In Short: Lets Plays and Lets Players

The internet is a curious place, Hypothetical Audience, especially how its effected entertainment. If you’d told anyone a decade ago that watching videos of someone playing video games and talking over them would be not only a popular mode of passing the time for millions, but also a way people could make a living, most would likely laugh at you, and the odd one who didn’t would likely say “Well that’s clearly inspired by Mystery Science Theatre.” I am talking, of course, about the world of Lets Plays. You literally can’t browse YouTube without tripping over people trying to get their Warhol-15 minutes by playing games for everyone else’s entertainment (which was literally 15 minutes relaively recently, as that was the maximum video length at one point). Like a lot of people, I watch a few of these guys, and am equally annoyed by a few others, so thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject with you guys.

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Let’s Review Jazzpunk and Grim Fandango Remastered

I love old school point-and-click adventure games, Hypothetical Audience. Indeed some of my earliest experiences of videogames, after the myriad platformers on the Mega Drive in the mid nineties, was playing Discworld on my families Mac Performa 5200 and things like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island on my uncle’s Windows 3.1 machine. The immersive interactive storytelling, and the often insane logic puzzle, had a deep influence on me growing up and I still have a massive soft spot for the genre as it stood back then. Unfortunately, once we began to be able to produce visually interesting backdrops in other, more faster paced game genres, point and click began to die out beyond relatively obscure and indie title. But recently there’s been something of a mainstream revival, with Telltale Games producing things like The Walking Dead and the Monkey Island Revival. This makes me very happy indeed. So for this week’s Let’s Review I thought I’d have a look at two games that at least embody the ideas of the Point And Click Genre, first a very modern take in Jazzpunk, which while a first person game it does have a lot of what made the earlier games work, and secondly a rerelease of an old classic, in the shape of Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango Remastered.
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On Scored Reviews

So, now I’ve gotten the angry political satire out of my system, for at least the time being anyway, I thought this week we’d go back to old staples and talk about the state of video gaming today. Always good to have a routine back up, eh hypothetical audience? Anyway, this month gaming press luminary Joystiq declared that it was to stop issuing scored reviews of new games in favour of adding a summary of key points to the end of each piece. The logic behind this was to both do away with the awful “8.8” thing that blights gamer culture, but also to do away with their role in Metacritic-style aggregators. The response was mixed, to say the least, but has rather conveniently brought back to the forefront an issue I feel affects not just gaming reviews, but any form of media review that exists at the moment.

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On The SciFi Ghetto

So there I was, dear hypothetical reader, browsing the wares in a local branch of Popular Music Chain, and I ventured into the basement to look at the DVDs. No, not those kinds of DVDs, mind out of the gutter, please. Anyway, it seems a recent change to the layout of the store has seen a new section added off to one side, hidden at the side of the counter behind the blu-rays. This section is exclusively for Science Fiction films, ostensibly at least. This sort of thing is incredibly common, walk into any branch of Popular Bookshop Chain (and indeed many independents) and you’ll see something similar, Science Fiction and it’s stable mate Fantasy are often deliberately separated from everyday Fiction based on entirely arbitrary distinctions. There has always been this bizarre attitude that scifi, and often only specific kinds at that, is somehow “less worthy” of being considered alongside other works of fiction, that it is somehow a lesser work of creative endeavour. This, folks, is the Science Fiction Ghetto.

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On The Controversy Gate

Ever notice, dear hypothetical reader, that while you’re out and about on these here interwebs that there seems to be an awful lot of controversies going on that seem to have been instigated by gates. Once trusted guardians of area security seem to have their hands in a lot of dodgy dealings I can tell you, and I don’t think I’ll ever trust them again, or their shady consorts railings. Ok, in case you haven’t guessed yet I’m being facetious for comedic effect, but in all honesty, the phrase “-gate” tends to get added to pretty much every controversy big or small these days. Sometimes it’s by the media, other times it’s by normal folk, but always with a weary sense of inevitability.

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On Fandom

Currently we live in an age where communication with one another is easier than ever, so long as you have the right equipment any one person on the planet can, theoretically, contact any other near instantaneously. This has assisted many facets of society, not least of all shared interest groups, or what I’m going to continue to refer to as “Fandoms.” Now fandoms existed before the coming of the Internet certainly, but far in less expansive and interconnected ways. What the internet gave these groups was a way to grow and interact in a much more fluid manner than before. As soon as they became connected, groups that had existed in isolation developed discussion forums, fan sites, constant growth and so on to the point many stopped being niche and gained almost, but not quite, main stream appeal. Many certainly became more well known than they would have done previously. The march of technology brought people with similar interests together the face of shared interests were changed forever.

