Category Archives: Industry

2016 Was A Great Year!

In the field of video games, and absolutely nowhere else, 2016 was actually a tremendous year. One of the best in a long time, and arguably one of the best ever. It seems that no matter what your platform or preferred genre, whether you play casually or consider Dark Souls too easy, this year didn’t have something for you, it had loads for you. Let’s take a real quick look at some of the many, many areas in which gaming excelled in the past twelve months.

Strategy. We at Every Video Games like strategy and tactics games a great deal. If you do too, boy howdy was this a year for you. XCOM 2. The Banner Saga 2. Hearts of Iron IV. Stellaris. Total War: Warhammer. Civilization VI. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. Ultimate General: Civil War. Offworld Trading Company. Hugely consequential expansions for EU4 and CK2. Just about every sub-genre, and just about every setting, was covered, from sci-fi to historical, 4X to real-time tactics. And understand, this wasn’t just a year with a good selection for grogs, this was a year of games ranging from merely very good, to classics that are popular well beyond the genre’s core base.

Overwatch. Overwatch kind of came out of nowhere and suddenly demonstrated that Blizzard still has it. It’s a seminal team shooter, fast, frenetic, fun, packed with colorful locations and even more colorful characters, and it has resonated with vast numbers of people for an uncommonly inclusive cast of characters. The woman on the box art was just confirmed to be a lesbian. There are characters from China, India, Egypt, Brazil. There are old people, kicking ass and taking names.

"Maybe it's just how British people act?" - an actual thing I have heard. It isn't.
Suuuuuper gay!

Legion. Okay, heads up, I’ve not spent nearly as much time with Legion as I’d like so far. The same RL stuff that disrupted blogging for the last few months also interfered with some of my gaming; but the time I did spend in Legion, and the reports I’m hearing from many other people, is that it is a superlative expansion. I’ve heard some say it’s the best the game has ever been. I’ve heard many say it’s at least a worthy effort at matching the golden age of TBC/Wrath. I look forward to spending the time it deserves on the Broken Isles in the new year – but quite aside from myself, it’s amazing and refreshing to see an MMO over a decade old still getting fresh new content that brings in players.

Tom Clancy’s The Division. Well, I haven’t listed this because it’s an earthshaking game or anything, but for another important reason. When it was released, The Division had okay reception, but it didn’t really inspire people and had a lot of issues in endgame, as well as more than a few bugs. So what did they do? They delayed their planned DLC so they could improve the core game experience, iron out the bugs, and make sure players ended up getting their money’s worth. I played The Division during a free weekend recently and had a great time, and I’m probably going to pick it up at some point fairly soon. It’s great to see even major publishers working hard to bring a game up to where the players want it, and hopefully it’s a trend that will only grow.

"What if becoming a cyborg removes that which makes us human?" Like I sincerely do not care. Give me the robot powers. Make me strong.
It’s true I never asked for this, but only because I never dared hope for a gaming year this good.

Watch_Dogs 2. Wait, what? Watch_Dogs 2? Really? Well, it’s here for a similar reason to The Division. WD2 isn’t a timeless classic, and it doesn’t succeed at everything it tries. But it’s orders of magnitude beyond the original game; the second one makes a sincere effort at crafting likeable characters, at giving players a stake, and worked well to improve almost every aspect of the somewhat underwhelming original. In short, it’s solid, honest work from a dev who accepted the criticism of their game and did a praiseworthy amount of work to make the next one much better, and more enjoyable, to play.

So much more. DooM. Dishonored 2. FFXV. Uncharted 4. Stardew Valley. Pokemon Sun and Moon. Battlefield 1. Blood and Wine. Forza 3. Rise of the Tomb Raider. Dark Souls III. Crypt of the Necrodancer. Titanfall 2. The Last Guardian. Dying Light: The Following. Firewatch. Hitman. Planet Coaster. Owlboy. This was a year of new games, of long-awaited games, of franchises rejuvenated, of fascinating new ideas, of sequels that make an effort, a year with games in every genre, on every platform, for every gamer. It was a year we desperately needed in gaming because everything else seemed to be terrible, and maybe, if we’re very very lucky, 2016 will prove to be a 1998, the first year of a golden age.

