Recently I spent a few days on Tony Hawk’s Project 8 for the Xbox 360. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Although many reviews described Project 8 as a realistic return to form for the Tony Hawk series, I perceived it as strangely unrealistic; busier, sillier, and closer to the Jackass-inspired THUG2 than I recalled*. However, I couldn’t describe why I felt this way- something about the level design and gameplay just seemed “odd”.
While thinking about this, I remembered a video I watched months ago. The video, from the channel Errant Signal, discussed why the author found Burnout Paradise more appealing than other racing games.To the author, Burnout Paradise represented the childlike aspects of enjoying cars: rather than being a serious reproduction of aesthetically pleasing supercars, it instead felt like the world of a child playing with their toy cars.
Just like the rest of the internet, I’m going to talk about No Man’s Sky...
More specifically, about the 1.1 update announced today.
1.1, known as the Foundation update, will add two new modes (Creative and Survival) to the main game and will introduce a Base Building feature, while adding features to existing mechanics like farming. Foundation also promises to improve multiple parts of the resource management side of the game, by making resources easier to store, automate and use. The patch list is one of the longest I’ve ever seen.
A recap for anyone who needs it: the pre-release material for No Man’s Sky set 2016’s largest hype-cycle in motion. Every showcased aspect – from its spectacular graphics, to its appearance of a living and shareable world, to the interviews and quotes from Hello Games which never gave specific information about what would or wouldn’t be part of the game – converged to give the impression that NMS would be “all games to all people”. It created a sort of excited vagueness which allowed consumers to expect NMS be amazing while not knowing exactly what it would consist of; a recipe for disappointment.
A cousin of the paywall and skill gate is the social fence. This is where a game, instead of requiring tangible goods for you to proceed, depends on existing or new social connections.
Like us on Facebook to read the rest of the article…
Gaming being enhanced by adding friends isn’t a new concept- multiplayer videogames have been around since 1958. Explicitly requiring friendships to progress through a game is, however, a much newer trend.
Social Network games such as Farmville and Zynga’s entire catalogue are the most well-known users of this mechanic; spawning multitudes of fans, followers, and imitators. Not forgetting the universal heart-seeking Candy Crush notifications.
These games typically work by connecting the energy mechanic I spoke about before with a social mechanic. If a player would initially need to wait 6 hours to continue after running out of energy, a social gate could be created as an alternative. This could be by calling in a friend’s assistance; having a friend start playing the game would cancel that wait.
Instead of paying to recover a life, HP can be regenerated from having someone accompany you, while tricky levels can be solved via remote hints from another player. Now we hit a problem, because these abilities are the source of payment in freemium games. If these abilities are social instead, where is the earning potential?
You have full energy!…
While boxed game releases used to mean one large payment for one large game, that idea isn’t a certainty any more. Episodic games often occupy the midpoint of the price-content spectrum, while some AAA games aim for everywhere on the spectrum at once; a full game for a full price, a season pass on top, then microtransactions on top of that.
For AAA games, microtransactions rely on keeping the momentum of playtime going- for longer, either by unlocking new items early, or by increasing rewards. However, major freemium games instead aim for “micro-gaming”- limiting people to short, regular chunks of gameplay. Transactions can act as micro-monetisation -exchanging a little bit of money for a little bit of time saved.
Freemium games often have very low difficulty curves, and low barriers to success, as part of their casual nature. However, they will usually corner players with a paywall after the introductory rush of success has worn off.
Paywalls aren’t all created equal- some can block players from continuing easily, while others are used mainly to add extra features. A “soft” paywall might be something like the ability to unlock a bonus character or go to a new level for a fee. A “hard” paywall might be requiring hard currency for weapon upgrade, making characters progressively underlevelled without payment, or blocking their ability to resurrect themselves.
While a freemium game blocking progression outright is thankfully uncommon, many casual games will instead make progressing easy but perfection impossible for free players.
Some freemium games, such as Minion Rush, will leave actual gameplay intact, confining paywalls to cosmetic items. MR keeps most upgrades feasible, the main pay incentive being costumes that provide currency or skill boosts. While a skill upgrade can be earned in half an hour of competent play, new costumes could take days of high-level play to achieve.
To read the next article in this series, please download the “DLC Edition Blog Post Pack”…
Digital distribution and expansion packs have been around for a surprisingly long time: the Atari 2600’s GameLine (1983) let people download games via their phone lines, while the Genesis’ SegaChannel (1994) offered a subscription to play games through cable lines, like dial-up proto-xbox-live. Total Annihilation (1997) was the first PC game to gain an expansion pack.
Like many gaming nerds, I don’t have a problem with DLC, Expansion Packs, or even freemium games. The part I have a problem with is when it seems like developers and marketers are designing a game based on what suits their pockets rather than their players. Sometimes, these things work pretty well together. Joke DLCs like Skyrim’s Horse Armour and services like the Xbox Live Avatar Marketplace are technically completely useless. However, they are entirely optional, and the players who spend money on these things are providing money that can be used to develop other services for lower-cost. Voluntary money sinks designed purely for fun aren’t my thing, but they have a purpose and a fanbase.
Games designed in an exploitative way, lying about their “play for free” status, or using psychological manipulation to make people feel like they have to pay in order to maintain their progress? That’s where profit overtakes propriety, and that’s where the negativity should be aimed.
Microtransactions are a newer avenue of digital distribution. In a sense, they are a logical extension of expansion packs- if someone only wants more of one specific aspect of the game, it is more efficient to offer every available extra separately, so people can choose what parts of the game they want more of. This idea itself isn’t problematic, but the culture of microtransactions and freemium gaming grew so rapidly due to the influx of social media games and mobile games that it raced ahead of its critics. Trying to regulate what is fair in freemium is like trying to safety-check fireworks on Bonfire Night- there’s no way everything can be checked in time.
