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.
While Grand Theft Auto may remain the industry’s true juggernaut, pretty much the only single franchise whose launch is capable of spiking software sales figures for an entire year and pushing all rivals out of the field in the process, Call of Duty has become the industry’s banner carrier in a different way. GTA’s extraordinary launches are such enormous events precisely because Rockstar wisely chose to avoid the annual update treadmill with the game; Call of Duty, meanwhile, has managed to continue a steady streak of enormous launches despite the punishing requirements of such a schedule.
It’s hard to overstate just how important this difference in approach is to a game franchise. GTA’s main instalments are all developed by the same studio, Rockstar North, meaning that each subsequent game begins its lengthy gestation after the launch of the previous title. The result is that the ball is rarely if ever dropped in terms of quality; no untested team gets to mess things up in an “off-year”. Each new GTA game follows a clear evolutionary path from the previous game, as the studio learns and develops its approach; a major advantage over the “three steps forward, two steps back” games that result from an annual update cycle with different teams working on different schedules. Finally, GTA’s spaced out launches give each one the sense of being a genuinely enormous event, and the games continue to sell at a solid price point for many months after launch, a feat which is otherwise only achieved in this industry by Nintendo’s key titles.
“The sheer scale of GTA’s success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher’s figures”
Again, this contrasts with the annual update cycle for games like Call of Duty; on a couple of occasions, new CoD games have arguably truncated the sales of their predecessors when they launched. All of these benefits, however, are outweighed by the big problem with such an irregular launch cycle, namely that it plays merry hell with Take Two’s financial performance. The sheer scale of GTA’s success has made it into an unbalancing factor in the publisher’s figures; it means that from the perspective of the markets, everything else Take Two does is relegated to being a “snack between GTAs”. The “snack” quarters in the company’s financials are by no means bad, but they end up being compared, desperately unfairly, to the GTA quarters, and analysts fret endlessly over whether the company is a one-trick pony and how far down the tubes it will go if GTA ever falters. Of course, annual updates also make more money – in the short term, arguably; GTA may be genuinely evergreen due to its slow update cycle, where annually updated games, apart from sports titles, tend inevitably to lose steam). But even if they didn’t, it’s hard to imagine a company like Activision risking a “spiky” set of financial results. Huge companies don’t just want to make more money; they want to make more money in a predictable way, with a nice growth curve and no nasty dips that make shareholders lose confidence.
Thus we end up with the situation now facing the Call of Duty franchise. We’re a long day from the heady days of Infinity Ward’s groundbreaking CoD 4: Modern Warfare. As of this year, there are now three separate studios working on the franchise, with the instalment that launched this week, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (“CODAW”, which is fun to say but not remotely as fun as “CODBLOPS” was a few years back) being the first full game in the franchise from Sledgehammer. This is one interesting approach to keeping the quality of the games high in spite of the annual treadmill; the other key approach being employed by Activision is to throw money at the franchise like confetti at a particularly exuberant wedding, with CODAW’s most eye-opening use of cash being the suitcases full of it which were presumably delivered to Kevin Spacey’s door in order to persuade him to dress up in a motion capture gimp suit and deliver a villainous performance that’s at times delightfully Frank Underwood but all too often disappointingly Lex Luthor.
Keeping the quality bar high is an extraordinarily important task for Activision – be it through giving studios the time they need to genuinely polish their franchise instalments, or hiring famous faces to do their best with the games’ B-movie scripts (seriously, CODAW’s singleplayer campaign was apparently written by a 15 year old off his tits on Mountain Dew and Doritos who had just watched Michael Bay’s Transformers movies back-to-back and emerged with the sole complaint that “there weren’t enough explosions”). Last year’s CoD: Ghosts was judged both critically and commercially as a slip for the series, which may be partially responsible for the lower pre-orders for this year’s instalment which have been tracked by many analysts.
