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Games: Pre-Purchase, Early Access and Crowd-funding

The games industry is changing the way games are funded and released. There are not loads of new options for how you can get hold of the newest games, ensure the games you want to play are made and even take part in the development.

I’d like to talk about three of these and how I view them and what experiences I’ve had with them.

The first is Crowd-Funding

I’ve funded a number of things using Kickstarter. There’s Star Citizen, Elite: Dangerous and Godus to name some examples, not entirely at random. These examples are not at random because they highlight the differences between dangerously over-hyped, delivering as promised and failing miserably respectively. SC and ED have both done right by the community that supports and funds them; they provide regular updates, they deliver what they promised and they talk and engage with their community continuously and above all openly. Both SC and ED are running late and yet their communities still support them. Why is that? It’s because they were open and honest about what they were doing and why and in the end the sponsors want the game they were promised, and given they’ve already waited many years, a few more months won’t bother them.

Godus is a miserable failure. It’s delivered very little and what it has delivered is nothing like what was promised. Their communication with the community is attrocious and they have zero ability to set expectations correctly. They call their last release a “beta”, despite it being nowhere near feature complete and something a lot more akin to an alpha. What’s worse is the total lack of engagement and communication with the community. At the end of last year the company just went silent, for months. People started wondering if they’d gone under. In fairness to 22cans, they are now trying to salvage this, but it’s probably too little too late.

I like crowd-funding as a mechanism for getting things made. I’m not a fool though and realise that it’s basically just a new form of venture capital, and as most venture capitalists will tell you, most of the things you fund will fail. I’ve been really lucky in that of the six or so things I’ve funded, only one so far seems to be in danger of failing or strongly disappointing me. The others are doing well. The other thing to keep in mind is that as a crowd funder I have even less control and oversight of the project than a venture capitalist might. I’m at the mercy of the person I funded, and have no way of compelling them to do anything. Most projects take their sponsors seriously and give them as much oversight as they might a traditional publisher some, like Godus, don’t.

The next is Early-Access

This is a strange one. There are potential benefits here all round. The developer can get extra funding during the development cycle. The developer can start getting feedback and incorporating it into their work. This is pretty much the essence of SCRUM and Agile development. Get feedback from stakeholders early and often and act on it. The other good thing is that players can get their hands on something early and most importantly, for me at least, the chance to shape the direction of a game to help it become all it can be. It’s also an opportunity for people to start providing feedback on the game and reviews and this allows a game to be judged early and allows those potentially interested to start seeing game footage, player comments and even reviews for a game. The danger here are those games that don’t seem to have a clear end date for their early access, and you start wondering if they’ll ever release. Then there’s developers that listen too much to the crowd and end up doing development by committee, which is never a good thing. Finally there’s people getting access to the game and expecting that what they see will be playable and fun, when actually it might be nothing of the kind.

The final one is pre-order

This is one which I have done myself a number of times and I’ve been burnt enough times now that I refuse to do it any more. What makes this nasty is the industry practice of embargoing reviews until a games has been released. Therefore if you buy a game based on trailers, or marketing material, it might end up being totally crap (X-Rebirth, Colonial Marines) and there’s no way to get your money back. There’s also the nasty habit developers have of slicing up their content and offering zero-day DLC or different areas/benefits depending on which retailer you pre-order from. Aside form splitting up developer resources, it means that us poor blighters that want to play the game will never be able to see all of it, unless we buy the same game from lots of different retailers on pre-order. It’s a nasty practice and one I refuse to take part in any more.

Conclusion

How then is pre-purchase different from crowd-funding? I suppose, in reality, it’s not different. In some ways crowd-funding is almost worse than pre-order, as all you have are promises. Where the two differ for me is that with crowd-funding I know I’m buying into a promise, into a dream, I’m providing the opportunity for something to be made which might otherwise never even exist. With pre-order I’m buying a supposedly finished game, which is so good that they had to prevent all the reviews from being released before I buy it.

Reflections on Diablo III

Diablo III has been out for a while and I’ve been playing it a fair bit. I thought I’d share my own views on the game, to add to the general level of noise on the internet about it.

There is very much complimentary to say about Diablo III.

The graphics are gorgeous. The generated levels and dungeons slot together seamlessly. You do start to recognise elements, but it never becomes jarring or obvious the way it has for games in the past. There’s no “tiles” as it where, and any that exist are very large and not distracting.

The cut-scenes are gorgeous, in true Blizzard style, and put many so-called “blockbuster movies” to shame.

The story is simple and a bit clichéd, but carries you through the game fairly well, it was hardly meant to be the primary focus of the game and what there is of it is enough to keep you mildly engaged while you’re playing, at least during the first or second play through.

