Tuesday, June 26, 2012

GAMERS! Draw your battle lines TODAY!

I'm troubled, loves.

Diablo III has done something rather unexpected in a recent update. Nope, it wasn't the introduction of the real-money auction house which is the actual reason why Blizzard insist you are always online in the first place, a feature bafflingly missing from the product at launch. (Which is a huge part of the reason why so many were so angry, because when something they didn't give a shit about that didn't even exist yet was STILL getting in the way of them playing, they were quite rightly pissed off.) Oh, they did finally bring that in, but that is not the only new thing introduced.

The new feature that I am talking about is the trial system. Apparently, a player in their first 72 hours is potentially disruptive, and so these players are not allowed in to the full game. (That they bought and paid for.) Instead, they are restricted to the first act, and can only interact with other players who are in their 72 hour trial period. None of the content in Act 2 onwards (that they bought and paid for) is available to them.


Somebody thought this was a good idea. Somebody, somewhere, floated this suggestion. What is most astonishing about this is that somebody else agreed, and gave it the green light.

What astonishes me the most of all is that the internet isn't going batshit about it. Possibly because it doesn't affect all those millions who pre-purchased the game and thus already endured reception of Blizzard's shaft? I can only imagine this is the case.

If you are one of those who aren't making a fuss about this, then you are one of those that will ultimately allow more of this crap to happen to us. And, instead of just endlessly click-click-clicking, you should be calling your comrades to arms over this. An injury to one of us is an injury to us all.

WHERE do Blizzard get off thinking they can treat people like this? On what mandate can they arbitrarily decide to cut people off from the game THAT THEY BOUGHT AND PAID FOR until Blizzard say "Heh, it's ok, you can go in now."? The answer is unsurprisingly obvious.

We did this to ourselves.

Right now, I am not seeing anything like the levels of hatred thrown Blizzard's way that I did when Diablo 3 was released. I should be seeing a lot more. Any and all complaints about Diablo III that relate to the way Blizzard are treating the customers are entirely justified. Customers in Korea are still getting errors when trying to connect, to the extent that Blizzard are being forced to refund them.

If you went out for a meal, you would expect the place to bring whatever you ordered from the menu to your table. If they were to say to you something along the lines of "I'm sorry, you are a new customer. You will only be able to order the steaks after you have finished a meal with us today." then you would not only make the entirely justifiable decision to not tip that waiter, you would also never eat steak in that restuarant because you would never go there again. You would not allow them to treat you that way, so why is it different when games companies do it?

Perhaps I may seem unusually angry towards Blizzard? Well, just so you know, I am merely angry towards companies who display such outwards contempt to their customers. Polytron, for example, find themselves in a similar boat.

They first came onto my radar for hatred when Phil Fish made his now infamous comment that "Japanese games suck" shortly before the release of Fez. To mere ripples of dislike from the internet in general, which is surprising considering how borderline racist the statement is. He apologised, naturally, and it seems that this is fair enough. (It isn't.) So, duly, everybody bought Fez and then raved about it. I bought it too, but I am not as enthralled as the rest of the world is, despite it being exactly my kind of thing. Maybe it being exactly my kind of thing is the problem, as I have played plenty of stuff that does what Fez does. Apart from the QR code stuff, which REALLY doesn't sit well with the style of game, in my opinion.

But all of this is taking me completely off-topic, because as much as Phil Fish deserves hatred for being such a cock, the latest development in the Fez saga doth truly taketh the caketh. As is increasingly the way these days, games are released on a set date regardless of what state they may actually be in. Such old-fashioned concepts as "Making sure the thing works before releasing it" are seen as quaint traditions that are just not needed in these days where everybody has an internet connection. Fair enough, Fez is currently ONLY available online, but even so it is a poor choice of ways of doing business.

I honestly can't remember the last time I bought a game on XBox 360 that didn't eventually get an update of some sort. Generally, these updates happen on day 1, so there is a pretty good chance that any game you play on the console will require the update. And you see others doing it all the time, too, with them coming online about 30 seconds after they last came online. It is so accepted that it has in fact become ubiquitous. We just know that games get updated, often for seemingly no real reason at all.

