Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Destiny Goes Free-To-Play?

Today some interesting news was posted on the Destiny subreddit. A screenshot is shown on the USA PSN store displaying purchasable level boosters for each class. Is this just one more of many steps in what will be a slow evolution into the free-to-play model?

Seems as though we need to add Bungie to the list of developers who like to throw the middle finger up their community by doing a U-turn on micro-transaction policies. Hah, not exactly - but that's basically how the Internet is probably feeling right now. Bungie picked their words very carefully in October when the addition of micro-transactions was a talking point as there was never an absolute statement denying the eventual implementation of a level boost even though data miners found evidence of this in the game's files.

I was looking on PSN only yesterday at Destiny - and it was on sale, with the Taken King Legendary Edition sitting at a price of £24.75. This has jumped back up to full price today; strange since a simultaneous price drop may have cushioned the blow of the inevitable Internet outrage, since new players could have potentially jumped to the same level as experienced players whilst paying around £50 anyway. 

Looking at Destiny's first year it resembled a fairly standard AAA release in terms of it's pricing structure (relatively speaking). It had two, fairly expensive expansions which arguably added a decent amount of content and in some people's opinions made it into a full and complete experience. The Taken King was the next big update which again, fleshed out the game with extra content and in it's current state is regarded to be quite different compared to when it released. 

Destiny was always going to be an interesting talking point, because although popular and as a shooter - mechanically brilliant, it was an anomaly of sorts. It combines aspects of a dungeon-crawler with skill-based gun-play and in some ways it's core design resembles that of Borderlands mated with traditional MMO elements. This is also reflected in how light the narrative is, although it is based on rich lore which is accessible outside of the game - a design element seen in the Souls games among others. These are not negative points, because ultimately Destiny is focused purely on the enjoyable gun-play, and whilst there is grind and repetition - Bungie's shooter is by no means let down because of this - if you as the consumer enjoy... well shooting things. 

Since The Taken King's release on the 15th September (UK) it has seen dramatic changes. The digital RRP was £54.99 which included the previous expansions and base game, along with new content. It worked out to be cheaper to re-buy this version than to buy expansions separately - something which irritated the experienced player-base who thought that they were being punished for their loyalty. Confusing pricing structures for games is extremely anti-consumer and does little more than fuel our distrust in developers and publishers. It also creates a backlash when you go against your words and add micro-transactions when you 'suggested' that you wouldn't. I mean, the very fact that you have to make a point about saying you won't add micro-transactions just goes to show that you, as the developer or publisher, have identified that we, as the consumer, do not like free-to-play design interfering with the enjoyment of a game we spent a LOT of our hard-earned money on. However let me reiterate that Bungie were very careful with their words so as to not land themselves in a clear-cut 'we went against our word' scenario.

Around mid-October, in a way, Bungie gave us an insight into the potential free-to-play future of Destiny by adding in real-money purchases of in-game currency in order to buy cosmetic items and emotes. Now I actually don't have a problem with this, as Destiny is an online-only experience and requires constant funding to keep it's servers afloat (although in Bungie/Activision's case, I don't think they are struggling in that department). I play Elite: Dangerous and it also sells paint-jobs for space ships which are definitely optional (especially since you play in first-person and hardly ever even see your ship during normal gameplay), it's not exactly viable to base your budget for the next year of content on the income generated from these extras, but they do give you some insights, and allow for continuous development resulting in a better product and more content. Paying for cosmetic items post-release isn't exactly a new thing anyway, we only tend to dislike it when content is released on day one. Like any project, budgets change and unforeseen circumstances can result in more or less work, time and money needed for completion. However, in a creative industry where the staffing and development costs vary wildly despite the standard set of product pricing tiers - finished content should be bundled into the final product. Even if potentially some player 'skins' were created as a result of work done outside of the initial budget - just bundle them into the game for Christ's sake. Day one DLC is absolute nonsense. This isn't relevant to the main point of this article, but I felt that it needed saying.

As well as announcing their plans for adding micro-transactions, Bungie also announced that they would be shifting away from the large expansion pack business model, which apparently was not sustainable, and instead focusing on giving players frequent and free content updates in small packages (one of which is the currently running Sparrow racing event). Around the same time, some players dug into the game's files and discovered evidence of 'boosters' that would generally affect player progression, including level boosters. Luke Smith, the Creative Director was very specific in saying that Bungie weren't planning on selling certain boosters. There were fears that, despite Bungie's reassurance, more free-to-play elements would sneak their way into the game bit-by-bit. It seems that he chose his words carefully, and no lie was told - however this level boost is at it's core very much in the same ball-park. 

