Issue #164
October 31, 2014
Freak Show
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. It's the most ghoulish time of the year, and I've been power-playing Bayonetta 2, Hyrule Warriors, and Kingdom Hearts while pounding mounds of candy down my throat. How better to enjoy this chilly season?

This week's issue is a long one, so we'll cut the pomp and circumstance in favor of jumping ahead to highlight a worthwhile video producer. If you're the type who appreciates well edited videos, thorough analysis, and absurdist humor, you'll likely appreciate FERALxPANDA. Believe me when I say that his videos are worth your time:

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • What was this year's greatest disappointment?

  • How do you feel about extreme violence in video games?

  • Should games aspire to be cinematic?

So far, 2014 has been an interesting year for video game releases. I can't remember another time which featured quite as many high-profile disappointments. Consumer reception is an important metric for any publisher to interpret and understand, and many fans haven't been terribly pleased with some of the most commercially successful games of the year.

Before we can dig into the message gamers are trying to impart to major publishers, let's highlight some the disappointments. Each of these high profile releases had been touted as "the next big thing" or "an evolution to the formula." They were created using AAA budgets, boasted both expensive and extensive advertising campaigns, and failed to please their intended audiences post-release.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was the first of many major 2014 releases. I've already reviewed the game, and after several play-throughs I still stand by my analysis. The conclusion to the Lightning Saga failed to salvage the series' worsening reputation by placing a good combat system at the heart of a not-so-great action RPG with a story that would make David Lynch scratch his head. Many fans seem to have agreed; the game currently has a 5.9 user score on Metacritic and managed to sell one-fifth of what the original Final Fantasy XIII was to able move.

The Thief reboot failed to meet the standards set by the original trilogy while at the same time failing to modernize almost all of the game's mechanics. It was given mixed scores by the press, derided by series fans, and currently has a 5.8 user score on Metacritic. Square Enix has never given any indication of how well the game has sold, but that in itself is a red flag as the company almost always celebrates sales of over one million. It's quite possible that the public reception of Thief didn't justify the costs of the game being in development for over five years.

Titanfall, which was subject to quite a bit of hype pre-release, is almost completely ignored today. The positive buzz for this AAA FPS ceased after most people realized that it was essentially Call of Duty with mechs and a poorly executed, minimal campaign. Did you know that Titanfall just received a massive DLC update? It's likely you weren't aware, as most outlets aren't covering it. Even EA is staying mum about the game, as they haven't released any sales numbers. Microsoft, likewise, hasn't been very open about the game's commercial performance. The game has a 6.0 user score on Metacritic, with most users complaining about a lack of uniqueness and poorly implemented features.

The Elder Scrolls Online, which was rumored to have cost $200 million to produce, failed to mitigate the differences between open world RPGs and the fairly linear progression of MMOs with all of the gusto of a frustrated toddler trying to fit a square peg into a circular slot. Publisher Bethesda hasn't released any sales or subscription data, which is another red flag, yet SuperData Research claimed that The Elder Scrolls Online had 772,374 subscribers in June of this year. Five million gamers had registered for The Elder Scrolls Online public beta, so it is fair to say that this game at the very least has retention issues. To provide a bit of contrast, World of Warcraft, which is the longtime leader in paid subscription MMOs, had approximately 7.4 million subscribers — that's over 10 years since WOW first launched. The Elder Scrolls Online currently boasts a 5.6 user score on Metacritic, with most commenters citing a lack of endgame content as well as tedious design.

Watch Dogs promised a lot with its visually impressive E3 2012 demo, and subsequently failed to deliver. That wasn't enough to damn the game, however. Players complained that it felt like every other open-world Ubisoft series in terms of structure, and featured tedious quests, unenjoyable driving mechanics, "special" AI, and a protagonist that could make wood look good. The game did ship over 8 million units combined, which is absolutely impressive for a new IP, but the game is almost universally cited as being a disappointment. Watch Dogs now has a 6.3 Metacritic user score on PS4, but a 4.6 on PC due to what can only be called a horrific launch. The poor reception of this over hyped title lead to many unfavorable comparisons between Ubisoft and America's Worst Company two years running, EA, proving that even a financially successful game can yield brand damage.

