Sunday, February 15, 2015

Video Game Monetization and the Gamer Culture

Launching with Day 1 DLC
Images like this have created shockwaves in the community
about Day 1 DLC.

This week I've seen an uproar on /r/gaming about the monetization of first day cosmetic skins with the recent release Evolve by developer Take Two. The complaints are that a game that costs a premium price of $60 should not "money-grab" by charging for first day skins that have been developed as of the first day of release. These opinions are well founded and coming from consumers that desire to play a fully rounded and complete game on release like they used to be shipped. The same thing will be happening with Mortal Kombat X on release. There have been many different versions of the game listed as shippable with different pricing options and even characters and skins that are held behind a paywall.

I've read many of the complaints and concerns regarding the industry and this new standard that seems to be more and more common in recent releases. What most of the opinions boil down to is that a "game" in its final state should include all of the current developed content for that main game, whatever the core concept of the game may be. Skins, characters, and the like that are released as special content for further pricing shouldn't be released as separate content on day 1 of a major release. This concept is consistent with the past development of games and the business practices that have helped establish a new culture of gaming and expression through a new type of media.

The problem with comparing the past business model and the present business model is the internet. The internet changes everything. In the business market it changed the world overnight. Stocks were immediately accessible, logistics were faster and lighter, and communication became nearly instantaneous. As soon as that Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi hits your gaming device it changes the way business is done with the consumer as well. With the internet, business transactions are more convenient for the consumer but they are also more convenient for the business.

The reason that the gaming market has exploded in recent years is because of this ease of access and instant transmission of data. We can buy games right at our fingertips with barely a thought. With the game market expanding and markets like Steam and Live opening up to indie developers our wallets go further. We can spend $20 without blinking an eye because all it takes is just a few keystrokes and we have hours of entertainment to enjoy.

This DLC for Arkham City was Day 1 and later released
with the GOTY edition.
Enter first day DLC. We see a quality game we think we will love and purchase it through a digital storefront without having to expend the effort to leave our couches. Without fully interacting with a marketplace to exchange money the impact of that sale is lost on the consumer a bit. Now power up the game and see that there are cosmetic differences in the way you can play the game for only $2.50 for say your favorite color. That enrages you but you don't know why. You already paid for the game why would you pay more? Why would a game that already costs money charge more? If they were going to charge for cosmetics or characters why didn't they adopt the free-to-play model like DOTA 2 or League?

It's confusing and enraging and you may dislike it as a model from the consumer side. I know I do and I know I won't be purchasing either game. Statistics show though that companies like Activision that have monetized add-ons to the Call of Duty franchise make lots of money though. As much outcry as there is against the practice, it is not punished by a lack of profits. Gross sales for these games are through the roof compared to games that are "complete" on release.

As a culture developed by "complete games" we have a strong influence on the direction that gaming companies move up to a point. Gamers eventually become game-developers and eventually CEO's of mega-corporations like EA and Activision. No matter how loud we are though as a culture, money speaks louder. These are companies that operate off of profits and morality always takes a back seat when it comes to entertainment.

So how do we stop this from happening? Well as consumers the logical answer is to say "don't buy the game". So we don't, but everyone else does and many of them pay for the added skins as well over time. I won't say that I'm not guilty of it. The day 1 DLC is rewarded and carries on as a good business practice. Positive reinforcement at its finest.

If we can't boycott the practice, because it takes a unified movement (which I believe gamers are incapable of) then it won't happen. Lets look at another movement that failed. The peripheral devices movement. You remember the PlayStation eye or the Move controller? The original peripheral device games for the Wii that required additional equipment to play? That might have been just as popular, it's essentially charging more for wiring a piece of plastic up and then putting it in the same case. This doesn't require rocket scientists and can be done at a very low price point, but developers would raise the prices because of this added electronic peripheral. Why did it fail? It was inconvenient. It required additional familiarization with little reward. It was more work and often didn't amount to a better experience.

This model (and the success of Steam) however helped developers and publishers realize that convenience was the key to tapping straight into the wallets of consumers. Thus day 1 DLC is born and added special content becomes more and more common. Who is to blame? No one really. This is the natural evolution of the marketplace that has been affected by advances in technology.