The 'optional micro-transaction' is a fallacy when it's embedded into the game mechanics, pacing and progression. The game has been designed and balanced pre, or post-release with this business model in mind and therefore is tainted. I am not against this in a free game because a zero-cost price tag is almost a disclaimer in itself - nothing comes for free, so be prepared to pay extra for features, levels, cosmetic items or whatever. Experience and level boosters have no place in a full price £50/$60 title and they are not optional - the very essence of the game is designed with you paying extra money in mind, and so whether you pay or not - you are being affected regardless.

If you find yourself defending Bungie, or any other company for that matter for adding FTP elements into a full-price game (or in Destiny's case, a pretty damn expensive product overall) because these types of micro-transactions are optional or they don't affect you because you already have a high level character - then you are part of the problem. You are saying it's OK, and setting an anti-consumer precedence which will affect you sooner or later. 

It's a shame that Destiny couldn't prove itself as a solid full-price title, supported at the most by it's cosmetic micro-transactions. In a way, Bungie are saying that their base game content up to level 25 just isn't worth playing... In fact it's even worse then that. After paying £50 for the base game on release, if you want to avoid playing through that expensive content you can now pay us MORE to skip it? It's absolute nonsense. You know what would make it OK? If Destiny was entirely free-to-play and whilst I don't think it will be - Destiny 2 might fit more snugly into that category when it eventually gets released. I wouldn't be surprised if you had to buy character slots and pay for sub-classes, as well as the cosmetic elements. Who knows, perhaps they will return to the almost archaic, subscription based business model. I feel like the groundwork has been made with their first grand experiment, and in a way they could probably do whatever they want with the next game.

This is fresh news, and the UK PSN store does not display these boosters as of yet... Some people have suggested it's a fake, and that the image is photo-shopped. In any case I think the prospect of the free-to-play evolution of Destiny and full-price games like is worth discussing. I don't know about you but I have a huge urge to play a long, single player narrative shooter. I miss those. -oP

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Final Fantasy VII Remake - My Thoughts On The Episodic Format

I wrote an article about my thoughts on the episodic format of the Final Fantasy VII remake, but also decided to make a video about it.

Over the course of the weekend, the internet lost it's shit over the Final Fantasy VII remake after seeing some pretty tasty gameplay, but then they lost their shit all over again after the less popular reveal of the game's 'episodic' style release. I don't think I've ever seen such a massive 180 in fan reaction in such a short space of time. Ok so why are people mad? Well, the nostalgia-hit with FFVII is pretty potent and many people are over-dosing on their own childhood memories. People want to play FFVII again, and how it used to be - wait what? You can already do that, in fact it's just been released again on PlayStation 4. I think some people are perhaps getting a little blinded by their instinctive reaction to change generally.

We don't like change! Until we give that change a go and then we begin to tolerate it, and then kinda dig it. There are a couple points to highlight here, firstly let's focus on the format of the game itself. Final Fantasy, despite feeling similar, has come a long way in many regards since the first 3D outing on the original PlayStation. The Active Time Battle system used in FFVII through FFIX changed into a turn based system in FFX. Combat in FFXII Felt like a pseudo real-time MMO in single player form, and FFXIII was the polar opposite of FFX, focusing on a more simplistic yet ΓΌber-fast paced, auto-battle, class-change system. I'm just going to point out that FFXIII-2 is where I stopped playing, and I'm not going to refer much to the MMOs but they too are examples of change within the series.

Change is inevitable and I think necessary in a series which constantly re-uses character and creature designs as well as themes and story elements. With this in mind, do we want a re-skinned version of the same game? Well, we're definitely not getting that as the new battle system likens to a more action based game such as Kingdom Hearts. This isn't a problem for people however, in fact I've not seen anyone complain about that so we obviously aren't totally against the idea of this game being something new, and different.

