Stalk me on the internet

Archive: Games

I follow the twitter accounts of a lot of really wonderful women in gaming, and as such I am frequently reminded of how much sexism pervades the industry in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious. Conversely, I’ve become aware of the many ways I have it really, really great, and how that’s unfortunately not a universal thing.

On a recent episode of Isometric, the gang was discussing the various ways that sexism complicates the life of women in the industry, and mused about asking the guy on the show to write an article about what it was like as a guy in the game industry. They laughed it off, but the thought germinated in my head, and I realized I enjoy a lot of unearned privileges that women don’t, and the more I thought about it, the more surfaced.

More and more came to light as I was writing this article. It was staggering to me, the options and acceptance I had available to me as a guy that aren’t generally available to a woman.

Please understand, I’m not trying to say anything directly about the experiences of all ladies in the gaming industry. I know a great many women who are exceptions to many of these things. But they’re the exceptions, and men can generally enjoy these privileges effortlessly. I think it’s important to recognize that, and to recognize that the problem isn’t just the men that overtly act sexist, but also those of us who don’t recognize that we are benefitting from and perpetuating a sexist system.

As a guy in the gaming industry, these are the things I don’t normally think about, but really, really ought to:

I go to PAX and other conventions when I can afford to. This is fairly often compared to some, since I make more than a woman with the same experience would for the same job.

I always feel safe when I attend. I once went to PAX Prime in Seattle by myself. I went to a pub crawl by myself and drunkenly made a new group of friends without ever once worrying if I was going to get raped or taken advantage of. I was too busy trying to figure out if I could have scored if I were single.

I shared a hotel room with three people I’ve never met before. I found it easily, since many guys were looking for another guy to help defray hotel costs, and I never once worried for my safety while I was sleeping or drunk or showering.

I see female videogame characters depicted wearing next to nothing with huge breasts, and I say “Hey! I’m a feminist! Don’t show me that crap! Show me real women instead!” But largely, I’m not upset because this issue hurts me personally. If I’m honest, I’m upset because – as someone whose life hasn’t been directly impacted by sexism – I’m not personally hurt, I’m just not being marketed to effectively.

Then I go and say something stupid like “Wow, the female character models in Dark Souls are just weird – no curves at all!” without a hint of irony. And then I defend myself when I’m called out on it. For way too long.

I find misogynists funny. Not “I’d encourage more of that humorous behaviour” funny, but “Oh wow, you’ve got to laugh at this moron” funny. I’ve never had to deal with this kind of behaviour personally, so I can intellectualize it and laugh. This hurts the women around me, but many are too nice to call me out on it.

When I go on-camera to promote our game, I hardly ever worry about people judging me based on my grooming. I mean, sometimes I’ll quickly re-do my ponytail or if I’m feeling incredibly vain I’ll let my hair down, but that’s about the extent of it. I may not have even shaved that day. I never worry about what people are going to think about how I look. I never worry about people rating me out of ten, or calling me fuckable, or fat, or hot, or whorish.

I don’t have to worry about coming up with a strategy to deal with an abusive chat channel about my stream. I can read it without having to skip over hurtful comments about my appearance.

People will trust that I am there solely to impart information about the game. Nobody will ever, ever assume that I am there to try to improve numbers, or that I’m being fed talking points. I don’t have to work for this trust. It’s implicit.

Most videogames are made for me, or at least people like me. The male viewpoint is assumed. Guys are driving the stories forward. Guys are the main characters. Guys get all the good lines, the good weapons, the good games.

When videogames about women are made, they’re cynically made for guys anyway, about topics guys care about. Women in videogames – the women guys are supposed to empathize with anyway – are stripped of their stereotypical female traits and cast as merely strong and brave and given stereotypically masculine traits. God forbid a leading lady in a game involve herself in something as “feminine” as needlepoint. And there’s absolutely zero chance a guy would, unless you’re playing it off for laughs.

Nope, more and more, women are funnelled into either being damseled or masculinized, with no other archetypes or character traits allowed. Because that’s what sells to guys.