Fez has just been updated. Updated into actual uselessness. It seems that the new version renders save files from the old version corrupt and unplayable. Polytron first advised people not to download it, and then MicroSoft pulled it from the XBox Marketplace.


It completely amazes me that a situation like this can ever possibly come about. For a start, Polytron should have picked this up during testing. Shouldn't they? Is it wrong of me to want people to do the job that they are supposed to be doing? That they didn't makes me think ... did they even have QA on this? And, once they failed to spot it, isn't MicroSoft supposed to have additional teams to pick up on stuff like this in order to allow certification? If so, how did they not spot this?

How did Bethesda not spot when a Skyrim save file larger than 6Mb became unreadable?

How was Mass Effect 3 allowed to leave the warehouses with an inability to faithfully import a custom Shepherd that was built in the first game?

It is not unreasonable to expect games to ship without problems. It is not entitlement to want what you paid for. It is entirely justifiable if we get cross as a result of these errors. Particularly in the case of disc-based games. Yes, most of us are connected and can probably update, but when the updates cause further problems, WE ARE RIGHT TO DEMAND TO KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON.

The games industry has a bunch of problems, some big and some small. One of the biggest it faces in the years to come is to stop making us all feel like we are nothing more than a number to them. There is an apparent lack of CARE in the way that the big games publishers are treating us. From the outside, all we ever seem to be are revenue streams, and when we demand our money's worth, well ... they don't seem to like it.

Instead of inventing yet more schemes to squeeze the very lifeblood out of us, publishers need to instead start focusing on ways to win us back. Other industries realise the power and importance of brand loyalty, why don't games? If you went into a car dealership showroom, and were told that your car would be ready tomorrow but you will have to wait a week before you could open the windows, then you simply would not buy that car. Games publishers, however, seem to actively loathe their customers to the point where that analogy is not only accurate, but could actually be extended.

We have got to stop tolerating this behaviour, guys! For every millimetre we willingly give to them today will mean that we have more to fight for when they finally cross the line. For some of us, that line is already a memory, and it is those vocal souls that we need to start getting behind. If we fight amongst ourselves, spouting such patently ridiculous rhetoric as "It's a big game, there are bound to be some bugs." instead of "This is unacceptable, don't buy Dawnguard until you know for sure it works.", then we will ultimately have only ourselves to blame.

We should not be paying to beta test. PLEASE, I beg you, stop doing it. Or else, instead of downloading a free ending for Mass Effect 3, in the future you'll be paying to download better endings for all your games. You just spent 3 games uniting the entire universe against a common threat, surely you can join in with this much more straightforward cause?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The love that dare not speak its' name.

Apple are missing a trick, you know?

Their adverts show that the iPhone is a truly marvellous machine, able to answer all the queries that we already know the answer to ("Siri, who is my brother?"), as well as making it exceptionally easy for us to spend a small fortune on games we already played for free on flash websites. It does this because it is such an unobtrusive little device, a portal directly into our bank accounts that somehow manages to bypass all that messy "Should I actually be buying this?" malarkey that our brains usually bother us with. It has a hardwired connection to our pleasure centres, and once you get one in your possession it becomes borderline impossible to imagine life without one.

Where you once sneered that mobile games were no substitute for the real thing, you now celebrate the latest mini-masterpiece. All your friends are playing it, after all, so it would be rude to not join in. Be it flinging furious avians at porcine egg-thieves, escaping the clutches of some very nasty simians, or just building an aeronautical empire, at some point we have all found ourselves deep in the clutches of the kind of games that seemingly ONLY phones can provide. We play them at every spare moment; whilst semi-watching TV, or waiting for the bus. Or, in one other locale.

Of course, nobody ever mentions this last place. Nobody seems to admit to it readily at all. Everybody goes there, multiple times daily, and yet it as is this is some esoteric secret area, with ceremonies known only to the lucky few. I do it, you do it, and he does it. Yet, it as if nobody does it.

What the HELL are you talking about, Lee?

