Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mobile games are going bad

Apple was a true visionary when they developed their iPhone platform: Top-of-the-line smartphone with a huge-ass capacitive touchscreen almost the size of the entire phone, with a dynamic software-based keyboard that could be hidden and customized for each application type. Many people, including many other companies, expressed their doubts, but after the astonishing world-wide success of the idea, of course everybody else jumped onto the bandwagon.

The next smart move by Apple was to allow users to develop software for the phone and distribute it through a centralized app store. This also proved an enormous success, and some developers saw their applications selling literally millions of copies.

A curious phenomenon arose: The price of iPhone games were on the 1-2 dollar range, even when virtually the exact same game would cost at the very least 10 dollars on other platforms (and often even more.) I do not know why exactly this happened, but it did.

This became the de-facto standard. When basically every single game would cost 2 dollars or less, it became basically hopeless to try to sell anything at a higher price. Nobody is going to pay 10 dollars for one game when they can get ten games for that money. There are some exceptions, but they are exceedingly rare.

While this is great from the user's perspective, it already was a somewhat worrisome trend for game developers. The exact same game that would sell for something like 20 or 30 dollars on almost any other platform, would need to be sold at like 1 or 2 dollars on the Apple App Store (meaning that it would need to sell something like 20 times more than on those other platforms to give the same revenue, taking into account that Apple takes its own cut from it.) Trying to sell it for 20 dollars would be quite hopeless. (Not that some developers haven't tried, but it just doesn't work.)

At some point Apple had another... "great" idea: Hey, let's support in-app purchasing. This would allow an application to, for example, offer additional content to the user for a fee. For example an online magazine application could offer new content for a monthly fee, or for a per-product fee. Something like an online comic application could sell comic books from within the application itself. And of course games could offer additional content for a fee, or have monthly subscription fees, or the like.

That's all great and good... except for that last part. There's nothing wrong in selling magazines, newspapers, books and other such products, like a virtual newsstand. This is actually a great service. In gaming there are also good possibilities, mainly in the form of DLC's: Additional content (such as additional levels) that you can buy from within the game.

And this worked for a while. However, many game developers discovered a new form of marketing that both lured players into spending more money than they would normally spend, and ruined "normal" forms of game marketing: They would distribute the game for "free", but make the game essentially unplayable without making regular in-app purchases. (While the game is in theory fully playable without spending a dime, in practice it's so tedious that it's virtually impossible.)

This is a dirty tactic for many reasons. For one, it circumvents one of Apple's guidelines for applications: All applications must be fully functional. There can't be permanently disabled parts in the application (either for no apparent reason, or with some kind of "buy the full product to enable this" notification.) If there are parts that are not available in that particular version of the application, it has to be completely hidden or have some basic functionality, other than just being outright visible but disabled. These new games do not have anything disabled per se; they are just hindered beyond playability, unless you make in-app purchases to make them normal.

Secondly, it's a disservice to the user. One could even consider it borderline fraud. The user is offered a "free" game, which kind of works at first glance... but then it turns out that it's actually almost unplayable without buying resources for real money. And these resources are, of course, not of the buy-once-unlock-full-game kind. No, they are spendable resources which are used up. When you run out of them, the game becomes unplayable once again, and you need to buy more.

Ironically, many players will find themselves spending tens, sometimes even hundreds of dollars, on this "free" game. Even more ironically, these same players will still not buy a 10-dollar game (even if that game is fully functional from the get-go and has no in-app purchasing system of any kind.)

Thirdly, and most damningly, this is a disservice for the gaming community and game developers as a whole. If the trend continues, nobody will buy any mobile games anymore, instead just downloading all the "free" games that are available. Why would you actually buy games when you can get them for free? Of course you'll then spend ten times more money (or even more) in in-app purchases because you were lured into playing the game... and got essentially stuck because the game hinders your progress without those resources you need to buy...

If nobody will buy games anymore, this means that it makes no sense to make "honest" mobile games anymore. In other words, games that you just purchase and that's it: You get the whole game, with no need for further spending. This means that other game developers will be forced to make their games "free" as well... thus making this a vicious cycle.

The losers of this vicious cycle are the gamers themselves.

I really hope that this trend will die a quick and painful death. And I really hope that this sickness will not spread to the non-mobile platforms, ie. desktop PCs and consoles.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Online first-person shooter multiplayer games

I'm a really avid consumer of computer games, but there's one broad genre of games that I simply cannot stand: Online multiplayer games in general, and first-person shooter multiplayer games in particular.

During my life I have played probably over a hundred first-person shooter games. I wouldn't say I'm at the level of a pro player, but quite necessarily I'm quite good at those, even at the hardest difficulty settings. So it's not like I'm bad at FPS games.

But if I try an online multiplayer version, it's a completely different story. It's not a set of computer-controlled enemies carefully fine-tuned to give a sensible difficulty level. No, it's human players with years of training.

