All posts by Dan Thiell

About Dan Thiell

I play games, both digital and analog, and I think about games, and I write those thoughts on this blog, and I do a bunch of other things

Money

Activision’s Patent is Our Worst Microtransaction Fears Coming True

Just don’t buy them.

This has been the standard line on microtransactions for years now.  Whenever a game announces that it’s employing some microtransaction scheme to nickel and dime its user base for some of that sweet, sweet secondary revenue, and whenever fans upset by such an announcement have worked themselves into a froth, cooler heads have always chimed in with the clearheaded advice that we should simply not buy the micro-priced digital doodads.  Problem solved.  Play your game, ignore the in-game marketplace, and get on with your day.

In fact, mitigating this reaction and encouraging players to not buy their product seems to be part of publishers’ marketing strategy in these situations.  They’re always quick to point out that the digital gewgaws on offer are purely cosmetic and don’t affect gameplay; that buying them is, in other words, entirely unnecessary.  And when this isn’t the case, when things like weapons, abilities, and XP boosts are available for purchase, the publisher will adamantly remind us that all of these items can be unlocked through “normal gameplay,” no purchase necessary.

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If you don’t want to buy it, don’t buy it, in other words.  Vote with your wallet.  Stop buying these things and publishers will stop selling them.  It all sounds so simple.

Continue reading Activision’s Patent is Our Worst Microtransaction Fears Coming True

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The Violent Catharsis of Mafia 3

When games give me a choice, I tend to behave morally.  Sure, I’ll steal some precious currency now and then, and kill the odd NPC who gets on my nerves, but generally I try to be a good guy.  I help people, I spare people, I give second chances and the benefit of the doubt.  I played through BioShock twice and never harvested a Little Sister.

But Mafia III is different.  In Mafia III, I’m killing everyone.  Not innocent bystanders, at least not on purpose, but every enemy.  Everyone who looks at me sideways.  Even when the mission objective is fulfilled and I could just as easily hop back in my car and drive away, I kill everyone.  Brutally, if possible.  I’ll spend five minutes crisscrossing a shipyard to track down that one errant red dot on my minimap.  When a phalanx of cops shows up and compels me to flee before I’ve killed every last enemy, I feel a tinge of regret: I didn’t get to kill everyone. Continue reading The Violent Catharsis of Mafia 3

The Switch: What We Know, What We Don’t

The Nintendo Switch era is almost upon us.  In just a week, the Switch will be released to the masses, or at least those of us lucky enough to have a preorder, and thanks to Nintendo’s January presentation, we finally know what we’ll be getting for our $300.  Mostly.  So while we wait for the new console’s release, let’s take a look at what we know and what we don’t.  We’ll start with the questions we had going into the presentation.  We were wondering about…

The Price

 This one’s easy.  It’s $299.99, at least in the U.S.  This is a touch higher than I expected, and might be dangerously high from a consumer standpoint.  Nintendo is selling their decidedly less powerful system for the same price as an Xbox One or PS4, and unlike those consoles, the Switch doesn’t come with a bundled game.  Or a library of cheap used games to pad out the collection.  This price point will really test the Switch’s core concept – its console-handheld hybridization – because that’s pretty much the only thing it has going for it when compared to its competitors.

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Going into the big Switch reveal in January, I was expecting it to be around $250, but the price was always a double-edged sword: too high and no one will buy it, too low and it might not be very powerful.  So when Nintendo announced a $300 price tag, I was briefly optimistic that the system might be more powerful than I anticipated.  It would seem, though, that the “extra” $50 is going towards tech in the controllers rather than the GPU, so this optimism was short-lived.

Continue reading The Switch: What We Know, What We Don’t

Switch Incoming

A few months ago, Nintendo gave us our first look at the Switch – née NX – the company’s latest piece of gaming hardware.  The reveal came in the form of a wordless three-and-a-half-minute video, showing people playing the console/handheld hybrid in a variety of improbable locations – basketball court, rooftop party – and with a variety of controller configurations.  The video shows off the Switch’s ability to seamlessly transition from home to portable use, offers our first look at the detachable controllers, and confirms that the system will use cartridges, as has previously been rumored.  Ostensible gameplay footage offers some hints as to what might be coming down the pike, but otherwise the video is light on specifics.  Mostly it just puts a face to the name, confirming the rumors and the actual look of the hybrid console we’ve been imagining (and hilariously drawing) for months now.

