Archive for the ‘Opinion piece’ Category

The future of Dota 2?   Leave a comment

The issues surrounding Dota 2 are news to few and Valve have done something very unusual in creating this game. While it is the case that Valve have taken what were essentially mods and created full-blown games in the past, a practice now often seen in the indie movement, in this case they have taken a mod so deeply entrentched in a specific game and its world that controversy was bound to follow.

And, to an extent, I can understand the backlash by Blizzard, original DotA fans, Riot Games and others over this. It does seem a bit strange for Valve to take Dota 2 like this without getting a more workable response from the community as well as Blizzard. They only ever recruited the lead developer from the past 7 years, there were two developers before IceFrog, one of whom was the creator of what is the almost exclusively played version of the map. That creates a pretty strong case against Valve’s claim that they can register Dota 2 as a trademark.

Valve have a problem as it seems Blizzard are very willing to take them to task over the Dota 2 trademark claim and I think, as much as I dislike anything part of the great beast that is Activision, Blizzard are in the right about this one. The disappointing thing is that I have played the Dota 2 beta and Valve have a great products on their hands but I can’t help and wonder whether Valve’s aggressive push forward in developing and trademarking this while these issues remain was a bit more shrewd and manipulative that it might appear to some. Valve don’t normally have a reputation for developing something so polished, so quickly.

Certainly, Valve’s Dota 2 will come out in some form even if Blizzard wins its case and I have lost all ability to see Valve as the little guy fighting the big bad beast here because, as small as they are compared to what they now go against, they aren’t little and they should have forseen these problems. I just don’t trust Valve to throw straight dice in this. The questions I wonder are, if Valve wins this upcoming battle, will it affect Blizzard’s own DotA efforts or any continued development of the original Defense of the Ancients? With Team Fortress, Valve hired anyone and everyone who was part of the modding team and it wasn’t tied into one game’s world or mythology so deeply. IceFrog’s claim to the DotA trademark is suspect at best and the game is so bound up with Warcraft III that I can’t see Valve winning this one. At the end of it all, though, I am cheering for Blizzard on this one and I think it’ll be a good thing if Valve don’t get that trademark.

Minecraft’s released, and here are five games you might want to look at first.   Leave a comment

I’ve had a bit of a disappearance due to work and, well, gaming. However, in recent news was the long announced (and inevitably delayed) release of Minecraft which brought a lot of things that irritate me to the forefront.

Its user score hit amber on Metacritic a short while ago. I don’t think it’s a mediocre game, far from it, but I can understand the reaction of many of the gamers who are reacting against the squealing Notch fanboys and the strong bias of professional critics who rally behind the idea that the game is the best thing since sliced bread. I thought the older user score of 7.5 was a little more realistic, but it’s continued to drop.

Here I wanted to put forward five games out around about the same time that, I would argue, are a better investment than Minecraft. Of course, it’s all mostly subjective (assuming you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool games are art type) and there aren’t many games that do what Minecraft do the same way or as well as it, but none the less:

#1) The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac has a classic, rogue-like element mixed up with older console adventure games. You won’t get anywhere near the amount of play hours out of it as Minecraft, but it’s a great example of indie weirdness. It has a vague allusion of Judaic mythology as the player controls Isaac who must escape the basement from which his warped mother wishes to sacrifice him, encountering monsters and deformed siblings on his way to freedom.

#2) Saints Row: The Third

In many ways, Saints Row picked up where GTA 2 left off. By the time GTA 4 was hitting shelves, the series had gone a tad insane in many ways. The first two games were anarchic and did not take themselves seriously in the least. GTA 3 started a trend of trying to add a gritty side to the games and by the time GTA 4 was on screens everywhere, it was hard to see coherence between the bleak existence of the central protagonist and the zany slapstick carried over from the earlier games. Saints Row became, in many ways, the true inheritor of the pure slapstick of the first two GTA games.

#3) Orcs Must Die!

An interesting new take on the old tower defence model. Your basic job is defend a series of towers from hordes of orcs and their cohorts. The production values are good for an indie and the game has good humour running throughout that does not feel forced. As with games like Sanctum, the game boasts a large amount of DLC and the ability to get involved with the suppression of invading forces as opposed to merely leaving it up to the defences you build.