I consider myself a feminist, but I don’t have the same experience and conviction as those who have actually experienced sexism firsthand. And so I hear about the horrible treatment of women in our industry and get frustrated. That’s it, just frustrated. Not angry, not sorrowful, not “so frustrated I could scream”, just regular old intellectually frustrated. None of this has ever happened to me, and so I lack the context to allow me to even understand the level of emotion appropriate for such stories.

Not that I usually do anything about it, though. Far too often, I don’t recognize that simply failing to be actively part of the problem doesn’t equate with being part of the solution. And it’s not as if I have to deal with the same stakes when trying to do something about it. For example, I don’t have to worry about rape threats for writing something like this.

So why don’t I write more?

I can play my own gender in pretty much any videogame, harassment-free. I can speak on voice-chat, harassment-free. I can record and stream my face and body, harassment-free. I can be assertive without being called a bitch. I can be friendly without people assuming I’m flirting. I can say “no thank-you” and be respected.

This all comes for free, right out of the box, no assembly required.

I don’t think about these things. I mean, not unless I really sit down and think about it. Entire days will pass and I won’t notice how easy I have it, or how safe I feel, or how catered to I am. This is normal to me. This is the way things are.

In the meantime I am still fucking things up. I am still using problematic language, I am still offending people. I am still unaware of more things than I am aware of, even though I am learning all the time. I say dumb things to good friends. I am frequently reminded of how wrong I was even a short year or month or day ago. I am forever “not getting it” because – despite my good intentions – I am an outsider to the problems I would like to try to fix.

But most of the time, I don’t notice. And therein lies the problem.

(Thanks to Maddy Myers and the gang on the Isometric podcast for the idea, and for entertaining and intelligent weekly discourse about videogames.

Also thanks to my good friends IRL who helped me revise the initial drafts of this post. I know I didn’t please all of you, but well, I’m working on it.)

Cubone, The Worst Pokemon

Posted by on 22.02.2014 in Games

I’ve had this conversation a few times recently with my friends, and felt the need to share it with the wider world.

So look at this guy:

That’s a Cubone. The skull he wears? That’s the skull of his dead mother that he wears because he’s been viciously traumatized by her death. Yeah. What the fuck, right? I mean, I’ve heard of grieving before, but this is some next-level shit here.

The thing you have to understand though, is that there isn’t just one Cubone out there. There’s a whole species of these guys, and they are never seen without their mother-skulls. Every single one of them has a dead mother that they wear as a hat.

So you have to ask: why would that happen? Odds are against it being an accident befalling every Cubone mom, which leaves the most likely cause as cultural: For some reason, Cubone mothers are killed so their children can have neat headgear. Maybe the kids do the job themselves, or maybe someone else in the family does it for them (a tearful father?), but clearly the kids are aware of it, and probably present for it, which explains why they have such incredible mental scarring.

Now, take it a step further. A pair of parents only can produce one Cubone child – Mom has to give up her life (and skull!) before her child can head out into the world. Even if we assume that Dad moves on after each traumatic wardrobe conversion, predators and accidents would claim a non-negligible number of children. This is a species in decline.

Eventually the world of Pokemon will be completely devoid of Cubones, and perhaps this is for the better.

Because GODDAMN, right?

You may not like it, and I may not like it either, but it’s true.

You’ve probably heard about the rocky launch of the SimCity reboot. If not, here’s the skinny: EA shoehorned online-only DRM onto SimCity and didn’t have enough/stable servers on launch, and people who shelled out $60 couldn’t play their single-player game because of that.

I admit, I was pretty lenient with Diablo 3 when Blizzard did the same thing. Perhaps it’s because I really wanted Diablo 3’s new auction house to work (I am a sucker for games with markets). But I can still see the line of reasoning Blizzard had:

  • Diablo 2’s trading was very difficult.
  • We can implement an auction house (cribbed from WoW) to solve this.
  • Battle.net games of D2 were super-popular because items were stored server-side and therefore not duped.
  • Limit Diablo 3 to Battle.net-only games so that NO items are ever duped.

I get that. I don’t really agree with how it turned out, but I get it.

