-at-the-mouth furious at Day Z developer Dean Hall for daring to take some time off of working on the game. I could link you right now to a collection of comments from people who think a CoD designer’s children should be raped because they don’t like the new Black Ops II patch.

Cyberspace is a fickle mistress.

In fact any time anyone doesn’t like the game they’re playing or get the game they want, from Valve to Bioware, they feel the need to act like children about it. People feel that they are owed months or years of diligent and strenuous work by talented people purely because they want the end products, and it’s not fair. I know that there are many that in response to this would once again chorus that all this is “Just the internet”, but if you truly believe that, think about why it wasn’t “Just the internet” when Fish started insulting people.

Hypocrisy

Returning to that last quote from Fish’s Twitter rant, the “You’d take the high road?” one, I think many if not most of the people harassing Fish would actually be doing the same thing, if not something much worse, in his position. Not only are people angry at Fish for counter-attacking after they throw insults at him, but when he does say something insulting, people just insult him right back, failing to see the irony. You can go to his cancellation post right now and see not just the mass of users yelling at Fish whatever horrible things spring to mind, but also people repeating verbatim the insults Fish has made before and they’ve taken exception to. Surely anyone can see how hypocritical this is. Even in places with comparatively better discussion spaces, there are still a lot of people mocking and laughing at Fish in a way they definitely wouldn’t approve of if it were the other way around.

Amazingly, many still expect to be able simultaneously verbally abuse developers while demanding games from them. Some of the people attacking Fish obviously don’t care about Fez, but many others do. These kinds of attacks rarely have consequences for the end user, but just this once the community may be reaping what they’ve sewn. Perhaps Fish will change his mind or Polytron will continue development on Fez II without him, but personally I don’t think it would be too bad if the gaming community were shown that their actions can have negative impacts for more than just other people, because the problems in the community’s attitudes stretch far beyond the way people have acted towards Fish.

He's just a dude, y'know?

My “We shouldn’t offend other people” blogs have gone down very poorly in the past, but I mean what I’m saying. As much as I may disagree with people like Fish, or voice how they’ve acted like dicks to other people, I still have sympathy for him and those like him. Phil is an outspoken, honest guy, with an insight into the industry, and a true talent for what he does, and more importantly he’s a person like the rest of us. Week in and week out he has endured repeated online verbal abuse, and while things would obviously be going much better if both Fish and his detractors had learned to cool things, and if Fish had learned to ignore a lot of the unconstructive attacks out there, that’s not an excuse for people treating Fish and many other devs the way they’ve been treated. If we think the way Phil Fish acts is crappy then we need to act better than him, not worse. Thanks for reading.

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A Look Back at 1 vs. 100

Back in 2008 Microsoft announced a rather original and unusual idea, a service they were calling Xbox LIVE PrimeTime. PrimeTime was planned to present a new line of Xbox LIVE Arcade games based around real-world gameshows, that players could compete in online and earn real prizes through. It was a very exciting concept, but sadly it never really got off of the ground. The first and only title for the service was Microsoft’s 1 vs. 100, an adaptation of the Endemol-produced TV gameshow of the same name, released in late 2009. The game ran for just two “seasons” before being cancelled and was officially pronounced dead in mid-2010. The game was far from perfect, but like many unique games there were interesting things to be found in it, both where it succeeded and where it failed.

For those who didn’t play it, the basics of 1 vs. 100 were simple; players were given questions with three possible answers and had to answer correctly. The sooner they answered, the more points they’d get. Most players found themselves playing as part of “The Crowd”, but the central focus of the game was “The One”, a player who was attempting to correctly answer questions against a group of one hundred others known as “The Mob”. If one of The Mob answered wrongly, they’d be eliminated. If The One could answer all of their questions correctly, while eliminating The Mob, they would win. If The One answered a question incorrectly, The Mob would win.

Bridging the Gap

This is equal opportunity gaming.

With 1 vs. 100, Microsoft managed to tap into the important idea that any trivia game can potentially bridge the gap between the “casual” and the “core”. The gameplay of most video games is centred around the mastery of skills and systems which are specific to video games. Activities like moving and firing in an FPS or deploying and controlling your units in an RTS are not something we learn about in the outside world and are able to bring into video games, they’re something that can only be learned by being involved in games in the first place, and thus create a significant barrier to entry for those who don’t play or have no desire to play games. The problems get even worse when the game you’re trying to create attempts to have those inexperienced with the medium compete with those who are experienced, while still maintaining a sense of fairness.

A trivia game like 1 vs. 100 can solve these problems through one simple solution; the central skill it requires players to utilise is not one that is learned solely from video games, it instead asks people to use knowledge of the outside world and directly apply it to the game. With a game like 1 vs. 100 you didn’t need to know basic combat strategies or have a feel for running and shooting your way around a map, you just needed to know some things about the world we live in and be able to press one of three buttons to answer a question. The appeal of the trivia game is also palpable and immediately identifiable to those inexperienced with games, and yet the format allows for both traditional and casual players to still be equally challenged by play. In this way trivia games have a perhaps undervalued ability to level the playing field between experienced gamers and newbies, and provide something that can be engaging, fair, and immediately understandable for both kinds of player.

Time Slots

While there have been plenty of gameshow-themed games before and since 1 vs. 100, the way in which they’re played has generally been indistinguishable from any other trivia game or mini-game collection. 1 vs. 100 made the effort to present an experience that was truer to an actual gameshow. Unfortunately, one of the more paradoxical things about the game was that a lot of its interesting and exciting aspects were also tied to its fundamental flaws, and were likely what lead to its eventual downfall.

For better or worse, players had a schedule to keep.

For example, one of the most notable things about 1 vs. 100 was that just like a conventional television programme, if you wanted to play you had to tune in at the designated times to catch a game. As I recall, games were generally half an hour or an hour long and were usually scheduled for the evenings. If the games ran from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and you weren’t there between those times then there was no 1 vs. 100 for you that day. This system seems reminiscent of a time that’s only relatively recently disappeared, where if you wanted to see a TV programme you had to be there for the moment, and if you weren’t you’d missed your chance. We are some of the last people who are going to remember a time like this.

This age of TV was exciting because it made the programmes feel like something special and it built a sense of anticipation. This experience is something that’s never really been part of the video game world due to their nature, and with the increasing abundance of huge online movie libraries and on-demand TV, exclusive windows in which entertainment can be consumed have rapidly disappeared. Overall, this is of course a very good thing, but I can’t help but feel we are losing something in the extinction of entertainment products as these special events. 1 vs. 100 managed to do something rather wonderful by embracing this idea of time slots, and bringing with them the excitement of the old-school TV programme.

This wasn’t without a price though. With the current expectation that we can easily load up our entertainment whenever we want, especially when it comes to video games, access to 1 vs. 100 stood out as restrictive and inconvenient. It was pretty ballsy to tell even people more dedicated to games that they could only play within the scheduled time periods, but the fact they told the casual crowd (who need by far the most coercing to play something new) that for the large majority of the day their game would be entirely unusable, seems downright crazy in retrospect.

The Scale

This ain't no 16 player multiplayer game.

While the times at which the game could be played were limited, the scale it was played on certainly wasn’t. Even forgetting The Crowd for a minute, The One facing The Mob was a great concept within itself. In other games one player facing one hundred others may have been given a separate gameplay task or a much easier version of the same task. 1 vs. 100 implemented a few Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-style lifelines for The One, but beyond that it really was a case of a single person having to beat one hundred other players at the same game. It was a daunting task for them to be set in the first place and only made it more impressive when they won.

Beyond those one hundred and one players, Crowds were composed of hundreds or even thousands of others who had a chance of making it into The Mob if they could answer enough questions correctly. In any other competitive multiplayer game there are only so many players in a match and so many people you can attack at once. When you do attack enemies, the conflicts usually consist of a series of smaller actions like repositioning, moving, firing, etc. In 1 vs. 100 there was a charming simplicity to the competition, because all players did in any round was make one button press, but that button press was in direct conflict with hundreds or thousands of others.

