Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Hat

She's a "Replika"
although I'm guessing
not a Nexus-6 model
I recently became aware of a new game in development called Signalis.  According to the official website, the game is a sci-fi survival horror experience harkening back to the 1990s roots of the subgenre.  Looking at screenshots and video clips it's easy to get that vibe from the slightly pixelated graphics and low-poly 3D models.  By their own admission the two primary people working on the game are big fans of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos, Resident Evil and, especially, Silent Hill.  I'm also seeing a sprinkling of "Blade Runner" in the presentation.  Overall, it sounds exactly like my kind of video game.  However, for reasons I'll get into momentarily the idea of playing Signalis leaves me feeling a bit tepid.

This screenshot reminds me
of Space Quest for some reason
I think the problem stems from my excessive familiarity with these kinds of games.  When it comes to survival horror, it would probably be a lot quicker for me to list the games I haven't played rather than the ones I have.  As such, it's a bit too easy for me to anticipate the overarching plot.  Elster, the main character, has to make an emergency landing on a snow-covered planet.  After that she puts on her spacesuit and walks over to the nearby underground base.  Said base appears to be abandoned, but of course it isn't...so the core of the game begins with a consistent mix of battling/avoiding twitchy zombies, solving puzzles, encountering survivors and ultimately escaping from the nightmare (which most likely involves a showdown with some eldritch monstrosity).  It's not a bad structure to build a game on, but it is formulaic in that titles like The Colony (1988), Martian Gothic: Unification (2000) and Dead Space (2008 - 2013 R.I.P.) have done this sort of thing before...not to mention a bunch of movies ranging from "Aliens" to "The Killer Shrews."  I guess you could say that I'm worried that Signalis will give me a severe case of déjà vu.  I could be wrong though.  It could be the devs are simply trying to generate some interest in their game by appealing to nostalgic fans of survival horror.  The game is going to be a kickstarter project after all...I hope what we've seen thus far though is just the tip of the iceberg.  Fingers crossed that the majority of the game is filled with some big surprises hidden underneath.  Because of the tight budget and limited timetable associated with kickstarter games though a paint-by-the-numbers approach is usually the only viable way for a studio to fulfil their obligations to backers in a satisfactory manner.  Those sorts of inherent limitations to crowdfunding are why I wouldn't be shocked if what you see is what you get...aside from some little obligatory plot twist toward the end.

I could be wrong though...in fact I hope I am...I'd love to play a survival horror game that returns to they heyday of the subgenre while simultaneously subverting expectations.  Sadly, I think that's asking too much regardless of whether it be a talented team of industry veterans or a pair of enthusiastic newcomers. 

"Attention.  Emergency.
All personnel must evacuate.
You now have 14 minutes
to reach minimum safe distance." 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Valve Wide Open

Steam has gone full libertarian with regards to policing their distribution platform.  Any software that isn't illegal or simply trolling is A-okay; according to a blogpost by Valve executive Erik Johnson.  From a purely business standpoint, I can see where they're coming from.  As is Steam makes money hand over fist and the cost of enforcing some kind of quality assurance in their store is almost certainly greater than lost sales from bad PR.  They have a total monopoly over the distribution of a lot of games (complete list here), and a market revenue share vastly greater than GoG, itch.io, Uplay and Origin (their four biggest competitors) combined.  Because so many players are heavily invested in their service via Steam gaming libraries, the prospect of users backing out now en mass for any reason is dicey...and Vales knows it.  Aside from the really vile junk that gets published on Steam with the sole intent of offending/pandering to one social group or another, I think there's a universal problem that continues to plague Valve.  It's a problem that will probably continue to fester for the foreseeable future...in a word - shovelware.

Asset flips are the worst of this, and as far as I can tell remains a big universal concern of the Steam community.  There is so much trash being dumped on the Steam store everyday it has become practically impossible to find something worth playing unless you already know exactly what you're looking for.  So much bug-riddled garbage.  So many scammers trying pass their products off like they're worth paying actual money for.  It might help if the search filter has a more robust set of options, but even then it would only be a partial solution.  Whatever algorithms Valve has been using certainly don't work.  Curation has largely been forgotten, and the reviewing system remains vulnerable to metabombing (or boosting).  Also, what is up with that trading card stuff?  It's like a shady marketplace for people who want to launder money or something...

