The pre-release tension in August was palpable. All the games in the world were going to be released in the next couple of months, and everyone was getting a bit antsy. Luckily there was some other stuff going on to distract us from the wait...
Jim: This is an odd one, because I've always loved the notion of hi-score tables. There's something pure about them, exact numeric rankings... they really stir my competitive nature. However, the whole "achievement" and the attendant scoring systems leave me completely cold. While I'm happy to compete within the structure of a particular game, why should I give a damn about my wider ability as a gamer across multiple games. I don't know about you lot, but I've always taken the experience of just playing games as enough of a hit. Additional scoring systems seem entirely superficial, and utterly irrelevant. Achievements? Balls! Except that gnome space launch thing in Half-Life Episode 2, clearly that was genius.
Kieron: Yeah, I love high score tables and don't give a damn about Gamerscore-equivalents either. I take perverse pleasure to manipulate my 360 Gamerscore to be as low as possible. I begrudge grinding achievements to access necessary weapons to play the game. In short, I am very old, and I suspect the generation gap's only going to get worse - regularly seeing people on forums talk about how they're not interested in playing a game because it hasn't achievements. Because what's the point. When Raph Koster talks about all games becoming MMOs, I don't think all games as a constant grind was what he was talking about.
Actually, the thing which does fascinate me about achievements is that developers are actively gaming the system. If you get a mass of gamerpoints just by completing the tutorial, it's a big red flashing light to Specialist 360 reviewers - because it's a sign the developers realise they need to try and lure in the obsessive gamerscore players with the promise of easy bounty. Because no fuck's going to want to play their game for fun. Mental.
John: I think achievements are all about context. In something arcade, non-narrative, I'm for them. But in the most casual way imaginable. I'm not going to be mining them, or considering I've failed at the game until I've clocked them all. But if I'm shooting shapes, or replaying the same short map of TF2 ninety times in an afternoon, it's a punctuation of reward. It makes me sad when I see people playing purely for a gamerscore, but then it makes me sad when I see people enjoying a Richard Curtis film. However, keep the bloody things out of narrative games - they're even more utterly idiotic and infuriating than the frame-breaking displeasure of having the word "LOADING" screeched at you every twenty seconds.
Alec: I guess I'm the only one of us to have experienced the WoW achievements first-hand. They're a really odd beast - in a game that's already about a bunch of on-screen messages that usually relate to some sort of effect upon your character, yet more messages lacking in purpose beyond their own existence is a strange thing to introduce. They're not really analogues of the willy-waving of 360 Gamerpoints, but rather they're something else to do in the event of quest boredom or struggling to find a dungeon party. In that sense, they could be really great for the game - but the moment of achievement feels so flat and pointless that I pretty much stopped even noticing when I did unlock one by accident/coincidence. Trouble is, applying some visual or statistical reward only makes the game even more geared towards benefiting those who put far too much time into it. A tricky one. As it is, they just seem like yet another bloody excuse for guildmates to offer up a 'gratz' over the chat channel. I really am sick of reading 'gratz' now.
Kieron: The outrage was fun, but the actual critique of the critiques were useful, just because it showed the thought that goes into art design over "Woah! His head came right off". It's like the situation with user-created high-res textures with games. Almost universally, while clearly technically more impressive, they just don't show any understanding of the game whatsoever. Around the time Soulstorm came out, I was looking at one of the mod teams who were also working on some Sisters of Battle. And if you compare their models to the models in soulstorm, in terms of abstract level of fidelity, they win. But they have many more polygons. And they, in the context of the standard Dawn of War characters, are clearly out of place. And that's before you go into the character design elements, where facially they look more like Supermodels than Space Marines with bosoms. In short: making videogames is hard.
John: I wish people would own their roles. Customer plays. Developer designs. Nice and simple. You know, apart from me. For some reason it's okay for me to make a living criticising the design decisions of developers. I'm special.
Jim: This is one of those endless problems with games: gamers can always imagine how the game might be different, or how they'd like it to look, play, sound, smell and so on. It's particularly acute when the audience can take screenshots, manipulate them quite competently, and show us how they think it would look it is wasn't, er, brightly coloured.
