I never really was on your side …

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate how greatly the English language fails to convey context and meaning behind words at times. I figure that you all would have much less to read here if this was not the case.  Let me give you an example.

I hate the spy class.

It’s not a simple matter of not enjoying the class when I play it, or disliking the class when other people play spy.  I have a deep, irrational hatred and utter loathing for not only the class, but everything it stands for, to the point where I can not honestly justify in any rational terms or argument, any real justification for such hatred.

I think that more than anything else, the spy serves as some kind of freudian object for me to vent dislike and negative emotion into.

With all that said, I’d like to separate all of that from my real criticisms with the class.  Some people who have seen my hatred of the class might be surprised to find that such criticisms aren’t all that great.

As much as I hate to admit it, the spy does have a purposeful role in the game, and is somewhat balanced.  I’d rather not go into too much detail  defining what I feel that role is, preferring to focus more on where he seems to be too strong in the context of spy versus engineer.

First is the revolver.  The revolver is unique in the fact that it is very effective at everything up to very long range.  It is very accurate, holding about the same spread as the pistol, but inflicts around 50-60 damage per shot before damage drop-off.  The shotgun will out-damage the revolver at point blank range, but suffers far more from damage dropoff than the revolver, giving it the edge at close/medium range.

One might point out the engineer’s answer for this is to engage a spy at point-blank, but the engineer rarely engages the spy on his own terms.  Added to this is the fact that all a skilled spy needs at point-blank is a swift strafe movement and a little lag and he’ll get himself a nice side-back stab, rendering the confrontation over instantly.   Defending against a side-stab is almost more a matter of having good ping and luck as it is a matter of skill.  Most good spies I know will simply disengage, heal up and come back again if they don’t find a fight to their liking.

Should they nerf the revolver? I’m not sure.  I just find it very frustrating to usually have myself out-gunned by a class that can disable at-will my primary assets in a game, assets that took anywhere from ten seconds to two minutes to establish.  I would be in much less of a situation to complain if the spy was the only class that was effective in countering a smart sentry setup, but I also have soldiers, demomen and medics who can just blow through my stuff, and for the most part, are supposed to outgun the engineer class.

Fine, so I have to rely on my team to help me kill spies, as I’m not completely balanced to always deal more damage to a spy  than he can to me. I can accept that.

I cannot accept the dead ringer in its current form.   I would be fine if the spy got away scot-free from the hit that triggered the dead-ringer.  But why the hell does a class have access to the effective equivalent to an Uber shield that lets 10% of the damage through and lasts for six and a half seconds.  To add insult to injury, this shield makes him invisible and allows him to heal himself and recharge said shield from metal pickups.

With enough map knowledge and planning, a spy can antagonize an engineer at his choosing almost indefinitely, given that engineers prefer locations that have plentiful metal drops, usually accompanied by health drops.   It’s hard enough to kill these bastards with a pyro, much less as an engineer.  What incentive does a spy have to take any other cloak when he can simply make himself almost impervious to damage almost limitlesly, given enough thought and metal?

Free Cartoon Shooter … not anymore.

Congratulations EA, you had a good thing going with Battlefield Heros … and you’ve now given it a death sentence.

BFH was a good idea … apply a successful business model that has been applied to a different type of game in foreign markets to one of your successful breadwinning franchises and see if it works for you.  The game caused a serious buzz when it was first announced as a ‘free to play cartoon shooter’ funded by ad support and micro transactions. The advertising was tounge-in-cheek and fairly up front and refreshing.

I played the game for a couple months and I was impressed.  It employed two different currency systems, one you had to pay real money for, and the other you could earn in-game as an incentive for advancement and positive outcome in play.  Each weapon had a ‘middle of the road’ variant that you got by default, and several variations purchasable through the ‘in-game’ currency.   The ‘real money’ currency primarily focused on unique costume items and certain perks.  While you could buy more ‘in-game’ currency if you didn’t feel like grinding, there was no great gameplay advantage given to those who were willing to spend real money on the game over those who were willing to save up ‘in-game’ currency for the same gameplay advantages.  If you didn’t put any real money in the game, your avatar looked rather bland, but you could still compete on a relatively even playing field.

