Multi-Focus

The game has just arrived in your mailbox. Carefully, you break open the plastic cover to reveal your new baby and virtual companion. You have been reading months about how its campaign and story will evolve and you are feeling the hype as you push the disc in. After watching the company logos and a slight intro, you venture yourself through the different game modes only to discover, to your surprise and disappointment, that there is no multi player.

Reactions like these are the norm nowadays. The sense of value in games has deeply changed as gamers expect to leave the disc in the drive for longer, thus the presence (or absence) of multi player modes becomes a key factor towards deciding where to use your money on. This though is not necessarily the indicative of a good game.

In the old days, the main reason for not including a multi-player would be either technical reasons or the fact that a developer would prefer to spend more time tuning the single-player experience. However, developers today feel obliged in many occasions to introduce a multi-player mode to appease the more than predictable clamour that arises after a full priced game is finished in 10 hours or less. Therefore, we have seen a multi-player mode introduced in games that did not benefit particularly from it apart than the fact of having the sticker on the box “Multi-player enabled”.

Some games have been criticized back in the day for the absence of it despite offering compelling single player experiences. Games such as Bioshock or Vanquish, 2 excellent games, were laid aside by many because of the lack of it; Bioshock pulled it through by offering an excellent campaign, but the sequel didn’t save itself from the multi player presence and it is yet to be confirmed whether Bioshock Infinite will include it or not (Co-op maybe?). Max Payne 3, a story focused shooter, will see multi-player appear for the 1st time in the series and we have seen Battlefield introduce a single player as it already did with the more console oriented Bad Company sub-series in an intent to overthrow the all-powerful Modern Warfare.

Is it necessary for a dev to split their time by developing 2 experiences? EA and Activision have solved this by assigning multiple teams to a same project to not hinder from the focus and thus creating a mode that doesn’t seem complete. Although this can be a viable choice, you might just end with 2 experiences in the same game that are, and feel, different (like the latest Medal of Honor). Flying Wild Hog released just recently Hard Reset, leaving everybody aghast when they announced it as a single player game only; as a shooter, this is an extreme rarity. Then again, the studio said that this was to deliver the best game possible to the players, but this is not an opinion that many players agree with.

Personally, I am more enthusiastic about new single player experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that I rule out the multi-package approach, quite the opposite, but I don’t want my experience hindered because a producer thought that to sell the game they need to split development time on extra game modes.

Give us your call! Are you one of those players that never touches the single-player if there is a multi player involved? Do you prefer the solo approach? How influential is the presence of a multi-player in your purchases?

Rise and Fall of the Hardcore

It has been lingering in the minds of gamers for some time now. Ever since the Wii appeared and the video games market went more mainstream there have been a number of players that have felt threatened by this big bulk of casual players. Is this something we should be worried about? Is the development of triple A titles in peril? Some seem to feel that way.

It´s strange that this feeling comes around in one of the most prolific years in AAA games in recent memory. The feeling that the iPad or Facebook (which will eventually share their market) could really change playing habits is real for some, but I think we are nowhere near a situation that will see a generation without boxed consoles.

This fear isn´t something new really. As an industry, there have always been trends that many have tried to follow after one major success; most of the times, however, following another company´s trail to success has proved many wrong. Put World of Warcraft as an example: WoW has been a game that has engaged a huge player base and managed to have them pay a monthly suscription to keep the game going; overall, a massively profitable move by Blizzard. However, we can really say that WoW has been the last suscription based MMO that has managed to make profit (yet to be seen if The Old Republic can really maintain that business model). That hasn´t stopped many studios  from thinking they could pull it through too and, essentially, more games than we could care of have tried to follow the suscription model and the WoW formula. The latest to fail has been DC Universe Online (it lasted 10 months with a suscription based model) and Free to Play is the new king of the fray. So far it has proved a model that can sustain a game by not forcing users to pay; but, again, it is yet to be seen if all the games being released under this model will manage to survive.