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On The Xbox One (Again)

A while back I ranted for a bit about the announced used games/trading policy on the Xbox One. It’s the post immediately prior to this one in fact. It seems I wasn’t the only one to feel this way, as the backlash was something to behold, that rare moment when gamers became collectively self aware enough to realise how both that and the always-on DRM (combined with a genuinely creepy Orwell-esque permanently on camera device) was a very bad thing for them as consumers.

Well, it seems Microsoft was deeply effected by said backlash, and has done a rather spectactular U-turn on things and now both the always online element and the trading nonsense is gone, as announced this very evening.

I’ll leave that in a paragraph of its own so it can sink in. Hell, I’ll even put it in bold. So it seems the people in charge at Microsoft aren’t as mad as first thought. Now, do I think it had anything to do with them actually listening to the fans? Well… yes and no. I doubt the complaints themselves had anything to do with is, not directly anyway, as they rarely do with big companies making any kind of decision. What I do think influenced this is the fact that since the announcement of the stupider features, the console has allegedly tanked in most markets. This would suggest a threat to profits, and that’s clearly what matters most to big business. Which gives tremendous credence to the whole “Vote with your wallets” thing myself and a number of other opponents of some of the sillier business practices have been saying all along. Take Heed, gamers, as this is a good thing for all of us as consumers.

Another positive to come out of this, as RPS’ John Walker points out, is that it starts to establish that Always-On DRM, another major bugbear of mine, and its invasive ilk is a direct threat to profit margins. If this becomes engrained in corporate consciousnesses we may see an eventual end to the practice. Again this is a good thing for all of us. I somehow doubt that the industry will become all pro consumer rights, at least not for a long, long time, but if they start to see that their own practices aren’t going to make them money it may come about by ulterior means. And if that’s what it takes to be treated reasonably by big business, I’m ok with that.

As for the Xbox One itself, as a device… well… while I will admit the removal of the silly stuff is a point in its favour, I remain unimpressed by Microsoft’s offerings from E3. Much like the previous 2 generations, if I am to buy in to this one, I’ll probably stick with either Sony or Nintendo, as both have demonstrated, through better consumer relations, less features that seem bad for gamers, cheaper/free online services (though I’m none too pleased about having to get PS+ to play online on a PS4, even if that doesn’t affect me that much) and even better exclusive titles, they’ve once again collectively incited me far more than the Xbox-du-jour.

Now that’s done with I’m hoping to come up with some more varied content for future posts, including some upcoming fiction, and hopefully not mentioning the XBox One for a looooooong time. I am so desperately trying not to turn this into Yet-Another-Games-Blog. Hopefully I can keep to that.


–Likes an absence of companies playing silly buggers

On the Gaming Industry’s Unique Aversion to the Second Hand Market

Hello again everybody, everybody! After deciding to take some time off from the factual blogging lark, I have returned, and have some ideas to write over the following weeks, along with the previously promised bits of fiction.

So at risk of turning this into a gaming rant blog, the big news in the gaming world this week has been the unveiling of Microsoft’s next big assault on console gaming, the perplexingly named XBox One. It’s only just finished at time of writing, just to give you an idea of how far in advance I write these, and if my twitter feed is anything to go by then apparently it wasn’t that impressive. Honestly, I don’t care that much. I’m personally not much of a fan of the XBox series of hardware or it’s various exclusive titles, being a Sega and Sony man myself.

No, what I found most interesting about the whole thing was this  little snippet of news from Computer And Video Games (based on a piece from Wired in that way tech and games journalism seems to work these days) that was brought to my attention. For those not wanting to read, apparently the Xbox One requires the games to be installed  on a hard drive, which is fairly standard for anyone who’s used a personal computer for gaming in the last 25 years, but this install, and the disc itself, is tied in to the Xbox Live account active on the console at the time. This sounds fairly standard practice given the current trend towards online-only direct distribution and the like, but here comes the kicker: if you purchase a disc second hand, it will not install unless you pay Microsoft a fee. This isn’t so much an outright ban on second hand sales, but it certainly is a metaphorical sledgehammer to the knees.

