Free to play has an image problem. It’s the most influential and arguably important development in the business of games in decades, a stratospherically successful innovation which has enabled the opening up of games to a wider audience than ever before. Implemented well, with clear understanding of its principles and proper respect afforded to players and creativity alike, it’s more fair and even, in a sense, democratic than old-fashioned models of up-front payment; in theory, players pay in proportion to their enjoyment, handing over money in small transactions for a continued or deepened relationship with a game they already love, rather than giving a large amount of cash up-front for a game they’ve only ever seen in (possibly doctored) screenshots and videos.
While that is a fair description, I think, of the potential of free-to-play, it’s quite clearly not the image that the business model bears right now. You probably scoffed about half a dozen times reading the above paragraph – it may be a fair description of free-to-play at its hypothetical best, but it’s almost certainly at odds with your perceptions.
How, then, might we describe the perception of F2P? Greedy, exploitative, unfair, cheating… Once these adjectives start rolling, it’s hard to get them to stop. The negative view of F2P is that it’s a series of cheap psychological tricks designed to get people to spend money compulsively without ever realising quite how much cash they’re wasting on what is ultimately a very shallow and cynical game experience.
I don’t think it’s entirely unsurprising or unexpected that this perception should be held by “core” gamers or those enamoured of existing styles of game. Although F2P has proven very successful for games like MMOs and MOBAs, it’s by no means universally applicable, either across game types or across audience types; some blundering attempts by publishers to add micro-transactions to premium console and PC titles, combined with deep misgivings over the complete domination of F2P in the mobile game market, have left plenty of more traditional gamers with a very negative and extremely defensive attitude regarding the new business model. That’s fine, though; F2P isn’t for that audience (though it’s a little more complex than that in reality; many players will happily tap away at an F2P mobile game while waiting for matchmaking in a premium console game).
What’s increasingly clear, however, is that there’s an image problem for F2P right in the midst of the audience at whom it’s actually aimed. The negative perception of F2P is becoming increasingly mainstream. It gets mass-media coverage on occasion; recently, it spurred Apple to create a promotion specifically pointing App Store customers to games with no in-app purchases. I happen to think that’s a great idea personally, but what does it say about the feedback from Apple’s customers regarding F2P games, that promotion of non-F2P titles was even a consideration?
Even some of the most successful F2P developers now seem to want to distance themselves from the business model; this week’s interview with Crossy Road developers Hipster Whale saw the team performing linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling their free-to-play game as being free-to-play. Crossy Road is a brilliant, fun, interesting F2P game that hits pretty much all of the positive notes I laid out up in the first paragraph; that even its own developers seem to view “free-to-play” as an overtly negative phrase is deeply concerning.
The problem is that the negativity has a fair basis; there’s a lot of absolute guff out there, with the App Store utterly teeming with F2P games that genuinely are exploitative and unfair; worst of all, the bad games tend to be stupid, mean-spirited and grasping, attempting to suck money out of easily tricked customers (and let’s be blunt here: we’re talking, in no small measure, about kids) rather than undertaking the harder but vastly more rewarding task of actually entertaining and enthralling people until they feel perfectly happy with parting with a little cash to see more, do more or just to deepen their connection to the game.
Such awfulness, though, is not universal by any measure. There are tons of good F2P games out there; games that are creative and interesting (albeit often within a template of sorts; F2P was quick to split off into slowly evolving genre-types, though nobody who’s played PC or console games for very long can reasonably criticise that particular development), games that give you weeks or months of enjoyment without ever forcing a penny from your pocket unless you’re actually deeply engaged enough to want to pay up to get something more. Most of F2P’s bone fide hits fit into this category, in fact; games like Supercell’s Clash of Clans or Hay Day, GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons and, yes, even King’s Candy Crush Saga, which is held aloft unfairly as an example of F2P scurrilousness, yet has never extracted a penny from 70 percent of the people who have finished (finished!) the game. That’s an absolutely enormous amount of shiny candy-matching enjoyment (while I don’t like the game personally, I don’t question that it’s enjoyment for those who play it so devotedly) for free.
Unfortunately, the negative image that has been built up by free-to-play threatens not just the nasty, exploitative games, but all the perfectly decent ones as well – from billion-grossing phenomena like Puzzle & Dragons to indie wunderkind like Crossy Road. If free-to-play as a “brand” becomes irreparably damaged, the consequences may be far-reaching.
A year ago, I’d have envisaged that the most dangerous consequence on the horizon was heavy-handed legislation – with the EU, or perhaps the USA, clamping down on F2P mechanisms in a half-understood way that ended up damaging perfectly honest developers along with two-bit scam merchants. I still think that’s possible; companies have ducked and dived around small bits of legislation (or the threat of small bits of legislation) in territories including Japan and the EU, but the hammer could still fall in this regard. However, I no longer consider that the largest threat. No, the largest threat is Apple; the company which did more than any other to establish F2P as a viable market remains the company that could pull the carpet out from underneath it entirely, and while I doubt that’s on the cards right now, the wind is certainly turning in that direction.
Apple’s decision to promote non-F2P titles on its store may simply be an editor’s preference; but given the growing negativity around F2P, it may also be a sign that customer anger over F2P titles on iOS is reaching receptive ears at Apple. Apple originally permitted free apps (with IAP or otherwise) for the simple reason that having a huge library of free software available to customers was a brilliant selling point for the iPhone and iPad. At present, that remains the case; but if the negativity around the perception of F2P games were ever to start to outweigh the positive benefits of all that free software, do not doubt that Apple would reverse course fast enough to make your head spin. Reckon that its 30 percent share of all those Puzzle & Dragons and Candy Crush Saga revenues would be enough to make it think twice? Reckon again; App Store revenue is a drop in the ocean for Apple, and if abusive F2P ever starts to significantly damage the public perception of Apple’s devices, it will ban the model (in part, at least) without a second thought to revenue.
Some of you, those who fully buy into the negative image of F2P, might think that would be a thing to celebrate; ding, dong, the witch is dead! That’s a remarkably short-sighted view, however. In truth, F2P has been the saviour of a huge number of game development jobs and studios that would otherwise have been lost entirely in the implosion of smaller publishers and developers over the past five years; it’s provided a path into the industry for a great many talented creative people, grown the audience for games unimaginably and has provided a boost not only to mobile and casual titles, but to core games as well – especially in territories like East Asia. Wishing harm on F2P is wishing harm on many thousands of industry jobs; so don’t wish F2P harm. Wish that it would be better; that way, everyone wins.
A year or two ago, it seemed that doom and gloom reigned over the prospects for “core” gaming. With smartphones and tablets becoming this decade’s ubiquitous gaming devices, casual and social games ascendant and free-to-play established as just about the only effective way to make money from the teeming masses swarming to gaming for the first time, dire predictions abounded about the death of game consoles, the decline of paid-for games and the dwindling importance of “core” gamers to the games industry at large.
This week’s headlines speak of a different narrative – one that’s become increasingly strong as we’ve delved into what 2015 has to offer. Sony’s financial figures look pretty good, buoyed partially by the weakness of the Yen but notably also by the incredible success of the PlayStation 4 – a console which more aggressive commentators were reading funeral rites for before it was even announced. Both of the PS4′s competitors, incidentally, ended 2014 (and began 2015) in a stronger sales position than they were in 12 months previously, with next-gen home consoles overall heading for the 40 million sales mark in pretty much record time.