#4) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Most people will know why this game is considered great already, but I’ll re-iterate here. State of the art graphics and sound with more varied terrain than Oblivion, randomised dungeons and countless quests, a more skill-focused character design with perks each level. Based off a new internally-designed engine and a new character generation system, the game opens up a lot more possibility for customisation than removed with its radically changed character design. The game world feels more real, more dynamic than Oblivion and the continued improvements in these areas point to even better in the future.

#5) Bastion

I have to admit, I was rather late on the bandwagon for this one. There’s very little to say against this game though, a paragon of action adventures, it combines elements of gritty fantasy with frontiersman Wild West and post-apocalyptic searching. The aim of the game is to rebuild the city that has fallen under a terrible blight (known as the Calamity) and cracked into several floating islands by finding and reclaiming the cores, bringing them to the sanctity of the bastion where the townsfolk were meant to gather. The game features gameplay and stylistic choices influenced by JRPGs, of which I’m not normally a fan, but its execution is slick and well-crafted.

I’m not saying Minecraft is a bad game. I just feel there’s a lot of hype around it and that the rating of 7.5 I first saw was a lot more realistic to the end product than the near uniform bleating of the praising critics. After his bad air with Bethesda and the nastiness with Yogscast at MineCon, maybe the mediocre user reception will make Notch a little more humble, because he needs to be brought down a peg or two.

RIFT, Mario and Minecraft: a strange combination.   Leave a comment

So recently I’ve between making an effort to actually mop up some of those games I’ve not yet completed and I decided to try getting through the entire collection of Super Mario Bros. All-Stars on the SNES. I did a bit of a push on Overlord too as that kind of fell out too, though I did enjoy the game.

But I’ve kind of broken a taboo I once held because I saw Rift (they capitalise the entire word, though I’m not sure why) on special offer in a Steam daily deal and snatched it up (a month’s free subs, it would definitely be worth the £6 I dropped to get that, I could always cancel my sub before month’s end) and I concluded that it’s actually worth keeping that sub there for a few months longer as I’ll be getting 4 months for less than the full price of the game anyway. After that, I’ll see where I go.

The thing that really pulled me in was the fact that the world seems very open and large for an MMO that has been around around 8 months. I bought it in the sale celebrating the 1.5 update and sizeable updates are being added every two or three months with more minor updates in-between. The options seem more varied than the standard MMO fair with my level 19 character already far ahead of the mainstream quests that are the staple levelling up mechanic in most MMOs I’ve seen so far. This is because of a lot of random elements such as random group dungeon crawls and rift invasions allow a lot of traditionally end game content a chance to shine through to newer players. I doubt I’ll end up playing for the game until the day I die, but I could see myself keeping up a sub for a long while to come.

My housemate and I also paid some cash to get our Minecraft server running ready for the 1.8 update and lo and behold, 1.9 is already on the horizon. I actually quite like these new updates as they appear to be adding new stuff at a good solid rate. My big problem with 1.8 was the Endermen. They are not really scary or all that threatening and have ended up a minor annoyance at best, damaging my woodlands fortress with the occasional missing block or leaving a tree floating in midair.

The Endermen need to be improved a lot. First their AI doesn’t often work properly and this leaves them ignoring me as I stare at them and they move and place blocks in a random fashion. If there were ancient Endermen ruins that they sought to rebuild of Endermen settlements and their placement had more rhythm and reason, that would be excellent. They just feel an arbitrary new addition to the game.

But having criticised Minecraft for its slow updates, I don’t want to be too harsh now that Notch actually seems to be getting on with it. It just should have happened earlier and the updates could be a lot better. Still, we’ll all see next month when Minecraft leaves beta what sort of state it is in and what the future holds. Until then, things are looking a lot more improved.

The new villagers in 1.9 are the real big change as I see it. What they really need is a host of interactions and more ordered AI that makes them feel like real people and not just a couple of re-skinned pigs. Given how easy it is to create something like the 1.9 villagers, I wonder why Notch didn’t add them in before. Now all he needs is a slight modification to their AI and a buy/sell interface with currency and the basics are down, I don’t see why it is so hard.