This year’s game has had great critical response thus far, so it represents an important test – given that the quality bar has arguably been returned to a solid level (it’s all subjective, of course, but the overall tenor of the coverage is positive), will sales also get back to an even keel? Or was CoD Ghosts’ weak commercial showing the start of a slide for the series which can only be reversed by a truly radical reinvention? Consumer fatigue, after all, is absolutely a real thing. It’s even tougher for games that for movies; the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies could probably continue for many years to come, since they only ask consumers for a couple of hours of time every few months. CoD players invest dozens upon dozens of hours in each game (in some cases, hundreds), which makes it much more likely that they’ll burn out; that at some point, they’ll reach an annual update that’s just a step too far for them. The best defence against this is keeping the franchise fresh, consistently reinvigorated with new ideas, and of course, keeping the quality bar high; but even that may not halt the slow decline
This year could go either way for COD. Pre-orders are definitely down on the previous year, which does not bode well, but that doesn’t take into account digital pre-orders – and it’s worth noting that on the new-gen consoles there appears to be a very strong trend towards digital pre-orders and first week digital purchases. Activision claims that purchase intent is tracking high, although that’s Schrödinger’s Statistic to a large extent – you don’t know for sure if it’s remotely accurate or not until you open the box with the sales figures inside.
Still, all in all there are some reasons to be There are also reasons to be cautiously pessimistic. One of the biggest problems facing COD this year is, oddly, one of Activision’s own successes – Destiny, which has attracted and continues to enthral a very large number of the core FPS fans who might otherwise be expected to devote themselves to CODAW. It seems plausible that the long gap between Destiny’s launch and the appearance of the first content pack, The Dark Below, is at least partially in order to give players a lull in which investing in COD will seem appealing; it will be interesting to see if that actually works.
The single biggest challenge, however, lies within COD itself. It’s a remarkably successful game and will continue to sell well for years to come, but if this year’s numbers can’t match last year’s (even in spite of much more positive critical reception and consumer word-of-mouth), it will be taken as clear evidence that a peak has been passed. Consumer fatigue, high competition and perhaps a lingering sense of being burned by Ghosts are all potentially damaging factors for the franchise this year; should they conspire to push sales down even by a few percentage points year-on-year, tough questions will have to be asked about the future of Activision’s annual cash- Indeed, in that instance, one might ask some tough questions about Activision itself.
It’s odd, perhaps, to question a company’s prospects when it has just announced record financials, but it’s entirely possible that this is a peak for the publisher. World of Warcraft is far from its peak figures, in spite of occasional bumps when expansions are launched, and Blizzard’s putative replacement, Titan, has been cancelled. Destiny has yet to prove itself as a franchise despite an amazing launch, and as I indicated last year, I’m not sure that Activision and the game’s fanbase see eye-to-eye on how it’s going to develop over the coming years. If Call of Duty also shows itself to be coming off the boil, then only Hearthstone will remain as a truly unblemished bright spot in Activision’s line-up. The markets will, no doubt, have noticed this already; Call of Duty Advanced Warfare’s performance is going to be subjected to intense scrutiny over the coming weeks and months, as analysts and investors attempt to divine Activision’s future from this crucial data point.
The internet has just received the first surge of what will be a raging tide of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare reviews, but several key outlets will be lagging behind the others.
As is tradition by now, Activision chose to restrict press access to a fleet of new generation consoles set up in hotel rooms around the world. This has happened with pretty much every major Call of Duty release since Modern Warfare 2, but it’s only in the last year or two that disclaimers have become a common feature of the subsequent reviews. Polygon went to a review event, for example, but it paid for its writer’s accommodation. Kotaku makes no mention of any event despite having played through the entire campaign (presumably in an Xbox One bedecked hotel room), but it is nevertheless holding off publishing a scored review until it has the opportunity to play the game’s multiplayer in a live setting – “the way it was intended.”
Eurogamer took a third route, attending the review event on Activision’s dime but relaxing its critical trigger-finger until Advanced Warfare was released to the public and its true online mettle could be tested. Which is the right approach? Should a review prioritise accuracy or punctuality? No one person can provide a sensible answer to that question, but it seems that the task of the video game critic becomes thornier and more thankless with every AAA release.
