Monday, 28 November 2011

A Dubious Marketing Technique

I don’t know if this phenomenon applies to other countries, but retail pricing of games is a strange thing in the UK. Or, at least, it has been for the last couple of years. Amid a tough economy Nintendo pushed Donkey Kong Country Returns upon us, and it hit the markets at £45 in November of last year. I found, over a good few months, that this was the case in every game shop I visited: I decided to ask an employee why. Apparently it was much more popular than expected, and few copies were distributed. Flash forward to a year later and new copies are still extremely rare in public, with pre-owned boxes marked around £40. Online sellers seem to be maintaining a high price, too, with a £35 tag on Amazon.

The reason this whole situation re-kindled in my imagination (other than the fact that I was able to borrow DKCR from a friend a couple of weeks ago) is that Nintendo recently registered a loss in excess of £500m. I’m not going to draw a line from the Kong title to Nintendo’s apparent failure (not with the piece of fail that is the one-trick-3DS in the picture), but there is something deeply unsettling about this: such an obviously well-polished title being pushed so gently into the market. Competing games at the time (with similarly high praise from critics) were experiencing cuts at a shocking rate: Assassin’s Creed 2 and then, about a year later, Bioshock 2, dropped £10 from their respective tags within a fortnight. They can now each be bought new for less than £10. I think the thing to take away from this is that Nintendo has maintained a very… interesting business model, at least when viewed against their competitors’ approaches. They produce quality games, and then try to not sell them.

That quality can be assured, though. At least in the case of DKCR. The term ‘solid platformer’ isn’t solid enough to convey this thing’s solidity. It’s dense, even: the kind of re-play value that the older Country games could only dream of. It’s like it was finished, and then Retro decided to finish it again. And perhaps a third time. But that would be it. I do need to level one complaint, though, and considering the cavalcade of issues that can crop up when a platformer is just off, think of the lack of further grievances as proof of a robust product. That said this is a very fundamental issue. I’m not talking about how there are no longer those certain bonus stages where you collect swathes of bananas as a rhino, ostrich or swordfish (though I’m sure this is a disappointing fact for some.) The control scheme leaves a purposeful vacuum. There is no support for the classic pad; no way to re-map controls; and flat-out shoe-horned waggle-tech.

Okay, so that sounds bad. I can’t imagine that Retro made this decision by themselves, because it’s pretty stupid. But which is the dumber thing to perceive: when one of the best titles on a machine makes absolutely no use of that machine’s specific abilities, or if said title ignores a superior control-scheme to facilitate said abilities? In my head it’s a no-brainer. I’m biased by the fact that I had the latter option include the words ‘ignores’ and ‘superior’ in close proximity, though. What I don’t understand is how Nintendo thought this design choice was beneficial: how could limiting player control options possibly result in more sold units? Or is it about obfuscating the fact that this, some of the best gaming the Wii has to offer, could be done better on the competitors’ machines? Like I said before, though: this game is strong. I let a lot of these outward flaws push me away from getting it, but some very poor marketing decisions shouldn’t keep us from games that are awesome.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

With particular regards to Starcraft 2.

So MLG happened and, by the end, I was happy with the result: an un-seeded player beat the odds and smashed the conventional ‘Koreans vs. Everyone Else’ story. Between this event’s popularity, Blizzard’s own well-attended convention and the numerous other successful organisations around competitive gaming, it's a bit much to take stock of. I end up with the paradoxical feeling that the blockades to further growth are either wildly exaggerated or just extremely difficult for insiders to actually perceive. But I’ve skipped ahead a little.

This scene didn’t exist as a living thing to me for years. To contextualise, I was simultaneously consuming its richness piecemeal. It was a place where I could see the best strategy, tactics and mechanics, and take stock of what made certain games sharp enough to sustain a strong player base. In short, I was interested in the gameplay. Everything that surrounded it—the thrum of small-time sponsors, the unique logos, the numerous gathering places—just patiently sat there, waiting for me to pick up on their legitimacy.

