Monday, 8 April 2013

EA: We Can Do Better - A Point-By-Point Rebuttal (and Rant)


Few things in the gaming business are capable of annoying me nowadays - a testament to both the evolution of my natural pessimism to full-on hopelessness and the devolution of the medium in certain respects - but there's a good chance that many of the aforementioned annoyances have their roots firmly planted in EA's business tactics (or lack thereof).

From the most recent missteps regarding SimCity - which has the dubious honor of being one of the few games to get a score reduction in a major publication in lieu of severe server issues, dishonesty regarding the DRM scheme the game uses, as well as the new industry-norm of buggy and/ or unimplemented features - to the more "usual" criticisms against overusing micro-transactions, DLC and DRM, to the continuation of buy-and-shutter tactics that gave EA such a bad name during the turn of the millenium (more recently with Visceral Montreal and EA2D a.k.a. BioWare San Francisco), EA seems keen to go down in gaming history as The Big Evil One.

Moderate-length foreword: I don't like EA. I used to like EA, back when it was called Electronic Arts and made efforts to push the industry forward, instead of down and into the ground. I was practically in love with the Electronic Arts that gave me the Strike series, the Bard's Tale games, the ambitious yet flawed Black & White. Dungeon Keeper. Crusader: No Remorse. Fade to Black! King's Bounty! KKND! Lands of Lore 3! Neuromancer, Nox, Need for Speed! Populous. The Sim City, Syndicate series. The later parts of the Wing Commander and Ultima series! System Shock 2, maybe? Or Theme Park and Hospital? Oh, and all those NBA, NFL, FIFA, NHL games everyone but me is so keen on.

I blame it all on the logo change. Or not...

EA, in short, was a big contender for the Doing It Right award of the millenium. Fast-forward a few years later and EA now seemed to change - slowly at first, but with a momentum that still holds true to this day. 

First it was Origin Systems (We Create Worlds) of Ultima fame. Then came Bullfrog and Westwood. Companies bought, stripped of their intellectual properties, then shut down - unceremoniously, like some kind of used tissue paper, being discarded once it stopped being useful.

Then came the Age of Exploitation - where EA now focused in creating as many big names in the industry, then proceeding to run them all to the ground, sucking them dry of any possible sequel potential by demanding yearly installments in each series. NFL, Need for Speed, Battlefield, Mass Effect, Dead Space - some of the hottest IP's in the industry, pumped for sequels year after year, each offering minute differences with its' predecessors, all in the name of brand exploitation.

Which brings us to the present day. First we have EA President, Frank Gibeau's open letter in February, which among other things announces a new free-to-play racing game, the company's excitement for the PS4's announcement - oh, and the shuttering of Visceral Montreal and BioWare San Francisco. That the letter is titled "Transition Is Our Friend" is another slap in the face, as well as a grim reminder of what kind of minds now run the company.

Presumably, the transition from building to flaming deathtrap is also our friend.

Transition is our friend, indeed! I can only imagine how friendly the aforementioned employees must feel, having transitioned from the relative security of a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of unemployment in today's post-crisis market. There are no words, no words at all, to describe the feeling of bile rising when I first read this letter.

Which, of course, was nothing compared to what happened in the two months between then and now. In the last two months, EA has seemed determined to kill off the (very) small amount of goodwill they still had in their customers. SimCity launched, a disaster by all accounts - from logging servers reaching peak capacity on launch (thus locking customers out of their games), to the dogged defense of the always-online requirement (which was proven wrong by modders), the subsequent retraction of said defenses in favor of branding the game an "MMO experience" rather than a multiplayer-enabled sim game and finally, last night, the release of yet another open letter, this time from EA's COO, Peter Moore, this time titled "We Can Do Better".

The letter can be found at this link, but long story short: EA had been voted last year as U.S.A.'s "Worst Company of 2011" by the Consumerist magazine, "beating" such corporations as BP and the Bank of America. This year, it seems like EA will once again score top (or rather, bottom) marks once again - this letter is probably meant as a rebuttal, or possibly an attempt to convince their customers otherwise.