Then there’s the software story of the week; the startling sales of Grand Theft Auto V, which thanks to ten million sales of the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game, have now topped 45 million units. That’s an incredible figure, one which suggests that this single game has generated well over $2 billion in revenue thus far; the GTA franchise as a whole must, at this point, be one of the most valuable entertainment franchises in existence, comparable in revenue terms to the likes of Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Look, this is basically feel-good stuff for the games business; “hey guys, we’re doing great, our biggest franchise is right up there with Hollywood’s finest and these console sales are a promise of a solid future”. Stories like this used to turn up all the time back when games were genuinely struggling to be recognised as a valid and important industry alongside TV, music and film. Nowadays, that struggle has been internalised; it’s worth stepping back every now and then from the sheer enormity of figures like Apple and Samsung’s smartphone sales, or Puzzle & Dragons’ revenue (comparable to GTAV’s, but whether that means the game can birth a successful franchise or sustain itself long-term is another question entirely), or the number of players engaged with top F2P games, to remind ourselves that there’s still huge success happening in the “traditional” end of the market.
The take-away, perhaps, is that this isn’t a zero-sum game. The great success of casual and social games, first on Facebook and now on smartphones, isn’t that they’ve replaced core games, cannibalising the existing high-value market; it’s that they’ve acquired a whole new audience for themselves. Sure, there’s overlap, but there’s little evidence to suggest that this overlap results in people engaging less with core games; I, for one, have discovered that many smartphone F2P games have a core loop that fits nicely into the match-making and loading delays for Destiny’s Crucible.
That’s not to say that changes to the wider business haven’t resonated back through the “core” games space. The massive success of a game like GTAV has a dark side; it reflects the increasing polarisation of the high-end games market, in which successful games win bigger than ever, but games which fail to become enormous hits find themselves failing utterly. There’s no mid-market any more; you’re either a complete hit or a total miss. Developers have lamented the loss of the “AA” market (as distinct from the “AAA” space) for some time; that loss is becoming increasingly keenly felt as enormous budgets, production values and financial pressures come to bear on a smaller and smaller line-up of top-tier titles. Several factors drove the death of AA, with production costs and team sizes being major issues, but the rise of casual games and even of increasingly high-quality indie titles undoubtedly played a role – creating whole new market sectors that cost far less to consumers than AA titles had done.
It’s not just success that’s been polarised by this process; it’s also risk. At the high-end of the market, risk is simply unacceptable, such are the enormous financial figures at play. Thus it’s largely left to the low-end – the indie scene, the flood of titles appearing on the App Store, on Steam and even on the likes of PlayStation Vita – to take interesting risks and challenge gaming conventions. Along the way, some of the talented creators involved in these scenes are either trying to engage new audiences, or to engage existing audiences in new ways; sometimes experimenting with gameplay and interactive, sometimes with narrative and art style, sometimes with business model or distribution.
All of which leads me to explain why I keep writing “core” games, with inverted commas around “core”; because honestly, I’m increasingly uncertain what this term means. It used to refer to specific genres, largely speaking those considered to have special resonance for geeky guys; gory science fiction FPS games, high fantasy RPGs, complex beat-’em-ups and shoot-’em-ups, graphic survival horror titles, war-torn action games. Then, for a while, the rise of F2P seemed to make the definition of “core” shimmer and reform itself; now it meant “games people pay for up front, and the kind of people who pay for those games”.
Now? Now, who knows what “core” really means? League of Legends is certainly something you have to be pretty damn deeply involved with to enjoy, but it’s free-to-play; so is Hearthstone, which is arguably not quite so “core” but still demands a lot of attention and focus. There are great games on consoles – systems whose owners paid hundreds of dollars for a devoted gaming machine – which are free-to-play. There are games on mobile phones that cost money up front and are intricate and engrossing. There are games you can download for free on your PC, or pick up for a few dollars on Steam, that explore all sorts of interesting and complex niches of narrative, of human experience and of the far-flung corners of what it means to play a “game”. Someone who sits down for hours unravelling the strands of a text adventure written in Twine; are they “core”? Someone who treats retro gaming like a history project, travelling back through the medium’s tropes and concepts to find their origin points; are they “core”? How about Frank Underwood in House of Cards, largely disinterested in games but picking up a violent shooter to work out frustrations on his Xbox in the evenings; is he a “core gamer”?
Don’t get me wrong; this fuzzing of the lines around the concept of “core” is, to my mind, a vital step in the evolution of our medium. That the so-called “battle” between traditional business models and F2P, between AAA studios and indies, between casual and core, was not a zero-sum game and could result in the expansion of the entire industry, not the destruction of one side or another, has been obvious from the outset. What was less obvious and took a little more time to come to pass was that not only would each of those sides not detract from the others; they would actually learn from one another and help to fuel one another’s development. New creative outlooks, new approaches to interactivity, new thoughts on social and community aspects of gaming, new ideas about business models and monetisation; these all mingle with one another and help to make up for the creative drought at the top of the AAA industry (and increasingly, at the top of the F2P industry, too) by providing a steady feed of new concepts and ideas from below.
It’s fantastic and very positive that the next-gen consoles are doing well and that GTAV has sold so many copies (dark thoughts regarding the polarisation of AAA success aside); but it’s wrong, I think, to just look at this as being “hey, core gaming is doing fine”. Games aren’t made up of opposed factions, casual at war with core; it’s a spectrum, attracting relevant audiences from across the board. Rather than pitting GTAV against Puzzle and Dragons, I’d rather look at the enormous success of both games as being a sign of how well games are doing overall; rather than stacking sales of next-gen consoles against sales of smartphones and reheating old arguments about dedicated game devices vs multi-purpose devices, I’d rather think about the enormous addressable audience that represents overall. As the arguments about casual or F2P gaming “destroying” core games start to fade out, let’s take this opportunity to rid ourselves of some of our more meaningless distinctions and categories for good.
Nintendo is heading back to black, with the company’s financial announcements this week revealing that it’s expecting to post a fairly reasonable profit for the full year. For a company that’s largely been mired in red ink since the end of the glory days of the Wii, that looks like pretty fantastic news; but since I was one of the people who repeatedly pointed out in the past when Nintendo’s quarterly losses were driven by currency fluctuations, not sales failures, it’s only fair that I now point out that quite the reverse is true. The Yen has fallen dramatically against the Dollar and the Euro in recent months, making Nintendo’s overseas assets and sales much more valuable in its end-of-year results – and this time, that’s covering over the fact that the company has missed its hardware sales targets for both the 3DS and the Wii U.
In short, all those “Nintendo back in profit” headlines aren’t really worth anything more than the “Nintendo makes shock loss” headlines were back when the Yen was soaring to all-time highs a few years ago. The company is still facing the same tough times this week that it was last week; the Wii U is still struggling to break 10 million units and the 3DS is seeing a major year-on-year decline in its sales, having faltered significantly after hitting the 50 million installed base mark.
In hardware terms, then, Nintendo deserves all the furrowed brows and concerned looks it’s getting right now. Part of the problem is comparisons with past successes, of course; the Wii shipped over a million units and the DS, an absolute monster of a console, managed over 150 million. In reality, while the Wii U is having a seriously hard time in spite of its almost universally acclaimed 2014 software line-up, the 3DS isn’t doing badly at all; but it can’t escape comparison with its record-breaking older sibling, naturally enough.
Plenty of commentators reckon they know the answer to Nintendo’s woes, and they’ve all got the same answer; the company needs to ditch hardware and start selling its games on other platforms. Pokemon on iOS! Smash Bros on PlayStation! Mario Kart on Xbox! Freed from the limited installed base of Nintendo’s own hardware – and presumably, in the case of handheld titles, freed to experiment with new business models like F2P – the company’s games would reach their full potential, the expensive hardware division could be shut down and everyone at Nintendo could spend the rest of their lives blowing their noses on ¥10,000 notes.
