All the way Live (Services).

In the time since I last was actively posting, my favorite drum has been being beaten by more and more people covering the game industry: microtransactions. We’ve had controversy after controversy in the past year over the newest fad, Loot Boxes. For those of you who still somehow have never heard of them, first, Welcome to Earth! We’ve been wondering about First Contact for a while now. In all seriousness, however, Loot Boxes are items in games that, when used, bestow a randomized reward, or set of rewards. These items are arbitrarily sectioned off into rarity grades, meaning that the majority of these boxes contain only worthless items, and a very slim number contain rewards of any desirability. This leads to people who want a specific reward having to open dozens upon dozens of these boxes. In game, these boxes are often given in games very sparingly, which means that the only way, in games which include them, a desired item can be obtained is through purchasing these boxes with actual money. Due to the randomized nature of the rewards even still, this has led to devoted players, often longtime fans of the franchise, spending hundreds, thousands, and beyond on these titles. Now that the basics have been established, let’s have a look at what’s changed. 

Star Wars. Since the first film premiered in 1977, it has been a deeply ingrained staple in all of Western popular culture. The franchise has made fortunes, created careers, changed lives across the world, taught whole new generations valuable lessons about life, family, duty, and hope, generated one of the largest and most devoted fanbases on the planet, and created the very concept of merchandising. Regardless of quality, nearly every title related to the franchise has sold well, and it seems that Electronic Arts felt that the fanbase was ripe for exploitation. EA made the decision to develop their hotly-anticipated title “Star Wars: Battlefront II” entirely around loot boxes. Completely ignoring the usual cry of “Just cosmetic” items, nearly everything needed to progress in game (upgrades, characters, etc.) was hidden behind this contrived paywall. EA, however, drastically misjudged the fanbase’s tolerance for such practices, and a severe backlash ensued, with even legislators getting involved. Since this, EA has temporarily backed off on it’s microtransactions and has been running damage control. Now, the rest of this article could address EA’s sales projections and investor calls, or even the fact that shutting off the microtransactions was not expected to affect the game’s revenue, but Mr. Sterling at the Jimquisition has already mentioned these several times. Instead, today we’re going to be looking at a fun little phrase that has been trotted out more and more over the past year: “Live Services”. 

Anyone who has followed any industry in depth for any amount of time has seen the process of rebranding. When a product is bad, or has garnered a bad reputation, a common tactic by the corporate world is to make a huge song and dance about changing the name of the product. An example from the telecommunications industry comes from Viasat, which once marketed a satellite-based internet product called WildBlue. Over time, due to bad equipment, poor reliability, and bad customer service, WildBlue gained a reputation for these things. When Viasat upgraded its equipment, WildBlue was retired, and replaced almost immediately by Excede. Terms like “Microtransactions” are the WildBlue. They have horribly negative connotations which poison even games which offer these in an ethical fashion. As a result, those terms are being quietly abandoned for the new term: “Live Services”. Now, as someone who occasionally goes on a tear about Bethesda’s practices, this is not a new term on this site. During research for the article: “Some things I noticed about Bethesda’s recently delayed new IP.“, I first came across this term. It only took a few moments to find a report on the same site detailing the definition of this term, from an EA press release about Battlefront. At the time, I mentioned this in the article and moved on to the point. However, with recent releases from EA and Ubisoft using this term to describe what they plan to center their future endeavors on, the time to bring it back up has come. Regardless of the legal future of Loot Boxes, these companies have had no qualms about telling investors that games designed with microtransactions at their center will become the rule, and not the exception. 

We forget this as gamers, but video games have always been a business. The big companies which produce these games have always cared only about what will make them the most money, since video games have always been expensive to make. In the days before easy internet connectivity, that meant that the games had to be enjoyable, otherwise they wouldn’t sell enough copies to turn a profit. That was a lesson that the Western game industry learned after the crash in the mid-80’s. Over time, however, as the internet became more available, and as consoles started gaining connectivity to it, quality became less of a concern than being a vector to sell its microtransactions. As time went on, the big players have been investing embarrassing amounts of money on studying how to psychologically manipulate players into spending more money. Video games released by major publishers recently seem less like games, and far more like marketplaces. 