This has changed.  The ‘in-game’ currency prices have been hiked to the point where it is prohibitively difficult to earn the different weapon variants through in-game means without World Of Warcraft scale time investment, that is, unless you spend real cash.

EA and Dice have every right to do this. However, in doing this, they are removing whatever incentive anyone but the most devoted fan had to actually put time into the game.  The graphics are unimpressive, the gameplay is solid, but repetitive and not terribly deep, and there are many alternatives that look better, if not play better.   What incentive do you have to keep playing a game like this when you can take the money required to play at the ‘status quo’  level of gameplay for a few months and buy something such as TF2, or one of the other Battlefield games; being able to play as a naked pirate nazi?

This is all fairly insignificant to me, because I have time and money to invest in my hobby, and I did enjoy the couple months or so I put into the game. However I imagine that many of my fellow PC gamers who don’t exactly have a lot of expendable income were drawn to this game because of its price tag. It’s nice to just throw ten bucks in for a cool hat and an eyepatch even if you still intend to play mostly for free.  I’m sure these people aren’t exactly happy that, while they still can play for free, they’re now at a significant disadvantage to those players who have cash to burn.

It’s one thing to raise or lower the price on something, but it’s another thing entirely to provide a gameplay experience that rewards willingness to spend real hard-earned cash for an edge in a game.  This spits on the name of the concept of ‘fair-play’ and ‘sportsmanship’.  Anyone who has actually played in online multiplayer knows that fairness is more often an illusion than a reality.  But to dispense with any attempt at an even playing field between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’ alltougether is a bit of a mistake when a majority of your target audience isn’t in a position to pay for a higher standard of game, but still has money to occasionally plunk down for a kilt or some cool sunglasses.

People who play online multiplayer shooters do so for multiple reasons.  The games themselves generally have to be fun to play, but beyond that there is a reward for competing as a part of a team against other human beings as opposed to dumb bots.  Furthermore, there’s a certain purity of knowledge that you lost or won a game on your own merits, and that experience itself provides an incentive to continue playing to improve your own mastery of the game (and/or level up your character).

There is nothing more discouraging than being outplayed by someone, not because he played better than you did, but because he had money or time to invest in a form of entertainment that you couldn’t because you need to get to work in the morning, or have enough money to pay your rent.  It’s not enough for me to point out that this ‘isn’t fair’ because real fairness doesn’t really matter as much as the perception of fairness.  I’m not going to have fun if I play a game in which I’m treated as a second class citizen due to factors that may not be in my control, or require me to invest something I would rather put to use elsewhere.  If I’m not having fun, why am I even investing time into something that was supposed to be ‘free’ in the first place?  Nobody likes wasting time simply to participate only as a red-shirt good only for being farmed for ‘victory points’ and xp.

EA isn’t necessarily ‘evil’ for this move … but I would call it a stupid one unless the intention is to milk off a few extra bucks from the diehards before they kill this experiment off.  That’s exactly what this is going to do.  BFH is a decidedly ‘casual’ gaming experience in a genre that is usually classified as ‘hard-core’. In fact, the game is well designed to the point that is has room for players all across the ‘casual’ to ‘hard-core’ spectrum.  Bumping the price on gameplay edge and ditching the even playing field will gut the core of the game’s player community, leaving only those ‘casuals’ who aren’t willing to spend the money to stay competitive or simply don’t care about the lack of options and edge otherwise available to them, and the ‘hard cores’ who care enough about the game to spend the money, even when they could be putting that money to a possibly superior experience.  The majority of the players in the middle of that spectrum will probably find greener pastures.

People will still play the game, but there will a lot less of them now, and the experience will suffer as a result.  Online multiplayer experiences live and die by their communities, and EA has just made a move that will cut the central core out of the BFH player community.

tl;dr: EA just made real money a requirement to play competitively in Battlefield: Heros.  They are allowed to do so but the profit potential, the player community and the game itself will suffer for it.  Smart thinking guys.

Seems I’m not alone

I’ve promised myself that I won’t get caught too deeply in the trap of ‘blogging about my blog’. I may be new to this, but I know that I want to be self-confident without being an arrogant sycophant who is obsessed with how many site hits he’s getting.  I also know that I’ll only end up writing a personal journal on my thoughts of gaming and the gaming industry if I don’t reach out to others and actually network with those who might also share the kind of relevant information that I want to share. May as well start here.