I’m being flippant, yes, but there’s honestly not a lot more depth than that to the remedies so often proposed for Nintendo. I can’t help but find myself deeply unconvinced. For a start, let’s think about “Nintendo’s woes”, and what exactly is meant by the doom and gloom narrative that has surrounded the company in recent years. That the Wii U isn’t selling well is absolutely true; it’s doing better than the Dreamcast did, to pick an ominous example, but unless there’s a major change of pace the console is unlikely ever to exceed the installed base of the GameCube. Indeed, if you treat the Wii as a “black swan” in Nintendo’s home console history, a flare of success that the company never quite figured out how to bottle and repeat, then the Wii U starts to look like a continuation of a slow and steady decline that started with the Nintendo 64 (a little over thirty million consoles sold in total) and continued with the GameCube (a little over twenty million). That the 3DS is struggling to match the pace and momentum of the DS is also absolutely true; it’s captured a big, healthy swathe of the core Nintendo market but hasn’t broken out to the mass market in the way that the DS did with games like Brain Training.
Yet here’s a thing; in spite of the doom and gloom around downward-revised forecasts for hardware, Nintendo was still able to pull out a list of this year’s million-plus selling software that would put any other publisher in the industry to shame. The latest Pokemon games on 3DS have done nearly 10 million units; Super Smash Bros has done 6.2 million on 3DS and 3.4 million on the Wii U. Mario Kart 8 has done almost five million units, on a console that’s yet to sell 10 million. Also selling over a million units in the last nine months of 2014 on 3DS we find Tomodachi Life, Mario Kart 7 (which has topped 11 million units, life to date), Pokemon X and Y (nearly 14 million units to date), New Super Mario Bros 2 (over 9 million), Animal Crossing: New Leaf (nearly 9 million) and Kirby: Triple Deluxe. The Wii U, in addition to Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros, had million-plus sellers in Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land.
That’s 12 software titles from a single publisher managing to sell over a million units in the first three quarters of a financial year – a pretty bloody fantastic result that only gets better if you add in the context that Nintendo is also 2014′s highest-rated publisher in terms of critical acclaim. Plus, Nintendo also gets a nice cut of any third-party software sold on its consoles; granted, that probably doesn’t sum up to much on the Wii U, where third-party games generally seem to have bombed, but on the 3DS it means that the company is enjoying a nice chunk of change from the enormous success of Yokai Watch, various versions of which occupied several slots in the Japanese software top ten for 2014, among other successful 3DS third-party games.
Aha, say the advocates of a third-party publisher approach for Nintendo, that’s exactly our point! The company’s software is amazing! It would do so much better if it weren’t restrained by only being released on consoles that aren’t all that popular! Imagine how Nintendo’s home console games would perform on the vastly faster-selling PS4 (and imagine how great they’d look, intones the occasional graphics-obsessive); imagine how something like Tomodachi Life or Super Smash Bros would do if it was opened up to the countless millions of people with iOS or Android phones!
Let’s take those arguments one at a time, because they’re actually very different. Firstly, home consoles – a sector in which there’s no doubt that Nintendo is struggling. The PS4 has got around twice the installed base of the Wii U after only half the time on the market; it’s clear where the momentum and enthusiasm lies. Still, Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8 managed to sell several million copies apiece on Wii U; in the case of Mario Kart 8, around half of Wii U owners bought a copy. Bearing in mind that Nintendo makes way more profit per unit from selling software on its own systems than it would from selling it on third-party consoles (where it would, remember, be paying a licensing fee to Sony or Microsoft), here’s the core question; could it sell more copies of Mario Kart 8 on other people’s consoles than it managed on its own?
If you think the answer to that is “yes”, here’s what you’re essentially claiming; that there’s a large pent-up demand among PlayStation owners for Mario Kart games. Is there really? Can you prove that, through means other than dredging up a handful of Reddit posts from anonymous people saying “I’d play Nintendo games if they were 1080p/60fps on my PS4″? To me, that seems like quite a big claim. It’s an especially big claim when you consider the hyper-competitive environment in which Nintendo would be operating on the PS4 (or Xbox One, or both).
Right now, a big Nintendo game launching on a Nintendo console is a major event for owners of that console. I think Nintendo launches would still be a big event on any console, but there’s no doubt that the company would lose focus as a third-party publisher – sure, the new Smash Bros is out, but competing for attention, pocket money and free time against plenty of other software. It’s not that I don’t think Nintendo games could hold their own in a competitive market, I merely don’t wish to underestimate the focus that Nintendo acquires by having a devoted console all of their own underneath the TVs of millions of consumers – even if its not quite the number of millions they’d like.
How about the other side of the argument, then – the mobile games aspect? Nintendo’s position in handheld consoles may not be what it used to be, but the 3DS has roundly trounced the PlayStation Vita in sales terms. Sure, iPhones and high-end Android devices have much bigger installed bases (Apple shifted around 75 million iPhones in the last quarter, while the lifetime sales of the 3DS are only just over 50 million), but that comparison isn’t necessarily a very useful one. All 50 million 3DS owners bought an expensive device solely to play games, and the lifetime spend on game software of each 3DS owner runs into hundreds of dollars. The “average revenue per user” calculation for Pokemon on the 3DS is easy; everyone paid substantial money for the game up front.
By comparison, lots and lots of iOS and Android users never play games at all, and many of those who play games never pay for them. That’s fine; that’s the very basis of the F2P model, and games using that model effectively can still make plenty of money while continuing to entertain a large number (perhaps even a majority) of players who pay nothing. Still, the claim that moving to smartphones is a “no-brainer” for Nintendo is a pretty huge one, taken in this context. The market for premium, expensive software on smartphones is very limited and deeply undermined by F2P; the move to F2P for Nintendo titles would be creatively difficult for many games, and even for ones that are a relatively natural fit (such as Pokemon), it would be an enormous commercial risk. There’s a chance Nintendo could get it right and end up with a Puzzle & Dragons sized hit on its hands (which is what it would take to exceed the half a billion dollars or so the company makes from each iteration of Pokemon on 3DS); there’s also an enormous risk that the company could get it wrong, attracting criticism and controversy around poor decisions or misjudged sales techniques, and badly damage the precious Pokemon brand itself.
In short, while I’m constantly aware that the market seems to be changing faster than Nintendo is prepared to keep up with, I’m not convinced that any of the company’s critics actually have a better plan right now than Satoru Iwata’s “stay the course” approach. If you believe that PlayStation fans will flock to buy Nintendo software on their console, you may think differently; if you think that the risk and reward profile of the global iOS market is a better bet than the 50-odd million people who have locked themselves in to Nintendo’s 3DS platform and shown a willingness to pay high software prices there, then similarly, you’ll probably think differently. Certainly, there’s some merit to the idea that Nintendo ought to be willing to disrupt its own business in order to avoid being disrupted by others – yet there’s a difference between self-disruption and just hurling yourself headlong into disaster in the name of “not standing still”.
There’s a great deal that needs to be fixed at Nintendo; its marketing and branding remains a bit of a disaster, its relationships with third-party studios and publishers are deeply questionable and its entire approach to online services is incoherent at best. Yet this most fundamental question, “should Nintendo stay in the hardware business”, remains a hell of a lot tougher than the company’s critics seem to believe. For now, beleaguered though he may seem, Iwata still seems to be articulating the most convincing vision for the future of the industry’s most iconic company.
