Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category:

On Games Journalism – Valve’s Future

It’s interesting to note the changes to Steam being talked about by fellow game journalists (Relevant video links w/their names) Jim “Fucking” Sterling “, Son” , John “Total Biscuit” Bain, and, of course, many others, because, for all that TMW is a relatively small critical outpost, yes, these proposed changes, if they go through, if they work, may well be positive changes. So, let’s talk about a few of them, and how they could, potentially, make life a little bit easier for us games writers.

Cleanlight, and Steam Explorers

Greenlight, and the Discovery Queue in general, have not, sadly, been tools this writer has been using a heck of a lot, at least partly because… They’re not exactly terribly helpful to me. As noted in the previous On Games Journalism, my modus operandi, fortnight to fortnight, is to go through the “New Releases” tab (Easy as it is to fi- Ahahaha no, it only just passes my “3 interactions at max” UI test for games, and is not the most visible “feature”), and the Discovery Queue… Mostly tries to get me to try AAA games (Which I can ill afford), or things that, at best, would be good for a Going Back. At worst, I can go an entire Queue without seeing anything that even vaguely interests.

Nier: Automata. Critically acclamed, but sadly, too much for my wallet, and let’s face it, if you’re reading the site, odds are high you already like it. Also, I’d be a *tadge* late on that review, don’t you think?

More transparency in how it arrives at these conclusions would be highly useful. As to Greenlight, sadly, most of the time, I get my word about good things to greenlight via word of mouth, and it has been demonstrably proven that yes, there is an asset-flip problem. The news that Steam is tending toward lower figures on Steam Direct, and the frankly unsurprising revelation that bigger companies appear to have been tending against the lower figures, are respectively okay news, and unsurprising news.

So, as presented by Mr. Sterling, Steam Explorers is for exploring things with low sales that may (or may not) deserve such low sales. It’s not an initiative I personally expect to actually happen (Being, as has been noted in the past, a cynical auld so-and-so), but if it does, it definitely has potential. I’m somewhat more wary of incentivising the system, as that’s a sub-feature that definitely needs a delicate touch (Nothing so simple as “You get store credit for every X thumbs up”, because, let’s face it, that’s going to go tits up rather quickly. Extended refund time, however, would somewhat help.)

More Transparency!

As noted, it has also been proposed that more detailed game data would be publically available. How many buy the game? How many finish the game they buy? And so on would be very useful. I’m all for transparency, because, honestly, I can see quite a few benefits, and the countering of quite a few negatives. It’s useful from an academic standpoint, extra tools in a game historian’s toolbox. It’s useful from a reviewer’s standpoint, perhaps, if you look at the data, giving you fair warning that something does not, in fact, Get Better Later, and…

A prime bit of “Sizzle” from Nintendo’s BotW Review Roundup. GAME IS AWESOME (No Information Why.) Sadly, BotW is not on PC, and I don’t give Pretty Numbers, otherwise it would have gotten a 7/10 (Quite good, but not the Second Coming)

…It helps cut down on some of the shady bullshit that, sadly, happens. SURVEY YOUR COMPETITORS! By, instead of faking surveys to each other (No names named, but you know who you are), actually looking at the data. SOLD UMPTY MILLION COPIES… But returns are also noted, and right where everybody can see them. Along with the “Played for ten minutes, because the game was released in an unplayable state.” I don’t need to name names there, because said names have been shrieked to the rooftops from day one to week twelve, on average. Sizzle, that practice of content free fluff cherry picking the Good Reviews, could potentially be cut down.

All of this, sadly, is potential. We won’t know, until it actually hits, what form this could take. But you can guarantee I’m keeping at least one sleepy eye on that.

Curation Improvements?

I put a question mark here because Curation is one of those features that… Never really took off. I use it myself, but, right now, it’s another social media tool in my toolbox that doesn’t perform nearly as well as other social media tools in my toolbox. But, if what I’m hearing is correct, then it could well prove more useful. While also giving me more work. I’m looking at my current docket when I say that, and sort of sighing. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

But in any case, things currently on the table include better organisation and customisation of a Curator page, so, if you’re sad that you want to find a genre of game on TMW, but can’t (I’m still working on a good solution there, not helped by the fact that genre’s a little tough to pin down with a lot of the things I review), then the Curation changes might well help with that. I’m less enthused about “Top Tens” and other such things, due to my noted antipathy toward Pretty Numbers That Don’t Really Mean Anything Two Weeks Later, but hey, I’m sure that’ll prove useful to other writers who do like Pretty Numbers. Go them.