If we’re to be honest about it though, while this looks great when analysed from an external perspective, giving a true sense of its scale to players was not something 1 vs. 100 was that good at. Players were never given a lot of information on how close they were to entering The Mob or how well they were doing compared to the rest of The Crowd. That in itself felt like a huge waste of potential, and left the game without the strong sense of purpose it might have otherwise had. What may have been even more detrimental is that with such a small number of positions available in The Mob, most players didn’t ever get to be part of those one hundred and one contestants, let alone get to be The One. For those who did, it was most likely a fleeting moment. You’ve got a bit of a problem when the very focal point of your game is something your players are never going to experience.

Payouts and Hosts

Fuck players, get money.

If you could make it to become The One or part of The Mob, there was the chance to win actual prizes. If you triumphed as The One you’d earn a large haul of Microsoft Points, or if you won as part of The Mob, you’d collect a share of that prize and an Xbox LIVE Arcade game. Due to the aforementioned reasons, this was something rather unlikely to happen to any one player, but it’s not often you see a video game where winning could actually earn you substantial, tangible rewards outside of the game itself. The game would have better matched the pitch laid out for PrimeTime to begin with if the average player had a reasonable chance to walk away with some sort of prize, but then Microsoft never were too generous when it came to their Xbox 360 products.

Some of the games in 1 vs. 100 were also commentated over by a live host. There was only so much a host could really say about any one match, but it was cool to see it implemented none the less, and does make you think about how such a thing could be employed in other multiplayer-focused games today. The game even included live interviews with various personalities from the world of video games. While a trivia video game wasn’t the best platform for these interviews, and it probably should have been questioned whether it was wise to conduct interviews only relevant to those pretty heavily into video games in a game meant for a broader audience, it was refreshing to see something that ambitious. Unfortunately, for the UK and Ireland at least there was no live host during the second season, leading to a series of surreal sequences where the game would cut away to a CGI avatar silently mouthing words.

In the end it’s not hard to see how 1 vs. 100 may have run itself into the ground; the windows in which you could play it were limited, it was riddled with adverts, there wasn’t enough feedback on certain gameplay aspects, and players rarely ever experienced the true focus of the game, but it was still something special and it’s a game I really miss. It was an attempt at delivering a proper gameshow experience, made all the more delightful by framing its games as special events, and it did a number of clever and unique things which set it apart from just about every other game out there. On top of this, as a simple trivia game it was just plain fun; I can only hope that one day we’ll see something like 1 vs. 100 make a return. Thanks for reading.

23 Comments

A Farewell to Ryan

It's time to reflect.

I feel unsatisfied with myself because a lot of the things I want to write here are the worn and obvious clichés about death; nothing we can say can make this okay, it’s all very sudden, it doesn’t seem real, I keep waiting to see the guy pop up alive and well tomorrow, etc., etc. They’re clichés for a reason though. I think there’s been a voice in many of our heads telling us that we don’t deserve to be this upset because we didn’t know Ryan as a personal friend. In fact in the past I’ve even seen people in the community try to invalidate the deep appreciation many of us have for the staff by telling us “They’re just a bunch of normal guys”. These are the same kind of people who try to shut down serious conversations about video games by telling us “They’re just games”. Fuck that mindset. We shouldn’t trade in our sincere passion for things and concern about people for a brand of 2Cool2Care apathy. Ryan was a human being like you and me, but he was a great one, and the fact that you could so easily see he was a real person like the rest of us was part of what made him so great.

I liked Ryan for a lot of the reasons I like the rest of the staff. Thinking all the way back to the founding of this website, I’ll always have a huge respect for him and the other guys who made their exodus from Gamespot in the wake of Jeff’s firing, and as a co-founder of the site, Ryan started something amazing. The Giant Bomb staff are a group of people who are funny, talented, well-connected, and know how to run a website. They’re the perfect package you want in your games press, and they are doing something different. There are a lot of places out there that have gotten into the cycle of printing every press release that comes their way, that are kept alive by being plastered with tasteless advertisements, and that have so many scripted videos and flashy virtual sets that you don’t feel like you’re being spoken to by actual people. In starting and running Giant Bomb, Ryan, Jeff, and the rest of the staff have created a site that escaped these common problems of video game websites, as well as many others.

A man of the people.

Giant Bomb has managed to be this haven of incredibly dumb and amusing shit, and yet at the same time been hugely informative and had a very human and humble face. I think that describes exactly what Ryan brought us as well, and I think it’s why even in a tragic time like this, a lot of Ryan’s work on the site can still bring us plenty of smiles and laughter. He provided much of the fuel for both the genuinely enthused discussions about video games among the staff, and the surreal musings on barbecues, hummingbird masks, space ponchos, Koffings, Riff Raff, Bait Car, and more. On top of this, he always seemed like such a warm and friendly guy. Certainly, this is how he is being remembered in the writings of those who knew him personally. Like many of the other Giant Bomb staff, it was his ability to project his wonderful personality that has made us grow so attached to him, and is a large part of why it’s hard to know he’s no longer with us.

Because he seemed like a friend to all of us, and because he’s worked for a website that has spent the majority of its time creating content out of various different basements, it’s also easy to forget just how important a force Ryan was in games coverage, but the signs are there. The outpouring of support from games journalists, their outlets, and the gaming community has been amazing to see, and Ryan’s name even popped up as one of Twitter’s top worldwide trending topics for a time. I never thought I’d see that. As both part of Gamespot’s iconic old guard, and as an integral piece in this self-stylised explosives-themed gaming website, Ryan has been a fantastic writer and presenter.

His absence is going to create a particularly noticeable gap in future content because for the live shows and podcasts, he was our helmsman. He was the guy who was there to steer us into the madness of TNT and Unprofessional Fridays, to tell us that it was Tuesday and we were listening to the Giant Bombcast, and to lead the charge as an enormous pie was flushed down the toilet. When you’re this close to the site, watching and listening to the content being released every few days, the staff become almost like a weird extended family, and Ryan was the father of that family. His experienced and comfortable approach to what he did almost tricked us into forgetting that in relative terms, Ryan wasn’t that old of a man, and as with anyone who dies young, the really heart-breaking thing is knowing everything Ryan won’t get to do that he deeply deserved to. It’s not my place to talk about his personal life too much, but I think we all know that perhaps the saddest part of this is that he won’t get to grow old with his friends, his family, and his new wife, and that is a real tragedy. My heart goes out to all those people because I can’t imagine what they must be feeling right now.

<> Mr. Davis.

On a more professional level, Ryan won’t get to see the next generation of consoles and games for which he obviously had so much love, and he won’t get to see where the website he founded goes in the coming years. I think we always had this vision of him, Jeff, Brad, Vinny, and the rest growing older with the site and covering video games well into the future. That’s no longer going to happen, and the thought of a Giant Bomb without Ryan Davis is an utterly bizarre one. We all know that the sad fact is we will never be able to replace him. However, nothing will be able to take away the joy that Ryan has given us, and the effect that he’s had on this and other sites over the years. Naturally, the first place many of us turned when we heard the news was to the countless hours of excellent content that Ryan has been a part of, and though he may no longer be with us, he lives on in the website he's left behind. I’m honoured to be at least a small part of that site, and I’d like to end this with a quote from the man himself back in 2008, speaking about Giant Bomb at the time of its founding:

"We're still just four guys, and we still feel that there's plenty of places to get 'coverage' out there. Our focus will be on commentary and perspective on the significant goings-on in video games. And, you know, fun! We don't want to run sales numbers stories. There's enough business out there in the game press, everyone trying to be Serious Journalists. I've got big respect for the way guys like N'gai and Totilo carry themselves, but no... I'd rather do stuff that makes me laugh... I'll be honest, I wasn't 100% sure this was going to work before we launched, but the response we've gotten so far has been so overwhelming, I'm confident that we're doing something that no one else really is."

