Day one patches: now it’s just getting silly

I just read on Eurogamer that Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is getting a 16 GB day one patch on Xbox One.

16 GB.

That’s actually bigger than the hard drive on my Xbox 360 (that’s right, I never upgraded, and somehow I’ve managed to make it this far through judicious deleting and a reliance on physical media).

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It’s not much better on PS4, where the day one patch is 8.3 GB. But the astonishing thing is that this game isn’t a brand-new entry in a mega franchise that the publishers are desperately pushing to get out for Christmas. It’s a re-release of Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, the latter of which came out first in October 2014. So why couldn’t this 16 GB of data be included on the game disc?

The publishers say that the main reason is that it’s to include the Claptastic Voyage DLC, which came out too recently to be included on the disc. But they also say that the patch addresses “various bugs” and they “strongly recommend” that all players download it.

So why not just delay the game by a week or two, giving the devs time to add this “essential” patch to the game itself, rather than force players to sit through a lengthy download process when they attempt to play the game? 16 GB will easily take a couple of hours to download for most people, and could even take all night for some people with slow internet connections. And let’s not forget those unlucky few who have download limits on their internet supply, for whom this patch could end up costing a pretty penny.

Why inflict this annoyance on your customers? Is it so important to meet the Easter deadline? Or is the reason more coldly financial – was this game rushed out to be released before the end of the tax year in April, and therefore bolster the publisher’s profit margin for 2014/15?

There’s been a worrying trend for bigger and bigger day one patches recently. Patches are a boon in terms of providing the ability to fix bugs that creep through to the finished version, but increasingly they’re used as an excuse to release games in an unfinished state. And in the case of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection, we’re not even talking about a new game.

I’m tired of waiting for an enormous patch to download whenever I play a new game – it’s time that publishers started thinking of their customers more than their profit margins.

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Review: Weapon Shop de Omasse

TM_3DSDS_WeaponShopDeOmasseI picked up Weapon Shop de Omasse for a pittance in a Nintendo eShop sale a few months back, and I’ve dipped into it a few times over the past few months. It’s the perfect example of a game with a winning idea that’s let down by poor execution.

The set up is that you’re an apprentice in a fantasy weapon shop, and it’s your job to supply would-be adventurers with the right swords, axes and cudgels for the job. You forge the weapons through a rhythm-action mini game, and the more accurately you time your hits, the more powerful the weapon, and thus the greater the chance that your customers will be successful in their quests.

It’s a neat twist on the old RPG formula, and my initial experience with the game was great, but it quickly gets ludicrously repetitive. New weapons are introduced periodically, but the way you create them is the same, and – most frustratingly – the actual forging minigame feels annoyingly imprecise. It seemed almost random as to whether the weapon would come out ‘dull’ or a ‘masterpiece’. There’s also little room for emerging complexity – new metals and ores are introduced, but they don’t seem to have any impact on the game, and you can safely ignore them with no effect on the gameplay.

One thing I did like was the slightly naff humour of the game. The game was created by Japanese comedian Yoshiyuki Hirai, and with its laughter soundtrack and regular outbreaks of applause and boos, the game felt like one of those ubiquitous Japanese panel shows, where guests pop on, eat something ludicrous or watch an amusing video and then engage in asinine banter. Despite having only the faintest grasp of Japanese, I used to love watching these shows when I lived in Japan – perhaps because they were so different to the TV I grew up on. So if nothing else, the game reminded me of some happy times back in Nippon.

However, despite its best attempts at humour, Weapon Shop de Omasse quickly became unforgivably dull after the first few hours. I stuck with it in the hope that the ending might offer an amusing conclusion, but if anything the game gets worse as it goes along, and the ending is horribly disappointing. Rather than redeem the game, it made me question why I’d bothered to stick with it.