Over the last few years, the industry has seen budget polarization on an enormous scale. The cost of AAA development has ballooned, and continues to do so, pricing out all but the biggest warchests, while the indie and mobile explosions are rapidly approaching the point of inevitable over-saturation and consequential contraction. Stories about the plight of mid-tier studios are ten-a-penny, with the gravestones of some notable players lining the way.
For a company like Ninja Theory, in many ways the archetypal mid-tier developer, survival has been a paramount concern. Pumping out great games (Ninja Theory has a collective Metacritic average of 75) isn’t always enough. Revitalizing a popular IP like DMC isn’t always enough. Working on lucrative and successful external IP like Disney Infinity isn’t always enough. When the fence between indie and blockbuster gets thinner and thinner, it becomes ever harder to balance upon.
Last year, Ninja Theory took one more shot at the upper echelons. For months the studio had worked on a big budget concept which would sit comfortably alongside the top-level, cross-platform releases of the age: a massive, multiplayer sci-fi title that would take thousands of combined, collaborative hours to exhaust. Procedurally generated missions and an extensive DLC structure would ensure longevity and engagement. Concept art and pre-vis trailers in place, the team went looking for funding. Razor was on its way.
Except the game never quite made it. Funding failed to materialize, and no publisher would take the project on. It didn’t help that the search for a publishing deal arrived almost simultaneously with the public announcement of Destiny. Facing an impossible task, the team abandoned the project and moved on with other ideas. Razor joined a surprisingly large pile of games that never make it past the concept stage.
Sadly, it’s not a new story. In fact, at the time, it wasn’t even a news story. But this time Ninja Theory’s reaction was different. This was a learning experience, and learning experiences should be shared. Team lead and co-founder Tameem Antoniades turned the disappointment not just into a lesson, but a new company ethos: involve your audience at an early stage, retain control, fund yourself, aim high, and don’t compromise. The concept of the Independent AAA Proposition, enshrined in a GDC presentation give by Antoniades, was born.
Now the team has a new flagship prospect, cemented in this fresh foundation. In keeping with the theme of open development and transparency, Hellblade is being created with the doors to its development held wide open, with community and industry alike invited to bear witness to the minutiae of the process. Hellblade will be a cross-platform game with all of the ambition for which Ninja Theory is known, and yet it is coming from an entirely independent standpoint. Self-published and self-governed, Hellblade is the blueprint for Ninja Theory’s future.
“We found ourselves as being one of those studios that’s in the ‘squeezed middle’,” project lead Dominic Matthews says. “We’re about 100 people, so we kind of fall into that space where we could try to really diversify and work on loads of smaller projects, but indie studios really have an advantage over us, because they can do things with far lower overheads. We have been faced with this choice of, do we go really, really big with our games and become the studio that is 300 people or even higher than that, and try to tick all of these boxes that the blockbuster AAA games need now.
“We don’t really want to do that. We tried to do that. When we pitched Razor, which we pitched to big studios, that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. That was going to be a huge game; a huge game with a service that would go on for years and would be a huge, multiplayer experience. Although I’m sure it would have been really cool to make that, it kind of showed to us that we’re not right to try to make those kinds of games. Games like Enslaved – trying to get a game like that signed now would be impossible. The way that it was signed, there would be too much pressure for it to be…to have the whole feature set that justifies a $60 price-tag.
“That $60 price-tag means games have to add multiplayer, and 40 hours of gameplay minimum, and a set of characters that appeal to as many people as they possibly can. There’s nothing wrong with games that do that. There’s some fantastic games that do, AAA games. Though we do think that there’s another space that sits in-between. I think a lot of indie games are super, super creative, but they can be heavily stylised. They work within the context of the resources that people have.
“We want to create a game that’s like Enslaved, or like DMC, or like Heavenly Sword. That kind of third-person, really high quality action game, but make it work in an independent model.”
Cutting out the middle-man is a key part of the strategy. But if dealing with the multinational machinery of ‘big pubs’ is what drove Ninja Theory to make such widespread changes, there must surly have been some particularly heinous deals that pushed it over the edge?
“I think it’s just a reality of the way that those publisher/developer deals work,” Matthews says. “In order for a publisher to take a gamble on your game and on your idea, you have to give up a lot. That includes the IP rights. It’s just the realities of how things work in that space. For us, I think any developer would say the same thing, being able to retain your IP is a really important thing. So far, we haven’t been out to do that.
“With Hellblade, it’s really nice that we can be comfortable in the fact that we’re not trying to appeal to everyone. We’re not trying to hit unrealistic forecasts. Ultimately, I think a lot of games have unrealistic forecasts. Everyone knows that they’re unrealistic, but they have to have these unrealistic forecasts to justify the investment that’s going into development.
“Ultimately, a lot of games, on paper, fail because they don’t hit those forecasts. Then the studios and the people that made those games, they don’t get the chance to make any more. It’s an incredibly tough market. Yes, we’ve enjoyed working with our publishers, but that’s not to say that the agreements that developed are all ideal, because they’re not. The catalyst to us now being able to do this is really difficult distribution. We can break away from that retail $60 model, where every single game has to be priced that way, regardless of what it is.
Driven into funding only games that will comfortably shift five or six million units, Matthews believes that publishers have no choice but to stick to the safe bets, a path that eventually winnows down diversity to the point of stagnation, where only a few successful genres ever end up getting made: FPS, sports, RPG, maybe racing. Those genres become less and less distinct, while simultaneously shoe-horning in mechanics that prove popular elsewhere and shunning true innovation.
While perhaps briefly sustainable, Matthews sees that as a creative cul-de-sac. Customers, he feels, are too smart to put up with it.
“Consumers are going to get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them”
“I think consumers are going to get a bit wary. Get a bit wary of games that have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them. I think gamers are going to start saying, ‘For what?’
“The pressures are for games to appeal to more and more people. It used to be if you sold a million units, then that was OK. Then it was three million units. Now it’s five million units. Five million units is crazy. We’ve never sold five million units.”
It’s not just consumers who are getting wise, though. Matthews acknowledges that the publishers also see the dead-end approaching.
“I think something has to be said for the platform holders now. Along with digital distribution, the fact that the platform holders are really opening their doors and encouraging self-publishing and helping independent developers to take on some of those publishing responsibilities, has changed things for us. I think it will change things for a lot of other developers. “Hellblade was announced at the GamesCom Playstation 4 press conference. My perception of that press conference was that the real big hitters in that were all independent titles. It’s great that the platform holders have recognised that. There’s a real appetite from their players for innovative, creative games.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to try to do things differently. Like on Hellblade, we’re questioning everything that we do. Not just on development, but also how we do things from a business perspective as well. Normally you would say, ‘Well, you involve these types of agencies, get these people involved in this, and a website will take this long to create.’ The next thing that we’re doing is, we’re saying, ‘Well, is that true? Can we try and do these things a different way,’ because you can.
“There’s definitely pressure for us to fill all those gaps left by a publisher, but it’s a great challenge for us to step up to. Ultimately, we have to transition into a publisher. That’s going to happen at some point, if we want to publish our own games.”
While the Sony PlayStation 4 has been selling very well, it seems that Christmas was not really its season.
Sony said that the PlayStation 4 has sold more than 18.5 million units since the new generation of consoles launched. While that is good and makes the PS4 the fastest selling PlayStation to date, there was no peaking at Christmas.
You would think that the PS4 would sell well at Christmas as parents were forced to do grevious bodily harm to their credit cards to shut their spoilt spawn up during the school holidays. But apparently not.
Apparently, the weapon of choice against precious snowflakes being bored was an Xbox One which saw a Christmas spike in sales.