Goodbye Ryan, you're already missed.

18 Comments

Nintenthoughts

I'm still not sure how I felt about Nintendo forgoing an E3 press conference this year, in favour of a special Nintendo Direct broadcast, but in many ways it seemed reflective of company’s position in relation to the other console manufacturers. You still occasionally see people criticising Nintendo’s console for its inferior hardware or lack of online support, but we’ve known for a long time that Nintendo are playing a very different game from Microsoft and Sony. In a way it makes sense for games enthusiasts.

This ain't your Xbox.

We already have two competitors in the market giving us higher end hardware, it seems advantageous to have an alternative competitor that is providing us with systems that are cheaper and using technology in unconventional ways. We already have two competitors providing us with lots of online multiplayer and media streaming via our consoles, it makes sense to have someone else who places greater focus on local multiplayer and connecting with people around us in other ways. At least, this looks good on paper. We’re not exactly buried in quality third-party games on Nintendo’s consoles, and inventive applications of technologies like the Wiimote or the Wii U touch pad seem few and far between. This pattern goes back to early on in the Wii’s history, where despite innovation supposedly being a cornerstone of system, it became somewhat infamous for its particular brand of “shovelware”; a collection of low budget, low quality, motion controlled-based games for the casual gaming crowd, that were often rehashing the same gameplay concepts over and over.

Project Revolution

It’s easy for us to conflate our personal opinion on these games with the opinion of the wider public, perhaps the casual crowd on the whole enjoyed these releases, but there was something a little uncomfortable about them. Not only was seeing so many drab and unimaginative titles disappointing for gamers who owned a Wii, but the primary purpose of the Wii was to welcome new people to gaming, and give those who’d never otherwise pick up a controller, a little piece of the enjoyment that this entertainment medium has brought us over the years. However reasonably or unreasonably founded it was, there was this troubling idea that many third-party companies were using the casual crowd’s limited knowledge of video games, and unfamiliarity with the industry, to exploit them into handing over money for games that weren’t that concerned about the enjoyment of the player. While I am being rather speculative here, it could be theorised that this impeded the Wii’s ability to welcome in a new gaming audience, and meant that for some players, video games were just going to be an amusing new fad until they got bored of the third-party studios’ endless mini-game collections and cheap licensed products.

Whatever the case with the shovelware, it also felt like motion control games in general didn’t progress far beyond the tech demo-style early releases. Some combination of business and game design issues came together to mean that a lot of the gameplay experiences revolving around arguably the most fundamental feature of the Wii, were shallow and derivative. Even now it remains unclear where exactly motion control games go next. The Wii was rich with first-party titles, but its lower end hardware meant it wasn’t getting the same kind of high quality third-party games we were seeing on the 360 and PS3, and the games it was getting weren’t particularly innovative. It seemed unfortunately like it was far too easy for the same thing to happen to the Wii U, and it kind of has.

Tablet Trouble

You get the sense that this thing has a lot of unexplored applications.

Where supported, being able to pull your games off of the television to play them on a tablet is a practical and useful feature for many, but there are almost no developers choosing to do something different with the Wii U’s unique controller, and in gameplay terms, it has largely just become an expensive inventory and map display system. I’d be very surprised if we see many games utilising it in a way that doesn’t just feel like more tech demos. This time round Nintendo had a potential opportunity for a different kind of leg-up on the competition though. Launching long before the other consoles of the next generation, they had a limited window in which their hardware was on the same level as Microsoft and Sony’s current consoles, in theory allowing them to release more popular cross-platform games on their system.

Either they have decided that still isn’t their strategy and have deliberately refrained from picking up a lot of those games, or they’re just unable to get the games they want. Maybe it’s a combination of the two. The Wii U library now includes Watch_Dogs, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, and so on, but some of those bigger titles are coming out, or have come out, a significant amount of time after they’ve already been released on other consoles, and the Wii U is still far from the third-party powerhouses of the 360 and PS3. When Nintendo get a big third-party game the reaction seems to be a slightly depressing “That’s pretty good for Nintendo”.

Even the first-party games that have been a large part of the draw of Nintendo’s past few systems have been largely absent from the Wii U, and as many have identified, this has no doubt contributed to the poor sales of the machine. There’s been no 3D Mario, no Legend of Zelda, no Super Smash Bros., no Metroid, no Mario Kart, and none of the other games people expect. The absence of a casual gaming crowd on the scale we saw for the original Wii also left Nintendo in an interesting position for E3 2013. It was predictable that they were going to make announcements to fill those gaps in their first-party line-up and keep the same franchises going that they have been for years now, but what about the casual market on which their previous success hinged so strongly?

The first-party games are at least on their way.

The casual games offering at this year’s E3 seemed to be a new Wii Party and a new Wii Fit, suggesting that Nintendo believe that these, along with the announced titles from their classic franchises, will be enough to win back as many casual fans as they’re going to get, or that they’re just not as invested in building as large a casual base as they used to be. For people who love Nintendo it looks like some of those much-loved first-party titles are finally coming, with a 3D Mario, Donkey Kong, Pikmin, Super Smash Bros., Yoshi game, and Zelda: Wind Waker remake on their way, but many of these games are going to hit more than a year after launch, and I still worry about whether an entire console can be kept afloat by a bulk of first-party titles and a smattering of third-party gems. The 3DS is still getting by pretty well, and maybe the Wii U will become greatly profitable, but sometimes I'm anxious for Nintendo in the long-term.

The Nostalgia Machine

On a more personal level I’ve grown a bit estranged from them, partly because, like many others, I feel I’ve already played everything Nintendo has to offer. There’s a startling degree of polish to their games, and an unmistakable charm and nostalgia in a lot of what they produce, but it feels like there’s so much talent locked up in that studio that’s wasted remaking the same few games until the end of time. I think that’s why in recent years, I’ve been more interested in Nintendo’s returns to less well-explored franchises like Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin, than I have been in a new Mario Kart or Zelda. Some would call Nintendo’s continual iteration on their popular titles them staying true to their roots, but in my mind it’s the opposite.

Franchises like Mario and Zelda exist in the first place because Nintendo were eager to use their child-like creativity to birth games that were original and different. As the years have rolled on it seems that in some ways they’ve turned into a very different company, and that the drive or philosophy that originally spawned these great game series has withered. The NES era was their real creative renaissance, bringing with it Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Earthbound, Kirby, Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, F-Zero, and more. The SNES era wasn’t as ground-breaking, but we still saw new games like Pokemon, Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart, and Star Fox. Creativity seemed to recede further with the N64, but the console played home to new 3D interpretations of their big titles, with such well-remembered games as Mario 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros. Inventive reimaginings were wearing thin by the time of the Gamecube, but it kicked off Metroid Prime, Animal Crossing, and Pikmin, and Warioware came out on the Gameboy Advance in the same generation.

We're a long way from this.

How many new game ideas did Nintendo’s developers have in the Wii era that didn’t seem like they were just aimed at casual gamers? How many games for the Wii U feel like they’re genuinely something new at all? Breaking down Nintendo’s history and looking back, I think it becomes clear just how dry the creativity well has become. Even focusing on new games in their existing franchises, they seem to be less and less ambitious with the new ideas they have for series like Mario and Zelda. This is a shame, because part of the wonder of these games to begin with, was in the discovery of these fantastic new worlds Nintendo were laying out before us.

