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The Death of Middle Tier Games

Is the next generation of consoles going to destroy the middle tier of games? Right now there are still three tiers. The highest tier is the Tripple A releases that cost millions of dollars like Call of Duty and is funded by one of the large publishers. The middle tier is the smaller games that are not necessarily using the same budgets, and have smaller publishers. Lastly, there is the indie games tier in which the games generally have small budgets and generally rely on new game concepts rather than groundbreaking and costly graphics.

It is this middle tier, and these smaller publishers, which are in danger of ceasing to exist. THQ has gone south, Capcom is struggling, and the few remaining publishers, not named EA, Activision, Valve, or 2K are all in danger. When a new generation launches, gamers will expect better graphics, which costs millions of dollars more. These small publishers, the few remaining, can't provide the funds to compete with big name games. Especially now when there are estimates that virtually no other first person shooters besides Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo make money. Gaming is headed for its darkest hour.

We are headed for a time when we are barraged with sequels until the franchises are dead. Look at Tony Hawk, Rock Band, and Guitar Hero; the franchises were overused for quick cash instead of long term stability. At the same time because the cost of development is so astronomically high, there is less innovation because the risk is so high. Developers stick to a proven formula and beat it to a pulp. Then they go out and find a new formula to follow.

Competition is good in the marketplace, and the loss of a middle tier stems competition in favor of mega publishers. Don't like the extra charges on Call of Duty Elite? Doesn't matter. There are no other good shooters out there. Imagine a world in which there are fewer games and there is less innovation. Publishers have free reign over consumers due to this near monopoly. It's the bleak future we are headed for.

Currently the games industry is oversaturated with games and companies. Yes, the games industry is growing and more people are playing games than ever before, but sales of declined in the past few months in the next gen buildup. We are headed for that all too familiar dip in which developers are laid off, studios close down, and publishers are bought out.

Bobby Kotick has no problem with using this model for games development. He has hailed taking the fun out of games development, and has killed his franchises. As Tim Schafer once said, "I don't think we can approach it like we approach bars of soap, where you're just trying to make the cheapest bar of soap." We are definitely headed for that when games are this expensive, if we aren't there already.

This death of the middle tier is a grave loss for consumers who are forced to play games crippled by always-on-DRM because there is no one to stand up to mega publishers. There are fewer publishers than ever before, and the number will only decrease. We need these small publishers as a voice of sanity to stand up to the mega publishers. These small publishers not only make better, more passionate games, but also are more innovative than mega publishers. We need them if gaming is going to become an art form, or if it will gain more prominence than it has now.

Who Needs EXP?

Whenever I play Oblivion, I always end up wandering around aimlessly instead of actually questing. Some of the quests have good loot, others are just fun, and some of them are useless. Without a experience points, I have no real incentive to go questing as opposed to just wandering around the world on my own. In a way I don't feel satisfied when I kill an enemy because there's no immediately visible reward. Nothing pops up saying I gained experience. While my skills are in fact progressing with every action I make, it is hidden within a menu instead of invading my HUD.

I end up leveling up via alchemy instead of through fighting because it's simply easier and a way to make money. I am level 75 in alchemy while my two handed attack is in the 20s. I get the most out of going on my own and by exploring on my own, not by questing.

I'm not sure which I like better though. It's nice to have a experienceless game, without the stat choosing of an MMO, but at the same time I feel less accomplished. Like in Call of Duty when I kill an enemy and experience invades the screen. It gives me a sense of tangible accomplishment. There is a clear goal to reach as opposed to Oblivion's approach in which I'm surprized each time I level up. I never know how far I have to go, and while it's possible to determine, it's a greater hasstle.

I think there needs to be some sort of middle ground. In a way I wish Oblivion had a separate system in addition with experience. Like perhaps the traits were tied to an exp system instead of the current one, while the individual skills remained the same. Or even just having a number instead of a bar to let me know how close I am to leveling up. It gives me an incentive to play, and more importantly to quest. I need a greater reward for questing beyond loot which is too heavy to carry back.

Digital Downloads: One Excuse Gone

I'm don't necessarily like digital downloads. Not because they don't work, but because I like to own a physical copy of the game. It used to be that I loved having the physical disk along with the instruction manual. Then the instruction manual got cut. Barely any games still have a beautiful, or even informative, instruction manual like the games of old. Just take a look at Red Alert's manual juxtaposed against Modern Warfare 3's.

