Second Chances

Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 joins Alan Wake in modern games that are getting that most unusual of things – a second chance to make an impression. In an industry that is all about the initial Honeymoon Period on a games release, is it now time to re-evaluate how a games success is judged?

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It’s strange, isn’t it? When Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 was announced, very few people were that excited.

I mean, I maintain my stance that design wise, Final Fantasy XIV is actually not that bad; it’s in the content where it falls down, the context of content in particular. The sandbox running around the world hunting rares and doing good deeds is nice for a while, but it doesn’t hide the fact that when it came to quests and actual group content, things were decidedly less rosy in the Garden of Eden. As pretty and stunning as it was, ultimately it was nothing more than a class grind; and the crafting grind was too much for some to bear.

As time has gone on and more images and information has come forward though, the game has enjoyed a curious interest from a lot of people who are intrigued by the idea of an MMO of this caliber, one which was obviously a commercial flop to begin with, taking the time and importantly the expense in which to make things right. The team, the staff, the leads running the show are different and all trying to effectively save what was a nice idea and concept done badly. They’ve tried to keep the current players happy with content, but most of them agree in the confines of the current engine there isn’t much more they can really do. For you see, Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 is now Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, and it’s far more than an expansion – it’s a rewrite of everything that came before.

Perhaps that’s the thing that makes us admire A Realm Reborn; it would have been easy to write it off and just call it quits. Final Fantasy XI is still going, still popular and still making money after all. Final Fantasy XIV had a lot to live up to and never really could. Ditching it would have been the sensible thing – and yet no. The team on it now have their own ideas and dreams, and that means everything is being gutted to make way for new ideas, new images and new content; and that includes the game engine itself as well. When a team is totally redoing things from the ground up, you have to take some time to admire the kutzpah they have. It’s an expense that most games studios wouldn’t dream of taking on; this takes time, manpower and money that could arguably have been spent on other things. And yet it is being spent here, on this one MMO, trying to redo everything it did wrong. Crazy, but it intrigues us. In terms of MMOs, only Darkfall Online has attempted this; and that will go live next month, as the game as it is now is set to disappear a few days before its release on November 20th.

Darkfall is an interesting one too because to be fair, things never went well for it. Games reviewers tried it and didn’t particularly like it – myself one of them, although I didn’t hate it as much as others. That’s fine, because reviewers and reviews are of course subjective and if there is a market, it will find one. What troubled Darkfall however was not that it was a bit average; it was that the community it had took deep offence to anyone whose opinion differed, and this led to site invasions and bad language and trolling and flaming. They took it as a war; a war they had to win and yet their guerrilla tactics and horrifying disregard to taste, decency and conversation left the game in a far worse place than it had started – far from defending the games honour, they tarnished its reputation almost beyond repair. It is a sad place to be when your playerbase is more destructive than the quality of your game.

But Darkfall: Unholy War is coming out soon and it too is effectively a rewrite, addressing a large amount of the criticisms and objections many players had of it originally. This is an interesting place to be because it supersedes the players who decided to wage their unholy war; and puts power back in the hands of the critics and players lapsed. The idea is yes, it knows it has had problems and it wants to address them. Ignore the shouty sweary people who have been unkind and unruly in the past because they HEARD us midst the terrifying din. This is a new game, and the old one is gone. Done.

Darkfall: Unholy War. A heck of a lot prettier. And no trolls in sight!

And so far, it’s prettier and looks slicker. It does actually look tempting, like something worth checking out. If only because they are asking for a second chance.

These are obviously two MMOs and the point of an MMO is it being a persistent world; therefore there is an argument (however rudimentary) that it makes sense for them to push new engines and updates if it makes the game better. Time changes and the games industry has changed and what worked four or five years ago may not be quite as appropriate anymore. An MMO can rebrand itself and push new tech and updates like this because they are more suited to it.

So how about console games? Single player ones in particular, because it can be very hard to forgive those, let alone change them. But even here we have an example; Alan Wake.

For you see, Alan Wake was the game that almost brought Remedy down. A game seven years in the making and promising the moon and stars, the end result wasn’t quite the magical trip that we had envisioned. Alan Wake felt stiff and formulaic, taking cues from the rest of the industry. A little Twin Peaks, a little Silent Hill, a little Resident Evil, a little Alone in the Dark and so forth. This troubled many gamers at the time because it had looked so promising, so different and yet it really wasn’t at all. It didn’t push the envelope; it cut corners so it could fit inside of it. It didn’t have the balls of the recent Resident Evil 6 to actually try and push other genre concepts and ideas into it. It just was. And is.