Here are some of the accusations leveled against them, along with Mr. Moore's rebuttals (in his words, those accusations that "hold no water"). All quotes are taken as-is, with no omissions, from the actual letter.

"Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme.  It’s not.  People still want to argue about it.  We can’t be any clearer – it’s not. Period."

DRM, defined as Digital Rights Management, is widely held to mean any piece of software that attempts to validate the authenticity of a given game, in the main to confirm that it's being used by its' legitimate purchaser. EA has gone on record to say that they consider SimCity as an MMO experience (thus necessitating the always-online requirement). They have also gone on record to state that the GlassBox engine, around which the game is built, does several of its' calculations server-side, so as to free up more resources on the user's end.

Both of these assertions were rendered false and moot, by virtue of a single line of code being altered in the game's files. Oh, and Maxis' own Lucy Bradshaw, which later stated that the game could, in fact, be conceivably made to work offline - with no particular development costs - but didn't, because of some unspecified reason that contained a lot of the word "social".

Above: Twister. Not pictured, Lucy Bradshaw's own twister of statements and take-backs.

Thus, the only plausible reason that the always-online requirement has remained (when an offline mode could have been implemented alongside the onine segment of the game at no particular cost) is due to the need for customer control, as a system for confirming the authenticity of the software. In other words, DRM.

"Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam.  45 million registered users are proving that wrong."

Like I mention above, I am not currently a big fan of EA. Another reason for that is their sheer determination in forcing down my throat a digital distribution client (Origin) - a client I currently use, but not due to better features (such as linking your software library's contents, to changing your screen name to something already in use, to presenting your storefront in a functional and easy-on-the-eyes way) and certainly not due to offering better deals. Instead, the reason I use Origin is because of exclusivity. 

Mass Effect, Battlefield, SimCity, Crysis, Dead Space. The most recent installments in these series are Origin-exclusives (while their previous entries you're in all probability likely to own through a different digital platform), thus leaving me with the feeling I've been strong-armed into installing and using a service I have no other reason in using.

The most baffling thing, though, is that with all their resources, material or otherwise, EA can't even do as simple a thing as copy their biggest competitor - Steam, in which I already own upwards of 400 games - in things such as functionality, features, value. Sales, every single day, during most holidays and usually as deep as 80%? Nope. Optional social networking features, such as sharing screenshots, guides, videos and profile customization? Nope. Cloud services, unified achievement system, multiplayer platform capabilities. Screw that noise. Hell, I'd even have settled for an advanced search function with filters and the ability to see offers in the front page, instead of checking third-party sites for them; Origin seems to be determined to stay mediocre.

What's rubbing me wrong the most with the above statement though, is the 45 million mark. Notice it refers to "registered" users, when it's possible to make a free "placeholder" account with no games in it. Then again, that might account for about half a million, right? How about also removing the users of all those "Origin exclusive" games? After all, if your customer doesn't have a choice, any competition is non-existent. That should account for about 20 million, give or take a few - shared between the BF3, Dead Space 3, Mass Effect 3, Crysis 3 and SimCity (not 3) communities. Oh, and let's not forget Star Wars: The Old Republic's player base, which requires an Origin account even when the client is not in use. Since it's turned to a Free-To-Play model (very restrictive, by the way), I'd estimate the total player base at about 2 million. 

Thus, the 45 million mark drops to about 25 millions of registered, not concurrent, users.

Tens of millions playing
these? I think not.
"Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming.  Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games."

As with the previous statement, a lot of number-juggling here. No actual number provided. No sources provided (the previous statement is exempt, since EA is by all rights the source of metrics). Also, the thought occurs that while "tens of millions" might be playing a Free-To-Play title, none of them are (or should be) required to dig into those micro-transactions.