Pointless offers   Leave a comment

Last week, the recently F2P MMO Crimecraft: Bleedout had a special offer on that was typical of special offers on the F2P sections of Steam: join, try it now and you’ll get in-game advances and items for which you normally pay. These offers work because it gives an incentive to try a F2P game out of the bunch that you wouldn’t normally pick up.

I play a few F2P games, I generally aim to be cost-effective when it comes to gaming, a hangover from bygone unemployed days and F2P games give a lot of room to try before cash changes hands. This is good and I generally find the games that I pay into are not ones I feel I need to pay into to get ahead, they are games like League of Legends that end up making pay cash almost as a ‘thank you’ to the developers. That’s the attitude I’ve stuck by, games that feel like they are wrangling cash from me fall by the wayside.

Now, this sort of offer on Steam is great because I can’t download and try every F2P, nor would I want to. My games catalogue is massive on PC alone, not adding in the catalogues of my retro home computer and console gaming or the tabletop gaming I do. I will never run out of what I already have to play unless I moved into my dad’s attic and quit my job and all social contact. Further, I would need to wade through as much rubbish as my current catalogues to find the League of Legendses or Lord of the Rings Onlines. These offers are a great way to tapping the flow, as it were, and offering up the F2P buffet in manageable plate-loads.

The problem is when a game company seems to want more players than it is willing to reasonably support. So this offer on Crimecraft was up until the 29th and I made several attempts to get in there, create a character and play. I download the game via Steam, create my account, login. There are two servers. The first (Exeter) is full and the other has a population of high (Euricho). So I try Euricho first and I’m put in a queue of nearly 700 people. I estimated by the drop rate that it would take me about half an hour to forty-five minutes to get in, so I try later.

Later does not work. The same problem in both servers. They are stretched beyond what they can reasonably support. I don’t mind the game supporting such a limited userbase, it’s ultimately up to the game publishers, but why have a special offer trying to draw more players in when the special offer will only be accessible to a remote portion of those players?

Sure, it will potentially increase the player base and, therefore, income for the game. I tried logging in today and neither server was a problem this time, so it was short-term, but it doesn’t say much for the game’s attitude to its players. Imagine logging on to the game as a loyal player who’d been playing that game before the offer. Suddenly, you cannot play or are forced to wait up to an hour because they want to cram their servers full with potential cash-giving players.

Vogster (the developers) have a more than healthy sized community playing their game for the resources they allot it, unless their servers report false stats about player numbers. If they want to increase their base beyond what they currently have, they need an extra server.

The bigger problem is that this is indicative of some of the bad thinking behind F2P models. Players aren’t there to sell a set product to or build relationships with, they are cash pumps and you fit as many of them as you can in your game. Crimecraft isn’t necessarily advocating this outlook, but it would seem it given they made a drive to get more players than they can support comfortably. People need to be very sceptical of F2P games and I think they really need to know the sorts of business models being used before they feel comfortable investing.

The good old days of gaming   Leave a comment

Recently in a Steam sale, I picked up the game VVVVVV. The name draws attention to two features of the game, the fact that each of the six characters have names beginning with the letter and the triangular spikes that litter the game. The game is a deliberately retro platformer and it wears its intentions on its sleeves from the ZX Spectrum-era music to the loading screen from those by-gone days.

When I tend to think of retro games, I tend to think of games beyond a certain point in time, more than two generations in console terms. PS2 and Xbox games aren’t retro to me yet, but Playstation, Sega Saturn and N64 games (as well as their contemporary PC titles) are. What I’ve seen, however, is a lot of people use the term retro gaming to refer to games specifically from their childhood days. Now, my first gaming machines were from the 16-bit era and, as such, long after the video games crash of 1983. As such, when I see VVVVVV it really harkens back to an age of gaming where I was not alive, let alone playing games, but I have played video games from the 70s and 80s and do consider myself a bit of a retro-gamer, but playing VVVVVV made me think.