EA’s though process for online-only can be most charitably described as:

  • Players can create cities together in Regions to work together.
  • These Regions have to be server-side, because you can’t guarantee everyone will be online at the same time.
  • Therefore all cities must be server-side because of reasons (*cough*DRM*cough*).

It’s pretty obviously one of those things that was tacked on to justify online-only DRM, especially because it leads to egregious and obvious abuses. For example, imagine I’m selling your city power from my fancy nuclear power plant. I wait until your city is well and truly dependant on me and have just finished a new expansion. I then sell my nuclear power plant, dooming my city (which I never really cared about), but also dooming yours to crime, fires, and destruction. Worse, I could simply, honestly, just lose interest and stop playing. My city decays, and so too does yours, if it relies on any of my utilities. This is really going to happen to a lot of people.

But here’s the thing.

In a few years, none of this is going to matter. EA, Ubisoft, all the big publishers are going to keep on doing this, and people are going to keep buying those games regardless. And while this is happening to single-player games, actual multi-player games that literally don’t work without a server directing the action are going to continue to be popular as hell. In time, the technology and techniques required to reliably scale and handle these players are going to be well-understood. And your internet will be always-on, too.

Eventually, people complaining about always-on DRM are going to look like people who complained you needed a videocard to play a game. And some time after that, they’ll look like people complaining you need electricity. Online-only DRM is absolutely going to be subsumed into what we expect out of “a game”. (There will of course be exceptions – you don’t need a videocard to play NetHack, for example. But NetHack is an outlier.)

I don’t like it, obviously. But I recognize I’m part of an old guard that grew up without the internet, and without walled gardens, and revelled in the freedom we had there. Kids today… I’m actually writing these words: Kids today don’t know the world I grew up in, and don’t appreciate what they’ve lost.

Of course, by the time they’re my age, they’ll likely be ranting about something even more frivolous that kids of the future don’t appreciate (like actually holding physical phones, maybe), so I can’t be too upset.

When I was younger, I enjoyed an afternoon playing the board game “Stock Ticker”. It was a new concept to me (no board to travel around), it dealt with money (and getting rich), and I was playing it with some really great friends. All in all, it was an enjoyable experience.

But what stayed with me through the years was the question: “Wouldn’t this game be more interesting if the player had more agency?” As it was, the game was very, very random, with interesting decisions only really happening near the Off Market line – and even those were just betting with higher variance. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how to do that, and I think I’ve come up with something fun to play.

I’ll definitely try putting together a prototype and guilting my friends into playing it, but for anyone else interested, I’m putting the rules online as well. If you try a game, let me know!

Insider Trading

Sometimes being a super-wealthy financial mogul isn’t enough anymore. You have to be the best super-wealthy financial mogul. And that involves proving your worth. You and up to five other players play the part of well-connected and unscrupulous capitalists, attempting to settle a bet: With just $5000 and your own resources, how much money can you make in five years? The winner gets the best table at the country club, while everyone else is forced to eat at the servant’s table. Ugh.

Materials

  • Game board: A tall board with 5 Price columns and five Quarterly Report squares. Five companies are depicted thereon, with each company having a column and a square all its own. The Price columns go from “BANKRUPT ($0)” at the bottom to “SPLIT ($200)” at the top in $10 increments. The $100 row is specially highlighted.
  • 5 Price Markers, one for each company.
  • 10 Quarterly Report cards. These cards have the numbers 1-6 on them, alongside a value adjustment, such as +$10 or -$30.
  • 50 Influence cards. These cards have Quarterly Report-altering effects on them, such as “On a 6, +$10″, or “For all rolls less than 3, roll again.” They also have a cost listed, indicating the amount of stock that must be forfeited to activate the Influence card.
  • A whole whack of play money.

Game Setup

  1. Place the game board on the table, with markers for each company in the middle of the board at the $100 level.
  2. Give each player $5000.
  3. Shuffle the Influence deck and deal out 3 Influence cards per player.
  4. Shuffle the Quarterly Report deck and deal one on each company’s Report square.
  5. Give the First Trader token to the winner of a roll-off (highest wins, ties re-roll).