The hope here, I think, is to use a conjunction of two statements to hide the truth. Millions of players might indeed play and enjoy a Free-To-Play title (though there's no clarification if it's an EA Free-To-Play title). Some people indeed think that EA's DLC policies are taken too far (as an example, look no further than the Sims 3 list of gazillion DLC packs). Nowhere, however, is it explicitly stated that tens of millions of people play and enjoy EA free-to-play titles and/or EA titles with micro-transactions.

After a brief browsing of the Origin store page on "Free Games", I can only find thirteen or so games, half of which are the sort of casual fare (such as Monopoly or Mahjong), a couple are relatively unknown shooters (clones of other, more popular contemporaries), a couple of browser-based installments of the C&C and Ultima series and the only "big" names in the list are SW:TOR, BF: Heroes and NFS: World.

Therefore, EA does not in fact own any serious amount of Free-To-Play titles/ player bases and as a result the above point is rendered redundant/ useless in the "Worst Company" argument.

Edit: I was recently reminded (via Twitter user @JediMB - thanks a lot!) that Mr. Moore was more likely to be referring to their Free-To-Play library of mobile device games - an area of gaming I've not invested any significant amount of money or time in. Lack of research on my part aside, it'd still be nice of Mr. Moore to give some actual numbers - "tens of millions" sounds terribly vague.

I'm also curious - was there an actual point to this statement, in regards to the whole "Worst Company of 2012" argument? Despite the obvious "we're doing well, regardless of bad public opinion" that's possibly aimed at allaying investor fears, I can't think of a good reason. If anything, having tens of millions of happy customers would do a lot in safeguarding against the aforementioned "award".

"We’ve seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really…"

While this is the single point I'm willing to concede to Mr. Moore, I have to ask: Does it really matter? By his own writing, there's 45 million happy customers (based on Origin accounts currently registered; again, not active but just registered) - surely the one or so million of unhappy sports jocks that hate your new cover aren't much cause for concern?

Unless the controversy has more to do with last year's cover vote - one that cast Michael Vick as a possible cover athlete for Madden NFL 2012. In this case I'm sorry, but frankly if you decide to even consider a controversial figure such as Mr. Vick for your cover, you probably deserve at least some disgruntled fans.

"In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games.  This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America."

Again, no source. How many are these "conservative" sites? What's their user count like? Are these "thousands" of email/ postcard senders the number you expect to vote against you in the Consumerist poll? What game is this, anyway, that allows for BT characters to be created (LG, yes, in Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 at any rate)?

And this is what gives me the biggest bile-attack by far. The shameless attempt to piggy-back their way onto a very real, serious issue - discrimination against the LGBT community around the world - in a bid to win some sort of sympathy vote, or perhaps to calm investors, or maybe just to save face from the disaster that a second consecutive year as Worst Company In America would be.

Lastly, this great gem from the final paragraph:

"Origin is breaking records for revenue and users"

Which would have been hilarious in its' own way, had it not been preceded by CEO John Riccitiello's resign, just two weeks prior due in part to - you guessed it - "shortcomings in [EA's] financial results". So much for breaking a revenue record.

Screenshots courtesy of EA and the SimCity site.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Games I've Been Playing: Legend of Grimrock

After careful deliberation, I've decided to try a less formal mode of writing for the next few posts, which will also coincide with a recap of my gaming life in the past year. So, in short:

In these next few blog posts I'll be describing the few games that kept me company during last year's absence (which I've already talked about in a previous post). Starting things off is Legend of Grimrock, a retro-inspired dungeon crawler made by  newcomers Almost Human Games.

It's not hard to see why Legend of Grimrock would appeal so strongly to my demographic (aged 30-ish and above), as we've been practically raised on this kind of game - first person dungeon crawlers where you must fight tooth and claw against not only monsters but the environment itself and the cleverly-built traps the dungeon's makers have devised. Such examples that still evoke a smile and pleasant memories include Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima Underworld and a multitude of similar games that had but one premise: survive the traps, gear up your characters, slay monsters and maybe, just maybe, you will live long enough to escape captivity.