We Would Like to Play

Don’t get me wrong, in an ideal scenario, with all the disposable income, I’d probably buy more Nintendo games and play a good chunk of them, and I still enjoy dipping into a Pokemon here and an Animal Crossing there. But I see Nintendo taking an approach to their games which is upsetting. They’re fostering a combination of repetitive first-party games, and third-party games that neither match up to the AAA releases of the other consoles, nor use Nintendo’s hardware in an interesting fashion.

I think there are people who because they don’t like what Nintendo is doing, think Nintendo will fail, or downright want them to. I think there have been people who have judged far too quickly that they definitely know the fate of the Wii U and who it does or does not appeal to. I don’t want to be one of those people. As I said, Nintendo can provide us a potentially worthwhile alternative to the other companies, competition is always important in the console market, there’s still something great about the games they make, and I can’t really predict the future of their consoles. The criticism I aim at Nintendo is not because I don’t like them, but because I want to see them play host to the best games they can. There’s also something endearing about the way Nintendo appears alongside their competition.

Maybe the reality is that Nintendo games exist the way they do because of the cold, calculated decisions of a bunch of businessmen, but they’re in some ways the underdog of the console industry. I love the work that’s done by Sony and Microsoft, but on occasion it feels like you’ve got a software manufacturer on one side, an electronics manufacturer on the other side, and Nintendo are just this humble group of ex-toymakers who want to create games that can make people smile and bring friends together. I hope that’s something those guys keep getting to do for a long time to come, even if they might never be quite the franchise creators they once were. Thanks for reading.

31 Comments

Full Circle

The Community's Voice

It has to be admitted that the recent clashing of horns between Microsoft and Sony has really brought out the emotion and passion in a lot of gamers. People were ready to be vocal and stand up to what they perceived as an injustice against loyal customers, and for a lot of this I was on board, but it once again became an occasion for the gaming community to prove there’s no problem so big that they still can’t treat it with a heavy dose of hyperbole. It was surprising how much traction the theory that the new Kinect was a super-secret spy device gained, and even in the relatively saner suburbs of the internet, people were accusing anyone with a pro-Microsoft stance of being “shills” working for the company, or just generally being compromised in their ability to give an honest opinion. Granted, Microsoft’s scarily bad PR job on the Xbox One did a lot of damage, but it was interesting how once again, with just the right combination of buttons pressed, large swathes of the gaming community turned into a paranoid and irrational rabble out for the blood of whoever they perceived to be siding with the enemy.

A machine more controversial than perhaps Microsoft expected.

But now Microsoft has overturned their decisions, they’re removing the restrictions from the Xbox One, and so the storm should have subsided, right? Nope. To some degree the remaining unease over Microsoft as a console manufacturer seems perfectly justified. While they may have changed their minds now, nothing can erase the memory that they were entirely prepared to bring down the hammer and sell out a certain portion of their userbase for more control over people and their games. I also don’t think Microsoft deserves a big pat on the back and a cookie for not screwing over the people who have been their customers up to this point. They’re not so much doing something good now, as they are refraining from doing something bad. Having said that, I think some still fail to recognise how dramatic this move was for Microsoft as a company.

I’ve seen people criticising Microsoft for abandoning their old policies because it was once said that them doing so wasn’t as simple as flipping a switch, but now they have just “Flipped the switch” and made them go away. Of course, in reality it’s not that simple. Microsoft scrapping those policies meant them breaking the promises to all their business partners about what kind of console they were going to provide, and the collective effort, time, and resources put into the DRM on the Xbox One is essentially wasted. This was a decision with some serious negative repercussions for them, and for what they did I can’t help having a certain respect, but some gamers have other ideas. I’ve seen people attacking Microsoft on the basis that they “Backtracked”, because a small number of consumers have this bizarre notion that changing your mind to incorporate new circumstances and information is inherently a bad thing. I’ve even seen people take pot shots at Microsoft because conceivably they could reinstate their DRM via a patch to the console. This is certainly something to be cautious of, but you can’t attack Microsoft on hypothetical decisions they might make, but haven’t.

Still, on the brighter side, we have an example here of games enthusiasts being able to have a real impact on the industry. Some seem to be treating this as a situation where the changes Microsoft have made are purely the result of direct uproar from gamers, and this seems reductionist; we don’t know what Microsoft’s pre-order figures looked like, we don’t know if their investors, retailers, or other partners were a little too concerned with their policies for their tastes, and I’m willing to bet that Sony’s E3 reveals rumbled Microsoft a little. But directly or indirectly, people speaking up and rejecting the restrictive policies Microsoft were trying to impose made a difference. As much as people might tell us that discussions and collective consumer decisions can’t change anything, it’s once again been proven that’s just not true.

The Case for DRM

I feel like we should all stop saying "The Cloud", but it's been said so much that's what it's called now.

The thing that really surprised me about the reaction to Microsoft's 180 on their policies was the abundance of posts declaring that Microsoft had made the wrong decision and were holding back industry progress. With the abandonment of the intended Xbox One restrictions, also came the abandonment of discless play, games being tied to user accounts, and digital game sharing and selling. Arguments are also being made that now the console no longer requires a broadband internet connection that can check in every day, that developers won’t be able to utilise “the cloud” as effectively as before, and that Microsoft are no longer forging their way into a more digital-based future where games will cost less, be more convenient to purchase and use, and will deliver greater profits to the people who create them.

Some of these criticisms I agree with. Being able to play without the disc or lend games digitally to other people were genuinely great features, and I’m all for the rise of digital distribution when it's done right. However, I can’t help but think the Xbox One might have a better formed feature set if it weren’t for this last minute switch around that the company brought on themselves. If they’d sat down from the start with intent to marry a console experience for everyone with new digital freedoms and advantages, there would have at least been the opportunity for them to create a better set of policies, instead of rolling out a plan which they eventually considered unviable, cancelling it, and now having no time to replace it. At least, this is the case for now. Things are a bit up in the air, but judging by Marc Whitten’s comments, Microsoft are probably interested in taking their bearings and seeing what they can do in terms of new features some time after the console launches.

As far as the cloud goes, with the power of the next-gen consoles, it will likely be a while before most games need to start roping in external servers to help with number crunching, but Microsoft don’t seem to be just cutting off developer’s access to their processing servers, so I can’t see anything to stop game creators from still saying “This game requires an internet connection because it uses outside computers to do its job”. There will be a lower percentage of Xbox One users who can accommodate an always-on connection now, but it’s not as if this changes the number of people in the world that can support an always-on connection, and even under the old policies there would have been a serious problem of some users not being able to support cloud processing. Obviously, someone who does have broadband internet that can check in every 24 hours has a more reliable connection than someone who doesn’t, but there’s still a big gulf between that and them being able to maintain a constant broadband connection that won’t drop out.

Not all digital stores are the same.

I’m also sceptical of the idea that we would have had a virtual utopia of cheap digital games and huge benefits to those who wanted to trade-in under the old policies. I do believe we could have seen a rise in the accessibility and a fall in prices for digital titles, but the Xbox One was never going to be like the Steam it’s been repeatedly compared to. One of the major differences between the two is that Steam does not have complete control of the digital PC market, while Microsoft does have complete control of the digital Xbox One market.

Steam exists in a competitive environment where if they don’t keep offering cheap prices and plenty of sales, someone else can shuffle in and start doing it instead. On the Xbox One however, Microsoft has a monopoly by design. While there are competing prices for games between the consoles, on the Xbox, Microsoft can set the price of their games as high as they want, and that is the Xbox price. Similarly, yes, Microsoft could have bought your games for more than they would have sold for in a brick and mortar store, but they also could have done whatever they liked when they bought your games, because they would have been literally the one buyer to sell to. Rooting for a future where Microsoft has such a degree of control over the sale and purchase of their games is to root for a monopoly over healthy market competition. I also reject the idea that the control that the console would have given companies was good on the grounds that it would have made them financially safer, and less likely to deal in unscrupulous practises like online passes or tacked-on multiplayer. Why I believe that could be a whole blog in itself though.

