Free to play: Restrictions as features

Wanna play a game? Here play this. ... Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more.... or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! ...  Hey! Stop running away!
Wanna play a game? Here play this. … Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! … Hey! Stop running away! You’re missing out on a great game!

Energy mechanics are “features” of free-to-play games that restrict the player’s actions so that only a few things can be accomplished in a single day. If you were to wish this feature away, you’d find yourself paying real money for the privilege of doing more of the same virtual stuff at a faster pace. They are restrictions that serve to psychologically torture people into giving up money so the pain they cause goes away. They are systematic pain inducers that punish the player in the only way a game can: by wasting time. Although this type of system is quite new, this type of punishment has always been part of games in general, we just didn’t apply the concept in such a morally corrupt way.

On the other hand, an actually new system aimed at psychological manipulation is what I call the bait and switch. Simply put, the game presents you with something you won, congratulates you and then proceeds to inject an obstacle between you and the thing you won. Probably a share button or in the worst case, a convoluted system where you end up spending money. But wait, if you already won, why do you have to do anything to get it? Well, as simple as it may sound, you don’t want to lose what you feel you already have and if the same reward was presented as “Win this item IF…” then it wouldn’t have the same negative impact and therefore convert fewer people into paying customers.

The same brain mechanism worked wonders for Farmville, by forcing players into a schedule of planting and harvesting. Once players invested in-game currency into seeds and planted them, they were forced to harvest the results before the crops went bad and the investment went kaput. This pressure was designed specifically to form a habit in the player, so that they continue to invest their time on the game and eventually spend money. The more time invested into a game the higher the pain once things go bad.

The problem with these mechanics, apart from being morally corrupt, is that not many players respond to this pain by investing further into the game. It takes a susceptible mind* with enough spare time and income to consider investing in a painful game so that it momentarily becomes less painful. After that, the handful of paying customers will receive special treatment in the form of even more intense pain because statistically, once a customer puts money on the game they are X times more likely to pay again. So you get more pain for your money … yeah, that’s f*cked up.

Of course, as you might have imagined by now, the single largest problem with this scheme is that players can get fed up. Too much pain can drive a player away. Being painful translates into money some of the time, but it creates an expiration date for the product. No matter how massive a game gets, if it’s painful it will eventually fall on its face and be completely abandoned. Once the fad goes away, almost no player will speak well of the game or their creators.

So, in a nutshell, these mechanics make money, but they drive away their userbase in the long run.

I just hope that people start getting fed up with this kind of manipulation and start requesting content for their money instead of the removal of “features”.

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*Teenagers and older people. The latter experiencing casual games just recently and both unaccustomed to these types of psychological exploitation techniques.

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Microsoft backpedals on DRM: No online required … for now

Microsoft removed all that stupid DRM and region locking! Now you’ll be able to do the same things you could already do this generation!

Yeah, I didn’t believe it the first time I saw it. You mean that Microsoft, this gigantic corporation that moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to changes actually listened to their costumers? Unbelievable! Haha, yeah, of course not. They don’t care about their costumers, if they did we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. No, they just care about their sales and after an embarrassing show at E3 they finally understood that this whole fiasco could mean a financial disaster.

So, Microsoft backpedaling like a motherf*cker. Does that mean that the crisis was averted? As much as it pains me, most probably, yeah. Sony did a great comeback this gen, starting at last place, staying there for a long long time and then a few weeks ago beating the 360 worldwide sales by a hair. Took them almost 7 years to catch up, but they finally did it. Microsoft is capable of doing the same exact thing.

Microsoft showed that they are capable of screwing their customers over in the name of money and power. They showed that they can’t be trusted to design a system that is customer-friendly. They showed that they have their heads so far up their own ass that they never considered being wrong on such a boldly stupid move (this change in DRM policy comes too late and must be applied by a day one patch).