Legend of Grimrock aims to bring all this to the present, wrapping up the core gameplay ideas of the genre in a new engine (which, as of this writing, has just been upgraded with a great, easy-to-use dungeon creation toolkit), bringing it more in line with modern releases. For the most part, it succeeds.

The dungeon creator: More games should come with tools like these.

The game's story is (predictably) simple: your group of four (custom or pre-made) prisoners has been thrown into Mount Grimrock for unspecified crimes. Mount Grimrock is a vast network of underground dungeons and caves, infested with monsters and riddled with traps; thus it has become a standard means of disposing prisoners in the game's world. From there, there is precious little in the way of a plot - aside from some notes left behind by Toorum, a previous prisoner and a series of (mostly) incomprehensible "dreams" your characters have at set intervals, the story never proceeds past the general "escape Grimrock" premise.

I feel that Almost Human missed the opportunity to incorporate a few cosmology-establishing facts, like how Mount Grimrock came to be, where did the builders of the dungeons disappear to and a lot of other questions could have been answered via environmental storytelling (the aforementioned Toorum notes could have been expanded in this regard).

The character generator, in all its glory.
However, what Grimrock lacks in a solid story it more than makes up for in gameplay. At the start of the game, the player is given the choice to create a new party from scratch (there is also a choice for a pre-made party, which I haven't tried); the standard trinity of fighter, mage, rogue are present - as is the usual quartet of strength, dexterity, vitality and wisdom, which in turn affect a series of secondary statistics such as attack power, accuracy and health. There's also a choice of races between humans (all-round characters with no particular benefits), minotaurs (extremely strong but require more food than other races), insectoids (which are frail, but make excellent spellcasters) and lizardmen (the most agile of the bunch). Finally, there are choices for skills (which give benefits at certain thresholds) and two perks, which serve mostly as fine-tuning options for boosting secondary statistics.

Skill points are one of the few ways to strengthen your characters.

My only gripe with the character creator is that, for all the choices available, there are certain builds that are highly favorable and advantageous, while the rest underperform - thus forcing the player into building "what works best" in order to avoid difficulties in the later stages of the game.

Simple mechanics such as weighing down pressure plates...

The level design also merits specific mention, as Almost Human has shown themselves to be masters of the discipline; the game does a great job of introducing the (relatively few) puzzle parts in the early levels, such as pressure plates, teleporters and torch sconces - in lower floors these simple components are combined into ingenious puzzles, often leaving me stumped for a good deal of time before figuring the deceptively simple solutions and walking away with a lovely feeling of accomplishment.

...are later combined in clever ways to hinder the player's progress.

Lastly, combat. I found this part to be a mixed bag, as it keeps an aspect of the old-school dungeon crawling mindset I've never been fond of: circle-strafing. More specifically, the enemies in the game are mainly hard but not impossible; even early enemies such as giant snails and the mushroom-themed myconids can pose a challenge to a careless player but more often than not a fight's difficulty is more dependent on the level design itself - narrow corridors proved to be the bane of my party on more than one occasion as there was no space in which to strafe around my enemies, thus preventing them from attacking altogether if I was sufficiently fast on the movement keys. For this reason, several of the battles (especially in lower floors) felt very mechanical and stiff in nature, as I merely kept side-stepping around enemies before their "turn" animations could finish playing, then chipping away at their health - repeating as necessary until I won.

Combat: An affair of side-stepping more than anything else.

In conclusion, Legend of Grimrock is a very enjoyable game if you can "get" into the mindset of the genre; for older gamers it feels like a highly-polished revival of one of the prime genres of the 80's, while also being a great introduction for younger gamers that might otherwise be put off by the graphics of these oldies.

Resources
========
*Legend of Grimrock Official Site

Thursday, 27 September 2012

One Year Later...