Part of last month’s curation. I mean, they’re good games, Danforth, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could look back and see what *else* I liked in that genre? Yeaaaah…

Also of interest is the idea of review copies directly being sent through Steam via the Curation page. With the possibility of refusal. This is a feature I’m fond of, not because it cuts down on the amount of work I do hunting said folks down and informally, but politely asking for review copies, but because it would potentially cut down at least some of the waiting and ambiguity that comes with said requests (Which is highly stressful.) As an aside, I love all of the folks who’ve replied positively, and especially the ones brave enough to reach out with something they think I’d like, but weren’t sure. Props to all of you.

So, it should be noted this is pretty brief. I’ve linked Mr. Sterling and Mr. Bain’s videos (and again!), which themselves provide their own personal opinions (And ones much closer to the ground floor, since they were invited to talks on these subjects), but… If these things happen, they definitely have potential, and I’m certainly willing to give all this a chance.

Just like Mr. Sterling, I’m not exactly hot on companies providing compensation for review as a feature, as I’d rather keep that to my already stated maximums, with a minimum of, of course, nothing. I’d much rather ensure that readers who like my work and my approach do that. Speaking of, there are ways to support TMW, and if you liked this article, maybe you should check some of them out?

On Games Journalism – The Grindy Bit(s)

As you may have gathered from previous articles in the “On Games Journalism” series, reviewing is, despite what it appears to be, hard and largely thankless work. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the core aspects of the job, and one that, for many of us, has actively become more painful as the field has grown: Looking for things to review. It’s a many-headed beastie, but I’m going to be focusing on those “heads” in roughly the order they appear.

First, Catch Your Hare

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are more games, and games creators, than there ever have been before. It is also, unfortunately, a statement that rivals in usefulness with a reviewer’s tools for sorting through the results of that variety… Or, more accurately, seeming variety.

*Half* of one of four pages for the 10th March. On one platform. Skim, and you’ll miss things. Explore everything, and you’ll be very sad.

The picture above represents a relatively DLC free example of what we, on the reviewing and writing end, have to look through at least once a week. A week can, on Steam alone, be anything up to 10 or 15 pages. And this is one release platform. One of several. It is, for PC reviewers, often the most used, because it’s pretty common, but when Desura was alive, there were things released on that that never made it to Steam, but were quite good. There are things on Itch.IO that are good, but never get to Steam. And then there’s games from the creator’s page, and… That’s about it.

Looking through this list can be a painful experience, because, in one form or another, Sturgeon’s Law applies even to this relatively curated release list. These five are shmups/tower defense/Insert Extremely Common Genre Here that look and sound very similar, and also look and sound very similar to the last seventeen you looked at. This one may or may not be good, but their marketing blurb is offputting, self-indulgent, self-mocking to the point of seeming not to want sales… Or just plain trash. This one is an asset flip, and a painfully obvious one. This one has a painful UI. This one’s a HOPA, which, in my book, is a “Nope, right out” 90% of the time (That’s a very small number of HOPAs that get through my personal filters, you may have realised.) That one’s a AAA game that has been around long enough to pretty much ensure people will buy it based on the name alone (And has another issue we’ll get to.)

This particular screenshot, this particular time, I found something that was definitely in my bailiwick, and definitely interesting. Most days, I am not nearly so lucky, and have to gamble, or go back to an Early Access game, to meet my self imposed quota.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, you find things that firstly, you want to review, and secondly, people might want to read about (It’s a gamble whether they will regardless. A gamble you try and weight as best you can, but luck is a part of pretty much any enterprise involving visibility.)

The Wages Of Sin…

Now comes the hard part. The heartbreaking part. Because, if you’re like me, and want games to thrive, you also want to support the developers of games that interest you. Critique helps, sure. But cold, hard cash pays their bills. And that cold, hard cash is going from your pocket. This isn’t even going into the time budget that this is going to involve.