So, having said all of that, the lesson learned from all of this is that Microsoft can’t be trusted. They tried to screw us over and they are very capable of doing it again. The question is: When? and Where?

Microsoft is playing with fire

Let me get this straight:

  • The new Xbox is called “Xbox One” because it’s the first one to …. because it’s the only one that … yeah, I don’t know. Maybe Microsoft just wanted to f*ck around and confuse the hell out of everybody with their numbering scheme. Way to copy Nvidia.
  • This new Xbox requires games to be installed fully onto the hard-drive.
  • It also requires games to be linked to individual accounts, and not consoles.
  • This in turn requires a “phone home” phase where the game must verify that the user is not “stealing”, which as you might expect results in a mandatory internet connection.
  • Games can then be given to another account, but only at a fee. A fee that goes entirely to Microsoft and maaaaybe to the developers that actually worked on the game (we don’t know yet).
  • This giving can be done entirely without the need of the physical disk. You know, the thing that you paid 60 bucks for.

So this console is tailor-made to get on everyone’s nerves.

Those games you’re buying? They are services, not products, even if they look remarkably like products. That in itself is a perfect recipe for infuriating hardcore players, the ones that will decide if your console will succeed through the first few years of the life-cycle.

Not content with biting the hand that feeds them, they are biting the hand that actually produces the food. By making the second-hand market irrelevant they’re quite possibly alienating the big … well, no, they are screwing GameStop over and all similar companies that benefitted from second-hand sales. In retribution, GameStop might choose not to sell the Xbox One and offer only the competing products.

If all goes well for the Xbox One, Microsoft will have complete control over every single game being played on any of their consoles.

That is a terrifying amount of power.

If all goes badly, they’ll have to work their way out of their own asshole and apologize profusely for the sins they’ve committed. So, basically, Microsoft is making the same mistakes that Sony did with the PS3 but taking a new douche spin on the whole thing.

We’ll see how this ends. So far, I’m liking the PS4 a whooole lot more now.

(The Wii U is a different story and worthy of its own post, but to mention a few things: nice hardware idea, price could be better, games are non-existent, good attitude towards indies and to top it off, they are not even remotely as evil as microsoft).

America’s fascination: a few questions

WEEP
Generic space marine with a gun!

That? That is what megaman X was going to look like in its latest remake.

And here’s how far they developed this thing before it got cancelled:

Does everybody want megaman to look like this? Is american fascination with guns and space marines so universal that it must permeate everything under the sun? Are First Person Shooters the only genre that sells well these days? Is the dudebro community the optimal target audience? Must every unique characteristic of popular franchises be homogenized  in order to sell better? Should min-maxing sales projections be the goal? Should artistic integrity be sacrificed at the altar of the sales department?

Does copying the best-selling games actually increase sales? If everything looks the same, doesn’t the market saturate? If all the industry targets the same audience, what happens to the rest of us? If the same franchises release the same games every year and they always succeed, what makes the rest of the industry think that their games can steal the success of these already established franchises?

Giants like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft will never be dethroned by copycats, they’ll die as soon as the audience gets tired of them. And you know what? When that happens, people will move on to other games that offer an entirely different experience. Other kings will be crowned and the industry will proceed to copy the new kings in a futile attempt to steal their lightning.

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to games. There are mountains of books that copy Twilight and 50 shades of gray. There are tons of movies that copy Transformers. I’m even willing to bet that there are broadway shows that do this exact same thing.

It’s a strategy that works, at least in the short-term and anybody who is quick enough to get on the market before it saturates is going to cash in on it. The problem arises when the same trend has been going on for more than a decade, as it happens to be the case with videogames. I haven’t seen such a cancerous spread of a single trend over such a large range of products anywhere else.

I could venture a guess, but I’d be lying if I said I know why this is happening . It may be the large budgets, the aversion to risk or executives being idiots. I don’t know. All I know is that companies are overestimating budgets and sales while at the same time dooming their games to mediocrity by homogenization. As a result, game development studios are being run into the ground, people are getting fired and customers are not getting the games they want.

