Monday, October 16, 2017

Well copy my cats and call me "designer"

For the first time in the long years since first downloading it, I've uninstalled Team Fortress 2, a game I've yakked about several times here starting with post #7. I was willing to put up with cartoonish graphics and even praised their up-side of malleability. I was willing to put up with Valve shoving demands for more cash in my face, with their retarded "achievements" and ludicrous crafting system and seeing them waste all their time developing more funny hat skins for the cash shop than actual gameplay. I was even willing to put up with the utterly troglodytic playerbase 'cause... well shit, it's an online game - 'nuff said. What finally killed it for me altogether was last year's big small-team patch, and today realizing that since writing that disgusted patch review more than a year ago I had only logged in... maybe twice? And I hadn't even missed it.

At the time I couldn't explain to myself why Team Fortress, a game designed for 12 vs. 12 matches, was limiting its new auto-matchmade "competitive" mode to a sparse 6 vs. 6 players, negating most of its own gameplay options... like defense... in favor of moronic twitchy scout dueling. Having played MOBAs I knew it must have something to do with their smaller team sizes. Having not played Overwatch, it took me a while to realize 6v6 happens to be the team size of TF2's direct biggest competitor, which had been kicking TF2's ass up and down the internet since coming out earlier last year. That Overwatch is itself supposedly a cross-bred bastard child of TF2 and DotA does sort of vindicate my suspicions, but that's not my focus here.

My point of contention is Valve's panicked, reflexive response to competition. Yeah, Overwatch has pretty much curbstomped TF2. You can actually see TF2's usage statistics visibly drop in late 2015 when Overwatch went into closed beta, and again in early 2016 when it released. You can also see players returning to TF2 in droves in late summer 2016 when it released its big patch, then hilariously flee again after one, maybe two months, taking even more of Valve's customers back with them, likely right over to Blizzard.

The crazy part is that TF2 actually tried forcing Overwatch's game mode on their players, which basically amounted to free advertising for and a concession to Blizzard. Instead of looking at distancing themselves, building on their strengths and advertising what they can do better (like a hectic, punishing, goal-oriented large-team melee instead of dick-measuring over individual k/d scores MOBA-style) at maintaining a unique brand identity, they tried copying the newer, glitzier product which had already out-copycatted them. Can a dead horse beat itself?

It seems utterly perplexing that in a field arguably defined by neophilia, computer game designers are still stuck in the mentality of infinite growth of the dot-com bubble years. They're still trying to party like it's 1999. They seem to assume they exist in an exponentially expanding market which can accommodate endless identical copycats, that they can just ride a trend like "MMO" or "MOBA" without actually designing anything of their own. Except, Googling "video game industry growth" brings up the top hit "An Aging Video Gaming Industry Wars Against Slowing Growth" accompanied by such first-page rejoinders as "Jobs for Video Game Developers Have Dropped by 65% Since 2014" and Fortune warning back in 2015 in an otherwise exultantly congratulatory article that the upswing was nevertheless hitting its peak. Never mind that even then, much of the growth was coming from consoles... or worse, phone apps.

Amusingly, what business analysts know, computer gamers know also, because we've been sitting here watching one cheesy knock-off after another bite the dust. Vanguard, anyone? Even in one of the newest markets, MOBAs, Wikipedia's list has a third of them "discontinued" and I can tell you from personal experience that proportion should be higher. No-one's played Demigod since before the Mayan Apocalypse. Half of them flop right out of the box, like Sins of a Dark Age.

Games, especially computer games might have to try and stand out in a crowd now. They might need actual features, selling points, innovation, even if it's superficial. There are only so many slices in that pie. The financier overlords know it, we petty rabble know it. Somehow it's the people in the middle of the whole mess, game designers and publishers themselves, who haven't heard the news.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Darken

There's actually very little to say about Darken beyond its basic nature as one of the many D&D-inspired webcomics. An unlikely hero joins a band of elves and dragons and <fast-forward> the monster falls to their mighty blowing <fast-forward> intrigue deepens as suspicion falls upon <f-f> evil twin <f-f> reconciliation <f-f> boss fight, and they all gain unimaginable power and learn the twue meaning of wuv, the end. The rest is in the execution. Artistically it ain't Rembrandt but gets its point across and improves over time, characters run as deep as "sword and sorcery" usually delves, plot's twisty enough not to challenge you but to keep you awake, etc. Even comedically, it has its moments. If you like that sort of thing, Darken's the sort of thing you might like.

The one outstanding question's begged by its basic premise: why write about an evil adventuring party if they never do anything evil? Thieves, assassins, dragons, drow, infernal blackguards, you'd think between all of them they'd manage to torch some peasants or rip an orphan's guts out now and then to stay in character. Instead they're routinely infantilized into paragons of prosocial codependence, comforting their loved ones, making mutually beneficial alliances and keeping any negative ramifications of their actions for the most part conveniently off-panel. I'd wonder where this Disneyed antiheroism came from, but given the comic started in 2003 and the hero's a dual-wielding drow male, we can pretty safely lay the blame on some guy named Salvatore.

While it's readable enough, Darken's evil-lite also illustrates stereotypical spineless adolescent bluster, the desperation to pass oneself off as a grim, dangerous rebel while also slavishly vying for everyone's adulation and reinforcement.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Elyria, Fame Inflation and Pay-to-Grief

A couple of second thoughts after my last post on Chronicles of Elyria's amusing take on fleecing its customer base:

1)
The subscription time loss per death ramps up with a player's "fame" which the developers are apparently leaving utterly up to their own discretion. So, as the game wears on and customers get more emotionally invested in the ongoing struggle (and therefore more likely to re-subscribe if they're perma-killed) expect to see inordinate proportions of characters get upgraded to "notable" or "prominent" and higher to speed up their next $30 payment.
Expect it to play out like magic item inflation. Pretty much no-one except complete newbies will be "unknown" after a while, just like no-one uses "common" items past level 3 in a fantasy game. They will likely justify it by telling you you've been involved in the game world long enough that your fame has increased... even if you're Joe Schmoe doing nothing more eventful than killing ten rats.

Assume a 1.5x or 2.0 inflation to your death penalties at the very least, more likely 4x if you're really obsessed with the game and they can be sure you'll come begging for more abuse. Compound that with your 4x death penalty every day you join a PvP battleground, and your elevated "griefer" penalties whenever you decapitate someone, and however else the developers decide to stack the deck against you. They will ensure you don't get more than three months for your $30, if that.

2)
Scratch Elyria not being pay-to-win. It is:
"We recognize that not all players can (or want to) spend the same amount of time per week farming gold for that special armor. We also recognize some people have a ton of free time, but not a lot of money. We're attempting to equalize this by having an in-game exchange market."

Legitimized cheating for the fatcats. Ensure rich players who already don't give a shit about their subscription cost are also the best-geared, empowering them to grief endlessly and with as great an impact as possible, inflicting as many quick perma-deaths on others around them as possible and therefore driving up the community's re-subscription rate as a whole.

...

God damn. The more I read into this, the more it looks like an outright scam - and the more I want to buy into it just for the trainwreck appeal, just to be there watching innocent teenagers who thought they were buying a year's worth of game time get booted out after one or two months, then spammed with "discounted" re-subscription e-mails. As though a 10 or 20% discount is going to compensate for an 80 or 90% reduction in playtime. Forty bucks so I can witness the most hilariously sadistic MMO scam since Project Entropia. I want to taste that river of tears.

I think I need to play this game. Why? Because I fucking hate myself, that's why.