There is no clear solution to this problem. Gigantic, monolithic corporations care little about consumers, only about their stockholders, who only care about money, not product. Jim Sterling in his recent video regarding Ubisoft’s recent activities, mentioned a course of action that I personally have subscribed to: leave the clutches of the industry. In my personal life, I get my deep, enriching video game experiences from games published either by smaller studios or independently. AAA games are things I haven’t gained enjoyment from since “Assassin’s Creed II”, and while I have enjoyed big-budget games since then, like “Bioshock: Infinite” and “Dark Souls”, these exceptions (and I’ll save to another article why I would even argue that those aren’t exceptions) prove that there is a rule. For now, stay vigilant for the next way these companies try to sneak their abhorrent business practices under your nose. 

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Washington State Looks into Loot Boxes

Washington State lawmakers are beginning to seriously consider whether Loot Boxes, which have became prevalent last year, can or should be considered under the sate’s gaming commission. Loot Boxes, a term which has come to mean any system for which money is exchanged for randomized rewards, have been an extremely popular monetization strategy for many games. “Star Wars: Battlefront II”, published by EA, was at the center of the current outrage regarding them. The game distributed nearly all in game rewards in this randomized fashion, and was balanced such that any reward would require unreasonable amounts of time to unlock, and this included game progression. Fans were outraged and backlashed immediately, and harshly, and lawmakers around the world began taking notice. 

January 11th, 2018, a bill was read in the Washington State Senate, SB 6266, with the title “Concerning loot boxes in online games and apps” by Senators Ranker, Carlyle, and Keiser. The bill, if passed, would instruct the state’s gaming commission to investigate Loot Boxes as gambling, and present its findings by December 1st, 2018 to the Senate. An amendment was added in February of this year to add Skins to the language of the bill, adding cosmetic items to those being evaluated. The bill’s sponsors have been contacted for comment, and more will be added on this story as it develops. 

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Site News

The time has come for me to make my return to this project, and, front and center, there are some new things here. First of all, I am, as of right now, sending this site out as a portfolio to larger gaming outlets. That was the stated intention of the site in the first place, but recent events in my life have solidified my resolve to come back to writing about the game industry. There were two reasons I let this site go un-updated for all this time. First of all, nobody reads this. A person can only shout into a void for so long before it becomes too much. I admit, this is at least partly my fault, as marketing is not my strongest suit. Writing is. I will be working harder to get more people here and reading to help to alleviate this. The second problem was that simply, I felt that there was no point to talking about microtransactions, poor practices in the gaming industry, and even good ones, because there are already so many voices shouting all of these points. That was a moment of weakness. Just because there are other people making many of these same points, those voices aren’t my own. It’s time to make this a serious endeavor, and I hope that I can turn this into a successful one. That, however, also falls on the reader. If you read my articles and enjoy what I say, share the article. Let everyone know about it. Even if you disagree, let me know. Currently, due to spam bots, all comments are disabled until I can afford to filter these out. To contact me, reach me at jake@sisypheangaming.com. Now then, just because I haven’t been writing, doesn’t mean I haven’t been watching. So, ladies and gentlemen, time for me to put my shoulder back to the boulder. 

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How Xbox earned some trust at E3 2017. 60 in 60 day 12 part 2.

The yearly Electronic Entertainment Expo has become a chore for many of us. Long a festival for corporate back slapping and justifying unjustifiable corporate practices, sprinkled with a few completely unrepresentative trailers for video games. It has once again descended upon us, but after watching Xbox’s presentation this year, I can’t help but feeling that, while I don’t care who is the “Best of E3 “, Microsoft and Xbox deserve “Most Improved”. While I haven’t forgotten what happened on the E3 stage in 2013, I also have to give them credit for how far they have come since then. Before we get to the good, though, there are probably people reading who have no idea about E3 2013.

