How Free-to-Play Saved Gaming
That how it always used to end.
One stray missile or ill-judged jump and the blue ninja would get you or your base would explode into a hundred little dots. Death was etched into the DNA of video games from its very inception. Death is the sharp pair of incisors of the artform, brutal weapons designed for a single way of life, but like all those Game Over screens, we don’t necessarily need all that flesh rending mouth-machinery in the modern world.
This is not a blog moaning about death in video games. Death is fine, it is a dramatic coda to desperate struggle, the sharp pain that makes the victory all that much sweeter.
This is a blog about the other way, the nasty way; the evil, insidious way. The way in which you don’t actually kill or punish the player at all.
It’s really, really weird, isn’t it?
Free-to-play - A different design ideology
So for the purposes of this paragraph I’m going to assume most of you know what free-to-play really means and that much of the energy in a free game is actually to get you to pay. And it is worse than AIDS.
At least that’s what the boys in the comments tell you.
But free-to-play games had to do some really clever things. First off they had to realise that something very different happens in a players head when they haven’t given you any money, especially in the opening, getting to know you phase of the game.
- If the game is free to try, there is no commitment of any kind by the player - no financial commitment and only a small amount of time.
- Smashing the player’s face into a wall of missiles quickly leaves a bad taste in the mouth and the player soon buggers off to try the next game in the hope that it won’t be quite so unfair and badly designed.
- Swap in even 69p’s worth of financial commitment and the player’s brain doesn’t want to feel like it’s been zapped, so offers a bit more time to the game until it learns to press the JUMP button at the right moment to get past that wall of missiles.
This crudely illustrated pattern can be seen in everything from 10p arcade games to £40 AAA belters. Paying money means commitment and that gives the game a big advantage in securing your time and loyalty over a completely free, and therefore instantly disposable experience.
Zoom out a little bit and a look at f-t-p game design illustrates that free games need to give a lot and be very, very careful about taking anything away.
This led to free games settling into some rather interesting new grooves. Instead of being about the acquisition of enough skill and knowledge to overcome challenge (a la typical core games) free games asked for repeated, small amounts of disposable time to overcome a different type of challenge. Skill-based blockers evaporated, and suddenly killing the player by such a mechanism and stopping them progressing became unnecessary and even damaging to the game.
Free games became ongoing tasks that were satisfying to see completed but that, perhaps, were not fun in the same, more visceral way, that traditional games were. (This is something that still baffles a lot of older game designers - “How can people possibly enjoy a different kind of fun to MEEEEE???”)
Where did it all go wrong?
Now, I’m not claiming that free-to-play games invented death-free or punishment-free gaming. But I think they did do a tremendous amount to turn them into the all-consuming forces of nature that we see today.
And yes, those Facebook games of which we daren’t speak lest they spam our timelines with a million spammy updates can take a fair amount of credit for this.
But things did go wrongs with free-to-play. A whole gameplay ideology somehow became subsumed by a single business model. Freemium became a dirty word and was only associate with the cynical Timeshare Salesman feel of those Facebook games. Everything was a drive to screw money out of the player at every turn or force a insane amount of grinding. The games ceased being an interesting diversion and became an exercise in handing over your cash or trying to find ever cleverer ways to min-max without handing over your hard earned.
But all this furore about whale-gouging and ARPU and Lifetime Values, completely obfuscated the Important Game Design stuff that was going on. People in their millions were playing games that DIDN’T EVER PUNISH THEM.
- No death.
- No fail.
- No start again.
- No repetition.
The old fashioned game designers started to quiver as their brains all but snapped in two. Without death there was no drama, without drama there could be no excitement. No excitement, no gameplay.
The answer was obvious.
Those millions of people were simply wrong. They weren’t actually enjoying the games. not properly. Not like us. They were simply the victims of cruel, exploitative psychological tricks.
PHEW, EH LADS?
Where can it all go right?
As Facebook gaming passed its peak, mobile gaming went through its own roof and become the Most Important Thing In Gaming. With iOS and later Android as a major game platform, came lots of different types of game creators, many of whom understood that free-to-play was a massive variety of business models and commercial approaches.
Suddenly, you could find free-to-play games that invited you to pay, but did so in a calm, rational manner. The games got a bit more rounded too. Instead of identikit gardening sims, you could find lovely arcade experiences like we all used to play.
And these games they did let you play for free, but they also set new, longer term goals that existed beyond that single session. Where classic arcade games would kill you, keep your 10p and forget you were ever there, Temple Run and PunchQuest saved your achievements, they gave you long term goals spread across all the gaming nibbles you cared to take.