It presents itself as a very hard game and it really is. It also presents itself as very frustrating and, perhaps that is true for the hardcore fans who saw their first games before I was born and are pushing towards middle-age or have reached it by now, but I never found it frustrating. There’s this one bit where the game puts you through a series of levels where you have to dodge carefully placed spikes to reach a platform which you bounce off to get to a trinket on the other side and it almost seems to gloat (given the screen names) about how frustrating, unfair and, ultimately, how unrewarding the trinket is at the end.

And that’s something that bothers me. It’s not frustrating me at all because there’s no real challenge there. It’s simply a matter of time and death is barely a setback. Sure, I died a few hundred times getting through that puzzle, but the point is I got through that puzzle.

What do we actually want from older games? The fact is their difficulty alone wasn’t enough to make them good games. Castlevania on the NES was hard, but it was possible to do it first run, you just had to sit and think about how you were going to approach each task rather than learn by rote what you needed to do at what moment in order to get further. VVVVVV isn’t like that, there’s a lot you learn to do simply by rote and getting your timing right can be very hit and miss.

It’s not an awful game, it’s got a lot of charm to it. What it does, however, is make me very thankful that games have blossomed beyond the very limited set of genres and ideas that games in the 70s and early 80s had. In Charlie Brooker’s Gamewipe, he gave the example of a programme from the early days on computer gaming where one presenter dismissed games as lacking any long-term or mass appeal. He criticism wouldn’t stand today because, at the time, games only came as aesthetic variations on one of a few concepts.

My point to all this is we should not harken back nostalgically to a supposed golden era of gaming where things were better, because games are much better today than they have ever been. It’s fun to play some of the older games that were good at the times, but can we really compare classics like Space Invaders to the best of modern day gaming? No, Space Invaders bores me to tears quickly because it’s the same level repeated for the sole achievement of earning an increased number near the word ‘score’ that does not appeal to me as much as it did to those gamers. Pac Man is a little more fun because there’s a bit more balanced challenge and variety but, again, modern gaming wins out. After the NES came out, the face of gaming changed radically and grew into new forms; it still does.

The problem is every time a Brink or a Dungeon Siege III or a Duke Nukem Forever comes out, players are rushing to praise how older games had it right, but they are comparing the better games that they remember to any game coming out today. The fact is that there was plenty of crap coming out then, why does anyone think the crash of ’83 happened? But people won’t remember Custer’s Revenge or E.T. on the Atari 2600. People remember the first Castlevania more than they remember Simon’s Quest and we don’t realise that we do this all the time (and not just in gaming).

So I have a criticism of VVVVVV and that’s the assumption that pins a lot of the talking that games are too easy, too soft on gamers today. They’re not, because the difficulty of games like VVVVVV aren’t a complex, satisfying challenge; they are just arbitrarily difficult to extend game length and we should not condemn modern games for cutting this out. What’s worse, I don’t get irritated or give in to the frustrations of VVVVVV because death is so trivial and arbitrary that it’s turned itself on its head and become fairly easy to complete.

Obsidian’s problems   Leave a comment

If there’s one thing I want anyone to take away from this, it’s that, regardless of how much we loved Black Isle and how good their games could be with proper QA, we should just stop buying Obsidian games until they either change or die off. The sad fact is they are not improving their QA after 8 years of buggy games.

Obsidian Entertainment recently released Dungeon Siege III and while Metacritic scores are veering towards the better side of mediocre, user scores are hitting the same lows as games like Dragon Age II. While it’s easy to treat this as a sign that you shouldn’t take professional reviewers at face value due to their unfortunate tendency of being less critical of games that they ought to be, there is a distinct problem at Obsidian that needs to be solved.

I am talking about their bug-ridden software. Defenders of Obsidian often point to their game’s large scope and depth as a reason for the bugs and we should expect these problems. This simply doesn’t work as a defence, Dungeon Siege III had a larger number than any comparably-sized release I’d seen for a long while and, more importantly, launch-time patches designed to fix problems introduced even more problems that seem so surreal and outlandish that it is hard to imagine how any programmer could derail a patch so.

It’s not even as if Dungeon Siege III is the only bad release, either. Look at the Wikipedia pages for Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2 or Alpha Protocol. Of them, only Fallout: New Vegas got a positive Metacritic score across both professional and user ratings. While it’s the case that Fallout and Neverwinter Nights 2 both have fans of older, non-Obsidian games lowering their user ratings, the lion’s share of complaints from both games seem to be about bugs.