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Placemaking: Dead Rising’s Willamette Parkview Mall

WilametteThe moment you step into the corridor that leads into the vast and open plaza that is the setting for Dead Rising, you are in Willamette Parkview Mall.  From the lazy Sunday afternoon muzak that plays across the loud speakers, the way the light pours in through the large pane glass windows onto the expensive but daggy patterned floor tiles, to even the more simple of things like the way the virtual mall is designed, it all perfectly depicts a place we’ve all been to at some point in our lives.  It isn’t a place designed around a game premise, it is a place that just happens to be a perfect place for a game premise. You see Dead Rising’s developers created, or perhaps recreated, the perfect real life environment.  Put the zombies aside for a moment, and if you can briefly put aside shoving a shower head in a zombies head and run blood straight from their brain, and the mall feels like a living a breathing public space.  From the outset the game’s artists have created even the smallest details in painstaking detail.  From the kitsch logo designs of the chain stores scattered around the outside of a cluttered food court that at capacity wouldn’t be inviting enough to spend any time in over and above how long it takes to scoff down your meal, to the lairy turquoise and electric blue carpet and mock film advertisements that adorn the walls in the Colby’s Movieland cinema, Willamette Parkview Mall is like any other you’d find scattered around the suburbs of most western countries. It’s so real you can almost hear the parents yelling after their annoying children and the loud teenagers engaging in their post-pubescent mall-based mating rituals. SeafoodDR But as someone that worked part time in a supermarket while I was at University, it was Seon’s Food and Stuff located in the still under construction North Plaza, that really grabbed me and tickled my nostalgic fancy.  From the kind of cool but still a bit ‘by committee’ decor and discombobulating layout of the store, to the ridiculously energy inefficient spread of the dairy produce areas, it had all the hallmarks of your modern day one-stop shop supermarket that made it feel almost real.  Need MEATS or SEAFOOD?  Well look no further, Seon’s got you covered.  If you can’t find what your after, our friendly manager Steven Chapman will be able to assist you, to make sure you go away a happy customer.  When he’s not trying to kill your with an armed trolley, that is.  I did say almost real. Seldom does a game come along where I feel like I ‘know’ its world inside and out, where I’m not constantly looking over a mini map, or even worse entering a menu to find out where I need to go. Even Dead Rising’s sequels never quite gave me that same level of familiarity, and although I came to love both Fortune City and Los Perdidos, they never quite matched how well I came to know that bustling shopping mall in Colorado.  When Otis said there was a man in North Plaza, I knew exactly where he meant.  When he told me there was a bloke that needed rescuing in Al Fresca Plaza I didn’t even need to stop at the information desk and ask for directions.  It’s a rare thing when a game accurately represents the world around you and accurately captures those minor details you often take no notice of in the real world.  But it’s quite another when the game makes you feel like you’re somewhere you know like the back of your hand.  Dead Rising does both, and if it wasn’t for the zombie apocalypse taking place in the halls and plazas of Willamette Parkview Mall, I’d swear it was located somewhere close to my childhood home in suburban Adelaide. Have a favourite place in a video game?  One that you spent so much time in it began to feel like home?  Tell us in the comments. Seon'sFoodandStuff

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Nintendo and the perils of free to play

The big gaming news this week was that Nintendo are going to start making games for smartphones in coordination with the mobile games company DeNA. Speculation has been rife, and many have been pointing to DeNA’s reliance on free-to-play games as a worrying sign of things to come. Want to play as Super Mario? Pay $5 for a super mushroom or $15 for a pack of five – that kind of thing.

Image courtesy of Kotaku

Image courtesy of Kotaku

I can’t really blame Nintendo for moving into the smartphone market – analysts (and Nintendo’s shareholders too, I expect) have been all but demanding that Nintendo makes a foray into this potentially lucrative market, especially as sales of the Wii U have been relatively lacklustre. Particularly in Japan, there’s been a sharp move away from console gaming towards mobile gaming, so it makes sense for Nintendo to move into this area.

Nintendo has said that it sees its mobile games as complementing its console titles: the mobile games will be new, standalone titles that will presumably be expected to channel users towards the company’s own-brand consoles, or at least raise awareness of its IP, like Mario and Zelda. So in theory us loyal Wii U and 3DS owners have nothing to fear – we’ll still be getting the usual, brilliant games, and we can safely ignore any watered-down mobile offerings that appear on mobile phones.

In theory, anyway. Of course, there was the recent debut of the free-to-play game Pokemon Shuffle on 3DS, which could indicate that Nintendo sees free to play as the way forward – or at least as an important part of its strategy – on its own consoles as well as on mobile. It’s not the first free to play 3DS game that Nintendo has made (Steel Divers: Sub Wars came out a while back), but it appears to be the most successful – it’s already been downloaded over a million times.