One thing is roundly agreed upon, though: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is definitely better than Call of Duty: Ghosts, and most outlets believe that it’s an improvement on Black Ops II. Indeed, even though Eurogamer’s full review won’t be published until later this week, it was enthusiastic enough to publish a score-free recommendation of what it did have a chance to play in the meantime.
Advanced Warfare, the first full COD title from Sledgehammer Games, is, “the biggest shift for the series since the original Modern Warfare, and…easily the best entry since Modern Warfare’s ceasefire.” Here, Eurogamer argues, the series shrugs off the weighty, pained influence of films like Black Hawk Down and turns instead to science fiction romps like Star Wars and Halo, all exotic cityscapes, flying vehicles and elaborate weaponry – “Advanced Warfare impresses you with just how much fun war can be.”
Polygon is with Eurogamer in spirit, but it’s appraisal – based on a private playthrough of the campaign and closed multiplayer sessions hosted by Activision – has a 9.0 waiting at the end. This is exactly the sort of score that Activision and Sledgehammer have been working towards, and Polygon leaves little room for doubt that, this time out, Call of Duty has really earned whatever accolades it receives.
Key to it all are various “Exosuits,” which imbue the player with a range of abilities that the (more or less) contemporary and (in a manner of speaking) historical settings of previous Call of Duty games didn’t allow. For the most part, that means double-jump and boost mechanics, though there are different contextual uses for the suits throughout the game’s campaign.
“All of this makes moment-to-moment navigation much more interesting in Advanced Warfare than previous entries in the series or its imitators have managed,” Polygon’s review states. “The exo conceit also allows Sledgehammer to vary up the single-player campaign’s format and ideas in some exciting new ways.
“In fact, speaking strictly from level and encounter design and mission variety, Advanced Warfare is the best campaign the series has seen since Infinity Ward re-imagined the franchise with Modern Warfare in 2007. There’s no muddy objectives to get stuck on, and at least on my playthrough on the “hardened” difficulty setting, there were very few cheap-feeling death loops to get stuck in. It balances fairness with enough challenge and sophistication to make success feel worth it, and I never felt like any one part overstayed its welcome.”
Joystiq – which has yet another distinct mix of review conditions to consider – is similarly impressed with the way Advanced Warfare enlivens the core mechanics of the Call of Duty series with its new bag of tricks, awarding the game a commendable four-stars. However, there is also the lingering sense that Sledgehammer didn’t go far enough, assembling a clutch of innovative and empowering ideas but leaving most of them to bit-parts, cameos and walk-ons.
“On the one hand, you have the multi-function tactical grenade, which can either down drones with an EMP blast, stun enemies in a burst of light or paint targets through walls,” Joystiq states. “Selecting the right option is a rewarding decision, and not always easy to do quickly under fire. It’s a meaningful part of your arsenal.
“Less dependable are abilities like cloaking or a sonic pulse that disorients nearby enemies, which only appear for some missions. More exotic still are things like the grappling hook, a thrilling device that is first used in an awkward stealth mission. There’s a brilliant urban level later where these futuristic devices open the game up: You grapple between terraces and a central train track, yank enemies out of their power suits and launch yourself into massive, emplaced turrets to tear things up. It’s exciting, dynamic and as bombastic as any Call of Duty.
“It’s a shame these mechanisms come across as guest stars, because their use feels so fitting with Advanced Warfare’s unabashed science fiction shooting gallery… It just doesn’t have the power to break through the expectations of the brand, often coming across as an expertly played round of Call of Duty Mad Libs.”
This speaks to the concerns voiced by US Gamer, Advanced Warfare’s harshest critic at present with a score of 7 out of 10. There are inventive touches here, the sort that Call of Duty’s last few iterations have lacked, but this is innovation only in context. Advanced Warfare feels original in comparison to the series’ previous entries, but Sledgehammer is only reinventing the bubble in which these games exist. US Gamer acknowledges the delight that will bring to, “those who view gaming through the prism of Call of Duty and little else,” but the creative compromises made in the name of protecting the brand are all too clear.