When you die in Temple Run, all those tokens you’ve collected are still collected. Same with PunchQuest, same with NimbleQuest; heck even Clash of Clans lets you keep you whole settlement no mater how many times it’s razed to the ground. The game is over, but you’ve still managed to do something permanent. Even the most calamitous game session, interrupted by your mum who wants to talk about the washing up, will leave you further along than when you started.
An the better you are, the greater the progress.
Success stopped being a binary state - got to next level - didn’t get to next level, start this level again. Success became analogue. A tiered reward structure that brought skill back into the mix.
Those old fashioned game designers, they’d like these sort of games; but they’re too busy squeaking and hissing on the forums and comments threads to really notice. And nobody gets any followers by saying nice things about free-to-play, and right now that’s the only High Score table that really matters.
Meanwhile, on the consoles, even the very best AAA games are still killing you, stopping you dead and refusing to give up their treasure until you are jolly well good enough to earn the right, and press the right buttons IN EXACTLY THE RIGHT FUCKING ORDER!
Here’s where I really piss you all off.
The Last of Us. Those goddamn stealth sections where you still have to knock off every clicker and find the exit before you can proceed. Taking down eleven is not enough, you have to do all twelve (or however many… you take my meaning).
The Last of Us is, frankly, astonishingly good. Those quiet, patient, conversational sections where you wander through the ruins of the city and simply experience the game world are magnificently evocative. It really is breathtaking stuff.
But it still wants to kill you, and if you can’t press the right buttons in the right order not even Naughty Dog’s legendary adaptable-difficulty is going to let you get past. This is the very best that traditional gaming has to offer us and it is still happy to simply block your progress and turn you away.
There must be some way we can bridge this gap. That we can take the low-friction analogue victory of the best free-to-play games and use them in cleverer, smarter ways even in traditional linear narrative adventures.
Do you really need to kill the player? Well, if you’re going to write something as good as The Last of Us then okay, I’ll allow that. But perhaps you don’t need to default to killing or blocking the player; don’t need to punish them by making them do the same thing over and over again until they press all the right buttons in the right fucking order.
Or perhaps you don’t need to design a game full of guns. That’s also a thought.
Free-to-play is better than most people think. There are good designers who understand how new ideas and classic gaming can co-exist. These are people focussing on creating great gameplay, not new and excruciating ways to gouge your wallet dry. More importantly there are creative lessons and opportunities.
Our challenge as designers is to become better and to move the art form forward, not leave it rooted in the past. We need to bring these ideas together and create something new.
Videogames aren’t fundamentally about physical dexterity and brilliant reflexes and memorising sequences and patterns. They just became that way because that was all we could do in the early days. Now we can do so much more. Failure can now be a design decision, not a pre-loaded fundamental.
Free-to-play figured out some amazing ways to create some really cool new types of games without that punishment. Maybe it’s time to listen so some of those lessons.
Book review: “vN” by Madeline Ashby
Robots and artificial intelligence are a continuing, rich mine of stories and ideas for science fiction novels. vN seems to be the first in a new series of novels examining the ethics of how humans will treat artificial lifeforms. The story starts with a domestic scene mixing blissful love with mild tension between a natural human, Jack, and his artificial partner, Charlotte.
Their daughter, Amy is actually Charlotte’s daughter alone, produced through a process called iteration that allows all artificial von Neumann machines to produce clones asexually.
Obviously things soon move from stasis to chaos and the narrative focusses on the rapidly growing Amy as she ends up on the wrong side of the law, hounded by both the police and her own grandmother, Portia.
Although much of the set up is pretty conventional, the book does have a few nice ideas up its sleeve and Madeline Ashby has a tremendous feel for her vN creations that keeps everything interesting. However, there are times when the pacing sinks a little as plot points telegraph themselves with bright, obvious beacons and escapes and resolutions vary between the uncomfortably convenient to the totally unbelievable.
Even more problematic are the secondary characters - particularly some late introductions whose motivations don’t seem to hold any water at all.
Judged by the yardstick of contemporary hard sci-fi, vN starts out with promise but swiftly lapses into unsophisticated adventure. However, perhaps that is the wrong judgement to use, vN actually feels more of a YA novel with its determined but confused female lead, coming to terms with adulthood and with baffling decisions ahead of her. Put through this prism, vN fares a lot better at achieving its own goals.
Amy, the conflicted female lead, works well without breaking any pre-existing molds. Most importantly, the books biggest idea, and I’ll not spoil anything here, really works well, effectively giving the book its spine. This, coupled with an audacious climax leaves you feeling satisfied, if not massively impressed.