Building a Wall

But okay, you might still be thinking that these features, even with their potential flaws, would have been great ideas that Microsoft were wrong to throw out. Again, I agree to some extent, but we mustn’t forget why this console was so controversial to begin with. In many of the posts and articles of those lamenting the old Xbox policies, I’ve seen the original issues with the policies outright ignored, or even waved away as irrational arguments coming from people incapable of free thought. I’ve spoken before about why I think a lot of connection-based restrictions are bad, but for the Xbox One the short version is that it would have excluded those who buy pre-owned on-disc games, locked out most of Europe, Asia, about half of South America, and all of Africa at launch, and no matter what people like Cliff Bleszinski may say, everyone does not have everything connected to broadband at all times, and many people just aren’t able to have it that way.

A rather different machine than it was this time last week.

The people who’ve rallied against the Xbox One’s DRM policies have been accused of being short-sighted, because the Xbox One may seem terrible to us now, but hey, think of the future. I think in these accusations there’s a certain degree of far-sightedness, because yes, more people should be thinking about that console in the long term, but the bottom line is that right now we’re not in the future, and among having other problems, Microsoft know that console is built for a heavily digital age that many of us are not yet living in. Heck, even if you have a perfect internet connection, it’s been proven over the last couple of years that no games company is big enough to avoid server blackouts which severely affect their customers, and if your console has to sign in to verification servers to run, there remain unanswered questions about what happens the day those servers turn off.

The Way Forward

I find it unsettling that there are so many supporters for the policies that would place a barrier between passionate hobbyists and the games they want to play. It’s a weirdly corporate attitude that says “Well fuck the people who don’t have much money or live in the wrong places, the important thing is that the people with lots of expendable income who live in well-connected areas of wealthy western countries get a more advanced console”. I’m sorry, but I fail to see this as “progress”. I believe games and the systems that we play them on should be inclusive, not exclusive, especially when the gaming community still has so much growing to do, and gaming is already too exclusionary to too many people.

One of our great dangers right now is focusing solely on this issue of Microsoft’s policy flip and forgetting all the other potential problems with that console. Microsoft is still offering a less powerful piece of hardware than Sony, for more money, that isn’t supporting indie devs anywhere near as well. But I’m glad that this change has been made, I think it’s a good thing. The digital-centric future of gaming machines that the Xbox One was forging towards has not been lost, it’s just been delayed. We’re going to get there, but with any luck we’re going to get there the right way; without screwing over a large portion of the gaming population, and without handing over a copious amount of control to the publishers and manufacturers. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2013: Outside the Conferences

While the E3 press conferences are consistently entertaining, every year there’s a plethora of interesting games outside of them that via written pieces, livestreams, and a huge host of other content from the hard-working people at sites like Giant Bomb and Gamespot, we get a glimpse of. Here are some of the E3 2013 games outside the press conferences that were most noteworthy to me.

The Crew

I just wanted to get this one out of the way upfront because of the rather disappointing way it’s demoed. Many of the gameplay systems in The Crew still look great, but it was a bummer to see and hear that the controls in the game feel loose and the road surfaces slippery.

Fantasia: Music Evolved

I can taste the colours.

A lot of people were angered by the initial trailer for Fantasia: Music Evolved, and the way that it depicted little to do with the Disney film the game claims to reimagine. In practise however, the game actually looks surprisingly good, blending rhythm-based motion control swiping with simple but vibrant visuals. The use of particle effects is actually quite beautiful, and the way you can pick your path to different music styles as the songs progress is a nice touch. The game still doesn’t seem to have much to do with that old Disney classic, but the lesson here seems to be never doubt the quality of a rhythm game made by Harmonix.

Sonic Lost World

Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of the trouble with the current Sonic games is to do with the specific design direction they’ve been taken in, and how much is to do with it just being rather difficult to blend precision platforming with high-speed movement, especially in 3D. Sonic Lost World seems like it at least has something going for it though. The level designs appear unconventional but inspired, with the demo featuring a cylindrical Green Hill Zone-type world that wrapped round on itself, followed up by an odd candy world where the ground was made of Twizzlers, and doughnuts drifted by psychedelically in the background.

Gameplay-wise I’m not entirely sure how to feel about Lost World. You can now apparently change your movement speed so you can slow down and walk through careful platforming sections, but speed up for the simpler more deliberately speedy areas. There’s a camp that says slowing down is the last thing you want to do in a Sonic game, and another less represented camp which says the speed is just the reward. I don’t entirely know which one I sit in, and while I seriously doubt this will be the Sonic series’ return to form or anything, there might be something cool here.

Bayonetta 2

A big hell dragon getting whipped or something.

Considering Nintendo are so invested in their family-friendly image, it’s pretty ballsy of them to publish that gory game with the sex-powered stripper witch, but looking at how unashamedly insane the last game got by the end, it’s hard to see how Bayonetta’s fight against the forces of heaven could take place on a larger scale, or how the game could get any more outlandish. Fighting horse creatures on the back of a burning jet plane as it flies through the city is a good start though. The fast-paced hack-and-slash gameplay also looks fun, even if it doesn’t look to break that far from the combat of the original game. There seems to be a certain degree of backlash over Bayonetta’s new hairstyle of all things, but I think it’s respectable that the game’s artists redesigned the character in a way that isn’t going to be considered conventionally “sexy” by many.

Eyes on the Solar System

This one isn’t a game, but it’s partially relevant, and I thought it was interesting. There was actually a man from NASA’s jet propulsion lab at E3, showing off some software developed by the organisation. The program in question is a simulation of the solar system running in the Unity engine that lets you see the movement of planets, satellites, and other celestial objects in real or non-real-time from the year 1950 to the year 2050. The program has also allowed people to follow along with certain NASA-related events, and included a live simulation of the Mars Curiosity Rover landing. You can use in-browser or download it over here, and it looks fascinating.

Super Smash Bros.

It was pretty cool to see that Mega Man and The Villager are coming to Super Smash Bros. during the Nintendo Direct presentation, but I’ve become a little obsessed over Nintendo’s later announcement of the Wii Fit Trainer as a playable character. I didn’t see it coming, and while it seems really dumb (in a good way), it completely works at the same time. Outside of Saint’s Row and Bayonetta this may be the craziest thing I saw at E3.

The Evil Within

I’m not a fan of the survival horror genre, so after hearing that Shinji Mikami was planning a game that would return survival horror to its roots, the premise didn’t exactly grab me. That being said, the opening of the game intrigued me. With its minimal UI and at least initial focus on strong disempowerment of the player, this one could turn out to be a bit of a gem of the horror world. I’m surprised it hasn’t got more attention.

Saint’s Row IV

When you're the President, you've probably earned the right to smash up a few cars.

I loved Saint’s Row the Third, or at least the main story missions of that game, but I’ve been worried about Saint’s Row IV for a couple of reasons. It looked at one time like it could end up being a slightly altered Saint’s Row 3, and as with Bayonetta, I was concerned that the developers wouldn’t be able to top the abject madness of the previous game. However, if the demo they showed was representative of the full game, there are few reasons to worry about any of that.

The superpowers, which are reminiscent of Prototype’s gameplay look like great fun, letting you sprint your way into oncoming cars sending them flying, jump ridiculously high, run vertically up the side of buildings, fly through the air, and pick up and throw things telekinetically. And that’s all before we’ve talked about the Dubstep Gun. I’m sure the set-up of each character being dragged into a Matrix-like virtual prison where they have to face their own personal nightmare will provide plenty of laughs, then there was my favourite bit; a point near the start of that game where as President you are literally asked to press LT to cure cancer, or RT to end world hunger. Yeah.

