Monthly Archives: January 2014

The videogame industry in 79 words

As an economist I analyse markets for a living.  But I am shocked at the amount of absolute garbage being written day after day by professional writers who somehow think there is some hidden meaning or grand plan hidden in plain sight within often straightforward announcements to investors. Here’s a hint,  there’s not, and believe it or not the games press is not the centre of the world.

Markets are complicated things but at the surface they represent something really quite simple.  Businesses, similarly, operate with regards to two key metrics; profit and loss – past, future and everything in between.  The decisions that they make are hard, yes, but the drivers for decisions are not.  But somehow game journalists, game bloggers, the twittersphere and everyone from whom the word ‘video game’ has pursed their lips choose to weave a rather large and intriguingly complex web while playing business advisor to the mega corporations that rule the industry and in turn save them from an untimely demise.

Twelve months ago Sony was dead;  six months ago Criterion Games was a goner;  and for the last month or so nothing but doom and gloom has been on the minds of everyone that dares speak the word ‘Nintendo’.  They’ve all been wrong, and will likely continue to be, but for all that think themselves a bit of a market soothsayer, here’s a little markets 101 for you to think about before you write your next fact-filled but ultimately frivolous article; in 79 words.

Businesses invest in consoles.  Businesses invest in games to sell those consoles.  When consoles sell they provide capital for longer development times and better games.  When consoles are successful other businesses make games for those consoles.  If consoles aren’t selling there will be fewer games for them.  If consoles fail businesses invest again with a new strategy.  Businesses don’t typically walk away from investment.  And finally very little of the cost involved in developing a console is sunk cost.  

…And also please stop.

Nintendo

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Crimson Shroud is Veil-ey Good

Crimson-Shroud-title-screenCrimson Shroud snuck out for release on the Nintendo eShop around Christmas 2012, and it quickly became one of my favourite 3DS games. It was created by Yasumi Matsuno, director of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics among others, and it’s easily the highlight of the Guild01 series developed by Level-5.

In modern RPGs there’s been a trend towards hiding the mechanics – the virtual dice rolls that determine whether you hit your opponent and how much damage you cause. It all goes back to the roots of the RPG in Dungeons & Dragons, where the dice rolls are actual and the characters are nothing more than hunks of metal brought to life with a little imagination. Modern games like Mass Effect all but do away with the numbers game, and on the surface they look just like first-person shooters – but somewhere under the flashy graphics, the game is still throwing those virtual dice, it’s just hiding the numbers from you.

Stat heaven.

Stat heaven.

In a wonderful conceit, Crimson Shroud flips this trend on its head – here you’re actually asked to roll those virtual dice with a flick of the stylus, and the characters are all static models on dinky little stands. But rather than being set on a living room table with a cardboard playing field, the backgrounds change markedly as you venture further into the dungeon. It’s a great idea, and the dice rolling feels very natural – you can even knock dice off the virtual table if you roll them too hard.

Living room D&D succeeds or fails on the strength of the story being told by the Dungeon Master, and in Crimson Shroud the story is a real highlight. The text is sumptuously written, and although there’s a lot of it, it’s always a pleasure to read. Similarly, the battles are tense and exciting, forcing you to constantly weigh up your opponents’ weaknesses and decide on whether to save dice for a devastating attack or concentrate on using magic to strengthen your defence. It gets very tactical towards the end, but even though I have no experience of playing D&D, I picked it up very quickly.

The downside is that often you’ll need to grind to get the best weapons, and there’s a particularly bad part in the second chapter where progress comes down to fighting a gang of skeletons again and again until one of them drops a key. Get past this bit though and the game opens up a lot more in terms of variety, and waiting for that sweet sweet loot to drop at the end of a battle becomes addictive.

I actually enjoyed this game so much that I started a second playthrough on the Game+ mode, which is something I never do. Usually once I’ve finished a game I won’t go back to it, but I just couldn’t get enough of Crimson Shroud. If you’re at all interested in RPGs and own a 3DS, it’s well worth dropping a few pounds on this little gem. Here’s hoping Matsuno-san is working on a sequel.