Microsoft’s Xbox division’s E3 2013 press conference, where the DRM hardcoded into the Xbox One was revealed. While Don Mattrick tried desperately to spin this as a positive, the consumers backlashed in a way rarely seen before or since. The console was initially set to have to have a constant, stable internet connection to be able to even be used to play games. If the internet went out, your Xbox One would have kicked the user from their current game, and locked access to all of the games in their library. In response to this backlash, Microsoft was initially dismissive, with Mattrick clarifying “fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity, it’s called Xbox 360.”. On top of all of this, the console was evidently designed to directly attack the used games market, with functionality built in to allow the console to block a user from playing a used game. This dismissal quickly changed, however, as the outrage grew far beyond what Microsoft had predicted. The company replaced Mattrick with Phil Spencer to head Xbox, and backpedaled on nearly everything that the outrage was centered on. After weathering a rocky release year, the company really set about rebuilding trust in gamers, and unlike Konami, they meant it.

At E3 2015, Phil Spencer announced that the Xbox One would feature backward compatibility with the Xbox 360. This was something that many observers thought should have been a feature from the start, but this announcement was very positively received. Since then, Xbox has added hundreds of games to this list, and today, at time of writing, on the E3 stage, Spencer once again delivered some exciting news: backward compatibility with the original Xbox was announced. Several commentators also noted how focused Xbox’s presentation was on the games coming to it’s console in the near future, showing a vast blend of games from different genres, developers, and budgets. There was almost guaranteed to be a game shown this year that could appeal to nearly every possible taste.  This is the most recent event that has finally caused even a hardened cynic to do a double take. Very often a corporation will take to the stage with commitments and pledges about how they will change to more respect their customers, but these are rarely followed through on. Xbox is, therefore, almost unique among companies that made these promises and really meant what it was saying. While there is absolutely a profit motive in doing this, Xbox is making this profit by expanding what it offers to the consumer, rather than charging for what used to be free. This is a pro-consumer move from a platform holder who was sincere in their promises.

The other big reveal today was for the Xbox One X, which is increasingly resembling a teenage idiot’s forum username. With recent leaks, the console’s hardware was revealed weeks before. It is being billed as an addition to the “Xbox One Family”, which implies that Microsoft may be changing their business model somewhat to focus on incremental changes, something that was decried by Spencer himself, saying he wanted to move forward in big steps. All of this being said, however, working to keep both the One and the One X relevant will be a monumental undertaking because it necessarily splits the audience, but there are some relatively simple workarounds for it. 

At the end of the day, it is always important to remember that E3 is a marketing event first and foremost, and marketing departments will tell you anything if you buy their game. Insincerity rings out from the stage with each alternate word, and it generally takes months to try to desperate the reality from the hype. There has been reason to be skeptical and cynical over the past few years, but Xbox has worked to build trust with consumers. I remain cautiously optimistic for this console.

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VR: The latest doomed tech craze. 60 in 60 day 12

Virtual Reality is an idea that has been kicking around in some form for decades. It has been popular in many disciplines, but the dream has always been to use this technology for gaming. Attempts at this have proven disastrous this far, largely due to limited technology, but in 2012, the Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift started and got big names in the game industry on board and talking about it early. Some of these people were John Carmack, who would go on to become the Chief Technology Officer of Oculus VR, and Gabe Newell of Valve. This kicked off a huge VR craze, with nearly every tech company starting development on their own headsets and environments. Today, there are quite a few tech companies with headsets in the market. Some of these are based around smartphones, and have to run entirely on the resources available in that limited environment, while some are designed for desktop computers or game consoles. With five big players on the market, and dozens of cheaper alternatives, it would seem that VR is here to stay. Whatever it may seem however, the simple fact of the matter is that the market for this has been made unstable, and very likely to collapse quickly. With the rest of the world wasting their time speculating about E3, let’s give a speculative postmortem on VR gaming. Yes, this has been talked about in several places, but this is a great case study in watching a trainwreck as it happens, so we know what to look for in the future. To clarify, it will likely be many years before we stop seeing headsets, if ever. The market is saturated with this hardware, and it’s possible it can be used better in other ways than gaming. This article focuses on VR gaming specifically. This being said, let’s dive in on this look at what VR has done wrong so far, and why it’s ultimately doomed to failure. 