I don't have any elegant solutions to Valves issues.  In fact, I'll fully admit that the situation they're in is a tricky one.  At the same time I don't like the idea of customers being systemically stripped of their agency by obscenely wealthy corporations.  On the other hand though, I guess fans of dystopian cyberpunk futures can get excited because the world continues to head full speed in that direction.   

Friday, June 1, 2018

Dollars per Hour

There's an old saying that goes "don't judge a book by its cover."  Perhaps a good follow up to this would be "don't judge a book by its thickness either."  Nevertheless, there are avid readers out there who won't touch a novel unless it's a brick of paper by the likes of Stephen King or Michael Crichton.  For some this desire might steam from a place of insecurity (i.e. the need to look smart), but I think most of the time it's simply because these sorts of readers want something they can sink their teeth into.  At this point you might be wondering what any of this has to do with video games...well...more than you might think as of late.

Green Man Gaming, a software distribution website, somewhat similar to Steam or GOG, recently introduced a new analytic feature.  It takes the price of a game and divides it by the number of hours typically needed to complete said game in order to give consumers an idea of how much they're paying for each hour of entertainment.  A lot of people (including Jim Sterling) are decrying this as a meritless piece of statistical data while others are embracing it wholeheartedly and claiming that the magic ratio to live by is one dollar per hour (or one pound if you're in the UK...for some reason).  Personally I'm not buying into either side of the argument.

As much as I like Jim Sterling's work, I think he's exemplifying a problem that I see with a lot of current and former video game reviewers' attitudes toward this metric.  Namely they claim that "average cost per hour" is a worthlessly arbitrary metric and yet somehow review scores are okay.  A buy-wait-skip system of evaluation is fine, I think, as is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.  The problem with 1 to 10 scales is that the numbers don't equate to anything and inevitably lead to score comparisons, apples vs oranges arguments, and petty bickering.  Sterling rightly pointed out the contradiction between accepting review scores as valid but rejecting "average cost per hour," and yet failed to take it to the next logical step.

On the flip side, I'm not a fan of the idea of reducing games down to their efficiency as pure time killers either.  Not only does this rob games of any artistic merits they might have, it wrongly assumes that each and every hour of playtime equates to an hour of fun.  I can't speak for anyone else here, but I've played more than a few games that would have been much tighter, streamlined, and overall better products if they had stripped out tedious filler like fetch quests, random encounters and the dreaded grind.  Then again, I'm one of those people who has money for games, but not much free time to play them.  For a lot of people who enjoy this hobby (particularly younger enthusiasts) it might be the other way around.

Regardless of money and free time, there are some other factors worth considering.  I'm not just talking about graphics and sound or any of the usual bullet points advertisers put on the back of game boxes.  As Sterling put it, The Order 1886 was a ripoff when it came out because it was a full priced (60 dollar) game at launch that could be finished in under six hours.  Since then the price has gone down to around 20 bucks, but it still isn't worth it because of an incomplete storyline and bland third-person cover-based shooting mechanics.  Sure it looks and sounds nice, but there are plenty of other games that have that and excel in less vainglorious ways.  FAR: Lone Sails is another example people have been bringing up because it has a fifteen dollar price tag, but only lasts about two hours.  I can see where their coming from, but as least that game has a novel concept and, in it's own simple way, a proper beginning, middle and end.

Of course, not all folks want to read door-stopper novels or play sixty hour RPGs.  On the other hand that might be exactly what some people are looking for...something that they can sink their teeth into.  Thankfully, there's a website dedicated to breaking down the length of pretty much every game in which this sort of information could be applicable (stuff like MMOs and freemium online games have no ending by design so no point in listing those).  It's called howlongtobeat.com and is a great resource for that sort of information because it also breaks down a lot of games into more precise data points for players who just want to mainline the story or completionists who want to do everything.  "Average cost per hour" though...that just a bunch of misleading nonsense.  Then again, so are numerical review scores.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Rest in Peace...