I don’t know what you think, but if you ask me, I’d say something’s wrong. Very wrong in fact.

On the other hand, this is why indies are thriving. After all, they target audiences not being served by the rest of the industry and that is a very good recipe for success.

I guess it’s true what they say: Every crisis creates opportunities.

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Image taken from here.

Sharing with the PS4

For those of you that don’t follow any type of console news, let me put you up to speed: Basically, the PS4’s controller was revealed to have a new button solely dedicated to sharing content. How it functions is still a mystery but what we know is that it allows the user to record and share video of the game currently running.

Now we have news that … well, just read this:

“There will be parts of a game that the maker does not want people to be able to see,” Yoshida said. “For example, on Vita, developers can in certain scenes disable the feature that lets users take a screenshot, and [the Share function] will have a similar mechanism. The creator may not want to make video of the final boss sharable, for instance.”

So, let me get this straight: If a developer wants to, they can make certain parts of the game (or all of it) not sharable, all in the name of spoilers…

I’m sorry but .. WHAT??? That is possibly the WORST solution to spoilers I could ever come up with. Do you guys even know what the f*ck you are doing? Well, given how the screenshot system works on the Vita (annoying watermarks! yay!) I’m going to guess that you don’t have a f*cking clue.

Look, it’s very simple: Just let the developers tag certain sections of the game as “spoilers”. Videos shared with spoiler parts will be labelled as such and greyed out. That way, everything can be shared but the end user that wants to look at gameplay videos is the one that decides to be spoiled or not.

You are not supposed to let the developer dictate what can be shared and what can’t! Gamers want a better experience of what they already have, not a worse one. Having to pay for a video-capture device to be able to record a PS3 game is a pain in the ass, but many gamers already do this. Speedruns, challenge runs, bloopers, funny glitches, funny accidents, epic moments, etc. Everything can be recorded, so why would you want to facilitate the process of recording but then go and make it WORSE for players? They can already record spoilerish videos and post them on youtube! Nobody complains! Why are you trying to stop that?

Oh, and since we are talking about sharing, can you pretty please not fuck this up by plastering a gigantic watermark in every video? We don’t want the PS4 to fail as hard as the Vita did.

*drops the mic*

A response to pokemon obstacles, why HMs are stupid and how to fix them

This post is a response to this here other thingy. For the purposes of making your life easier I’ve quoted it all below.

Who-Needs-HMs

[Referencing the image above] The bad part is that you actually need a certain extent of this kind of video game logic to keep games interesting. Sure its fun to joke about, but its necessary. So next time an insurmountable knee-high tree, a locked picket fence or even a strategically placed folding chair that’s blocking your forward progress, just say to yourself, “AH… I see what you did there!”

The short version of my response is: F*CK NO.

And the proper response is:

The only reason for badly explained phenomena in videogames is because game developers are f*cking lazy. Anybody can come up with a better explanation. By making the tree bigger and more imposing, it already starts to make sense. Then you could give it a particular characteristic to explain why it can be cut but the others can’t. Maybe it’s a giant dead tree, easily cut by a pokemon with the right attack but an impassable obstacle otherwise.

There! Problem solved!

Yeah, a fire pokemon could probably reduce it to ashes… along with the rest of the place, so you probably shouldn’t do that.

Any more objections? Good.

Huh, that was quick. Let’s talk about something related! How about … how stupid the HM system really is! Why? Because it causes more problems than it’s worth.

The whole system has only one purpose: To give pokemon a reason to exist outside of battles. The problem is, this reason interferes with battles in a negative way. The HM moves are to be avoided like the plague because even if they are useful to cut trees and go up a waterfall, once inside a battle they are in general completely overpowered by other moves. As the comic says, nobody teaches their starter pokemon the CUT move.

That’s the biggest and most often cited issue, but the stupidity spreads across farther than most people look.