Aw, look at their little pedestals.

Aw, look at their little pedestals.

[As penned by +4 Mage Lucius Merriweather.]

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James Bond 007: Bloodstone is Bond at his interactive best

007BSCoverIts sad that the end of Bizarre Creations happened the way it did.  Once at the top of the pile leading both of Microsoft’s first two consoles out of the gate with the excellent Project Gotham Racing series, a shift to Activision in 2007 saw it release a number of games to little commercial success before being shuttered in 2010.  It was a loss for the industry, but also for people whose experiences with the Xbox brand in particular had been shaped in some form or another with by a game sporting the Bizarre Creations logo.  Be it Geometry Wars or Project Gotham Racing, Bizarre Creations were consistent purveyors of electronic masterpieces.

While PGR4 may have been the last game the developer made under the Microsoft Game Studios umbrella, the change in publisher did little to tarnish the quality of its output, and while the powers that be had changed the appetite for quality software was not gone.  2008’s The Club was an interesting attempt at changing the direction of the third-person shooter, while Blur was a solid if uninspired attempt at merging the arcade gameplay of Mario Kart with the real life car worship brought out through its own PGR experience.  But its biggest challenge came in the form of being handed the licence to a much beloved MI6 superspy and lady’s man.  It was a challenge that whether they accepted it with open arms or not they embraced the subject matter entirely and set out to do justice to the man they call Bond.  James Bond.

And Bloodstone is flat out the best Bond game I’ve played, no hard task given the last I played in earnest was the Spy Who Loved Me for the Amiga 500, I’ll admit.   Bond has had a storied history in gaming, from the heights of Goldeneye of which I can only attest to its appeal as a multiplayer game amongst groups of teenage boys, to the lows of Legends which unfortunately is fresh in my mind as both the last game to brandish the Bond name and perhaps the biggest pile of garbage starring Daniel Craig’s likeness to hit our screens.  And while there has been merit in many interactive 007 experiences, none of them from my experience, captured what it was to be the man that Britain denies exists.  Bizarre Creations changed that with a game that was equal parts brawler, shooter and joyride; but mostly an interactive experience that is as close to playing through a film as the titular hero as it can get.  In terms of what I want from a Bond game you really can’t get much better than that.

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A third person shooter isn’t necessarily, on the surface at least, the genre that does the Bond licence the most justice.  Bond is at times trigger happy, but most of the time he’s a watcher, sneaker, undercover agent – and if caught – a close-quarters brawler.  So while the new Bond is less gadgets and more gusto, he’s still not the type of run and gun hollywood hero video games so often pay homage.   Luckily the developer thought of very clever ways to keep the action flowing while still being true to the source material.  While the moment to moment action, on foot at least, mainly entails moving from cover to cover and taking opportunistic shots at the enemy, the way the game encourages you to engage in fisticuffs seeks to ensure you play Bond the way he is meant to be played.  Melee or stealth kills will earn you focus shots which are code for direct one-hit kills for any enemy you target.  Having a few of these on hand will make life a hell of a lot easier in tough situations and so you’ll constantly be looking for ways to clock your enemies in the jaw or sneak up behind them for a stealthy choke-hold.  While its not necessarily the most original idea – Splinter Cell: Conviction had a similar system – it gives Bloodstone an extra level of depth that made it feel all a bit more Bond and less Booker.  

It’s no surprise though that while a majority of the game is blasting your foes away with high powered rifles and shotguns, it is few the driving sections where Bizarre Creations have really shown their skills.  High speed chases through cramped European city streets and daring escapes against all odds across crumbling ice roads are exhilarating and break up the more standard shooting fare.  The controls are tight as they should be and, in much the same way as both Reflections’ and Paradigm Entertainment’s entries in the Stuntman series, the high speed action is all choreographed almost to perfection.  Of course like those games the need for precision can often lead to frustration, but the feel of getting behind the wheel of an Aston Martin DBS V12 is so spine-tingling that any misgivings will be left in a trail of smoke and rubber.  It may not be Project Gotham Racing 5 but there is enough high speed driving in Bloodstone to remind you that Bizarre Creations were one of the best in the racing business.

