Should games reviews acknowledge poor studio conditions?

As I'm sure many of you are aware Kotaku/Jason Schreier ran a pretty revealing and insightful piece into the shitty studio conditions over at Naughty Dog. For those of you that aren't up to speed, here's the highlights;

- Naughty Dog encouraged rolling crunch for months at a time causing widespread burnout and depression among their developers

“It’s an amazing creative environment,” said one developer on The Last of Us II. “But you can’t go home.”

- Senior management seemed uninterested in addressing the concerns of their staff and actively pushed them to keep working. This led to long-standing employees leaving, with management assuming they were all replaceable, and this further exacerbated production deadlines.

Every newcomer means weeks’ or months’ worth of training and hard lessons about how the rest of the team works. A task that might take a veteran designer two hours could take twice or three times as long for a newer employee, and it can be hard to know what the directors want until you’ve been working there long enough.

- Senior management also seem to think that crunch is performed as a completely voluntary artist-driven sacrifice without acknowledging the overwhelming pressure and fear of job security, and no acknowledgment of the detriment to mental and physical health:

“People just naturally do it,” [president, Evan] Wells said. “Because we hire a particular type of person who’s motivated and passionate and wants to leave their mark on the industry. That’s why they come to Naughty Dog.”

Naughty Dog’s managers would never tell people to work overtime—it was always an implication, understood and accepted by everyone.

None of this is new

Rockstar North went through the same revealing reporting around both GTA4, and then again years later with GTA5. Everyone knows that videogame studios treat their artists like garbage, to the extent that it's more surprising when we hear about positive studio conditions than negative ones. I work in VFX and we have exactly the same problems - when production falls behind it's the people at the bottom of the ladder picking up the slack. The shitty economy means people will overwork out of fear of losing their jobs, and management either encourages it or simply turns a blind eye as the team works themselves to death. Overtime will usually be unpaid, and weekend work is expected as a default rather than a last resort. It sucks, and we've been desensitized to it.

So, what are the responsibilities of journalists, and game reviewers, and us as consumers?

Should studio conditions be taken into account when reviewing games? Do we have an ethical responsibility as consumers to hold these devs to account?

I mention this as a result of a tense exchange between Schreier and a couple of prolific writers, Neil Druckman (Naughty Dog, The Last Of Us) and Cory Barlog (Santa Monica Studio, God Of War) after another writer compared the Last Of Us 2 to Schindlers List, and Druckman expressed his frustration at the consequential (and very deserved) sarcastic internet reaction:

No Caption Provided

Petty squabbling aside, the implication here is that Schreier is being vindictive in his reactions to The Last Of Us 2 as a result of his expose on their work conditions. Is that justified? Is that something you'd like to know about when reading the review of a game, or is it something that you think should impact the score of a game?

Also, as an aside, the way those devs reacted here is bullshit and they should both be extremely embarrassed. Mean? Get the fuck out.

Personally I feel mistreatment of staff should be acknowledged in a review, as that's the only way to enforce meaningful change short of not buying the game. I'd go as far as to say that it's the ethical responsibility of journalists and reviewers to call out developers on their shitty work-culture, even while acknowledging the quality of a videogame.

I expect the answer will be for a lot of people that if a game is objectively good then the ends justify the means. Increasingly, I'm less and less happy with that mentality, and it's going to be hard to shift the bitter taste that comes from knowing the cost of The Last Of Us 2, regardless of how great that game may be.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

141 Comments

Star Wars Jedi: Falling Over

For a game that places so much emphasis on freedom of movement, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (I feel like that colon is in the wrong place but it's not and that's upsetting) has some pretty terrible platforming. Many times I found myself repeatedly plummeting to my death as a result of clipping through geometry, Cal stubbornly refusing to grab on to pipes and ledges that were clearly, often offensively, within his reach. It's an issue which plagued the Uncharted franchise (and still does) where an unexpected plunge would break any sense of immersion, and is one of the ongoing issues with any plot-driven platformer; you hurry the player forward with the narrative, but how easy do you make the game to ensure they maintain their momentum? This is compounded by the fundamental jank of Fallen Order - sometimes the player will do everything right but still die, which is a cardinal sin of video game design. To compensate for this Respawn trivializes these falls, each trip to the void removing only a sliver of health - one can't help but feel this is because they expect you to fall so much, and reasoned it was easier to minimize the punishment than to fix the damn platforming.

