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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Money in Multiplayer: Take a Tip from Gabe, Kotick

There was a news article on recently calling for the immediate monetization of the Call of Duty multiplayer game mode. They cite "a betrayal of shareholder trust" as the main cause of this call to action (I won't make that pun. No!) On a purely business level, which is really how Bobby Kotick and the analyst in question are looking at the situation, this is a no-brainer. Do it, make more millions (as if Activision Blizzard needed more money), and work on the next way to milk your fanbase. It is good sense to monetize something with as large and fanatical a userbase as Call of Duty, in any of its iterations. What Kotick and our analyst, one Michael Pachter, fail to understand is what that fanbase really is. They are, by and large, ages 12-21 (sometimes younger and older, but that's the average). The lion's share of this population not only relies on their parents for their systems and games, but also the money for absolutely everything else in their lives. With games now reaching what I think is the line where they increase in price again, to sixty five or even seventy dollars, is it wise to charge people to play a game when they can't even pay for their own lunch? I don't particularly think it is.

Now I'll grant you that the parenting in the Call of Duty community is less than stellar. *Soapbox time* The game is rated M, for users seventeen years of age and up. You can't walk in and show a brand new, just out of driver's school license and expect to walk out with Black Ops, or Reach, or any game with rating higher than T. Yet still the parents do it for their kids and let them interact with adults who have every right to be playing the game and saying what they wish how they wish. The children then begin to say these words and use the vernacular, not knowing its full meaning, and end up being lesser human beings because they think saying "Fuck" seventeen times makes them macho, and putting a swastika as their emblem is funny, when to millions upon millions of people it is a sign of the worst memories mankind can muster (We haven't forgotten the Holocaust, kiddies. Parts of Europe are still trying to come to grips with it, more than sixty years later).

*exhale* That being said, most of these kids and young adults, myself included, won't have the funds to pay whatever Kotick shoves at us on a consistent basis. And yes, I know that there would be plenty of kids who could sucker their parents into opening their pocket books yet again, but what I'm trying to get at here is principle. There is not a single first person shooter franchise with a multiplayer side that charges  for the use of that service. Battlefield? No. Medal of Honor? No. Halo? No (Microsoft charges you. Not Bungie). Team Fortress 2? No. Counter Strike? No. Assassin's Creed? No. Red Dead Redemtion? No. You certainly can pay for certain parts of the game, the DLC, but you don't have to.

I titled this post "Take a tip from Gabe" for a reason, and I'm finally getting around to what I mean. As some of you may know, Team Fortress 2 was, for a long time, a game with items. You found these items through achievements and eventually through an item drop system (that was exploited and properly patched). Valve always fostered goodwill with its community through these patches, tweaking the game to balance it and make sure that nothing made the game unplayable for a large population. The humor inherent in the game and the fun nature of Valve's interaction with the community meant that, when they recently made certain items obtainable through purchase (and others usable only through purchase), there was a bit of a rumble, but not an explosion. The community was supportive of the new system, and especially those five people who made it work so well, the Polycount winners. Everyone cheered when they saw the items that won, and there was much congratulation, pats on the back and friend requests. Everyone felt that, in the long run, these people had earned every cent of the money they earned, and no one seemed to care that Valve probably takes a huge cut from every purchase made, giving I'd guess only 10-15% of the total profits to the creators. This is the tip Kotick needs to understand: goodwill between the creator of the game, its publisher and the community will fully allow you to charge for Call of Duty multiplayer. If you weren't a total jackass and actually tried to know who you were selling your games to, you'd understand that they want to be talked nice to. Everyone does. If you provide a stellar product, as Treyarch has (with Activision's support), and support it with everything you have over a consistent period of time (as Valve always has), you can make large changes with little fear of reprisal.