But something happened (or rather, didn’t happen) as my interest grew, and I browsed Replayers years ago. It also didn’t happen when I stopped to admire the Counter-Strike talent at London Expo. Then, a year later, it continued to not happen while I perused Team Liquid’s live streams and investigated YouTube commentaries. What I’m talking about is the voice of dissent: the people who just want to criticise things because others are enjoying them and, apparently, they’re not supposed to. Each community that forms around the games we find truly strong doesn’t care about this unless you are talking to them specifically about growth. And rightfully so: the internet affords the opportunity, not just to pay no attention to such people, but to be in a place that is definitively away from them. The problem is that this is almost wilful obscurity.

I feel like just the act of ignoring vapid sentiments, or understanding that there is a potential for them in a given environment, constitutes a decision that affects how we go about sharing the scene with others. Our discourse will always pre-suppose a certain level of interest and knowledge. This makes for deliciously organic communities: we can spark up a theory-craft conversation in just about any live-stream chat. We can enter any given channel dedicated to our games of choice and know that the people there share our fascination. As soon as we feel like broaching the topic to a newcomer, though, our lexicon suddenly sinks to comedic levels of uselessness and verbosity. Words like ‘Baneling’ become meaningless in the time between choosing what to say and identifying who you’re speaking to. Moments later something akin to ‘acid landmine bug’ can (and will!) fall from your mouth. There’s a strange kind of barrier there.

Competitive gaming has grown a dramatic amount in the past year. That is, if you consider a factor like ‘Sheer Numbers’ anything to go by. Commentary figures have pointed to the drawing power that simple, human stories will need to play in the future, with regards to further growth. In a sense, though, I feel like these stories will exist in perpetuity, so long as there are people that care about the game. Appreciation of complex mechanics—even simple mechanics—enhances understanding (and enjoyment) of every game and/or sport, but it has to be voluntary. For now, think of the simple joy many kids get from watching a sport like Football, with barely (if) any grasp of strategy or tactics. Remember that old trope? The one where a bunch of guys, hanging out in front of a TV, start bitching about a player’s decision, or a coach/manager’s choice? That cliché exists for a reason: some fans (or viewers) do not care about high level analysis, or the weighing of tactical risks. They’re not trying to see it through the eyes of professionals, or for every intricacy available. People, quite simply, want the game to entertain them: acid landmine bugs are entertaining.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The MOBA Muffin

So, Defence of the Ancients. It always struck me as odd that the territory carved out by DotA didn’t have a genre with which to define itself for a period of time best measured in the decay of Carbon-14 isotopes. It lacked a box in which we might place (and judge) it, and people love placing things. DotA’s weighty legacy is almost clear by this point, save for a few minor ambiguities. For one, folks can’t seem to decide what to call the follow-ups. There are only three prevalent genre-titles, but that’s enough to draw confusion as to whether there are actually any fundamental differences that come with the tag. There aren’t, by the way. The first I encountered was ‘Action Real-Time Strategy’, which sounds like Command & Conquer with Bruce Willis and a generous helping of quick-time events. The worst thing about ARTS (other than the fact that at first glance it looks like I’m talking about some kind of Humanities pressure group) is that a key part of this genre is that it has removed almost every conventional aspect of RTS games: the ‘A’ may as well stand for ‘Antithetical’ in this scenario. It’s completely unintuitive.

Another tag used for these games (I’ll save the best for last) might actually be the laziest label I’ve ever seen. It is, simply, the Dota genre. That’s right: the name of the game that brought attention to this genre is this genre. Talk about dicey positions to occupy: all I need to do to irk a fan is imply that Dota represents its own genre like Halo games aren’t really FPSs. That is, imply DotA’s attraction amounts to bells and whistles. Not that I think that this is true (although prolonged exposure to Warcraft 3’s ladder will induce this sentiment), but this kind of low-hanging categorisation invites incredulity.