Other than the slippery-ass jumps, bad cameras, and repetitive force puzzles (which weren't helped by the aforementioned jank and camera) it was pretty fun to traipse around the mandatory jungle/snow/rock planets and viciously murder the (bizarrely unimaginatively named. This big slug is called a Slyyyg? Come on) wildlife that lived there. I played through the game with my girlfriend, who is a huge Star Wars nerd, and she repeatedly expressed her delight at exploring some of the lesser known planets that had featured in the Star Wars books. I wish we had been able to explore more of these locations in a context that wasn't just murdering fucking everything, and it seems a shame that the histories of the towns and villages you explore are only available through audio and text logs while the few NPC's are granted generic and uninteresting dialogue. Although having seen the embarrassingly bad hair rendering on the Wookies I have no desire to visit Kashyyyk again any time soon.

There's still moments of genuine joy to be had in the simple things that, when done right, feel incredibly satisfying, whether that be force-pushing a squad of Storm Troopers off a ledge to their deaths, or nailing a sequence of parries and slicing a huge space frog in half with a lightsaber. Fallen Order entered our lives at a time when we were more willing to persevere and forgive it's jank as a result of not being allowed to leave the house. Now that we're done though, I don't think either of us has any enthusiasm to return.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

22 Comments

Mario Kart Tour is out and I am Not A Fan

I don't know why I'm so surprised, as familiar as I am with both the mobile games and F2P business model, that Mario Kart Tour is so grossly bloated with microtransactions and gatchapon style unlocks. For those that haven't played yet, the unlocks are sorted into

  • Drivers
  • Karts
  • Gliders

Each of which will give either a points multiplier or bonus items when used on certain tracks, so effectively; the more you have unlocked the more of an advantage you have when racing. You begin with only a couple of each, and then you're almost immediately dumped onto one of the (several) flashy store pages where you can buy "rubies" or item packs with real money.

For context, each loot crate costs 5 rubies, so for less than 20 loot crates you could buy the Switch edition of Mario Kart 8 with everything pre-unlocked.
For context, each loot crate costs 5 rubies, so for less than 20 loot crates you could buy the Switch edition of Mario Kart 8 with everything pre-unlocked.

It's also possible to simply buy certain racers or items with the reggo ingame gold coins, which can be obtained simply by picking them up as you drive about. There's a smaller shop which cycles a few items every day so you could potentially not buy any rubies at all and still obtain new items. I haven't done the math on how long that would realistically take to flesh out your collection without spending any real money, but considering how many items there are and how infrequently the shop rotates what's up for sale, we can safely say it would take a while.

The Driving

There are two control types; always drifting or never drifting. Obviously we went for always drifting, and while it does feel very good when you nail that perfect drift, a lot of the time a drift feels like overkill. The game heavily punishes you for not exiting your drift in the optimal direction because there's no easy way to correct afterwards, and I think it's pretty telling that invisible walls have been placed on the edge of every track to prevent players constantly falling to their deaths. There were many occasions where I only needed a slight nudge to the left or right but instead my racer launched into an epic drift straight into the very object I was trying to avoid. I'm sure with time the community will invent new racing lines that perfectly optimise the constant drifting, but it's very frustrating when you're just trying to drive in a straight line and can't because your kart is constantly snaking from left to right.