I’ve been diving into Pokemon Shuffle on and off over the past couple of weeks, and overall it left me a little deflated. It’s actually a fun little game – the presentation is excellent, and there’s room for a bit of strategy in the match-three gameplay, plus the music is fantastic – but it showcases the worst model of free to play, where the user is constantly nagged to spend money. Each level costs a ‘heart’ to play, and each heart takes half an hour to recharge. Use all five hearts and you’ll be asked whether you want to pay to get another one and continue playing. There are two problems with this. One, it’s just so damned annoying to have your play session interrupted by someone demanding money, and it ruins an otherwise pleasurable experience. And two, it assumes that the user is an idiot. Why on earth would I want to pay real money for something that I could get for free by waiting half an hour?

Pokemon Shuffle - Ready Wallet, Player One.

Pokemon Shuffle – Ready Wallet, Player One.

I’m not against free to play when it’s done well, but I don’t particularly like f2p games that are both annoying and assume I’m stupid. Lionhead’s upcoming Fable Legends gives a good example of how f2p should be done: it’s completely free to play, but if there’s a particular character or costume you like, you can pay to keep that character or costume permanently, otherwise they are rotated every month. It’s a fantastic idea: the user feels like they’re actually getting something tangible for their money rather than just time or expendable items. Buying coins or hearts in Pokemon Shuffle, on the other hand, feels like throwing money down a well.

I’m hoping that Nintendo’s new mobile games follow the example of Fable Legends, although judging by Pokemon Shuffle, there’s a good chance they’ll follow the ‘bad’ model of free to play. This certainly won’t hurt Nintendo in a financial sense, but it might tarnish their good reputation – a reputation that was on a high at the end of last year thanks to a slew of rock-solid games that launched with zero online issues, unlike their competitors. As we know, reputations are hard to forge, but easy to lose.

Still, we don’t know anything for sure just yet: Nintendo might not even go with free to play on their mobile titles, or they might use a very fair free to play system. But if they go down the ‘bad’ free to play route, expect plenty of articles like this one, where angry parents lambast Nintendo for ‘allowing’ their kids to spend X thousands of pounds on ‘free’ mobile games.

Here’s hoping that Pokemon Shuffle was just a one-off experiment.

Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.

Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.

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Writing about Record of Lodoss War

Another of my articles for Kotaku UK went up over the weekend – The Dungeons and Dragons Session that Became a Real-Life Phenomenon. A few people have been complaining about the ‘click-baity’ title – in my defence I should say that my original title was “The DnD session that became a Japanese phenomenon”, but one of the eds at Kotaku must have changed it. It could have been worse of course – as Luke Young points out in the comments, the properly click-baity title would have been: “One group of friends sat down to play Dungeons and Dragons, you wouldn’t believe what happened next!”

Anyway, controversial title aside, I was pleased with how the article turned out. It was fairly tricky to write seeing as most of the info available was in Japanese, with just the odd English site here and there. Huge thanks goes out to Jessica Vincent of Eiyuu Kishi Den, who gave me some invaluable information about the Lodoss War role-playing scene.

If you’re interested in reading some of the other articles I’ve written for Kotaku UK and Eurogamer, check out my gaming portfolio: http://lewispackwood.com/gaming/

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The problem with building character: Game of Thrones, Around the World in 80 Days, and a dhow.

This post contains major spoilers for Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 1.

Episode 3 PalinDVDcoverof Michael Palin’s seminal travel adventure series, Around the World in 80 Days, makes for some of the most compelling television ever put to air.  In his bid to follow in Phileas Fogg’s footsteps, as told in the Jules Verne literary classic of the same name, he finds himself crossing the Black Sea on a rickety old dhow: sleeping on the deck, shitting off the stern, and eating ‘freshly’ cooked rice ‘delights’ from a communal bowl with his hands.  Sure sounds like an adventure to me.