Some years ago, the industry was going bonkers with the success of Zynga´s Farmville and many stated that the micro-transaction games were the future and the way to go. As many times before, many companies have followed Zynga´s road to success and been proved that it is not as easy as it seems to make a game popular; or profitable in that sense.

Now this brings us to the iPad/tablets and Smart phones. After seeing the wonders of the devices released and all future possibilities of the portable systems, experts are seeing that there will be no space for the consoles in the market. The main basis to arrive here is the belief that they share a common userbase, but most of the iPhone/iPad users with a console don´t use the system to play at home, therefore we could be talking about giving the user more possibilities instead of really stealing players. Cloud gaming is also seen as a possible option to channel the core market into tablets. Just recently, Onlive announced support for tablets and some games, such as L.A. Noire, adapting a control scheme for a touch-screen. Personally, I think that being able to take with you and continue your save on the run is quite interesting. But the real question is: can we really be bothered to leave the controller/keyboard/mouse and control games exclusively with a touch-screen? If the future does pertain to tablets it will probably be linked to extensions; thus limiting the systems portability; thus losing the point of PC/consoles disappearing.

Denying the success of the “softcore” market is impossible. The Wii has affected both Sony and Microsoft as the iPhone has in some ways affected what is to be expected of a portable system. Users expect more for less and it is still to be proved whether softcore players can be tempted to buy another system when they are already satisfied with what they have. Wii U will have a big say on the issue and many are saying that this will be Nintendo´s demise… but wasn´t that said when the Wii came out too? The future is impossible to predict, but we can know for sure that competition will be there and that a sole product can´t offer what everyone wants. The Wii and Smart phones have managed to break that barrier that existed before: the controller. As a result, people are more aware of video games and it is now more socially accepted. Boxed products are making more money than ever and it is no longer geeky or a kid thing to play video games. Triple A games won´t be menaced as long as there are people willing to buy them and, according to the market sales, there doesn´t seem to be a lack of customers.

It’s clear to everyone that the future will almost entirely be digital; that handhelds will have a hard time to find an interested userbase to compete with the iPhone; that cloud gaming will be on the rise. But there is the law of demand and offer, and I for one am still interested in sitting on my couch or PC chair with a perspective of a deep gaming experience.

So, do I think tablets/phones are a direct threat to the consoles? A lot remains to be seen, but with the current situation the answer would be no. The future is pretty much that: future. As such we cannot really know what will be down the next curve. We pretty much believe we have seen everything but there could be much more we haven´t even begun to imagine.

You got an achievement!

Aaaah… achievements. The thriving of getting one… or not? I remember at first how satisfaction would go through my body when I first heard the magical Xbox 360 achievement sound (Kudos to whoever designed that sound… subtle, but yet very noticeable) and an icon with a title displaying in the bottom of my screen. I anxiously press the guide button to see what that flashy highlight of my gaming session was about and… Oh! I had gone through the tutorial of the game… awesome.

Achievements have been one of the defining features of this generation of consoles and ranking up your gamer score or just plainly unlocking new trophies/achievements has deemed a big success. However, both gamers and designers have realized that simply implementing achievements in a game for the sake of having them doesn’t really prove very satisfying unless there is some real sense of achievement. I am not what I would consider an achievement hunter: I normally don’t bother about them except for those that pose a challenge or are just plain fun to obtain; I do, however, enjoy when one is particularily satisfying. I started thinking about this when playing the co-op campaign in Portal 2 with a friend via Steam and unlocking the “Can´t touch this” achievement. Now, before you rush off to look it out in the internet, let me advise you that it is one of those achievements that is more gratifying to unlock if you don´t know how. The simple concept and yet the exhilarating moment of obtaining it makes you think that a designer did think a user would do that… and rightly so. I´ve been humming the song ever since. Achievements are normally done in the last minute as there is no gameplay design thought around them, and that is obvious most of the times. Getting an achievement for completing a game can be expected, but the reward in that is the fact that you have finished it yourself. The “Can´t touch this” Portal 2 achievement is a wink to all users who unknowingly find it, creating a real connection between designers and player.