“In a setting rife with possibilities, Advanced Warfare proves surprisingly short on imagination… In terms of design, there’s little to separate Advanced Warfare’s campaign from previous games in the series; and indeed, it frequently recycles tropes from previous games.
“After all these years of playing Call of Duty, the tweaks in Advanced Warfare just don’t do enough to mix up the formula, which is quietly becoming stale … There was a time not so long ago when ‘No Russian’ was on everyone’s lips, and Call of Duty was lauded for its daring and ambition in bringing RPG elements to multiplayer-a controversial choice back in 2007, when conventional wisdom ruled that XP would dramatically unbalance the action in favour of experienced players.
“There is a danger, however, in striving only to keep your core fans happy. Too often, it is easy for development teams to get lost in the echo chamber created by their game’s most vocal fans, which has the effect of encouraging them to prioritise balance changes over more ambitious endeavours. That is what I feel has happened with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which tries very hard to capture the essence and the flavour of the series, and is ultimately a little too successful.”
By almost any measure you care to apply, Bungie’s Destiny is a phenomenally successful game. It had one of the strongest launches of any game in history, sold many millions of units and many hundreds of thousands of new-gen consoles and, despite a mixed critical reaction, has inspired immense devotion from a huge audience of fans, with millions logging in each day to play the game. Criticisms of Destiny do abound, and many are very reasonable; the game is particularly weak as an MMO, with a paper-thin world and forgettable characters, not to mention a paucity of content at the high end which has led to deep disappointment for some players who expected something more like the holy grail of a marriage between the best aspects of World of Warcraft and the best aspects of Halo. That’s not what we got in the end; but what we did get is hugely compelling and entertaining, at least for many millions of players, myself included.
There’s just one problem. Destiny isn’t just a standalone game, like Halo was; this is a game which is designed from the outset to have a long tail, many months if not years of continuing evolution in its world and continuing progress for players’ characters. In that much, it is structured like an MMO, yet its business model is very different to WoW; there is no monthly subscription to keep the servers switched on and the content teams at work. Activision and Bungie need a different revenue stream to keep Destiny going; for that, they have turned to DLC.
The first DLC pack for Destiny will appear in December, costing $19.99 (or, in a fairly blatant bit of gouging, £19.99 for UK customers; over three times the price hike which would be justified by the UK’s sales taxes). Another is planned for early in the new year, with the same price tag. It’s unclear what’s planned after that, but it seems likely that Bungie will continue to make these DLC expansions until the law of diminishing returns renders them untenable, or the studio has to ramp up on its next full-release title (Destiny 2, or whatever it may be).
“Subscriptions generally get paid automatically every month and the player has to make a decision to terminate them; Destiny’s DLC, by contrast, requires the player to make a decision every two months or so to stay on the treadmill”
In a very basic sense, this pricing isn’t dissimilar to other MMOs. My most recent MMO addiction was Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which costs about $10 a month to play; roughly every two months, the team releases a new content update for the game which generally adds some new dungeons to play through, a few new quest chains to complete and so on. In theory, one could simply say “you’re no longer paying $10 a month for access to the game, instead you’re paying $20 every two months for the content patches”, and nothing ought to change; the same money for the same service.
I suspect that some logic of that description has been applied in pricing discussions at Activision and Bungie. Destiny may fail (somewhat miserably) as an MMO title right now, but it’s been designed from the outset as something along those lines. That’s not a surprise; Activision’s experience with the vast cash-generating prowess of World of Warcraft, along with its annual Call of Duty cash cows, has meant that an FPS game that can deliver WoW-like subscription revenue has been the dream for the publisher for a long time. Attempts to turn Call of Duty into a subscription service collapsed, so Destiny is the next real attempt to make this work; albeit with a business model that looks superficially different.
In truth, though, this is more than a superficial difference. $20 every two months for DLC may look the same in an accountant’s spreadsheet to $10 every month for a subscription, but the difference to a customer is immense. Candidly, if Square Enix turned around to me every two months and said “here’s what’s in the next FFXIV patch, will you pay $20 for it?”, I’d probably say no. The patches are great, with lots of interesting new stuff to do, but forced to consider whether they were worth $20, I would look around at all the other things I could buy for $20 and quickly decide it was better spent elsewhere. By contrast, with the subscription model, I feel like I’m paying for access to the game, and when the patches arrive loaded with content, I actually feel good about the game because there’s a sense (as illogical as it may be!) that the developers have just given us more “free” content.