Of course all of this is covered in a very classy and well-choreographed cinematics and action sequences, including a brilliant opening animated sequence complete with an excellent track performed by English singer/songwriter Joss Stone.  Sure cutscenes should never be the main attraction, but in this case they go a long way to making Bloodstone feel like a worthy James Bond adventure.  It may not have the strong writing of a Casino Royale or Skyfall but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look and feel the part.

Bloodstone was Bizarre Creations’ last game, and while its not the way I would’ve liked to have seen them go, it was a nonetheless a polished and well crafted experience that both proved the developer’s chops outside of the racing genre and did justice to Ian Fleming’s British superspy.  Bizarre Creations weren’t just racing genre stalwarts, they were unbelievable game designers that could apply their craft to anything they put their mind to.  Crafting a game based on an established licence is never easy but Bloodstone manages to be both an excellent addition to the Bond canon and a worthy action game experience.

Bloodstonedriving

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Welcome to PS3 Land

Seven years after its launch in the UK, I can finally give you my first impressions of the PS3.

Here on A Most Agreeable Pastime, we’ve never been ones to hurry. We can often be found dawdling around The Manor, idling flicking through The Times and absent-mindedly wondering how long it will be until Mrs Fetchgrub the cook bangs the dinner gong. We may occasionally glance at the teetering pile of unplayed games on The Mantelpiece: a flicker of guilt may flit across our collective brow at the thought of all those neglected games, but the thought is dismissed with a harrumph and a muttering of “All in good time, all in good time…” as the newspaper is flicked upwards again. We would never be so ungentlemanly as to rush.

So it comes as no surprise that I’m fashionably late to the PS3 party, but I’m glad I joined it in the end. For a start, The Last of Us is reason enough to buy the system on its own and is easily one of the best games I’ve played in years. Then there are other great games like Ni No Kuni, Journey and Heavy Rain that I can’t wait to play. But how does the system itself compare to the Xbox 360? Here’s my better-late-than-never comparison.

Aesthetics

I bought the ‘super slim’ PS3 model, and oooooooh it’s a stylish beast. I love the oval outline and the curved top with its ridges – it certainly looks a damn sight better than my crumbly old Xbox 360. And speaking of my Xbox 360, the difference between them in terms of noise is remarkable. I fired up the Xbox again the other day and I was astonished at how loud it is compared to the PS3 – the 360 sounds like a vacuum cleaner, and it’s really noticeable when watching films. I’ve heard that the Xbox 360 slim is a bit less loud, but the PS3 is quiet as a mouse when it’s in use. It’s also pleasingly slimline, as suggested by the ‘super slim’ moniker, although it’s still about twice the size of the PS2 slim. The only thing I’m not a fan of, aesthetics-wise, is the cheap-feeling disc tray, which you have to manually slide back to load the disc. It’s clear that this was a change to bring the price down, but it just feels a bit naff.

Sadly my PS3 didn't come with this teak effect, which would have really fit in with the decor of The Manor.

Sadly my PS3 didn’t come with this teak effect, which would certainly have fitted in with the decor of The Manor.

Controller

I really like the fact that the PS3 controller has a built-in rechargeable battery, and I’m impressed that it holds its charge for a good length of time (I have an official rechargeable battery back for my Xbox 360 pad, but it loses charge at a ridiculous rate). The downside is that the charging cable is stupidly short, so if the controller runs dry during a game and I have to plug it in, I end up uncomfortably close to the telly. Also, the PS3 pad is frankly not a patch on the brilliant 360 pad – apart from the addition of analogue triggers, there are no real improvements over the PS2 controller (I’m not counting motion control), and the analogue sticks feel horrible. There’s a massive dead zone in the middle of them, the curved surface means your thumb keeps slipping, and I much prefer the asymmetrical stick set-up of the 360 pad (although maybe this is just because it’s what I’m used to).