Would I go back for the sequels? Yes, actually I think I would. There’s an interesting world, here, and a light, easy writing style that makes the book an easy read, even if Ashby’s technique lets her down at some of the more demanding action sequences. I think there’s a better story to be told and a better book waiting just around the corner of this one.
vN is published by Angry Robot
Freedom and Filters - behind the quest for the Nation’s Soul.
Over the past week, we have seen the launch and debate of what may be one of the most important pieces of legislation of this parliament. Possible this decade. Very few people realise the significance and true meaning of the bill, which is weird because just about everyone has heard of it and has got a very strong opinion about it.
Introducing: The UK Porn Filter!
It will save the children from their parents, from themselves but most of all from the marauding, predatory paedophiles. It is a stand for safety, for decency, for moral values and for our children!
No sane person would stand against such a wonderful thing.
Except for those, like me, who simply don’t believe a word of it. That the porn filter is nothing of the kind. It is a content filtering system that will apply to the whole world-wide-web and will achieve very little of what it claims to be for. The country has been fooled and David Cameron has played what is quite possibly the best piece of parliamentary sleight-of-hand many of us will ever see.
The sly old fox…
Here is my belief: The “porn” filter is a general web filtration mechanism that sits at the primary distribution nodes for this country - the ISPs. It will install a framework that can be used to block whatever information - or web-site - the government deems unsuitable for us, legal or otherwise. And although operated by ISPs, the government will retain a controlling power over its use.
This is a stage one of a union flag draped Golden Shield and somewhere down the line, this becomes an off-switch for whatever the government doesn’t want us to know.
Sounds crazy? Go ahead, label me as a crazy, I’ve got a jaw-drop argument for you in a few paragraphs time.
Trainers and Televisions
I think that the UK content filter started in 2011 with the English riots. It was noted at that time that the rioters used technology and social media to help co-ordinate their movements. The government moaned and said that the whole thing could have been avoided if they’d been able to switch off Blackberry Messenger.
Now, do we believe that this lovely silver bullet would have worked? Personally I don’t. Mass hysteria takes more than a minor inconvenience to overcome. But the idea stuck, and I would imagine the government started asking questions - and then came up with new questions along the line of “What the bloody hell do you mean we can’t block the buggers from planning riots on the internet!?!”
Now, take a seed like that and bury under a right-wing government for a few years and suddenly a national solution for information network control becomes less a paranoid delusion and more a realistic proposition.
Enter the Porn filter.
Focussing the argument on porn is a perfect way to distract the country because so few few people want to come out and defend it. Moreover, many, many people would also wholeheartedly agree with everything he is saying.
This is Cameron’s masterstroke, if you’ll forgive the idiom.
- If you introduce a mechanism for blocking any content that you don’t want you country to see - be it information about a riot location, police movements, confidential data perhaps leaked from a well meaning but soon to disappear government employee who wants people to know just how much the-powers-that-be abuse power and spy on people without a warrant - if you do that, you kick up a MASSIVE FUCKING SHITSTORM.
- If you itemise a few of the categories that the general filter could be used for, then you can control the story and help steer people away from the darker plans you might have in mind.
- If you distract the entire population with a complete wild goose chase about legal porn, and then conflate it with a devious serving of utterly repellant, and completely illegal child porn - then by the time the country stops arguing about the sexualisation of society and how to keep our kiddies safe, the bill has vanished over the horizon and one very sneaky government has got its way.
But… The children!
Yes the children. My belief is that they will be no safer after this legislation than they are now. One interesting fact that has emerged from in the debate about technology and child porn is that much of this content is not distributed over the World Wide Web, but sent via grey networks and peer-to-peer clients.
(Tough to backup beyond a few references in The Guardian but frankly I don’t want to enter anything about locating that type of material into my web browser.)
The government probably know this, and that therefore a web content block will not affect those channels. But this is still a great piece of propaganda because the overwhelming majority of people in this country have no idea of the distinction between the Internet as a whole and the World Wide Web as a specific technology.
As far as youngsters access to pornography go, I have heard some interesting information about how rife it is and that it can be damaging when misunderstood and misused. This is obviously not what we want, but I can’t help but believe that there is a better way to educate a population about personal content filters than installing a national system to block legal content.
Easier content controls will only apply to parents already minded to care about that sort of thing - thus missing millions of the most vulnerable children whose parents don’t actually give a crap.
I think the government probably know this too, but the propaganda power is far more useful to their actual plans.
What’s my motivation in this scene?