No Caption Provided

Ultimate I was pretty disappointed with the first impression. The racing feels good when it clicks (I'm playing on a Galaxy Note 9 which has a big screen and it both looks and performs fine) but all the stuff in between is tacky and feels alien and perverted when wrapped up in the Mario framework, and especially gross and insidious when you consider that these games have traditionally been marketed to children. I appreciate there's a long precedent for this stuff but it still left an extremely bitter taste in my mouth.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

6 Comments

Why is everyone hating on Epic over exclusives?

I got an email today that said:

No Caption Provided

Which I guess is the latest in a long line of games that have ditched Steam to sell themselves on the Epic storefront. And people are really angry about it, apparently? A whole bunch of games are getting review-bombed because they were listed on steam and now they're not?

Does anyone else think that getting upset over this is completely fucking bananas?

Firstly

Epic doesn't decide where games are sold, that's the publisher or developer. So people getting upset that Epic is "yanking" games off steam, as though Epic had any say in the matter, are extremely misguided. What's happened here is that Publishers listed their game on one store, then a second store opened with better incentives, so they decided to use that one instead. Let's take a second to consider some of the reasons a developer or publisher might want to make the switch;

  • The Epic store takes a 12% cut of every game sold, and waives the 5% fee if the developer is using the Unreal Engine. Valve takes 30%. Which means if a game using the Unreal Engine released on Steam, they're losing 23% of the potential profit that they could have made if they'd released on the Epic Store.
  • Steam has an open-door policy for hate groups, harassment, and unsavory game-design. Moderations are rare, glacially slow and/or invisible. There's plenty of Developers who don't want to be associated with that or give up 30% of their profits to support that business model. Case in point.
  • The Epic store is "hand-curated" instead of auto-populated by an algorithm, which means smaller indie games will still be featured on the storefront and given a share of the spotlight. Devs also have control over the appearance of their store page.
  • Players can decide if they want to allocate a slice of the games cost to a streamer when purchasing, as a way of supporting/rewarding streamers who may have brought the game to their attention.

If the cost of all of the above is an exclusivity deal with Epic then that seems like a small price to pay - especially as the increasing size of the store will mean more traffic and customers snowballing into bigger sales; developers with exclusivity deals will be happy that other developers are also getting exclusivity deals, because it means more customers will be visiting the store where their own game is. The more exclusives Epic gets the more customers they have in circulation, so it's in their best interests to operate this way.

Secondly

A lot of this comes down to the notion of "fairness" and that Epic are somehow not playing fair by "depriving Steam customers" of the games they want. This is a mentality that is perpetuated by Valve themselves after they left up store pages for games that had been removed and literally accused Epic of unfairness. Does anyone else see the irony of the biggest pc-gaming monopoly accusing other stores of being "unfair"? This is some manipulative playground bullshit. Steam has been hyping up the illusion that their store is "open" and "fair" but the reality is that those terms are defined by Valve themselves, because they've been sitting on the top of the pile for so long and can dictate how the entire industry is perceived. The fundamental truth is that Steam graphs and algorithms manipulate and track players just as much as anywhere else, and transparency is limited only to what Valve wants you to see. We like to believe that a "fair" exchange would be for the Epic store to attract customers with a better set of features rather than with exclusives, but ultimately when it comes to corporations competing at this level it's always going to come down to who is willing to throw around the most money. Valve has got the capital to undercut the prices of every other store at a loss, effectively running them out of business, which they frequently do with their steam sales. How is that fair?

Thirdly

Rather than get annoyed with the people running the shiny new store, maybe your frustration would be better aimed at the old store for not properly supporting and looking after the developers upon which their entire platform depends? It's not like they're short of money, so their lack of apparent effort seems extremely complacent and greedy. Competition is good, and healthy; it promotes growth and experimentation and all that good shit.

What number are we on? Four? OK, Fourthly

Both stores are free. This isn't some Sony/Microsoft console war where each platform treats customers as investors and attempts to steal then away from the other by securing exclusives. If you have a PC that can run steam then you have a pc that can run the Epic store. There is nothing to prevent you from having both.

