BUYING INTO THE CONCEPT

Pre-ordering is a fairly regular practice these days, but that doesn’t disguise its shady nature. Or, at least that’s what a good number of consumers discovered last month with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which bombed harder than a 90’s Manc at a warehouse rave (International readers click here). Reviewers were quick to assault the title with scathing criticism but, alas, it was too late – enough wallets had already been squeezed dry with little promise of refund, leaving many sad, angry and even embarrassed to have been conned into such an abysmal purchase. The trick of the pre-order is that it confirms a sale before release, no matter the quality of content and, very gleefully, playing on the commitment of the fans to their chosen franchise.

There are a few different paths our favourite developers like to take when releasing AAA titles, the most infamous being that of Collector’s Editions. Often promising a lavish array of soundtracks, art books or plastic sculptures, these are probably the most ‘fair’ of the group and can genuinely provide the odd fan with a good bit of extra enjoyment, if only to litter their shelves with a few more video relics. What is not so generous, however, is the popular trend of ‘in-game content’ that has begun to spread across the genres like a digital plague. Obscure perks, such as alternate character costumes and weapons (looking at you, Dead Space 3), are not exactly what I’d consider worth the extra cost, especially since they are being purposefully withheld from the community to earn a few extra coins. Exclusive DLC is certainly a target in this, revealing that more content had actually been created before release, but only for those willing to invest. To put that into layman’s terms, imagine buying a BLT, except you can only redeem the bacon at an additional cost.

Aliens: Colonial Marines – a sandwich without a filling…

Crystal Dynamics’ recent, gritty reboot of Tomb Raider managed to push the pre-ordering boat out into a new area of uncharted waters with uncertain consequence. Implementing a Kickstarter-esque reward system usually reserved for ‘we will produce what we can create’ situations, fans were coerced into investing early to unlock additional perks, which included digital artwork, copies of older games and the aforementioned horror of horrors, exclusive DLC. The question these kinds of systems are beginning to raise is how much content will developers be willing to withhold in future if it guarantees definitive sales? Not only is this bad practice, but our continued flocking to pre-order regardless of this fact only promotes its existence and influence on a title’s marketing – which allows me to segue rather shakily into the discussion of digital benefits and their real worth.

Receiving concept art, or the forever-popular map, is always a welcome treat in the box, but it doesn’t really hold as strong or exciting in .pdf format. In fact, I’d go as far as saying they are ultimately pointless and provide absolutely no incentive to the purchase as far as your printer ink is concerned. I readily challenge any buyer to prove me wrong in the value of this content, because it currently holds as much use as buying your cat decorative headwear (which is a very real thing indeed). But, I cannot be completely negative – sketches and early imaginings of our beloved characters and worlds can be very interesting and a nice addition to any collection, the issue lies more in whether they can be considered justifiable for the extra cost – despite the lack of a physical copy.

Finally, I shall end this rant on the biggest influence of all for digital pre-purchasing: the occasional, enticing offer of a discounted price. In contrast to their partners in crime, recent releases have allowed the consumer to save 10% off the final cost – a practice that has been strongly inspired by Valve’s effective use of Steam sales. “What is wrong with saving some money on a game I would’ve bought anyway?” I hear you cry, brandishing your credit card with experienced ease. Well, let me point you back up to the top of this article and the debacle that was the latest Aliens game. Pre-ordering a title is a huge risk for the consumer with only the shaky promise that it might be a successful purchase in hand, and this should certainly be kept in mind whatever the studio or franchise. Continued conformity to this trend only promotes and fuels the format, as much as we’d like to be the first to get our hands on that next big release. So, please keep in mind that every time you rush online to click that big, green pre-order button, you have logged yourself as yet another statistic in favour of these enticing, yet incredibly devious marketing tactics.

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IN MEMORANDUM

 Simplicity is key in this current day and age. We live our lives between screens, counting down the seconds to each new console, phone or any of the other numerous distractions we can get our hands on. And why not? We live in a convenience culture, carefully crafted to supplement all the needs of the modern man: why sing when you can be auto-tuned; walk when you can drive; read a book when you can watch a film? But, it’s not our fault, God forbid – this world has just been much too generous for us to refuse. Sadly, that leaves humanity in a bit of a predicament, rotting away mentally while technology continues to grow and flourish.