I'm talking about the toilet.

If you have had your iPhone for more than about 3 days, then by now you may well have succumbed to the temptation. It starts off innocently enough, at first. You are JUST shy of a new high-score, or 3-starring that level that has been bugging you all night. Even worse, perhaps you need to wait 3 more minutes to be able to build something else, but if you wait 2 more minutes you will make a horrible mess? Whatever the actual gateway is, sooner or later, you walk through.

And then, sheer bliss. Beautiful relief. Heaven in hand-held form.

It's not actually the phone, you know? It's that holding it in and the resultant adrenaline hit that is the real biggie. However, if this just happens to be combined with the dopamine hit from completing whatever task you just broke your personal barrier for, then the result is deadly.

For, now, you realise that you can just do this every time you go to the loo!

It's a slippery slope, my friends. A slippery, smelly, and sometimes sticky slope. Gone are the days when you went in, evacuated, and then left. They are replaced with a whole new routine. Suddenly, visits to the bathroom are that little bit more ... welcomed. They last that little bit longer. Before you know it, you are unable to go into the room without taking your phone, even if you weren't actually playing something already. You enter into a trance-like state, where you are no longer aware of the passage of time until your other half bangs on the door saying "HURRY UP, I NEED TO GO!"

Beware, mobile gamer, for this is an inevitability. This will happen to you, the same as it happened to everyone else. Pretty soon, you will start to plan around it. At work, you look at the clock and think "This is a reasonable enough time to nip off and get a couple of shots of Bejewelled Blitz in". And so, off you go. Because the phone is always with you, no pantomime is needed. You just go, and ... uh ... go.

Your colleagues all know what you are up to, naturally. But, a silent and unwritten pact has been entered into. We all stay quiet about it, possibly due to some mutual shame. We KNOW that when we read a tweet from any app that the person who sent it had their pants around their ankles at the time, but we never think of it this way. We may even realise that our latest Draw Something picture was done this way. (SOMETHING has to explain the sheer amount of penises.) But we block this behaviour from our minds, thus making it acceptable. Each and every one of us thinks it is their own dirty little secret.

Apple never mentions this on the ads. The App Store keeps it under wraps. Even your friends, back when they first started evangelising the phone itself, kept this one to themselves. The conspiracy of silence is so complete that you may not even be aware it is there at all. Which is odd, because when you think about it, it is pretty damn awesome that you can game whilst taking a dump. Even more awesome once you think about the sheer convenience of it, because if you grab your DS then everybody knows what you are up to, but your phone is so natural that even though everybody secretly knows, they publicly don't even suspect.

Yup. Apple sure are missing a trick. Ads that convey this idea. "Top Crapper Apps" lists*. As all-pervading as they now are, there are still sectors of society that look at anything Apple and think it is somewhat above them. But, if this cat were let out of the bag, well ... there would be no reasons left. How could you hate a company with that level of honesty?

Oh, and just in case you go this way, Apple; I accept cheques, BACS, PayPal, or even good old-fashioned cash.

*Angry Birds, unquestionably. Without the bathroom, I would never have gotten 3 stars on any levels beyond the first few.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I call this disease "Games".

At times, I am driven to despair by the games industry.

Games ... are ... great. They really are. I know that this is a gaming blog, and the temptation is naturally to search the entire lexicon for superlatives and similes, but there is no need when a word that describes how good games are perfectly already exists. I use the word "great" because of how "great" games are, and how "great" great is. Sometimes, it pays to stick with the classics.

What is less great, however, is the whole circus that surrounds videogames. It really does run an entire gamut of archetypes, almost all of whom are clueless. From publishers who think that we all have hedge funds we can siphon off of to pay over the odds for never-ending pools of pointless DLC, through marketing teams who think that only 15 year old boys play videogames, to the writers who refuse to accept that games are an entertainment medium, and as such should be treated as AN ENTERTAINMENT MEDIUM. With all the bonuses and drawbacks this entails.

Perhaps it would be best if I were to illuminate more clearly what I am hoping to get at.