I’d like to pretend things are going well at TMW. But they’re not. I am, at the present time, making a loss. Some of that loss is gladly given. Some of it… Not so much, as a “bad” game, while good at honing criticism, is time you’re not going to get back, including the time spent ensuring that your mood is conducive to properly reviewing something, rather than taking out your frustrations with Shit Exploitathon or Shoddy Disappointment #253 on something that, if you’d taken that time, would have been “Okay”, rather than the “ARGH, IT’S AWFUL” you’re going to give it when reviewing in a bad mood.

Although messy, it gets across the point that… *sings* One of these things… Is not like the others!

Working with a larger publication sometimes helps offset that cost. Being offered a review code sometimes offsets that loss. Asking for a review code sometimes offsets that loss, and I add that sometimes because not everybody replies… And sometimes, if you’re waiting for them to reply, with nothing in your docket (Thankfully rare here at TMW), you’re falling behind.

But yes, games cost money, and, as we’ve established in previous On Games Journalism articles, games writers don’t get a whole lot of respect, often for reasons of “It’s not work” (The very reason I write “On Games Journalism” … Because it really, really is) or for the more petty reason of “You didn’t like this thing I like.” It doesn’t help that times are tough all over, and hey, why pay for things you read for free, huh?

Answer: So you get more of that thing, and the person doing the thing doesn’t have to worry about whether he can afford to do the thing.

So you’re going to miss things. Sometimes, it’s going to be a thing that, as it turns out, you’re glad you missed. Other times, it’s going to be whatever Next Big Thing segments of the gaming community are feverishly yelling about. But you are going to miss things, from the time constraints alone.

Now, I did mention we’d talk about AAA games here, and how they factor in. I cannot review more than one AAA game a month. And, most months, I’m faced with the choice of at least one Big Name… Or from a couple to several smaller, but potentially more creative, more nuanced, and, most of all, cheaper Smaller Names. To me, at least, this is a no-brainer, but it does provide a little bit of potential insight into the inertia of said Big Name games: Smaller outlets, for the most part, cannot afford to critique these, especially as AAA companies are, as a general rule of thumb, more picky about review copies, more likely to withhold review copies, and more likely to Greylist (The practice of blacklisting someone from review copies… But not telling them.)

There Are, Of Course, More Grindy Bits

This, unfortunately, goes without saying. If you’re freelancing, rather than trying to go fully independent as I have been, you’re going to be mailing sites which hopefully pay (A relatively small list) with review pitches, article pitches, all sorts of pitches which will, like Casey At The Bat, often be ignored. Reviewing, especially, is somewhere where you are more likely to succeed the more obscure a game is, and even then, you’re going to have to be aware of lots of factors, such as whether the site you want to write a review for (In the hope of getting paid for work, time, and the like) even accepts outside reviewers.

Regardless of whether you’re freelancing or independent, you often have a social media presence you have to keep up. There’s the book-keeping associated. Networking. Editing.

There’s a lot going on under the hood of reviewing. And at least some of it is, in many respects, just plain depressing.

Blood Bowl 2: Legendar- Yeahno, Heard *That* Before…

Huh. This looks… Familiar.

So. You can imagine my shock when I open up my PR mails this morning, to find that Cyanide are returning to form by announcing an all new edition of Blood Bowl 2, er… After saying they didn’t want to do all that edition stuff, instead selling the teams as individual DLC (Which, for all my not being able to recommend Blood Bowl 2 for precisely the reason I’m writing this now, that elephant in the room, was a sensible decision which I am not, in fact, opposed to. So long as the pattern held true.)

In fact, here’s a wee quote from a Rock Paper Shotgun interview about how, in fact, this is a sensible decision. From the project head of the time, Sylvain Sechi.

I want to draw attention to this particular segment. Because it *sounds* reasonable. Until you remember Blood Bowl 1 had eight teams out of the box. Way back when.

And yet… Staring me in the face is Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition. A name that sounds awfully familiar. In fact, if it weren’t for the 2, I could almost think… That name had been used before.