And I come to an abrupt rest with the suddenly-not-so-silly-seeming moniker ‘Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’ (MOBA): simple, to the point and, as an added bonus, kind of rhymes with ‘DotA’. It’s always a good thing for people to be able to say ‘I want to play more games like this’, with the correlation in mind that they can then punch that genre acronym into Steam and go nuts. Even with this convenience at my finger-tips (and ignoring the fact that there’s a certain degree of ambiguity surrounding the genre’s name) I still feel that there’s a slight futility in it all. Like the best one can hope for is a tag that isn’t too obtuse, deliberately euphemistic or outright vague. These tags come to mean far more to people who have experienced a genre than they could possibly mean to the curious newcomer, and that isn’t really the case for more traditional media. The fact is, ‘MOBA’ could stand for almost anything and still be more useful than say, ‘JRPG’, whose highly informative components advise us that these are indeed Japanese Games in which you Play Roles. Okay, so this is a kind of shaky analogy, but the point is there: JRPGs have many common themes. There are conventions which familiar players will pick up on and expect, but they lie ruthlessly unapparent to the new. MOBA games are just like that.

I realised a little while ago that I was around at the dawn of this stuff. It sounds kind of clichéd, but I couldn’t believe what Defense of the Ancients turned into. This was due in large part to the fact that I backed a losing competitor, Tides of Blood, and bore DotA a special kind of hate. It wasn’t just that its popularity gobbled up Warcraft 3’s custom games lobby, but that it held onto some philosophical premises that were pretty harsh to me: choice and capability superseded simplicity and balance, and the general community struck me as somewhat insular. It was equal parts prejudice and calculated self-dissuasion on my part, but I’ve since come full-circle to find a rekindled interest in MOBAs. In any case, this kind of digression deserves its own space. For now, on with story-time!

Back when Warcraft 3 was my game of choice I hit the custom games a lot, trying out new or familiar maps on-and-off for half a decade. The idea of League of Legends, Heroes of Newarth or million dollar tournaments coming from this was not insanity to me, because ‘insanity’ implies that I had given this outcome any thought. There are only so many permutations for how things can unfold—factors go in, results come out: never a missed communication. (relevant)—and the branch where the originally-awkward, chaotic Hero Arenas eventually coalesce into an actual genre was unexplored.

When you take away the tech trees, the production timing and the unit placement of traditional RTS games, you’re left with the Heroes of Warcraft 3. Hero Arenas were the earliest manifestation of this sentiment, pretty much as I just put it: stripped down, pick a Hero, go crazy. This all came from Blizzard’s ideal of special units you may equip, can gain EXP, but are not some form of deity to whom the player-camera offers eternal tribute. Shit’s happening elsewhere. This general principal was rinsed and repeated by map-makers for years, while the consuming public would allow the superior products to shine and the inferior to fall by the way-side. As I mentioned before: the idea of a genre growing from this was beyond my conception. The scale for success for a custom game on Warcraft 3 (or the one I would conventionally ascribe, anyway) was that I saw people hosting it with frequency. Genre-creating wasn’t on my scale.

There were many maps that applied the basic principal of Warcraft 3’s Heroes to their design, with extremely diverse sets of circumstances, and equally varying degrees of success. As a simple example of the tool being pushed in a very different direction to MOBAs, there was the popular Enfo’s Team Survival, which held—other than a couple of key oversights in its earlier builds—a sound principal in equipping your Hero to defend from waves of monsters which would eventually over-run you. The meat of the competition here was the ability to either cast supporting skills to bolster a failing defence, or to hurl annoyance at the enemy team’s heroes in an attempt to throw off their survival. The very controlled and limited nature of the human element in competitive gameplay meant that it was possible to plan out what you would do for the majority of the game. Sadly it also sapped at the map’s lasting appeal.