Let us take a look at the cinema industry, and the way it is treated. This is a world that appears to be completely out of touch with reality, paying stupendous amounts of money to the stars at the top of the tree. Arnold Schwarzenegger once got a Lear Jet as part of his fee. This sounds insane, but the people making the movie thought that Arnie's presence in it was worth whatever he asked for. It is no surprise, then, that cinema budgets are obscene. However, they still know that no matter what it costs to make a blockbuster movie, the viewing public don't care about that. All they want to do is to see it for less than 20 local currency units. Avatar cost well over $200 million to make, and yet I paid £7.50 to see it in the cinema, and then paid £10 for the DVD. It remains the highest grossing movie of all time, having raked in over $2 BILLION.

Games, however, take this attitude that they are somehow different, and that we should pay more for them because they, apparently, cost a lot to make. Well, I still don't know of any game that has cost more than $100 million, although by now some the of the Modern Warfare games might be getting close. But I still need to pay £40 to play most of the bloody things, and that is before they pile on the inevitable useless tat. It seems that in order to access one of the classes in Borderlands 2, I will be required to pre-purchase the game. Now .... hold on a cotton-pickin' minute, there. What if the game isn't worth buying? (I don't doubt that I will adore it, but I have an aversion to handing over money on promises alone. I call this disease "Not being stupid".)

The movie industry doesn't do this. There is no benefit to me if I choose to go and watch a film at Vue, Warner, or ... ummm ... some other cinema chain. They all show the same film. And, even though some stores do pack bonus content in with it in the shape of extra discs, THEY ALL STILL SELL THE SAME MOVIE TO ME!

Games think they are different.

Marketing is another problem area. Recently, the trailer for Hitman: Absolution rattled a few feathers. You can see why, below:

Oh, we were all up in arms about this one! "SEXISM" and "MISOGYNY" were seen everywhere. "GLAMOURISATION AND SEXUALISATION OF VIOLENCE TOWARDS WOMEN" was a particular favourite of mine. It seems that we didn't like that trailer. Or rather, after a little bit of research, it turns out that we are being TOLD to not like that trailer.

I honestly couldn't give a shit, myself. I have only ever played about an hour or so of one of the Hitman games, because I have an aversion to stealth games in general. (I call this disease "Liking to have fun".) In Hitman, the whole point is to get through the games without anyone ever being aware that you even exist. The trailer misses this aspect most spectacularly, trying to sell it as an all-out action game. That just happens to have women in lingerie who were originally dressed as nuns, because manchildren LOVE THAT KIND OF THING.

I didn't see exploitation, though. I saw Agent 47 defending himself from enemies who were trying to kill him. The nuns did not pack Rosary beads, they packed serious weaponery. What was he supposed to do? "I'm sorry, I don't hit ladies."

The trailer was low class, high impact, eye-candy. It was meant to get people excited about the game. It did that by doing what Hollywood has done for years. However, when movies do it, there isn't some army of self-important hacks telling us that the art form should be above this, and that movies need to do more to appeal to women. By and large, the world has accepted the "Chick flick" and the "Bro movie", and they are happy for movies to just be taken at face value.

Games think they are different.

And, finally, we come to the current Tomb Raider furore.

This time, we are faced with a game that dares to allude to an attempted rape on young Lara. OH, MY! The twitterati love this one, alright.

It all stems from this Kotaku article, in which, whilst discussing the aims to make players want to invest more emotionally into Lara, Ron Rosenberg stated that enemies will try to rape her. Naturally, the shit hit the fan pretty much instantly, and now there is a whole world of back-pedalling going on from Eidos, and several universes of anger from the internet in general.

That single word, rape, changed everything. The context of the interview is not remarkably different to one from December 2010.
What IS different, though, is the uptake and reaction.

The thing is, though, why not include such material in a videogame? Are we not mostly adults these days? Are we incapable of deciding for ourselves if this makes for interesting character development? Movies and books have covered this ground plenty of times. Even comics are allowed to explore these areas without being accused of outright sexism and misogyny.

Games think they are different.

