rant

The Soapbox: Evaluating gaming monetization through the lens of Nintendo’s mobile history

Bloggers and journalists throughout the online gaming industry have been talking about monetization a lot lately. It’s not just lockbox/gachapon scandals, or their relationship with gambling, but basic monetization and what we want from it. Games, after all, don’t make themselves; we have to pay for something to make that happen. But some gamers seem to view free-to-play games as a game that should be free, not one to be supported if it earns respect. And on the flipside of that, far too few game studios give off a vibe not of experimenting with monetization but of maximizing profits above all else while barely veiling their greed.

However, outside the MMO world, there is a company that’s been doing it “right” for a long time: Nintendo. The AAA developer/publisher is known for both innovation and hesitance, following in others’ footsteps with great trepidation, trying to figure out the ins and outs while entering the mobile market long after it’s been established. The company recently released a new mobile title, but what’s interesting is that it and the company’s last four games are all different genres with different monetization strategies. Exploring these titles and their relationship to their monetization plans will not only highlight the potential success of the models but hint at why they work and how they can be curbed into models gamers and lawmakers can better accept.

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The Soapbox: Inconvenience is not immersion in MMOs or anywhere else

Inconvenience is not immersion.

This strikes me as something rather ridiculous to type; to mildly paraphrase Dan Harmon, it seems like should be one of the more automatic things to tell people, like “I am a human being” or “I have skin” or “I breathe oxygen.” And yet I see this coming up, time and again, the idea that accessibility is somehow a boundary to immersion. Or that you need this sort of tedium in order to have genuine roleplaying or some other tribute to broken mishmashes and unnecessary inconvenience.

Except that, as mentioned, inconvenience is not immersion. They mean two different things. If you’re conflating the two, you’re pushing two unrelated concepts together in a way usually seen in clueless movie executives. (“This movie about young adults with a love triangle did well, so every movie with young adults probably needs a love triangle.”) You are, I assume, smarter than that.

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The Soapbox: The long tail of game development isn’t an excuse for gouging

Don’t be too mad at Star Wars: Battlefront II. It’s a symptom of a problem, not the cause. I mean, be mad at people dumb enough to put the blame for negative reactions on the press, that’s just plain stupid. But at the heart of the matter is a problem that’s actually choking through game development all the way down the line.

Because while people are talking about “well, maybe games need to cost more” (and that aforementioned none-too-wise comment of an analyst does precisely that), the reality is that this would still be happening no matter what. The problem is not a matter of Battlefront II costing too little money to pay for its development. The problem is that design and budgets are broken, the market is a mess, and microtransactions are being used as a bludgeon instead of a tool.

And all of this is exacerbated by the fact that every single publisher wants to pretend that everything is peachy.

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The Soapbox: NCsoft’s bizarre silence on Aion’s server merges says everything you need to know

NCsoft done messed up. Again. Yes, I know the studio has already had a few black eyes for other things throughout the years, but this recent punch hit closer to home. So close, it involved multiple family members. What happened? A debacle called Aion server merges. Yeah, I know all server merges tend to feel pretty rotten and are fraught with troubles by default, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about them. And boy does it ever feel like NCsoft was all gung-ho for the wrong.

For example, as much as the ArcheAge server evolution affected me negatively, it was still is a shining beacon of doing more right — and that’s saying something! That merge left me feeling as if I could return to regular play sometime. The way the whole thing played out for Aion has chased an eager paying player away as well as a long time vet from the game, and who knows how many others who will be affected.

If nothing else, another black eye does not bode well for goodwill and trust, things NCsoft was pretty short on anyway.

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But seriously, lockboxes suck, even if the ESRB doesn’t think they’re gambling. Stop buying lockboxes.

So, MMO players. Are you tired of hearing about lockboxes and gambleboxes? It feels like we’ve been complaining about them for like six or seven years now, probably because we have. It wasn’t cute back when City of Heroes was trying it, nope. Heck, it wasn’t cute back when Star Wars Galaxies was trying it with card packs. Now it’s every damn game, and it’s gone way beyond MMOs. I’m not sick of hearing about it myself. I’m just sick of dealing with it like a pestilence making me hate the games and developers who exploit them.

Maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: As more AAA online gaming studios figure out that lockbox gambling garbage is a fast ticket to easy money, more mainstream gamers are catching wind of the scam and raising objections, so it’s not just MMO players all by our lonesomes anymore. Indeed, this week multiple game critics, YouTubers, and review services have come out against lockboxes, from Boogie to TotalBiscuit, the latter of whom has called for ESRB intervention. Reviews aggregator OpenCritic has further said it’s “going to take a stand against loot boxes” by taking crappy business practices into account. The ESRB doesn’t care, by the way, and as blogger Isarii has pointed, the self-regulatory body has conveniently twisted the meaning of gambling to avoid dealing with the problem, thereby failing to protect us from it, but that’s just making people angrier.

So hey, you know what, studios? Keep screwing up with lootboxes. Keep attracting mainstream anger, keep disrespecting us, until it all boils over, one way or another, and you can’t exploit us anymore. And in the meantime, people? Stop. Buying. Lockboxes.

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The Soapbox: Getting to the heart of toxicity in MMOs

So we’ve gotten another post from a developer saying that they’re going to really 100% be better about rooting out toxic players from their games. Seriously, we mean it this time. The latest one is from Blizzard, but let’s be real, this is something that’s always happened. We always get periodic statements from companies that this time they’re really going to address toxic behavior, someone links that inevitable Penny Arcade strip, nothing really changes, play laugh track, roll curtains.

I’d like to be happy about this, I really would, but it’s so much empty posturing, and it came out only shortly before the announcement that everyone who plays the game can now be signed to the Overwatch League. I think the two are pretty closely connected. And I think we need to actually start talking about this because this sort of darkly toxic problem is at the core of the designs of these games, even though on some level it’s entirely separate. The problem isn’t that these games are designed to be toxic; it’s that they’re designed to encourage toxicity.

Getting rid of individual toxic players, as Blizzard purports to do, is merely treating the symptom. We need to discuss the disease.

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The Soapbox: The disastrous Pokemon Go Fest was just Niantic being Niantic, and that has to stop

I know I complain a lot about Pokemon Go in my articles here, but there’s a reason for this. I’m a huge fan not just of the Pokemon series but of what Niantic is trying to do with its game on a basic level. The idea of getting games outside with the rest of the world instead of hidden in our rooms and offices is hugely appealing. I’ve even applied to work at Niantic before (though obviously I wasn’t selected), so for me especially it’s frustrating to see a company I want to succeed repeatedly making the same kinds of mistakes. These are mistakes that plagued the game’s launch, several events, feature reworkings, and now not one, but two birthday celebrations within the same year. 

I actually got sucked into the hype recently and even said that the events surrounding the festival might give people a reason to come back. I’ve finally removed my foot from my mouth after previously downing some crow, but I’ve realized that, now more than ever, Niantic needs some tougher love, and here it is.

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The Soapbox: Your favorite MMO is going to die

Your favorite MMO is going to die. Don’t take it personally, though; every other MMO is going to shut down, too. That includes my favorites and everyone else’s favorites.

Do you like Final Fantasy XIV? It’s going to shut down. WildStar? It’ll shut down. Ultima Online? Oh, yes, the shutdown is coming. The Secret World? Guild Wars 2? The Elder Scrolls Online? Destiny (yes, I meant to leave off the 2, I mean the original)? RIFT, Trove, Black Desert, Revelation Online, Crowfall? All of the above will shut down.

But don’t get up in arms about this. Seriously, relax, take a deep breath, maybe hum a little William Shatner tune. All of these games are going to shut down, but that’s just because every single MMO exists in one of three states: not yet launched, shut down, or waiting to be shut down. And as cynical as that may seem, I think accepting that truth is going to do wonders for all of us when it comes time for the next unexpected shutdown. Because it’s going to happen.