Sony said that its new numbers are pretty much on target, it sold the expected 2 million sales per month rate.
Redmond will be happy with that result even if it still has a long way to go before it matches the PlayStation 4 on sales.
Recently, my smartphone started acting up. I think the battery is on the way out; it does bizarre things, like shutting itself off entirely when I try to take a picture on 60per cent battery, or suddenly dropping from fully charged to giving me “10per cent remaining, plug me in or else” warnings for no reason at all. I can get it fixed free of charge, but it’s an incredibly frustrating, bothersome thing, especially given how much money I’ve paid for this phone. Most of us have probably had an experience like this with a piece of hardware; a shoddy washing machine that mangled your favorite shirt, a shiny new LCD screen with an intensely irritating dead pixel, an Xbox 360 whose Red Ring of Death demanded a lengthy trip back to the service center. There are few of us who can’t identify with the utter frustration of having a consumer product that you’ve paid good money for simply fail to do its job properly. Sure, it’s a #FirstWorldProblem for the most part (unless it’s something like a faulty airbag in your Honda, obviously), but it’s intensely annoying and certainly makes you less likely to buy anything from that manufacturer again.
Given that we could all probably agree that a piece of hardware being faulty is utterly unacceptable, I’m not sure why software seems to get a free pass sometimes. Sure, there are lots of consumers who complain bitterly about buggy games, but by and large games with awful quality control problems tend to get slapped with labels like “flawed but great”, or have their enormous faults explained in a review only to see the final score reflect none of those problems. It’s not just the media that does this (and for what it’s worth, I don’t think this is corruption so much as an ill-considered aspect of media culture itself); for every broken game, there are a host of consumers out there ready to defend it to the hilt, for whatever reason.
I raise this problem because, while buggy games have always been with us – often hilariously, especially back in the early days of the PlayStation – the past year or so has seen a spate of high-profile, problematic games being launched, suggesting that even some of the industry’s AAA titles are no longer free from truly enormous technical issues. The technical problems that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years are causing genuine damage to the industry; from the botched online launches of games like Driveclub and Battlefield through to the horrendous graphical problems that plague some players of Assassin’s Creed Unity, they are giving consumers terrible experiences of what should be high points for the medium, creating a loud and outspoken group of disgruntled players who act to discourage others, and helping to drive a huge wedge between media (who, understandably, want to talk about the experience and context of a game rather than its technical details) and consumers (who consider a failure to address glaring bugs to be a sign of collusion between media and publishers, and a failure on the part of the media to serve their audience).
We can all guess why this is happening. I don’t wish in any way to underplay how complex and difficult it is to develop bug-free software; I write software tools to assist in my research work, and given how often those simple tools, developed by two or three people at most, have me tearing my hair out at 3am as I search for the single misplaced character that’s causing the whole project to behave oddly, I am absolutely the last person in the world who is going to dismiss the difficulty involved in debugging something as enormous and complex as a modern videogame. Debugging games has inevitably become harder as team sizes and technical complexity has grown; that’s to be expected.
However, just because something is harder doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be happening, and that’s the second part of this problem. Games are developed to incredibly tight schedules, sometimes even tighter today (given the culture of annual updates to core franchises) than they were in the past. Enormous marketing budgets are preallocated and planned out to support a specific release date. The game can’t miss that date; if there are show-stopping bugs, the game will just have to ship with those in place, and with a bit of luck they’ll be able to fix them in time to issue a day-one digital patch (and if your console isn’t online, tough luck).
Yet this situation is artificial in itself. It’s entirely possible to structure your company’s various divisions around the notion that a game will launch when it’s actually ready, and ensure that you only turn out high-quality software; Nintendo, in particular, manages this admirably. Certainly, some people criticise the company for delaying software and it does open up gaps in the release schedule, but compared to the enormous opprobrium which would be heaped upon the company if it turned out a Mario Kart game where players kept falling through the track, or a Legend of Zelda where Link’s face kept disappearing, leaving only eyes and teeth floating ghoulishly in negative space (sleep well, kids!), an occasional delay is a corporate cultural decision that makes absolute sense – not only for Nintendo, but for game companies in general.
It doesn’t even have to go as far as delaying games on a regular basis. There is a strong sense that some of the worst offenders in terms of buggy games simply aren’t taking QA seriously, which is something that absolutely needs to be fixed – and if not, deserves significant punishment from consumers and critics alike. Quality control has a bit of an image problem; there’s a standard stereotype of a load of pizza-fuelled youngsters in their late teens testing games for a few years as they try to break into a “real” games industry job. The image doesn’t come from thin air; for some companies, this is absolutely a reality. It is, however, utterly false to think that every company sees its QA in those terms. For companies that take QA seriously, it’s a division that’s respected and well-treated, with its own career progression tracks, all founded on the basic understanding that a truly good QA engineer is worth his or her weight in gold.
Not prioritising your QA department – not ensuring that it’s a division that’s filling up with talented, devoted people who see QA as potentially being a real career and not just a stepping stone – is exactly the same thing as not prioritising your consumers. Not building time for proper QA into your schedules, or failing to enact processes which ensure that QA is being properly listened to and involved, is nothing short of a middle finger raised to your entire consumer base – and you only get to do that so many times before your consumers start giving the gesture right back to you and your precious franchises.
Media does absolutely have a role to play in this – one to which it has, by and large, not lived up. Games with serious QA problems do not deserve critical acclaim. I understand fully that reviewers want to engage with more interesting topics than technical issues, but I think it’s worth thinking about how film reviewers would treat a movie with unfinished special effects or audio mixed such that voices can’t be heard; or perhaps how music reviewers would treat an album with a nasty recording hiss in the background, or with certain tracks accidentally dropping out or skipping. Regardless of the good intentions of the creative people involved in these projects, the resulting product would be slammed, and rightly so. It’s perhaps the very knowledge of the drubbing that they would receive that means that such awful movies and albums almost never see the light of day (and when they do, they become legendary in their awfulness; consider the unfinished CGI at the end of “The Scorpion King”, which remains a watchword for terrible special effects many years later).
Game companies, by contrast, seem to feel unpleasantly comfortable with releasing games that don’t work and aren’t properly tested. Certain technical aspects probably contribute to this; journalists may be wary of slamming a game for bugs that may be fixed in a day-one patch, for instance. Yet it seems that there’s little choice but to make the criteria stricter in this regard. If media and consumers alike do not take to punishing companies severely for failing to pay proper respect to QA procedures for their games, this problem will only worsen as firms realize that they they can get away with launching unfinished software.
We all want a world where technical issues are nothing but a footnote in the discussion of games; that will be the ultimate triumph of game technology, when it truly becomes transparent. We do not, however, live in that time yet, and the regular launches of games that don’t live up to even the most basic standards of quality is something nobody should be asked to tolerate. The move by some websites to stop reviewing online games until the servers are live and populated with real players is a good start; but the overall tolerance for bugs and willingness to forgive publishers for such transgressions (“we know the last game was a buggy mess, but we’re still going to publish half a dozen puff pieces that will push our readers to pre-order the sequel!”) needs to be fixed. If we want to talk about the things that are important about games (and we do!), it’s essential that we fix the culture that ignores QA and technical issues first.
For independent developers, the last decade has been an endless procession of migratory possibilities. The physical world was defined by compromise, dependence and strategically closed doors, but the rise of digital afforded freedom and flexibility in every direction. New platforms, new business models, new methods of distribution and communication; so many fresh options appeared in such a brief window of time that knowing where and when to place your bet was almost as important as having the best product. For a few years, right around 2008, there was promise almost everywhere you looked.
