Thursday, 16 July 2015

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment: Kings of DLC and Pre-Order Culture

At the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con last weekend, Warner Bros. showed the trailer for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. As usual, the trailer was immediately leaked to the internet, and for the next 24 hours WB's "anti-piracy team" tried endlessly to stop it getting out. After dismally failing to do so, they eventually just uploaded the trailer to Youtube, with a super passive aggressive message about how they wanted this trailer to be a "unique experience for Comic-Con". Now, none of this has anything to do with gaming, so why am I bringing all of this up? Well this attitude extends into Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, their game publishing arm.

You might have gathered from my extremely moody post about Arkham Knight and its PC port, I'm not super happy with Warner. Holders to the rights of some of my favorite franchises, such as DC Comics, Scribblenauts and Lord of the Rings, WB have a hit and miss record when it comes to games they produce. As a fan of Batman, seeing that my preferred platform to play these games on was treated as a second class citizen behind the consoles hurt me more than I'd like to admit.

Arkham Knight is just the tip of the iceberg however. WB has a history of shady practices, ranging from poor ports to slicing parts of the game out to offer as DLC or pre-order bonuses. When Arkham City first came out, they put codes in all of the boxes to access the Catwoman missions, content that was already on the disk, but locked to try and stop people buying the game preowned instead of new. If you did buy the game second hand, the Catwoman missions had to be purchased, ensuring WB got their little slice of the pie. I actually initially bought Arkham City on the Xbox 360, because they delayed the PC release, and in my brand new, sealed copy of the game, my code for the Catwoman missions failed to work, meaning if I wanted to access the content I had paid for, I would have to purchase it again. That copy was returned immediately, and I decided to wait for the PC version.

Not pictured: the rage this bug caused me.
Every one of Warner's games I've played has adverts for season passes and DLC right there in the main menu. Exclusive pre-order bonuses from certain retailers ensure that to get the complete game you would need to order the game multiple times, or more commonly in Australia, that you just can't get access to them without paying for it later. The very first trailer for Arkham Knight ever released included an advert for the Harley Quinn missions, but only if you pre-ordered. It always seemed to me like WB treats games as more of a platform to sell more DLC. After all, this is the company that straight up said they weren't going to fix bugs in Arkham Origins because "the team is currently working hard on the upcoming story DLC." They did eventually fix the game breaking bugs, but to this day there are still non game breaking ones all throughout Origins.

Even games that are completely worthy of praise aren't immune to controversy due to decisions made by WB marketing executives. Shadow of Mordor, my game of the year in 2014 and possibly one of my top games of all time, faced some poor publicity after they offered Youtube personalities early access to the game in return for only positive coverage of the game. Jim Sterling, then at the Escapist, got his hands on a copy of the contract and revealed just how strict it was. With messages like "persuade viewers to purchase the game", "videos will promote positive sentiment of the game" and "videos must not show bugs or glitches", and giving Warner the final say on if a video can be put out, the contract reveals just how strongly WB wants to control the messages about its games. Oddly enough, the contract also forbade mentions of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies, characters and books, arguably hamstringing anyone who actually likes the Tolkien universe from being able to compare to them, even in a positive light.

The ridiculous thing about this contract was that the game was good in the first place. Had WB not tried to control the message so hard, all of the news surrounding Shadow of Mordor on launch would have been overwhelmingly positive. The PC port was amazing, the story was strong for fans of the established lore, and the Nemesis system is a mechanic I really hope to see implemented in future games. As it stands, Shadow of Mordor will always have that black mark in its history, and WB will always be remembered as trying to control a message that didn't need controlling.

Even when Warner eventually did the right thing and pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam and other digital distributors, they had to spin it to sound like they weren't doing it to stop the flood of refunds they were no doubt getting. Rather than just saying, "yeah we messed up, and are going to fix it," they had to say that a significant amount of players were enjoying the game on PC, just to twist the knife to those who were having problems.