Oh. It had. Funny that, it was among the first games I ever reviewed. And I was positive about it because, unlike the previous edition, it included a lot of bang for its buck. So let’s talk a bit about back and forth, and editions of games already released.

Originally, there was Blood Bowl. It had less teams than the board game had at the time, but what the hell, it was a computer adaptation, and, for all its flaws, it was entertaining. And then Dark Elves were introduced as a DLC.

This was, as far as I recall, the main change of Dark Elves edition. The Dark Elves themselves.

Then… It gets a bit weird. Because that DLC then became an entirely new edition called Dark Elves Edition. The core of the game hadn’t changed immensely, there weren’t that many reworks, and, anywhere else, this might have been thought of as a content patch. A content patch that cost £15, £25 if you didn’t own the original Blood Bowl. Then there was Legendary Edition. Legendary Edition was perhaps the easiest to argue for, rather than against, as it reworked single player, added game modes, and, of course, had a silly number of teams for that £15 (£30 if you didn’t own Dark Elves) price-tag.

Already, I think you’re starting to see a pattern. Rather than large content patches, Blood Bowl was being re-released, either discounted if you owned the previous, or full price, once every couple of years. Your progress and teams, as far as I am aware, didn’t carry over. Each edition of the game was its own, separate install. Each one, eventually, was phased out in some degree or another by the next. This is, already, slightly problematic. Complicating this further is the fact that each had a different team selection, different single players campaigns, and the same base engine… Indeed, one of my criticisms of Chaos Edition was that certain bugs (The “missing player” bug, for example) had not been fixed since the original edition, and the quality had noticeably varied between editions (Chaos Edition’s campaign, for example, was worse than Legendary’s, and the League mode introduced as a new feature was… Painful, to say the least. No, I don’t want to fight Dwarf on Dwarf six or so times before facing other teams.) Multiplayer, meanwhile, largely only changed with the teams, as it should be.

And then there was DungeonBowl. Based on a relatively faithful port of what was, originally, a two page houserule set for Blood Bowl, it was cheap in many respects. £15 for a game that had extremely poor balancing, and design choices and map design that only aided and abetted the terror that was “Team with several Big Guys and a Deathroller forces you to watch as your team gets murdered for some shithead’s amusement, because the game only ends with a goal and it’s ‘perfectly within the rules’… Which is no excuse.” Oh, let’s not forget it also had the teams as DLC. Until it didn’t, reselling the game (And updating it for free for some users. Not all, but some.)

Three tiles wide goal spaces… Up to three Big Guys on certain teams. Yeah, good luck with that!

Then, there was Blood Bowl 2. I reviewed it. I tried to be as fair as I could. But deep down, it felt like Cyanide trying to have their cake and eat it, because, for all the talk of DLC, for all the upgrading, it was, effectively, resetting the clock and selling the teams as DLC afterward. Again.

Yep, that most certainly looks like Blood Bowl 2 alright!

And now, Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition has been announced. Hey, all the races in the previous edition! New game modes and races for you to gawk at! New… No, wait, judging from the screenshots, I highly doubt it is a new engine. It’s a return to form. A return to form I want no part of. The original Legendary Edition somewhat restored my goodwill with a company that, in the Blood Bowl franchise, had been slowly draining it and continued to do so. With Blood Bowl 2: Legendary Edition, that process is complete. You can have your new gubbins. You can have your cake and eat it. Except I’m taking my ball and going home.

I’ll remember you, Relatively Okay Times. I’ll remember you.

On Game Design – Cacklingly Evil Corporations! (CONTENT WARNINGS)

CONTENT WARNING: Cacklingly Evil Corporations do things that would be considered triggering, such as forced impregnation, human experimentation and trafficking, wilful use of deathtraps, and other creepy shit that would horrify normal people and cause them to get locked up.

Playing Stasis (a “dystopian sci-fi horror” adventure game that got no small amount of critical acclaim at the time it came out, and is apparently getting a sequel) has reminded me how much CacklinglyEvilCorps piss me off. Not because they’re so obviously evil. But because they’re stupid, badly written evil. Oh, and let’s not forget, often edgy evil too. Because, y’know, nothing says evil like [insert horrific thing because reasons here]!