The HM system works like a series of color-coded keys and doors. You can’t go this way until you get the red key, so you must ignore this tantalizing branch in your path blocked by a red door and continue walking forward until you get said red key. After acquiring it you’ll have the opportunity to retread your steps and open all the red doors you passed by. Sometimes these paths will lead you to new cities, sometimes they’ll lead you to hidden items. It’s a nice system that has found its way into hundreds of games for a reason: it works. But pokemon does a twist on it that misses the point.

Limitation is a very powerful tool. By limiting player resources the game designer can create meaningful choices. Say, if you could pick up every little thing you see and not care about inventory space then you are not going to care what you pick up and what you don’t. In fact, you are very likely to pick everything, just because you can. But if the game designer limited your inventory space to just three items, then things start to get interesting. Suddenly some items look like garbage and some look like the ultimate thing you must have.

HMs function basically as a limitation on how many keys you are carrying and are inversely proportional to how powerful your pokemon are: The more HM moves there are in your party, the less optimized your party is. In theory, this sounds like it would create this difficult and interesting choice but at the end of the day it’s nothing more than a nuisance. But why? Well, I have my theories, but I think the main reason lays in the fact that HMs are not that useful even outside of battles. Sure, they are necessary, but most of the time you can get by with just a couple of HMs and there’s not that many opportunities to use them. So you have a situation where you can sacrifice something very important for something that doesn’t matter all that much … mmmhh, yeah, that does sound flawed doesn’t it?

The other reason why HMs don’t really provide the player with a difficult choice is because there’s an optimum strategy: HM slaves. By giving all the lame HMs to one or two pokemon, you can concentrate on leveling the other pokemon in the party. If you suddenly don’t need HM moves you can just ditch the slave and replace it with something actually useful.

In a nutshell, HMs suck because they feel like a nuisance more than anything else. They are functionally bankrupt, masquerading as a difficult and interesting choice that turns out to be a dead-brained excercise in party management.

That’s great and all, but only discussing the problem doesn’t solve anything.

Here’s how I would fix it:

Turn HMs into just regular key items that can be used by compatible pokemon to open the figurative “colored doors”. For example, the cut move could be replaced by a pair of trimming scissors that any plant pokemon can use. If you have a plant pokemon in your party, you can cut bushes. If you have a water pokemon you can surf, go up waterfalls and all that stuff. It removes all the unneeded complexity and on top of that, adds a mechanic to gently push players towards balancing their pokemon party (you’ll want to have a plant pokemon, a water one, a fighting one and so on).

Hey Game Freak, look at what you are missing! Hire me and I’ll solve all your game design problems! =D

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Original source of the image: deviantart.

Bioshock Infinite: First hour impressions (no spoilers)

First, a sort of warning: This post DOES NOT contain spoilers, unless you consider me describing my experience with the game for the first hour to be “spoilers”.

There’s a very specific type of game design that I’ve learned to despise in the last few years.

Boy that was a very negative way to start this. Let me try again:

There we go! Happy! Joy! Everything is aaaaaalriiiight!
There we go! Happy! Joy! Everything is aaaaaalriiiight!

Bioshock Infinite is pretty! The graphics are cool! The setting is cool! There are not that many “cutscenes” in the strictest sense of the word! There are things you can do! … well, not that many things and those things don’t work on most other things and…

Wow, this is going sour faster than I predicted.

Look, there’s no way around it: I, as a game designer, hated my first hour in the world of Bioshock Infinite. I’m normally very hesitant to “hate” something. Sure, I may have quite a few complaints and only focus on the negative, but that’s because I’m a nitpicker by nature. No, this here is special. I’ve stumbled upon one of the few game design philosophies that truly irk me… and I can’t even fathom WHY reviewers don’t call attention to this problem.