What happens is that I play for something like 10 seconds, and I die. Then I respawn in a random location, play for like 10 seconds, and I die. Rinse and repeat. In many cases I don't even see where they were shooting from. Sure, sometimes I manage to kill somebody myself, but that doesn't have any kind of satisfaction when I'm dead a couple of seconds later, and I have achieved nothing.

If they made a single-player FPS game like this, it would be complete trash. Nobody would want to play a game like that. What sense does it make to constantly get killed after just a few tens of seconds of gameplay, often from enemies you can't even see? This kind of game would get abysmal reviews and be universally panned.

Add to that the fact that there is no story, there is no goal, there are no quests, no objectives, no progress... nothing. It's just mindless running around the same level over and over and over for hours, killing and getting killed.

Why would anybody want to play a game like this is beyond me. It makes no sense. It's boring, it's repetitive, it's nonsensical, there's nothing happening, and the difficulty level is beyond unyielding. A single-player game like this would be completely horrendous. Yet, apparently, if it's a multiplayer game, it somehow makes everything alright.

For example, some months ago I was at a party, and there was a brand-new PlayStation 4 there, and some Call of Duty, or was it Battlefield, or whatever there. The single-player mode was kind of ok, I suppose. Then we had the idea to try the online mode.

About ten to twenty seconds of gameplay, I'm dead. I wait to respawn, and about ten to twenty seconds of gameplay, I'm dead. Rinse and repeat a few times more. It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. How exactly was that any kind of fun was beyond my comprehension. (Of course I knew it would probably be like this, so I was expecting it. It just confirmed what I already knew.)

And it's not even solely the difficulty level. I'm fine with games like Dark Souls where you die really often because it's (deliberately) so difficult. The difference is that in Dark Souls there is actual progress when you finally beat those difficult enemies. There's a sense of achievement, you get to new places, the story progresses, you gain stuff, you get rewards. You don't simply run aimlessly around the same small level forever, with no progress, no story, nothing.

And then I see praising reviews of online multiplayer games. Are these reviewers mad? Is there something wrong inside their heads? Who wants to play this kind of game? They would never praise a single-player game that was like this, but since it's multiplayer, it somehow magically makes it ok. I cannot comprehend.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Square Enix has completely lost it

I have written about this subject in my old "blog", but it deserves further discussion, as I'm playing their new Final Fantasy XIII-3 right now.

In the 80's, and especially in the 90's, "Square" (and later "Square Enix") was pretty much a synonym for high-quality JRPG gaming. If a game had that company name attached to it, and especially if the name of the game itself had the words "Final" and "Fantasy" in it (although this wasn't a requirement), you were pretty much guaranteed to get a top-quality thoroughly enjoyable AAA game that not only would be fun to play, but would be certain to receive accolades and recognition.

Games like Final Fantasy 6 (confusingly numbered 3 in its original US release) and Final Fantasy 7 are not only rather universally considered some of the best JRPGs ever made, but some of the best games period. (Any "top 100 best games of all time" list is pretty much guaranteed to have either of them, probably both, and probably on the upper half of it.) In fact, all Final Fantasies from the first to about the tenth or so are considered to be extremely good. (Even the worst of the bunch is still considered top quality.)

The game mechanics and form of storytelling of "classical" JRPGs has been extremely successful, with good games of the genre selling millions of copies. For some reason, however, it seems that Square Enix has tried to diverge from the standard formula and try something a bit different, something new.

There's nothing inherently wrong in trying something new, but unfortunately it seems that this experiment has not been very successful and, for some reason, Square Enix seems to be completely unable to get back on track. It seems like they have permanently become lost in the swamp of experimenting with new forms of "JRPG-like" gameplay, for the detriment of their games.

There seems to be one constant in all of their "experiments": Simplification and removal of many of the key concepts that make a traditional JRPG.

Perhaps one of the first games where they started to deviate from the standard formula is The Last Remnant. There is basically no traditional overworld where you can freely move and explore; there is only a very simplified map where you can move from one checkpoint to the next, with basically no freedom of movement. Likewise cities are much smaller, linear and with significantly less to explore than in traditional JRPGs. (Both of these seem to have become extremely common in most JRPGs, even those of other companies. However, Square Enix seems to have taken this to an extreme.)

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is a really odd case worth mentioning. It deviates so much from traditional JRPGs that one could argue that it's not even intended to be one, but instead a spinoff of a rather different genre. (If anything, it resembles more God of War style games than JRPGs.) However, it still deserves mention because rather than being just an independent spinoff in terms of game mechanics, it seems to be that they were experimenting on new mechanics that they could use in their main Final Fantasy series. These include things like complete lack of an overworld and shops (instead the player being able to buy stuff anywhere at any time), and levels consisting almost exclusively of "dungeons". These types of game mechanics seem to have "leaked" to many of their other games as well. (As a game, I found it extremely boring. It was very hard to play through because of lack of interest.)

Dissidia: Final Fantasy also deserves mention, even though it's not a JRPG at all, but instead just a pure fighting game. It deserves mention because of one aspect that seems to also have "leaked" to later games: The complete and total disconnect between the story, the scenery and the gameplay. The story has absolutely nothing to do with the scenery you see on screen, and basically nothing to do with the fighting gameplay. This may be fine for a fighting game like this, but it is certainly not fine when the same thing is done in a main line game.