Turn Order

  1. Purchase Phase:
    1. Play starts with the First Trader.
    2. Choose a single Quarterly Report card to secretly peek at. This card *cannot* be shown to any other player, but the peeking player *may* choose to share the information gained. The information shared does not have to be complete, accurate, or even correct.
    3. Buy stock from the board, or sell stock you own. Stock is bought and sold to and from the bank, and for the price currently listed on the board.
    4. Play passes to the next player clockwise, until all players have played.
  2. Influence Phase:
    1. Players may play Influence cards face-down on top of company Quarterly Report cards, provided they pay the cost of the Influence card in shares of stock *for* that company.
  3. Report Phase:
    1. Reveal each company’s Quarterly Report and Influence cards in turn from top to bottom. Then, roll for each company in turn from top to bottom and resolve their Quarterly Report and Influence cards.
    2. Any stock that has reached “SPLIT ($200)” has split! Anyone who owns that stock receives an additional amount equivalent to their current amount, doubling the amount they own. The stock’s price is moved back to $100.
    3. Any stock that has reached “BANKRUPT ($0)” has gone bankrupt! Anyone who owns that stock forfeits it entirely. The stock’s price is moved back to $100.
  4. Cleanup Phase:
    1. Quarterly Report cards go back in the deck, which is re-shuffled. Deal out one card on each company’s Report square, as before.
    2. Influence cards go into the Influence discard pile. Players draw Influence cards to bring their total back up to 3. Players may choose at this time to discard *one* Influence card, though they will have to wait until next turn to refill. If the Influence deck runs out, reshuffle the discard pile as the new Influence deck.
    3. The First Trader token is passed to the next player, clockwise.

Winning

The game progresses for five game years, or twenty game quarters. The winner is the player with the most value in their portfolio, including cash on-hand and stocks at current board value.

So Much Fail.

Posted by on 14.05.2012 in Games

The only thing worse than this video:

Is the comments beneath it.

lol, is this supposed to be “hot” or something? I guess this kind of marketing works on virgins or something, but it’s funny how much this shit doesn’t even faze you once you get a girlfriend. Try again, Ubisoft — this bitch is hideous, your game looks generic, and you should probably fire your marketing department.
BTW, it’s pretty obvious that your marketing bots gave you 600 of those likes.

– SolipsistGrifter

Wow, this chick(?) is hideous… What terrible marketing. She looks like some Las Vegas tranny with bad plastic surgery (sorry) and this is supposed to make me want to play this game? Even if you didn’t objectify ugly women to sell your shit game I probably still wouldn’t play it; looks like every other generic brown shooter.

– phubans

I love how they purport to attack the sexism in the ad, while throwing out phrases like “this bitch is hideous” and “Las Vegas tranny”. My god, the irony in the sentence “Even if you didn’t objectify ugly women to sell your shit game”… So hold on, objectifying women upsets you, and you focus on whether the woman in the ad is pretty or not to judge her value?

The internet makes me so sad some days.

Seriously, if you haven’t fallen in love with spreadsheets yet, you’re doin’ it wrong. I’m currently in the middle of figuring out a multiple-week game loop with really tight targets. How the heck would you ever get this done without a well-constructed spreadsheet? Trial and error would take forever. Guesstimates wouldn’t get you anywhere near what you wanted. No, you need constantly-updating formulae and graphs and colours and stuff. The difference it makes in your capabilities is insane.

A quick example

Say you have an enemy – a cute little slime-creature. And when he’s defeated, he drops a macguffin – but occasionally! Players need ten of these macguffins to progress to the next area, where there’s a boar who drops a similar macguffin. And in the next area, there’s the final creature – a gargoyle – and ten more macguffins to collect.

Three monsters, three macguffins. We want this area to be challenging, but not too frustrating, so let’s set some base assumptions: If it takes less than 100 encounters, it’s not challenging enough. If it takes more than 300 encounters, it’s too frustrating.

Now, we could just throw some numbers onto those creatures and hope, but I’ve got a better way. Let’s set up a spreadsheet with some intuition-based numbers and see how close we come.