This does highlight something that has preyed upon my mind for a while: The rather unique opinion the gaming industry, specifically the publishers, towards second hand sales. Unlike most other media production sectors, who for the most part either ignore or tolerate second sales of their goods, gaming publishers seem to think that they, singular amongst all purveyors of ways to pass the time, are somehow above it all, and as a whole have been pursuing more and more ingenious ways to prevent it, of which this Xbox news is merely the latest iteration. This is an attitude that both perplexes and annoys me, not only as a gamer, but also as a consumer.

One common justification given for this tends to be “but wait, the publishers don’t make any money from second hand sales.” To which my response is thus: No. They Sure Don’t. But that’s specious reasoning anyway, since they have already made their money from the product, since to be Second Hand, that generally suggests that at one point in the past it was First Hand, and there is where the publishers make their money, since it is presumably purchased from them. This also disproves another common argument of “but it harms sales,” again this is an absurd notion when you consider the above. It would only harm sales if second hand sales outnumbered first hand, which in a rational universe like ours is impossible. Anyone with a basic understanding of ownership and commerce should be able to understand this, and yet still these reasons are given for the crusade-like campaign against second hand.

Along with the justification comes a slew of techniques to combat this perceived assault on games publishing. Some of this follows the same kind of pattern as the anti-piracy Digital Rights Management that I’ve railed against previously. Indeed, the invasive, always on style of DRM present in things like EA’s Origin service presumably could also be used in an attempt to regulate the sales of physical media, which is pretty much what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Live. There has also been talk of restricting some features from second hand copies via single-use codes included in new copies. Less invasive penalties for purchasing second hand also exist, usually via some form of downloadable content available either on day one or as a “pre-order bonus” (another bit of modern gaming that annoys me, but that’s a rant for another time). Whilst this is preferable to the total lock out method, it is, in my opinion, no less acceptable.

As mentioned previously, this whole aversion seems to be unique to the gaming industry. Compare other forms of media distribution here, book publishing has positively thrived from the second hand market for centuries, and while home video and music has begun to move toward the more controlled digital distribution platform, the usual complaints from those areas veer towards piracy rather than second hand sales. This is not to say these areas don’t have any issues with it, just the sheer volume of complaining from video gaming outweighs both areas substantially. And in all honesty the absurdity of gaming’s measures to prevent second hand sales is made very apparent if you try to apply it to other media forms. Imagine if, say, Penguin Group printed books that were tied to a single owner, and if you tried to sell them on they rendered themselves blank unless the new owner paid Penguin further money. Or if Warner Brothers only put the first half of a film on a DVD, only allowing a consumer to access the final half with a single use code, rendering the disc useless to anyone but yourself. See how ridiculous it all is?

But much like the appalling trends towards DRM, this is yet another way of the publishers controlling their product post-sales. One phrase I’ve heard to describe it is the transformation of software from product to “service.” Which is more a fancy way of saying that they’re trying to erode the concept of ownership of a game. Time was you had the physical media in your hand and that was yours, regardless of whether it was console or home computer, yet clearly this did not satisfy the publishers. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a move, slow at first but now gaining speed at a terrifying pace, towards the publishers having total control over what you do with the product you’ve just spent your hard earned money on. And much like the DRM thing, this all worries me, as it’s starting to impinge upon basic consumer rights. Once again real thing we can do about this is vote with our wallets, hopefully if a system with such a terrible scheme in place tanks it will show the powers that be that such a system has no place in the modern world.

As a creative myself, I more than appreciate games makers desire and right to profit from their creations, however this should never be at the expense of the customer. This lack of respect for the people who essentially give them money can only end badly for all involved, and while I predict there will always be some who buy into it blindly, this number will decrease over time as more and more get wise to how badly those who control the industry treat those who fund it. I can easily see this leading to another crash of 1983 proportions if trends continue, and that will be a sad day indeed, especially if the industry could have done something to prevent it.

Whilst I can see this degenerating into a more long winded rant, I shall finish up with this: I shall not be getting an XBox One as long as this ridiculous system is in place, and I urge anyone reading this to do the same. I honestly feel like I keep repeating myself, but it is time for Gamers as a whole to get more aware of how the industry is treating us, and taking us all for fools. Only then will this kind of thing end.

–Not surprised, just disappointed.

On Video Games, Consumer Rights & Always-Online

Anyone keeping up with the world of video games of late will no doubt have caught wind of the disastrous release that was the Sixth (or Fifth depending on how you count them) instalment of the venerable Sim City series. And “disastrous” may be an understatement for the ages here. The resulting fall out quite rightly doesn’t seem to want to go away, and I thought I’d lend a few thoughts to the whole thing from a consumer’s perspective.