It wasn’t a success and for all the money that Remedy had had over the years, it looked like this game was going to be their coup de grace; the final curtain. But instead, something rather extraordinary happened; they made a downloadable spin-off, a pulpy action variant called Alan Wake: American Nightmare. A sort of in-joke, as our hero Alan Wake becomes trapped inside a TV series. A TV series called Night Springs. A TV series he wrote! The pulp, almost crude feel of it was a welcome relief from the norm and was actually really very nice. Really, really very nice. I like it a lot.

And then something else peculiar happened; Alan Wake got a PC release, and suddenly interest rose in it. At a cheaper price point, and the benefit of hindsight, many who got into Alan Wake again were surprised at how good it really was – okay, it’s hardly going to win awards, but it was certainly above average. It was good. A little slow, a little clunky and yes, we can see all of those references to horror films, games and TV shows even more clearly now. But that kind of also makes it work better now than it ever did; Alan Wake is a writer, and it’s an almost glorious parody that the game itself is so prolific in what it plagerises from the industry. It has matured; where as once it was quite strong and in your face, the benefit of a few years in a cask has done wonders for it, and mellowed the harsh taste into something you can relax into far more readily.

And by giving it a second chance, most of us were pleasantly surprised. We were led back into it, and we found something more than we could see when it was brand new. The benefits of hindsight are fantastic and always 20/20, but in the case of Alan Wake, it now feels right. Like it has a place to be, and a sequel to be had. Had Remedy and Microsoft dropped it back then when it was new, when it was failing, we wouldn’t have wanted to go back. We wouldn’t have seen a re-release, or the American Nightmare spinoff. They would have quietly buried it in the same manner the Overblood series was buried quietly.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel – it was this guy with his torch!

And all of this raises an interesting point about games today; can we really judge success based upon initial sales?

For you see, ordinarily the three games I mentioned would have been scrapped but the people behind them believe in them, and want them to be better and better understood. The initial critical reception over, they have over time gotten better; either because the people working on them have made it better, or because in the case of Alan Wake that time has helped to smooth over its sharper edges. All three are enjoying a surge in interest again and have many players happy to give them a second chance – something very few games get to enjoy these days.

When you hear of EA claiming that Dead Space 3 needs to sell six million copies, you kind of think – yeah, that might be possible. But it depends how long they are prepared to give the game to accrue those sales. A year? Six months? Three months? Six weeks? There is a detail missing in that; most games are judged on their initial sales spurt. After all, Resident Evil 6 in Japan alone got 676,000+ sales in its first week and that’s not a bad start. Resident Evil 6 could in that sense ensure a good couple of million sales. It may enjoy far more over the years. It all depends on what they deem as successful sales figures.

And even if a game is bad to start with, Alan Wake does make a good case that some just need time to mellow. And it leads to an interesting conflict as to whether or not a lot of games need time to just grow. Good games get sold and are misunderstood or swamped under more well-known brands at the time. Some games need second chances and very few enjoy those second chances.

Can the industry change? It’s a tough one, because on one hand the new digital market means that games never really go out of print in the way they used to; you can always get your hands on a game at any time, and that has for me thrown a spanner in the works when it comes to judging if something has worked or not; that patches can happen more easily, that updates can be applied more readily. Games can change and games can mature; there is no longer a rigidity in the marketplace. No longer a set period of printing copies. No longer a sense that something has to succeed on its first run of prints. We have come to a place where the future means some games can’t die even if you want them to, but some games can survive and flourish over the years in ways they once never could. That we can come back in years from now and perhaps even admire Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill: Downpour as ahead of their time, or maybe we won’t. I likely won’t be as kind about Downpour. Sorry Silent Hill.

The market still sticks doggedly to notions that used to work; but the market and how we buy and do business has changed. And how we see games is changing in a fantastic and glorious way. How games are being sold and treated are also changing. I find it curious then that success is still pinned on sales figures in the first month or two.

But as long as games are given second chances, we should be happy. It may not always make sense and may not always work out… but it denotes a passion and belief in their work.

And that, to me, is more admirable than anything else.

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