So what is everyone angry about? Could it all boil down to the monies. We're in an interesting (although some may not call it that) time in the gaming economy. Nothing has changed too radically when it comes to the recommended retail pricing structure for triple-A games. As an example - you remember N64 games being £50 right? In some ways games are cheaper now than they ever were. But things are relative in the short term, and I'm not going to go into a financial study of current gaming trends, but I will point out that some people feel burned. Burned by the corporations who some see to be taking advantage of their insatiable appetite for nostalgia. We live in an age of nostalgia, services such as Good Old Games (www.gog.com) allow us to re-buy those games you played as a kid, games that I used to run in DOS. Yes, of course I've bought some of the classics of my childhood. The first game I bought on my PS3 from the PSN store was Crash Team Racing for the original PlayStation plus Final Fantasy VIII (which was the game which got me into the series to begin with).

An appropriate and more recent example has to be Star Wars: Battlefront. Christ, I'm a massive Star Wars fan, and literally cannot believe I'll be going to the cinema in 8 days from writing this to see the brand new bloody film. The game, panders to people like me. "Hey, come be Luke or Vader and force push some dudes on Endor, or fly a snow speeder on Hoth. What, no battles on Naboo or Geonosis? Great! Who gives a shit about the prequel trilogy am I right?" (As a side note, I do actually like all of the films). The point is: we are high on nostalgia and Disney and EA know it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing - you want a awesome Star Wars game right? Well in many ways Battlefront is everything a nerd could ask for.

The problem with it however, is the apparent void of content. If you get 50 hours out of that game and you can say you had fun, then great. £50 well spend, $60 - worth it. The value of a product like this for a lot of people is largely subjective. Is there an objective element though? Many people, critics and reviews do seem to say outright that there just isn't much to this game, and despite Dice being able to 100% focus on the multiplayer aspect since there wasn't a campaign to develop, people are pretty disappointed by the end product. I'm not going to start reviewing it, I'm just pointing out that people are already feeling a little taken advantage of. 

Another fairly current example, is one of Square-Enix's other Franchises - Deus Ex. Mankind Divided. Let's just begin by saying in my opinion Human Revolution was a pretty awesome remake of Deus Ex, and again appealed to our nostalgia whilst trying brand new things, in a well polished package. The latest game caused major controversy with the reward tiers for pre-orders - who thought THAT would be well received? If more people pre-order the game we'll release 4 days early? Seriously? I'm not totally against pre-order, pre-purchase and crowd-fund culture in principle, but I'm not going hide my disgust at the things that some developers and publishers practice. This discussion is also for another time. My point is people don't like it when they feel like companies take them for fools, and I'm not saying this is happening or anyone is wrong or right - but that's just the way it is.

There are so many questions yet to be answered about the Final Fantasy VII remake, how many episodes will there be? Will it be an episode per disc? I imagine most of you will remember, the point of changing a disc in an FF game generally signified the end of an 'act' of sorts. A natural pause in the story. You know, as well as the need to load more of the game. If the story progression is significantly different, then could the episodes be short experiences - think Metal Gear Sold V: Ground Zeroes short. Do we need to rethink our concept of standard Final Fantasy RPG progression altogether? We haven't had a Final Fantasy world map like FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX since, well FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX - how would an open-world map work in an episodic format anyway? Also - and I think this is the important part - how much will each game be? A full price stand alone game? If each episode has the content to justify that price point then Christ yes, you mean we don't just get one FFVII game we get, what 5 or something? Awesome. Or will they be short experiences, TellTale-esque - easily finished in a few hours for an appropriate cost? We just don't know.

Until we do know, all I can say is as a big fan of the Final Fantasy series I'm still pretty optimistic, at least until I have more information to base an opinion on. I will say that personally I'm looking forward to playing a brand new experience, and whilst familiar characters and set pieces are absolutely what I want and expect for nostalgia's sake - a new twist on the story, subtle changes in the environment along with new ideas and themes are not unwelcome either - and this includes the format in which the games are presented to me. They have given reason, and stated that if it was made into one game it would be a condensed experience with many cuts and elements removed - basically it wouldn't be a complete package.

I'm not blindly defending Square-Enix and I'm certainly not trying to diminish anyone's emotional attachment to this game (hey I'm emotionally attached too), but let's try to remain positive until we have confirmation that bullshit is definitely happening. It wasn't long ago that this remake wasn't even a thing to us - it didn't exist as far as we were concerned - and we were happy. We didn't need it. We still don't NEED it. But I for one and very happy that I will have the opportunity to experience it all over again, much like the new Star Wars-oP