Realistically, Warner are probably worse than EA and Ubisoft, both of whom have copped a lot of flak over the years, and rightfully so. But where EA and Ubisoft at least make efforts to try and fix things, the message we get from Warner is "lololol too busy making more stuff to sell you suckers". I can pretty much guarantee that the only reason they pulled Arkham Knight from sale on Steam was because of the recent addition of the refund option by Valve, and they saw the number of people who weren't going to put up with their crap. Had the option been there with Arkham Origins, I'm convinced that the message wouldn't have been "we're too busy making DLC", it would have been "we're going to fix those bugs".

All of this has been stated before, many times, and by people with far larger audiences than me, and still Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment show us that they don't understand why we dislike the stunts they pull. I've never been one to complain about the commercialization of video games, but I'm done with way WB treats us, especially those of us who prefer the PC platform. And really, in my mind, it comes back to how they reacted to the inevitable leaks of the Suicide Squad trailer. Warner is old media, trying to hold onto that sliver of tenuous control they have over their message, being dragged kicking and screaming into the new age of the internet, where people can share information faster than Warner can suppress it. Get with the times WB, and maybe I'll play your games again.

As always,


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Star Citizen and My Thoughts on Derek Smart's Blog Post

There's something about all of the marketing for Star Citizen that never fails to excite me. The Freelancer and Constellation commercials both make me tingle with excitement. Whoever is doing the marketing for Cloud Imperium Games is doing a stellar job of hyping the concepts of Star Citizen (pun completely intended). But as time goes on, I find myself doubting if Star Citizen will ever actually happen, and if it does, if it will live up to the expectations that Chris Roberts and his team have created for the game.

Derek Smart - litigious game dev &
self confessed troll.
Small disclaimer: I at no stage have put any money toward Star Citizen. My wish for the game to succeed is not from a financial standpoint of wanting my 'investment' to pay off, but a general love of space sim games.

This whole post started because of a blog post I recently read by Derek Smart, the president and lead developer at 3000AD Games. Derek's games have always been controversial (putting it politely), and unfortunately, his response to criticism usually involves bans and threats of lawyers. Smart has also said in the past that he will occasionally "post just to piss these guys off", and "go in there (forums) and start trouble", essentially describing himself as an internet troll. However, despite his history of poorly made games, litigious nature and generally toxic personality, I still feel like Derek raises some valid criticism of CIG and Star Citizen, even if I disagree with his message of wanting everyone who backed the game to demand refunds or sue CIG.

When Star Citizen was Kickstarted back in 2012, the features they listed were reasonably humble: a 'rich universe' with single player (online co-op available), persistent online multiplayer, the option to create modded servers (not hosted by CIG) and submit player created ships to CIG for implementation into the main game. Where Elite Dangerous promised, and delivered, a massive universe, Chris and his team promised a smaller universe with far more depth to individual systems. All of this was slated to be released in November 2014, and the game eventually raised $2.1 million on Kickstarter.

We're now in July of 2015, and at the time of writing Cloud Imperium Games has raised just over $85 million from just under 925,000 people. You can actually watch in real time how much they have raised here. That page also contains all of the stretch goals they have hit. They are no longer adding stretch goals, giving the reason for this move as they don't want the game to have too much feature creep. However, I would argue that the game already has some pretty severe feature creep.

Today the list of features has grown to immense levels including:

  • 100 star systems (handcrafted)
  • Professional motion capture, including facial capture
  • Orchestral score
  • A single player campaign, Squadron 42, that has at least 50 missions (although further stretch goals hint at more than that)
  • Ship boarding
  • Immersive capital ship gameplay (putting out fires, repairing systems, etc)
  • Ship modularity, the ability to completely customize any aspect of your ships performance and features
  • Pets
  • Fully fleshed out AI characters on planets
  • Real alien languages created by linguists
  • And much, much more
Chris Roberts - has his baby gotten too
big for its own good?
It's starting to look more and more like something Peter Molyneux would put together as his list of "features that are totally in my next game guys, please trust me please I need money". It's also not unlike Freelancer, where Chris Roberts promised a dynamic economy and world that would change around the player based on actions of other players and even AI factions. Freelancer was eventually released, and while regarded as one of the best space sim games, fell very short of these promises due to technical limitations. And here we are again, with Chris promising a lot and perhaps not able to deliver as much as he would love to. The game pitched in 2012, while not as grandiose as the game presented now, was at least achievable in a reasonable amount of time.