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The Soapbox: Lessons Secret World Legends failed to learn from Final Fantasy XIV

I’ve mentioned many a time that I like Funcom quite a bit. I want to like Funcom quite a bit. Heck, I want to be excited about Secret World Legends, but every day or so I get reminded that such a course of action will be very difficult at the least. Because quite frankly, Secret World Legends seems to want me not to be excited about it, as evidenced by… oh, every single thing that Funcom is doing around it.

Which is odd, because Funcom literally has access to a playbook for a large-scale reboot.

Secret World Legends is coming off of The Secret World, which was a cult MMORPG classic with a mighty fan following. Final Fantasy XIV was coming off of… well, its initial version, which had a fan following full of people who admitted that it was halfway to Stockholm Syndrome. And yet that game managed to get people excited and earn fans, while Funcom seems dead-set on alienating people or making them just plain nervous.

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The Soapbox: Why is Pokemon GO still a tech demo?

I’ve been a bit frustrated with Niantic lately. I love some of its ideas, but I watched someone else play Ingress prior to Pokemon GO’s release, and I noticed very similar problems between the two games after release — problems that the company should have noticed and corrected in its followup.

Recently I decided to try out the former. Both are totally unintuitive. You have to search the UI for the tutorials, though Ingress’ can be accessed only near objectives. You’re asked to join a faction sooner there than in PoGO and with no context beyond 2-3 sentences. The game throws jargon with little to no context at you throughout the tutorial, making it difficult to follow. I walked around, clicking things and used items that I don’t fully understand, not because I’m too lazy to read but because I wanted to understand a game without consulting google. I saw portals get taken without anyone around me as I stood by an objective near a government-restricted area where standing still longer than it takes to read “No Trespassing” could trigger security. I couldn’t get into it, not just because it was simple but because it was poorly designed.

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The Soapbox: What the Mass Effect Andromeda kerfuffle ought to teach us about games criticism

Today is the official release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which was preceded by the frankly baffling decision to allow people access to an early build of the game ahead of time. Or perhaps the final build without everything enabled? The point is that you could play a bit of it if you were willing to drop some money. That seems like a bad idea that we’ve been dealing with in online-game-land for a long time, but regardless, it gave people the opportunity to see some of this RPG ahead of time.

This, in turn, allowed the typical internet trolls to find any and all animation flubs and then happily declare that it was all the result of one woman working on the game and handling all of the animations. Which, you know, is a conclusion that would be helped significantly if the woman in question actually worked in that role on the game, which she did not.

Obviously, the game under discussion is not an MMO. But it is symptomatic of two all-too-common problems in gaming culture that are worth noting to people who do not have balls of spiders in place of a soul. So let’s talk about those.

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The Soapbox: Everyone’s being dumb about Star Wars: The Old Republic’s lightsaber

A couple of years ago, The Force Awakens introduced us to (among other things) a lightsaber that looks poorly made, like a little kid made it. So Star Wars: The Old Republic added a version of it to a lockbox, and everyone got pissy. Then it got added to direct sales, and everyone got pissy.

Including me! Except, in my case, not because I feel like one side or the other is being hard done by. No, it’s that rare situation wherein I consider pretty much everyone involved to be whining about something that really requires not the slightest bit of whining. Yes, everyone here is being dumb and I am on absolutely no one’s side here. Except for the side of tegu.

As such, I’ve compiled my thoughts briefly below, with sections dedicated to both “sides” of the debate and all of the people who are mad. I’ve also included a few pictures of big old lizards because I was told that I couldn’t write an entire column about liking lizards and I can be petulant, too. So if you don’t care about this debate, check out some lizard pictures. That’d be fun.

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The Soapbox: Pokemon Go Generation 2 still isn’t a real MMO

Pokemon GO Generation 2 is out now, and it feels a lot like an MMO expansion in a lot of ways: We have new features, we have new grinding mechanics, and (of course) the combat system’s been overhauled (twice, with the original change making dodging useless, the second possibly fixing the situation).

On the one hand, I’m excited as a Pokemon fan, especially since it’s a free update. On the other hand, I’m starting to think that Raph Koster’s famous comments on AR games being MMOs might be a bit off, at least in terms of POGO.
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