That has changed. No matter how pregnant with potential they once seemed, virtually every marketplace has proved unable to support the spiralling number of new releases. If the digital world is one with infinite shelf-space for games, it has offered no easy solutions on how to make them visible. Facebook, Android, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network; all have proved to be less democratic than they first appeared, their inevitable flaws exposed as the weight of choice became heavier and heavier. As Spil Games’ Eric Goossens explained to me at the very start of 2014: “It just doesn’t pay the bills any more.”
Of course, Goossens was talking specifically about indie development of casual games. And at that point, with 2013 only just receding from view, I would probably have named one exception to the trend, one place where the balance between volume and visibility gave indies the chance to do unique and personal work and still make a decent living. That place would have been Steam, and if I was correct in my assessment for even one second, it wasn’t too long before the harsher reality became clear.
After less than five months of 2014 had passed, Valve’s platform had already added more new games than in the whole of the previous year. Initiatives like Greenlight and Early Access were designed to make Steam a more open and accessible platform, but they were so effective that some of what made it such a positive force for indies was lost in the process. Steam’s culture of deep-discounting has become more pervasive and intense in the face of this chronic overcrowding, stirring up impassioned debate over what some believe will be profound long-term effects for the perceived value of PC games. Every discussion needs balance, but in this case the back-and-forth seemed purely academic: for a lot of developers steep discounts are simply a matter of survival, and precious few could even entertain the notion of focusing on the greater good instead.
And the indie pinch was felt beyond Steam’s deliberately weakened walls. Kickstarter may be a relatively new phenomenon – even for the hyper-evolving landscape of the games industry – but it faced similar problems in 2014, blighted by the twin spectres of too much content and not enough money to go around. Anecdotally, the notion that something had changed was lurking in the back ground at the very start of the year, with several notable figures struggling to find enough backers within the crowd. The latter months of 2014 threw up a few more examples, but they also brought something close to hard evidence that ‘peak Kickstarter’ may already be behind us – fewer successful projects, lower funding targets, and less money flowing through the system in general. None of which was helped by a handful of disappointing failures, each one a blow for the public’s already flagging interest in crowdfunding. Yet another promising road for indies had become more treacherous and uncertain.
So are indies heading towards a “mass extinction event”? Overcrowding is certainly a key aspect of the overall picture, but the act of making and releasing a game is only getting easier, and the allure of development as a career choice seems to grow with each passing month. It stands to reason that there will continue to be a huge number of games jostling for position on every single platform – more than even a growing market can sustain – but there’s only so much to be gained from griping about the few remaining gatekeepers. If the days when simply being on Steam or Kickstarter made a commercial difference are gone, and if existing discovery tools still lack the nuance to deal with all of that choice, then it just shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: talent, originality, and a product worth an investment of time and money.
At GDC Europe this summer, I was involved in a private meeting with a group of Dutch independent game developers, all sharing knowledge and perspective on how to find success. We finished that hour agreeing on much the same thing. There are few guarantees in this or any other business, but the conditions have also never been more appropriate for personality and individuality to be the smartest commercial strategy. The world has a preponderance of puzzle-platformers, but there’s only one Monument Valley. We’re drowning in games about combat, but This War of Mine took a small step to the left and was greeted with every kind of success. Hell, Lucas Pope made an entire game about working as a border control officer and walked away with not just a hit, but a mantelpiece teeming with the highest honours.
No matter how crowded the market has become, strong ideas executed with care are still able to rise above the clamour, no huge marketing spend required. As long as that’s still possible, indies have all of the control they need.
It’s already been widely reported that Microsoft is working on game-streaming technology, long enough that the company has apparently started over at least once. According to a new ZDNet report, Microsoft halted work on one such project called “Rio,” and has since begun building a new streaming service code-named “Arcadia.”
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley cites sources within Microsoft with the news that Arcadia is being worked on by a new team in the company’s Operating Systems Group. A job listing for the team says it will be working “to bring premium and unique experiences to Microsoft’s core platforms.”
Arcadia is said to run on Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology, and will let users stream apps as well as games. While there was talk of having Arcadia stream Android apps and games to Windows devices, Foley reported that particular feature has been tabled for the moment.
Detractors of free-to-play have been having a good few weeks, on the surface at least. There’s been a steady drip-feed of articles and statements implying that premium-priced games are gaining ground on mobile and tablet devices, with parents in particular increasingly wary of F2P game mechanics; a suggestion from SuperData CEO Joost van Dreunen that the F2P audience has reached its limits; and, to top it off, a move by Apple to replace the word “Free” with a button labelled “Get” in the App Store, a response to EU criticism of the word Free being applied to games with in-app purchases.
Taken individually, each of these things may well be true. Premium-priced games may indeed be doing better on mobile devices than before; parents may indeed be demonstrating a more advanced understanding of the costs of “free” games, and reacting negatively to them. Van Dreunen’s assertion that the audience for F2P has plateaued may well be correct, in some sense; and of course, the EU’s action and Apple’s reaction is unquestionable. Yet to collect these together, as some have attempted, and present them as evidence of a turning tide in the “battle” between premium and free games, is little more than twisting the facts to suit a narrative in which you desperately want to believe.
Here’s another much-reported incident which upsets the apple cart; the launch of an add-on level pack for ustwo’s beautiful, critically acclaimed and much-loved mobile game Monument Valley. The game is a premium title, and its level pack, which added almost as much content as the original game again, cost $2. This charge unleashed a tide of furious one-star reviews slamming the developers for their greed and hubris in daring to charge $2 for a pack of painstakingly crafted levels.
This is a timely and sobering reminder of just how deeply ingrained the “content is free” ethos has become on mobile and tablet and platforms. To remind you; Monument Valley was a premium game. The furious consumers who viewed charging for additional content as a heinous act of money-grubbing were people who had already paid money for the game, and thus belong to the minority of mobile app customers willing to pay for stuff up front; yet even within this group the scope of their willingness to countenance paying for content is extremely limited (and their ire at being forced to do so is extraordinary).
Is this right? Are these consumers desperately wrong? It doesn’t matter, to be honest; it’s reality, and every amateur philosopher who fancies himself the Internet’s Immanuel Kant can talk about their theories of “right” pricing and value in comment threads all day long without making a whit of difference to the reality. Mobile consumers (and increasingly, consumers on other platforms) are used to the idea that they get content for free, through fair means or foul. We could argue the piece about whether this is an economic inevitability in an era of almost-zero reproduction and distribution costs, as some commentators believe, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in question. Consumers, the majority of them at least, expect content to be free.
F2P, for all that its practitioners have misjudged and overstepped on many occasions, is a fumbling attempt to answer an absolutely essential question that arises from that reality; if consumers expect content to be free, what will they pay for? The answer, it transpires, is quite a lot of things. Among the customers who wouldn’t pay $2 for a level pack are probably a small but significant number who wouldn’t have blinked an eye at dropping $100 on in-game currency to speed up their ability to access and complete much the same levels, and a much more significant percentage who would certainly have spent roughly that $2 or more on various in-game purchases which didn’t unlock content, per se, but rather smoothed a progression curve that allowed access to that content. Still others might have paid for customisation or for merchandise, digital or physical, confirming their status as a fan of the game.
I’m not saying necessarily that ustwo should have done any of those things; their approach to their game is undoubtedly grounded in an understanding of their market and their customers, and I hope that the expansion was ultimately successful despite all the griping. What I am saying is that this episode shows that the problem F2P seeks to solve is real, and the notion that F2P itself is creating the problem is naive; if games can be distributed for free, of course someone will work out a way to leverage that in order to build audience, and of course consumers will become accustomed to the idea that paying up front is a mugs’ game.