We’ll come back to Cayne Corporation, and how thickly that got laid on, in a bit. But first, let’s talk about a pair of supposedly massively evil corps in movies: OCP and Weyland-Yutani. It may shock you to notice, but they’re not actually that evil. Doing bad things, yes. But in a way that makes sense. Let’s start with Weyland Yutani, as they appear in the first three Alien films.

At the beginning, they are just The Corporation. The Company Store. Sure, Ash goes murderous, and you have the directive “Crew Expendable” , but up to that point? We can tell they do mining or extraction of some kind, that they have contracts, and employees, and, at worst, they’re penny pinchers.

And then we come to the second film and… Nobody on the board knows, or claims to know, of any such thing happening. In fact, we get a little nuance, because Van Leeuwen, the CEO, mentions that Wey-Yu has quite a lucrative sideline in… Terraforming planets. Shake-And-Bake colonies. Their colonies are apparently safe enough for families to join up (With, of course, the exception of LV-426 and, y’know, all the other LV numbers that get mentioned in the media of the expanded universe), and, before Carter Burke and the assholes he works for stick their finger in? What we see is normal, everyday frontier town analogies. They do medicine. They technically own the Marine Corp… They have nuance, and are not just black and white.

Two different faces of the same corporation. Nuance!

While we’re on the subject of Carter Burke, his motivation? Profit. As it turns out, Xenomorphs have all sorts of applications, and not just in the CacklinglyEvilCorp section of Wey-Yu that is the Bioeweapons division. Wey-Yu, as a whole, isn’t really the villain, so much as an element of an otherwise normal, if penny pinching and exploitative corporation.

Alien 3, of course, throws large portions of that out the window. We never even see Wey-Yu as an organisation, except, of course, the CacklinglyEvilCorp portion toward the end. Even the folks who attract the Bioweapons crowd by alerting them to Ripley’s presence aren’t doing it because they’re cacklingly evil. They’re doing it because a) They consider Ripley a disruptive influence , and b) There’s a reward.

So… Wey-Yu: Not as cacklingly evil as you’d think. But what about OCP?

OCP are an interesting one, because they’re inept, and that’s where the dystopia comes from. They own the police, and their main reason for RoboCop programmes? Again, penny pinching. Their reason for putting all those dumb rules in RoboCop’s brain? Because what he was doing up to that point was considered Bad PR. Y’know, something an actual company would care about. But it’s not until the series hits its nadir that they relentlessly pursue and antagonise. RoboCops 1 and 2, they are, yes, an Evil Corporation. But they act in a very corporate fashion, which is why the parody works so well with them.

The head of OCP, wondering what the hell his HR department actually *does* all day.

But then we come back to Cayne Corporation. Cayne is one of many CacklinglyEvilCorps, from Armacham to Umbrella, and the main hallmark of the CacklinglyEvilCorp is that there is little, if any nuance. In the case of Cayne Corporation, let’s put together a rough timeline of the Groomlake, the setting of Stasis.

First up, way back when, the Eugenics Wars happened. This was apparently some attempt at creating Post-Humans that went horribly wrong.

Then we get the Groomlake. From the beginning, it’s involved in human trafficking and experimentation, and cloning. The head of the ship, Dr. Malan, seems to think he can do Post-Humans better than whatever idiots tried way back when, and hires as his top research staff some highly questionable folks, including a drug addicted serial killing doctor. Because, y’know, nobody bats an eyelid at such things.

The good doctor then encourages his other staff to do incredibly stupid things, including letting the serial killing doctor indulge his hobby, and mulch the experiments, which then turns into a semi-sentient fungus because reasons. This, in turn, affects the mass cloning (Which is at least partially using Dr. Malan’s hybrid babies, created by forced impregnation), and hydroponics, affecting some bees so one turns into a supermutant. Oh, and experimenting on employees, which often kills them.

He also cures and keeps hold of the protagonists’ daughter, for reasons.

Welp. I’m sure this will turn a profit for the Cayne Corporation, no two ways about it!

Nobody bats an eyelid at Cayne Corporation. Except to send a spy who will hopefully steal Dr. Malan’s research, in the name of profit.