When investing the level of time and money required to create a quality gaming experience, a studio or publisher generally has to target the widest audience they can to ensure enough copies are sold to pay for development cost. While exclusives do happen, the platform holders often have to pay the studios millions to offset the loss in sales from restricting a game to one platform. One of the killer flaws of VR is the sheer number of headsets on the market, each demanding development time for optimization and QA. To target all of this different hardware with different architectures would be prohibitively expensive , so off the bat the developers have to decide which hardware they support to cut off as little of their audience as possible. On top of this, there are different setups for VR devices. The HTC Vive uses room scale VR, while others offer a largely stationary experience. It is also expensive to create completely different ways to experience a game. How does a developer decide which to target? Eventually, this will lead to two or three units that games will get developed for, and a lot of angry consumers who backed the wrong horses. This isn’t lethal for the game, it just makes it very niche. The next examples, however, are, especially with the market in a weakened state.

We, as humans, expect our actions in the real world to create some type of feedback to let us know we are doing what we intend. Using a hammer to pound in a nail is accompanied by a loud sound and a shock of impact through your arm. Video games can get the sound right, as it’s simply a matter of timing, but the latter is very important as well, and currently video games have no way to provide this feedback. This is the fundamental problem with motion controls in that, while innovative, it necessarily creates a dissonance in the player’s brain when their motion leads a character to punch a boulder, but the player’s arm encounters no such resistance. VR is often being paired with some type of motion controller, the idea apparently being that divorcing the player from the outside world will add immersion to the experience. The problem is that we also require feedback to know that we’re moving. When the eyes tell the brain it is moving, but none of the systems in place to detect movement are agreeing, the brain thinks it’s been poisoned, leading to motion sickness. Not only does VR not provide the immersive experience promised by the tech companies, it also actively harms many of it’s consumers. This is fatal for something once held up as the coming paradigm, but the final mistake of this market administers the final stroke 

Much of the developed world that the gaming and tech industries rely on has been experiencing repeated economic upheavals for the past two decades. Austerity measures have been taken in dozens of nations across the world, and money has become very tight for the average household. Part of the reason that VR was so well received when Oculus made their announcement was the promise that the average household would be able to afford one. while there are many cheaper solutions, Oculus’ own Rift is currently $500, the HTC Vive is $800, and PlayStation VR is asking for $380. These are large sums of money for the average consumer to part with. This is money often better spent on groceries, cars, or just video games. If the games for VR were amazing, maybe the expense would be more justifiable, but they are the same limited tech demos every new tech is infested with, and few, if any, have gotten any universal acclaim. This is the final nail in the coffin for VR. While it isn’t dead yet, it is very likely this article will be close when this technology is abandoned.

Even though I am saying that the death of VR is a question of when, rather than if, it will still be bad for everyone when it happens. Astronomical amounts of time, money, and careers have been put into this, hoping the success of VR would solidify the market. Instead, it looks very shaky, fractured, and ready to crumble. Companies will downsize, developers laid off, and careers will be ruined. Of course I don’t want this to happen, but this was the logical conclusions of the decisions made years ago by the game industry. All we can do is be careful of hype in the future.

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Addendum

Sometimes, despite our best plans, life finds a way to intervene. Since my last post, I have been between places to live. This was the culmination of over a month of problems between a roommate and I. However, it appears I have landed on my feet, and as such, it’s time for a big day of posts. I’m going to catch up as soon as I can. Don’t expect personal updates like this frequently, but this is a business venture, and I care about my goals and deadlines.Next post is being written right after this is published.

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What’s in a trailer? 60 in 60 day 8.

Game trailers are marketing exercises designed to get the hype started for a new title. They give players a glimpse at the world the developers are trying to create for them, and provide a first platform for criticism. While the initial idea of trailers may seem fair, frequently they are used with dishonesty by the marketing teams putting them out. “Watch Dogs”, a game with an interesting concept of being a hacker fighting society, was savaged by players upon release because the final game had nothing near the graphical fidelity of what was promised in the trailer. A far more egregious example comes from Gearbox Software’s “Aliens: Colonial Marines”, where not only did the graphics in the trailer not match, but neither did gameplay. Gearbox defended this practice as offering a “vertical slice” of gameplay, and did little more than name-call those upset by the game, which was nearly everyone who played it. Why do games have trailers though?