If some audiences are tiring of F2P’s present approach, that doesn’t actually remove the problem; it simply means that we need new solutions, better ways to make money from free games. Talking to developers of applications and games aimed at kids reveals that while there’s a sense that parents are indeed becoming very wary of F2P – both negative media coverage and strong anti-F2P word of mouth among parents seem to be major contributing factors – they have not, as some commentators suggest, responded by wanting to buy premium software. Instead, they want free games without any in-app purchases; they don’t buy premium games and either avoid or complain bitterly about in-app purchases. Is this reasonable? Again, it barely matters; in a business sense, what matters is figuring out how to make money from this audience, not questioning their philosophy of value.
Free has changed everything, yet that’s not to argue with the continued importance of premium software either. I agree with SuperData’s van Dreunen that there’s a growing cleavage between premium and free markets, although I suspect that the audience itself overlaps significantly. I don’t think, however, that purchasers of premium games are buying quite the same thing they once were. Free has changed this as well; the emergence and rapid rise of “free” as the default price point has meant that choosing to pay for software is an action that exists in the context of abundant free alternatives.
On a practical level, those who buy games are paying for content; in reality, though, that’s not why they choose to pay. There are lots of psychological reasons why people buy media (often it’s to do with self-image and self-presentation to peers), and now there’s a new one; by buying a game, I’m consciously choosing to pay for the privilege of not being subjected to free software monetisation techniques. If I pay $5 for a game, a big part of the motivation for that transaction is the knowledge that I’ll get to enjoy it without F2P mechanisms popping up. Thus, even the absence of F2P has changed the market.
This is the paradigm that developers at all levels of the industry need to come to terms with. Charging people for content is an easy model to understand, but it’s a mistaken one; people don’t really buy access to content. People buy all sorts of other things that are wrapped up, psychologically, in a content purchase, but are remarkably resistant to simply buying content itself.
“I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there”
There’s so much of it out there for free – sure, only some through legitimate means, but again, this barely matters. The act of purchase is a complex net of emotions, from convenience (I could pirate this but buying it is easier) and perceived risk (what if I get caught pirating? What if it’s got a virus?), through to self-identity (I buy this because this is the kind of game people like me play) and broadcast identity (I buy this because I want people to know I play this kind of game), through to peer group membership (I buy this because it’s in my friends’ Steam libraries and I want to fit in) or community loyalty (I buy this because I’m involved with a community around the developer and wish to support it); and yes, avoidance of free-game monetisation strategies is a new arrow in that quiver. Again, actually accessing content is low on the list, if it’s even there at all, because even if that specific content isn’t available for free somewhere (which it probably is), there’s so much other free content out there that anyone could be entertained endlessly without spending a cent.
In this context, I think there’s a bright future for charging premium prices for games – even on platforms where Free otherwise dominates, although it will always be niche there – but to harness this, developers should try to understand what actually motivates people to buy and recognise the disconnect between what the developer sees as value (“this took me ages to make, that’s why it’s got a price tag on it”) and what the consumer actually values – which could be anything from the above list, or a host of other things, but almost certainly won’t be the developer’s sweat and tears.
That might be tough to accept; but like the inexorable rise of free games and the continuing development of better ways to monetise them, it’s a commercial reality that defies amateur philosophising. You may not like the audience’s attitude to the value of content and unwillingness to pay for things you consider to be valuable – but between a developer that accepts reality and finds a way to make money from the audience they actually have, and the developer who instead ploughs ahead complaining bitterly about the lack of the ideal, grateful audience they dream of, I know which is going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month.
The group had published a list of emails and passwords for PSN, Windows Live Mail and 2K Games accounts online, and claimed to be prepared to release more, but Sony says that they’ve come from other sources than hacking.
“We have investigated the claims that our network was breached and have found no evidence that there was any intrusion into our network,” the company wrote in a declaration to Joystiq. “Unfortunately, Internet fraud including phishing and password matching are realities that consumers and online networks face on a regular basis. We take these reports very seriously and will continue to monitor our network closely.”
Blizzard is happy and why shouldn’t they be as World of Warcraft subscriptions are up. The reason for the increase can be traced to the release of the latest expansion pack which was recently released. The latest WOW expansion pack is called Warlords of Draeno and its release has driven subscriptions to 10 million.
Selling over 3.3 million copies of the Warlords of Draenor on the first day alone, growth has been seen in all major territories since release. The numbers do include those players that are using the 1 month free subscription that comes with the expansion pack. WoW subscriptions had climbed to 7.4 million last quarter after being down.
Of course the release of Warlords of Draenor has not been without its problems. Still Blizzard says that they are working around the clock to address them. Owners have been offered free play time as compensation.
Ubisoft is claiming that the reason that its latest Assassin’s Creed game was so bad was because of AMD and Nvidia configurations. Last week the Ubisoft was panned for releasing a game which was clearly not ready and Ubisoft originally blamed AMD for its faulty game. Now Ubisoft has amended an original forum post to include and acknowledge problems on Nvidia hardware as well.
Originally the post read “We are aware that the graphics performance of Assassin’s Creed Unity on PC may be adversely affected by certain AMD CPU and GPU configurations. This should not affect the vast majority of PC players, but rest assured that AMD and Ubisoft are continuing to work together closely to resolve the issue, and will provide more information as soon as it is available.”
However there is no equivalent Nvidia-centric post on the main forum, and no mention of the fact that if you own any Nvidia card which is not a GTX 970 or 980. What is amazing is that with the problems so widespread, Ubisoft did not see them in its own testing before sending it out to the shops. Unless they only played the game on an Nvidia GTX 970 and did not bother to test it on a console, it is inconceivable that they could not have seen it.
One of the inherent risks of a story-heavy IP is that if you bugger up one of the instalments, your audience skips it, falling out of touch with the series’ story arc and disconnecting from its universe. Such was the fear for Dragon Age, a world which impressed in its opening act, but fell away sharply with what felt like a rushed and uncertain part 2. In acknowledging the shortcomings of the second game, Bioware went some way towards reassuring the faithful, but it was undeniable that nothing less than a resounding crescendo could re-establish the land of Tevinter as an RPG setting of the same calibre as the Tamriel of the Elder Scrolls or The Witcher’s Temeria.
There aren’t many teams you’d rather leave such a task in the hands of than Bioware’s and, judging from review scores, that trust would be well-placed. With a metacritic ranging from 84 for Xbox One, 88 on PC and 89 for PS4, EA and Bioware seem to have established the Dragon Age series as the new gen’s first top-class RPG – stealing a march on 2015′s Witcher 3 and whatever Bethesda may be working on as a follow up to Skyrim.
One of the best-scoring reviews comes from Polygon’s Philip Kollar, who focuses on the game’s scope, characters and sheer wealth of content in his 9.5/10 review. Kollar argues that this is the game where the universe really finds its feet, finally fulfilling the promise it had teased in Origins and its sequel by immersing the player in a sequence of events which incorporates a story far bigger than the perspective you’ll have of it. Nonetheless, says Kollar, it’s still in the details that Bioware’s talents shine brightest – weaving engaging and worthwhile characters as threads in a vast tapestry.
For all its narrative nuance and political intrigue, Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t afraid of a good old slimy monster, either.
“But in true BioWare fashion, that broader story often takes a back seat to smaller character conflicts,” he writes. “The Inquisitor pulls together a huge group of followers, including nine playable party members, and each has reams of dialogue conveying a fully developed personality.”