Shame that cable's just a BIT too short...

Shame that cable’s just a BIT too short…

Operating System

I’m not a big fan of the current ‘Metro’ Xbox 360 operating system – the front end is cluttered with irritating adverts, it’s confusing to navigate and the things that I use all the time, like the iPlayer app, are buried behind loads of menus. It feels like a system built on an agenda rather than on the basis of what would benefit the user, designed to push content rather than gather useful functions in one place (or at least letting you customise it to do so). Bearing this in mind, I was ready to welcome the PS3 operating system with open arms, so I was shocked when it turned out to be even worse than the Microsoft one. The XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface, which is standard across all Sony products, is bland, sparse and, most importantly, incredibly confusing. The menus don’t seem to have any logic to them: I spent ages looking under ‘Settings’ to see how much space I had on my hard drive, only to eventually find that hard drive management was under ‘Game’. Even worse, half of the menu items seem to be in technospeak, and the system has a love of unnecessary abbreviations. I’m still not sure what ‘BD’ means – ‘Blu-Ray Drive’ maybe? Or ‘Bad Design’? For all the ridicule that the Wii U has suffered at the hands of internet grumblers, one thing is for sure – it has by far the most intuitive, customisable, colourful and easy-to-use operating system of the bunch. Microsoft and Sony, take note.

The XMB operating system: dull, sparse, confusing and frankly rubbish.

The XMB operating system: dull, sparse, confusing and frankly rubbish.

Games

And so to the most impartant aspect of all – the games. I’ve played a couple of first-party titles – Killzone 3 and The Last of Us – and I have to say the graphics are noticeably better than the 360’s best. Killzone 3 also has the option of playing in 3D, something that the Microsoft console lacks. My dad has a huge 3D TV, so after I unboxed my PS3 at Christmas I set it up on his telly, donned my 3D specs and had a go. The 3D is very impressive, particularly when huge ships come flying overhead, and it definitely adds something to the game… but then again neither is it essential to it. The 3D is undoubtedly an excellent bonus if you have a suitably beefy TV, but it’s not the revolution something like the Oculus Rift could be.

This looks a lot better with 3D glasses

This looks a lot better with 3D glasses

Movies

I’m mightily impressed with the Blu-Ray drive on the PS3, which even manages to make DVDs look better than on my old DVD player, and I’m sure the fact that the PS3 plays Blu-Rays is why a lot of people bought one. Also, and most importantly, Netflix and Lovefilm are free to use on PS3, whereas on Xbox 360 you have to pay £40 a year for an Xbox Live Gold membership to use these apps. How on earth Microsoft can justify charging me to watch films on Lovefilm, DESPITE THE FACT THAT I’VE ALREADY PAID TO WATCH THEM VIA MY LOVEFILM SUBSCRIPTION, is absolutely beyond me. A win for Sony there, and a black mark against Microsoft’s name.

So overall I’ve been impressed with the PS3 – it looks great, it’s got a Blu-Ray player and it doesn’t charge you for things that should be free anyway. However, it’s let down by its ancient controller design and rubbish user interface, which means that in the end there’s not a huge amount to choose between the PS3 and 360. Although having said that I’m currently favouring the Sony machine, simply because I tried to watch a YouTube video on my 360 a few days ago only to be told I had to get an Xbox Live Gold subscription to watch it. Bloody Microsoft.

[As deliberated over by Lucius Merriweather.]

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Trine 2: Calamitous Cooperation

Trine 2: Director’s Cut was an impulse purchase on the weekend I received my Wii U, and it quickly turned into a surprise hit with my two sisters. Since then I’ve been playing through the game with my friend Mark at intervals of a few months, and last week we finally finished it, over a year after I bought the game.

