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?

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.

The Hive Continues (Master of Orion)

Last week, the update I had been waiting for arrived for Master of Orion. Not updating AI. Not a balancing patch. Just bugs.

…Okay, firstly, that sentence sort of needs context. And secondly, robots and bad humans too. Specifically, the bugs are the Klackon, one of the beloved original races from the game, the robots are the Meklar, another series staple, and the bad humans, the Terran Khanate, are welcomed not only for their voice talent (Robert Englund, the face and voice behind Freddy Krueger, as the Khan; Sumalee Montano, the voice of Arcee, as his adjutant. Both add their years of acting experience to a game already chock full of Big Names), but a bit more tonal balance, and a possible subtle nod to the story within the original games. You see, the Orion Sector is, if the backstory is preserved, an experiment. And the varying alien races are the bacteria on the petri dish. And a common element in Space Opera is… Humans transplanted to other places, to evolve independently. Along with other races (For example, did you know the Darlok and Sakkra are technically related? Well, now you do!)

But while the Terran Khanate is a fascinating mirror of the Utopian ideal represented by the Human Republic, that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to talk about how it feels to play my favourite faction, the Klackon Hive Mind.

The Klackon may have a face... But that is merely how they *look*

The Klackon may have a face… But that is merely how they *look*

Surprising nobody, the Klackon are not Good People. They don’t think like us, quite literally, and that creates a race that is, by our standards, automatically “Evil.” They don’t care about individual Klackon, except in terms of a loss of resources. They seem more human for a variety of reasons (Including, I suspect, the need to give a “human” face to all the factions, in terms of player experience), but, like the Meklar, have a different enough mindset that even the beginning narration has to acknowledge that their core priorities are inimical to everything in their way (Spread The Hive and Optimise The Universe, respectively.) Both the Meklar and the Klackon, it seems, are perfect for a game of MoO, which has the “problem” (if you see it that way) of an endgame where nearly any goal becomes possible once you’ve hit a certain point (Making the concept of end goals more a personal preference than anything else.)

But I just like the bugs more. Not only out of nostalgia (They were my first win in both of the first two Master of Orion games), but because I’m not so hot on the OS Memery that spews forth from the Meklar advisor (Your mileage may vary there, obviously.)

One of the things that some folks see as a problem is that the early game and end game for Master of Orion are very similar. You always start on the same kind of worlds (Terran Abundant, for the majority of races), and you often end with a massive superiority, and the universe before you. But it’s often the fun you have crafting your own narrative around this that helps. And with the Klackon, that’s nice and easy.

The Hive starts small. Confined. It longs for the stars, but the resources are not yet there. So it reaches, steadily. Small steps. This time, this Orion Sector, it gets a bit of luck. There are worlds nearby, and it isn’t bothered by anything except small fleets of Space Pirates, the flotsam of the universe as it expands.

...By the mid to late game, even worlds inimical to all life are open to The Hive.

…By the mid to late game, even worlds inimical to all life are open to The Hive.

While weaker than other races militarily, The Hive still has enough materiel to consume flotsam. And so it grows. It reaches three systems before an element of the Not-Hive is encountered. The Human Republic. Quickly, communication is established, and it is decided that eliminating the Not-Hive is a waste of resources. Gestures are made, using a tool of communication: The Embassy, where the Not-Hive is presented with The Hive’s action, in a manner the Not-Hive understands.

Meanwhile, expansion continues. Worlds produce until pollution becomes an impediment to production, and then The Hive focuses on curing the pollution. In short order, a fleet of ships to collectively defend The Hive is created. It is, for now, limited, again by resources, but as resources improve, and tools are discovered, they are quickly added to The Hive.

A world is protected by a lifeform that is dangerous to The Hive, but the system is valuable. The Hive waits. It deals with the threat when force is overwhelming, and quickly colonises the system. By this time, The Hive’s defense fleet is larger and more powerful than all but one Not-Hive being.

The Orion System holds that Not-Hive. Nothing else.

The two most successful life forms in the Orion Sector.

The two most successful life forms in the Orion Sector.

As time goes by, The Hive is improved. The Not-Hive also improves, and soon, there is something else. Something Almost-Hive. The only difference is that it is mechanical, electronic, and not made of plasm and living cells. It is more populous, and is the only direct competitor to The Hive.