Fifthly

I can't think of a fifthly. But you get the idea, anyway.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

71 Comments

The rise of publisher-exclusive game stores and the effect it will have on the industry

For a long time, Steam has reigned supreme when it comes to PC games; they had the best sales, the widest selection, the best support for independent developers and publishers. They seemed to be on the side of the players, finding meaningful ways to incorporate player-made assets and mods into their structure and rewarding their customers who made the biggest investments. Even games not installed through steam were often made easiest to manage through the robust steam client, allowing you to use your existing steam friends list and library to keep everything neatly consolidated.

What a time to be alive, eh?

But as we're all aware, it's not quite the perfect picture that it's made out to be; The marketplace was saturated with rubbish moneygrabbing titles that nobody wanted (diluting the cool stuff and making it harder to find unless Valve featured it on their store), reviews for games were frequently skewed by hordes of malicious players, and the few developers that actually managed to find an audience only received a fraction of their profits as steam took a large slice for themselves. The forums and games were predominantly unmoderated, making them a safe haven for abusive and hateful groups of people to congregate and harass other users. Worst of all, perhaps, was that there was nobody out there to challenge them - if you had a problem with steam then there were few alternatives - even the other stores that sold the games you wanted would usually give you a steam key in order to activate it. It's easy to claim you're the "best" when there's nobody else to compare yourself to, I guess?

But now in 2019 we have alternatives!

We have Origin, BattleNet, Uplay, Epic Store, GoG, and even the Microsoft Store, to name but a few. Many of these services have excluded their own games from Steam for years, but increasingly they seem to be promoting exclusivity and competition for games published by other studios, too - case in point, Epic is making bold moves regarding exclusivity with games like Ashen and Phoenix Point.

So what does this mean for the PC gaming landscape?

Despite the awkwardness of having to manage multiple clients and friends lists, my own thoughts are this is profoundly positive. Origin, Blizzard and Uplay long ago proved that their blockbuster games could convince an audience to move away from steam, and now that these stores are also seeking out exclusivity deals there will be plenty of bidding over the best games being developed; Instead of an independent developer having to put a game on steam, take whatever deal Valve offers and simply hope their game gets noticed, these stores will fight over the rights to publish and sell. Competition is healthy, as we have seen repeatedly from the Sony/Microsoft rivalry every E3 for the past billion years, forcing developers to continually one-up each other as the players reap the rewards. Hypothetically if people stop using steam as their default service then that, in turn, should prompt steam to actually try doing things differently; Better incentives for developers, better community management, better curation of their store. In theory, anyway. With their purchase of Campo Santo there's an indication that they might even start developing some real games again...

Some other potential knock-on effects;

  • The re-invigoration of the independent mod communities? I can't speak to all of the available stores, but I know Origin does not currently support mods (I just installed the HD texture pack for Mass Effect 2 and it was a pain in the ass). Instead of having to go through the steam workshop players will now have to scour old websites and forums, downloading shady zip directories from anonymous google drive and dropbox accounts. So that's exciting.
  • More support for independent developers? If there's several publishers fighting over each game then they have a better chance of working out a good deal and securing some solid financial backing. Capitalism!
  • E3 is going to be a lot more wild? More stores means more showcases and presentations. We've started to see a shift away from the big stages already, it would not surprise me if every store started doing their own treehouse-esque webinar on their upcoming titles and plans.
  • New approaches to community management? New ways to entice community contributors and positive community members means a more pleasant experience for everyone.

Ultimately I believe the increase in variety and diversity among game stores is good for the industry and good for the players. Which is refreshing to think about.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

10 Comments

The excellent difficulty curve of RDR2 (spoilers!)

It's been a few months since I finished Red Dead 2, a game I thoroughly enjoyed, and while hindsight has granted me the ability to acknowledge the game's flaws there's still several core aspects which I think are excellently designed and which I've been wanting to explore here in my blog. Top of the list is the difficulty curve.