But, Mr. Kotick, you have not done this. You see only the dollar signs in the name Call of Duty, Bungie, Warcraft, Starcraft. You are a lucky man that the people in charge of these games love them. Even with this, however, putting in a fee for playing Call of Duty multiplayer will probably not ruin your company, but it will shake the industry like never before. You will lose what I'd say is a full half your Call of Duty player base, your stocks would stumble, and you would be faced with a choice you may not want to make (not to mention a possible fight with Microsoft over the money in multiplayer subscription). Take a tip from Gabe, Mr. Kotick. Become Bobby to those you sell games to. Know what their needs are, what their limits are, both within the game and in their pockets, and foster some goodwill. You'll do better in the long run.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Battlefield Marketing: Why Vietnam is Timed Perfectly (Also, Valve!)

This came to me last night and I felt I had to post it before I forgot about it. As I've said, I watch a lot of YouTube, but not just Call of Duty. I play(ed) and watch Battlefield Bad Company 2 from commetators like DCRU Colin, StoneFaceLock, Swordsman75, jayekaisermistuhed and Benjisaur among the more prominent. In the past months prior to Black Ops's release, there were rumblings of discontent with the state of the Battlefield scene, and for good reason. EA DICE released almost no truly "new" content. They updated maps for different game modes, but the maps themselves never really changed. For the first two or so months of the game's lifetime, this was a complaint to be sure, but not a damning one. As things went on, though, it trotted closer and closer to that point of no return, when even the dedicated Battlefield players withdrew for what they considered greener pastures (Black Ops and, to a lesser extent, Halo).

What I think DICE was well aware of, even back in the March release of BC2, is that their game was not Call of Duty 4, the game that needed no infusion of new content to remain both relevant and prominent for two years and longer. This led them, or at least it led Electronic Arts, to the following strategy based on their knowledge of their game. They knew they had about six months worth of game life ahead of them if they did nothing, and seven or maybe eight if they released different map types but not new maps. Their calculations put the end of their game's relevancy right at the release of Black Ops and the huge rush that the game would surely (and did) bring. They knew also that Battlefield wouldn't die out entirely, but it would begin to fade. However, the second tier to their plan was the coming Vietnam expansion, placed about a month and a half after Black Ops release of November 9th.

The timing of this expansion, and the Map Pack 7, which actually brought new maps, is next to perfect, and ingenious regardless. By allowing the giant push and affair with Black Ops to fade and then shoving a boatload of new content at their faithful consumers, DICE extends the lifetime of Bad Company 2 until the release, or at least the Beta, of Battlefield 3. To encourage their followers to play even more, and this is perhaps the most effective marketing that isn't Team Fortress 2's constant update system and Portal 2's announcement. By asking their players to use 69 million support actions (heal, ammo box, repair, revive, spot) in order to receive a fifth map for Vietnam, they've assured a huge amount of time spent in other things in game. Vietnam has been rumored for several months without a release date, and now that it has a firm December 21st (18th on PC) release, you can bet the dedicated BC2 players will not only be helping their teammates a whole lot more (something that was certainly lacking in the games initial stage), but that Vietnam will get even more orders.

I put Valve in parentheses in the title for a reason: they already do this kind of thing, and the industry is only now catching on. TF2 released and was immediately patched quite a few times in the months following its hitting Steam. Valve has always been dedicated to making their games as playable as possible for as long as possible. But they didn't stop at just game tweaks. They did what more developers need to do, at least from a business standpoint: add new content at all times and take full advantage of their community's own map/content making ability. TF2 as a game on release wasn't really much.  Few maps with only two or three game modes and nine classes when a fairly set playstyle, I would have placed a lifespan of around six months at the very most, even with constant game code tweaking and bug fixing. Valve, as usual, knew how to make their game continue thriving for three years and counting: class updates. Placed around four months apart, Valve had 36 months, or three years if they only updated the classes and added nothing else. They also added new maps, game modes, in-game systems to acquire class items (hats included), community maps becoming official, contests and more. This does not even take into the fact that they haven't yet finished the Meet the Team videos and remain coy on both what those clips will contain and which gender the Pyro is (we want to know, dammit!)

