Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I took a walk on the dark side

Just finished Darksiders and really enjoyed it. You play War, horseman of the Apocalypse, looking for vengeance after he has been framed for the premature roll out of Armageddon. With great post apocalyptic artwork, hordes of demons to slay, loot to collect, monstrous bosses to overcome and puzzles aplenty to solve this game has something for everyone. Some critics have accused the game of being a rip off combination of Zelda and God of War but not being a seasoned action adventure gamer it was fresh and new to me and I thought it was great (even though I did spot some borrowings from Guild Wars and also from Portal).

Third person action adventure games often don't transfer well to the PC because of the control scheme but I am pleased to report that the mouse and keyboard controls are very good in this case. Half way through the game I invested in an Xbox 360 controller so I managed to compare both control schemes. Movement is definitely easier with the controller but aiming is far better with mouse than with a controller. The net result is that combat is better with the controller but many of the puzzle parts of the game (which require precise aiming) are actually better with mouse and keyboard. It's a reasonable trade off with the controller just shading it overall.

As an action adventure noob I was worried that I might hit a difficulty brick wall that my middle aged reflexes would not be able to climb. Happily this turned out not to be the case. Playing on normal I found the going easy enough in general and the boss fights tend to depend on finding the right strategy rather than lightning reflexes. The game is made considerably easier by War's huge late game health pool and by the ability to carry multiple potions which fully replenish it. A word of warning - get in to the habit of always carrying a few spare health potions even though you don't need them for most fights. I made the mistake of tackling a nasty spider boss without any pots and with no way to go back and replenish them. I had to replay the battle over and over, losing out by seconds every time until I finally succeeded. A single health pot would have made all the difference.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why I am watching Harry Potter films every night this week.

A dozen or so years ago I picked up a copy of the first Harry Potter book to read on a plane. I knew it was a children's book but the J.K. Rowling phenomenon had already begun and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. I finished the book during the transatlantic flight home, satisfied that I had seen enough of Potter to know what it was about but not feeling the need to follow up on the rest of the series.

Curious fact: Since I was travelling home from the USA the American imprint of the book I acquired had the title changed because the word "Philosopher" was deemed to be unacceptable to a US audience at that time so it was replaced with the word "Sorcerer".

Anyway that would have been the end of my flirtation with Harry Potter had not my own daughter caught a severe case of Harry Potteritus more than a decade later. It took her less than a month to read all of the novels and watch all of the films to date.

Needless to say the recent release of the final film has been a source of much anticipation and the entire family has been convinced to go along for the occasion. Which is all very well except that none of the rest of us had been keeping up with the saga. Therefore in an unprecedented display of family solidarity we have been sitting in front of the TV every night this week watching the films in sequential order. We finished number six last night so only number 7a is left tonight before watching the finale on the big screen on Sunday.

Don't ask me for an opinion on the quality of the films. With such an overdose of Harry Potter in such a short period of time it is impossible to make an objective judgement. I have a vague impression that the story is getting better as we approach the end but last Saturday and "The Philosopher's Stone" seems like such a long time away that I cannot be sure. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dead Space 2 Finished

Very Enjoyable Sci Fi Shooter. Very faithful sequel to the first game. Strong on storyline and action. Very gory but not offensive I thought. A few scares but most of the time the fighting is too intense to feel really creepy. Great selection of weapons and upgrade system allows customisation..  One thing I noticed for the better from the first game is that the PC controls feel a lot more responsive. The control scheme is the same so they must just have tweaked a few timings. Overall it makes the game more enjoyable to play.

My Favorite Weapons:
Early Game - Pulse Rifle  /  End Game - Ripper (spinning blade)

Favourite Chapter:
14 ( The penultimate chapter) - a flood of tough enemies gives no time for a breather as you try to fight your way through to the key objective. Exciting stuff.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Steam's Version of Dead Space 2 Broken By DLC

A magic vending machine at the start of Dead Space 2 spews out the best equipment in the game for nothing.  