While it is a valid point that, as an interactive medium, games should have demos that allow the player to experience a small portion of the game, rather than the trailers often associated with films. This is a flawed argument, as it misses how these two marketing exercises serve very different purposes. A demo requires the development team to either spend a great deal of time to create a working level in the game far ahead of release, when the game could still change substantially, or release a completed package very near to release, when it could actually cost the game sales (Source: Extra Credits). A trailer, on the other hand, which does not require interactivity, can be put together almost completely by a marketing department, allowing the devs to keep their focus where it belongs: on the game itself. While this can lead to some obvious missteps, the simple business fact is that trailers make far more economic sense to produce. They generate the excitement needed pre launch, and while they don’t capture everything perfectly, often they do an adequate job of communicating what a game is about. If they didn’t, the market would have abandoned them a very long time ago.

There are a few objectives that a good trailer has to meet. Firstly, it has to give the players a good idea of what to expect in game. This is actually a more complicated task than simply running a screen capturing program to grab a few minutes of gameplay.  In order to do this, a trailer has to be honest, but has to, in as few minutes as possible, show what is unique about the game. A trailer showing four minutes of sandbox exploration or cover based shooting can’t do this. These are mechanics that gamers are already familiar with, so all they communicate is that the game us just more of what the market already has. It has to be honest about graphics and gameplay, barring changes and evolution in development. It would actually be advantageous for a trailer to have a slight graphical downgrade from the final product, as this will generate positive press and player experience. These are designed to showcase a new product, so honesty really is key. Nobody likes to feel cheated, so it is always better to under deliver on the trailer and make up for it with a better product. With this in mind, let’s talk about two trailers for upcoming games today.

First on the table is “Vestige of the Past” by Fineway Studios, a game set to enter Early Access on Steam in Spring of this year. Simply put, this trailer is an absolute mess. The backing music doesn’t fit the tone with what is happening on screen, and neither, it seems, does what is happening on screen. The trailer jumps between totally disconnected snippets of game footage, and this looks to be a textbook game that has no idea what it wants to do. Like many independent games, this one has definitely jumped with both feet onto the crafting/survival gameplay bandwagon. At times the game seriously reminds me of “7 Days to Die” minus zombies, and is the only time I have ever thought that a lack of zombies hurt a game. While the game looks decently put together, I have no expectations of this title. The trailer has generated this reaction almost universally, which shows that these are not merely personal gripes. While I hope every game I hear of or see will be good, I’m expecting a vapid, boring experience tailored to Steam’s refund policy. On top of that, all of the gameplay shown in the trailer appears to be things that scores of games have already done and better. With that, let’s move on to our second victim.

This is a trailer released for “Dauntless” by Phoenix Labs, another independent title, this one slated for the last quarter of 2017. First of all, the entire trailer appears to be in the game engine, showing the engine and mechanics rather well. The graphics are unimpressive, and the animations feel stiff, but these are often things that are tightened near to release, so they earn a pass for now. The troubling thing is that the game looks very similar to a “Monster Hunter” title, but again, a pass is earned, this time by the platform. “Monster Hunter” games have always been console or handheld exclusive, and “Dauntless” appears to be targeting the PC market exclusively. The trailer gives a great first impression of the title, and makes me far more interested than “Vestige of the Past”‘s trailer ever did. 

Let’s close on the elephant in the room. “Dauntless” will be a free to play game with microtransactions. I am at this point documented to have a hard-line stance against both of these models, but I am always open to be proven wrong. I am far more open to smaller, independent projects using this model to essentially give gamers a free sample. Furthermore, Phoenix Land has already gone on record about these, stating they will be cosmetic and temporary items only. It remains to be seen how these will affect game balance, but for what it’s worth, this appears to be a game which is already a complete experience for free, with the additional content adding to it, rather than sections of gameplay being held to ransom, or the game being completely broken by pay-to-win mechanics. I am, therefore cautiously optimistic for this title, but will hold off adding to hype before I see it first hand.