Trine_2_Directors_Cut_Banner

I’d never even heard of Trine 2 when I first saw it on the Nintendo eShop, but the demo video looked great and, flush with the excitement of owning a new console, I decided to buy the game on the spot – a rare occasion of buying without reading the reviews first. Thankfully it turned out to be brilliant, and it’s one of those few and far between games that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play. The gameplay centres around swapping between three characters – a knight, a wizard and a thief – and using their different abilities to solve puzzles and defeat goblins. The wizard is probably the most entertaining of the bunch, as he can produce mechanical boxes and planks out of thin air, as well as manipulate various bits of scenery with a wave of his hand. The knight, by contrast, has the sword-swinging abilities you’d expect, and the thief can grapple onto bits of scenery and fire arrows at enemies and targets. It all reminded me a bit of The Lost Vikings on the SNES, which featured three hairy dudes with pointy hats that had similarly varied abilities, but I’m surprised the mechanic hasn’t been used more often since the 16-bit days, as it works very well.

Probably the chief reason that I enjoyed Trine 2 so much was the unintentional hilarity of cooperating with Mark. Often this would involve one of us playing the wizard and building some sort of rickety tower in an attempt to reach the next section; meanwhile the other player would attempt to climb the tower, only for the wizard to unintentionally/deliberately cause some element of the death-trap tower to disappear, causing the knight/thief to plunge to their doom. With hilarious results.

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Honestly, I’ve never laughed so hard at my own ineptitude as I did during the fun-filled hours playing this game. I made a point of only playing it in co-op, as it’s easily twice as much fun when you’re attempting to bodge together some unorthodox solution with a friend compared with playing solo. And speaking of unorthodox solutions, I’m certain that some of the methods we came up with weren’t the ones that the designers intended, but the game has a wonderfully flexible system when it comes to puzzle solving, and it really encourages experimentation.

It’s not all great though. In particular, the controls feel a bit floaty, and the plot is hardly anything to write home about: frankly, neither of us gave two hoots about the princess we were trying to save. The game also provoked the occasional prolonged bout of swearing and controller abuse on my part, although this was usually down to my own incompetence or frustration at watching Mark try and fail to jump onto a platform for the nineteenth time. On occasion I may, may, have uttered the words “Look just give it here and let me do it”, like some sort of pushy dad. For this, I am ashamed.

But overall the fun far outweighed the frustration, and to top it all off the game looks stunning. Seriously, it even puts Rayman Legends to shame when it comes to beautiful 2D side scrollers, and apparently there’s an even more gorgeous PS4 version on the way. Overall it comes highly recommended, especially if you have a friend or two to play it with.

[Calamitously penned by Lucius Merriweather.]

trine_2_directors_cut_mountains_shot_1_vgblogger_exclusive_720p

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Hanging out in the apocalypse with Joel and Ellie

Last-of-us-cover-1024x1024When we created our rundown of the best games of the generation a couple of months back, I took Sir Gaulian’s word for it that The Last of Us should come in at number two, having not played the game myself. Now that I’ve had some time to hang out with Joel and Ellie in the ruins of America, I emphatically agree with Gaulie’s judgement – and there’s even grounds for even moving it up a place.

The Last of Us sucked me in from the very beginning and kept me hooked right up until the astonishing finale. It starts as it means to go on, with a brutal opening that hits you in your emotions gland with the weight of an articulated lorry, possibly a lorry carrying a cargo of dying kittens. And remarkably, the game keeps that emotional weight all the way through. By the end I found I was physically gasping whenever one of the two leads was placed in peril, such is the emotional attachment I forged with the characters.

There have been games with emotional weightiness and formidable storytelling before, of course. Spec Ops: The Line told a cracking yarn with a memorable ending, and Fallout 3 had some surprisingly moving moments. But until The Last of Us, I’d never played a game that tells such a compelling tale throughout, combining shocks with comedy and creating characters that change perceptibly over time. It’s an astonishing achievement, and one that has set the new benchmark for characterization in video games.