Another point of criticism CIG comes under is the "pledge system" they have used to continue crowdfunding. You can buy ships that grant access to the games packages with prices ranging from $30 to $325 for individual ship packages that include other in game goodies (most of which don't exist yet). There are also multi-ship combo packages that range from the $1,100 "Battle Pack" that contains every fighter sized ship currently available, to the $15,000 "Completionist" pack that contains almost every single ship. 

The stretch goals page that I linked to earlier has an auto update function. Just for fun I left it running while I wrote this post: around $1200 from 11 people over about 3 hours. In the last 6 months, they have made more than $2 million every month. The hype around Star Citizen, and the amount of money that some fans have spent on the game has also created a culture where any criticism is shot down in flames. Because they feel the need to justify their investment, these hyper fans go out of their way to defend any aspect of the game, including legitimate concerns about the direction the game is going, how long it is taking, and that CIG might be in over its head with what has been promised.

Even if Star Citizen fails, the Redeemer will remain one of my favourite
ship designs. Props to CIG for running the Next Great Spaceship competition.
Yet, despite all my misgivings, and as I mentioned in the start of this post, I really do want Star Citizen to succeed. Something about the idea of piloting a ship with friends in a persistent universe has captured my imagination. I want to explore a universe with a crew just like in the Constellation trailer. I want to ship cargo and fight off pirates like in the Freelancer trailer. There is no doubt in my mind that if Star Citizen actually somehow manages to live up to the hype, it will be remembered as one of the greatest games in history.

However, if it fails... if they don't deliver the product they've promised... it'll go down as the biggest internet scam in history.

As always,


Monday, 6 July 2015

CCP Rise Comments on Eve's New Player Experience

Earlier this week, CCP Rise posted some interesting ideas regarding the new player experience of Eve Online on both Reddit and the Eve forums. In these posts, he posts an answer regarding the amount of skill points that a new player to Eve would start with:
Q: 'Starting skills are a huge barrier, can we give a lot more to new players'
A: Yes. But this is not a simple change. You guys seem fairly agreed that the small amount of starting skills, combined with a high amount of 'must have' support and requirement skills, leads to some really icky barriers to participation for new players. We are inclined to agree and we are in the process of laying out a plan to address the problem. Nothing is set in stone yet but it seems likely that we will try and move new players towards starting with significantly more SP. Maybe between 1 and 2 million. It also seems likely that we will probably avoid any major skill reworks or skill removals. As this plan solidifies you will hear more from us.
Finally, CCP is actually looking at doing something about the NPE that makes sense. Here's why I'm in love with this idea, and I genuinely believe it will make an impact to retaining new players in Eve.

Skills in Eve are all trained in real time, and depending on who you ask, this is either the best way to handle progression in an MMO, or the worst. Each skill has 5 levels, with each level taking more and more skill points to obtain, and thus more time. As a new player coming into Eve, you are confronted with a lot of choice, and freedom to do any number of things. However, nearly everyone agrees that there are a core set of skills that are extremely important to train:

  • CPU Management: Gives a bonus 5% CPU per level
  • Power Grid Management: Gives a bonus 5% power grid per level
  • Capacitor Management: 5% bonus capacitor capacity per level
  • Capacitor Systems Operation: 5% reduction in capacitor recharge time per level
Then you need skills to suit what type of tank your ship has, either Shield Management, Shield Compensation and Shield Operation, or Hull Upgrades, Mechanics and Repair Systems. In this time, nothing exciting, like guns, missiles or drones have been even thought about.

Granted, these skill trains are reasonably short, but I know from personal experience, during this time most new players will quit the game because they don't see any pay off for the time spent training these 'must have' skills. To put it frankly, it's boring to have to wait for all of this to train when all you want to do is blow stuff up because you're new to the game and lack the patience that veteran Eve players have developed.

The figure that CCP Rise gives of 1 - 2 million skill points would cut off around 2 months of training time, allowing for people to more quickly jump into the action. New players would no longer have to only be "hero tackle", essentially ships that dive in to hold other ships and then die because they can't handle the damage output of the enemy. They don't need to have the skills trained to 5, giving them even more skill points to play with, to make mistakes with.

