falling, with style

Batman: Arkham Knight was finally re-released on PC four days ago to…well, maybe great fanfare isn’t quite the phrase. Moderate flourish might suit it better. They don’t exactly want to be trumpeting from the mountaintops that they’ve finally fixed one of the most broken, distasteful pieces of software yet pushed out by the game industry.

Arkham Knight was pulled from the market over four months ago, owing to horrendous performance and correspondingly dreadful reviews. Rocksteady then dropped everything and spent months working on fixing the game, also putting the scheduled season pass DLC on hold until it could be ready for mass consumption again.

Now, it’s back, and the fans couldn’t be happier…or, maybe they could. Performance issues still persist, and it’s not made any better by the fact that WB used subpar testing methods on its pre-release builds in the first place, then simply didn’t respond to them. Apparently SOP for Warner Bros these days is to simply ignore things until they go away on their own. And if they don’t go away, do everything except actually fix the problem. Even now, there are still recognized issues with the game, the shining beacon of which is a “hard drive paging issue” which, for Windows 10 players, can only be avoided by equipping a whopping 12GB of system memory.

Being off the market for months cost WB and Rocksteady money as well as publicity. The current sales figures for Arkham Knight show that the PC version has sold a miniscule 80,000 copies, just 2% of the total. A comparison with another recent release, The Witcher 3, has a more healthy 350k, around 10%. Assuming each copy of the game costs $60, that’s about $16 million WB is missing out on; include season passes and that figure approaches $30 million. The sad part about this I’m willing to bet WB will turn around and point to the dismal sales numbers as proof that PC isn’t worth developing for, and start cutting back.

Neglect, visualized in bar form.

But this is a more disconnected, wider view than I intend to convey here. What follows is my personal take on the long-awaited DLC. The short version: It’s just like the base game, loaded with promise and consistently disappointing.