Hohokum

This game seems worth mentioning less because I thought it looked outright good and more because it was unconventional. In the game, if it can be called a game, you take control of a colourful, thin, and one-eyed serpent-like creature. The beast constantly moves in whatever direction it’s facing, but you can manoeuvre it through the game world, exploring surreal and artistic environments. Hohokum isn’t about completing explicitly laid-out goals to progress, but is instead about discovering the small parts of the world you can interact with and the puzzles scattered around it. I’m worried it might feel like there isn’t enough substance here, but the game has an original look and sound to it, and could be quite relaxing.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Why do we fall down Master Wayne?

I think it speaks to how many big games there were in the press conferences this year that gameplay of Arkham Origins was show floor-only content. As you’d expect the game seems to be playing it fairly close to the acclaimed formula of Arkham City, while building some interesting new things on top of it. Fighting your way through the prison city of the previous game was exhilarating, but there’s something fun in a different way about being able to start clearing up a city where people actually live, especially when the new “Crime in Progress” events mean that you can hear about criminal activity as it happens, and show up to foil it on the fly.

The ability to go to crime scenes, pause and rewind a reconstruction of the event, and collect more evidence to work out what happened, may also help flesh out the gameplay for the detective work a bit better than the “Scan the thing” or “Follow the trail” goals of previous games. While the combat of course looked fantastic in the previous instalments of the series, it may look even better in this one. Animations in the fights seem more detailed and flow faster, and the game plays around with slow motion in the combat slightly different than Asylum or City did. Warner Bros. also showed off some of the new combat mechanics and weapons, such as enemies being able to counter player attacks, but the player being able to counter those in turn, and a slick “Remote Claw” tool which can be fired at an enemy or object, and will then latch onto another enemy or object to create a line between the two or pull them together. That stuff looks really exciting.

Duder, It’s Over

E3 this year was amazing. It’s a bit of a bummer to see Microsoft doing what they’re doing, Nintendo have down-scaled their E3 presence, and the gaming industry still faces a lot of the problems it always has, but there were a selection of varied and spectacular games this year, not just making good use of new graphics tech, but pushing out the boat in many other ways. Here’s hoping things will be as good next year. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2013: Ubisoft and Sony

Ubisoft

It’s something I’ll say to anyone who will listen, but I miss Mr. Caffeine. The Ubisoft press conferences have fallen into this odd pattern of almost deliberately being filtered through a series of bad jokes followed by deafening silence, but no one has ever leaned into it with as much commitment and tragedy as he did. Still, Aisha Tyler continues to feel like an adequate replacement. As a presenter she’s actually pretty good, but the humour comes off as mystifyingly awkward enough to provide some entertaining moments. Hm? Oh right, video games.

It's beautiful in its own goofy way.

Ubisoft opened strangely, perhaps more so than EA. It was surprising to see a video game conference kicked off by Jerry Cantrell standing there playing guitar solos, but it was also rather shocking to learn Rocksmith had sold enough copies to warrant a sequel. Rayman Legends is still looking great, not just because it has more of Rayman Origins’ excellent platforming, but also because it could have easily used an art style identical to Origins and looked great, yet Ubisoft decided to go one further and give it its own unique look. The last Rayman had visuals like something from an excellent cartoon, this one has visuals more like something from an excellent painting.

The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot trailer was rather painful to watch. It was a bit like one of Valve’s Meet the Team videos, except all the jokes were along the lines of “He fell over”, “He’s swearing”, “That frog is vomiting”, etc. A lot of people seem to be excited for South Park: The Stick of Truth, but I find myself rather neutral towards it. It looks like the TV show and seems like it has moments in it that could have come straight from an episode of South Park, but how it will play is another matter.

Things picked back up when The Crew became the conference’s new point of focus. I mentioned how much I want a Burnout Paradise 2 in my last blog post and this looks like it could be the closest thing we’ve seen to it yet. It has that excellent open-world driving at its core, the world looks huge, and like many similar games it’s trying to break down the hard divides between single player and multiplayer experiences. The Watch_Dogs trailer was also very cool, although I did expect Ubisoft to have some gameplay on offer. Rabbids Invasion didn’t appear particularly engaging, but we’re obviously not the target audience for that title.

Tom Calancy.

The conclusion of the conference was uncannily similar to how Ubisoft ended their conference last year. A stylised video that covered the details of a current wide-scale threat to humanity, followed by some gameplay of a great third-person shooter game that seemed to have come out of nowhere and blurred the lines between environments and sleek futuristic UI. The Division’s gameplay came across largely as the same combat we’re familiar with from the flood of cover-based shooters from the last decade or so, but its initial set-up gives it a lot of potential, and its innovative interface could present an action RPG where even basic menus, markers, and points counters become visually engaging.

Sony

The general opinion at the start of Sony’s briefing declared that all they had to do to beat Microsoft was get from the beginning to the end of their conference without announcing the same kind of nasty restrictions for the PS4 that the Xbox One is facing. Not only did Sony manage that, they did a whole lot more while they were at it.

Among other games, the conference’s opening showcased more of Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls, but while it is graphically impressive, telling us what Beyond actually is as a game seems like Quantic Dream’s last priority, and at this point it’s looking like a fair possibility that it could be another modern military action game or another Heavy Rain, essentially taking the form of a movie full of QTEs and dialogue choices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but suffice it to say I feel a bit lost.

Just so you know, if you want to play as that awful Azrael Batman you're crazy.

The new Batman: Arkham Origins trailer brought a grin to many faces, and although I'm not as captivated by the villains they’ve showed in Origins as I was with the antagonists of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, having the chance to get another dose of Arkham’s empowering stealth, combat, and traversal mechanics is still a very enticing prospect. I’m not the biggest fan of steampunk, but the trailer for The Order was intriguing, largely because it managed to keep its monsters ambiguous and mysterious. I hope it doesn’t just turn out that they’re werewolves. The Infamous: Second Son trailer also was also a nice treat, and it felt like the characters in there actually seemed more human and relatable than the characters from the Beyond trailer. Really, Sony showed off so many games it’s impossible for me to mention them all here and still keep this something close to a brief review.

Quantic Dream’s tech demo for The Last Sorcerer was both mind-blowing as a piece of modelling and animation, and amusing. I’m not the kind of person who usually loses it over the latest graphics technology and more realistic rendering methods, but it’s undeniable that there was something amazing about the subtle expressions that were captured in that demonstration. Up to this point in the conference it felt like Sony’s offerings had been impressive, but I think it’s here that the conference took a turn and became something really special.

It was great to see some friends of Giant Bomb up on stage showing off games they really cared about, Transistor looks like it has something seriously going for it, and the way that Sony showed their commitment to independent game developers overall was beautiful. Microsoft had one indie game at their show, Sony had eight. I think they’re a company that understand that truly embracing independent developers is essential to ensuring your games are doing plenty of original and different things, instead of just being one big mountain of AAA titles. With a new generation of consoles, the temptation is also there to just show big 3D games that are utilising the raw power of the new hardware to make things look as realistic as possible. It was great to see that Sony aren’t afraid to show off some 2D games that are being inventive with their art styles.

It's time to buckle some swashes.

Moving on, Kingdom Hearts and a new Final Fantasy I could care less about, but the Assassin’s Creed IV demo was very exciting, even if it did have its technical hitches. I’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed and I thought it was a series I was done with, but I have a particular weak spot for pirates. There seems to be an inherent difficulty in basing what is largely a platforming game around people who spend most of their time sailing the oceans, but if the demo was anything to go buy they’re striking a good balance between having you frolicking around the seven seas and bounding across the rooftops of coastal cities. Who’d have thought naval combat would have become such a popular part of the Assassin’s Creed games.