In the original Dead Space you had to collect cash and other loot from corpses in order to exchange for increasingly better weapons and armour which gradually became available from vending machines as you progressed through the game. Dead Space 2 (bought recently in Steam Sale) appears to use the same mechanic so I was quite surprised to find that that the very first vending machine I came across seemed to be surprisingly well stocked. Not only did it contain upgraded versions of all of the game's weapons and armour but it was giving them all away for free!

My first thought was that this was some kind of tutorial mode. I have seen similar things in other games where your character starts out with all his powers but a triggered event at the end of the tutorial strips them all away until you earn them back through the course of the game. This is not the case here however. These super weapons are yours to keep for good.

A helpful post on the Steam forums sheds some light on the issue. Apparently these goodies are all extra downloadable content that for some reason comes bundled free with the Steam install. For many players including myself this is actually a game breaking flaw because it makes it difficult to experience the game as the developers intended. It is not just a matter of ignoring the obvious high end items. In the Steam version even basic items like ammunition and health packs that are supposed to be in short supply are unlocked at the beginning of the game and much more plentiful because of this.

There does not seem to be a way as of yet to remove the unwanted DLC from the Steam install but happily the respondents to that forum post figured out that you can use a Steam code to download the unmodified game directly from EA via the new Origin web store.

Apparently there is some kind of spat going on between Valve and EA at the moment but whether or not that has anything to do with this inconvenience I do not know. If however you bought the game from Steam and would prefer to play the original version without overpowered DLC then you can find instructions on how to do so in the forum post linked above. Not having used Origin before the process was a bit non intuitive for me so I detailed my step by step experience in post number 105 under the moniker of Liambp (Life is a ...geddit?).

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Steam's 2011 Summer Sale Not So Sizzling. Is it the end of an era?

Zoso blogged that unusually for him he hasn't bought anything yet in Steam's Summer sale. I noticed a similar lack of enthusiasm myself and when I asked in Twitter quite a few respondents commented that they had yet to be tempted by the bargains on offer.

From my own perspective neither the games nor the pricing has been all that tempting although I have picked up one game so far: Darksiders. Significantly none of the triple A games seem to have the sort of spectacular discounts that I remember from previous sales. In fact none of the bargains has surprised me. Everything I have seen so far has already been on sale already at some time and probably will be again so I don't feel any need to take a plunge.

Perhaps there is juicier fare to come later or perhaps we are just jaded with too many sales. On the other hand could it be that maybe the era of give away sales is drawing to  a close and the time of game pricing madness is coming to an end?

Single Player Gaming Update: Crysis 2 and Medal of Honor (2010)

I played the single player campaign of Crysis 2 a couple of weeks ago. I found the single player campaign to be short and enjoyable. This game adds the ability to upgrade your nano suit which allows for a limited amount of variety which is nice. The New York location makes for a nice change from the tropical island setting of the previous games as well. Overall this game did not seem to be be as "big" a game as the previous two episodes. That isn't just a matter of length, it seems to me that Crysis 2 has less variety of scenarios and enemies than the previous games and is more on rails. One simple example is that you can no longer just jump into any vehicle you see and use it. There are a few vehicular segments but they run pretty much on rails. Still good though, just not as good. Crytek brought out a super duper DX11 graphics patch the day after I finished the game. I installed it and replayed a couple of levels but to be honest I didn't really notice the difference. The base game looked good enough for me.

Next on to Medal of Honor 2010, EA's attempt to tackle modern warfare and dethrone Activision's Call of Duty series.  This was something of a disappointment. Although the game combines all the elements in its Afghanistan setting with high tech tier 1 soldiers combating hundreds of Taliban it is far less polished than Activision's games. The "on rails" nature of the campaign is emphasised to the point of annoyance. In many segments for example the game automatically switches you to a certain weapon regardless of whether or not you were previously carrying that weapon in the inventory. You might think that such hand holding would make a game easier but amazingly it sometimes makes it harder. In one example my buddy asked me to snipe enemies on a far away hill. Luckily I had a sniper rifle in my inventory so I pulled it out and scanned the hill for targets. Unfortunately it was very dark and I couldn't see much through the limited zoom on my scope.  I fired away at imaginary targets for several minutes while my npc buddy berated me for not killing any enemy. Then, more by chance than design, I took a few steps forward and hit an invisible trigger point. Abracadabra I was suddenly wielding a super duper sniper rifle with night vision long range scope. Arghhh. Similar magical trigger points occur throughout the game and combined with unskippable cut scenes they are a damned nuisance.