It’s interesting they don’t mention Neverwinter Nights 2 or Alpha Protocol in this.

What is worse, as demonstrated by the Dungeon Siege III launch-time patches, is that Obsidian’s patching policy makes the problems worse. Dungeon Siege III with its control reversal problem or its hour-long game lockout due to two separate patches is not the first to do this, both Fallout and Alpha Protocol fell short here with new problems introduced as old ones are being (often only partially) fixed.

Dungeon Siege III is also plagued by a horde of poor design choices: co-op mode puts the second player, in the words of Penny Arcade, in the role of a side-kick in the first player’s story with no long term gains; players cannot reconfigure any keys or controls for the keyboard, and many complaints on the forums have been met with a “use a gamepad” response. There is also the fact that many older fans of the series complain that the game doesn’t live up to the earlier games, but to what extent these sentiments are based on problems or just dogged gamer conservatism is hard to tell.

If I’m not holding punches for Mojang over this, I won’t for Obsidian. Various game magazines have spoken with people at Obsidian about this issue and they have received the same line: Fallout’s problems were unfortunate, but we’re working extra hard on the QA of Dungeon Siege III.

They evidently didn’t work hard enough, as evidenced by these new patches. They are like the trainwreck spouse who keeps coming back with a promise this time will be different and ends up wrecking it for you yet again if you let them in. In this situation, part of the blame lies on the person who keeps foolishly letting someone like that back into their home, likewise the consumer needs to be more demanding and more savy about what they are getting for their money. There aren’t really any major consumer rights groups for video games out there that have really made themselves known and it’s long overdue.

The short of all this is that Obsidian needs to change the way it views QA, but no promised internal effort on their part has enacted such a change. If a company fails like this, repeatedly over the course of at least four games, then it is time for the consumer to force the change. The simply answer is do not buy Obsidian’s games, do not buy Dungeon Siege III because you liked Black Isle and want to see Obsidian survive regardless of how talentless they are at QA or because you need that third instalment of a loved series. Stay away from Dungeon Siege III because it is buggy and mediocre, just like Neverwinter Nights 2 and Alpha Protocol.

Finally, an update   Leave a comment

It’s been busy again and I really can’t maintain earlier levels of activity, but the blog isn’t going away. I’ve been playing a bit of Terraria recently and it seems that it’s kept up a few of the promises in version 1.0.4 with a new boss fight, extra equipment and enemies and a new type of equipment in the form of social attire (along with the accompanying NPC). It’s got further expansions on the horizons, but the new content is working just fine and it does one thing especially well in that it adds extra tasks for player characters who have maxed out everything, been everywhere and have everything.

It’s only minor stuff so far, but when you have the ability to suddenly descend back into the underground jungle in order to gather seeds for an above ground jungle that produces extra goodies, it effectively adds a new quest, something new to achieve. This is something that Minecraft lacked with major updates. Version 1.0.5 is apparently already looking at end-game content specifically and really, that’s something that will make Terraria shine brighter.

But there is something that I detested about Minecraft that has happened in Terraria, something awful. The latest version of Terraria suddenly had buggy code when it came to host and play multiplayer that meant changes to the game world weren’t properly saved. This was not a problem when using the separate server software, but not everyone uses that anyway and I had to learn the hard way that server problems occured using the base game’s host and play feature.

This is something that pales in comparison to Minecraft. Minecraft released beta version 1.6 recently, only to add so many bugs that instructions and Youtube videos popped up on how to revert back to version 1.5 (even after the bugfix 1.6.5). This is a point in a long history of buggy updates for Minecraft and I think that in the long-term, Terraria mustn’t get into the habit of adding bugfixes only in updates that also have extra content (as they will do with version 1.0.5) or they will inevitably get into a cycle of “bugs in, bugs out” that mixed content updates and bugfixing patches bring. Beyond that problem, however, the game is still more played at my house than Minecraft is despite having two formerly keen Minecrafters.

Posted 15/06/2011 by expandingfrontier in Opinion piece

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