It seemed unlikely that they’d top that demo, but it was here that we finally got to lay our eyes on some fresh Watch_Dogs gameplay. Looking at Watch_Dogs, I see a lot of the same things in it that made me like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I like its cyberpunk elements and the game’s general focus on hacking and electronic systems, I like the dark dystopian tone, and I like that it has a narrative that touches on real problems we’re facing today and are likely to face in the near future. There’s something more than just that to it though. Most third-person open-world games let you empower yourself through weapons, and display your physical prowess over your enemies. Watch_Dogs has a firearm, but it’s also a game that seems to have a major focus on mind games, and causing anarchy and destruction without ever having to lay your hands on a person. It’s cool to take down an entire army with an assault rifle or assassinate elite guards by careful use of your wrist blades, but there’s something uniquely empowering about being able to instil panic with a few clicks on a smart phone, playing psychological tricks on your enemies, or causing complete chaos while everyone around you is oblivious to the fact that its you doing it.

Destiny didn’t catch my eye like I thought it would, but it may still have something going for it. The environment and character design seemed rather bland, and it was hard to see how the RPG shooter mechanics improve on something like Borderlands, but the public events could be a legitimately enjoyable experience, and games like this and The Elder Scrolls Online show that we may finally be reaching an age where the console MMO is a reality. However, it was the announcements either side of the Destiny demo that were the briefing’s real shining moments.

Fatality!

Some have called what happened at the end of the Sony conference the final nail in the Xbox One’s coffin. I’m hesitant to make such a bold statement. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who naturally transition from the 360 to the One, Microsoft have a lot of marketing power, and even if I’m sceptical of it maybe the media features of the One will be a draw for some people. What’s certain though, is that Sony dealt a significant blow to the Xbox One that night, and I think we saw a little piece of gaming history. There’s always some degree of trade-off between the consoles, but the advantages that the PS4 is going to have over the One are rather staggering.

Unlike Microsoft, Sony are offering a console where players can share games freely, used games aren’t restricted, you don’t need to repeatedly connect to the internet to play offline, and indie devs are truly supported, and all of this is coming at a lower cost than Microsoft are offering for their machine. It’s a little disappointing to see the PS4’s multiplayer functionality get locked up behind a paywall, but Sony have worked diligently to avoid the mistakes of the PS3. Instead of confounding programmers with cell architecture, they’ve worked with devs to create a machine easy to develop for, and instead of alienating gamers with an uncomfortably high price point, they’re providing us with a console where it really feels like they want to give the consumer as much as they can.

In some ways I don’t want to see Microsoft pummelled into submission here, I think they come out with some excellent system exclusives and they have the ability to provide quality products and services, but at the same time I feel ecstatic to see Sony respect the consumers and developers where Microsoft have disrespected them. While the crowd at Sony’s conference was often too loud for my tastes, seeing people chant Sony’s name from their seats was elating, and in a way I want this to be devastating to Microsoft, because it will send a message to the rest of the industry about what happens when you don’t treat your customers right. Gamers often put up with more bullshit than they collectively tell you they will, but it’s usually because they’ll get something they really want from doing so. This time, there’s an alternative to the bullshit.

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E3 2013: Microsoft and EA

In all honesty, I didn’t have the highest expectations for E3 this year. I suspected that we’d see some real gems on show, but with ever-rising budgets for AAA games urging companies to play it in safe in what they create (a problem that’s likely to be made worse by more advanced sets of hardware), I was worried that we’d see too many games that looked like they were scared to do something new.

The run-ups to new console releases have traditionally been a time for publishers and developers to present original and enticing games for a fresh generation of systems, but I was concerned that it was all too easy for this E3 to be a repeat of last year’s conference which showed off some real winners, but also drew criticism for its copious offerings of predictable shooters, boring motion control titles, and iteratively designed sports games. For this reason I was pleasantly surprised this year to see press conferences with plenty of games treading new territory, and companies interested in offering up something new and imaginative. Let’s take a look at those conferences.

Microsoft

It’s interesting how Microsoft’s job at E3 moved from just being about making exciting new announcements to also being about trying to win back fans from the Xbox One reveal fallout. Still, there’s nothing to turn gamers back around like just getting up there and showing quality games, and that’s what Microsoft did.

Sandals are in this year.

While I’m not on board with everything their game is doing, one of the developers that really stepped outside their traditional wheelhouse was Crytek, who instead of presenting us with another modern shooter game, went for a slightly unconventional melee combat title set in ancient Rome. There’s such a wide variety of potential settings for games, it’s a shame that so many go for “The post-apocalypse”, “A modern war”, “A LoTR-style fantasy setting”, or any other frequently used template. Ryse is a AAA game that is using an exciting and underutilised time in history for its backdrop, and might well be doing it with some real style. Hopefully they’ll go easy on those quick-time events.

I still maintain that Sunset Overdrive looks like a cross between Mirror’s Edge and a Tango advert, and I’m not sold on the character design, but the vibrant and playful world has me keeping an eye on it. The new Forza looked beautiful, and the idea of an AI driver who copies your playstyle and races against other players in the game really appeals to me. Remedy’s Quantum Break has an idea behind it that could be ground-breaking if they can pull it off right; having your actions in a game influence a TV show, but I’m a little sceptical of ventures like this one, they do have quite a big potential to go wrong.

Project Spark however, is a game that looked like it had a tight grasp on what it wants to do. It possesses a charming art style, and I’ve just never seen anything for consoles that lets you build gameplay scenarios like this. Not only does it look like it would be fun to dive into those creative tools, but with the potential flexibility of what they showed, I’m sure people will create some crazy user content for that game. Obviously it can’t provide the kind of creative freedom that something like Game Maker does, but when you can start allowing users to make logic routines for their gameplay scenarios that function similar to program code, it opens up a lot of fun possibilities.

Things got awkward.

Killer Instinct didn’t really grab me, I can’t particularly see what it has over any other fighting game out there, but coming after the Project Spark demo it did make me think about how weird some of these developer presentations are. The people running the press conferences go to such lengths to make them polished and professional, then end up trotting out game creators like the ones in these demos whose attempts at casual banter come off as painfully scripted. I’m all for putting the real developers out there to show off their games, even if they’re a little stilted in their speeches, but these extensive and cringeworthy back-and-forths during gameplay are baffling to see at E3 in the year 2013. In fact at one point it got legitimately uncomfortable.

On the more surprising side of things, there was Dead Rising 3 and its new take on the aesthetics of the series. In a way, the more serious look for the game makes sense. They’ve probably reached the pinnacle of how crazy they can make a silly version of Dead Rising, but even with that in mind it’s hard to shake the fatigue for the dark, gritty zombie game. I guess at least you can still strap an electric saw to a sledgehammer and throw it at a dude.

Battlefield 4 might unfortunately have been the least exciting thing I saw at the show. It had some nice setpieces, but it really was the derivative grey shooter of the conferences. I’m sure people that like that series are pumped, but for most of that demo you could have told me I was looking at Battlefield 3 and I would have believed you. On the plus side Titanfall presented a much more exciting take on the modern military shooter. At first glance it looked like a dull amalgamation of CoD, Metal Gear, and a number of other popular action games, but if the parkour-infused, hectic combat they showed is what we’ll be experiencing in the final game, it’s hard not to see Titanfall as something worth following.

Below's distant camera helps create a sense of a large, empty world.

Finally, the look of independent rogue-like Below was visually captivating, and it’s always good to see the indies get some stage time. Ultimately, all the good games in the world won’t mean that the new Xbox doesn’t have restrictive online requirements, an objectionable approach to used games and a host of other problems, and the announced price of $499/£429 does rather sting, but if nothing else, Microsoft showed off a pleasing collection of new titles.

EA

Sure, why not?

One of the greatest things about E3 is just seeing how bizarre it gets sometimes, and that came through loud and clear as what at first looked like a Battlefield trailer then turned into a demo for a Plants vs. Zombies third-person shooter, before a man from Popcap announced Peggle 2, jumped in the air, did a fist pump, and then disappeared backstage. The general attitude to Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare seemed to be cautious acceptance, and it’s one that I share. I’m a bit burned out on tower defence, but it looked like a game that real thought and effort had been put into creating.

