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.

Price wars

What is wrong with the euro zone?

Even better… What is wrong with the videogame prices in the euro zone?

For as long as the Euro has been going on, videogame users in the Euro zone have had to pay considerably more than those in the UK or in the US. Is there any explanation for this? The Explanation is based on the exchange rates that existed when the Euro was first born practically 10 years ago.

For example: if you have intention of buying Assassin’s Creed 2 in Spain, the cost ascends to 69.95 Euros; for the same game in the U.S. 64.95 U.S. dollars (43.50 Euros); in the UK you find it for 49.99 pounds (55 Euros aprox.).

We are talking of differences that range from 15 to 25 Euros. And that is because we are talking of recommended prices because if we go searching for offers the difference gets far greater. Discounts for games in the Euro zone reduce to 5 to 10 (if lucky) Euros maximum and some games remain with the release date price for over 2 or 3 years; in the UK there are many offers depending on the company and the game’s success but they generally lower down 6 months after release date; the same can be applied for the US.

Bionic Commando for example will cost in Spain currently (checking offers) around 55 or 60 Euros. In amazon.co.uk for example this game is found under 10 UK pounds.

Many users in the Euro zone which are aware of this situation ask themselves why this big difference and, logically, search in the UK and US markets rather than their own. With the existing salaries 70 Euros a game means one game  a month and, as a gamer, a game that lasts me within 5 to 20 hours (being very lucky) is highly disappointing and, above all, why buy one if you can probably find 2 for the same price?

On top of all this the industry wants to destroy the second hand market cause “it affects game sales”. Even more, microsoft has the guts to come with the games on demand service charging me over 20 Euros more in the case of Perfect Dark Zero for a digital copy!Are we going crazy?

I believe that the industry would highly profit from lower prices. It would increase the number of sales of videogames, decrease the effect of the second hand market, decrease piracy losses and keep the gamers happy. The best of examples is probably FX interactive in Spain which distributes PC games and release a game for 19.99 Euros the first day. Guess what… FX games in Spain without marketing or hype of any sort always are between the 10 most sold games of the moment. Piracy is big, but ask anyone and most will always prefer to pay for an original if the price is fair.

Last week in gamesindustry.biz there was a post which talked of prices going down for next year. I just hope they remember to count us all in!