As well as offering chatter and the opportunity for romance, the player’s extended party brings both questing opportunities and advice on dealing with obstacles, says Kollar, making them more than just talking weapons. In fact, he says, that guidance comes in extremely useful in coping with a game which offers gameplay hours well into triple figures.
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is made up of numerous zones that I could teleport in between at will. However, each of those zones is gigantic in and of itself. In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing.”
“In the 80 hours I spent playing Inquisition, I only fully completed two zones, and each of them took me around 20 hours of exploration, questing and monster-bashing”
Philip Kollar, Polygon
In addition, Bioware has added the simplest of tools as an aide to exploring this vast landscape: the jump button. By doing so, says Kollar, the team has made the world feel more whole and believeable, introducing vertical as well as horizontal scale and a much more convincing sense of exploration. Tie that into the sense of being part of such a huge chain of events that new additions such as the ambassador-lead ‘war table’ missions, says Kollar, and you have a classic perfect for the winter evenings.
In broad agreement is Richard Cobbett at Eurogamer, who awards an 8 to Bioware’s efforts. Whilst full of praise for the lush surroundings of Tevinter and the clear improvements made over the last game, Cobbett finds some concerns over the influence which Inquisition seems to have felt from its contemporaries.
“The role-playing too, pretty as it is, didn’t feel like BioWare. There are straight up MMO style quests, like collecting 10 bits of meat, which at least make sense in context – that you’re helping refugees and refugees need food. Others, however, are thrown in with no finesse whatsoever. You find a letter that says, in about as many words, “Girls really dig people who can kill bears!” and then ping, your Quest Journal suddenly thinks you’re interested in bear-hunting. The first hour of a game is a bad, bad time for it to be resorting to this crap.
“The reason for the sack of activities where normally there’d be more involved quests is that Inquisition takes as many cues from the likes of Assassin’s Creed as other RPGs, with its maps a sack of quests, collectibles, secret bits and general things to do.”
That sense of piecemeal progress and scrappy world building disappears around a fifth of the way into the plot, says Cobbett, allowing the more convincing mechanisms of the plot to take hold. “The stakes become meaningful and dramatic,” he writes. “The mysteries become interesting.” Not as convinced as Kollar by the tasks which can be assigned to your plenipotentiaries, nor the combat which is arguably the game’s key activity, Cobbett finds Inquisition’s approach to less bloodthirsty matters of state a refreshing change from the sword and sorcery.
Bioware’s continued commitment to diversity is apparent, with plenty of deviations from the usual path of straight white male.
“While that side provides most of the raw action,” he says of dragon killing and rift-closing, “it’s the adventure and political parts of the game that make Inquisition work – its understanding that a party in Orlais, where the Great Game is played for the highest stakes, should be just as dangerous as anything that happens in a dungeon. After two games of controlling a ragtag bunch of misfits, it’s also interesting to be in a position of genuine power for once.”
Destructoid’s Chris Carter and Joystiq’s Alexander Sliwinski are similarly impressed, offering scores of 8.8/10 and 5/5, respectively.
Carter praises the RPG tree development of the characters as well as their dialogues, noting that “nothing feels tacked on” in a system which offers some of Origins’ depth, tempered by the streamlining in evidence in the sequel. Overall, he says, the experience is “less nuanced than Origins,” but offers a similar perspective on a living world, the fate of which increasingly lies in your hands.
Political intrigue and the raw sense of exploration garner praise from Carter, too, who also has good things to report about the game’s multiplayer mode – a section of the game which sees you take control of an entirely separate character.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition”
Chris Carter, Destructoid.
“Multiplayer is the cherry on top, because nothing in the campaign feels like it was compromised for its addition. In essence, it’s a modified horde mode that operates similar to Uncharted 3′s co-op sections. Four players will be able to select from a host of classes, each with their own skills and abilities, and play through a miniature dungeon together.
“It has that horde feel in terms of fighting wave after wave of enemies, but each stage is an adventure complete with multiple paths, loot to gather, and special doors that can only be opened by certain classes. In that sense, it’s not your typical boring ‘kill kill kill’ mode.”
Sliwinski’s assessment also acknowledges the scope and detail achieved here, as well as the palatable way in which the development team is able to introduce such vast levels of information to the player.
“Inquisition’s immensely helpful in-game codex can introduce or refresh players to some of the characters and socio-political rules of the world,” he writes. “With very few exceptions, long-standing characters are properly reintroduced. There isn’t a ‘previously on Dragon Age…’ within the game, though curious players can cover those gaps with the helpful interactive recap at DragonAgeKeep.com.”
Joystiq’s reviewer also appreciates the switch of pace afforded by the inclusion of Orlais as a destination, a place where court politics partially replace the hew and bellow of the battlefield.
“With the inclusion of The Orlesian Empire, Inquisition delves deep into ‘the game,’ which is how those born into or educated in Orlais refer to the machinations of social politics. Orlais had previously been referenced in the Dragon Age series, but now we get to see this twist on 18th century French court intrigue in all its grandeur. Inquisition explores Thedas’ class and racial politics through a variety of missions and interactions with the game’s companions, who have rich ideological diversity.”
In summarising, Sliwinski makes the key point that so many Bioware fans have been waiting to hear since the Drs Zeschuk and Muzyka departed the company they founded: has Bioware maintained its aims, its ambitions and its quality?
“Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare’s reaffirmation of what it’s capable of delivering,” reassures Sliwinski. “It’s a gorgeous game on an epic scale. Rich in character and story, it creates a fantasy world with plausible social rules you can get lost in. It makes you feel that you aren’t just exploring a new world, but helping shape it at various levels of society. Inquisition sets the bar for what a blockbuster RPG should be.”
Phil Spencer was on the defense again, this time about the fact that the Xbox One only comes standard with a 500GB hard drive. Spencer in a Twitter exchange says that he does understand the need for bigger hard drives, but he reminded everyone that you can use external USB hard drives to add additional storage. (Depending on which one you buy it might even be faster than the 500GB internal storage in the Xbox One from our own testing!)
In addition Spencer acknowledged the fact that Microsoft shipped the Advanced Warfare console with a 1TB hard drive, so he says they acknowledge the need for bigger hard drives. Still so far the Advanced Warfare console was announced as “Limited Edition” and there has been no word so far on a permeant 1TB Xbox One offering, but we have to think it is coming at some point soon.
With install sizes continuing to grow, it will have to happen, but our sources tell us that other than the Advanced Warfare console, there are no plans to do anything more about it this year. The standard go to answer will be to recommend external USB storage for the time being. It is not a perfect solution, but with the performance in many cases better than the internal drive, it is something that a lot of us are willing to live with.
Sources are telling us that we should expect new skateboarding titles from both Electronic Arts and Activision in 2015. Word is that Activision is preparing a new Tony Hawk title and Electronic Arts will be bring out a new Skate title as well.
While Activision and Electronic Arts have not made the announcements yet, our sources tell us that we should expect both titles to be announced in the near future for a likely late 2015 release. It is unknown who might be handling the development on both titles, but word is that both titles are already deep in development.
With the release of a new Tony Hawk and Skate titles, it will revive the Skateboarding segment that has been dormant for quite some time. EA has not produced a new title in the Skate franchise since Skate 3 and the late couple of Tony Hawk titles didn’t do so well, but the re-issue of original Pro Skater for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 with DLC made up of levels from 2 & 3 have shown that interest does still exist for this segment.
Our hope is that it will be less like what we saw with the SSX revival that EA tried and then realized that it was not really want the people wanted and more like a new next-generation skateboarding title that puts the fun back into skating. We will have to wait and see.