I’ve stumbled upon Mobius over at Blogspot and was surprised to find a post written about Modern Warfare 2 and the PC vs Console debate that parallels almost exactly with my feelings on the topic. Furthermore, Mobius seems to cover many of the same subjects that I wish to.

Nothing is more gratifying then to see someone else independently verify your own sentiments in public, and I would like to do the same in return.

tl;dr: Shout out to Mobius for an article I agree with.

Paper or plastic …. or digital?

If I have not already made it clear enough, I am highly preferential to products developed and distributed by Valve.  If you were to accuse me of being a fan-boy for a company and associated products, I would bow and take it as a badge of honor.  This leaves me in something of a dilemma, as this leaves me with a great deal of interest into the new and budding digital distribution market for games, but at the same time, a great deal of personal emotional investment in one of the competing companies in this new market.

You would be right in thinking that this would skew my perceptions of the market, and whereas this doesn’t bother me all that much as I’m here to editorialize, as opposed to simply pump out objective fact, I can still post about this with a clean conscience.  I also want to stay honest and relevant however, and as a result I realize that my own delusion that Steam is the only thing from keeping the Large Hadron Collider from killing us all makes it difficult to see other companies without colored perceptions.

I want the digital distribution platform to gain credibility as a market. When this happens, there will be an upside and a downside.   The downside is that it will attract investors and a lot of money will flow in that will influence the people making my games in ways I may not want.  The upside is that it will attract investors and a lot of money will flow in that will keep the people making my games in business.

It’s not encouraging when the CEO of a well established prior partner to Valve and damn good developer, Gearbox, accuses Valve of holding a monopoly over the market with Steam.  I get mixed feelings about this.  I mean, is this a bad thing? Valve can do no wrong!  … Okay, I’m not that deluded, but I do think that the people currently running the company are smart and trustworthy, and are making money hand over fist not for manipulating the chosen market, but by inventing the market and then proceeding to do better than anyone else.  At the same time, the rest of the real world will have a hard time taking a fledgling market seriously if one company dominates the market, while a couple smaller competitors fight over the table scrap remnants.  Is this the future of software sales or just a flash in the pan? Yes, this is how I see things, and yes, I know it probably isn’t completely accurate.

This all takes me to the article that got me going on this.  It’s no surprise that digital distributors have analyst meetings, what is a surprise is that there’s something of a spat going on over a report published in one of those meetings.  Direct2Drive is disputing a report published by Stardock that breaks down an estimation of the current market share of the digital distribution market.  According to the report, Valve’s Steam platform currently owns close to, if not more than half the market for games sold and revenue collected revenue through Digital Distribution, leaving the rest of the market for the likes of D2D, Impulse and Stardock to fight over.  This makes me feel all well and good, because the company I like is ‘winning’.

But one thing I must ask is whether or not I as a consumer really benefit from such a lopsided market.  Furthermore, petty bickering and accusations of outright fabrication is not unusual for any industry, but does it really improve the industry as a whole?

The only thing that is certain is that where things stand right now, it is difficult to draw solid numbers on sales. No physical products are being sold, and privately owned businesses like Valve have no obligation to reveal sales figures, further muddling the issues, possibly to the company’s own benefit.  I’m not implying wrongdoing, only that Valve’s control over its own company gives it leverage over public companies, compounded by its apparent market dominance.

I will rue the day Valve changes hands, or becomes open to public trading, but as it is now, I feel that the company can be trustworthy to work in my best interest, as I (the paying customer) am Valve’s primary revenue incentive.  That can change.  No good thing lasts forever, I only hope that Valve and Steam last in their current form for a long time.

It’s difficult to say where digital distribution goes from here concerning the PC. I’m no business analyst, just an opinionated consumer.  Digital distribution isn’t perfect for everyone, as not all gamers have access to high-speed broadband, leaving them out in the cold if the retail PC market continues to slowly wither and die like it has been doing.

It is my hope that no matter who comes out as ‘the most profitable’, the ones making and selling games are the people who genuinely care about the quality of the product and the art form that is gaming.

tl;dr: Digital distribution for the PC is a new and expanding market that has yet to define and establish itself. Valve seems to be on top for now and I think that’s a good thing … for now. Where do we go from here?