Firstly, before I get into it, this won’t be an Electronic Arts bashing article, I feel the slew of “ZOMG EA IS TEH SUXOR” sentiment that flooded the internet has allowed anger to muddy the issue somewhat, this also won’t be going too deep into the concept or technology of always-on DRM, as I’d wager smarter people than I could do a better job of explaining why it was unnecessary, nor will it be commenting on the quality of the game itself as I simply do not wish to own it (despite SimCity being a personal favourite series of mine). No, I’m going to write my opinions of the consumer implications of it all, and particularly my dismay at how other gamers don’t seem to be willing to do much to prevent it happening again.

As we creep ever closer to an age of total digital distribution of media, those who distribute it is looking for more and more ways to control their product. We see this in the sudden proliferation of closed systems such as iTunes, the Kindle Store and EA’s own Origin system, and it is all ostensibly in an effort to make distribution easier and cheaper and at the same time safeguard us against poor counterfeits of “official” products. While it is understandable that a company wants to protect its revenue streams, these methods are becoming more and more invasive to us, the consumer, and somewhat bizarrely we seem to be accepting it rather than questioning why it needs to be so.

In gaming, Always Online authentication, usually justified in a myriad different ways depending on the publisher and game, is one such system, and one that seems to be gaining popularity amongst publishers. Now creating a game with online multiplayer is not something I have issue with, although most multiplayer games are not ones that appeal to me, neither is a game that is online only, such as World of Warcraft and its ilk. It does, however, become an issue in my eyes when the online component becomes a requirement to run a game in single player. In an age where we’re still downloading and/or installing the majority of the game’s information into our local area this strikes me as unnecessary.

Now, one common counter to this is “But you’re rich enough to own a computer to run this, you’re able to have an always on internet connection.” There are 2 problems I see with this argument that totally ignore the issue: 1. Always on internet may be commonplace, but that does not mean reliable. I live in a well populated area in a major Western Nation and my internet provider is terrible, I wouldn’t trust them with handling anything for any great length of time, and 2. it ignores the rather pressing question of what that always on authentication is doing. If, as they often say, it’s there to protect us from inferior “pirated” product, why always on? Surely a single activation code like the CD-keys of the old days on install would suffice? But the very fact it is essentially constantly looking over your shoulder, and often apparently refusing to work if it cannot do so, strikes me as a lack of trust in the consumer. It honestly feels like the companies distributing the product are going on the assumption that without constant supervision we’ll all be doing devious things with their technology even after paying for it.

And therein lies my major objection to always on systems. Regardless of intention, it feels like the companies that engage in this kind of thing are assuming you or I, the average consumer, are potential criminals. In an attempt to protect their revenue stream from the relatively few people out there who actually do pirate software they are happy to lump all consumers in the same boat. Also, the fact the system requires a remote server to give it the go-ahead adds another alarming level of control over the consumer: The servers can be switched off. Years from now, if the game doesn’t sell well or if it’s superseded by the next game in the series, the publisher can go along to the servers and flick a switch, disabling them and rendering the game you spend £20-60 on totally useless from afar. Again this is something I find staggering as a consumer, the fact the game is essentially not property but a long-term rental with no set due date, something that seems to have happened without any fanfare or consultation.

Ordinarily I’d say all this would risk alienating their clientele, but curiously this doesn’t seem to be the case. Yes, there exist people like myself who refuse to have any part in such activities and are vocal against it, but the fact that these games will still make money, hundreds-of-thousands to millions will still buy them thus promoting the rather dodgy practices, and allowing them to continue, and further eroding our positions as consumers. The only way to stop practices so hostile to consumer rights is to vote with your wallets, and refuse to pay into any organisation that promotes it.

There have been people who have said, in regards to the server issues that plagued SimCity upon release, “Oh give it a week/month until they iron out all the problems and then I’ll buy the game.” The issue I have with this is they won’t have solved the problems, the server issues (which boiled down to not stress testing them as far as I can tell) were not the root problem but a symptom of the invasive levels of control present in the game. The only way those problems can be solved is with a shift in thinking with the publishers, and the only way we can bring about that is if we don’t pay for the pleasure of having our rights eroded.

I, for one, have decided to not buy from any publisher that espouses an always on component in all their titles, regardless of what. They could be bringing out the next SimCity, Mirrors Edge or Deus Ex, but if it requires the publisher looking over my shoulder like I’m some kind of naughty schoolchild I want no part of it, and I urge others to adopt a similar tact.

–Not A Happy Gamer.