MoOGalacticCouncil

The Greater Hive meets to decide among itself who will lead The Greater Hive. The Greater Hive is without consensus.

At points, it even surpasses The Hive. The Hive knows this is a temporary state. Meanwhile, the Not-Hive connect to each other, connect their worlds, in much the same way The Hive does. In a way, they are becoming like The Hive.

The Hive is not amused, or bemused. The Hive knows that this is inevitable. However, all is not well in The Hive, as The Hive has discovered that there is now a Greater Hive: The Galactic Council. It is a strange Hive, a Hive that is Not-Hive, but can be led by those who both have the greatest numbers, and who talk most efficiently to the Not-Hive.

The Almost-Hive, just a few solar cycles after this, loses ground in materiel, and gains it in Greater Hive Currency (Votes)

The Almost-Hive, just a few solar cycles after this, loses ground in materiel, and gains it in Greater Hive Currency (Votes)

The Hive does not react when it finds its grip on this Greater Hive slipping to the Almost-Hive, these… Meklar. It merely notes that it has the resources for a goal that will allow it to thrive by another means: The destruction of the Orion Guardian, and the consumption of its technology, still beyond The Hive’s resources to achieve.

The battle is hard, and tools of The Hive are lost. But tools can be regained. The Guardian does not have that luxury.

The battle is hard, and tools of The Hive are lost. But tools can be regained. The Guardian does not have that luxury.

The Hive is not incorrect. The Hive is never incorrect. The Orion Guardian falls. A colony ship is sent, and The Hive grows. By this point, it cannot be stopped. It will allow the Not-Hive to live, as they no longer threaten The Hive. The Almost-Hive will soon come to the conclusion that it no longer threatens The Hive.

The Hive continues, as it always has. And always will.

This, in essence, remains the strength of a good 4X: That you can tell a story, with only a little nudging. What I just related to you was me basically steamrolling the AI as the Klackon. Said like that, it’s somewhat dull. But the story can be changed. Perhaps to the story of The Human Republic’s quest for Unification, where All Are Friends. The Terran Khanate’s rise to dominance over the Lesser Species. The Mrrshan’s rise to the title of Ultimate Hunter.

That’s the real magic. I just thought I’d share.

Let’s Play Sony – A Strange And Unlikely Case.

An amusingly apropos subheader sometimes, if you take out the apostrophe...

An amusingly apropos subheader sometimes, if you take out the apostrophe…

It’s amazing what slips by when you’re not looking in the right place. Sony, last October, apparently filed to try and trademark the somewhat broad and generic term “Let’s Play.” They haven’t got it yet, but it’s quite clearly referring to the practice of Let’s Playing, as the service it is trademarking is:

“Electronic transmission and streaming of video games via global and local computer networks; streaming of audio, visual, and audiovisual material via global and local computer networks”

A bit generic sounding even here. Anyways, since it was only discovered yesterday, by members of the NeoGAF forums, and it requires clarification before June on the part of Sony before its finalised, it’s merely something quixotic we can point to and say… “Huh!” Here’s at least a couple of reasons why.

It’s Rather Broad

As the definition stands, it can cover a multitude of commerical services and goods, including… Game trailers. Those are streamed electronically, and consist of, funnily enough, audio/visual material of video games. This is, at a guess, at least part of the reason why a clarification has been requested.

It’s Already In Use By Several Commercial Entities

This, potentially, is the real killer. The biggest competitor for the title, as far as I understand it, would be RoosterTeeth productions, who use the channel name as a specific brand (In fact, there was much amusement among the Something Awful Let’s Play community when the channel was grabbed before anyone thought of it), and, as far as I understand things, they would then have prior rights of usage. There is also the fact that many Let’s Players are commercial, and directly identify their service as “Let’s Play” already, even if we were not to take into account that RoosterTeeth specifically use it as a brand for their content. Not to mention… Er… Something Awful’s own “The Let’s Play Archive” (Where you can find at least one Let’s Play by yours truly. 😛 )

It’s A Common Phrase

While this might be less of a problem than you might think, the term Let’s Play has already entered common usage, and, as such, this might be a difficult one to enforce. None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but they are, nonetheless, obstacles, at least one of which has presumably hit Sony when they tried to trademark the term back in October.