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Spare a dime for a poor corporation? A return to microtransactions. 60 in 60 day 7

The episode of “The Jimquisition” published today focused on unpacking some statements made by Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick at the recent Cowen and Company 45th Annual Technology, Media & Telecom Conference. It has been noted many places in the past (including the third article on this very website), that these companies and CEOs are far more comfortable discussing topics that their consumers find distasteful among others in the industry, and Zelnick is no different. He delivered some odious words at this conference, which Mr. Sterling did a great job eviscerating, so I’m only going to mention it here, and recommend watching this week’s “Jimquisition” for more detail on that aspect (link: here). This article is more going to focus on a job posting from Bethesda, and the general direction of the industry toward a point where microtransactions, rather than dying, or staying by the wayside in games, are poised to become far more central in the industry’s plans to empty the wallets of every consumer they can drain. 

Yesterday. at time of writing, PC Gamer published an article (Source: here) about a job posting on Zenimax’s website for a a “Game Performance Manager” (Link: here French language), while the article itself was just a short acknowledgement of the posting’s existence with some minor speculation, the posting itself bears some further examination. It seems that in this context, this role has nothing to do with ensuring the game performs well for the player, but everything to do with how well it pushes microtransactions. They are looking for an individual with at least five years experience in this type of work, with a Business degree. Taking a look at the job responsibilities, very little has to do with making the game, only making sure that “monetization” is implemented and optimized. Many of you will be saying at this point that I’m blowing this put of proportion, and I hope I am, but I also have a memory, and I haven’t forgotten Horse Armor in “Oblivion”. This is a company that is on the verge of taking another swing at draining it’s consumers, and this time, it’s setting out off the bat with a freemium title.

While microtransactions are often deemed acceptable for a free-to-play game, as it covers the lack of a cost of entry, one must step back and understand the reasoning for this move. When a consumer spends $60 on a game, they expect a complete experience out of the box, with additional content available if they so desire to purchase it to enhance their experience, and implemented in that way, I have come to grudgingly accept DLC, but it also puts in the that consumer’s mind the thought, “This game costs $60”. Any DLC or microtransactions are on top of that. Cutting out the price tag changes the thought process in the player’s mind from “This game costs $X”, to “Well, it was free, so $5 isn’t much”. While there is a portion of both audiences that won’t spend anything on these extras, a game with a selling price establishes an idea of the cost of the game. Freemium games don’t have this mental anchor, and are very easy to lose track of spending on. This makes them ideal for the market these companies wish to create. That is the main reason a major publisher would be looking to make a game like this. While the ethics of how this is handled in a game we haven’t even seen a trailer for can be debated until time ends, the reasoning behind a company like Bethesda making a game like this can’t. 

For years now, the game industry has been scrambling to find a new monetization model to allow it to charge more for games. Budgets have been skyrocketing as each of these companies chase graphical fidelity, and with economic crises happening worldwide, the public is spending less and less on these games at the same time. While control could be exercised and limitations imposed to keep costs at a manageable level, the more attractive option to shareholders is to simply take more money from those who are left. You had John Riccitello wanting to charge players in EA’s first person shooters for reloads, Wargaming doing this for real in “World of Tanks” with their premium ammunition, Ubisoft defending the microtransactions in “For Honor” by saying that “We never had an intention for you to unlock everything in the game” (Source: VG247), Activision adding microtransactions into “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered”, and recently Strauss Zelnick’s statements, and that’s naming only a few examples. This industry has been leaning more and more on exploitative tactics over time to avoid cleaning its own house. There is now a backlash against almost everything done by a major gaming company, and while much of it is the histrionic behavior we have mentioned before, those outcries nearly always drown out the legitimate criticism. We as gamers have a house to clean ourselves if we ever intend to be treated with respect by these companies. 

Let’s close by talking some numbers. According to the ESA (Source: here [pdf]), 63% of households contain at least one gamer, we are an average of 35 years old, and have been playing video games for 13 years. It’s time we as a community started cleaning our own ranks, getting rid of those who scream bloody murder at the first sign of any change to a game, and start aiming our backlash and outrage at the practices that are turning our games into little more than milking machines. We need to start calling out individuals and communicating clearly to them that their behavior is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated, rather than hiding behind the tired “not all gamers” mantra that gets trotted out every time this happens, because currently, even when there is a section of the community agitating for positive change, people who take the same side are often so hateful and vitriolic that it torpedoes any chance at getting something important the attention it desperately needs. It’s time we started acting like the adults that we are and not the children we act like when online, otherwise I’m just going to keep pushing this boulder, the industry will keep going the way it wants, and nothing will ever get better.