Unfortunately this is where we start running into the problems. There are four difficulty levels and each one is supposed to be a much harder challenge than the previous. This is certainly true, but the difference seems very artificial. The enemies get more abilities, they get more health and they do more damage. So much so that there are far too many one-shot kills and often enough you can run into a group of the more challenging “elites” or “champions” and you’re dead before you even realise it.

The challenge to beating these enemies is very artificial. I’m playing a wizard. I should do masses of damage to compensate for the fact that I have little healthy and no real armour. In the first play through you can just use your primary and secondary spells and you’re fine. In the next you need to start using all your skills, and start running away quite a bit. In the next difficulty you are running all the time with barely enough time to cast a spell. Often enough if you do stop to cast a spell the mobs catch you and you die. Beating these enemies becomes a case of simply running away and dying.

There’s no real way to beat these enemies by changing your strategy or spell selection. The mobs get to trap you and pin you into place, but there’s no real spells that allow you to do that back to them. The enemies get abilities (and more of them for each difficulty level) and some combinations are just so impossible to defeat that no matter what strategy you employ you have no real chance. Take elites with “invulnerable” minions. That’s right you cannot damage those extra mobs, but they can damage you. You also as a wizard cannot cast your ranged spells at the main mob because the shielded ones are in the way. The entire fight becomes a case of just running around and trying to sneak a spell past the invulnerable enemies. Run in the wrong direction and more enemies appear, wait a fraction of a second too long after casting a spell and you die, or get trapped by running in the wrong direction and die.. or get trapped because the enemies also have the “waller” or “jailer” ability as well. One or two hits and you’re dead. There are other ability combinations equally frustrating. It should be a challenge, it should require you to learn and plot and improvise, but there’s nothing in the game that gives you those options.

The only real way to beat these fights is to have decent gear to bring your damage and armour/health up high enough to be able to take the odd hit while running around in circles. There’s no point changing your strategy, because there’s really only one strategy that works.

That’s the next problem. There’s no really good loot drops. Masses of loot drops but it’s all crap. You might get an upgrade item for one in a thousand drops. The loot is random, but it’s a bit too random; or maybe their algorithms are broken. For some reason my wizard gets a massive amount of quiver drops (which he can’t use). I’m level 58 and still wearing some rings I picked up around level 20-30 because in the 30 hours of game play since, I’ve not had a single ring drop that’s better than the two I already have.

Replaying earlier parts would be a lot more fun if you the loot that dropped could actually be an improvement, but for the most part you look at what drops and it’s stuff you might have liked 10 or even 20 levels earlier, but it’s nothing as good as what you have and certainly nothing as good as you need to beat the current hardest enemy you’re facing.

This leaves you with no real choice but to farm for gold and buy stuff from the auction house. Unfortunately there are gold sellers running rampant in the game and inflation in the auction house is out of control. An upgrade for one of my rings (just a simple magical ring with some better stats) is listed as millions of gold. According to my stats, I’ve collected 1 million gold in the 70 hours of play so far. How am I supposed to pay for items then? I’m not a student any more, I can’t play for 12 hours a day, every day.

The gameplay issues are bad enough… add to that that this game requires an always-on internet connection and the servers are collapsing under the load and there are whole evenings and weekends where you cannot even connect to play and I’m glad I got this game as part of a deal and didn’t pay for it directly.

The game is becoming more and more monotonous and, in truth, boring. Things that might keep you playing, like the thrill of getting good loot, or a great drop, isn’t there because drops are so far and few between that by the time you get one any thought or chance of excitement has long been replaced by frustration and exasperation and your only response is “about bloody time”.

Maybe Blizzard will fix it, maybe not. For a game that’s supposed to be “infinitely repayable” it’s very disappointing. There are better games out there, Torchlight, springs to mind; maybe not as polished graphically and musically, but certainly less frustrating to play.

In the scheme of things though I’ve got 70 hours of entertainment out of a game that retails for about €55, and I’ll still get more, as I play through the game with the other classes. Compare that to a cinema ticket of €11 for 2 hours of entertainment, or a football match for €60 (or a lot more) and it’s certainly good value. It just could have been so much more.

Star Wars the Old Republic

I’ve been playing this a fair bit in the last few days and I thought I’d share my impressions of it.

World of Warcraft much?

The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t that much about Star Wars the Old Republic to distinguish it from World of Warcraft. Clearly the aim has been to actually make the games as similar, from a view of mechanics and controls, as they could.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. WoW has been around for more than half a decade and is still going strong, so copying something that successful can’t be all bad. It also means that SWOTR clearly has in mind WoW players as it’s target demographic.