First up (according to the game, anyway) is the Harley Quinn Story Pack. Storywise, this consists of Harley Quinn taking on the task of breaking Poison Ivy out of prison in Bludhaven. In total, there are two combat encounters separated by a predator section. It took me just under half an hour to play through, including the final combat piece which involves slowly burning down Nightwing backed up by a squad of Bludhaven cops. While playing as Harley showed some promise, with her twist on detective vision and mayhem mode, it was over all too quickly, and even though this DLC was released with the game to start with, it feels like an afterthought. In a less tangible sense, the specific element that stood out to me here was the model and animation work–while Tara Strong brings her great voice work back, the animations for Harley’s mouth and face movements don’t seem to match her voice…in fact, her face barely moves as she talks, and it clashes badly.
Then we have the Red Hood Story Pack. In this episode, Red Hood undertakes to bring down Black Mask and stop shipments of illegal weapons from entering Gotham. Again, Red Hood brings a fun twist to combat, using takedowns and finishers that include gunshots to the face and make some of Batman’s tactics look softcore by comparison. The characterization lives up to his historical grittiness, but like Harley Quinn, it took me less than a half hour to complete and there is no side content whatsoever–no collectibles or riddles to find, no extra objectives, nothing to flesh out the game world–what little there is of a world.
As the penultimate piece on the platter, A Matter of Family is far more deserving of the title of “DLC” than its brethren. In a story set some years before the events of the first Arkham game, the Joker takes Jim Gordon and several hostages into a theme park built on an old oil rig in Gotham harbor, prompting Batgirl and Robin to take matters into their hands. The gameplay is mostly par for the course, with Batgirl playing more or less the same as Batman, with the exception of being more acrobatic and having fewer gadgets available–although, it’s worth noting that Batgirl’s hacking tool adds a unique variety, allowing her to shut off lights or trigger carnival machinery to startle opponents and set up takedowns. Unlike its kin, A Matter of Family features an open environment, and there are plenty of collectibles to hunt down during and after completion. Perhaps the most interesting (and moving) element of the story was in the form of easter eggs. By finding and completing several games in the theme park, the player can hear the story of Edward Burke, a businessman who built the park for his dying daughter, only to fall to a tragic fate in the end. Other than that, the story is mostly unengaging, sustained by combat with hips and hair. That said, this version of Batgirl’s suit isn’t bad.
And for the finale (for the time being), GCPD Lockdown manages to fall flat on its face pretty gracefully. Shortly after the events of Arkham Knight, Penguin calls in his boys to break him out of the lockup, and Nightwing responds to stop them. Like the first two packs, this one is sparse, consisting of two combat segments bridged by a predator encounter. It was actually fairly challenging, taking me almost 45 minutes to finish. Other than the length and lack of depth, my biggest complaint is that the difficulty feels artificial, as though the developers decided players were having it too easy and threw in a smattering of enemies with armor, knives, stun batons and assault rifles. In particular the final combat section feels like it ramps up the difficulty quite a bit, becoming rather unforgiving of even minor slips.
All of these “episodes” feel like they were just tacked on by a team of geeky marketing agents who thought “Dude, wouldn’t it be cool to play as <character> taking down <villain>?” In Arkham City, the player could switch between Batman and Catwoman freely, playing as both within the same game world–in this, there is no such option. Each episode is entirely self-contained and separated from the main game, narratively and thematically. Despite Nightwing’s story pack taking place within the same GCPD as the main game, there’s no link whatsoever between them besides characters. And with playtimes of half an hour, the shorter bits almost feel like they’re teasers for the game itself.
What disappointed me the most was A Matter of Family‘s story. In the Arkhamverse, the events of The Killing Joke are acknowledged as having taken place, and are a significant plot point in Arkham Knight. But where is this story? An adaptation of Killing Joke in an Arkham game could easily be a 5-10 hour DLC, and be far more engaging to players, particularly to the Batman geekdom the games cater to so much. These are like shorts used to bookend films or special edition blu-ray releases. They barely qualify as “expansions”.
Released along with the story packs was a plethora of alternate skins for the Bat-family and our beloved car. Unfortunately, the alternate Batmobiles cannot be used in combat in the main game as they lack the Arkham Batmobile’s…unique flexibility, let’s call it, but they’re still fun as hell to drive, and their matching themed courses certainly looked like the developers had a lot of fun designing. These actually feel more worth the wait (nevermind the money) than the “story packs”. (But why is it I still can’t use the Jokermobile, even in new game plus or themed maps?)
But the story still isn’t over. Supposedly, a number of DLC bits are still floating out there in the nether, bringing a deluge of villains to the forefront such as Killer Croc, Mister Freeze, and Mad Hatter, and Catwoman should be getting her own story in which she seeks revenge against the Riddler. Of course, it seems to be a coin toss as to whether we will actually see these, as Rocksteady has stated that some PS4 content will never be released on other platforms. Either way, these other DLCs are only rumor at this point, existing merely as disjointed pieces of code dug out of the game files, and it’s still up to Rocksteady whether they want to develop them further or not. In all, I have no doubt that Rocksteady is more than ready to walk away from this franchise, and this game in particular, and forget it ever happened.

on causality

A few days ago, Treyarch’s Jason Blundell revealed that the studio’s upcoming Black Ops 3 will feature a singleplayer campaign with all missions unlocked from the start. This is a considerable departure from the status quo, in that a great deal of games, particularly those with strong narrative campaigns, force the player to proceed sequentially. If you don’t finish chapter four, you won’t get to see chapter five. As usual, there has been a great deal of hubbub about the gaming community, spanning the spectrum from one end to the other. Most of it concerns consumer rights and player freedoms, which I can fully understand. Alas, that is not the rub.

The part that concerns me is this:

The unlocking level system is an archaic mentality we’ve had since we did bedroom development back in the day – you do this, then go on to the next one.

I’m curious to know why this is so “archaic”, as Blundell calls it.

Most of the counters to this involve invoking the “interactive art” codicil. I’m perfectly accepting of this view, as I consider games a valid form of art myself. But some are drawing a straight line between the two and claiming that this is a direct comparison to books, TV shows and other noninteractive media. I don’t see this as a legitmate comparison, personally, because I don’t see how the disparity gives it credibility.