Alec: It's a depressingly regular symptom of the moany sickness at the heart of so much of internet culture, too. Rather than being delighted they were finally getting a sequel to their favourite game, a whole mess of people switched immediately to whining about something pretty minor. It's like finally having a child after years of trying, then bitching that it's got brown hair. God, I hate the internet.
Kieron: Quinns is kind of a little like PC Gaming's answer to Caine in Kung Fu crossed with Jack Kerouac. May his itchy-feet never get scratched.
John: Quintin's not real, you realise, right? He's a character we made up. I really think some people are taking it seriously!
Alec: I want to go to Japan. I hear they have many robots and short girls there.
Jim: I still play it every week.
Kieron: I don't, but did like it. Hurrah for tiny games.
Alec: Sorting indie wheat from indie chaff is time-consuming endeavour, but when a micro-gem like this turns up, the endless search is entirely worth it.
Jim: One of the more interesting moves by a game producer, I think. In a year where Cliffski seems to have provoked more angry piracy-apologism than we would have ever thought possible, it was great to seem him pushing the issue with a fresh approach.
Kieron: Yeah, but admittedly with a splash of cynicism. In the same way that Stardock's stance gets a lot of attention from the vocal anti-DRM people, this got Cliffski's name in places which would never have even talked about Positech's games before. But - y'know - so what?
John: Now all he needs to do is stop swearing at people in our comments and it's trebles all round! This was a great and smart move. Most exciting was not his asking, but his response to the answers. Dropping DRM, embracing more reasonable prices, and recognising a potential customer.
Alec People need to stop swearing at him in our comments too, y'know. Goddamn piracy wars. Hope this has gone well for him, anyway - clearly, it was about the headlines as much as anything else, but it was thought-provoking headlines rather than celebrity-without-knickers headlines.
Jim: A roundup in a roundup. Interesting. I'm amazed we made it that far, really.
Kieron: We are also mentally about one year old.
John: I totally made that cake.
Alec: I'm so very tired.
Jim: Thanks, Community. I do feel a little guilty that we haven't made more of this, and in fact we should be working harder to make the community feel like it has a common purpose: playing games. The reason we've not done so is because we are very lazy, and a little bit afraid.
Kieron:Yeah - it's one area where RPS clearly could do more stuff. Problem being, I suspect, that as a blog we tend to be gadflies. I mean, did we ever pass the Warhammer Guild leadership onto anyone else?
John: Our readers are the best readers. And I still haven't forgotten about my promised surprise. It's a tough thing to organise, but I'm still working on it.
Alec: Once we've sold out a few more times, we might have enough money to host a server ourselves (in addition to this fine community one, of course). It'll host Dungeon Keeper all day, every day.
Jim: He'll never learn, that boy. Still he's basically right. Despite the anti-intellectualism that's pervasive in games commentary, critics are elitist whether they think so or not.
Kieron: I never learn. Especially when I'm drinking.
Alec: There were some interesting/angry behind-the-scenes arguments about this one. KG had this concept of 'games not in a box' (i.e. overlooked titles, or ones not benefiting from a publisher's marketing push) that differed substantially from some of the rest of ours'. It was an interesting dichotomy - one man's idea of non-mainstream/niche/indie can be entirely different to the next guy. It's a matter, I guess, of how deep you have to go, and how obscure the games you talk about, before you and your peers deem you to be flying the right flags. I reckon we're by and large maximalist enough in our breadth of coverage here, but it would be great to dig up more King's Bounties and Dwarf Fortresses.
Jim: We never did make this into a regular feature.
Kieron: That one bottle of wine produced both the hyper-wanky Critical piece above and the literally wanky-lady-appreciation shows the importance of booze in my creative (ah! ah! ah!) spirits. My favourite thing about this - apart from Leigh being lovely - is how neither of us recognised half the actors, enraging pretty much everyone. Yay!