Not many games offer interesting achievements/trophies, most of them are implemented because they have to be there, but, when used properly, they can really serve to enhance the experience. Or maybe it´s fun to save Fallout 3 every Achievement level to obtain all 3 polarities of conduct in the game (good, neutral, evil)… maybe for some, but just not for me. Crackdown is a game that got me to continue playing the game once finished thanks to some challengingly clever achievements like the juggler ones, because it is damn fun to juggle cars with a rocket launcher!

Developers are still trying to get it right, but complacency and disregard for the utility in a game for achievements can pop in and render them practically a formality that will cause the player to lose that excitement when the popup appears. One of my first games for the Xbox 360 was Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and that game had the worst implementation of achievements after the Doritos game in Live Arcade: complete the game for a 100%. It is obvious that, with achievements like the one mentioned in Portal 2, developers are finding ways to implement them better and, although I do believe that nonsensical achievements will continue to exist, we are getting there already.

Steam achievements are one of those that are going in the right direction; assuming that players expect achievements when passing a tutorial or killing their first enemy is a dealbreaker.

I have just mentioned 2 of them, although I can remember many more damn good achievements. If you think there are some that are absolutely worth a mention be sure to comment!

Have money and don´t play games? Think twice

Is the industry profitable? In this golden era of videogames everyone with enough money believes they have the key for a succesful game but… is that so? Can a succesful company be built upon raw investors?

Video games are sort of the golden cow industry right now; many money handling execs look at the figures and think that they can have a piece of the cake. However, it is being proved time and time again that money isn´t enough to build up success.

It is not unheard of: a powerful executive has a lot of money and checks the profit made by companies such as Activision or Zynga and thinks “I can do that. I mean, how difficult can it be to make a game? I´ll rally up some investor buddies of mine and create a video game company!”. These investors have one thing in their mind: making money. As all industries, this is all about the profit; without profit a company goes down. Is it really difficult to build a successful company with successful games? The answer would be yes.

We´ve all heard of it. Company rises up, gets loads of investors to back it up, and they push a game to the market. They start making money, but somehow it is not enough; what to do? Make games or items in games more expensive, that way we make more revenue out of each paying user. Genius! Next step, alienate the non paying user to get him to pay something, watch ads, or quit the game altogether. All that with a low cost game with no real idea of quality.

We all know what comes afterwards… utter and complete failure.

As any industry, having enough money behind a publisher/developer is a must; but where is the passion? No professional game can be made without money or passion. In fact, we can see examples of games making it through with just passion by their devs, sacrificing their social and personal life for the completion of a game (which often happens with money behind anyway being honest). But what pushes the game industry (as with any other) is consumers, and we are a fighting and passionate bunch.

Video game fans are probably some of the most outspoken in all industries and complain openly to unpopular decisions like antipiracy software (aka DRM) or 2nd hand games online pass. Also, unlike other media, opinion about good games is normally unanimous (taking fanboys out of the fray here) despite presonal preferences. For example, I myself am not too keen on Halo, but I certainly see a quality product there; in the same way that I prefer PES over FIFA but still think FIFA is a very good product. However, what gives a game a “soul”? That is tough and not many make it through. This matter is a personal one and not all will agree about what games touched them the most and in what ways. It can be translated in the devs love for a product I guess. Think of a game you have liked and think of a game you started playing but never continued to do so. Were there particular reasons that pulled you away from one game or pulled you to the other? Yes. Can you really explain them? Probably, but some of it you find difficult to explain as it touches a more sensitive or emotional level.

Making games is a difficult venture. Not too many succeed to make money out of it and we are seeing studios with talent going down anyway despite pushing quality products into the market. Sometimes, as consumers, we forget that the main reason a game is published is to make money; therefore, to complain, the best way is to do it through money.

I hear people complain about preorder bonuses, but still preorder the game in one place or the other because they are getting “an awesome unique gun”. Or about how expensive map packs are, but are bought anyway “becasue I don´t want to be left out”. Or how expensive items in a game can be but “I want it anyway”. We could continue with this list forever but it wouldn´t make much sense.