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When rumors that the NX was going to be a handheld-home console hybrid started swirling, I was unenthused, and a bit skeptical.  But after watching the reveal trailer (a bunch of times), I’m sold on the concept.  I don’t know what did the trick.  Maybe it was the glorious return of asymmetrical analog sticks to a Nintendo controller; maybe it was thought of replaying Skyrim (which I’ll never do, because who has 800 hours to spare?) on a Nintendo platform; or maybe it’s just my heart catching up to the inevitability that I will buy whatever Nintendo puts out.  But whatever the reason, I’m excited to get my hands on a Switch. Continue reading Switch Incoming

Backlog Adventures: Gone Home

Gone Home is not a game you can be good or bad at.  It’s not a game that will test your twitch reflexes or resource management strategizing or tactical adaptiveness or even really your puzzle-solving abilities.  For a small subset of capital-G-gamers, it’s not even a game – not a “real” game, at least.  (And if you’ve ever been to a comments section, you’ve met these people.)  Gone Home and other games like it have been dubbed “walking simulators,” a term intended as a pejorative by those who think these aren’t “real” games and embraced by those who enjoy them.  But the discussion (such as it is) of how to classify Gone Home misses the point of such games, which is ultimately the point of all games: the experience of playing them, whether or not you want to call it “play” or call them “games.”

By now, two-and-a-half years since the game first appeared on PCs, many people are familiar with the essentials of Gone Home: you play as Katie, a 21-year-old just returning home from a year in Europe to the unfamiliar house her family moved to in her absence, only to discover that, though it’s the middle of the night, everyone – Mom, Dad, and sister Sam – is gone.  To figure out what has happened, you wander through the house, picking up objects and reading documents, trying to piece together a year’s worth of family drama.  And that’s it.

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To some, the “that’s it” is a criticism: what the game is missing is the need to defend yourself from hordes of attacking werewolves using the increasingly sophisticated arsenal of weapons you find around the house, an adventure for which the family drama is context and backdrop.  To others, the “that’s it” is grand praise, as in: that’s all developer Fullbright needed to make an engrossing game.  I find myself squarely in the latter camp.

Continue reading Backlog Adventures: Gone Home

Speculation Corner: Star Wars Battlefront DLC

Recently, EA announced some of the first specific information about what’s planned for the Star Wars Battlefront DLC campaign.  After a few free updates (including two new maps), the first paid expansion will roll out in March, with maps in Tatooine and Sullust, followed by three more expansions over the course of the year that will take the action to Cloud City, the Death Star, and other, as-yet-unknown locations.  There’s not much information, but it’s enough to get excited for.  And, more importantly, it’s enough to speculate about, which is where the real fun is.  So let’s head over to Speculation Corner and see what ideas we can stir up.

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We’ve known since the game’s launch that the season pass would give us sixteen maps, four heroes, four new game modes, and “over twenty” weapons, vehicles, and star cards spread over its four expansions.  The easiest bit of speculation is to assume that this content stuff will be distributed evenly among the expansions: four maps, one hero, and one mode in each pack, plus, say, one vehicle, two guns, and two or three star cards.  Because there’s so much variation in how many maps support each game mode, I could see a scenario where one expansion has three maps and another has five, but for simplicity’s sake let’s assume this isn’t the case.  With these safe assumptions and the few clues we have, we can imagine some plausible scenarios for what exactly this DLC is going to look like.

Continue reading Speculation Corner: Star Wars Battlefront DLC

Star Wars Battlefront Review

Star Wars Battlefront is not the best first-person shooter out there.  Let’s get that out of the way right up front.  It’s a relatively stripped-down game that doesn’t do enough to make up for its shortcomings.  From a purely mechanical standpoint, any number of other shooters on the market will provide a more satisfying experience.  Battlefront’s biggest asset, and one major advantage over other shooters, is its ability to transport you to the Star Wars universe.