Back to my original question, how do we change it? Right now, it's too profitable an option for Triple A game developers to pass up. We can't stop them from doing it but just like fads it can fall out of style. I predict that in the next 10 years this fad will pass and DLC will still exist but at a much smaller price point per item. Developers will release DLC at adequate intervals and not on the first day of launch, but it will take a while for it to fall out of favor. I would say that games that don't take this course of action will compete harder in the market, but the market is flooded right now. When there are more options it is harder to compete with more powerful players like Triple A companies. This is just a storm we will have to weather for now.

So buckle down, and start working on that backlog of games. Its going to be a rough (10 year) season for games. My knees are hurting already.

(If you have a different opinion or want to suggest a game to play and review, let me know @SimonGolden on twitter!)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

6 days of...Endless Legend!

Genre Fusing Design

That is a giant scarab my capitol is set around.
Yea it's that awesome.

Booting up Endless Legend for the first time I knew I was in for something special. I had previously played the 4x Space Civ Simulator, Endless Space, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Both are made by Amplitude Studios and are part of their multiple-game and multiple genre universe spanning series that have been released in rapid succession over the last few years. Endless Space, Endless Legend, and Endless Dungeon, are the three games currently released from Amplitude. All giving their own slightly varied experience.

Endless Legend is the most recent iteration of the endless universe. Starting the game up I was surprised to find a very sparse menu. This is something common between all of the Amplitude games. A minimalistic styled menu that gives you little to do but jump right into their game and get started. That's exactly what I was eager to do.

I didn't do very well this time around...
What the Endless series also excels at is punishing mistakes. The first few times I played I was decimated by nearly every other civilization in the game. Still though, each time I played I made progress. This is one of my favorite parts about civilization builders. Failing and returning to re-build my civilization stronger and more robust. After about 4 times playing through, I finally conquered the world and won. In total this took about 20 hours just to give you an idea of how long it takes to become proficient.

Personally I won by taking the military route after I began falling behind other civilizations in points, however it caused my people endless unhappiness to be ruled by a dictatorial warlord. Still though it was a win even though it wasn't by the conditions I had originally intended. Most of the civilizations have conditions they are better suited to winning with, but every option is always open.

The science "ladder" you climb while playing brings you into several era as you play. Each era increases the power available to units and the technology but also increases the production requirements of each city. This adds a depth that includes time as a measurable resource that must be managed. After playing Civilization games I have to say that this is a small change but makes a large difference in how quickly you may want to uncover new technologies.

This combined with the happiness mechanic makes even advancing in production and technology a balancing act. Destroying facilities and units that require upkeep from previous eras can actually help you in the short run to recover and quickly produce more powerful units. Other regular resources are provided in the same way most are in 4x turn based games. They are however more difficult to balance and utilize properly. Running short on resources is common and so is having to make hard decisions.

Combat looks deceptively simple, but is very deep.
The biggest draw that I saw in the game was combat, and the turn based mechanics. As far as I could tell, 2 people would take turns at 1 time. Which means you would be moving units at the same time and so there is at least a bit of real-time attention needed as if you are paying little attention to what your units are doing they can be attacked easily. Prioritizing movement over building can save or ruin opportunities. Combat between units is played out simultaneously on your turn between armies in a tiled strategy turn-based format. I know that this type of combat has gotten a lot of flak in reviews as a negative aspect to the game, but I consider it a positive.

Consider for a moment that the entire "default" game takes place over 300 turns, the combat helps break up the repetition of the turns with something different and stimulating in a different way. Everything Endless Legend does seems fresh even though it utilizes formulas from many previous games. The fusion of turn based civ building and combat works perfectly with the way the game is paced in my opinion.

I for one am eagerly awaiting the further release of games in the endless series. I can't wait to see what Amplitude studios comes up with next.

You'll like this game if: You like fully fleshed out universes with full stories for each faction that include an over-arcing mission to allow for victory. Highlights include great combat, wonderfully balanced civ building and well integrated mechanics that don't allow for much exploitation.