Some companies are hated for their policies, but others are loved because they demonstrate they care for their customer and what she/he thinks. Think about Valve or Blizzard and most gamers will smile; think about Activision (infamous Kotick) or EA and you will flinch. Although even these companies end up producing some high quality products that save them from real gamer hate and, therefore, keep them going. I suppose it´s all about the equilibrium of things. Think of your company and your profit, but don´t forget who buys your product.

Bottom line is: if you have a lot of money, think about playing some games and understanding the media and the users if you really want to be a part of it. Remember that players won´t support a company they despise.

Way to go…

Business in any media has always been a difficult matter to deal with. In video games, purists normally allege for concepts, ideas and the innovation that comes with them. In the last 10 years, however, we have seen our media pass from a nerdy and lonesome pastime to a social experience, shared by more than those that “match the profile”.

 

Innovation is something we (the gamer audience) often shout at when a new game comes about or when a new scheme to control it appears as “outrageous”, and this has set the position for big companies such as Activision to prey on its customers repeating known formulas. Many games fall for the need of popularity and good market performance adapting formulas that could otherwise work in different genres far better than, for example, an FPS. This is the case of the new Syndicate that is being developed by Starbreeze or the new XCOM by Irrational; these 2 particularly painful for old followers of these 2 series. Through different interviews about the new Syndicate, a question was thrown at the developers: “Why an FPS?” , “Because we want it to sell well”. Many will be disillusioned… but it is something that should not surprise…

 

The indy scene is proving to be were the innovation is at: games like Limbo, Braid, World of Goo, Bastion, Super Meat Boy and many many more are demonstrating that there is no need for large amount of fireworks if the idea and the concept are good. If you want new ideas, this is where to look.

 

Video games are business: Call of Duty: Black Ops sold over 25 million copies worldwide. This is a massive amount of revenue for any company and this phenomenon is partly created by gaming trends. Many will complain about the FPS conversion of 2 classic series of games like XCOM or Syndicate, but the truth is that this allows the developers to reach a larger audience and not only nurture themselves of the old fans (which admittedly, are much less). There have been a big deal of XCOM games after the famous XCOM 3, they just didn´t work for a large audience… Why? Because they did not live up to the original in their attempts to make them better and because they were targeting a small audience.

 

Social games are the new zealot in the business. The Wii had a bad reputation in the gaming community as long time Nintendo fans felt themselves left aside by the company´s shift of strategy. This move has made the Wii the most successful console ever, despite the gamer community reluctance towards the console. FB and IOS games operate on a similar level.

 

This new social/casual game phenomenon is greatly looked at as unbelievable by gamers. It is difficult for an “old style gamer” to understand this success of the Wii or FB games since they just don´t appeal to them, and that´s the point. If you have played one, you know what I´m talking about: they are plain gripping. You can´t deem them as fun or great experiences (at best, entertaining) but they manage to get a grip on all those people who never did pay any attention to games and never will be bothered by whichever is the new big title.

 

Games have always pledged for acceptance; and now we not only have that, we are the industry that creates the largest revenue of them all. Social games and fitness games is just the price we have to pay for global acceptance. As long as I still get Skyrim, I can´t say I care.

Testing for Quality Assurance

QA tester is for many gamers a dream job; for some even an unobtainable dream job. Anyone that has grown to love video games would love to make them or play them using most of his/her free time in the process. QA in games is often dismissed as an easy job, one that anyone can do and that is often regarded as not working (I still have to convince many of my friends that QA departments don’t “play” the games). This has made QA departments recruitment temporal for the most part, and it is increasingly difficult to be part of a QA team without the end-of-the-contract-is-arriving fear. Truth is, from a producer’s point of view, what would be the sense in paying professionals when you can get a bunch of kids to do the job for free?
In any case, a well done QA process is fundamental for a succesful game release and final quality.