This is an actual gameplay screenshot - the attention to detail is stunning.

This is an actual gameplay screenshot – the attention to detail is stunning.

The setting itself isn’t particularly original – the zombie apocalypse is a trope that has been used countless times before, although the idea that ‘zombieism’ is caused by a mind-controlling parasitic fungus (a fungus that, scarily, exists in real life) is one that I haven’t seen before. However, rather than becoming an all-out zombie-killing fest, like Dead Island and its ilk, The Last of Us borrows more from The Walking Dead by focusing on how the people involved cope with the end of civilization. Half of the time the baddies you’re facing are humans rather than zombies (although the game never uses the ‘z’ word, referring instead to the ‘infected’). And often there’s an uncomfortable ambiguity about whether all of the slaughter is ‘right’.

Gameplay-wise there’s little we haven’t seen before, with the usual selection of guns and tools and the tried and tested mechanics of sneaking and shooting. What’s impressive though is how seamlessly it’s all been integrated – I found myself picking up the controls with no trouble at all, and it’s ingenious the way that the screen clutter has been kept to a bare minimum to avoid detracting from the action. Graphically, the game is phenomenal, and streets ahead of anything else on the current generation. The attention to detail adds enormously to the game’s power to draw you in – assets are rarely reused, so each abandoned house you enter feels unique and draws you into the game world further. Immediately after I finished The Last of Us I began playing Deadly Premonition, and the difference in graphical fidelity was remarkable: Deadly Premonition looks almost like a PS2 game by comparison, and as such its power to absorb you is diminished accordingly (although it’s still great; write up coming soon). Don’t believe what you hear: graphics do matter.

There’s loads more I want to say about the story, but I’ll leave it here for now – sometime in the future Gaulie and I might end up doing a spoilery discussion of Joel and Ellie’s fate. In the meantime though, if you’ve not done so already, I’d recommend rushing off to play The Last of Us now. If you don’t have a PS3, get one: this game is worth it.

[As penned in mortal peril by Lucius Merriweather.]

Apparently Ellen Page accused the designers of ripping off her likeness for Ellie - you can see her point.

Apparently Ellen Page accused the designers of ripping off her likeness for Ellie – you can see her point.

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The value of coin: an exploration of Mario’s currency

There have been so many dissertations written about the Super Mario series of games, with everything from the physics of the jump, to the design of the levels being subject to critical analysis by video game enthusiasts and game designers. I’m not a professional game designer, but I am an economist and so with that experience I try and do the same level of assessment, but this time with Mario’s currency: the iconic Coin.  This relates directly  to Nintendo’s Super Mario series of games, but its lessons can apply equally to the free-to-play market.

A History Lcoinesson: On 12 December 1983, the Australian Government floated the dollar, until which time it had been a fixed exchange rate pegged to a number of currencies over the course of its life.  Since then the value of the dollar has fluctuated with the market, reaching a high in July 2011 trading at higher than $1.10 against the US dollar.  There has been pain on both sides of the coin, for both importers and exporters, but for the most part it has served the country well by allowing the central bank control over the money supply and giving it new and efficient tools to combat downturns and slow down an overheated economy.  In short it was a good economic decision.  Fixed currencies are not in vogue within economic schools of thought these days and for good reason; the precedents being set by crises in both the Bretton-Woods system and the gold standard before it.  The question is has Nintendo sticking to its guns on how it uses its Mario coins set in on a path for rendering its currency obsolete?