The clones and hybrids start wearing people’s skin and taking their Personal Data Tags (Which are grafted to their spines because reasons), so as to get around the ship to murder people. The fungus starts mind controlling everyone. A nurse realises they’re involved in human trafficking, tries to get a family off ship, and is shot.

Nobody bats an eyelid. Sometime during this, the protagonist’s wife has been put into Dr. Malan’s programme. You remember, the one about trying to breed post humans, forcibly. Because reasons.

John (J) Maracheck, living Aliens reference and punching bag of Stasis, is one of the few survivors, along with Dr. Malan, Te’Ah the corporate spy, and John’s small child, who is still being cared for by Dr. Malan because reasons. After witnessing the after-effects of Dr. Malan’s fuckery, having to do horrifying things, he confronts Dr. Malan. Who then kills the child he’d been taking care of and cured, right in front of her dad, because reasons. Then everyone dies.

How much of this, do you think, could the Cayne Corporation actually call a profit on, even assuming their sole motive is profit? At what point, do you think, did anyone on any corporate board ever think “Yes, this is a good investment, and will surely not be a sinkhole of money and death?”

No, it’s villainy for the sake of villainy, stupidity pretending to be smart, and at least two fridgings because let’s hurt this guy who, against a corporation, probably wouldn’t matter in the god-damn slightest.

Meanwhile, a second game featuring the Cayne Corporation is in the works. I don’t have terribly high hopes, especially after seeing this screenshot.

Ohhh boy. I can’t wait to see how what looks like a neural whip is explained… *sigh*

Yeaaaaaahhhh… Because that makes all the fucking sense. Periodic reminder: The setpieces are in the writing, not the writing being around the setpieces. Forget this, and you have setpieces that end up being “because reasons”, and large swathes of your plot being the same.

Good Fucking Job, Zenimax. Good. Fucking. Job.

So, less than a week after the endorsement by Id software and nomination of fan Total Conversion Brutal Doom 64, Zenimax media, owners of Bethesda, Id, and thus the Doom license, decided to capitalise on that goodwill, by…

…Oh, wait, did I say capitalise? I meant fritter away. Because they decided to send a takedown notice to Kornel Kielewicz, creator of a little game from 2002 called… Doom: The Roguelike.

Legally, fair. But that's about it.

Legally, fair. But that’s about it.

So, for context, Doom 3 was released in 2004. It was basically a sparkle in the Id team’s baby blues at that point. Doom 2 was released in 1994, and is what Brutal Doom 64 will eventually be using, to my knowledge. Doom 1, the game Doom: The Roguelike is based on, was released in 1993. And DOOM, the Bethesda/Id partnership, has been wowing a lot of folks this year by being a Good Game.

So, let’s start with the legal. Honestly, even if the game had previously been endorsed, or at least tacitly ignored by Id, Zenimax are within their rights to do this. I’m sure they believe they’re setting a precedent, protecting their IP…

…But PR wise? Lot of us game journos enjoyed Doom: RL. Lot of players enjoyed DoomRL. And taking down what’s rather blatantly free, and not a threat of any actual substance to Zenimax Media’s publishing giant. Let’s face it, if lots of people shitting on Skyrim: Remastered, the original Skyrim, or Oblivion hasn’t fucked their sales over, I highly doubt a small roguelike homage or pastiche of a game published twenty odd sodding years earlier is going to be much of a threat. It also, despite the differences in case, feels like a betrayal after their subsidiaries’ PR victory in endorsing the Game Award nomination where their bigger competitor, Nintendo, had decided to screw the pooch by doing the same thing to fangames.

Keepin’ this short and sweet, the DMCA will probably go through, even with me screamin’ and yelling (And, indeed, the RTs, and condolences, and shit-talking that is being sent to Bethesda, the most public face of Zenimax Media) , and the site will most likely go down.

The game, on the other hand, is already being downloaded by fans, and I have no doubt that Zenimax Media will have lots of fun trying to enforce the public erasure of a fangame that was never a threat to them, and had very little to do with something they’d actually made themselves (Id, you did make Doom. But you’re obviously not calling the shots here, are you?)