So, for those dedicated souls that were reading my blog habitually (all five of you), it must have felt like a very abrupt stop to my posts. There are several good reasons for this:

Most of my time was spent divided between my senior year's studies (final year of college) and the end of semester presentation for my Industrial Informatics degree (something akin to a thesis in more theoretical circles). Between juggling classes for Robotics, Integrated Circuitry, Artificial Intelligence and about ten other subjects and trying to assemble, program and case-test what turned out to be a monster of a stand-alone server (based on an STK600 MCU - now exactly my first choice but you have to work with what you are given, eh?) and companion Android app, time was scarce for much of gaming.

Faulty and dangerous, best of both worlds
(I actually managed to solder a few wires before being burned!)

As a result of that, the few hours I could have spared for blog post were either used for sleep or (rarely) for those few social interactions I could manage outside of the project/ studies circle.

WAVECOM GSM Modem: About €50
Finding out it's faulty a month before the deadline: Priceless

A tiny amount of time was also spent recuperating from a minor nervous breakdown that resulted from actually trying to do the entire thing within four months (the standard semester duration, sans holidays) and having to deal with the inefficiency of local businesses and civil services (including, but not limited to, faulty hardware being delivered for the project, my laptop's power supply frying due to power surges caused by the power company going on strike and lack of government funding for the aforementioned project due to technicalities) and a ten-day long gastroenteritis period right before the end-term exams began.

Even the presentation was plagued by the college's inefficiency;
table was dragooned from a nearby student gathering.

Whew.

I've since moved back home (sans degree, yet) and between job-hunting, apartment-seeking and general restructuring of that social life thing, I've once again become somewhat active in gaming; long story short, expect a few new blog posts in the upcoming days .




Sunday, 25 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Impressions


Disclaimer: This opinion piece is based on the "Give me Deus Ex" difficulty (i.e. highest difficulty) - while the article notes which parts are likely to differ in gameplay due to difficulty, a few discrepancies might occur.

Additionally, this article contains copious amount of spoilers; read at your discretion.

The Deus Ex brand (derived from the "deus ex machina" literary technique) has become a household name among PC gaming circles ever since the first game's release in 2000; presenting a rare degree of coherent and involving storytelling, intelligent design, a gripping narrative and - above all - the hitherto unseen ability of multiple paths across any of the game's levels.

The game is generous with its flavor text, ranging
from emails and public announcements...

Now, after eleven years (and a surprisingly mediocre sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War), the franchise returns with Human Revolution. The game is styled as a prequel to the original, featuring a dystopian society that has begun to witness the next degree of human advancement; bio-mechanical augmentation of the human body, ranging from minor prosthesis (such as cognitive aids) to full body-part replacement.

The game spends a great deal of energy to develop a believable world; the environments are designed in such a way as to reflect the recent technological advancements, the various overheard conversations hint at the side-effects of such breakthroughs, even discarded newspapers and compromised mail accounts color the world with a pessimistic, dystopian hue - this also presents one of the title's minor problems, as most of the "flavor" text is easy to miss for a player not in the appropriate frame of mind, rewarding careful exploration and a slower pace while "penalizing" faster, all-guns-blazing approaches (something which the developer fails to communicate to the player properly).

...to overheard conversations in the streets of
any of the major city hubs.

In fact, the entire game seems to be favoring the stealthier approach to any given problem; neutralizing opponents without killing them, hacking doors and security systems (even when having the correct login credentials), finding side-passages (almost always ventilation shafts) and completing objectives without being detected will always award more experience than their more combat-heavy parallels.

This would not be a problem normally, except that the game has been marketed heavily as a "suit all styles" game - rewarding one play style while penalizing the other (by withholding said rewards) seems like a bad design choice, especially when with some tweaking it would have made a more (apparently) fair and even system (for example, while there is a "No Detection" bonus, there could also be a "Clear All Enemies" bonus to accommodate players of a more aggressive mindset).