I am fascinated by the economics of video games.  Not how much they sell and at what price, but how the designers shape the gameplay around the fundamental economic principles, often unknowingly.  Like it or not every video game has an in-game economy and whether it be collectables, coins or currency, or loot; each and every decision a designer makes to encourage people to act or behave (or not) in a certain way is driven by conventional or behavioural economics. Nintendo has maintained a fixed exchange rate for Mario games, effectively pegging the currency against lives at a rate of $100.00.  It may seem a bit abstract by the value of the coin has not changed for the most part throughout the history of the series.  That is with with the exception of the 2013 game New Super Mario Brothers 2 which saw Nintendo place a whole new value into its coin system.  But we’ll get more into that a bit later.  For now let’s stick with history.

Mario games have undergone a pretty fundamental shift in the way they treat their players.  While the concept of lives still exists (and the concept of death), they have become less and less important as the game designers have shifted toward a more user friendly game play experience, offering unlimited continues with very little cost or penalty to the player.  While many people would argue it is because of the more ‘casual’ nature of Nintendo consoles in recent years, there is probably more truth in an argument that the designers have moved with the technology.  No longer are games hamstrung by password systems and lack of system storage and so gone is the gameplay device that forces players to learn and perfect a game in order to get through it in a sitting.  Whatever the reason the fundamental design of what a Mario game game is had to change and in that transit the coin got dragged kicking and screaming along with it – for better for worse. new-super-mario-bros-u It is almost impossible to argue that the value of Mario’s coins hasn’t fallen.  With lives forming all but lip service to the games’ legacy the coins play no real functional role in the economy of Mario’s game design.  They exist almost purely for their intrinsic value and to that end the game makes the assumption that players place a high  value on the coins.  This belief is inherent in almost all aspects of the game design: coins are often out of reach of the player at which point the game assumes it is worth the player’s time to collection them; and reinforcing that fundamental assumption is that quicker times through stages is met with a coin reward.  Its a bit paradoxical to think that the game’s built-in opportunity cost is measured in coins; but the fact is that coins are a very large and central part of Mario’s in-game economy.  

The problem is that these iconic shining circles in fact hold very little true economic; and with that the key economic proposition being based around them any game play mechanic that relies on them heavily gives the player no inherent incentive to collect them, or play to maximise their coin returns.  Fundamentally Nintendo has lost its ‘lever’ over player behaviour, and what its left with is a perceived over-reliance on the physical mechanics of the game – essentially how the game behaves according to player input. How big of a problem is this for traditional Mario games moving forward?  Well it entirely depends on what Nintendo’s mantra for the series is.  The key question is if it is not worth a player collecting coins how does Nintendo design the levels to coerce the player into new areas?  Coins are more than just currency they are also in so instances ‘markers’ that point toward new or hidden areas.  If the coins hold low or little value to the player then there is no incentive to collect them, causing problems not just for how the economy is balanced, but also potentially as a device to encourage exploration.  This effectively changes how the developers have to think about level design and try and shape player action in some other way.  It may not be a terminal problem but it does call for thought to be put into how Nintendo try and guide player behaviour with the invisible hand and sign post parts of their game that are not found along the path of least resistance.

It is a problem that to date no modern 2D incarnation of the series has tackled. With the exception of New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS that is, which threw any supply constraints on the coin out of the window.  In fact it went so far in the other direction that not only did it increase the money supply it actively encouraged a drop in the market value of the coins by setting the players goals to horde its money.  The gameplay choice worked a treat and mixed things up enough to keep the pursuit of coins fresh and exciting; but it did little more than provide an artificial stimulus on the demand for coins in the hope of driving an interest in collecting them.  Again though legacy design decisions such as the exchange rate for lives remaining fixed made it more stimulus and less structural change; with the impact being a short term devaluation of the value of coins in pursuit of a greater gameplay design decision.  It was a good gameplay decision but a terrible one for the already failing coin.

This all looks like it is leading to a financial crisis for the humble coin as Nintendo wrestles with very rapid depreciation of its iconic currency with an unwillingness to shift from its design choices of old.  But look beyond the coin and things get somewhat brighter because the team has sought to diversify its holdings to avoid disaster.

