Away with these stupid things!
And so, we’re in 2014! WOO!
And it’s time for me to sit down, breathe deep and relax. So I can spew my guts out through my hands, all the while focusing the target pattern on a deliberately small section of some of the worst gaming trends of the past few years. Game developers, here’s a little tip; if you’re planning to market anything that strongly relies on or contains any of the following, you might want to attach some concrete boots and throw it out in International Waters. Really. You’ll be doing us all a massive favour.
1. OPEN WORLDS
Grand Theft Auto V was open-world. And it’s probably the biggest bugbear I have with the game. I’m sure rendering all those fabulous square miles is an AWESOME thing; and creating a cityscape is also awesome. But then, the challenge that few have actually succeeded in getting right is that once you’ve created this ‘sandbox’, you’ve got to fill it. Otherwise a very large portion of the landscape is… well, (a) surplus to requirement and (b) actually rather boring. You could trim all of this off, save tons of man hours, reduce your budget and… I don’t know… require less hardware power in trying to flesh it all out?
The problem is, that open-world is a thing. It’s a thing people aspire to, because we have so much Clarkson-esque “power” to use up. It’s a thing some developers strive to achieve, and to that I say… what?! Seriously. If you want to make massive cityscapes on this kind of scale, why not actually write a successor to SimCity and let others have a shot at it too?
The problem is that open-world is a cheap-shot attempt at inspiring wonder and awe, right up until the point where you run around it and find that the majority of the landscape is pretty much devoid of any intelligent life. Insert comparison to the city/country you dislike the most here. It’s smoke and mirrors, a huge open area for you to gaze out upon from on high, forgetting to point out that a lot of it is either off-limits, or if it isn’t, the most you’ll see is some rough-textured walls/windows and possibly a few scripted AI civilians wandering around, doing nothing but trying desperately – and failing – to distract from the fact that this interesting little diversion you thought you’d found was in actuality nothing to write home about, and is actually just wasted space.
And there will come a point where, once everyone is doing it, that the whole “woo that’s special!” effect of the thing wears off. We’ll start going, “It’s not as good as…”, and “It’s not quite the same as…”. Open World, or Sandbox, at its heart is about showing off what can be done – what is technically achievable. And that’s an admirable goal. But it loses its edge the moment everyone rushes in to capitalise on it. The problem with everyone converging on the same plot of land is that there’s a lot less of it to actually go around. And the people who are already there with their mansions have the lions share of the space. Seriously, if you’re thinking of doing an open-world game; might want to leave it to the people who are already drilling the oil from that particular field. They beat you to it. You are not entitled to the same success they are.
2. REVIEW EMBARGOES
If we learned anything from 2013, is that some people do whatever it takes to sell a shoddy product. Even when that whatever-it-takes manifests itself into the most flagrant, disrespectful breach of trust in the market in the whole year. We’re of course talking about Aliens: Colonial Marines, because hell, it was shocking. And more shocking that Randy Pitchford actually tried to defend the practice of using falsified footage to promote a terrible, broken game not worth a fraction of it’s £40 cost!
But we’d at least have had a heads up; but Gearbox and Sega respectively had a cunning ruse – the embargo. You get your free stuff, but to do so Mr. Reviewer, you have to make sure that your review doesn’t go up until the day of release. By that point, the marketing machine is in overdrive and the reviewers sit there, helpless, as they are tied to an agreement that means that they have to stay quiet about the true state of the game in question. The pre-orders filled up after all that hype and marketing and talk of “respect for the Alien franchise”. We all know how that ended up.
The “Review Embargo” really got closely scrutinised though in the wake of this. Admittedly, I was speaking to an actual critic last year – a movie critic, but you know, strange circles – who reminded me that there’s a very serious unwritten rule for movies; it’s that press screenings are generally quite open because the point of them is to get people talking about it. And it doesn’t matter if they’re praising it or ridiculing it – either way is perfectly fine as long as they’re talking about it, and writing about it, and giving it valuable time in the spotlight and precious column inches. At the end of the day, it’s the box office that talks more to them; critics just fuel the fire, as it were. Driving people to see it, either because it’s good or because people think, “Can’t be THAT bad, surely?”
Review Embargoes are frankly from an era long before the Internet, when it took time to trudge around several magazine houses and entertain them (what we did before the Internet, eh?); and long before there was such a free and open network to fuel interest in a product. They also now make people suspicious, which may do more to stifle sales than to actually help them. And reviewers are beginning to grow pairs, after the destruction wrought in the wake of A:CM they have learned that doing nothing risks everything; namely, their jobs and their professional standing. If you’re contemplating a review embargo, answer this simple question; is it because you have no faith in your product otherwise? If that’s the case, then embargo or not, I suspect you already know your product is doomed. May as well get some press for it, at least…
3. ALWAYS ONLINE SINGLE-PLAYER
Every year we have someone who seems to think that demanding an always-on connection to play the single player content of their game will somehow solve piracy, make them lots of money and totally in no way go technically wrong at all at any point whatsoever. UbiSoft, Blizzard, EA… who wants to join that illustrious group of intrepid explorers who got their toes blown off?
It’s not the morality of the DRM that’s the issue; although I could and have written at length about the nasty practices of DRM and how they genuinely don’t reflect the true realities of piracy. Rather, we’re now talking the technical strengths of networks that are designed to handle floods of people from the off; and if Blizzard hasn’t perfected it yet with their millions of customers, what chance does anyone else think they have? I mean, seriously. You’d think we’d have learned a little something about Sod’s Law.
Sod’s Law is a great thing for Always Online; but it’s oft misquoted and actually a law of three parts;
Sod’s First Law is that each and every action taken has a chance of failing.
Sod’s Second Law is that with each successful action, there’s a higher chance of the next one failing.
Sod’s Other Law is that when it does go wrong, the proportional fallout will be equal to the cumulative effort expended in getting to that point.
This is the problem; when an online infrastructure goes into meltdown, it can be very hard to stop it. And it’s not just EA, UbiSoft or Blizzard who will testify to this; Microsoft has had many Live issues. Sony had that whole PSN Hack. Even Nintendo wasn’t prepared for a million or so new users to its family over Christmas, and saw it’s eShop and online network experience outages on Christmas Day, of all days. Whoops! Online networks are temperamental. They do go wrong. What’s this got to do with Always Online? Network Outages happen. But if your single player campaign is tethered to an online server, or that server goes offline or a person experiences a storm that cuts out their Internet, that’s a £50 purchase that effectively cannot be used.
It’s stupid. Single-player content shouldn’t require online connectivity. A few years down the road, those servers will shut and you have a million-or-so copies of a game sold that have the same value as one of my farts. The difference being, my farts will at least serve a useful biological purpose…
More after the jump! Why yes, I’m paging now!