It was the people he met though, that made it such a brilliant piece of television, and an utterly memorable 40 minutes of human interest.  If there was ever any doubt as to Michael Palin’s personality, his presence, his humility, just watching the way he interacts with the humble and the impoverished will put that doubt the rest.  The way he bonds with these people, learns from them and teaches them, crossing cultural boundaries is what sticks in the memory.  And it’s these connections he builds over the course of less than an hour of television that sticks with you long after his journey is over and the credits role.  Conversation is an art, and an art that can bridge any spurious notion of nationality, gender, or religion.  And Around the World in 80 Days is conversation at its very best.

What does this have to do with video games?  Bear with me.

I can think of only a handful over the last few generations, that have really managed to build in the idea of tangible relationships.  The first was Persona 3, which managed to juxtapose the fantastical ‘world saving’ premise, with the mundane of the real world.  A game where building up relationships – often through simple acts like sharing a bowl of ramen- weren’t only interesting but were integral parts of the game.  It was character building at its very best, and it was through the art of conversation – often on everyday parts of life – that you really were able to build very personal relationships with these people.

Persona3

But the second, and this is where it gets really interesting, is the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown where character building is right at the heart of the game’s mechanics.  But it’s not through dialogue, or through scripted conversations, that Firaxis build character connection, rather its through the time spent building the traits and skills of these characters.  The first time you lose a character you’ve had with you since the beginning is heartbreaking, and almost as if in the movies, a montage of all of his or her triumphs run through your mind.  It’s character building at its most simplistic, as their level and rank reflect your relationship with them, but they’re an individual with a name and a history and that’s enough to form ‘real’ bonds.

And then of course there’s Mass Effect and The Last of Us - but I probably don’t need to go there.

Games have improved in their storytelling, this there is absolutely no doubt about.  You just have to look at Lucius’ recent piece on Heavy Rain to see that. But when was the last time a game felt more about the people you met along the way, perhaps even bonded with, more than it was the gameplay or the destination?  While I wrote a scathing assessment of Telltale Games’ adventure game efforts recently, I have to give them credit for putting the characters front and centre, often at the expense of any cohesive journey or direction.  When it works, it absolutely works, with Episode 3 of The Walking Dead Season 1 being a masterclass in killing off key characters.  But when it doesn’t, it feels like it is trying to build players’ emotional connections with characters, so that when the inevitable downfall comes it pulls at the heart strings.  Killing a kid was one thing, and at your own hand at that, but killing off characters does not in itself make for emotional connections or strong characters.  Fool me once, Telltale Games…

DuckTTGWalkingDead

And I’m not sure television is much better.  Look at Game of Thrones, a television show (and books if you’re that way inclined) that doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to putting characters in uneasy situations, and having them share in journeys across the great land of Westeros.  There’s the guy that gets his head cut off, the guy that gets his bollocks removed, oh and the guy that falls down a mountain.  Did I mention that guy that pushes that woman into the hole in the mountain?  While Game of Thrones may have a plethora of complex characters, full of political intrigue and rambunctious backstory, I couldn’t tell you any of their names.  So while they may be fleshed out to the nth degree, there’s never really any chance to feel connected to these people, and so in the event of misfortune my most emotive response is usually “well that’s unfortunate”.  Not sad.  Not heartbreaking.  Not even immoral.  Unfortunate.  People dying is sad, but like anything else, it is all too easy to become desensitised to tragedy.  And when you don’t carry any agency in the outcomes on screen one way or another, when the people are so despicable and incomprehensible in their motives, it is quite simply hard to give a rat’s.

But it’s not just games.  It’s a broader problem with pop culture mediums, and one that has me losing rapid interest in most of them, in favour of more personal stories told in books or documentaries.  Watching Michael Palin’s documentary series now, they all have on thing in common, and that they convey something very human.  Sure, they purport to be great adventures, great journeys, great travels across the world, but what they really are are tales of human interest.  It’s about the people he meets – the people travelling on roof of the train in Africa in Pole to Pole or the blind man that give him a close shave in  Mumbai – and the trip from point A to point B is merely a device to tell these tales.  Telltale Games gets this, and while often falls a bit short in the personality department, understands the importance of ‘people’ over ‘place’ or ‘premise’.  But across the industry the human interest story is covered up by blood and smoke and the explosions and weaponry tend to take centre stage, as the games’ heroes often go from hopeless to hero, and rise from the ashes to save the world.  Some of that is great, after all, we all love a spectacle.  Sometimes though, just sometimes, it is nice to stop and have a chat.  Get to know the people around you, because it is these stories that are the heartwarming stories of triumph or heartbreak that will endure long after the war is won.