The rape thing? It's just bad writing. It is the idea of somebody who thinks that the only way to get strong is by overcoming adversity, and when said somebody is female then the most adverse thing that could possibly happen is rape. If it were in a movie or book it would be cast aside as such. A B-movie. A pulp novel. But, because it is in a game, it is seen as some sort of sacred cow and therefore we can't touch it. There is this bizarre idea that games all need to be worthy in some way. They don't. Sometimes, entertainment can be pure escapist fantasy. Sometimes, it can be mindless and throwaway. Sometimes, it can be utter rubbish that is still entertaining to some.

We decry that games get singled out. We say that we want them to accept us, and join in with us. But, when it comes right down to it, we don't. We want to be unique. We want to be different. We take every opportunity we can to exclude ourselves, to differentiate ourselves, to alienate ourselves. The cake that we want to have is that games are no different to movies or books, which precludes us from eating the cake labelled "Games are no different to movies or books".

We can be JUST LIKE THEM, we really can. But, in order to do that, we have to be JUST LIKE THEM. This means allowing games developers to explore areas that other media are free to. This means accepting that there will sometimes be things that we don't like. And this also means allowing adult themes to be discussed in an adult manner. I can read books about tortured souls agonising over their decisions. I can watch movies about spiritual journies and growth. But, I can only play games where big men and women do things that strong people do. It's pathetic, I want to be able to do more than just shoot stuff. (I call this disease "Being an adult".)

Games are great. To anyone who plays them, we already know this. To the outside world, though, they will never achieve greatness until we allow them to. We may never get a videogame equivalent of Lolita, mostly because the second somebody were to try it they would be torn apart. Not by the rest of the world, though, but by US. We need to ease up on ourselves, and let games stand on their own two feet. If the world hates Tomb Raider because it is a bad game, then that is fine. But to not even give it a chance because we ourselves assume the worst whenever anything like this is mentioned? I can't understand why we are doing it. We are not all kids, you know?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

E3, Day 1. Or, How I learned to stop giving a shit about E3.

It's that time of year, loves. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. The annual orgy of self indulgence that our "industry" hypes us towards for the other 51 weeks of the year, which amounts to a hype train the likes of which no other "industry" gets anywhere near. For the next few days, news will not trickle onto your favourite website the way it normally does. Instead, you can expect a deluge of the damn stuff, as the entire output of an entire year is squeezed into 4 days. Vidyagames, eh? Gotta love them.

Not to mention all the blogs, which will all do their bit to tell you what they thought of the press conferences. I'm no different in that respect. That's what this will be. Do read on, and I will educate you as to what I think of I what I saw yesterday.

The day started really well with the Microsoft conference. Immediately, they hit us smack in the centre of the face with some Halo 4 footage. And it was good. VERY good. All looked in place for a good show, and then ... oh dear, it all went a bit sour after that.

Where to start with the MS problems? How about DO YOU LIKE SPORTS? If you have a body, you are an athlete. A new approach to fitness. Dance Central, and Usher. ALL of that. Know how much of that anybody watching on the streams liked?

None of it.

Then there was the focus on entertainment partners. ESPN, UFC, and others that I don't remember because people mocking the show were much more interesting. XBox Music, which looks like attempt #2537625362 to copy iTunes, was another reason to not care. Internet Explorer on XBox might have been something to be excited about 5 years ago.

Smart glass. WHAT IN THE HELL ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT? As far as I can tell, it is as if I am watching TV with my netbook on my lap. Um ... that is something I can, and frequently DO, already do. I've been doing it for the last few years. I am not going to spend anything extra to do it in a Microsoft branded walled garden, so this is a dead concept unless it gives me something gamey to do. The evidence suggests that it won't.

And then we had the most mind-numbing end imaginable, where we sat through 11 minutes worth of Black Ops 2 footage. Ironically, at one point they skipped forwards "IN THE INTEREST OF TIME", and yet, even amongst the audience that should care about it, we all wanted it to end at least 3 minutes ago.

EA were up against the last episode of Game of Thrones. Sorry, EA, that was a no contest. I didn't watch, but apparently didn't miss too much anyway.