Although that introduction may seem a little bit dire and exaggerated in comparison to the current state of gaming, it does still hold very true. With every new mainstream release the bar is being lowered and lowered in terms of true involvement from the player, requiring less effort and application on their behalf until all you’re left with is essentially a digital colouring by numbers, £45 RRP. Where has all the challenge and achievement of old gone? Do the new generations of gamer only want quick reward and satisfaction for their virtual actions; a shiny badge for every minute wasted online, smashing pixels together? Having grown up with the emergence of popular consoles and titles, such as Tomb Raider, or Marathon (now continued in the Halo franchise), the thrill of playing lay in the completion of a particularly hard level, or solving that frustrating puzzle that had kept you clueless for days. It is a shame to see now that only the independent developers have risen to defend the intellectual and punishing genres of the past; the Roguelikes, Strategy and Logic titles that essentially created gaming as we know it today.

The problem, I think, lies in the creation of the Casual genre. People just don’t have the time or motivation to really work for success in their virtual fantasies, ironically defeating the point of their own escapism. A good example of this would be in the vast popularity of Rovio Entertainment’s mobile time-waster, Angry Birds, which has been downloaded over a billion times since its initial release in 2009 – a staggeringly high figure for any developer to boast. However, the pulling power of this game does not lie in its complexity, storyline or challenge, but rather its repetition and quick reward system that gives instant gratification with no fault for mistake: just another 3 stars to show off to your friends. Comparing this system to the current setup of modern, ‘advanced’ titles – such as Call Of Duty – the concept of even having difficulty settings anymore is quickly called into question. I don’t mean to condemn Casual games as the instigators of our current situation, but they are very much to blame for the effect it has had across all platforms, mimicking the evolution of our society into the Short and Simple – i.e. far from the Nightmare Mode we used to relish so fervently.

So, can we still restore gaming to its original state and help save ourselves from mental decay? Yes, of course – you just have to make yourself heard and show the support to those who really need it. Portals such as Indievania, or even Steam Greenlight, have all worked hard in bringing the spotlight back to the community and allowing for independent developers to showcase their art to a mainstream audience, gaining the recognition and opportunity that is normally only found in the wallets of established publishers. This is not so much a whimpering cry of ‘support the Indies’, but rather a backlash to what appears to be a massive decline in front line content and production. I may be jaded, but I honestly urge all those who still believe in the integrity of gaming as outlets of logic and true art to please consider these humble words before you purchase that next spin-off sequel the minute it touches the shelves.

REVIEW – Indie Game: The Movie

I recently had the privilege of seeing Indie Game: The Movie, a Canadian documentary that looks behind the scenes at three well-known indie games: the commercially and critically successful Braid, the soon to be released Super Meat Boy, and the perpetually trapped in development hell FEZ. The movie was funded by two Kickstarter projects and features a soundtrack by Jim Guthrie of Sword and Sworcery fame.

More importantly than the games, Indie Game also looks at the developers behind them: Braid’s lone wolf Jonathan Blow; Super Meat Boy’s fiercely determined Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes; and FEZ’s beleaguered Phil Fish. The film gives an intensely personal perspective of the men behind these games, their backgrounds, their philosophies and the relationships they have with their creations.

Braid is a puzzle platformer that was released to widespread acclaim, making it the second highest selling XBox Live Arcade game in 2008. Critics loved its elaborate puzzles and unique time mechanics including a full rewind feature, but Blow feels that a lot of people who have played and reviewed the game have missed the point of the artistry in the game, particularly its story. Braid was conceived in opposition to the current trends in video gaming, and Blow is certainly not afraid to let people know it. The film documents some of the internet vitriol Blow has received for his views, but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He has genuine desire for an emotional connection with a player of the game through its story, and he feels disappointed that the majority don’t seem to ‘get’ it.

The film covers Super Meat Boy through its final weeks of production, and counts down to its release on XBLA. McMillen and Refenes are a close-knit team who live on the opposite sides of the US, conducting most of the game development through Skype. They are passionate gamers with true love for the artform and its storytelling abilities. McMillen’s wife Danielle and Refenes’ sister and parents are also featured, which gives a nice view on how important familial relationships are in supporting a developer, but also the toll that the stress and long hours can have on them. Super Meat Boy is finished on a very very tight deadline, and the scenes of both developers pulling all-nighters to finish it might hit a bit close to home for some! For me, the journey of this game was the most powerful emotionally – the stress of meeting the deadline, the shock and disappointment of Super Meat Boy not appearing on XBLA on release day (it was eventually released that afternoon and sold 20,000 copies in 24 hours), and the pure joy and relief as the first positive reviews for the game come out and both of them realise that they are on the cusp of the success that they’ve been working towards for all their lives.