Table 1: Drop Rates

The first thing we need to figure out is how often a player is going to get a macguffin drop from a creature. To do that, I’ve created the following table:

Column A is the name of the creature the player will be encountering. B is the chance they will beat that creature when fighting them. C is the chance they drop the macguffin they are looking for. And finally D is the number of expected macguffins from each encounter. So far, we can see that for every time you fight a slime, you can expect to get 0.07 of a macguffin. Seems pretty low, but we’ll find out just how low in a second. Let’s make a second table.

Table 2: Encounters Needed

Column A has the same creature names as before. B is the amount we need to collect before we can progress. And C is the number of expected encounters a player will need to go through to get the amount listed in column B.

And WOW are those numbers high! Seems our intuition was off, and it’s time to play with the numbers a bit to balance this out. We have some options:

  • We could increase the drop rate of the macguffins. This will not only speed up the collection, but also reduce variance for players. (Variance is a topic for another time, but in short, you want less of it. High variance means that you’ll have a lot of players who fall outside of your expected numbers, which is either exceedingly frustrating or boring for those players.)
  • We could decrease the difficulty of the encounters. This will allow players to collect secondary assets (gold, experience) more quickly while speeding up collection as well.
  • We could decrease the number of macguffins needed. Psychologically, collecting 10 macguffins at a 10% drop rate feels a lot less like a chore than collecting 100 macguffins at a 100% drop rate.

And that’s outside of doing something crazy tricksy, like adding or removing more creatures, allowing players to buy or craft macguffins, etc. So let’s play with the numbers some, and see if we can come up with something a little more fun.

Table 3: Some Interesting Numbers

It only took me about five minutes of tweaking to come up with this, and I can already tell that it’s a lot better. For one, it only takes 191 encounters to resolve – almost exactly in the middle of our 100-300 range. For another, see how the Encounters column in the second table gently rises? It didn’t when I first started playing around with the numbers, but I quickly saw how going from 50 encounters to 25 encounters to 125 encounters would be very weird, and altered my values to suit.

Of course, you’ll still want to play-test this to ensure it’s actually fun when you play it, but this is a much better starting point for your playtest than our original numbers, and it only took five minutes to find out, and five minutes to improve it a vast amount.

Hopefully you can see how much of a difference a good spreadsheet can bring to a game developer’s toolkit. I’ve still got a few more concepts I want to cover regarding spreadsheets (the LOOKUP function, conditional formatting, etc.), so stay tuned!

So Project Zomboid was stolen last night. Literally. Someone broke into the developer’s flat, stole two laptops containing the source code, and booked it. And these two laptops contained the ONLY recent copies of the code. All other backups are at least a month old.

Seriously.

Reddit got angry about this, and Lemmy got angry back over Twitter (account since removed, wisely).

So far, this was all something of an unfortunate morality play, but then another PZ developer popped up this morning to elucidate on the subject of Professionalism and Indies.

In as much as he is talking about people being angry because Lemmy raged at Reddit over Twitter, he’s right. (Hypocritical, of course, since they pulled his Twitter account, but whatever.) One of the differences between indies and commercial studios is that you get a closer relationship with the developers than you would if you had a PR department between you. If that relationship exposes a personality you don’t like, well, tough. Don’t invest in that game, simple.

But he also draws an arbitrary line in the sand in that article, declaring that some indies would rather just be commercial studios. Here, in his words:

There’s the type of studio that really, if they were honest, they’d like to be the first type of indie [independent studios, working for commercial clients] – everything they do is onwards an upwards to this goal. Legitimacy. A proper company. And then there’s the other type.

This type of indie never pretends to be professional. The “company” is probably just a name. It technically exists, but really what it boils down to is a guy in his underpants making a daft game. Sometimes that guy has a day-job, sometimes he’s taken a whoppping gamble and is working full-time from home.

The point is, if you’re going to throw your money at one of these indies, it’s important to know who you’re throwing money at and why. You can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too.

You can just hear the derision there. Ugh, commercial studios, right? All that process and overhead and accountability, bleh. When PZ was first getting popular, I read a blog post from one of their developers about how he left the commercial games industry because it was the most miserable period of his life. Which is cool – we’ve all heard the gory details exposed by EASpouse and others. Fleeing that environment is a positive, healthy step. But there was always something about the way it was written that never sat well with me.