After all, it is the stories of Anne Frank and the Oscar Schindler that have touched more people in the years after World War II, than a story about the tanks rolling across the Western front ever will.  In the same way, bringing it back to Around the World in 80 Days, it is Michael Palin’s ability to connect with people from every walk of life that makes it timeless television coming up on 30 years later.  Video games have come a long way, both in the portrayal of characters, and building player connection with them.  But it’s got a long way to go, and like other mediums, writers of narrative need to stop relying on shock and awe to try and build connection with the people on screen.  Because as humans, it’s the simple things that allow us to connect with one another, rather than the big sweeping narratives that permeate through a majority of the games we play.  The conversations we have with one another, bonding over the things we all share as part of the same greater race, is the greatest part of any story in any medium.  And I’m convinced that the first game to truly nail this, will perhaps be the greatest piece of interactive entertainment ever made.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the importance of characters and conversation.  But have I missed any games that get character building right?  Am I right off the mark?  Is Game of Thrones the brilliant piece of literary fiction everyone seems to think it is?  Let me know in the comments!

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Everything You Know About Gamers is Wrong

We’ve known for a long time that gaming is no longer the preserve of sweaty, bedroom-bound teenage males (if indeed it ever was). But I was intrigued to read this article on Kotaku UK about just how much the gaming demographic has changed over the years.

This was probably the most interesting part for me:

The gender split is pretty equal no matter where you look. On handheld consoles, the split is male 55%, female 45%. On console, it’s 60% male and 40% female. On mobile it’s 55% female 45% male. Even when you split gamers out into “core” and “casual” based on money and time spent on games, whether on console or mobile, the gender split remains pretty close – a slightly greater percentage of the most casual players are women, and a slightly greater percentage of the most “core” players are men.

Although it’s been common knowledge for quite some time that at least half of the people who play games these days are women, the way games are represented in marketing tends to be very male-oriented. For example, I don’t think that the advertisers of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare had a female audience in mind when they crowbarred Emily Ratajkowski into this advert for apparently no reason whatsoever:

Then again, perhaps you could argue that Call of Duty is predominantly aimed at males. Sadly there are no statistics in the article to back up or refute that particular generalization, but it does point out that women list ‘Action’ and ‘Shooter’ games as their second and third favourite genres, so it seems fair to assume that a great many of CoD players are women.

One commenter notes that he has “never heard” a woman’s voice while playing Destiny online, and suggests that it might be because women might feel uncomfortable with pressure and rudeness from males in online games. ‘CG’ responds to this comment:

As a female gamer … I avoid online gaming, because I rarely get a positive experience. I think there are probably a few people like me out there, who are hard to find because we don’t speak up.

So perhaps there are far more women playing first person shooters than the marketers think, it’s just they choose to play offline. I certainly tend to avoid the general horrendousness of online gaming, and I’m a man. (Monster Hunter is an exception – everyone who plays Monster Hunter is utterly lovely.)

A typical line dancing scene in Monster Hunter.

A typical line dancing scene in Monster Hunter.

It’s heartening to see that the gender divide has shrunk so dramatically over the years – now it’s time for the world, and games marketers and designers in particular, to catch up with reality. I’ve moaned at length before on how women get a raw deal in games, thanks to a lack of female lead characters and a shockingly low number of female developers. Hopefully that will start to change in the same way as the gaming demographic has shifted.

Finally, it was also interesting to note that the average age of gamers is now 31. As a consequence, many more games these days seem to be aimed at the more mature market, and this has left a yawning gap in the market for games aimed at 9- to-15-year-olds. Almost all of the big franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider, have at least a 15 rating, so there’s a big gap between ‘kiddie’ games and ‘adult’ games that is up for grabs, as noted in this fascinating article.

Tomb Raider for Xbox 360 was an 18 - for camparison, the original game was rated 13+.

Tomb Raider for Xbox 360 was an 18 – for comparison, the original game was rated 13+.

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