Spoilers ahead!
Spoilers ahead!

By having the protagonist contract a deadly disease such as tuberculosis the writers put forward an organic and believable justification for making the game more difficult in the latter acts of the story. This is beautifully thorough, furthering the narrative and character development or Arthur himself while simultaneously providing a believable excuse to reduce his stamina and health in a way which doesn't feel arbitrary. Because of this decision the player is permitted to keep their weapons and upgrades, and their sense of empowerment as a brutal gunslinger, while emphasizing the fragility of Arthur as a human being without throwing him into increasingly absurd and excessive hordes of enemies.

Admittedly there's still plenty of killing to be done, and while the slowly developing illness is brutal to experience it never registers as anything more than a mild inconvenience in a gameplay sense; Arthur is still essentially an unstoppable murder-machine every time the bullets start flying. From a game design sense though I found it a very refreshing take on how difficulty curves can be entwined into the story of a game rather than simply shuffling numbers around or limiting the availability of the most powerful weapons/abilities.

If anyone has any recommendations for other games which handle difficulty curves organically I'd love to hear about them!

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

1 Comments

Round 2 with Stardew Valley; starting from scratch in 2019

I recently found myself with a moderate amount of time to kill and having been swayed by the tales my girlfriend had shared from her time in Stardew Valley I wanted to jump back in myself. I'd played a little at launch on PC (Although hadn't even finished a single year of gameplay) and hadn't tried the game after any of the many updates, so I picked up a second copy on Switch and started from scratch.

The second time around I chose a different farm layout (forest) which was great for getting extra resources (as it rewards foraging gameplay) but also carves off a chunk of your farmland in a way which you're unable to shape yourself; frustrating to someone who always enjoyed managing the aesthetic of the farmland. Still, I stuck with it/couldn't be bothered to start again, and I'm now halfway through my second year.

Hearing Dan talk about it on a recent Beastcast (as Abby has also recently started playing the game) I felt like my progression mirrored his; you start out grinding away with little money and weak tools that leave you fatigued early in the day and have little else to do. It's difficult to make friends before your first harvest as many of the villagers want gifts that aren't available until a later season. Once you've got a routine in place things start to balance out and as you become more efficient and as the farm becomes more manageable, you pivot from the monotony of endless watering to getting to know the villagers, fixing up the community center, and exploring the mine. As time goes on your farm becomes increasingly self-sufficient, to the extent that you can focus on crafting more artisanal goods, fishing, and exploring the new areas that are gradually unlocked.

You'd better believe it
You'd better believe it

I'm enjoying the "social" aspect of the game a lot more than last time, and a lot more than I expected - getting to know each of the single ladies, bringing people gifts and trying to fulfill their requests, locking down each routine so you know where find each person (not in a creepy way), and generally making friends. I always look forward to the cut-scenes and interactions you have with the other characters and it's rewarding when they open up to you. Having said that, I frequently find myself underwhelmed by the bland responses that each NPC will offer the vast majority of the time. I'm not expecting a lengthy monologue, but for a game which actively encourages and rewards you for seeking out and speaking with each of the villagers it doesn't meet you halfway by way of engaging dialogue. The consequence of this is the town feels more like Westworld than a living breathing community, and those conversations can sometimes feel like a grind, especially when you've just spent half a day trying to track down one specific individual only to be rewarded with the same two lines you've already heard dozens of times already; which is a real shame - as it would have been (and still is) an easy problem to solve with a little more variety in the responses of each character to really flesh them out.

Still, if you are willing to invest the time then there are several characters who are worth the effort. I'm really enjoying the arcs of some of the less immediately appealing characters - Abigail is fun, though apparently was written to be the perfect "gamer-girl" which seemed a little too easy, so my courtship has predominantly been focused on Haley (superficial, vapid) and Penny (shy, timid), while the friends I enjoy hanging out with the most have been George (cantankerous) and of course, Linus (perfect). It is a cause of endless frustration to me that I can't invite Linus to live on my farm in one of the many cabins that it's possible for me to build, but I guess he's up in that tent because he wants to be.