(If you have a different opinion or want to suggest a game to play and review, let me know @SimonGolden on twitter!)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Razer DeathAdder, my first gaming mouse

Functional and Crisp

With only 5 buttons this mouse is unassuming,
let me assure you it packs a punch!
The words above are how I would describe the DeathAdder by Razer. Do not assume that the simplicity of those words implies a non-satisfactory product. Quite the opposite in fact. Let me start off by saying that this is my first "gaming" mouse. Prior to this I was using a normal run of the mill 2 click wheel job that was a hand-me-down from another gamer. Unfortunately it was on the fritz after 7 years and clicking double when I only asked for a single. 

So my wife went online and bought me what I wouldn't normally be willing to buy myself. I consider "gaming" paraphernalia to be frivolous. Not that I'm against it normally, I just believe that the extra $50 you would spend to have something fine tuned for gaming would go better toward other things in life. I believe that especially now that I have more adult responsibilities than I can remember on a daily basis. 

So when the DeathAdder came in the mail and appeared on my desk, I was surprised and relieved that I wasn't responsible for spending the money that was required to bring it to me. I quickly took it out of the box and threw my older mouse out of the way. Out with the old and in with the new! 

I found the Death Adder to deliver superior performance immediately. Even before downloading the software I noticed an immediate performance improvement from my previous mouse. The buttons activate at just the right pressure to allow for a tactile response but also quick reflexive movement. There was no delay or unnecessary pressure needed. This goes for the mouse wheel as well. It moved quickly and easily but stopped when there was no movement applied. It has defined and satisfying intervals that it stops at which is personally something I look for as I end up scrolling in many games I play and online as I surf the web. 

Added benefits to the mouse include 2 programmable buttons and amusing lighting effects. Now I've never been one for multiple buttons on the mouse. I prefer one hand to control movement with minimal other interface and one hand on the keyboard where all my buttons are. 2 extra buttons are plenty for me and they always have been. That makes for 5 clickables on the mouse and a rolling wheel for control. Plenty in my book and plenty to control any game I've come across. 

Opening up the software I had to look around a bit to familiarize myself. There are some minor inconveniences in the buttons on the UI that are counter-intuitive. Nothing that a bit of thinking didn't work out. After experimenting a bit I have to say that the "macro" feature of the software is interesting. I will have to try to come up with a good idea for macros but for now I'll just leave it alone. It seems to work very well and I had some fun programming pretty much anything into the buttons I wanted. 

The Death Adder next to my Saitek Exlipse II and their
complimentary lighting
Movement and DPI were very impressive. I don't know how much I will be able to recognize the difference between polling rates (the rate at which information is transmitted) but I do notice a massive difference in DPI ranges (dots per inch). The DPI range from centimeters to cross the screen to meters so there is a speed for everyone. The settings are automatically set so you test them as soon as you lift your mouse button which can be a bit jarring but is nice that the "apply" button is gone from the UI. It might seem like a small thing but it makes a difference in the perceived responsiveness of the mouse and program. 

Ergonomically it is shaped definitively for a right-handed player. It fits very well to the hand with no movement or adjustment needed. It is slightly angled at many points to keep the mouse firmly in place when moving the hand but without needing adjustment or a firm grip. I have average hands for the male population and I have to say that it feels perfectly natural in my hand while playing.

Since I haven't had any other gaming mouses fresh out of the box I have to say that I am very impressed with the DeathAdder from Razer. I tested it on DOTA 2, Don't Starve, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Kerbal Space Program. They all require lots of clicking and movement from the mouse and I never once found myself frustrated or fatigued. I have looked around at other mouses from other companies. Unless something else jumps out to me as revolutionary though, I think I'll be sticking with the Razer lines. 

You'll like this mouse if: You want a crisp, responsive, and enjoyable experience without too many bells, whistles, and doodads (perfect for any general gaming environment).  The UI matches this simple approach and brings nearly unlimited functionality to the mouse that is deceptively simple. There is no lack of customization that you apply with the combination of the two. The total experience is subtle but very satisfying. 

(If you have another opinion on the Razer line, let me know at @SimonGolden on Twitter!)