Destiny's unsavory public reception should be fresh in everyone's minds. Garnering mixed to positive reviews across the board; it would appear that most people were prepared for Bungie to once again redefine what we thought of FPS titles. Destiny has been called an MMO, and for the sake of the game's longitude I hope it is treated as such by Activision. In spite of a number of individually excellent pieces, the whole of Destiny doesn't seem to jive well. There are PvP balance issues, there are replay issues, and there are major story issues. Sales for this brand new IP did exceed $325 million in the first five days alone, which is amazing, but Activision already spent half a billion dollars on the game and the real test for Destiny — as with any MMO — is player retention over time. Right now, things don't look peachy. The game is averaging a 6.4 user score on Metacritic, and based on the vast amount of gameplay criticisms I wouldn't be surprised if it became the most traded in game of the year.

Finally, there is Driveclub — a game which promised to bring to life the heart and soul of car culture only to experience a launch that had more in common with a car crash. The game has faced middling reviews and some gamers complain that it still isn't playable. To Sony's credit, the publisher has been scrambling to strengthen the game's online functionality. Updates have been released and more servers have been added. It may be too little too late, however, as fans are peeved. Some law specialists are already citing the game as possibly being in breach of "The Sale of Goods Act," which includes provisions expecting that the product is as described and of satisfactory quality. If Driveclub is in breach of the act, consumer protection law could dictate that the players deserve a full refund. This would make the game more than just a PR embarrassment for Sony — it would be financial headache. Gamers clearly aren't pleased with this racer, as fan outrage has become a story in itself. The Metacritic user score sits at 5.6 currently, but I'm not sure that number really echoes the degree of frustration being felt.

With all of these high-profile disappointments, I think it is important to examine commonalities. All of these games were extremely well advertised. They each had developed a strong audience following well before release. They were hyped — perhaps overhyped. However, the degree of hype itself is irrelevant when examining why each game failed to satisfy. Just like a spotlight, hype only makes the issues more egregious — it isn't the root cause.

Each of these high-profile games made promises that they ultimately did not deliver on. A few of these games were shipped in an incomplete state. Other disappointing releases simply experienced disastrous launches due to outstandingly poor publisher oversight. It could be argued that the remainder failed to communicate all aspects of game design until it was too late for consumers to cancel their preorders. So, what exactly can we, the consumers, learn from these examples of hype train derailment? There a few things, actually.

I would argue that we need to take positive game PR, delivered with massive marketing budgets, with a sizeable grain of salt. As I previously indicated, the hype itself isn't the reason why many of the games released this year were unenjoyable. It is, however, the reason why we were sucked in by the false promises made by these games in the first place. It also has become abundantly clear that consumers expect complete game experiences at launch and not the promise of completion at some point in the future. Sadly, it is also abundantly clear that many publishers have moved to a "deliver it now, fix it later" approach to releases. Outside of possibly waiting to purchase games, it appears that we will have to communicate to publishers the problems with favoring immediate releases over delaying a game until it meets a certain level of quality or completion.

Maybe 2015 will be a better year for video game quality and consumer satisfaction, but if this year has taught us anything it should be the merits of cynicism. Cleary we cannot blindly place our faith in certain publishers, developers, or franchises anymore. At a time were we have greater access to information than ever before, the consumer is somehow still at great risk of being deceived. Buyer beware has never felt so appropriate.

Sources: Metacritic, SuperData Research

In the case of Hatred, audience emotions have sparked much controversy of late, from both those in support of "freedom of expression" and those opposed to disgusting imagery. I would suggest that this was absolutely planned by the game's developer, for the sole purpose of notoriety.

According to Polish independent developer Destructive Creations, "Hatred is an isometric shooter with a disturbing atmosphere of mass killing, where player takes the role of a cold blooded antagonist who is full of hatred for humanity." In the trailer, the protagonist walks the streets and kills innocent people with both delight and pride. He even goes as far as to say "This is the time of vengeance and no life is worth saving and I will put in the grave as many as I can. It's time for me to kill, and it's time for me to die. My genocide crusade begins here."

Destructive Creations states on its website that this game is a response to politically correct trends in gaming. To quote: "These days, when a lot of games are heading to be polite, colorful, politically correct and trying to be some kind of higher art, rather than just entertainment, we wanted to create something against trends." That kind of verbiage all sounds familiar to me.

In the very same vein as Mortal Kombat opting to feature bloody violence simply to set the mediocre fighting game apart as well as to piss off the censors and create some buzz, I would suggest that the developers of Hatred wanted to feature as much disgusting, brutal, and immature imagery as possible in order to make some people hate it.