To me, it’s not about the fact that a game can be played in a nonlinear or unpredictable fashion. If there is a story present, there is undoubtedly an intended way the story is meant to be experienced. Maybe there is more than one way to get from point A to point B, but there is almost always the “right” way. The same happens with extended series of books, films and TV shows.

But it’s not like the “right” way is always the obvious way. Particularly when it comes to TV shows, things get fuzzy–do you watch the series in production order or chronological order? Those two can make a big difference to the viewer’s perception of the show. I personally have always preferred production order, as prequels often contain minor spoilers or references to works that take place later, and the overall approach can change drastically depending on how the sequence is arranged. While our means of consuming media makes the concept of an enforced sequence feel archaic, that doesn’t mean that the concept of a linear narrative is archaic.

Yes, things have changed a great deal with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services. Netflix-produced shows are released as a complete season all at once, allowing viewers to binge all the episodes or watch them however they please, no more waiting to consume them piecemeal. But what’s the point? You can find out what happens at the end, but then you don’t get to experience the journey to the end. You lose context and meaning. There is a reason why books are more than just the first and last pages, and it’s not just some outdated superstition.

This is not to ignore other issues of game content that have been building over the years. There was a time when content was locked to provide incentive for players to do things in the games–sometimes just play the game, sometimes specific actions were needed. Achievements took the form of more tangible rewards like alternate costumes and new characters.  Now that extra content more often than not is sold as DLC. You don’t so much “unlock” new things as you simply buy them.

In terms of the narrative, I would definitely love to see a little more expansion made in that realm. Concept for game stories have become almost suffocatingly one-dimensional; developers concieve of one story with one path and that’s it. Older games like Hitman featured multiple methods to achieve the same ultimate ends, but these days it’s often just a matter of progressing from one cutscene to the next. The beginning, middle and end are all the same; the only difference is the rate at which a given player progresses. It makes referring to games as “interactive” somewhat ironic, when you think about it. Regardless, players will often find ways to break out of the bounds imposed upon them.

Ultimately it’s up to the player. Their experience is their own. And as much as I’d like to transform this into a soapbox rant, that’s about all I can leave this to.

as the bat glides

Arkham Knight was finally patched a few days ago, and subsequently I was finally able to finish the game, after being stuck at a point where the performance issues got so bad I had to just give up for the time being. Thus, within hours of the patch rolling out, I was glued to my controller once again.

My one-word review for the now-playable Arkham Knight: Unfulfilled.

To be fair, it’s hard to top a game like Arkham City. While Arkham Asylum tapped into my Batman geekdom and piqued my interest with the dozens of nods to lore and mind-bending riddles, City took it up to addict levels, reaching out of the screen to slip an IV into my arm when I wasn’t looking, eventually leaving track marks in the form of a constant subconcious obsession with the gameplay strategies and Riddler’s various contraptions.

Arkham Knight takes off from that springboard, introducing a bigger, more detailed game world, a Batman at the peak of his ability, a smorgasbord of villians lining up to bring him down, and a plot that builds and builds and builds…until it reaches the climax, at which point it drops the ball.

To start, the new Gotham is gorgeous. The visual style has been refined to near-perfection, littered with glowing neon signs and numerous variations on neo-gothic, art deco and modern architecture filling the landscape. The city was redesigned after Rocksteady realized the map used in City was too cramped for the Batmobile, and while I wish they had simply adapted the old map rather than build anew, I’ve found that I cared less about it the longer I played. More specific details never cease to entrance. Batman picks up a new suit at the beginning that is just incredible to look at. It (perhaps fittingly) resembles a suit of plate armor, with folding plates and scales, and even the bat-symbol on chest flexes as he moves. The Batmobile is equally stunning, using designs like the Tumbler as a starting point and taking everything up a notch until you have this all-terrain Swiss Army Batmobile that can power machinery, execute ramp jumps of over a hundred meters and even lower itself into bottomless pits, all in a day’s work.