And I cannot be objective about anything set in the Star Wars universe.  We should get that out of the way up front, too.  The Star Wars movies are so ingrained in my psyche, so elemental to my artistic sensibilities, that any book, movie, game, TV show, interpretive dance, etc., set in that universe gets a handful of bonus points and get-out-of-jail-free cards.  Just being in the Star Wars universe for a while is an experience I enjoy, regardless of the quality of the work that’s brought me there.  I saw The Phantom Menace six times in theaters, for example.  So my opinion of Battlefront won’t necessarily be objective, inasmuch as such a thing could actually exist.  But mine will be the opinion of a pretty passionate Star Wars fan.

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The first thing you notice about Star Wars Battlefront is how beautiful it is.  Heading into the third year of this new console generation, with developers starting to leave the last generation of hardware behind, we’re getting used to seeing breathtaking graphics in new releases, but Battlefront seems to vastly exceed our still-nascent expectations of what a current (née “next”) generation game should look like.  Not only is the game as close to photorealistic as anything we’ve ever seen on a console, but it captures the specific look of the original films.  It doesn’t feel like real life; it feels like a movie.  This effect is somewhat owing to the photogrammetry process developer DICE used to capture original props from the movies.  Those Stormtroopers look just like their cinematic counterparts because they essentially are wearing the exact same costumes.

This attention to detail extends beyond the graphics to the sound design, animations, music, and visual effects.  Ewoks scatter when you run through the Endor treetops; Tusken Raiders shout from atop Tatooine ridges; Stormtroopers are animated to move not like hyper-athletic videogame characters, but actors wearing plastic costumes; the Wilhelm Scream is everywhere.  Every effort has been made to create as authentic and immersive a Star Wars experience as possible.  And those efforts have largely succeeded.   It is still a videogame, of course.  You will still get shot in the head by a Stormtrooper named something like DeezNutz69xxx69, which kind of breaks the illusion a bit, and you will eventually settle into a familiar headspace of worrying about spawn points, power-ups, K/D ratios, and everything else that comes with playing an online shooter.  But it will also feel more like Star Wars than just about any game you’ve ever played. Continue reading Star Wars Battlefront Review

Backlog Adventures: Badland

The Sisyphean task of working through a backlog of yet-to-be-played videogames requires a certain amount of strategy.  There is, of course, the matter of playing all the games, but you also have to stop the backlog from growing.  Getting through Skyrim won’t do much for my backlog if I end up buying five other games in the interim.  So I have, for the most part, conditioned myself to ignore all those great deals on the dozens or hundreds of games that I’ve missed over the years, and to try to buy games one at a time, right before I play them.  Getting past – if not necessarily through – the backlog is going to require letting some of these games die on the vine, and that’s a lot easier when you don’t own the games in the first place.

One of the big exceptions, though, is indie games.  The market is overflowing right now with fun, quirky, unique indie games that can often be had pretty cheaply.  A lot of these games only take a few hours to get through, so it seems pretty harmless to stockpile a handful of them for a rainy day.  Or so I tell myself.  Taking advantage of a few deals on little indie games isn’t the same as grabbing a cheap copy of Mass Effect Trilogy is what I’m saying.  So when Badland: Game of the Year Edition (normally $11.99) went on sale for six bucks during an ID@Xbox Spotlight sale, I grabbed it and threw it on the pile.

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Badland was first released in 2013 for iOS and Android (and then a year later for Windows Phone, as is tradition) and won Apple’s iPad Game of the Year award.  A GotY edition was then released in 2015 for various consoles and other platforms.  It only takes a quick look to understand the game’s appeal as an impulse purchase.  It has the kind of look that feels unique in a very familiar way, a cross between In Limbo and Ori and the Blind Forest, casting a silhouetted foreground against a colorful, painterly forested background.  It’s of a type that jumps out from a screenshot and promises a dose of adorable fun.  It references a lot of other games and styles that seem to pop up in every other indie game, but, on the other hand, its appeal is irresistible.  It is a puppy, basically.  It looks like all the other puppies, but it is a puppy, right in front of you! Continue reading Backlog Adventures: Badland

Backlog Adventures: Skyrim

It’s 2015 and I’m only just playing Skyrim, that smash hit from 2011, for the first time.  How did this happen?  When I try to answer that question, the first thing I think of is Led Zeppelin.