I found that this game also raises a few issues in relation to the asymmetrical nature of the conflict.  At least in WWII games your opponents had similar levels of technology to you but In Afghanistan playing as a US soldier you are equipped with state of the art weaponry while your opponents wield 1950's era AK47s and RPGs. In order to provide some challenge the game throws hundred of them against you but you would need to be entirely devoid of a conscience to not have some qualms about destroying entire Afghan villages just to rescue one marine not to mention the limited opportunities it presents for exciting game play. To be honest from a pure game play point of view it would probably be more entertaining to play a badly equipped Taliban fighting the might of the USA but I can understand why this would not be politically acceptable in the Western market. For these reasons I am not entirely convinced it makes sense to use ongoing conflicts as a platform for games - better to stick with historical conflicts or with fictional ones.

I didn't try multiplayer on either of these games. 

Is free to play really the best business model? (part 3)

In part 1 I reflected on how successful free to play is as a business model. In part 2 I looked at a flaw in that business model that could leave it open to competition. Now I want to ask what business model might be better for online games in the long run?

The common flaw that I see in both the traditional subscription model and the free to play model is that customers are not paying for the costs they incur. In a subscription game casuals pay too much and committed players pay too little. In a free to play game casuals pay too little and committed players pay too much. To date "lock in" has tended to distort the market and prevent real price competition which would expose this inefficiency but if some smart competitor starts offering "equal status transfers " where you can carry all of  your accumulated standing from one game to a new one then that lock in could quickly become irrelevant.

The best protection against this form of competition is to charge customers according to the costs they incur. For most games this probably means a combination charge consisting of a fixed standing charge and an hourly usage charge.If you have a small number of players then the fixed costs probably dominate and you may find a fixed monthly sub makes the most sense. If you have a lot of players however you may be able to dilute the fixed costs sufficiently to eliminate the standing charge and an hourly charge makes most sense.

If you do this right and match your price to the costs incurred then you shouldn't have any vulnerable segments of your customer base who are exposed to predatory capture. If someone does undercut your price then they are probably losing money.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Is free to play really the best business model? (part 2)

The biggest flaw I can see with current realisations of the free to play model is that a company relies on relatively small set of committed players to generate almost all of their revenue while a much larger number are enjoying some of the benefits of the game while paying little or nothing.

Case in point: Tobold, a committed player,  has spent €250 and has enjoyed 2,500 tank battles (if I am reading him correctly). I, a more casual player, have spent €10 and have enjoyed 400 tank battles. Of course direct comparison of tank battles is not the full story and it is entirely possible that Tobold has gotten great enjoyment out of acquiring and using high level tanks while I have wallowed in the low end. Nevertheless I can say I have enjoyed my time and I am certain that Tobold did not get 25 times more entertainment from the game than I did despite having spent 25 times as much.

So in a free to play game committed players are subsidising the more casual. Cross subsidy is nothing new. In a subscription game the casual player subsidises the hard core and surely that seems less fair. My worry about cross subsidy has nothing to do with fairness however. My worry is that it creates a vulnerability in the business model.  If you are relying on a small group to pay above their share and therefore subsidise everyone else then your entire business is very exposed to a competitor who creates a new product which offers the same benefits but gives a better deal to that hard core of paying customers. That is easy to do because those customers are already paying way more than their cost so there is plenty of room for a competitor to undercut you and still make a profit.

Of course this assumes that online gaming is an efficient market and that players will make rational decisions based on price.This doesn't really happen because players get locked in to the online games they spend so much time in. A player who has spent hundreds of hours getting to the upper tiers of World of Tanks is not going to be tempted to go back and start at tier 1 of a competing game just because it will cost them a few dollars less every month.