The answer is introducing new and competing currencies into their games’ markets.  The economic proposition in the case of collectibles is quite a simple one; they must have some value to the player usually beyond the simple act of attaining it; and for the most part both the star coins and stamps in the latest Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U do so successfully.   These coins and stamps actively unlocked more content for players, which in and of itself placed an opportunity cost value on them, forcing players to assess whether the time afforded to collecting them was worth it with respect to the value of the reward.  It has become a central part of Mario games and has featured prominently in the structure of recent games and in part resolved some of the issues surrounding the old-money by drawing players toward collecting these often hard to find and prized collectibles.  They in some ways have become the premium money in the game: supply constrained and able to be tendered for valuable in-game goods.  There are other tiers; primarily the ability to ‘bank’ power-ups, but these hold no value in the long-run and as such are merely play the role of a hedging currency more than anything else. This being the case though, I still believe there is merit in reassessing the value of the coin by changing its ‘pegging’ within the game.

The question is do they retain control and set the value or do they let player action decide how valuable those coins are?  Lets explore those options: We have established that the current pegging of the coin is fraught with negative economic consequences; notably the rampant deflation of the coin’s value.  But one of the key features of a fixed exchange rate is the ability for the policymaker (or game designer in this case) to reassess its rate against current market conditions.  Doing so would require Nintendo to make fundamental changes to what the coin represents in its economy.  With the near obsolescence of lives it is plainly clear that keeping coins pegged against them is keeping its value down.  Structural change is clearly required.  But this will come at the expense of the series’ conventions.  Either way whatever the currency is fixed to must in and of itself have a value to the player – could pegging it against continues work?

Nintendo could theoretically constrain the supply of continues  and fix the value of the coin directly to them to increase the exchange rate to artificially raise its value?  Perhaps powerups?  These are the questions this option would need to explore and answer; but there is inherent risk for the game’s balance if player behaviour is misunderstood by the designer.  Fixing the currency against another game-good is possible but fraught with issues. Which leaves us with a more market-based mechanism, similar to a floating of the dollar.  But what would this look like?

Like central banks the one thing Nintendo has up its sleeve is that its playing with an entirely known quantity of coins in the game’s economy, which makes life somewhat easier.  A system whereby the value of the coin is directly relate to player demand for the coins would not only allow for Nintendo to increase the value of the currency, but also for players to decide for themselves what value they place on the coins.  This system would see the tender value of coins for in-game goods and services to fluctuate according to how many they collect.  If the money supply in a level remains high due to a decision by the player to not actively collect them, the tender value of that currency to purchase goods and services will fall.  That is if more coins are left in a level then the number of coins required to purchase lives, continues or power-ups would be higher than it would in a situation whereby a player has collected all of the coins in a level.  It is a simple market mechanism that both gives the player incentive to collect coins by placing a higher value on them; but it also allows the developer to better balance its in-game economy.  It’s a win-win for everyone and in my view the best way to maintain the allure of the iconic Super Mario coin. So while it may on the surface look like the coin is destined for a collapse of enormous proportions, taking with it the entire Mario universe, Nintendo have taken steps toward stabilising (or balancing in game design terms) the 2D Mario economy.

Diversifying its currency base was a major step toward fixing some of the problems caused in some part by game design but in most part by the changing nature of how and who games are played by.  The problem still remains though that the core of Mario games is still entrenched in the monetary system of old, based on a currency that now has no inherent draw.  If Mario’s coins are going to remain an integral part of the games’ experiences then Nintendo needs to think long and hard about the role they play in balancing the in-game economy; retaining their value; and therefore how they move to shape player action and progression.  Without this those sparkling gold bullions will slowly fade into the darkness and Nintendo will be left with a real “Monkey on its back” and a dilemma in terms of how it designs its Mario games into the future.

Sir Gaulian is an economist with almost a decade of experience in markets.  He even dipped his toes into free-to-play game design once upon a time.  Get in touch on twitter @Oldgaulian or keep the discussion alive in the comments below. MarioQ

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