I'll end by saying what I've always said outside of this blog to my friends. The video game industry is reactionary to Valve. They innovate, and everyone else clammers to catch up, even Bungie. DICE and EA took the right rout with the release of BC2 Vietnam, and when Battlefield 3 comes out, I think there'll still be players trudging the rice paddies long into the future.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Rage Factor

I watch a little too much YouTube, but one bastion of insight and, for me at least, solace and solitude, is the commentator SeaNanners. He's one of those people who seems to never be angry, though, like all of us, he is human, and anger is certainly an emotion he feels. I'm not subscribed, but when I came across the video Rage-Nanners, I had to watch it. The nice people, with calm, distanced personalities, who rarely get angry are, to me, far more frightening when they are angry that those who are upset more often than not. But enough about me and my thoughts on SeaNanners. I want to talk about rage in gaming, as he did.

I have my fair share of anger, but I find that I spend more time enjoying my experience than I do with a pit in my gut and a scowl on my face. What causes these rage sessions, though? It's a game. There's no attachment to reality, the people you play you'll likely never see again, never meet face to face, the objectives a useless means of spurring players to different play styles. The answer is a simple one, but before, I want to make an analogy. Games are like sports, and indeed are quickly becoming a sport unto themselves. You don't go to a sports game and not see at least one guy in the stands, and on the field, angry at something at some point. There is an inbred need to compete inside us and all thinking animals (indeed, all of evolution is essentially a game of who's better at what), and when we begin to fail at something, even a little bit, there is a frustration that builds. It's a subtle thing, really. When we have an expectation of ourselves, as everyone does with enough experience in something, and we thusly do not meet that expectation (perceived or real), we feel that we've cheated ourselves. Why, we ask, can't I hit that guy/catch that ball/ find that flag/get that grade? What is it I'm doing that makes me unable to achieve my goal?

I think it's these questions that are the real cause of the anger we feel. From my own experience, I put this forward. With Black Ops being my first Call of Duty game, I had no expectations of myself. I knew I'd suck, and I knew I'd suck with impunity. I was completely fine with it. My good games were those where I had K/D over 1, or even right at 1. The whole experience was new, there was nothing there that made me want to know what it was I'd done wrong, or even I was doing anything right. I chalked up a lot of my kills to luck of the draw or the stupidity of both me and my opponent (and that I managed to be just a touch less stupid). As with most things, with time came skill and, by extension, expectation. I began to see where my limits lay, what I could and couldn't do, and, like a typical human, I wanted to push those limits. The anger came when I couldn't own up to even the most basic of the limitations, false limitations, really, that I'd set for myself. My K/D, in my mind, should always, always, be around 1.5. I can generally get two kills before dying, because I know what players are doing, how they move and where they plan to go based on my time in game. It is when that knowledge either fails, situations present themselves that block my ability to reach my goals or my team is outright shit that I begin to get truly angry. The questions come, and they come in waves. Why, why, why, why, why, why, why? I ask myself with no clear answers because there are none, because the situation I've found myself in lends itself to an unexplainable deluge of failure, and because my rage-clouded mind can't process more than the sum of my anger. It doesn't help, of course, that like SeaNanners, I am very much a perfectionist, whose expectations of himself and his attitude towards himself are far higher, and far worse, than some others.

In the end, though, it remains a game, and if you fight through the frustration, you can have a good game. If that's not your game, put down the controller and have fun in the sun, surf, snow or rain (or some combination thereof). I know I need to do that more.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Longer Delay (Much) and News

This blog let me down, not by any fault of yours, but of my own ambitions. I'd read all the things saying, "You need to stick to it, through the hard and the easy. When it gets good, you'll understand why you worked so hard for so little." Like a typical human, not just an arrogant bastard, I believed them and promptly forgot. I started getting a few who thought what I had to say was interesting, and that rekindled my fires, but then I started posting less and less. It got to a point where I'd reached what was, for me, a cap in viewership, and something inside just wouldn't let me justify continuing. So I let this thing sit idle for full on four months. It was not until tonight, sitting in my editing class and talking about the future (what a thing to do, right?) that something inside me wanted to return, start up the engines again, and get somewhere. And so I write this. What's to talk about, now that I've explained (uselessly) my absence? Well, Halo Reach came out, Medal of Honor all but fell flat, and Call of Duty: Black Ops ensnared the highest preorder stats in GameStop history and got millions (several of them, myself included) playing for inordinate hours. In retrospect, getting that XBOX 360 Slim for Reach was a great idea. I'd never have found out I'm a rusher who enjoys getting in the face of his enemies. In sum, I'm a CoD guy. Halo's too slow, and Battlefield is too sluggish (there's a subtle difference there, but I won't go into that).