DX: HR sadly rewards stealth far better than
aggressive playing, despite previous indications.
The game begins with protagonist Adam Jensen getting a tour of Sarif Industries (one of the game's major factions), where he works as a chief of security; it is worth noting that at the onset, Adam is not augmented - the game does a great job of highlighting his vulnerability, with large groups of enemies proving to be vastly difficult challenges (as one would expect realistically), although the final fire-fight might be a bit too hard (on the highest difficulty setting - I assume lower difficulties have an easier time of the encounter).


At the tutorial's end, in which Sarif Industries is invaded by a mercenary army which massacres the on-site personnel, Adam sustains heavy injuries; this allows the game to introduce the augmentation mechanic, which has been used in an effort to save Jensen's life. The developers opted for a free-form upgrade system; each of the possible augmentations (corresponding to various body parts) can be acquired by spending Praxis points (earned via in-game items and at specific experience point thresholds) - there is no preset path of upgrades; every upgrade is available at any point in the game, provided the player has the required Praxis to unlock it.

The inventory system is highly intuitive; note the
ability to rotate any item to fit.
This offers a wide variety of approaches and play-styles throughout the early levels - sadly this does not persist, as by mid-game a particularly stealth-oriented character can gain enough exp. and Praxis kits to unlock nearly every augmentation (though upgrading them all takes a good deal more time). This eventually robs the game of replayability - from a certain point onwards Adam reaches a "default" level of power, diminishing the upgrade mechanic to a mere point-sink.


The augmentations themselves are interesting for the most part, offering a wide variety of tools to suit each play-style: from the stealthier "Glass Shield Cloaking System" augmentation that renders Adam near-invisible for a limited amount of time, to the more aggressive "Typhoon Explosive System" augmentation that blasts nearby enemies, to the more exploration-centric "Icarus Landing System" which allows Jensen to fall off great heights with no injury.

The augmentation mechanic feels highly rewarding,
even if it offers its entire contents after a certain point.
The energy system for these abilities has been balanced against overuse; every single activated ability (including silent takedowns, stealth, breaking down walls and running silently) shares a common energy pool - while it depletes in a rapid fashion, the final "cell" recharges over time, ensuring both that players are less likely to get irrevocably stuck and are rewarded for conservative use.

The combat itself is weirdly balanced; as mentioned above, stealthy characters are rewarded over their action-oriented counterparts, which is itself the result of both the level design and experience system - the levels favor stealth, with multiple side-routes built into nearly all combat areas, while experience awarded for stealth/non-lethal methods outweighs its more direct/lethal analogues.

Boss fights, the game's second-worst element, was
apparently outsourced to a different studio.
Sadly, while the general combat and navigation is well-executed (if a bit stealth-oriented), the boss fights are a different story. At specific points in the game, certain characters will challenge Adam to one-on-one combat (usually after a cutscene); these NPC's are badly characterized, with no apparent motivation nor reason for wanting to hinder the player's progress - these fights are also very combat-oriented, presenting an unfair disadvantage to players who (up to that point) had to rely on stealth and hacking skills to advance.

This shift in pacing is also apparent in the game's finale, which has Adam literally decide on the ending by activating the corresponding console, thus invalidating (in a certain degree) the choices the player has taken up to that point - all while being spoon-fed a good deal of exposition by one of the game's NPC's. The endings themselves are also highly disappointing: each consisting of a short collection of still images coupled with Adam's narration, who justifies his choice - no mention is made of the fates of the game's major factions or characters, thus denying closure to the player.

Ultimately, while the game succeeds in building a consistent, believable world with an intriguing narrative and an interesting combat implementation, its shifts in focus (boss fights), unfairly balanced experience/augmentation system (stealth vs. combat) and disappointing endings rob it of the all-time classic status.

Resources
=======
* Deus Ex: Human Revolution Official Site (requires age check)
* Deus Ex Series - Wikipedia Entry
* Deus Ex Wiki
* "Deus ex machina" - Wikipedia Entry