Have some bonus XP for reaching the second stage of the series! You are now Level 2.
The game of the day here is Mafia City, a business management game created by 68games. In Mafia City, the aim is to create a Mafia character and grow from a petty criminal to a master of the city.
The campaign of MC didn’t get off to the best start for me, as it initially consisted of a lot of handholding. Single-action commands, bright flashy “click here” arrows, continual rewards, you name it. My main reason for continuing in the campaign was the sense of achievement I got from succeeding at the practically failure-proof early missions, which produced so much XP that I reached level 20 on my second day.
For completing the first paragraph, you receive 50XP.
Photos from http://www.wpcentral.com
Time for some cross-disciplinary nerdiness today! And also for the next few weeks, as today is the beginning of series on the mechanics, and psychology of freemium games.
Before we begin, I’ll explain some of the terms I’ll need to use in the series:
Freemium: a business model where the basic product is provided for free, but upgrades and customisation is charged.
Mechanics: the separate working components of how exactly button presses are translated into action and gameplay, that fit together in a game. For example, the speed at which characters run, the delay between pressing an attack button and starting the attack, or the radius of where a sword swing will connect with an opponent, are all choices of mechanics.
This week I’ve been celebrating finishing university by playing Game Dev Tycoon. This is a Steam game, developed by Greenheart Games and available for £6.99.
When I Initially loaded the game, it seemed quite linear and simple. The first stage of levelling – going from a one-man-band in my garage, to moving into my own office – went well, and made it seem like the game would be quite easy to complete.
Once I got to the middle stage of the office, and started employing people and making larger games, the game opened up a lot more. So much more, in fact, that I then realised I was only looking at a narrow area of the game. Levelling up staff and unlocking extra elements to include in created games are both set up by the same thing, Research Points: as it isn’t always clear how to get more research points, I didn’t have enough to unlock many things that in a real-life scenario would be company-destroying.
Something I’ve been thinking about this week is how game developers and fans can now interact so freely, and what this means for games and the gaming community.
There are some situations where this ability is unambiguously good, and some studios who balance their interactions really well. Most notably, Valve. For example, when fans loved Left 4 Dead, but were upset that its content had run over the expected release time, Valve responded by producing a completely revamped sequel a year later.
And when a group of college students began making a puzzle game in 2007 based on Valve’s Source engine , Valve responded not by suing them but by hiring them, providing the students with resources so they could continue making their game. Considering this puzzle game became Portal, Valve’s method was the epitome of win-win situations.
One company in the middle ground of this issue is BioWare, and I’m focusing here on their support for Mass Effect 3. In terms of multiplayer their system worked quite nicely: BioWare would keep an eye out for any weapons and abilities that went unused due to bad synergy or being ineffective, as well as for weapons and abilities which users found overpowered or part of unsporting play. Every week or fortnight, Bioware would then perform a balance update where they would improve weapons found to be noticeably weak, reduce particular combinations of weapons and abilities that worked together unintentionally well, and even modify game maps to undo camping strategies.
In the last few months I’ve picked up a fair few games for myself, as well as being given some. I’ve only just started catching up on this backlog, and the first one I started with was Capcom’s Remember Me.
Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris, year 2084. In this timeline, memories can be stored digitally, medically traded and sold. This commodification led to the introduction of Memory Hunters, elite agents who can steal memories; Memorize, a corporation using memory hunters to create a 1984-style surveillance state; and Errorists, a rebel alliance formed to take down Memorize.
RM is described as an action-adventure game, though in play it turns out to be a bit of everything- there’s combat, puzzles, stealth, collectibles, hacking, acrobatics, and even more combat.
Last month I posted about my liking for cel-shading. I already said I would play The Wolf Among Us because of that. However, I’ve also found two other very good reasons to play it.
In terms of game settings and aesthetics, I really like cel-shaded looks, cyberpunk looks, and Film Noir settings. The Wolf Among Us manages to wrap all of those things up into one distinctively-styled game, without it feeling like a mess or being over the top.
As much as I’ve praised Mass Effect 3, one important thing I should mention about my experience with it is my experience with glitches. I have a tendency to cause bugs and glitches in most games I’m playing, even when other people playing don’t experience these bugs. When playing ME3, this ability is increased to weird levels. (It’s because of this game that my Xbox tagline is now “the accidental glitcher”). So I couldn’t really write about ME3 without explaining some of the strange things that have happened to me while playing it.
1) One minor glitch is an unfortunate consequence of a useful part of gameplay. Some multiplayer classes have stimpacks or temporary skill boosts that are accompanied by visual effects. For example, human Soldiers have Adrenaline Rush, which increases rate of weapon fire and damage – when this is active everything is brighter and colours are more saturated. Krogan characters have Rage mode, which tints the screen red to show their increased attack damage.
While these effects add a visual extra to the game, they are often inconsistent- sometimes the skill can be active without the visual effect, and other times the visual effect will remain even when the power isn’t active. Normally, these don’t cause too much bother: the only one of these that I’ve found annoying is the visual glitch caused by some of my favourite characters, the Volus species. Voluses (Volii?) excel in a pure support role, relying on their Shield Boost ability to refill their own shields and those of nearby fireteam members. The “Volus glitch” comes from using this ability just as you’re about to die. At very low health the screen goes dark red as a warning, but using Shield Boost to recover your health often locks the screen onto this colour, which can only be fixed by losing health and shields again. This means it’s a lot more difficult to see what’s going on, which has caused me to die unnecessarily before.