So, Black Ops. I'm not going too deep right now, nor will I in the future, just to say that 1) it's my first CoD game, 2) the weapons, for the most part, don't have an overall dominate member (save the G11, perhaps) and 3) Domination is the best game type in the whole game.

I'll put this into perspective using the only other game I've put a lot of effort and time in: TF2 (yes, I'm returning to that too). I've played every game type in TF2, save Arena, because I don't like not getting back in the action, and I can say Payload is the best. The map design, both from Valve and the community, is not at the par of Capture point, but the concept of payload as a game mode is the best one. To qualify, with Payload, more than most CP maps, and similarly in Domination, you know, immediately, exactly where your enemies are. On Payload, your HUD says X players on the cart, and vocal queues tell you to get to it. With Domination, you have a flashing flag and a vocal queue. Those are guaranteed kills if you can get the drop on your hapless foe. While it can certainly become a deathmatch and constant rush for flags, by and large there's one team who takes it to the other team and just keeps hammering. Objective game modes are, I think, my excuse to not play deathmatch modes because I'm not confident enough. There's something to that, and I understand that about myself. My gun skills aren't to par for sheer gun on gun combat, and my mind doesn't work fast enough, most of the time, that I don't need some indicator of where exactly I should be going to get my killstreaks. If I played more, I'm sure that'd change some. The larger reason, or at least so I tell myself, is that I can never find one single bloody person to kill in TDM. I run to where the action is, and I'm a second too late. Ten kills later on the board and I'm still freaking looking for my second kill. If anything, I like some kind of assurance that someone will be somewhere at some point and that I have some chance of killing them. In TDM, for me at least, I'm always exactly where that is not, and if by some chance I happen to be, some situation with contrive to get me out of that groove. IT's usually an RC car.

Let me be clear, however. My most played game mode in Reach was Team Slayer, so my gun skills aren't bad enough that I must stick to objective game modes. I play games to enjoy myself, and I do not enjoy my time in TDM like I do in Domination. And let me be clear that I've gotten several Chopper Gunners and enough kills for Gunship and Dogs (though I don't really ever equip them. That'll change) Hell, I've rushed spawns at gotten upwards of fifteen kills, topped the leaderboard in captures and defenses and had K/D over 5. I can turn on Beast Mode when something inside me really wants to. But I remain the average, above at times, gamer.

That's all for now. I've got other writing to do, and a begging session with That VideoGame Blog

Monday, August 9, 2010

A little of Me and Training in FPS Games

Yesterday I said I'd talk a little about my gaming habits and the little side business I started. I plan to make good on that promise. First, let me clear the air by saying that, yes, video games were the first games I ever played, but my introduction into pen and paper games was all but a foregone conclusion by 1997 when Final Fantasy VII came out and I, on a lark, rented it and loved it. I collected every game since (though I never played XII. Too much changed) and I haven't looked back on that. Fifth grade I started playing social RPG's and all through high school I continued. By college GenCon became my only outlet, and I think I can sneak in a change to that pattern here in the near future. I also dabbled in CCG's or collectible card games, namely Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh (blame the horrid anime, I suppose). Though nothing ever came of it and I've played all of one unofficial and one official game of Yu-Gi-Oh and MtG respectively, I amassed quite a collection of cards. Due to my quickly fading interest in card games entirely, I thought I might make a little extra cash selling them on eBay, at this fine location. The stock is currently very small, but I have a booster box in the mail and a plan in my head to increase and diversify stock on a grand scale here shortly.