John "Totalbiscuit" Bain
1984 to 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Videos About Games

Despite being a one man show
Angry Centaur Gaming is your
best bet for reviews these days
When I was little, trying to figure out what a video game was about could be a real challenge.  At an arcade it wasn't so bad because I liked to watch someone else play and, from them, get a feel for the gameplay.  Gaming at home though was a bit trickier.  Box art and (often, but not always) a couple of screenshots on the back gave would-be-players some idea of what to expect.  It wasn't much though, and getting to see actual footage was practically unheard-of.  There was a TV program called "Video Power" where I lived that would show some short clips, but it only aired for two seasons before getting cancelled.  So, what about the written word?  Well...bullet points and a paragraph of text tended to be less informative than one would hope for.  Magazine publications dedicated to gaming coverage back then were spotty and of even more dubious merit than modern day outlets.  Of course, you could rent games the same way you'd rent DVDs or (back then) VHS tapes.  However, that really only applied to the console scene.  If you happened to be like me and play a lot of computer games too then it was back to educated guesswork.  Now, here's where I want to say, that's all a thing of the past thanks to twitch streamers and video game channels on youtube.  Unfortunately, I can't genuinely speak those words because it's not entirely the case.  Sure, most of the problems I've mentioned above are pretty much gone now, but I also feel like the solutions have introduced a few new problems of their own.

One of the most blatant examples has to be "youtube bait," titles like Goat Simulator, I am Bread, or Surgeon Simulator.  They're all fun for a short time, but quickly start to suffer from shallow mechanics and poor controls.  A corollary to this are screaming-into-the-mic games such as Five Nights at Freddy's or Slender.  Their fast tension-building-and-release jumpscares tended to be a good way to attract a certain kind of fluid viewership, which in turn means raised awareness and ultimately higher sales figures...despite being pretty mediocre from a design perspective.  I doubt most of the aforementioned titles would have been commercial successes at all, if internet video content producers hadn't gobbled their gimmicks up so eagerly.

This ties into another problem - trend chasing.  I get that viewers are interested in whatever the new hot thing is, but if every youtuber and twitch streamer is playing the same game (or couple of games) then there's no benefit to be had here in terms of viewership.  Fortnight, PUBG, Rocket League and perhaps the originator of the me-too games coverage Minecraft, are all examples of games that got an oversaturation of coverage simply because they happened to be in-vogue at a particular moment in time.  I'm not saying watching or making videos about popular games in bad per-se.  I just think homogenization is antithetical to the whole point of having internet games coverage.  There are a few channels (such as Accursed Farms) that go out of their way to only really play older more obscure stuff, often carefully editing footage to not waste the viewers time.  Marshall Dyer is another, albeit somewhat different, example in that he only tends to play lesser known indie titles...and even then only after any post-release hype around them has died down.

Don't be "Brad" at games
One might be tempted to say it's not really about the games, but rather the individual personalities of each and every streamer/youtuber.  There's a lot of truth to that statement, but it's also a deadly path to go down.  If an audience associates a certain kind of content from you then then they'll get annoyed very quickly if it changes to anything different.  Case in point, Mangaminx had a lot of trouble transitioning herself to TheRPGminx.  Splattercat had a fair amount of difficulties too when tried to move away from survival games in an attempt to branch out to other genres.  It can also be frustrating in that I like Quill18, but most of the hardcore strategy games he's known for playing don't interest me.  I kind of want to see him spread his wings a bit more, but understand why he (and a lot of other content creators) don't.  Fanbases support, but they can be a limiting factor as well.  The real problem here though is youtubers and twitch streamers losing their passion for video games, and just going through the motions; covering particular games because it's what their audience expects of them.

I should wrap this up by saying that even though I use youtube and twitch as my primary examples, the problems I've mentioned aren't exclusive to those to sources of video games coverage.  Dedicated websites made up of supposed "professionals" can (and do) suffer from a disinterested staff, unwilling tackle the challenges of mastering the mechanics of whatever it is they decide to play.  Guys, you don't have to give up on your passions to be "successful"...in fact it's quite probably the opposite.