But Why Do It?

Well, for all the talk of a sinister reason, this one’s actually somewhat hard to enforce. Not just due to the common and prior usage, but also because you can be providing a similar service without calling it “Let’s Play.” That’s even assuming it goes through. More commonly speculated is that it may be related to the streaming service they’re planning to roll out.

Either way, much virtual headshaking, and no real best wishes in the trademarking process there. After all, it is a silly trademark.

On Goodwill, And Why I Can’t Go Back To Sword Coast Legends Yet.

Oh yay, we get to see more of this guy rather than a DM mode. The joy on my face is comparable to his.

Oh yay, we get to see more of this guy rather than a DM mode. The joy on my face is comparable to his.

So, back when I reviewed Sword Coast Legends, I said that, to give it a fair shake, I would return to it when DM Mode was updated, as was promised 10 days after release. I’ve already said that this was bad communication and planning, but I was willing to give it a chance. Indeed, many people who bought it, bought it because hey, it promised a DM mode. But development is fluid, and fluid, as we all know, has a nasty habit of getting on your nicest shirts if you’re not careful. Such is the case with Sword Coast Legends.

Community Pack 3 was meant to fix DM mode, or rather, add some basic functionality into it that was going to make it less restrictive and boring than it is now (You can put monsters down, and make basic quests, but that’s pretty much it. No dungeon modelling. No script, as such. No AI fuckery, beyond the absolute basics.) But, for whatever reason, a free expansion has instead been planned as the priority. And, again, it took until after the time had passed to state this.

So, let’s talk goodwill. Let’s talk about how it’s a finite resource, and how this is another fine example of companies failing to, or being pushed into (It is not yet clear.) making moves that drain that goodwill.

Firstly, this was not communicated until yesterday. Communication is important, and I can understand why the devs and publishers might sit on this news. After all, it’s happened many a time before. There would be an outcry. Unfortunately… Delaying an important communication like this gives a bad impression of everyone involved. It implies folks aren’t on top of things, or that All Is Not Well. This drains goodwill faster than “Whups, we fucked up, we are fixing it”, but some folks seem to believe that game fans, and indeed purchasers, have a short memory. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. In RPG and Strategy circles especially, folks remember the fuckups for a lot longer than you might think. I still remember how Dark Sun had a game breaking story bug, for example. Or how people reacted to Master of Orion 3. And I can look it up any time. This isn’t the first time I’ve said “Communicate better” either… See above.

Secondly, even with the mollification that it’s a free expansion, precisely because development is fluid… There is no guarantee CP3 will materialise. It relies upon the studio making sales. It relies upon the studio keeping up with the goodwill, and it relies, basically, upon more factors than just “We decided we wanted to focus elsewhere.” I invite the publishers and devs of Sword Coast Legends to remember Arkham Origins, which also decided to focus on DLC over fixing a core feature. That DLC was not free, it’s true. But already, people are reacting in a way that’s all too familiar to me. It’s been played out before, with many a game. It doesn’t help that the Rage of the Demons DLC will involve… Drizzt Do’Fucking’Urden. This is a goodwill draining move in and of itself, because… Drizzt being in anything more than a cameo role usually involves him dominating the plot, to the detriment of pretty much the rest of the story. Of course, I’ve had a few months to potentially bitch about that being a thing, but honestly, if the DM mode actually came first? I wouldn’t care about Drizzt.

I’d like to continue saying “The developers continue to support this game”, because, technically? Sure, an expansion is support, in that the game is being added to. But goodwill, and its companion, trust, are important. Games, as much as some folks like to pretend otherwise, are a popularity game: You can’t get a game sold unless people know about it, and you can’t keep selling or making games when nobody trusts you to deliver. Moves like this erode trust, so, for any other developers or publishers who read this?

Don’t do this. You can look up what happened to other games that did this, and the answer is never “They did well despite these decisions and lack of communication.” The My Alibi Glitch in Arkham Origins is alive and well. Blur never got a sequel. There’s an entire graveyard of games out there, whose epitaph reads “They squandered trust.” And there’s also a few allegorical hospital beds waiting for some bigger publishers who just keep squandering trust like this.

Don’t. Do this. You can be better than this, games industry.

You can read the CP3/Expansion post in question here , and the original announcement of the development plan here.