At this point in my game I've reached the bottom of the mine, unlocked the quarry, and I've built enough sprinklers that my farm takes care of itself, for the most part. There's still plenty of mysteries to solve (anyone know what this skull key does? I figured it unlocked the sewer but it doesn't seem to work), and I'd like to finish up the community center and upgrade my barn.

Stardew holds up, and I'm enjoying being able to passively play in handheld mode while listening to podcasts or killing time at home. It's not flawless by any means, but it's still interesting to explore, and refreshingly wholesome. Sometimes that's all you need.

Thanks For reading

Love Sweep

2 Comments

State Of The Game; Multiplayer

I used to love Call Of Duty. When I was a kid it was the first real PC shooter that ever hooked me - I never played Halo, and before my parents bought a decent PC my FPS games had all been on the N64. So Goldeneye, basically. I never grew up close enough to anyone I knew to get involved in any LAN parties so Call Of Duty, when it was released in 2003, was the first time I had ever played a real shooter with more than 3 other players, and it was the first time I had ever been actively involved in an online community. I was hooked - the setting felt incredibly real, the characters were fully voiced and would talk to one another throughout each mission - and the multiplayer especially was groundbreaking for a kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere and didn't have any friends living within walking/biking distance. I invested hundreds of hours with that game, and when I spoke to my friends at school I couldn't understand why they weren't playing it as well.

No Caption Provided

Call Of Duty: Black Ops 4 has understandably evolved since then. The weapons have been upgraded, the gadgets have been introduced, and the general speed has become punishingly fast - not as fast or ridiculous as Black Ops 3, which has invisible ninjas wall-running with samurai swords - but fast enough that it makes me feel old. This speed, combined with an emphasis on smaller teams and maps, means the game feels a lot more frantic. There's less of the trench-warfare-esque back-n-forth from the original game, which would pit two sides against one another in a way which would allow the push and pull of a frontline to dictate the battle - this game is more focused on individual plays rather than an overwhelming team push, and that's enabled by the way the game channels people into the action: in Black Ops 4 people spawn everywhere, constantly, from every angle, and you'll frequently have people rushing at you from every side. The emphasis is often on tighter streets or corridors instead of rolling vistas, rewarding short-range weapons with faster fire-rates - balanced to make players even more agile and difficult to hit. The result is the multiplayer in Black Ops 4 is a ongoing panic-attack, where you're constantly barraged with lighting fast enemies from every side and are frequently killed by an enemy from a place which was definitely empty just a moment ago. On top of this, once a team takes the lead they are rewarded with increasingly powerful killstreaks, snowballing them further into the lead and preventing the losing side from spawning for more than a few seconds before being endlessly blown up by rockets and helicopters and airstrikes - the small map size meaning there's very few places to hide.

No Caption Provided

I'm about to hit my first prestige in the multiplayer - I've played predominantly objective-based game modes like Hardpoint, Control, and Search and Destroy, using a variety of different gun types - and (despite the impressions I may have given in the previous paragraph) I'm actually enjoying it quite a lot. After months of endlessly playing PUBG (a game where each life is fragile, and caution is always advised) a game like Black Ops 4 (which rewards repeatedly and enthusiastically throwing yourself into the fray) has been very refreshing. My aim has improved, and not having to deal with the endless bugs and desync of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has also been very satisfying. The main issue I have with Black Ops 4 is that it feels fucking mindless.

25 kills and 8 deaths. Feels good man.
25 kills and 8 deaths. Feels good man.