Thoughts On Fan Games

If you keep up with the relevant scene, you may be aware that a Pokemon fan game, known as Pokemon Uranium, was released a few days ago. Desiring something to tide me over until Pokemon Sun arrives I decided I would give it a try, and I have to say it’s an impressive effort so far (though I’m only a couple of hours in), even if a few tweaks and bug fixes are possibly still needed. In any event it has caused me to think about the phenomenon of fan games and their place in the industry, and I’d be very interested to hear what any of you think about them, or about any particular ones.

Fan games are, if you’re unfamiliar, the equivalent of fanfiction; a game, made by fans, that usually serves to expand or build on a particular game or setting, although some are efforts at precise cloning, perhaps on different hardware. Though they do share similarities with modding in that they are non-professional content, fan games tend to be a level above those in terms of effort required to make them. We can see this demonstrated well by the fact Pokemon Uranium took nine years to reach 1.0; it is simply a vast undertaking for a team of volunteers, no matter how dedicated. They’re also typically limited to the PC scene thanks to the ease of distribution and prohibitively expensive console licensing fees.

Orchynx 4 lief grass/steel sign me up
They have the adorable starters down pat!

They also often run afoul of legal issues. As they are by definition unlicensed products based on existing IPs, it is hardly surprising that the law would be on the side of publishers who wish to stop their release. Even so these decisions can be reversed, fan games can be given some degree of sanction, and in practice any program is essentially impossible to remove from the Internet once it gets out into the wild. As a foremost example, Streets of Rage Remake is a fan game that faithfully recreated the Streets of Rage series into a single game on the PC; it was quashed by SEGA within a week of release. It is also trivial to get a hold of it. These issues have become even more pressing as companies release compatible versions of classics on platforms like Steam, and what was once unlikely to ever influence the bottom line might now be quite validly considered a threat. Still, the legal issues are what they are, and are likely to remain as they are for some time to come. Fans will continue to make games and companies will continue to pursue whatever response they feel best.

It is remarkable how complete and deep some of these fan games are, though, and were I a company I would certainly be interested in looking at some of the creators of these things to see if some talent can be picked up. Streets of Rage Remake was a deeply faithful reproduction of the original series. The Sonic Before/After the Sequel games are so good they stack up against the actual originals. And Pokemon Uranium not only has a considerable number of original pokemon to catch, but also a new type and, most incredibly, integrated online features such as Wonder Trade and GTS, and the proper integration of challenges like the popular Nuzlocke run, to make keeping to the rules easier.

It's not impossible!
Have fan games encouraged the development of professional ones?

To be sure, many of these projects are close to, or even at, the level of quality expected from professional productions. As an expression of gamer fandom and of a desire to expand the universes we play in for others to enjoy as well, it is a wonderful little segment of the industry. In a setting where some games have budgets in the tens of millions it’s amazing that these amateur, homebrew projects come into being at all, let alone see completion in highly enjoyable forms. I am eager to see what the future holds for such games, so please let us know in the comments what your favorite fan games are and which you might be looking forward to.

Early Access Thoughts

Early access. Nothing’s quicker to bring out the jibes and claims that it never works, that early access games are doomed, and that they are all bad survival/Minecraft games anyway. Is this any kind of fair perspective, or might there be other aspects, benefits even, that are going overlooked?

At first there was great promise to early access, tied in as it was with Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general. The latter is a great idea in principle: Breaking the connection between publisher and developer, in favor of a system where prospective consumers can directly fund the games they want to see made, is a notion that holds tremendous appeal. Publishers had become gatekeepers of necessity, because they were the ones with the resources to pay for development and distribute titles. And it has to be said there is success on this front as the Internet has reduced, though by no means eliminated, their power in this regard. It has also helped motivate some publishers to look at crowdfunding not as the main source for a game’s budget, but as a gauge of interest and supplement, with Shenmue III being the prime example.

Early access quickly emerged as a factor of the crowdfunding system. It has merged with the messy arrangement that exists between demo, beta, and which also once had shareware in the mix. The idea is as simple as crowdfunding itself is, for it provides an incentive to buy into the game. This can be done variously, sometimes by giving an access code to anyone who supports the game, sometimes by having different reward tiers that offer increasingly early access to the game in question. When it is linked to different tiers, one can typically expect to pay increasingly large amounts for access earlier in the development cycle.