I also was against digital download services because I didn't want to be tied to a specific company. If I buy a game on OnLive, I can't use it if the company folds, as well as with Steam. At the same time however, I'm finally having problems with playing certain games on disks. My copy of Modern Warfare 2 no longer loads certain levels. While purchasing a digital copy would eliminate this problem, I no longer have that physical copy that I love to hold. I love watching my stack of games grow over time. Now only the number in my virtual library will increase.

This is where GoG comes in. They aleviate all of my concerns with their methods. Games come with a beautiful PDF instruction manual, and are DRM free. I no longer have to worry about any service going down or folding. No matter what I will have my game, and I can install it on any computer and back it up on any device. It's perfect. Henceforth I shall buy whatever games I can on there, although I haven't bought a new game since Modern Warfare 2 launched. Since then I have been getting the free games on GoG and playing free to play games like Age of Empires Online, but mostly just replaying my old games. It looks like it will stay that way for a while too.

Dev Diary #3: It Works!

For the past two weeks I've been slowly building a simple text based RPG for my final project in Intro to Computer Science. The game is a simple Java file which uses JFrame for each new screen (yea I couldn't get JPanel to work). It has taken me weeks of late nights in the library to "complete." I say "complete" because there is still a lot left to do, but the game technically is done and works. The problem I have no is that my game works, although its neither fun nor revolutionary. The simple turn based button clicking was developed over a decade ago and done better than I can do it now. It was nice learning experience though. I have over 2,000 lines of code, although it's nothing to brag about because most of it is probably a result of bad style and unecessary repetition.

When I first started, before I had a flying clue what to do, I had decided to use windows, and just to keep opening up new windows for the player. In order to keep the player from noticing though, I made sure that each window was the same size. Whenever I'd test the program, the method seemed to work pretty well. I'd click a few buttons, open up some windows, and then exit. This was before I coded the combat however, and combat is long and repetitive. Once I finally had a working build with combat I realized that opening up new windws wasn't exactly the best idea. You see, opening up 30 windows tends to slow down a computer, something I hadn't thought about when I was coding it. After about 20 frames or so opened up, the game became unplayable on the computer. I was pretty screwed for a while until someone told me how to close windows afterward. I'd been using the close window to exit the program, so the user couldn't close them manually without exiting. A TA found a piece of code that will close the window within the game so that it doesn't exit the game. Since then the game has been running flawlessly.

It's interesting how my only constraint in making the game is time. There are things that I want to do, like add a variety of enemies, places and weapons that I just don't have time to do for the final project. Hopefully I'll work on it for fun afterward. I'd like to actually make a fun game, instead of just a working game. I'm hoping this will prepare me for my Games 101 class next semester; the prerequisite for all game design courses. Hopefully over the summer thought I'll be able to flesh out the game a bit.

Then the next step is finding a way to publish it online. I've never used JApplets but I think that might work, or maybe I can just learn to program in Flash. Who knows...

Elder Scrolls Online: Skeptical Excitement

When I heard that the Elder Scrolls Online was announced, I was happy my favorite roll playing game would turn into an MMO, but having watched the Gamespot feature on the subject, I'm a little more worried. Here's why:

  1. The best part of the Elder Scrolls is wandering around and doing whatever I want. I can kill the store clerk and steal his clothes, or I can pick up useless loot from crates on the street. Those things don't translate over well to MMOs. I can neither kill a store clerk, nor steal his items on display. The game is going to have to force people to refrain from certain Elder Scrolls commonalities.
  2. I love creating my uber character, completely leveled up with everything. I love the freedom the Elder Scrolls affords me in my character selection and in my stats. Those freedoms will most likely be taken away in favor of the traditional MMO classes. This also raises the question of loot with level requirements. In the Elder Scrolls games there is no such thing, but in MMOs the practice is commonplace.
  3. The cozy cities are always a plus. The level of detail in each city is always astonishing, and every stranger is fully interactable with. It is an incredible experience. It doesn't have the generic feel of an MMO. I want to walk down the streets of the Imperial City and feel the claustrophobia, something that can't be done when accommodating the number of people in MMOs.
  4. The first person view is incredible. It adds to the immersion and connects me more with my character. I don't want that to go away in the MMO.
  5. I love my choice of races in the Elder Scrolls, and while it's by no means a given that the MMO will take away my choices, I don't want it to. I want my full amount of races.
  6. The level of detail in the Elder Scrolls is simply put; incredible. Everything is perfect. I can look up at the sky and stare at the stars for hours. It's just beautiful. The worlds are so perfectly crafted that I don't want to lose my sky.
  7. I like the ability to rest and regain health, and the ability to change the day and night cycle. What will happen in the MMO? Will there be a day and night cycle? Will the day and night cycle occur in real time?
  8. The Elder Scrolls games always did a good job of making me feel like I was impacting the world around me. When I killed a shopkeeper, he was dead for good. In an MMO, the boss respawns after a given amount of time. I want to alter my world. I want to cause as much havoc as I want. I want to close Oblivion gates and alter the landscape for good. That is mostly lost in MMOs. Guild Wars does a good job of it because each player has his own world, and only the cities are open to other players. That sort of approach might work with the Elder Scrolls Online.
  9. After Star Wars the Old Republic launched gamers complained that there was a lag between the time the game shipped and new content came out because it required voice acting. The voice acting added to the game, although it delayed new content. Voice acting is always a highlight in the Elder Scrolls since its Oblivion debut, but it has its cons in an MMO. I never bothered to read the endless screens of text in my World of Warcraft free trial so I missed out on the lore, but I have mixed feeling about it. I want voice acting, but only if it won't hinder new content.
  10. I'm concerned also at the sheer scope of the game. It covers all of Tamriel. All previous Elder Scrolls games and more. With such a huge undertaking is it possible to keep the quests and environments fresh and exciting? Can the level design be as good as each dungeon in Skyrim if there are significantly more dungeons to make?
  11. What subscription model will it have? The Elder Scrolls provided hundreds of hours worth of entertainment for only $60, or less depending on when you bought them. I don't want to pay $15 a month to play the Elder Scrolls Online. I want my $60 to last forever. I hope it's free to play, because otherwise I won't be playing it. Also, when so many MMOs are failing or simply not living up to expectations (yes SWTOR, I'm talking to you), why are they going this route? What is the path to success in such a mark?
  12. I want to play it on my console. I want the accessibility of a PC MMO on my console. Of course, I know this will likely never happen. Microsoft has been hindering MMO growth on the 360 with restrictive patch permissions. I want it on a console because I know it is guaranteed to work. I'm not banking on my computer having a big enough graphics card, I know without a doubt an Xbox 360 game will play on whatever version 360 I have.
  13. Another great thing about the Elder Scrolls was its difficulty slider. The game lets you change difficulties on the fly. While it might not be a big deal, it's useful for many player; those that don't have time to level grind and want to get through the main questline, those with disabilities... That most likely won't be present in the MMO version.

While it seems like an interesting concept, I'm hesitant on the matter. I hope it turns out well, but I just can't help being skeptical.

Six Years Later...

Tonight I finally beat a game that has eluded me for six years; Gears of War. It certainly takes a novel approach to shooters, appearing a clunky cover based, pump 'em full of lead game. The campaign provided some excellent puzzles to solve, while at times if felt like a dungeon crawl. I can't tell you how many countless doors I tried to kick down that were destined to remain shut, and how many times I backtracked because the level design was unclear. Throughout these flaws though, when a Gears is on, its incredible. The first time I chainsawed someone my mouth fell, mesmerised by the beautifully gory spectacle. Then I cringed as the dismembered bodies moved around when I walked over them. It also implemented a simple yet usefull squad command system, opened the door for numerous flanking tactics.

I found the hardest part of the game was the aiming however. At times when enemies were too close, it was hard to aim, while refraining from aiming down the sights was too innacurate. Enemies also jumped around popping in and out of cover too quickly. This would lead to a vanishing act wherein the enemy would magically disapear out of my reticule instead of smoothly leaning away. The aiming system didn't kill the game however; I chugged along playing coop with my friend.

I have less to say about the story as we mostly skipped the cutscenes (once we figured out how) in favor of the gorefest. The bromance was humorous and right on the spot, although I wasn't sure what the premise of the entire game was. Something about Locust that come up from tunnels, but I can't tell you the micro aspects.

Now that we finished GoW, we'll have to work on GRAW. I hear that has a good coop mode...