Black Ops 4 multiplayer feels like a very reaction-based game - where you're relying on twitch reflexes rather than planning and forethought. Maybe FPS games have always been like that, but in Black Ops 4 it's especially pronounced; This game seems to reward independent play (while some specialist abilities may benefit the team, they seldom compliment one another without high levels of communication, which there is seldom time for) rather than the team-based pressure of something like Overwatch. Imagine if every player in Overwatch always picked Hanzo; that's Black Ops 4. It's about being the fastest and the most accurate - players can immediately heal to full health inbetween all but the most drawn-out of firefights, so it essentially comes down to your ability to kill stuff as efficiently as possible - the physical toll on the player is that it's all happening so fast you're barely engaging with it. It feels good to win, and it's satisfying to murder your opponent before they can murder you, but the game rarely feels that binary; The quirky overpowered abilities and killstreaks, combined with the randomness of the enemy spawns and limited lines of sight, often means you're placed in an unwinnable situation and reaction times/skill/knowledge all become redundant.

Essentially the multiplayer in Black Ops 4 feels very one-note. It's polished, and it's fun, but I can play for 3 hours and not be able to call back a single significant thing that happened - it just feels like a blur of running and frantically clicking at anything that moves. It's been refreshing to check in with the FPS multiplayer genre, but I think I'm at the point where I need something more from my shooting games.

Blackout however, is a whole different ballgame. I'll have some thoughts on that coming soon, once I've spent a bit more time with it.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

11 Comments

Some thoughts on Artifact; microtransactions and unmoderated live chat

Having escaped the clutches of both the Dota 2 and Hearthstone, two games which have collectively soaked up thousands of hours of my life, not to mention hundreds of dollars from my bank vault, the news that Valve was making a card game that seemed similar to Hearthstone but using the dota 2 characters and aesthetic was something that I was vaguely interested in but determined to ignore.

A couple of days ago however, gamesindustry.biz released this insightful interview with Jeep Barnett and Richard Garfield, the game's lead programmer and designer respectively, and I couldn't help but take a peek. I'm going to summarise a lot of the key points they make if you can't be bothered to read it, and highlight some things which deserve to be talked about. Some of them are... worrying.

First and foremost, each developer goes to great pains to separate Artifact from Hearthstone, though without any real explanation as to what the differences in gameplay are. To anyone who's ever read an interview with a developer attempting to hype up their game, it's standard PR stuff;

"When Artifact was announced, the obvious and most immediate comparison many made was to Hearthstone. At absolute surface-level, it's a fair one. After all, Hearthstone's popularity both as a casual game and a competitive title have been thus far unmatched by anything else in the genre, so any up and coming online card game will naturally be compared to it. However, as I found out from demoing the game, the simple fact that both are games you play with cards is about where the similarities end. Barnett and Garfield seem to agree with that separation."

No Caption Provided

Fine. Stay tuned, I guess. What came next was pretty surprising though:

Beyond the actual gameplay, Artifact has something else that makes it incredibly unique: its monetization style. The game will cost $20 at launch, which will get players two starter decks (everyone gets the same ones) and ten packs of random cards. From that, there is absolutely no way for players to earn more packs by playing the game. Everything more must either be bought with real money, or traded for on the game's market

The heavy dependence on microtransactions, and the fact that in order to compete at a high level required you to spend hundreds of dollars per expansion, was the main reason I quit Hearthstone, even with it's ingame currency and ability to craft, recycle and unlock new cards organically. The fact that Artifact aims to skip this and jump straight to a purely microtransaction-based card economy is, for me at least, an instant red-flag; I'm not interested in supporting that business model. Beyond that, it seems extremely shortsighted to disregard the relatively recent backlash consumers have had over microtransactions and loot crates in other games. I guess this is going to come down to the pricing strategy of packs, and drop rate of the best cards - however taking into account the way that valve has monetized content in Dota 2, I fully expect this to be aggressive. The article even goes as far as to say:

A marketplace on its own may create the potential for an interesting in-game economy, but it sounds as though Artifact all but requires a constant cash flow from its participants. At launch, there is no way to earn packs through play, and in fact there is no single-player campaign, ranking system, or really anything to Artifact other than playing the game with someone else for fun. "It's not pay to win," Garfield said. "It's pay to participate. Any hobby you have, you have to invest something. If you play tennis, you buy a racket. So here, we've got a model where you can put in a very modest amount and be competitive. We can control that in the sense that common cards in this game are very powerful. We expect top-tier play to include a lot of common cards. We also make sure that rare cards that are there are not so rare they drag prices up.