I guess last night I figured out what it was. At Indie Stone, “professionalism” is a dirty word.

But being a professional doesn’t mean having to give up your indie cred, or bow to the demands of marketing folk or whatever. It just means that you treat this shit like Your Job, which it now is. It means taking all the appropriate precautions to prevent shit like this from sinking you. Every instance of “bad luck” that’s struck Indie Stone so far has been entirely preventable with just the bare minimum of professionalism. If they’d read the PayPal terms that said they didn’t accept pre-orders, they wouldn’t have lost all those money and orders. Ditto for Google Checkout. And ditto for backing up your code appropriately.

You wouldn’t hire an independent caterer who didn’t wash their kitchen first. You wouldn’t hire an independent electrical contractor who wasn’t certified. These are just little one or two-person outfits, without any dreams of gaining “Legitimacy”. But they take the time to know their craft and be professionals about it.

And the dirtiest, scariest part of this all is that setting up an offsite backup in this day and age isn’t hard. At all. It’s almost harder NOT to, actually. See, source control tools were invented way back in the dark ages, and you have a million options nowadays. CVS. Subversion. Git. Mercurial. Veracity. And the interesting thing is, they all make development EASIER, not harder. First, if you ever made a mistake, you can roll your code back to ANY POINT in the development history to figure out what went wrong. Second, when working with more than one developer, it makes it really difficult to accidentally clobber changes that they’ve been working on. Finally, if your computer ever catches on fire, your source control is generally safe on another server somewhere in another city, and even that’s backed up in case that server catches on fire.

The fact that Indie Stone was charging people for pre-orders for a game, and then not expending the requisite effort to protect people’s investment is absolutely, completely unprofessional. And not in the “Commercial Studio” sense that these guys seem to dread, but in the “Basic Respect For Your Customers And For Your Trade” sense.

Now, they’re planning on continuing on (good for them!), and hopefully they’ll be able to. I know personally that losing a month’s worth of work would be devastating – moreso than the theft itself. But hopefully they learn from this, and not just to back up their code remotely. They’ve had three serious hits due to a lack of professionalism. This is the time to start looking into all their shit that they’ve been giving short shrift. Check their security for XSS, SQL injection, change every password (because you now have people who own their laptops, and a whole bunch of people on the internet upset at them). Ensure payments are still flowing properly, ensure refunds are processed immediately (because there’s going to be a bunch of those, and having their payment processing yanked on them now is going to suck BIGTIME) – double-down on this stuff.

I’d love to see Project Zomboid survive, because it’s a thrilling, ambitious project. But I hate how they’re badmouthing professionalism. You can be a professional indie without succumbing to all the soul-deadening crap that happens in a commercial studio. Long-term, it’s even easier to do, because then you don’t have to worry about having your payment processing yanked twice and having months of work stolen from you. Swear all you want on Twitter, but respect your craft, and respect your customers.

It’s beginning to look like the PC version of Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition is going to be a worse investment than setting your wallet on fire.

The original SFIV was cancelled on PC due to piracy concerns. I don’t even understand that – isn’t the draw for this game fighting other people? Developers have come up with reliable ways to prevent pirated versions of games from going multiplayer for decades now. But Capcom, determined to apply a solution in face of a problem they don’t even really have, has basically guaranteed that pirating SFIV:AE will get you a better game than buying it.

First, make the assumption that if you’re pirating SFIV, you don’t care much about getting online, this being a fairly common restriction on pirated games. So if you pirate SFIV and you have an internet problem or Capcom’s servers go down, you get the following features that paying customers don’t:

  • You can continue your game! Paying customers get kicked out without saving.
  • Your challenge mode works like always! Paying customers lose the ability to save progress in challenge mode.
  • You can change your settings! Paying customers can’t save their settings changes.
  • You can play dress-up! Paying customers lose access to cosmetic DLC while offline.
  • You can play with all 39 characters. Paying customers? Only fifteen.

That’s an impressively broken game. But here’s a good question. Why bother at all?