Having a QA team means better overall quality and more polished builds for when the game is released; it is quite obvious when some games just haven’t had the proper time to be tested . Also, as the game’s first users, the QA team can provide feedback on the early stages of the game and watching them play can better show which are the features with the most potential. On the other hand, you risk not having the right staff employed, which can be one of 2 types: those without imagination and those that can’t understand a developer team’s point of view. The latter being particularily problematic as it can lead to ego battles about who knows more about video games (a battle that is lost from the very beginning). In this situation, more bad than good can happen from a QA process.
Ideally, there should be a specialised QA team from the first moments a game is playable that works closely along with the devs, but that situation is not common practice. Most of the problems come from a lack of communication between the devs and QA teams, with a database in between them most of the times. Considering the wide range of nationalities involved in the video game industry this, more often than not, leads to potential misunderstandings that are hugely negative for the final results.

 

The biggest danger of a QA process is a disorganised QA process. One without leadership or control of content inbound and outbound will eventually lead to content and carelessness. Also, having an inexperienced team can lead to overcriticism of the product.

 

Don´t get me wrong, devs are definitely the stars on this scene. They are the ones to push it forward and make it a reality. QA will be there to give them the final hoorah or the final slap in the face, always having in mind that no developer team wants there game to be bad intentionally; they do what they can with the resources they have, just about as any other business does.

 

Video games are the passion of everybody working with them and of many others wishing to do so, it would be so much easier if everyone would work for the same end.

Roll it, fly it, drive it…

Transportation in videogames is often a feature that, if done properly, passes unremembered and it forms inevitably part of the resulting game. Before games had to worry about production values, the journey was normally the game itself, and the means would generally play along to create the experience. Running through a level, jumping and shooting was what it took to take you from one level to another.

With time transportation has settled itself as one of the key features inside a game and in many games the amount of time moving from one place to another absorbs most of gameplay time. It is impossible not to mention DMA/Rockstar´s GTA series which has always been heavily vehicle based. Before GTA 3 came around GTA´s structure was heavily vehicle oriented, with most of its missions taking place behind (or over) a wheel. In time it has been implemented as an unavoidable trend of GTA; but it is also just one more element in it. Red Dead Redemption´s horses are a master move to the introduction of transportation in a video game, working with the game for ambient and feel. Riding alone in the empty areas of the game was found more tedious for gamers more avid of quick emotions, but those that love a good scenario and ambience (and the old westerns…) find it a defining moment in that game when you first sit on a horse and ride it.

The rpg transportation model is one of the most classical means of transportation between areas. With the exception of Elder Scrolls and similar, RPGs generally offer a fancy vehicle that is only of use to get you quickly (via a loading screen) around the different areas. In fact, it might be one of the weakpoints of some newer RPGs such as Dragon Age: an epic game with a promising world that you would only get a glimpse at really (without mentioning the sequel´s stagnancy) and that many players actually wished to walk around and explore. Of course, the other side of the coin is create those journeys but put nothing in them that will interest the players (Fable II anyone?). Far Cry 2 was a very interesting game and had great ideas, but 70% of the game was driving a car from one point of the map to another, visiting the same respawning checkpoints over and over again, which eventually weighed on the experience.

Superhero games are the ones were the means with which you move around the map matters most… for good and bad. Anyone that played Superman 64 will detest having to grab a character that flies…  but if you ever got a chance to try Spiderman 2 in its day, you might feel that some games are just worth to see the main character moving and, more importantly, controlling him. Spiderman 2 was a mediocre game, but the feel the game had when swinging around the city was absolute Spiderman. Other hero games have followed on that trend after that, like Crackdown with its orbs inducing obsession, Infamous and the rail grinding, and Prototype and its gratifying brutality and freedom of movement.

Many games opt to make the means of transportation a recognisable character. Epona is impossible to forget for anyone that played Ocarina of Time; Schpeltiger in No More Heroes, the “Waterpack” in Super Mario Sunshine; all defining elements of the games they feature in. In Elite, the game was the transportation in itself.

Moving in a game is often not regarded totally when playing it, but if done properly it will define the game. Of course, the final decision is always for the devs and what they want to communicate to the player.

 

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