Regardless, that isn't the main point of tonight's blog. Instead, I want to talk about training in FPS games. When you play these virtual soldiers, in Call of Duty, Battlefield and Medal of Honor, you use almost any weapon you want and your avatar knows the ins and outs of every one. For the record, this isn't realistic, but it's a game, right? Sure, let's go with that, but take into account the years of training that goes into each soldier on the battlefield. Then think about the special operations teams and the intensive molding and shaping they go through. Now think about Medal of Honor's advisers: Tier 1. These guys, according to the site (and I have no choice but to believe them, since I'm afraid of the guy with the epic beard and assault rifle), go through more training than even the best Spec Ops team. Their numbers fluctuate within a few hundred, with a classified exact number, and you wonder what they do that other soldiers do that others don't. Translating that into a game world seems almost like a moot point when you think about it, since soldiers in the big FPS brands already use every weapon they can pick up, every piece of equipment on the field and every vehicle they get their hands on. Everyone is Tier 1 in CoD4, MW2, Bad Company 2 and Halo. But that isn't true, because in the world of the game, it is a matter of simplicity and ease of use to have soldiers proficient with all weapons and equipment. This leads me to a point I noticed in the Medal of Honor of beta.

The weapon you choose is the one you stick with, and you cannot pick up enemy or ally weapons to use in place of your own. In an earlier post I said that DICE needed to implement this, but I retract that statement. Thinking about it again, I recall the Rifleman's Creed. In essence, the weapon you receive from your country is the one you stick with, through thick and thin, in the worst conditions, through repairs and cleanings, peace and war. Because both EA and DICE are going for the most realistic depiction of modern war in Medal of Honor, that they restrict which weapons everyone uses means they consider the training, time and emotional attachment that soldiers spend and accrue in their service. Think about a soldier on the battlefield watching his best friend die, then avenging him with the weapon he and the fallen knew back and forward, divided only by the set of hands holding it. Would the surviving Marine or Ranger or Seal or Tier 1 operative not wish to use that gun and only that gun in all mission to follow? I would think he would, in memory of his friend, and to show those who took his life what it means to feel the hot steel of vengeance.

And with that cheesy metaphor, I leave for another day.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Long Delay Explanation and Customization

So yeah, I've been away for a looooong time (by my standards), and there is a good reason for it. I'll go into more depth tomorrow, but for now I'll simply say this. Video games are not the only games I play. I also play pen and paper roleplaying games, and in my home town (stalk me if you must) GenCon Indy just went down and I had some great fun with pre-Con gaming Wednesday night. Thursday took my time, as did Friday, and so tonight, since I'm not making the drive tomorrow, is the first night I've had completely free to blog. I've also started a side business selling trading cards (I don't play. There isn't enough time between sunrises), and I've tried to get my stock completely up on eBay, which, believe it or not, is very, very time consuming. All told I've had perhaps two or three hours to myself, and this usually comes at the end of five or six, so I put it on the back burner. With the Con over, for me at least, I'm ready to get back into things. Let's jump in, shall we?

Modern first person shooters nowadays are big on one thing: customization. Sure there are gametypes and map packs and different play styles, but customization, for me at least, drive a game's replayability. In BC2, for example, there are so many different ways to play every single class, and no one "right" way (though there is always a wrong way, but that's for another post). If you want to play an assault class, but aren't the guy who goes hog wild with the kills and low death numbers, sit back and provide cover for your friends, be sneaky and get behind the enemy, provide a safe place to spawn your mates in, then get out. Throw down ammo packs and keep everybody covered while they rush in to arm the objective. Their eyes are on one thing, and yours need to keep them safe. If you want to do the opposite, slap on lightweight and magnum, a shotgun and some C4 and you've got yourself a mobile death machine. Hell, I saw a guy with lightweight and body armor knifing only, because he could.

What I'm getting at, of course, is that games, especially FPS's, grow boring rather quickly once everyone discovers the routes to run, the weapons and perks/specs to use and the tactics the other team is likely to employ. It becomes a repetitive grind/yawn fest where everyone just goes through the motions until the timer goes "buzz." What makes any game fun for longer is the ability to change it up. Call of Duty is perhaps the best example of this, and I'll explain my reasoning for not going with my series, Battlefield. The Call of Duty engine is relatively static. The maps are not destructible, and only the rare car explosion and window smash break the steady flow of troops around the environment. Call the physics system simple, but with the massive weapon selection, even the most mundane game remains something to enjoy months, even years in the case of CoD4, after release. Players try out new things, from weapons to perk setups to map routes and even douchey tactics to get just a week more out of the game. Slap on an RPG only 360 spin match (Seen it. Hilarious) and you have something fresh to enjoy.