Gameplay is a mixed bag for me. Batman begins the game with several advanced devices and combat moves immediately available, eschewing the trend of using an anti-deus-ex-machina to force the player to start from square one in each of the previous games. It ends up feeling more natural, and shows that Batman is already prepared to kick ass. The combat flow is further improved on City and Origins; when they know what they’re doing, players can be absolute juggernaughts. Outside of combat, the Dark Knight is equally adept. This time around, you can use the disruptor to not only disable enemies’ guns and ammo, but sabotage nearby sentry drones, medics’ equipment, and more. Few things are as satisfying as entering a room, sabotage the medics, then initiate combat and watch them incapacitate themselves attempting to revive a fellow soldier. The hacking device can now also be used to trigger overhead doors, escalators, and generators to take out enemies, often with humorous results. A new gizmo is the voice synthesizer, which can be used to fake a villain’s voice to order troops specific locations to set up takedowns; sometimes, however, they get wise to the act, forcing the player to adapt.

Some tweaks were made to gameplay, which I don’t care for. Previously, the left bumper (or L1) was used to switch into and out of detective mode; now this button summons the Batmobile to a nearby location. Detective mode has been moved to D-pad up, which feels awkward to me. The other D-pad buttons are used to bring up the missions, gadgets and challenges screens. Gone are the days of fluidly switching between gadgets–while the gadgets screen does stop the game while it’s up, it still feels like it’s breaking the flow of gameplay for me. And I don’t see why the challenges and missions screens couldn’t be placed alongside the map screen like in previous games. But maybe my glasses just need cleaning.

And for the big one: the story. After Arkham City‘s stunning conclusion, Knight had big shoes to fill. Rocksteady chose not to bring back Paul Dini for this one, which was a mistake in my view. The story just doesn’t hold up, it feels less like a sequel to Arkham City and more like it’s trying to be a sequel to Arkham City. Once again, the city is cleared of civilians by a plot device, leaving only criminals, villains and supervillians for Batman to contend with. With Gotham under lockdown, two powerful evildoers take over the city with a well-armed militia and the singular purpose of destroying Batman’s legacy and Gotham’s hope. (Does this sound familiar?) Scarecrow finally makes his return–after missing since his downfall in the first Arkham game–having allied with a mysterious new heel calling himself the Arkham Knight, and in the chaos, several of Batman’s previous relations come out of the woodwork to sow discord and generally hasten his demise. On top of all this, Batman is still trying to cope with the fallout from Arkham City, which is wreaking unforseen consequences.

Arkham City was like a sampler plate of villains, giving a brief glimpse at the various inhabitants of the Rogues Gallery, but nothing so in-depth as to distract the player from the game’s main story. What I wanted, personally, was the full buffet…villains with mission chains that rivalled the core plot and really made it feel like Gotham was on the brink of being lost to any number of insidious parties. But that isn’t what this is. You get to stop Two-Face during a series of bank robberies, but the final showdown doesn’t hold a candle to his climactic encounter in Arkham City. Likewise, Batman foils Penguin’s attempt to traffic illegal weapons through the city, but once again, the finale feels hollow and the individual missions feel like they were concieved purely as a way to inject Nightwing into the game. Among the more interesting is one mission chain which involves finding a series of mutilated bodies around the city, which I found more engaging than most of the others. Azrael and Hush both appeared in Arkham City, and both their missions hinted at far larger plots in the future, but in this game their roles are no larger. Hush in particular disappointed me, as he was a character I very much wanted to see explored more; alas, he only gets an appearance in a single mission, and it’s over all too quickly. In both City and Origins, I did considerably less sidequesting, as the main story felt much more pressing. In Knight, the pace was almost lesiurely, despite Scarecrow, the Knight, and Riddler constantly usurping the public-address systems to taunt and lure me.