So David Cameron and the Conservative government have framed this as a two-pronged attack, one against illegal material that is already illegal; the other against legal material that is damaging the country’s moral fibre.
Cameron has openly taken this line himself. He wants to halt the demon of porn. Yet the attack is a general one, instead of concentrating on hateful and abusive sexual imagery - (rape and violence, stuff that is probably already illegal and should be hounded from every server with extreme prejudice) the focus is on everything that could be described as porn, no matter how consenting and adult it may be.
So this is definitely being positioned as a moral high ground. Ban the naughty pictures and the soul of the nation will be improved. The question is why?
Why this? Why now?
And this is the stone cold jaw-dropper for you to think about. Let’s look closely at that assertion that Cameron really is on a crusade to improve the soul of the nation.
Do you really believe that is what is going on here?
Think about it. Think about our Government. David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt. These are the people who have practically sold off the NHS, who are taking significant steps to shut down peaceful legal protest, who are making sure that the rich keep getting the tax breaks. This is our Government, this is the one we have now. Where does moral crusading suddenly fit into their modus operandi?
All this money and time at this point in the country’s recovery from a recession. How the hell does a moral crusade become THE priority in social justice? Look at what is going on in the country? Look at the jobs market, the housing market and swingeing cuts in welfare and health provision.
Does this government really look like the moral crusading type to you?
If the answer is “YES!” then I really have to question what planet you are really from.
If you have even the slightest doubt about our government’s motivation, then you need to look past the public story and look for some other potential reasons, uses and intnt for the content filter. (And we need to leave concerns about just how technically feasible this all is till later - let’s not allow complacency to compromise our freedom.)
Think about this. If the government gets their way, will they retain the power to force the ISP’s hand on implementation of content bans?
No, you might think, absolutely not because that would be an unthinkable infringement of our civil liberties.
(Look at the government again. See them? See those smiles? Good. Now back to me.)
What happens next time we have a wikileaks?
What happens next time we have an Edward Snowden?
What happens next time MP’s expenses get leaked?
What happens when something really important about our military and security agencies gets classified as “aiding terrorists”.
What happens next time the US NSA pokes a metaphorical gun into the side of our government’s head?
Do they use the filter?
Do they take the real moral high ground and protect our right to know how our country is being operated; how our world is actually governed?
What do you think?
Did you even think at all?
As long as you’re thinking and questioning now, that’s all that matters.
I don’t even need you to agree with me, just stop, think, and ask more questions next time the government does something so inexplicably out of keeping with their whole ideology.
Book Review: “Alif the Unseen” by G. Willow Wilson
These days, we see a lot of cyber fiction and tales of brave hackers showing their morals, just as we see many, many tales of ordinary boys discovering a world of magic and demons whilst overcoming their own failings. Alif the Unseen gives us both of these things, and thankfully, it is ends up as a fascinating combination of cultures and genres that successfully delivers a fast moving and very involving story.
There is a rich texture to the novel that is both intriguing and unusual whilst quickly becoming familiar and understandable. We don’t see a lot of Islamic or Arabic culture and mythology in mainstream sci-fi/fantasy and this is where the strongest aspects of the book lie. Not one, but two new worlds - one an imaginative fantasy rooted in myth and religious belief, the other a far realer world of oppressive politics and state observation in an unnamed middle-east nation where freedom is a pre-Arab Spring pipe dream.
The central characters provide a strong foundation to the plot and everyone behaves with the right combination of believability and unpredictability to keep things interesting without compromising our own credulity. The political backdrop of an oppressive state meshes well with the religious side of a society where sometimes total freedom (as we may see it in the west) is not wholly desired. The result is a very balanced exploration of cultural and personal freedom and the convictions each person has in their own set of beliefs.
The plot builds well and spirals to a truly dramatic climax where there are so many major and minor plot threads to be tied up that the tension survives well beyond any expectation of a happy (or otherwise) ending you may have.
Less successful is some of the technical writing at those points of chaos and confusion. Key events occur without you really knowing. This leaves you scanning back and forth through a few paragraphs wondering if “That just happened… Has he done that? Is he there now? What?”
It all resolves clearly enough and it is a minor gripe but I found it took some of the sting out of the more desperate moments.
Elsewhere, the pace drops in a few places and there is a slight sense of deus-ex-machina to get our heroes out of one particularly tight spot.
At the conclusion of the book, the overwhelming feeling one is left with is of enjoyment and fascination. Alif the Unseen is a memorable, exciting and wonderfully textured book and blends two massively contrasting worlds with immense skill and creates a new third realm that is wholly convincing and enthralling.