Ubisoft, on the other hand ... well played! The first act was Flo Rida on stage, and by this point I was beginning to wonder if I hadn't accidentally tuned in to the wrong E3. But things got onto the right track shortly after, with some footage of Rayman Legends on ... YES, a Wii U gamepad! And then the Assassin's Creed gameplay, which did the almost impossible and made an AC game look remotely interesting. Shootmania was entirely laughable, and people seemed to like Far Cry 3, but the conference ended on the absolute and undeniable star of the show to date; Watch Dogs. A new cyberpunk looking .... thingy ... which set everyone chattering. It seems that the rest of the industry have forgotten that announcing new things is what gets us excited. So good did it look, that everybody just assumed that it was running on next gen technology, and the subsequent revelation that it will be out on the consoles we currently have made everyone suddenly think it would be less good than it looked to be. (Such is the thoroughness of the hype we face these days, we are seemingly unable to appreciate a single thing we have access to today.)

And finally, at the horrendous time of 2am, came the Sony show. First on stage was David Cage, showing off his latest tedious non-game Beyond. Having made a big deal about the actrees playing the robot being Ellen Page, we were then treated to a 5 minute demo where she didn't speak, and no discernable gameplay of any kind happened at all. Next up, Chop Chop Matser Onion and friends showed off the utterly dull looking All Stars Battle Royale, which was a phenomenal trailer for Smash Bros. Melee or even Power Stone 2. There followed a Black Ops game for Vita, a version of Assassin's Creed 3 for Vita, and a co-op mode for Far Cry 3 that may or may not be PS3, or even Vita, exclusive. And then, the world went crazy and SONY showed us their big innovation; books.

BOOKS. Or, to be more accurate, WONDERBOOK. Utilising AR to make reading even more interactive. That sentence right there is what SONY failed to convey for the next 20 minutes, during which time they managed to make playing a Harry Potter spellbook look as exciting as handwashing cabbages. This was followed by another list of entertainment partners, which I nearly slept through because, and I do not want to understate this, I DON'T CARE ABOUT IT. I have a TV set sepcifically to watch TV on, computers for internet access, and music players and CDs for music. I do not want or need more things that are not games on my GAMES CONSOLES.

They ended up with The Last of Us, which some whooped and hollered about but looked for all the world to me like an Uncharted mod. Oldcharted: Drake's Violence. It was quite brutal stuff, it has to be said, but ultimately left me a bit cold.

One overpowering thought came out of yesterday, for me. The desire to actually push  any boundaries with games is clearly missing from the big publishers and at least two of the platform holders. Things are looking mighty pretty, but they are so dreadfully dull and predicatable. HERE'S GOD OF WAR 4. HERE'S GEARS OF WAR 4. HERE'S FOUR CRY. HERE'S A COPY OF SOMETHING YOU BOUGHT 8 YEARS AGO. Where is the innovation? E3 is meant to get everyone pumped, and all it is doing at the moment is giving the big boys avenues in which to embarass themselves. Sequels, sequels, violence, and sequels. A rush to be a set-top box, and all-in-one entertainment system. The idea is laudable, but the reason that the whole world bought a PLAYStation in the first place was for something to PLAY on. There is simply no need to ever use Youtube on your XBox, especially as doing that means you can't use it to play a game on.

I hope Nintendo kicks some cars over tonight, I really do. So far, it has been a very non-thrilling "Biggest week of the year" for our hobby. It is actually getting harder to give a shit about the big budget and hardcore AAA consoles by the year, and the thought of new hardware being announced is not one I welcome very much at all. If all I have to look forwards to are yearly updates to franchises I stopped caring about a few years ago, why should I sit and watch this crap at all?

My hope is that I'm not alone. I am frequently ahead of the curve on these things, and am used to being laughed at one year and then paraphrased two years later. But, at least according to the people I was interacting with while watching these conferences, in the delighfully old-fashioned way that didn't require my games console at all no less, the attitude seemed to be shared. This can, of course, mean that I am just getting old. But, it could also mean that E3 is.