Defence of the Ancients emerged as the dominant map for a number of reasons. For one, it had an impeccable support community; new versions were frequent, adding Heroes, options, items and bug-fixes. But if I had to guess why it really stuck, it would have to be the game’s encompassing focus. As I mentioned before, the MOBA genre is essentially the concentrated innovation of Warcraft 3, minus every conventional RTS aspect: it needed a similar appeal to stick. The way you micromanage your Hero and distribute ability-points mirrors that of Warcraft 3; the optimisation of limited inventory space; the importance of choosing when and where to engage—all rooted in this genre’s make-up, just as they were indispensible pieces of Warcraft 3’s standard game. It seems stupidly obvious, in retrospect, but if you’re using an RTS interface for something that is fundamentally not an RTS (and what you are playing is certifiably Not Dumb) then it must be something else.

So, Warcraft 3. If DotA represents a stylised version of Warcraft's innovation, was its creation and refinement—or something very much like it—inevitable? After all, if DotA hadn't accrued its enormous fan-base, another custom map would have. The hooks, the map-editing tools, the potential fans: they were always going to be there. Maybe I'm passively handing over too much credit to Blizzard, but it's not every day a game gives life to a new genre.

In the next post of, er, PLB? Ahem. Why e-sports is ruining e-sports, and why sensationalist previews produce a narcotic-like effect upon their writers.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

De-Netting and Generational Issues with Blue Hedgehogs

Far be it for me to impose my mortal wants on the technology-spirits. Their swirling whim decided a couple of weeks ago that I should be severed from the inter-realms. And, well, losing the internet sucks. Okay, so I guess it's hard to get more concise than that last statement, so I'll just head in the opposite direction and elaborate. I don't know the exact point at which TV became obsolete. There wasn’t a polite pop-up message when Internet 2.0 came out, advising that users may find TV slightly underwhelming within X amount of days. Still, it wouldn’t hurt thinking about some form of courteous reminder, as nothing draws a more jagged line under a useful service than its sudden removal. For one thing, news channels are woefully under-equipped to cater for viewers who would like to hear news. Unintuitive, I know, but there's enough stupidity on display to fashion a kind of rudimentary stress-test for your sanity. The repetition of ‘The Top Story', in particular, gets old very fast, especially when you know other things are happening. I noticed this before losing the internet, but lack of immediate alternatives makes the situation roughly fifty times more painful.

In the spirit of fairness—and since plain truths are apparently on the agenda—the internet could be considered humanity’s most robust model yet for an actual ‘Time Vampire’. But I want to contest this as a simple, negative truth on a couple of grounds, mostly the mind-bending dichotomy of the internet. It’s the same tools that enable us to whittle away an hour on F7U12 that give us the ability to gather swaths of information and communicate with peers. The theories of the best texts of history are bundled up with the most juvenile humour imaginable in the internet; pornography on one page, feminist discourse on another. It’s a kind of a big place.

For every task I was freer to follow without the assistance of a series of tubes, I was prevented from pursuing another. It becomes commonplace to, say, want to write about or look into something, only to come across a research block which hadn’t previously existed. That being said—and I understand this rant has reached evolutionary-levels of obviousness by this point—it is fucking sweet to perceive that difference in technology. After finite media and the narrow lane of TV's out-put, well, it's like turning on a fountain of Everything.

In any case, rant-concluded. Video games. This video review feels like some kind of mirage. You'll know what I mean when you see. Did you see? Good, now I can explain myself. Sonic games have not been good in a long time. I don't think there's a more concise way to put it. Simple truths are fun. The ten-year-old Sonic aficionado in me is trying desperately to make me check myself: perhaps there's some way I could couch the slimy spin-offs and disappointing lack of refinement more favourably? Sadly no. I draw the line at Hedgehogs on Motorcycles. I don't mean to so sound premature as something to the effect of 'This changes everything!' But seriously, this changes everything. Or at the very least cashes in on it in a pleasing way. Coming up: MOBAs. Why people should probably try them or, y'know. Something.