Bioshock Infinite starts at a lighthouse. There’s some basic interaction, some items hidden and some interesting bits of environment storytelling. Those few minutes I spent there (yes, minutes, I like to take my time) were very satisfying. Then I got to Columbia and ended up in a place that raises too many questions but can be easily excused by the “rule of cool”. Then I got to the city proper … and things started going south.

Columbia is a place that works as a series of events that are triggered upon your arrival. People start talking when you get close so you never get to a place and listen to just the middle and end of a conversation. Animations start playing when you’re near. Announcers start doing their thing on cue. Events play out only just as you are approaching the place where they’ll happen. Everything has been scripted, this world is 100% reactive and dependent on YOUR presence. Nothing happens if you are not around. This world is effectively dead and artificial. It’s not even a world per se, it’s just a series of events that happen.

The façade is not broken, it just never existed in the first place. Nobody made an attempt at making this a believable world. They just built a series of interesting things and designed the triggers to each of them (mainly, walking within a certain distance) so that the player can experience them all without missing a thing. In fact, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if used with care. A little bit of wiggle room in the plausibility department would go a long way towards making this world more believable. Alas, that wasn’t the case.

Let me give you an example: If the event was that the floor went kaput and the player character fell into an underground river, then I’d be willing to suspend my disbelief. It’s believable because the trigger makes sense (extra weight = broken floor) and the following event comes as a consequence of the trigger. Now, Bioshock Infinite uses this same mechanism but applies it to idle conversations: Player character walks near a person and then that person starts a conversation with a friend. What kind of sense does that make?

Even then, you could probably chalk that up to coincidence. It’s not earth shatteringly disconcerting for something like that to happen. The problem arises when EVERYTHING is triggered by you walking near it. And I really do mean everything.

Alright, so what? The world is fake and shows it seams but all is not lost. You can get used to it! Haha, oh, that would be true if it weren’t for another little thing that this game fails to address.

The main problem lays with the fact that none of these events are interactive, even when they should be. People talk to you, but you can’t respond … ok. If you jump into a stage while the announcer is talking nobody will react in the slightest way…. that’s odd. If you position yourself to be hit by an effect that is going back and forth between two characters, it will pass right through you…. yeah. You can excuse most things, but when the game fails to react this badly, everything falls apart.

sfffasf
This is dumb, I have no agency over anything on this ride. Look, I can even let go and do nothing the whole time!

It’s a rollercoaster approach to spectacle. Everything is happening around you, all of these interesting things are making the story move forward… but you, the player experience it all as a ghost. Nothing can be touched. Nothing can be interacted with. Nobody cares where you are looking or where you are positioned. If something is happening then you have no say in the matter, you just watch. You don’t exist, you won’t be recognized even if you walk into a ray of dead-making that is being pointed at an ally of yours.

Other games that utilize this philosophy to better effect (Half-Life 2 …) understand that the action needs to be at a physical distance from the player if he’s not going to have any say on said action. A piece of glass always does the trick, but plain old unreachable areas work just as well.

That … THAT I hate because it tells me that the developers didn’t want to have cutscenes because “cutscenes are bad” but then didn’t know how to appropriately replace them. If something is happening and I have no say in the matter then make it a cutscene for crying out loud. What’s the purpose of me standing around and poking things if I can’t do anything? If nothing is systematized, if there’s no system in sight, if I can’t interact with anything aside from “being there” … why the flying f*ck am I playing this instead of watching a movie? Just grab my camera, turn off my controller and let me know it’s time to watch things happen.

You could probably take the first exploratory section after the lighthouse and the whole first combat encounter, condense it all in a movie and result in a better end product. Why the improvement? Because you’d lose the artificiality of it all and focus the camera where it matters. True, you would lose interactivity of it all, but let me ask you: What interactivity? There are no decisions being made, no systems being modelled. All there is to it is an underdeveloped system of superpowers that don’t do much and a combat system that as far as I can tell gets in the way of the rest of the game.

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Images taken from here and here.