It's actually a pretty inspired promotional strategy when you think about it. The few game media outlets that regularly write about game culture and try to tie it into ethical responsibility would damn the game for being audacious and unnecessarily stomach churning. Meanwhile the opposing groups who despise those outlets and their editorial stances will damn the press for acting as if they were morality police. This was exactly what happened.

A Polygon opinion piece said it was the "worst trailer of the year," and Metro stated that it would "keep the world's sickest serial killers entertained." Naturally, alternative game media sites called the actions of these two sites akin to morality policing. A crowd of gamers, predictably, have since championed this game — claiming that Hatred deserved to be played, and that freedom of expression was being violated by journalists with an agenda. Now there is an ongoing online war about not only what game developers are allowed to express, but also collusion in games media.

First of all, no one's freedoms of expression rights are being violated when controversial games are being criticized for being controversial. Any misconception otherwise can be attributed to a distorted understanding of what the first amendment says. The freedoms in the first amendment are designed to protect the independent liberties of the populace against an oppressive government that would seek to squash those rights in its own self-interest. Unless the government steps in and says "you can't play Hatred because we said so," the freedom of expression is not being violated. It is just that simple.

Secondly, and more importantly, both sides of this issue are intentionally being played against each other for the benefit of the developer. The press statement made with this game, the offensive trailer, and the company's choice of words in subsequent interviews all point to this controversy being rigged for the sole purpose of creating buzz for an indie game that might otherwise go unnoticed.

How many of you would have even stopped to look at this game if it were on Steam without this PR scandal ahead of its release? The trailer absolutely did its job; it successfully put the game on the map by rustling the feathers of the right people and watching as a dedicated base of opposing gamers flocked to Hatred's defense under the veil of journalistic responsibility and the freedom of expression. Congrats are in order for Destructive Creations, but this highlights how fractured gamers and media outlets have become.

Source: Destructive Creations

Cliff Bleszinski, the creator of Gears of War and current head of Boss Key Productions, is annoyed at how games are being pushed these days. He doesn't appreciate how publishers are trying to blur the lines between games and movies. I would make a crack about Gears of War and predictably clichéd cinematic storytelling, but irony isn't my strong suit.

In a tweet that references the latest trailer for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Bleszinski said "Stop with this shit. Games shouldn't aspire to be movies." One of the taglines the next gen game has marketed itself on is "Transcends the line between game and film," and apparently that rubs Bleszinski the wrong way. In a follow up post he added, "I really need to get around to writing that blog about how gaming still feels like Hollywood's pimply kid brother and how that's bullshit." Personally, I find that perspective interesting because it makes a strong blanket statement.

Bleszinski seems to be operating under the notion that games shouldn't aspire to be movie-like in nature because games aren't movies and shouldn't have to act like them. I, however, would have to push back against his remarks as to me they seem both juvenile and close-minded.

Once upon a time games were games and movies were movies; there was no confusion between the two. Games couldn't even attempt to emulate movies in earnest because technology was too limited to provide a cinematic experience. The times, however, have changed, and I would suggest that it is for the better that developers can make greater strides towards narrative-heavy experiences. After all, why restrict freedom of development?

Final Fantasy is a good example of a series that has always strived to be cinematic in nature. Since the early days of the franchise, all story scenarios were written to feel movie-like in nature. They may not have looked movie-like in the days of the NES or Super Nintendo, but the Final Fantasy games move closer to that goal with each new entry. To the same token, the Metal Gear Solid series and Beyond: Two Souls also strived to be cinematic in nature and the results have sometimes suffered. To that point, I can understand why some gamers do not appreciate this approach. I see no reason, however, to write off the possibilities.

More games should focus on their delivery. Tight gameplay and nice graphics are pretty well expected today, but so few games ever rise to the challenge of bringing greater scope to the story itself. Not to bully Bleszinski, but Gears of War is a good example of missing the narrative boat. Gears, a game that used every superficial approach available to seem epic, lacked proper story context because as the player was thrown in the mix long after the war had started and the main character jailed. That made it harder to care about achieving game objectives. Furthermore, the player likely didn't give a damn when characters died because they never had a proper set up in the first place. What that game lacked was emotional manipulation, which is something Hollywood actually does well. Similarly, more cinematic games like The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite actually excel at manipulating the player into caring about what happens.

I won't bang on this drum as I know not everyone will agree with me, but there is something good about game developers striving to deliver narratives more akin to movies. Like anything though, at the end of the day it will be about balance.

Sources: Twitter

That's it for this issue of Currents. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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