Recently, Lionhead has come out and said that second-hand game sales cost them more than piracy. I’ve long suspected this to be the case for a while, but it’s interesting to see a publisher come out and say it. Given this, wouldn’t it make more sense for Capcom to try to make money from second-hand sales instead of battling uphill against pirates? And come on, Street Fighter is the perfect game for this. Check it:

You buy SFIV:AE for $10. That’s right. Ten dollars. Cheap, simple, easy. (Knock on: So cheap that it may tempt some pirates to buy it.) However, this is only the single-player version of the game. Most people are buying this game for the multiplayer anyway, which you sell a key for direct from your website for $30. The benefits are enormous:

  • From customers who would have paid you anyway, you make the same $40 you would have charged at retail.
  • From pirates who only want to play single player, you make the same $0. But you can’t stop that anyway.
  • From pirates who want to play multiplayer, you make $30 instead of $0!
  • From second-hand buyers who want to play multiplayer, you make another $30 instead of $0!

You’ve now converted some pirates to paying customers, and recovered most of the money you lose on second-hand sales. What do you think Capcom?

Capcom?

Wait, what are you doing? Why are you selling the retail version for less than the digital version?

Didn’t you listen to a thing I just said?

The “Decline of WoW”

Posted by on 07.02.2011 in Design, Games

First, go read this.

Now, since none of you did, here’s the tl;dr version – Warcraft is turning into an online game, not an online world, because that’s where the huge playerbase and money is.

I’m actually not too upset about this. I’ve been feeling it for quite some time – since Wrath, basically – and even BC had a hint of it. I’m just not that invested in Warcraft any more, so it doesn’t hit me so hard.

What does bother me though is the relative non-popularity of virtual worlds these days. I always felt there was such great promise in VW-style games, and it saddens me to see that they’re not as popular or common-place as I’d hoped.

That said, maybe it’s for the best? I mean, it’s still very possible to create a laser-focused VW that targets a specific playerbase and be profitable, if not wildly so. With a less-broad customer base you can focus on tailoring the game to their expectations specifically and not spread yourself too thinly.

For example, you’ll never see dungeon finders and instanced dungeron-style play come to Eve, which is nice. More money and dev time spent on making market improvements or letting players set up cooler bases, etc.

Plus, this gives smaller studios a chance to really shine – you don’t have to worry about competing with World of Warcraft any more – it’s in an entirely different genre.

I really hope this ends up being the case – I’d love to live in a world where there’s hundreds or thousands of virtual worlds to go hang out in, each focused on a very specific theme or gameplay element.

A note about format

The weekly thing isn’t really working for me, so these updates – like everything else on my blog – will be sporadic. The problem with trying to do one game a week is that some games just aren’t good enough to stick with for a full week, and thus a long time may go by before I’ve given a full week’s worth of attention to a game. Basically, when the game runs out and all that remains is the retention mechanics, I lose all interest.

A note about FarmVille

My next review was going to be FarmVille – the big granddaddy of social games. But I couldn’t even get an hour into that stinker. It’s nothing but retention mechanics!

From the vapid, insipid smile of the main character, to the tinny, tedious music, to the thirty-second intro that ends with a “Come back tomorow!” – the whole short experience was negative. There’s no game here at all, just a bunch of barely disguised ploys to get people to keep coming back.

It’s actually refreshing to see how far Zynga has come. FarmVille is obviously a naked grab for attention and cash, while CityVille was an enjoyable little game (even if it got mired down in requiring viral participation and silly retention mechanics). With the resources and talent they have available, I’m looking forward to their future entries into this space.

A game with history

The original Oregon Trail was written in 1971, and has since then entertained generations of youngsters who would otherwise have been saddled with crappy “Math Blaster”-style games in their classrooms. It was a game of epic scope and challenge, and nearly infinitely replayable – you could choose different professions and loadouts when you began, and faced different challenges on the trail every time.

It was not a game to baby players or hide the ugly truths about history from them. Characters in your party – characters you often named after friends and family – could and did die from dysentery, snakebite, and drowning with a frightening frequency.

I’m happy to report that the modern Oregon Trail on Facebook brings forward all these classical elements while updating the game to be more palatable to modern players who expect better graphics and the ability to crow about their achievements to friends.