To wrap all of this up, I honestly hope that CCP goes ahead with some variation of this plan, because I can only see this working in favour of new players, without giving older players advantages. Ignore the people who are saying that because they had to train skills, new players should have to as well. Do it!

As always,


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Batman Arkham Knight

Warner Bros, why did you have to outsource development of the PC port of Arkham Knight away from Rocksteady? You saw what happened to Arkham Origins right?

Arkham Knight was released yesterday on PC, and almost immediately users reported that the port was, to put it simply, terrible. Capped to 30 FPS and buggy to boot. Users also reported that you could uncap the frame lock with an edit to the config ini. However the game does not like running about 30 FPS, and would crash even more frequently after the change was made.

This isn't the first time an Arkham game has run terribly on PC. Arkham Origins had some massive issues on release, including one gameplay breaking bug that I encountered where you could not leave a room, forcing you to reload an earlier save. That port was made by Iron Galaxy Studios. Take a look at that list, and note the most recent entry. Sigh. I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. Rocksteady, who made the previous core Arkham games (including the PC ports), have generally released great products for PC gamers.

So as a PSA for anyone who reads this, don't buy Arkham Knight right now. If you did fall into the preorder trap, remember that Steam now has a refund option, and this is the exact sort of situation where using that option is the best course of action. Don't support publishers and devs who treat our platform like this. If they fix the game, then look at picking it up. I'll keep my eye on the situation as it develops.

EDIT 1: Apparently the port was developed by just 12 people from Iron Galaxy Studios.

EDIT 2: Further news points to the PC port almost being deliberately downgraded. An image showing the differences in rain textures between the PC port and the PS4 edition shows a crazy amount of difference. Rock Paper Shotgun also posted this video showing the PC version in all it's "glory".

I'm still showing restraint on the crazy theories about WB Games deliberately doing this. That said however, I doubt I'll be purchasing this game at all.

EDIT 3: There is a theory that Iron Galaxy Studios only had 8 weeks to port the game. It's only a theory, but could definitely explain where the issue started.

EDIT 4: Rocksteady have suspended future sales of the game on Steam, and made a post regarding the issues here.

As always,


Thursday, 7 May 2015

Kerbal Space Program Full Release

A little green man grips the controls in his space pod, firing the rocket engine on his lander to slow his descent to a moon. It's taken many attempts to get to this position, and all the practise has finally paid off. He lowers his landing gear, throttles the engine up, touches down gently... and the lander promptly falls over on its side, and the pod rolls down the hill to rest at the bottom of a crater. No matter, that's all par for the course in Kerbal Space Program.

It's still good right? (All pictures can be enlarged)

This isn't the first time I've written about KSP; there was a short piece on it as one of the first posts on the blog in 2013. I stopped playing KSP regularly after they added in the career mode to the alpha (October 2013), only taking a quick look at the asteroids in the April 2014 release. I didn't want to burn myself out on the game before it was actually released. Now it has been officially released and I've got to say, the game has really improved since the last time I played it.

The tech tree. Everything is unlocked from here.
When you first start up a game, you can now choose 3 different game types: sandbox, science mode, and career mode. Sandbox mode does exactly as advertised, allowing you to create unlimited rockets and aircraft with nothing locked away. It can be a little confusing being dropped into the game with so much to choose from, but for those of us who want to just mess around, sandbox is the place to be. Science mode is a slimmed down career mode, removing the need to manage money and reputation, but allowing you to progress through the tech tree at your own pace.

Career mode is essentially the story mode of the game, placing you in control of your very own space program. The goal is to explore the Kerbin system, a place that has 4 terrestrial planets, 1 gas giant, 2 dwarf planets, and 9 moons scattered around the various planets to explore. To do this, you launch rockets and fly planes, performing various science experiments to gain science points. These points can be used in the Research and Development facility to unlock various new parts that make exploring easier or unlock new experiments and ways to explore.