Going back to Battlefield, and why I stray from speaking about it in the same way as Call of Duty. Putting aside the fact that they run on different engines, cater to different players and use different play mechanics, there is one reason sometimes using the same kit until you don't grow bored of it ever is that the matches are always, always, different. Certainly the routes that troops take are probably the same, but the tactics employed are always in motion. In Call of Duty, it's essentially kill kill kill, take objective, kill kill kill. Forgive my presumption, as I don't actually play, but that's how I see it. In Battlefield, there is almost always a different way to approach a situation. Putting aside vehicles for a moment, the maps themselves are large and varied enough that a single objective has at least three ways to attack it at any one time. Combine this with the four different classes, their almost infinite variety of setups, and the constant motion of class balance, and you might play one game on one map and then the next game is completely different, simply by the virtue of a few new players and few new play styles. It doesn't take much.

I think Call of Duty suffers a little bit for this fact. Because there is no class system, as character skins are determined solely by weapon choice and not role played, there are only so many ways to go about doing something. Again, certainly there probably hundreds of ways, but not the thousands of Battlefield. Add to this a non-dynamic battlefield, smaller maps with sometimes no between-player support, and those hundreds of methods exhaust themselves fairly quickly. In the end, in Call of Duty, with a very specific set of weapons, attachments, perks and killstreak setups making the killing the most efficient in game play, eventually it becomes fairly standard, and you return to the grind described in the beginning of this post. I may be being a bit contradictory here with my belaboring the Call of Duty stuff, but my earlier comments only last for so long, as I've said. I think that, in the end, it comes down to a player and his desires from a game that determine his, and only his, replayability. What I've tried to say, in a very roundabout way, is that the overall replayability of a game measures itself not by a single player or small group of players, but only after a few months of play and discovery. If, in that time, a very small set of tactical choices become the norm, the game has a lesser replayability than another.

Whew. I guess I needed to get this out of me, huh?


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Crysis 2 and Dead Space 2 News

Yeah, yeah, no update for two days. Sorry, but life calls first!

Anyway, I just received word, through our friends and GameSpot, that both Crysis 2 is delayed and that Dead Space 2 is coming to every platform to ever exist ever. Meaning, in essence, that it's coming to handhelds and mobile phones and consoles and PC.

For the first part, Crysis 2, I'm not at all perturbed, and you shouldn't be either. The original Crysis came out almost three years ago, and still remains the benchmark for how good your PC is. I say that if it takes three years to catch up with graphics technology on the hardware front, I don't think anyone should worry about a few more months of hardware dev time and releases to help ease the processor destroying monster that will be Crysis 2. Like Portal 2, I'm willing to wait a little more because I know that CryTek wants only to make sure the game will be the absolute best it could be. They received a lot of flak for their handling of the original Crysis, what with its strange premise, cliffhanger ending, unidentifiable island and giant, yet inconclusive, boss fight. For a game as massively changed as Crysis 2 seems to be, not only is a three and a half years reasonable, I'd say that it asks a little much. For the first part, the folks at CryTek are building a whole city from the ground up, in cyberspace. The opportunities for dynamic action, death defying stunts, open world gameplay are endless and the sheer amount of detail that goes into creating a realistic virtual environment take equally endless amounts of time and dedication. Also, like Portal 2, CryTek seems to be expanding not only the environments but also the game mechanics, and, based on the already rather complicated mechanic of Crysis, that is a tall order.

As for Dead Space, not much to say beyond, "Wow." I didn't play the original, due in large part to lack of funds and interest, so I can't speak to the game itself. I may have to do what I've done with other game series and play the second game quickly to follow the first, to see what they improve. Then again, I don't really care for horror games, so maybe not. I applaud EA for pushing it so hard, since the response at E3 was so positive.

More tomorrow as I crawl home from my pre-GenCon gaming.