Giving such broad access to a game still in development was once unthinkable; if you happen to dig up an old demo disc from say the PS1 era, most of the demos will be disclaimed as not representing a final work as they were still in progress at the time the demo was pressed to disc. In fact I can’t bring to mind many games which differed radically from their demos, but it goes to show that at one point getting an early look at a game was for devs, press, and a pretty tight group of testers who typically had to sign an NDA.

And you might end up playtesting this. Not that anyone did.
And you might end up playtesting this. Not that anyone did.

Early access is usually dressed up in much the same way. Wise developers make clear the game is not to be considered a finished product until it hits 1.0 and official release. Many emphasize that it is access to an alpha and/or beta, and that ideally players are serving as testers who will provide feedback and report bugs. It is also presumed that, if one has to pay more to get earlier access, the monetary investment will make those buyers more, well, invested. They’ll give the game rigorous attention as well as serious thoughts on content and development.

But any early access game that is going along this route runs into immediate problems. First and foremost, someone’s willingness to pay has many factors, not least of which is their simple ability to pay. Perhaps someone is a fanatic of a genre and is willing to pay a lot for early access to a new ARPG (as I was with Grim Dawn, in point of fact). Perhaps someone just has a lot of money and thinks nothing of spending a bit more. None of these things mean that someone is going to be a better or more useful tester or provider of feedback. Still, given the raw deal professional testers used to get, and given the vast array of computer setups that can lead to all kinds of unexpected bugs, it’s hard to consider these problems as too serious either. Anecdotally, early access forums tend to have plenty of threads in the section regarding bugs and active dev involvement in investigating them.

No, the real issues arise not on the technical bug-squashing side of things, but on the design side of things. Buying into a product early also typically gives access to a forum for early access buyers, which is also where the aforementioned bug reports tend to go. The problem is, testing for bugs and genuine imbalance is a very different matter from deciding on what should and should not be in a game, how things should be implemented, and whether the game is on the right course. Buying a game the old-fashioned way is one thing as you pay for what is a finished product, you have reviews with which to judge whether you are interested, and if it fails severely you often have recourse to get your money back, or can at least trade it in for part of the cost.

Early access games work on an entirely different paradigm. Despite the forewarnings, players still expect to be getting something enjoyable for their money, and even if a player approaches such a game in good faith, that does not mean they will actually like it. They might, or they might be underwhelmed, and here is the important point to recognize; if they are underwhelmed or unhappy, even if they do not actively complain on the forums or elsewhere, they are also not going to be talking about it with excitement. Maybe it’ll just be “Yeah I was in the early access, it didn’t really grab me” or maybe it’ll be silence, but either way it’s a problem for developers, who need positive publicity to flourish if they want sales to be significant when the thing actually releases. And when a player encounters bugs or a game that doesn’t function, that is unenjoyable and diminishes enthusiasm no matter how much they might try to keep the caveats of early access in mind. This may be problematic in itself, but a bigger problem still arises for developers who seek too strongly to respond to criticisms and suggestions.

Also, this is a self-portrait whenever I fight a Tracer who knows what she's doing.
Hard to keep your cool when your players all look like this.

Early access buyers feel that they have a stake in something not yet completed, and in turn that means they feel they have a voice on where it should go. If a developer is level-headed that is fine; Grim Dawn and Prison Architect both stuck very well to their original visions and Iron Lore and Introversion (the respective developers) put out games that fairly closely resembled their original ideas. On the other hand failures to deliver are commonplace, and some are quite spectacular – the Ouya being perhaps the prime example, at least until Star Citizen finally collapses and implodes. The Godus debacle did massive harm to Molyneux’s remaining reputation in the industry. Mighty No. 9 was not well received at all, despite the tremendous degree of hype surrounding it. It seems that one of the biggest risks is making unrealistic promises, or piling more and more features on as a game gains the very hype that is needed for success. This is why a planned feature list is essential and why sensible developers provide a list of stretch goals, and remain very coy about going beyond this.

This is not to say there are no success stories. The aforesaid Prison Architect and Grim Dawn sit alongside games like Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, and FTL, all of which are extremely enjoyable games that delivered on all or almost all of their promises, and met with solid review scores at a minimum. Awareness of the pitfalls will remain vital for developers seeking this means of funding and the expectations that come with it. Still, in the end, a system that has given us games like that must be said to be one that is more beneficial than not, and hopefully standards will develop that help ensure best practice and realistic goals going forward.