Then we get the infamous Final Fantasy XIII. Oh, man, where do I even start?

It seems that they removed every single thing that makes a good JRPG a good JRPG. Perhaps the most damning aspect of this game is that it's amazingly linear. You can't even comprehend how mind-bogglingly linear this game is until you play it. This game is more linear than the most linear first-person shooters out there, and this is not an exaggeration. Even the most straightforward brainless FPS game out there is less linear than FF XIII. And the latter is supposed to be an RPG.

A close second is the complete and absolute disconnect between the story and the scenery (does this sound familiar?) Also, the scenery itself is extremely abstract, hard to remember, and doesn't leave any kind of impression. In most JRPGs you can remember places by particular landmarks, particular aspects of the scenery, particular events that happened there, the people that were there, or the like. There's none of this here. (Of course in the end this doesn't really matter. After all, it's not like you will need to return to any previous place. Did I mention how linear this game is? Not only is it astonishingly linear in its level design, it's completely linear in its overall game progress as well.)

The story itself is rather boring, nondescript, hard to follow and very unmemorable. It doesn't help that there's a complete disconnect between the story and the places you are in and the details of those places. You'll be lucky if you remember even 10% of the story by the end of the game.

Motomu Toriyama, the director of the development team, responded to criticism about the linearity of the game by saying: "[It] becomes very difficult to tell a compelling story when you're given that much freedom."

Well, if the story would have been compelling and engaging, it would have been not so bad. However, it wasn't. There was nothing "compelling" about the story.

As for other things, there are no towns nor shops you visit, and instead you can buy anything at any time anywhere (again, does this sound familiar?) NPC's are completely inconsequential and add nothing to the game. While fights are visually impressive looking, and the fighting mechanics are by far the most entertaining part of the game, the fighting is nevertheless very simplified. Don't get me wrong; the fighting was not bad, and as said it was the most entertaining part of the game. It's just that it felt somewhat dumbed-down and simplified. The fighting system was the only reason I was able to complete the game (otherwise I would have stopped out of boredom. The game has extremely little to offer.)

Square Enix clearly learned from their mistakes when they made Final Fantasy XIII-2... but unfortunately not much. While the second game is less linear, has a bit more exploration to it (you can, and sometimes even have to, revisit previous places, oooh...) has some actual shops, and some bits here and there that make it resemble a bit more a traditional JRPG, as well as a story that's slightly easier to follow (although not by much), it still has many problems. It succeeded in being entertaining enough for me to play it through, but it was in no way one of the better games I have played. (I would, for example, prefer FF6 any day instead of this.)

Then there's Final Fantasy XIII-3... Which is once again an oddity.

Granted, I have not yet played the game very far, but so far it's looking pretty bad. I have noticed that if a movie fails to be interesting in the first 15 minutes or so, there's an extremely high likelihood that it won't become interesting later. The same goes for games: If a game fails to be interesting and engaging during the first half-hour or so of gameplay, it's extremely unlikely that the situation will change later. And the situation is looking pretty bad with XIII-3, which I have so far played about 5-10 hours or so.

The storyline is scarce, weak and not very engaging, the quests and especially side quests are confusing and annoying, the controls are somewhat bad, the high difficulty curve at the beginning of the game is not balanced at all, the AI of NPCs is pretty horrible (they get stuck, they get in the way eg. in cutscenes, and they behave in all sorts of erratic and unrealistic ways) and there seems to be a time limit, which is extremely annoying. (I do not know what will happen when the time runs out because I have yet not reached that point. It might be that it has no severe consequences and instead it's just part of the gameplay. However, the worst case scenario would be if it's just game over if the time runs out. I do not know if that's the case, but if it is, I will be quitting the game right there. That would be one of the worst possible things they had ever conceived. Even if there are no severe consequences from the time running out, it's still extremely frustrating and annoying.)

The game puts a lot of emphasis in completing as many side quests as possible, yet makes them annoyingly hard to complete. Many side quests, for instance, require you to find a specific item, and no hint whatsoever is given about where that item may be located. Basically you need to run over the entire town talking to NPCs until you find the item. Once you collect everything you need, you have to go back to the NPC that gave you the task... which is extremely hard to do because the game does not show in any way where that NPC was.

Many games of the genre will show the key locations of side quests and such in a minimap. While this might not be extremely realistic, there's a reason why they do that: It's an anti-frustration measure. FF XIII-3 does not have this (or at least I haven't found a way to turn it on.) It's frustrating to try to remember where some NPC was. (While the scenery is significantly less nondescript than in the two previous games, it's still hard to remember.)

I have a strong urge to stop playing this game. I am still giving it a chance, but it's not looking good.

I really wish Square Enix would return to their glory days. If they just made good old JPRGs (even if they are in full 3D), I would give almost anything. And it's not like this is impossible, because other companies are doing it all the time (such as Namco Tales Studio, with their "Tales of..." series.)