Need for Speed: Rivals played well, and I consistently enjoy seeing that one of my favourite games of the current gen, Burnout Paradise, is still influencing a lot of what’s going on in the racing genre. Although, I always become slightly melancholy looking at these games and knowing they’re never quite the Burnout Paradise 2 I want them to be. Still, the car-smashing combat, high speed racing, and points-based rewards of Rivals looks exciting. They may have even worked out how to get the series’ cops vs. street racers concept working better than ever.

Unfortunately the conference’s main payload was more or less the predictable; a length and dreary look at the upcoming EA Sports line-up. Not only are EA playing a game here where features like “The ball bounces up and down more realistically” are meant to be great innovations, but the presentations felt more like marketing spin than enthusiastic studios showing off their work. When it came to FIFA, the speaker began spouting off a series of buzz terms that didn’t really mean anything like “Stadiums full of emotion” and “The artistry of football”, and it wasn’t exactly endearing seeing a UFC fighter tell a room full of the gaming press how they must love other human beings kicking the shit out of each other. This stuff doesn’t do much to help EA’s image of a bunch of men in suits more concerned with marketing and sales than anything else, but they must be well aware of this image by this point, and basically don’t care to change it.

There is a god.

The conference plodded onwards with another foray into Battlefield 4 and I know I wasn’t the only one who’d tuned out by this point, but then came the closer. Mirror’s Edge 2 is one of those games that you really want to get excited about seeing at an E3, but know that if you did, you’d most likely be setting yourself up for disappointment. Yet, there it was. It’s not as if the original game was some flawless masterpiece that we want to see more of, it had its problems, but the striking visual design and unique gameplay made it a game that a lot of us aren’t going to forget any time soon. I’m happy that even under what is usually a cut-throat corporate entity like EA, a Mirror’s Edge 2 can exist.

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The Media Men

Don Mattrick presents: Logos.

When it comes to video game press conferences I think people have the tendency to get overly-cynical. The bars get set incredibly high, people want the core gamer to be catered to at all times, it’s easy to be myopic about these things, and there is a certain satisfaction in complaining, and so every year I think we see a fair bit of melodrama surrounding the big three. That being said, I think one of the defining things about the Xbox One reveal has been that while there may be a certain amount of unhealthy cynicism going around, reactions that would be far too negative if they were in response to most other conferences, feel largely justified here.

A Balancing Act

When we tune in to these events we expect a certain amount of time to be put aside for demos of motion control games that we’re probably never going to play, and segments of sporty talk about how you can use the sports app to fill your sports box with the latest sports sports. With the variety of people using consoles today, we can’t expect every second of every conference to cater to our own personal tastes. I’m somewhat playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe there’s a certain amount of give and take that has to happen with these things. Even if that is the case though, Microsoft seemed to be much less about the giving and much more about the taking.

It was crystal clear throughout the conference just what Microsoft wants their new console to be; an all-in-one home media centre that acts as a combined games console, cable box, stereo, and more. It’s an ambitious goal, and yet one that in many ways is playing it safe. We sometimes see things in the games industry that seem difficult to pull off because the ideas are so new and untested, and while Microsoft are bringing some new ideas to the table, they seem more interested in taking existing ideas and cramming them all into their system. It’s a strategy that will pay out very well if they can pull it off, but one that also risks them entering the next generation as a kind of “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

This conference could have been so much more.

Additionally, while some gamers have a tendency to overestimate how much their personal approval affects products, it must also be acknowledged that Microsoft have to walk a fine line here, between pleasing the more traditional gaming audience and reaching for a new audience of casual gamers, families, and similar folk. Nintendo's press conferences are a great example of how you can target a large new audience, while still presenting plenty for die-hard video game fans. Microsoft’s show felt nothing like Nintendo's, and there is a possibility that in trying to reach out and please everyone at the same time, companies can end up simultaneously alienating their loyal fans and failing to net a large enough new audience, eventually finding they have a smaller consumer base than they did when they started. The question has to be asked here, exactly how appropriate is it to invite the gaming press and millions of other gamers to watch your presentation, when the majority of it is going to be anything but games?

The Message

Press conferences and the talk that follows them are largely about communicating information though, and while the widespread criticism that there was too much sports and TV talk and not enough games is both important and valid, one angle I’m seeing getting much less coverage from people is what exactly Microsoft have communicated over the past few days. Whatever they want to be communicating, the message to me has seemed clear; that video games are worth less of their time than ever, that they care about a theoretical fandom of the Xbox as an all-round media centre more than they care about us, the loyal base of customers that already exist for them, and that they’re still fine sidelining independent developers as long as they’ve got the big corporations on their side.

Sir, the sergeant requests one tummy rub, ASAP.

What Microsoft have showed us of the Xbox One contrasts poorly with Sony’s Playstation 4 reveal. I gave the PS4 some degree of flack for not being backwards compatible, but at least Sony were offering some sort of alternative to stream games from older platforms. I’ve also strongly criticised Sony for playing it so safe with many of the games they’ve showed, but at least they were showing games. I don’t think Sony were fully catering to the gaming audience, but you went away from their conference seeing that they were invested in providing us, the core audience, with games, and in working with developers across the board. Microsoft seemed to not give a fuck about much of the core audience and dev community because they wanted to show off their fun new media options and tout some tech demos from the big developers. I’m still mind-boggled that their closer was Infinity Ward showing that they had motion captured a dog and now have more realistic dogs in Call of Duty. We give a lot of light ribbing in the face of these presentations, but this is something that deserves to be outright mocked.

The Omni-Box

Perhaps more dangerous for Microsoft as a company is the point that has been raised by some that the Xbox One may conceptually be a poor idea. The success of this device as an all-round media machine relies on a theoretical group of people who are involved enough in home entertainment to want a box that will stream TV and films, play music, make phone calls, etc. but somehow haven’t got devices to do this already, or can’t find better devices for the job than the Xbox One. There also seems to be this big assumption that in the age of high tech TVs, smart phones, tablets, and PCs, that people actually want to do all these things via a box connected to their TV. Even the base idea of having a device that plays TV through your TV is somewhat ridiculous.

There's a possibility that this is not the powerful strategy Microsoft think it is.

I’m willing to admit that in some ways the Xbox One’s snap mode is mind-blowing, and I’m sure there is some real potential in its media-centric features. I use my Xbox 360 to stream content on a semi-regular basis, and I don’t think many of us can make entirely reliable concrete predictions about where this thing is going, but some serious questions should at least be asked about the applications of this device when Microsoft are throwing so many of their eggs in one basket, and when this console is going to have such a long lifecycle. How often do you simultaneously want a game running and media being streamed? How much do these media features really have to offer someone outside the U.S.? Who thinks the preferred device for making phone calls is their television? Couldn’t the media features here be more conveniently provided by smart TVs and other devices in the coming years? I remember back to the PS3’s old tagline of “It only does everything”, and the way I used to think it was just silly, because the idea of one machine that truly does everything is a myth.

In terms of the presentation we saw, I think what happened was that Microsoft wanted to push really hard on the media angle out of the gate to make it clear that they were more focused on non-video game mediums than ever, and perhaps because they thought that most of the video game content would be more appropriate for E3, a video game conference. But it’s clear that this console is going in a direction that not everyone is going to agree with. I’m sure that whatever the state of the Xbox One overall, we’ll see developers producing some truly stunning games for it, but the path Microsoft have taken is one that I’ve seen far too much of the video game industry take in recent years. It’s one where they have so much potential to create something mind-blowing and are squandering it, and right now the early Xbox One details are the best argument I’ve seen for getting a PS4. Thanks for reading.

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