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Dark Souls and Tutorials. Part 2. 60 in 60 day 6

In the last article, we went through a detailed overview of the first area in From Software’s original “Dark Souls”, but the “so what?” of the article had to be pushed back to today. If you haven’t read the previous article, please go back and do that. Today, we talk about tutorial levels and how the Undead Asylum not only fits the definition, but how it is one of the best at setting the tone for the rest of the adventure. 

We’ve all played games that place us in a restricted environment and bark commands at us, not allowing us to proceed until every single task is complete. While I have praised Zelda games recently for accessibility, the tutorial in “Twilight Princess” is a big part of why I’ve only played it once. A troubling number of games lead players around a tightly choreographed playpen like a dog on a leash, jerking them back into line with even the slightest misstep. This has led to many in the gaming public and press to openly mock the very idea, and bemoan any game with a non-optional tutorial section. These levels are everything gamers hate: freedom is stripped away, they are placed in a patronizing environment, and forced to prove they understand how to move a character in a circle. The more these are dressed up to be something different, the more glaring they become. These are poor tutorial levels, ones which have failed miserably at their purpose. 

A well crafted tutorial serves two purposes, and must sacrifice everything that does not directly serve these two purposes. These purposes are: 1.) Teach the player about the controls, and 2.) Communicate to the player the tone and mechanics of the game. Players who are already familiar with these should be given the option to proceed as quickly as possible. While some immersion breaking is to be expected when communicating to the player which buttons serve which purposes, everything should be delivered in a way that seamlessly integrates with the game proper. The tutorial level needs to be an actual level in your game, not merely a list of tasks that have to be completed before playing the “real” game. The fewer words spent explaining things, letting the player to learn organically at their own pace, the better. This should be an environment with a small amount of everything the game has to offer, so that less time is spent explaining new things as they come up. It should give the player the same level of freedom that they experience in game, but with some bounds to they don’t get overwhelmed. This is not easy work, nor is it quick, but when done right, how does the Undead Asylum stack up?

Right off the bat, the developer messages telling the player which buttons do what are delivered via Orange Soapstone messages, which litter the game proper, and are usually messages from other players designed to deliver helpful information about upcoming challenges (or trick them into jumping off cliffs). By choosing to deliver things this way, the break in immersion is mitigated, as it also communicates a hugely important mechanic in the game: player communication. Each time one of these is encountered, there is always an immediate opportunity to put it into practice. Moving along, there is very little that is signposted in the level, forcing players to search and explore the level. “Dark Souls” is a game that is very heavy on exploration, so this being reinforced right off the title screen is also important. In fact, as mentioned in the previous article, nearly every single design choice communicates the mechanics clearly. As the player progresses in the game, they will likely discover that they can eventually return to this location, fighting a more challenging version of the boss from before, as well as collecting two very important items. This helps to tie this level back into the larger game world it is largely separated from. In short, the Undead Asylum is not only a tutorial level, but it manages to be one in such a way that I doubt many players picked up on it their first time through the game. I know I didn’t. 

Tutorial levels are an important part of a well crafted game, and when the same care is put into them as the rest of the game, it can make all the difference in a title’s success. This is what accessibility is all about. Imagine “Dark Souls” if, instead of starting the game at the Undead Asylum, it started at Firelink Shrine. If this was the case, the game would not be nearly as well-remembered, and I doubt it would have attained the popularity and sales figures that made the sequels possible. While it would have still been a bit of a niche game, a good niche game attracts those not already in those highly specialized crowds and lets them join these groups. This is how a series becomes embedded in our collective memory, not by broadening appeal to every human being with eyesight and a pulse, but by sucking players in and spitting them out as full-fledged fans. 

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Accessibility in hard games: How Dark Souls got it right – Part 1. 60 in 60 day 5.

Quick note about me, again, before we begin proper. I may live in the Eastern Time Zone, but because of my second shift schedule, you can assume I live closer to Great Britain based on what “Midnight” is to me. So while this is going up after midnight, It is still my day 5. Moving right along.