No Caption Provided

The next highlight is also concerning, though for different reasons:

The game will also feature live chat that allows players to communicate with one another during a match - even strangers. I asked how that chat and the community in general would be moderated to discourage bad behavior, but neither Barnett nor Garfield could offer any specific idea of tools that would help someone avoid a random internet stranger hurling insults at them during an Artifact match.

At this point I had to briefly stop reading for a while. The words "shortsighted" and "naive" pirouetted across my mind as I blinked at the wall.

"Psychologically, we find that people misbehave when there is somebody else to observe them misbehaving," Barnett said. "When it's a one-on-one game, what is my motivation for saying something awful? But when you're in a game with a bunch of other people and you say something, a bunch of other people laugh at you, so something happened. We tend to see people behave very differently in one-on-one situations."

Haha! Oh wait, they're serious. Hmm. Well, I know a lot of people look back with a fondness for the original Uno release on Xbox 360 and it's live webcam interactions (I specifically remember Jeff talking about his match against a room full of dudes racking up lines of cocaine as they played Uno, which is pretty intense), but as someone who has spent many years on the internet, and interacting with other human beings on a daily basis in the real world, not to mention the 7+ years I've spent moderating this website, and taking into account the current level of openly vitriolic lawlessness both on the Steam forums and within the communities of existing steam games (I'm looking at you, Dota), the idea that people will play nicely among themselves simply because they're not playing for an audience (unless they're streaming I suppose, but that'll never catch on, right?) is the icing on the "we're completely out of touch" cake that Valve seems to be baking.

More importantly though. it's irresponsible; these developers are essentially opening up another avenue for people to be harassed, and for the people that seek to harass to do so without punishment. As white men they may not be as sensitive to the kind of casual offhand abuse that women/LGBT+/non cis/non-white people have to deal with on a daily basis, but it's bizarrely insouciant of them not to acknowledge that harassment and trolling is a common 21st century problem, that game communities are often plagued by casual sexism, homophobia and racism, and that others might not have the same painless experience as they themselves did on their internal test server; Maybe I'm just a cynical bastard, but to not pre-emptively have a system in place to deal with that inevitability seems either extremely negligent or extremely sheltered.

EDIT: I initially misinterpreted the article and assumed this "live chat" would be in video form, though upon review that was apparently a hallucination on my part. While a regular text chat certainly limits the potential for misuse, it's still remarkably naive of Valve to assume that no moderation would be required and, as such, I stand by my original criticisms but have removed my dumb joke about unsolicited solitaire dicks. Thanks.

Anyway, I'm sure you can disable the live chat, and I'm sure you can mute or disable all chat completely (as per Hearthstone) but if you're going to include those things even as an option then you can't simply leave it unmoderated; I'm fed up with developers creating platforms for abuse and then not taking responsibility for the behavior of the players who use them. Valve in particular has a terrible track record when it comes to moderation (readers of my blog will know that their terrible automated moderation system is one of the reasons I stopped playing Dota), and this interview gives the impression that they not only have no interest in addressing it, but don't even consider it an issue worthy of their attention.

I appreciate it's still early, and there's no sense in writing a game off long before its release, but it's hard to stay optimistic in light of this information. I'm sure there are people out there who have more patience than I do and/or find those random online interactions entertaining, but personally it's not worth the risk.

Thanks For Reading

Love Sweep

41 Comments