The success of free to play however shows that customers will make decisions based on price (free is a very attractive price)  and lock in is not such an unassailable bulwark as might be assumed.  All a competitor has to do is to mirror the benefits you have accrued in the original game. This is already standard practise in other industries. For example I have a healthy no claims discount built up on my car insurance but I can go to a competing company and they will honour that  discount in order to convince me to switch.

So here is my plan to undermine a successful free to play game:

1. Make a copy of the successful free to play game that is as close as you can legally get away with. World of Tanks is particularly vulnerable here because all of the subject matter is in the public domain.

2. Concoct a pricing model that offers substantially better value to hardcore players but still makes you a profit on those players.

3. Create a frictionless transfer mechanism that allows players of old game to carry all of their accrued benefits and experience over into your new game. Allow this at an individual and at a  group level - whole guilds can transfer over at the click of a button and start up exactly where they left off.

4. Advertise heavily and use whatever dirty tricks you need to to convince committed players to try out your new game. They have nothing to lose because they won't lose their old game accounts if they come over and try your game.

5. Cream off a hefty percentage of the committed paying players and enjoy your profits while leaving the original game with an excess of non paying casual players.

Could this happen? Well if you doubt that it is possible to make a high quality copy of a game that stays faithful to the original but doesn't break the law then just browse the catalogue of Game Loft. The only novelty in my plan is the suggestion that players should be allowed transfer their status and achievements from one game to another. For this to work it also means that you need to have your end game sorted on launch day. Many games launch with a polished newbie experience but limited end game in the hope that the end game will sort itself out by the time new players get to it. I am proposing that you ignore the newbie experience and instead polish the end game because you want committed paying players to transfer straight into it.

In part three (tomorrow hopefully) I will ask if another business model would actually prove to be better in the long run than free to play. 

Monday, July 04, 2011

Is free to play really the best business model? (part 1)

World of Tanks has a very successful business model. They have an entertaining game which has attracted millions of players and a lot of those players are spending significant  amounts of money on the game. A recent post from Tobold suggests that he has already spent €250 on the game and can see himself continuing to spend €100 per month in the future. Perhaps the most significant feature of all this is that those players who have spent money on the game seem very content to have done so. The most common comment is "It was worth it".

You cannot argue with success and this is clearly a successful business:  Customers who are willingly spending money and who are happy with what they are getting for it. The success of World of Tanks marks another milestone for so called "free to play" games. Adding this success to previous reports of increased profits from companies who switched their games from subscription only to free to play has left very little room for those who doubt the efficacy of the free to play model. Success breeds imitation so you can bet we are going to see more free to play games, a lot more of them.

I am feeling argumentative though so in tomorrow's post I want to play devil's advocate and expose a flaw in the free to play business model.

Friday, July 01, 2011

New insights into tankophobia

Following my confessional post yesterday about my fear of losing battles in World of Tanks I spent some time playing the game to try and get a better handle on what is going on.

I hadn't played for a while so I quite enjoyed the session. I even made a conscious effort to play more creatively and stop being constrained by second hand strategies. So far so good but my dislike of losing battles remains and now I have a better insight into the reason for it:

It all boils down to the daily double experience bonus that you get for the first winning battle of the day on every tank. A handy icon on the tank portrait reminds you which tanks have not yet claimed this experience windfall for the day.

While the double XP bonus is a boon it also becomes a daily chore. I log on and see the tanks in my stable all demanding to be played until they achieve a win.Without consciously realising it I had slipped into a pattern of keeping playing until every tank had gotten its bonus. Only then would I allow myself to stop. I currently have six tanks in my stable so given the 50:50 chance of a victory that means I "have to" play 12 matches on average to get the bonus on every one. Some days I will be lucky and win my first six battles. Some days I will have to play 20 or more battles. 

Note how the existence of a daily reward has turned what should be a fun activity into a daily chore. Notice in particular how I have come to hate losing games because every loss means I have to play at least one more round until I get the win and finish my job for the day. 

PS: I am pretty sure the 12 matches on average to get 6 wins figure is right but I am currently having a mental statistics block and I am not sure how to prove it.

Apparently I have a coffee problem

 A couple of weeks ago my wife alerted me to the fact that I had developed an occasional odour problem. This surprised and distressed me som...