John: Actually Kieron, this isn't an end-of-year round-up. It's an intervention. We've all gathered here to tell you that we love you, that we're your friends, but that we cannot sit back and watch you drink your way into another manifesto. It's not fair on you, it's not fair on us, and most of all it's not fair on easily confused and mindlessly spiteful bloggers all around the world. It has to end.
Meanwhile, failing to recognise Jonathan Pryce isn't something to be proud of. It implies you've never seen Brazil, which just won't do. Oh, I stopped being supportive.
Alec: Or Sulu, for that matter. I'm just jealous that Kieron talks to girls on the internet, though.
Jim: I didn't play it, not guilty!
Kieron: Yeah, that was a bit of a clusterfuck. The debate started on a perhaps ill-judged War-is-Wow-baiting tone. I mean, the content didn't matter - we were doomed to a good chunk of the wandering Warhammer crowds for taking that stance, and that's before we even got to the comedy WoW screenshot Alec lobbed in at the end. Still - the debate itself was worthwhile and got through a lot of key points regarding PvE. Shame we couldn't do any of the PvP or RvR before it, which wasn't for the lack of trying. The European servers were pretty much dead whenever I played - in my twenty or so hours with the Beta before that discussion, queuing for a scenario the entire time, I only got one game. I think I bumped into one person in the contested zones too.
Still, if you wanted a case study of why gamers not understanding that it's possible to write about games in a format that is neither a review or a preview, the comments thread for this one's it. And remember Alec cleaned it up considerably...
John: I'm still a little overwhelmed by the reaction. I mean, the game does look a lot like WoW.
Alec: What we were entirely guilty of was not seeing the PvP/RvR, but as KG says we did try. Confusingly, a couple of guys trotted out the "I was on the same beta server and I had no problems" line. Maybe we are stupid. Or maybe we couldn't afford to play quite as frequently as some people - an hour in an unending Scenario queue wasn't a productive use of my time.
As I said in a follow-up post though, the irrationality of the it's-not-like-WoW-at-all angries seemed to stem from some idea of WoW not being cool enough. I still believe that - hark back to the 'WoW gayness' Diablo stuff. It's also a matter of people defining themselves by the games they play, which means that when you insult their game of choice, you insult them. It's a shame this means negative reactions to the comparison are so strong that level-headed discussion is ruled out. Does anyone still want to shout at us about this, or has everyone calmed down now the game's actually out?
Kieron: Honestly, I dunno. I think we should wait until early next year to see how it all plays out.
John: I love it when people say no one's doing any journalism in gaming. I like to think about the hours of reading bloody forums about this nonsense, and sending eight million emails to involved parties, trying to get answers out of people, and eventually getting the pricing for the game changed as a result of the pieces I wrote. And then I like to throw darts at those people.
Alec: Worth mentioning that even after this, the European open beta and release were plagued by all manner of problems - the first week or so of the game was a massive headache. From where I'm standing, GOA handled the Euro release incredibly badly. Which made Paul Barnett's infamous accusation that WAR dev Mythic's owners EA know nothing about publishing MMOs an odd one, to say the least.
Jim: Oh, Todd!
Kieron: I do see his point. Logically speaking, there's a level of piracy which PC hardware manufacturers would be totally fine with - because it's a boon to people buying systems, so attracting more people, so making them money - which is higher than the level that software developers and publishers would be happy with. That's obvious. Problem is... why say it?
John: I remember when DVD players first gained popularity, and the insane decision to region code the discs was hurried out in order to keep prices hiked in Europe/Australia, and to stop people buying the films from the US before the cinematic release outside the US. It turned out nearly all the players were being built with in-built software hacks to make them multi-region. Hacks that found their way onto the internet immediately. Almost as if the hardware manufacturers wanted their products to get hacked! Just saying.
Alec: Yeah, he has a point - if you sign up for an ISP, for instance, it's generally promoted on stuff like "download x number of songs in 5 minutes". I don't know about PC hardware makers so much, but certainly the ancillary service and software industries are quietly using the world's yen for piracy to shift their own product. Unfortunately, in this case it was just another industry moneyman moaning about lost sales rather than actively working on ways to evolve in the face of a changing world, and that makes it hard to sympathise.