Contrast that with the backlash Activision and Bungie have received this week in the wake of revealing details of the first Destiny DLC. Xbox One players, who will only be able to play one of the two new Strike dungeons but will have to pay the same amount of money for the DLC, are feeling particularly hard done by, but even PS4 players are finding the value proposition hard to stomach. The new DLC will add one or two more Strikes (short three-man dungeons), a new Raid (a lengthy six-man dungeon, although the requirement for a six-man team of your friends to enter these dungeons means they’re effectively locked away from many more casual players) and some more missions and equipment; it’s not a bad amount of content, but it’s very hard to come up with any acceptable bill of goods with that content above the line and “twenty bucks” written underneath the line.
Moreover, since this is DLC and not a subscription, players are going to have to make this decision every single time a new DLC pack comes out. Subscriptions generally get paid automatically every month and the player has to make a decision to terminate them; Destiny’s DLC, by contrast, requires the player to make a decision every two months or so to stay on the treadmill. “Yes, I still play and love this game enough to fork out again”; there’s a certain honesty to asking your players that question every couple of months, but it’s fairly clear that it will result in a very rapid drop-off in returns from each subsequent DLC pack.
“If Destiny is to have a long enough tail to truly be a new ‘pillar’ for Activision’s business, it may need some serious surgery on its business plan”
I do understand how Activision ended up in this situation. Launching a game with a subscription model is a risky proposition; it can put people off trying out the game in the first place, for one thing. Destiny would never have achieved those opening weekend sales if people were expected to pay a subscription fee. It would also have created very different expectations of the game, whose MMO components, end-game content and storytelling would need to be vastly, vastly more compelling in order to justify a monthly fee. Arguably the only way to really push Destiny as a subscription business would have been to change the game significantly (not the excellent shooting, but the weak metagame) and launch it as a free or damn-near free game, achieving huge initial uptake and hoping to convert as much of those early players as possible into subscribers. It would have been risky.
It might have been a risk worth taking. Keen to avoid that, Activision looked at other business models. Free-to-play was probably the wrong fit for this kind of game (you could make it work, and I wonder if the preponderance of cosmetic items serving no gameplay purpose suggests that F2P was considered at some point in development, but the game’s audience is pretty much as core-gamer as it gets and F2P would have been an extraordinary risk). Thus, the DLC model was arrived at; but I can’t help the feeling that in avoiding the risk of other models, Activision has chosen the worst of all worlds, a business model that practically demands overpriced content packs and guarantees a rapid drop-off in DLC sales due to the doomed strategy of demanding that customers make a proactive choice to pay every few months.
I could be mistaken; perhaps Activision and Bungie never planned to have more than a handful of content updates for Destiny, and won’t be unhappy at all if customer numbers drop off rapidly with each subsequent DLC pack; perhaps there was never any intention to keep releasing DLC packs after the middle of next year, with the intention of ramping up on Destiny 2 at that point instead. I hope that isn’t the case, though, because that would feel very much like a fatal error for the burgeoning franchise. Many players are currently very forgiving of the flaws in Destiny’s weak MMO content, its metagame and its poorly fleshed out storytelling and world-building, simply because they are used to the idea that MMOs are flawed at launch and gradually build themselves into something much more in-depth and interesting.
If it transpires that Activision’s actual plan for Destiny is to launch a handful of new dungeons and missions, filling in few if any of these gaps, and then move on to a brand new game in the franchise, it’s going to do something no new franchise can afford to do; it’s going to deeply disappoint and anger the people who are presently its most enthusiastic evangelists. Yet looking at the business model, I’m not sure I can see this panning out any differently, even if Activision and Bungie presently harbour a more optimistic plan. If Destiny is to have a long enough tail to truly be a new “pillar” for Activision’s business, it may need some serious surgery on its business plan.