Alif the Unseen is published in the UK by Corvus
E3 2013: Sony vs Microsoft
Soooo, we’re all seen the results of the Big Fight between Microsoft and Sony at E3 the other night. The results are absolutely clear. Sony won.
Apart from the fact that they didn’t, in some ways…
But in a third, potentially very important set of ways, they may actually have won after all.
This is complicated.
Xbox One: Why Microsoft are right (Or at least, not entirely wrong)
It’s a few days since Microsoft debuted the Xbox One, and the web remains tingling with delight, interest, doubt, sarcasm and plain old bitter disappointment. I’d like to say that it was equal quantities of all of these, but as you’ve probably noticed, everything is heavily skewed towards the negative end of the scale.
The people have spoken.
And most of them used rude words.
So why am I about to write a post hailing the new console? Why am I going to fly in the face so so much opinion?
Well, actually I’m not. In reality I was a little bit disappointed in the Xbox One presentation myself. But I think that a lot of commentators have been too quick to stick the knife in, and may have not considered the intent of the presentation or the overall strategy of Microsoft. I actually think that the reveal show will have played brilliantly to corporate partners and share holders, but it clearly wasn’t aimed at the traditional, hardcore game fan. And that is something that a lot of people don’t seem to have understood.
10 Things We Need from the New Consoles
It’s an exciting time. As I write this, the Xbox 720 reveal event is just a few hours away. And no, I don’t expect it to be called 720 either. But with that and the PS4 on the horizon, I thought I’d blog a wee bit what I think we need from these new consoles. I’ll probably get into trouble by not including the WiiU in this list. I sort of apologise, but not much because that console is already out so doesn’t qualify for a speculative post such as this.
To set this up a bit, I love console gaming, most of my most cherished gaming experiences live on consoles. And as much as I love mobile gaming, I expect more of my favourite experiences to only be possible on a console, on a whacking big telly, with a perfectly designed controller in my hands. But consoles need to change, and it’s not going to be poly counts or shader support that will make the difference.
Let’s start with some hardware bits to get that out of the way.
Graphics : Some – We’ve learned over the past few years that totes-amaze-balls pictures aren’t really necessary for a great game experience. But I concede that you probably will need “some” graphics so I won’t complain too much. You’ll probably want terribly shiny cars, I’d like human faces that don’t weird out on me when they are talking.
Sound: Yes Please – And if you could put an optical output somewhere sensible that would be nice. Thanks.
Console Hardware Configuration: Properly tested this time… Yes. You know what I mean. No more of that!
Right, now let’s talk about games. Frankly, I don’t care very much about all the big showcase, $100 Million productions that you’re all going to show us at E3. I want interesting, unusual and innovative games that will come from all over the game community, not just from your 6 bezzie mates in the dwindling Old Publishers Society. Most importantly, I want to be one of the people creating those interesting, unusual and innovative games. So my “games” section looks like this.
First Impressions – Nimble Quest
I’ve done a few First Impressions posts about high budget console games, but in many respects, the notion of a first impression is more appropriate to a mobile or web game that can actually evolve and change after launch.
And this week, Nimblebit (Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes) release their latest title, Nimble Quest – iOS/Android. Like lots of popular iOS titles, it is a hybrid game. It is a collision between the very smallest game design (Snake) and the very biggest (the RPG).
So what we have is a very cute auto-walker seen from a top down perspective in classic Zelda style. Your character moves at a constant speed, and you simply swipe across the screen in the direction you wish them to walk. You start every game with a single character but are soon adding to your party by collecting characters and suddenly the Snake reference becomes clear. Each character has a specific attack mechanism, be it projectile, explosive or sword based and they all attack automatically. You just tell the conga line where to go!
Tomb Raider – First Impressions
So here we are, once again leaping across chasms and picking off wildlife while discovering ancient artefacts and suffering occasional plunges to an unforgiving death on the rocks below.
But of course, it is far from business as usual in the new, rebooted, Tomb Raider. As things stand I am around a third of the way into the single player game so any spoilers can only be relatively limited in their impact and my conclusions may shift as I progress further.
What do I want from Tomb Raider?
Perhaps more than any other game, Tomb Raider comes with a vast litany of demands and expectations. The weight of history on Lara Croft’s shoulders drives a near unprecedented level of personal player investment in the game. Everybody knows who “their” Lara is and what “their” Tomb Raiding must entail.
For my part, I feel relatively comfortable with whatever Crystal Dynamics want to offer me. I don’t have many demands on either Lara or the Raiding, so we’re all safe from yet another blog post about how this Lara isn’t MY Lara and waaah waaah waah!