Oh so close... Xbox needs to revamp Gold

Xbox Live is broken. There system is so broken that Gold cannot be activated for a specific game, but only for everything. When the Mass Effect 3 demo came out, everyone got free Gold because there was no way to pinpoint the Gold membership to just that game. It's infuriating that I encountered a similar problem with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I have not had Gold membership since this past August, but I got accepted to the Future Soldier multiplayer beta. Theoretically, I should be able to just play Future Soldier online without having a Gold membership for the other games. Microsoft, however, has other plans crying, "You shall not play!" I'm no tech genious and I don't know enough about Xbox Live to understand the technical hurdles of activating Gold for one game, but I know it's a big problem. It's something I would like to see fixed in the next generation.

Future Soldier

Not available for me.

Imagine if in the next generation publishers could dole out multiplayer betas and demos to their hearts content and everyone could play it? This is what they did with Mass Effect 3, but imagine if it went beyond that, if more games did this. Imagine if companies could pay Microsoft to allow their game to go Gold with no cost to the consumers. Free multiplayer for a specific game. That would be an amazing marketing tool for a publisher. Or how about Last.fm allowing gamers to use the service on the Xbox for free? They could make up the cost to Microsoft in ad revenue. The possibilities are endless once Gold isn't tied to everything together. It's a critical flaw that not only hurts Microsoft, but consumers as well.

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Free for a weekend, along with the rest of Live.

In such a scenario, Microsoft would still be getting paid for the use of Live, but it's merely a matter of who is paying. A publisher might be willing to pay a little if its game will sell more copies. At the same time the game could be a money grab with DLC, because the players would be able to play multiplayer for free. If someone is a Silver member, then that game might be the only game they can play online. The gamer might then want to subsequently enhance the online experience with DLC. After all, he's not paying for Gold.

Such a change in Gold would benefit everyone. Microsoft has been making a push to transform the Xbox into not just a game center, but a home entertainment center. Making the home entertainment part free or subsidized is crucial to its success in the next generation.

Back from Oblivion

Whenever I play Oblivion I look up into the heavens at the beatiful nebulas and stars and wonder if it could be real. I wonder what is out there? And then I think of Mass Effect. What if that was real? I want it to be real. I want to believe that someday well find other life out there, or that somewhere there is life. I love sci-fi exploration because it pushes me to think about it. What if Stargate was real? This was also sparked by a number of TED talks which I've watched about life. The possibility of life on Mars and Saturn is very real. Of course not the green oval headed martians walking down, but tiny cells might live there. Methane has been detected on Mars. Why is that significant? On Earth, 99.9% of methane is produced by living organisms. That means that there is a very real possibility that a methane plume would indicate life. Mars also has ice. So who knows? Perhaps were not along. But I sometimes climb into bed after a gaming session wondering if somewhere out there, this is happening.

Only Six Years Late

I finally played Gears of War. The original. Better late than never. It took some getting used to coming from Halo and Call of Duty, but it was certainly a good game. We played coop campaign so I'm not sure what the multiplayer is like exactly.

The campaing, although fun, was a bit confusing. The environments were too dark and we were forced to turn up the brightness drastically. The environments however lack enough detail to guide the player. A large number of the doors have no clear marker in front making them easily lost in the drab level. This led to a lot of dungeon crawls inbetween combat.

The combat however was nearly perfect. The chainsaw of course is a little overpowered, but each gory kill is a reward. I love the sound of it and splatter on the screen. It was extremely well done. The popping out of cover worked really well too, although I found myself stumbling with the A button. I could never really get it to do what I wanted. I'd try to switch sides and it would do a barrel roll, or I'd try to break from cover and it would switch sides. The controls aren't as tight as I'm used to, and the aiming also seems a little off. Overall though we played through half the campaign at three in the morning, and I can't wait to go back and finish it.

Fuse: Bridging the Gap Between Gamespot and Giant Bomb

Two seperate sites, together at last. While there is no need for content integration between Gamespot and Giant Bomb, there might be an opportunity for community integration. Gamespot and Giant Bomb each have their own unique flavors, so a content integration would not work perfectly well. A community integration through Fuse would be perfect though. Gamers would be able to communicate with other gamers from the opposite site, and it would truly be a unified community of gamers. Not only that, but gamers would have access to content from both sites via Fuse. Gamers frequently post interesting articles and videos to Fuse, which is the perfect tool for gamers from two distinct websites. It is a way to discover great content on another site for those who don't frequent the site. From a business standpoint it merely means more pageviews for those linked articles. Why not start to work on it?