It’s therefore fantastically easy to get into the game if you’re a seasoned WoW player. While there’s some tweaking in the class categories, SWOTR clearly lists each class by its role: Tank, Healer, DPS.
The mix can seem a bit odd though. I started out with a Jedi Consular and specialised into Shadow. Depending on talents (and the talent tree mechanics are intimiatly familiar with how WoW works) this means I’m either a rogue (DPS) or a tank. If I’d taken the alternate specialisation, I’d have been a healer.

Party size is 4, not 5 though.

The WoW similarities don’t end with the talent tree. The layout of the UI is very similar, the keyboard mappings are almost identical. Want to clear the UI and take a screenshot? ‘Alt-z’, ‘Prt Scrn’; same as WoW. Even flourishing and/or sheathing your weapon is the same key, ‘z’. There was no problem at all slipping from WoW into SWOTR. Chances are if I want to do something, I just do it the way I did it in WoW and it works.

So what is different? You get companions in the world. So even if you play it as single player you’ll still have a second party member. I have four companions at the moment; only one of whom is allowed to be in party at any time. The others I can send on missions of their own. This is how the crafting system works, and it’s one I much prefer over the WoW mechanic. If I want to make stuff, or find resources, I send my idle crew members off to do it, while I continue adventuring. I even have the option of sending my current companion off to sell al the grey items in my inventory so.

Your companions have their own quests, although they’ve been pretty uninspiring so far, and you can gain their affection by making choices in conversations they approve of, and as their affection grows as do their skills.

You get your own spaceship to fly around in and go from zone to zone (or rather planet to planet) and you even get to do space missions. These are very arcade like and very easy for anyone with the slighest experience at those types of games, but make a great diversion and are good fun in their own right.
The next big difference is the story and the universe. It’s Star Wars, and more specifically Knights of the Old Republic. If you know those games you’ll know this world. It’s set 300 years later, but there are many nods to the existing lore. One of the early planets you go to is Taris, the world that was destroyed in KOTOR and you run around the wreck of the Endar Spire, the ship that was blown apart around you as the first action in KOTOR. You get to find out what happened to the under city dwellers and their quest for their paradise.
Most of the worlds known from Star Wars are there, and many from the KOTOR universe as well. You’ll encounter the names of old characters, worlds and events. Lots of familiar worlds, sometimes surprisingly, yet still realistically, different in ways that are plausible given the 2000 year difference between SWTOR and the films. Alderaan is locked in a downright nasty civil war that could easily explain why it became pacifist.

And that brings me to what SWOTR does best; Story. Fully voiced quest givers, not reams of text. Paying attention to what’s said is actually important. While the quests do tend to the usual kill or go-fetch style, they do require you to make choices and those choices have consequences. Perhaps not on the world as a whole, but certainly on your relationship to the world. Do you take the easy route and kill the engine room crew to save the ship, or take the harder route and try to save everyone. Do you take the expedient route and kill the traitor, or take him prisoner, or even offer him the chance at redemption. What you do affects how stories move on (albeit not as significantly as a single player game might) and they affect your alignment with the force. Dark or Light. Some decisions really are quite evil and reflect the universe accuratly. The self-deprecating humour and irreverence of WoW are missing; but that’d hardly have fit in the SWTOR universe.

Now I arrive at what I see as the flaw with SWOTR. It’s a single player game running on MMORPG servers. The world is huge, the graphics great (albeit with some annoying glitches), mechanics are good and easy to get to grips with and the story is invovled and, if not always compelling, it’s certainly entertaining.
There’s no real need for this game to be an online RPG. For the money they could have made a couple of single-player games and done them extremely well; could have done so much more, since they’d not needed to preserve the world for the next player. Instead it’s an online game that for the most part I’m playing as a single player game. So what happens when the story runs out?

It’s not likely to happen soon. I’m approaching the middle of level 30 and there’s no sign of my class story running dry at the moment, and there are 3 other classes and stories for me to try out and then another 4 on the Empire’s side. I suspect though replay value will possibly be more frustrating than the first play, since there’s so much that will simply have to be repeated.

The game will be fun for quite some time yet, but I suspect endgame will be the big hurdle. Unless bioware/ea come out with frequent and regular story updates I can see myself giving up on this game fairly quickly.

I’m driven by story, but what’s new, by finding out what happens next. It’s why I love each new WoW patch, but then grow a bit jaded with it and withdraw from it once I’ve seen the new stuff. If I wanted to keep doing the same things over and over, I’d get a job on an assembly line.