My first exposure to rock music was through my dad’s record collection, so I ended up listening to a lot of the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and, of course, Led Zeppelin.  But then something happened.  I was in high school during the 90s, a time when the sixties were back in a big way and kids were listening to Zeppelin as if they were another Seattle grunge band; between that and Zeppelin’s ubiquity on rock radio, I got burned out.  I needed a break.  But somewhere along the way, my brain got confused and convinced me that I actually disliked Led Zeppelin.  So, for ten years or so, I just kept on not listening to them.  The hiatus became indefinite.  I would change the station when they came on the radio.  I didn’t buy any of their music on CD, that newly emerging music format.  I simply lived as a person who wasn’t at all into Zeppelin.

Fast forward to 2005.  My brother turned thirty that year, and for his birthday I made him a mix CD with a song from each year of his life – beginning with 1975, the year he was born, and the year Led Zeppelin released Physical Graffiti.  Listening to that album to decide what song to open the CD with, I realized something that I knew when I was 12 but had since forgotten: Zeppelin rocks!  Within days I had purchased the most recently remastered versions of their first six albums, and was making up for a lot of lost time on air drums and air guitar.  Order was restored to the universe.

Why did my brain come to the conclusion that I disliked Led Zeppelin when in reality I probably only needed a brief respite from them?  Could it do the same thing with pizza?  What else do I only think I don’t like?  I don’t know.  But this is what happened with Skyrim.  When people kept telling me, over and over, insistently and enthusiastically, that I should play Skyrim – that I needed to play Skyrim – I dismissed them.  Skyrim just wasn’t my type of game.  I wasn’t into that sort of thing.

Continue reading Backlog Adventures: Skyrim

Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion

[This is the last post in a nine-part journey through Super Mario Maker.  Be sure to check out parts onetwothree,  fourfivesixseven, and eight.]

After two weeks with Super Mario Maker – the time I needed to get through the game’s nine-day content rollout and also deal with the few extra days of waiting the game threw at me, maybe to punish me for playing past my bedtime – I finally have access to the complete game.  And if the previous eight posts don’t make it clear, I love this game.  On the creation side, Nintendo has made the act of designing a level feel like a game.  The tools allow you to be really creative while keeping the interface intuitive and simple, with pop-in pop-out playtesting.  And every step of building a level is a lot of fun: throwing a bunch of random elements into a stage and then playing through it, just to see what happens; testing, tweaking, and refining your creations until they function the way you want them to; dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, and getting to where your level finally feels complete.  All of this is fun.

On the play side, the game offers you, in effect, infinite Mario.  And because levels can be built in one of four themes, complete with their own mechanics and some unique items, it actually offers you quadruple infinite Mario, infinity times four.  The pool of community-created levels is a mixed bag, but abandoning one level and jumping into another is pretty quick and simple, and the pool is so deep that you’re bound to find some great stuff if you spend a little time looking.  The Internet is also stepping in to fill the curation void, with a lot of “The Ten Most [adjective] Levels in Super Mario Maker” lists out there.  In the first week of the game’s release, more than a million levels were uploaded, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the game limits users to ten uploads until they accumulate some stars from the community.  And the levels already range from brutally hard to auto-playing to musical to Kafka-esque exploration of Waluigi’s existential dread.  So obviously this community’s potential is huge.

And that’s one of the things that most excites me about this game: its potential.  With most games, good or bad, two weeks of playing for several hours a day is usually enough time to give you a pretty good impression of what the next ten or hundred or thousand hours of play will be like.  Games can always surprise you with plot twists, new settings, upgrades, and changes to the mechanics.  But few games can surprise you the way Super Mario Maker seems all but guaranteed to.  The community is already doing things I didn’t anticipate.  For almost all of us, it’s just been two weeks.  The level pool right now represents just what people have come up with off the top of their heads.  What will people come up with when they’ve had time to really digest the game and internalize its mechanics?  I can’t wait to find out.

Continue reading Nine Days of Mario Maker: Day Nine, Conclusion