A game with problems

I have to get this out of the way first – when this game first launched, it was kind of terrible. For the first few critical days of its life, it was laggy as HELL. I mean the Flash, not the netcode, either. No matter what browser or computer you ran it on, you’d get framerates in the mid-single-digit, and not much better. Normal play was difficult, and one of the minigames was nearly impossible.

Thankfully, this all seems to have been fixed as of today with a new release of the Flash client, and everything is just as quick and smooth as you’d expect and demand. I wonder what they changed?

The game!

For those who somehow don’t know – Oregon Trail challenges you to take your family from Independance, MO across America to Oregon City – a journy of about 2000 miles. You choose your profession, customize your wagon, and choose from a variety of supplies before you leave, vastly changing the difficulty of the trail. Some selections are, of course, locked until you gain higher levels, which means you’ll have to make multiple attempts at the trail before you have access.

Along the way, you’ll encounter nuggets of gold you can pick up, rivers you have to ford or float across, bandits who will try to rob you, and a whole host of random events:

  • Sand storms or mud that will slow down your wagon,
  • Snakebites, fevers, and dysentery which can drain the health of your party,
  • Or even good things like having your oxen “spooked”, which makes your whole party travel faster.

It’s funny, though – normally the rest of my party is sick and injured, while I’m just fine. For reference, this is what most of my game looks like:

Everyone Sick But Me

“Come on! Why can’t y’all keep up?”

But, also in keeping to the original game’s roots, occasionally you’ll come across reminders of you or your friends’ previous trips:

The spot where Jacob Died.

I guess Jacob didn’t make it that time.

Mini-games

In addition to the main game of trying to deal with the little obstacles placed in your way, there’s a few mini-games used to represent some of the struggles faced by settlers along the trail.

  • Over time, your wagon takes damage, and you can play a sort of Tetris-like game:
    Repairing Minigame
    You place the blocks from the bottom into the slots up above, and the fewer you use, the more you repair your wagon. It remains fun, regardless of the number of times when I’ve needed One Specific Piece to finish my repair perfectly, and Something Freaking Else popped in at the last minute.
  • When you run out of food on the trail, you can go hunting for wild game:
    Hunting
    Click to move, click to shoot. You need to focus on the larger game – buffalo and bears – to take home any significant meat, which is nicely balanced, because they attack back.
  • Occasionally, you run across a river that has to be floated down, and you play a white-water rafting minigame:
    River Rafting
    Pick up coins and crates while avoiding the rocks. It’s a much faster way to travel than hoofing it, that’s for sure.

Monetization

This game is monetized beautifully – pretty much every bad thing that happens, you can buy your way out of for “Trail Notes”, the in-game paid currency. However, I never felt like I HAD to do this, which is a pretty sweet balance. In fact, the things I found I *did* pay for were unlocks. For example, you can’t access certain wagon parts or certain trails until you reach a certain level, OR you can pay Trail Notes to access it immediately.

I do wish I’d bothered to buy my way out of the recent flood I suffered. I’m playing a Banker who gets bonuses if he manages to drag trade goods all the way along the path, and the flood wipe out 5/6 of the trade goods I was carrying. That really hurts.

Also, you can pay Trail Notes to refill your Energy (used to play mini-games) or your Stamina (required to travel), though levelling up does the same thing and happens often enough to make paying rarely necessary.

Viral channels

In general, all the viral channels are in place, but I wish this aspect had been flushed out a little more. There are a few things I wish I could have bragged about to my feed that I found I couldn’t.

You can still tell your feed when you made it to Oregon, or when a party member died, or when everyone died anyway, which is the important part.

A good port, a good game

I really feel that The Oregon Trail is a faithful re-interpretation of the original game – it feels much like the original did, and passing by someone’s tombstone on the side of the trail still fills me with that same glee as before – “I’m making it further, yes!” It’s fun to play, there’s a real sense of accoplishment when you finally make it to the end, and even re-starting is neat because of all the profession and wagon unlocks you earn along the trail the time before.

Blue Fang did a bang-up job on this game, and they have every right to be proud of it.