So many contracts, so little time.
Of course, nothing is free, so you have to manage the funds of your space program. Each part you put on a rocket has a cost associated, so keeping things simple and recovering as much of the rocket as possible is the best course if you find your program strapped for cash. However, even doing that can put your budget in the red. That's where the contract system comes in. Contracts are essentially goals for you to work toward, ranging from simple "test this part" goals to  complex "collect data from another planet" goals. Managing the reputation of your space program is important too. Killing the kerbals that man your ships or failing contracts makes your reputation take a hit, whereas completing contracts increases it. The higher your reputation, the better contracts you can get, giving you more money.

The release version gave us a whole host of added features and changes to the physics. Parts can overheat now, so ships require heat shields to safely come back down to Kerbin (the earth-like home planet of the kerbals), and getting too close to Kerbol (the sun of the system) will also cause parts to overheat. Survey scanners and mining drills allow you to exploit the ore found throughout the system to make fuel, allowing for the creation of refuelling bases out in space. Aerodynamics were also tweaked to be more realistic, with more streamlined designs actually flying faster and heating up slower. There are also now procedural fairings, allowing you to put a streamlined cover over the payload of a rocket to take advantage of the new aerodynamics.

This game has everything: Orbital mechanics, explosions, and more!

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, an update has caused some issues. Version 1.0.2 broke the aerodynamics in the game, making the air soupy and slowing down anything falling from orbit to the point where re-entry isn't as dangerous as it was previously. Overheating display bars also cause a memory leak, causing the used RAM to jump up into the 4gb range from around 2gb. Fortunately you can turn off these bars (hit F10), and the current aero doesn't really cause anything other than exposed batteries and solar panels to overheat to the point where they break. Update: Squad are aware of all these issues, and are working on them now. Also, when KSP is installed on a regular HDD the game takes an awful long time to load to the menu (I had it take around 4 minutes at one point), so I recommend installing it on an SSD to drop the load times down to around a minute.

Not shown, the GIANT rocket needed to get this to space.
All of the changes to Kerbal Space Program give it that finishing touch it needed to be a complete game. No longer just a physics sandbox, the game has direction now. My feelings for the game generally haven't changed. It's simple enough that anyone can built a basic rocket and launch it into the air, but complex enough that more experienced players can replicate entire space programs. Even failure in KSP is fun, for two reasons: you usually learn from it, and sometimes you get beautiful explosions. On the other hand, success in KSP leaves you feeling a sense of accomplishment that few games can. Even partial success situations like the one described at the beginning leave you grinning, and for me, an opportunity to plan the rescue mission for the stranded kerbal. I highly recommend it.

As always,


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Swing and a Miss: Valve and Bethesda's Paid Mods.

Modding is a cornerstone of PC gaming. Some of the most popular games in the world right now started as mods for other games: League of Legends, DotA 2 and Counter Strike to name a few. For some people, modding is one of the main reasons that they play games on a PC. So when Valve and Bethesda announced they would be trying out a system of paid mods for The Elder Scrolls Skyrim it was bound to ruffle some feathers.

For those of you who don't know, modding refers to modifications to an existing game. They can range from a simple tweak that changes small parts of the game, to a completely different game mode, like those mentioned at the start. The mods available for Skyrim range from unofficial patches that fix bugs, and SkyUi that fixes the issues with the default ui on PC, to visual upgrades, and complete companions with unique quest lines. They fix issues, add content, and are generally considered to increase the life span that a game has.

Valve's announcement was simply not taken well. At best there was unrest in the community, and as usual, the very worst of the community started with the death threats and general vitriol that we've all come to expect. Some modders were even against the idea of paid mods, and made their thoughts known in the Steam community forums. The final result? Well after four days of complaints from the community, Valve announced they were shelving the paid mods idea for Skryim, while still leaving the option wide open for them to try again with future games.

So why did the community react the way they did?

Of course, there is the obvious fact that people don't want to pay for something that was previously free. While some mods definitely are worthy of payment, most of them are tiny little things that people made for fun and decided to upload. There is also the report of a mod being pulled from Steam because it contained someone else's work without permission, adding to the idea that paid mods were just going to hurt the community.

The main justification for paid mods came down to supporting the mod authors, which in my opinion is completely fair. They did all the hard work, and by all accounts in situations where donation buttons were setup, they were rarely touched by those who used their mods. However as more information came to light about the exact model that Valve and Bethesda were using in the Workshop, that argument started to lose some weight. Bethesda disclosed that exact split of money from the sale of a mod was 30% to Valve, the standard cut Valve takes from all sales, and 45% to Bethesda, leaving only 25% to go to the mod creator. To many gamers, myself included, this seemed like Bethesda trying to profit from something they didn't work on.