Last time we discussed how two “Zelda” games did accessibility right, and bagged on the “Hardcore” crowd for a bit, but here comes the twist. I am also a hardcore gamer. I don’t lose my mind when a game is made accessible to a wider audience, but I do expect the difficulty to ramp up at some point. My default difficulty setting is hard, I have left gaming sessions with a bleeding lip from chewing it in frustration, and I typically don’t recommend games to friends that I found to be too easy. I have crunched the numbers to create custom character builds, and, need I mention, I started watching the news around this industry like a hawk to try to determine why the industry was producing so few games I considered challenging, and what, if anything, could be done. I was very excited about the original “Dark Souls”, a game which I was told by everyone I knew, as well as every piece of marketing that told me to “Prepare to Die”, contained the challenge I seek out. While I was in no way disappointed by the difficulty, several of the game’s mechanics stuck out to me and got me thinking why From Software made the choices it did. Recently, I sat down and ran through the first few bosses in the game, paying special attention to the mechanics and reward systems. I came to the conclusion that the game was designed from the ground up to be accessible to players almost from the word “go”, and that anyone who is sufficiently determined can and will beat the game. Spoiler alert for the original “Dark Souls” from this point on, and if you really haven’t played the game already, you really need to get on that.

“Dark Souls” begins in an area sectioned off from the rest of Lordran, the Undead Asylum. This is the place where the Undead are brought in when they are caught. Here they can be separated from the rest of the world, and await the end of the world. As the player heads down the narrow, dark corridor, notes from the developers about the controls are scattered all over the floor. The darkness contrasts with the bright orange, glowing messages, both revealing the controls to the player, and introducing them to the concept of helpful information from short notes on the ground. The corridor is lined with weak, nonaggressive enemies for the player to immediately practice in game the controls they just learned. At the end of this tunnel, the player climbs up a ladder, which comes up inside an alcove facing a huge room. This immediately shows the player the scope of the world they now inhabit. After heading into the courtyard, the player encounters their first bonfire. They will naturally light it and rest at it, just to test out what it does. Next, those huge double doors catch the player’s curiosity. They open them, and suddenly, a huge, ugly demon jumps from the roof, and likely quickly dispatches the player. This teaches the player to never get complacent, and to approach each new area knowing that some new horror could lurk behind each corner, and they will have to deal with it. It also introduces two of the central mechanics to the game: soul loss and returning to the last bonfire rested at. With the short distance between this bonfire and the boss, the iteration cycle, or the cycle between respawn and respawn, is greatly diminished, and given that the player was already in the weakened Hollow state, and only could have a handful of souls at this point, there is no consequence to dying at this point. The player will experiment with the environment, sometimes trying to take the boss on, learning attack patterns and dodging in the process, or will run away smashing pots with the dodge roll, and by doing this discover the escape door, continuing the level. Immediately after the player goes through the door, a gate slams shut and they immediately encounter another bonfire, where they will likely rest and heal. As they move down the next corridor, they acquire their starting weapons, gaining a significant power boost. The player will naturally search for something to test their new power on, which has a 50/50 chance of immediately revealing the shortcut back to the courtyard, showing the player that shortcuts can be unlocked by completing content. It also has equally good odds of having the player wander into one of the game’s many booby traps, and when trying to get away from it, the player will likely notice the hole knocked through the wall, containing Oscar of Astora, a dying NPC who gives the player the game’s main healing items, Estus Flasks. Having just taken a healthy chunk of damage from the booby trap, the player will be restored to full health. Up the stairs where the booby trap was are finally some enemies to slay with the player’s new weapons, and they die easily. More messages from the developers guide the player to a fog wall, but not before telling them how to execute a plunge attack. Upon crossing the wall, the demon boss from before sits below you, in perfect position for a plunging attack. Upon doing so, it becomes immediately apparent that this boss is no longer the invincible pile of flab from a few minutes ago, and set to dispatching it. This reinforces the most important part to the player: Every boss, no matter how tough they seem when encountered for the first time, has a weakness and can be beaten. After the player kills the demon, they exit the Undead Asylum, armed with the knowledge needed to experience “Dark Souls”

While this was to be a stand alone article, it becomes clear that this will take one more. Expect to see it later today.

Posted in Discussion, Editorial, Review | Comments Off on Accessibility in hard games: How Dark Souls got it right – Part 1. 60 in 60 day 5.