FEZ’s journey started in 2008, when it started to win awards purely based on its trailer. It’s a colourful and whimsical puzzler using a unique mechanic – the world spins on its Y axis, rendering a 2D game into a 3D world. However, after 2008 the game and its developer encountered problems – the game subsequently went through 3 complete redesigns, and Fish’s business partnership dissolved acrimoniously, creating substantial legal problems. Fish admits his perfectionism is a large part of the delays, and the game has swallowed his whole life. The internet is growing very impatient with the delays, and Fish worries that there will be no interest left by the time the game is finally released. There’s a very sweet moment where he plays little games he made as a child with his father, and he seems to regain his joy and passion for gaming and developing.

A crucial moment for FEZ takes place at the 2011 PAX Prime, where Fish is due to debut the first playable demo. Due to his ex-partner’s refusal to sign the last of the paperwork ending the partnership, Fish is not legally allowed to show the demo in public. He goes ahead anyway, and even though the game is full of bugs and crashes constantly, the demo is widely well-received by attendees, and even Penny Arcade’s Tycho. After years of constant stress, towards the end of the film Fish finally gets the signature, and carries on developing FEZ. (FEZ was subsequently completed after the movie was filmed, and released to great success in April 2012.)

Indie Game is a very truthful film, and the emotions of all involved are powerfully raw. It has more highs and lows than Six Flags. It does leave you questioning why the developers do what they do at times, but what really shines through is their desire to tell stories through a medium they all love and respect. Everyone who has ever thought about making games should definitely watch it. Hell, even anyone who has ever bought a video game.

 

Indie Game: The Movie is available for downloading/streaming online, and also on Steam and iTunes

Braid is available on XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and Linux

Super Meat Boy is available on XBLA, and PC/Steam. A mobile version is currently in development

FEZ is available on XBLA

WORLD OF WARCRAFT’S SUCCESS AND ITS KILLER

Legend speaks of a so called “WoW-Killer”, an MMO so good and well built that it drains Blizzard’s subscription number down to a low amount. Games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and RIFT have been called this, wrongly. After a couple of months, they all fall, and Warcraft remains strong.

 Why?

It’s simple: WoW is a game that has years of content within it. Spanning the original and its three expansions, that’s nearly seven years of constant development and work. So when a new player comes in, he/she has a gargantuan amount of quests, arenas, dungeons and raids to go through. Therein lies the problem. Picture this: The Old Republic comes out, and offers players 50 levels plus a mediocre endgame, which BioWare promises to improve later. Gamers go, grind through the 50 levels, defeat all the bosses in raids, get the gear. And all in less than two months. Then what? The developer is having problems fixing the bugs, and isn’t able to release more than a mere dungeon in the next update. The patch releases, and the players chew it and swallow it. Yet they need more, and there isn’t enough in the game to keep them satisfied. That’s why they go back to Warcraft, because in there, they have at least 100+ hours of game time guaranteed.

The new game that BioWare had just released, is basically the same that Blizzard released 7 years ago. But why play that, when you can play an updated and improved version of it: Warcraft?

Also, Warcraft gives both unexperienced players and hardcore gamers an immersive experience. The game is layered, and although it might seem simple, many complex formulas and strategies exist for those who like a challenge. Let me be honest, I’m not a hardcore MMO fan, and sometimes when I start in a new game I’m just overwhelmed by the complex features, even though I’ve played my fair share of them. Yet in Warcraft everything has been simple from the start.

Will Guild Wars 2 kill it? Perhaps. Maybe it will suck 2-4 million users. But remember, Blizzard is cunning. They know what to do in moments like these. Once it launches, thousands will go to play it. And Blizzard will just smile, because a month later, their own fourth expansion releases. Those couple thousand people that went running to play Guild Wars? They’re going to run back around. Sadly, I think that Guild Wars is not a franchise that is popular enough to dethrone Warcraft. To hit it hard, a huge fan base will be needed, and it does not have it. Perhaps the Elder Scrolls will, once it launches its own MMO, or maybe Dungeons and Dragons online, who knows?

Their numbers are strong. Credit goes to MMOData.net

It’s the ugly truth. Unless developers start being innovative, instead of just trying to do what WoW did, their games are all going to fail. We have to hope that one day, a developer’s light bulb will light up and a Killer will be born.

But to be honest, I believe that the real WoW-Killer is none other than Warcraft itself. With a stunning number of 9.1 million (as of August) subscribers, it’s going to be hard to topple it. That’s why I believe that the fall will come from within. Maybe Blizzard will commit a huge mistake with an expansion, causing its own demise. It seems to me that the WoW-Killer is just a myth, after all. Let’s wait and see.