Jim: Good sort, Boyer, and this look at Spore's development from a couple of years ago is a typically charming piece by him. Interesting to contrast to the game we actually got to play a few weeks later, too.
Kieron: The roads not travelled on Spore kills a lot of people. Maybe in the long term it'll prove a boon. Spore has proved that an evolution game can sell. Developers being pissed off with a game is something that prompts them to do something. There's space for someone to do a take on the game far more towards the excised approached, certainly.
John: Kieron's right. I'd like to see developers quite shamelessly lifting ideas from Spore and going in the various directions people may have wished it had taken.
Alec: I think the only thing that Spore's proved (much as I like it) is that large numbers of people dig games that provide them with easy tools to make stuff. I honestly don't believe the evolution element was much a factor in Spore's sales success.
Jim: MMOs seem to have a habit of coming back from the dead, don't they? Not sure why this one is particularly virulent, I never thought it was much cop. Perhaps the fact that we even notice that MMOs keep returning is simply a fact of their weird existence: they simply can't be without the servers to cater for them, making it all the more tragic when they do shut down.
Kieron: On that note, I really must go into Tabula Rasa for its end in January.
John: This was such poop when it first launched. But then, when it first launched most of the promised features hadn't been put in, which is never a great start. I've not seen it since, but I can't remember any reason I would have wanted to go back.
Jim: Clever types, Stardock, and they're basically pushing for a commercial consensus on how gamers should be treated. It's hard not to agree with their suggestions, and impossible not to commend the sentiment.
Kieron: See what I said about Cliffski upthread, really.
John: A fantastic thing to have written. But it could have done without the Steam-baiting. They may well disagree with Valve's model, and believe it's inherently unfair, but it did rather tarnish their article with an air of bitterness. Also, I have some serious questions regarding their belief that all games should have DLC. That's just plain daft. Still, it's good to have people like Stardock making noise.
Alec: Once again, I'm torn between respect for Stardock being outspoken supporters of stuff that genuinely benefits PC gamers and the bittersweet awareness that they can only say these kinds of things because they happen to have the sort of audience that keeps them relatively safe from the trials and tribulations other developers/publishers face. PC gaming needs some sort of standardisation, but it feels like we're pinged between the two extremes of Stardock's noble but singular model and the huge scale but apparent cluelessness of the PC Gaming Alliance. Is there no way to make a sensible, practicable middleground?
- "Notable" Releases
Stalker: Clear Sky
Jim: Our collective apathy towards Clear Sky was not, as some argued, a bizarre against-our-own-interests conspiracy. (THINK, AIMS! WHY WOULD WE DO THAT?) Instead it was down to the game spoiling what was great about the original, and failing to make the faction warfare interesting.
John: Well, since I didn't play or review this, I remain convinced that the three of you agreeing on the game was part of an elaborate conspiracy whereby RPS will eventually destroy the world. And as such, I'm all for it.
Alec: Must go back and have a look at this post-patching, really. Trouble is I found the initial release such a grind and so annoying that I can't quite bring myself to. That's in stark contrast to STALKER 1, which I've revisited a good half-dozen times. Which was another baffling thing about the accusations that AlJiRon had some absurd agenda when reviewing it. We wuvs the Stalker, and had hoped to wuv the Clear Sky.
What's the general feeling about Clear Sky from you lot now? Anyone still playing it? Anyone disappointed by it? Anyone think we were telling porky-pies when we claimed it a let-down?
Euro Truck Simulator
Jim: Moving stuff around miniaturised Europe is awesome. Not as good as miniaturised America in Eighteen Wheels of Steel, however.
John: I'm still not sure if I believe Jim when he says this is fun. I do keep meaning to play it. In other news, PUBLISHERS, RELEASE GAMES IN THE SUMMER, YOU FAT-HEADED IDIOTS.
Alec: I'm sure it's a fine example of European truck simulations. I'm rarely in a hurry to take transportation game advice from a man who spends 17 hours a day staring at near-motionless spaceships, however.