There is another argument too. Skyrim without mods on PC has one of the worst UIs I have ever used, more bugs than you can shake a stick at, and the depth of a plate. Don't get me wrong, I love Skyrim. But I don't play it without the unofficial Skyrim patches, SkyUi and Live Another Life. I just can't. The thought of Bethesda profiting from those mods, mods that fix problems they still haven't fixed, feels wrong to me. It rewards Bethesda for releasing a buggy game, and encourages them to do it again.

Fortunately, mod authors seem to have rallied against Skyrim's paid mods. If that is because they don't want to face a backlash from the rest of the community, or because they truly feel that way remains to be seen. Valve will definitely be trying the paid mods route again in the future, so this is only the beginning. And if I'm honest with myself, I'm 100% against it. I don't mind paying full price for a game. I dislike DLC, but understand why it exists. But being forced to pay for a community made mod, especially when the vast majority of money goes to a developer who put nothing into that mod is not something I ever want to see. For me, donation buttons where the mod creator gets the lions share of the money would be ideal.

As always,


Saturday, 25 April 2015

The TetrisPC Upgrade

This isn't really news as such, but it is important (to me at least). I finally made some decent upgrades my PC for the first time since I built it in late 2011. When I built my PC, I built it with the idea to not have to upgrade for at least 2 years, and I think it's lasted me fairly well considering its been over 3. To give you an idea of what I changed, the original specs were:

CPU: Intel Core i7 960 (3.2ghz)
Mobo: Asus Rampage III Black Edition
Ram: Corsair 24gb DDR3
Graphics: EVGA GTX570 SC Edition
Storage: WD Black 1TB HDD (Windows install) + 2 x 2TB Seagate HDDs.

After setting a budget of $900, I spent some time doing research and discussing the upgrade with a friend. I knew I wanted to stick with nVidia for the graphics card, as I have had issues with AMD in the past (and the fact that nVidia was offering the Witcher 3 with their cards at the moment was a bonus). I considered simply upgrading straight to a GTX 980, a card which in Australia retails for around $800 - $900 depending on brand and retailer. 

However while looking around at prices for the card, something was niggling at the back of my mind. Solid State Drives (SSDs) were around when I built my PC, but were still very new and not really cost effective for what I was doing. Now however you can pick up an SSD for reasonable money with a decent amount of storage. This convinced me to make some changes to my plan.

Replacing the stock CPU cooler took the most time out of all of the work, but has actually made a huge difference with heat and opens up the possibility for me to overclock. Where before I would idle at between 50 - 60C, I now idle at 39C rock solid. During gaming my CPU no longer hits temps higher than 90C, but sits at around 60C - 70C, and the fan no longer sounds like a small aircraft trying to take off. I have no idea why I didn't make the change ages ago, especially considering the reasonable price of the cooler. If you are having issues with noise, and you are running the stock CPU cooler, definitely consider the upgrade to a quieter, more efficient aftermarket cooler.

A clean install of Windows went onto the SSD, and two things I noticed immediately were the startup load times, and the noise. My old WD Black HDD was noisy, as that series of HDDs is intended for use in server farms where noise isn't a massive factor. The SSD makes zero noise, due to the complete lack of moving parts. For the load times, my old install of Windows would take a solid minute and a half to get to the desktop. On the SSD, that has dropped to 30 seconds.

As for the graphics card, there is no way that it could be worse is there? I kept the GTX 570 in there as a dedicated PhysX Card to help take the load off the GTX 970 (at least until I can afford a second one to SLi with). Because I am not aiming for 4k resolutions with my gaming, I'm pretty sure this card will handle most upcoming games at High, possibly even Ultra settings.

So that's the new improved TetrisPC. I want to take a moment to give a shout out to the fluffiest of FluffyMules. Your help in selecting the right SSD was invaluable, and having someone who is as interested in computer tech as I am to bounce ideas off is a great resource to have.

As always,