But my real beef with the game is the Arkham Knight himself. He was touted as a new character, an original creation, and the majority of the game focuses on Batman’s continuing search to find out who he is, and being foiled at every turn, and even headed off by the Knight on a constant basis. But when the big reveal comes, it turns out to be not only an existing figure, but someone who already has a story. To me, there is no reason whatsoever for this person to become the Arkham Knight. And despite being a central character (and one who is consistently underutilized in my opinion), Scarecrow lacks presence, with nothing like the masterfully done “nightmare” segments from the first Arkham game. After building up to it for hours and hours, the denouement just doesn’t have the impact of Asylum or finality of City. It’s like he just agreed to put his brand on the game, without actually putting his product into it. That said, John Noble does a fantastic job of voicing the character, sounding sinister and threatening while at the same time minimal, without too much embellishment. I would be quite happy to hear his voice in a future Arkham game, or DC Animated film.

But we can’t ignore the game’s technical issues. It took Rocksteady almost three months to fix the problems that Iron Galaxy left in the game, which rendered it unplayable on a great deal of machines. My computer is by no means a powerhouse; I run an FX 6300, Geforce GTX 650 Ti and 16GB of memory. It’s quite capable, but I had to play this game on low just to maintain 30 frames per second. (Although, to be fair, even low graphics still look pretty damn good). These problems led to WB suspending sales of the game while Rocksteady worked to fix it, and on top of that none of the DLC has been released on PC yet. WB has quite easily taken the crown of Most Fucked-Up Game Development. It will be a long time before I see a game released in quite such a sad state as Arkham Knight. At least, I hope it will–if someone else manages to top this anytime soon, it will be depressing indeed.

Overall, the game just didn’t connect with me. Several moments in Arkham City gave me chills (and still do, in the case of the final cinematic), but despite a number of similarly-tense scenes, Knight just didn’t make me care as much about the characters or events. That said, it’s still an Arkham game, and it’s still fun as hell. I’ve only yet scratched the surface with the various challenges, and I only have just over half the riddles, yet already I’ve sunk over 40 hours into the game. Despite its flaws, Arkham has managed once again to tap my inner addict.

good and well

Who says gaming doesn’t do any good?

I’m asking seriously. Does anyone still claim that, besides ornery parents still living under pet rocks leftover from the ’80s? Well, some “studies” do. But at this point it’s like anti-vaxxers: a nearly-immeaurable minority still claims they are purely harmful, while virtually any study done in the past decade finds the exact opposite. Sure, there are some that use methods such as candy consumption and questionnaire honesty as metrics, but that doesn’t seem particularly scientific, does it?

On the other hand, games do all sorts of things for the brain. Super Monkey Ball can increase skill in laproscopic surgery. The Typing of the Dead, a survival-horror game combined with a typing exam, predictably improves typing skills of the players while also providing serious challenge. Surprisingly, Rayman Raving Rabbits can improve symptoms of dyslexia in youngsters. Puzzle games like Tetris and Echochrome are effective teachers of spatial skills and inventive solutions. Video games engage the brain like nothing else, proving interactivity is key to cognitive development.

But there is so much more than that. Games provide a sandbox for the mind to play in, testing and pushing boundaries. From virtual computer processors to recursive simulations of itself, almost anything is possible in Minecraft, even graphing calculators, not to mention its use as an architecture design tool. PolyBridge is like a modern version of K’nex, and the structural creations are just about as ridiculous and amazing. Kerbal Space Program has become a teaching tool in physics classes, to the point that the dev team themselves released a version specifically for teachers.

And people spend immense effort and time learning to play these games as fast as possible. Sometimes it’s a matter of skill, sometimes it comes down to whether the game cooperates. Almost always there is a strong element of exploiting quirks of the game.

Most importantly, these speedruns do a lot of good. Millions of dollars’ worth, not to put too fine a point on it.

A little perspective.

A few days ago, Summer Games Done Quick 2015 concluded to awesome fanfare. The marathon got around half a million dollars in donations in the last 24 hours, completely eclipsing all expectations anyone might have had regarding their success. For comparison, the previous year’s SGDQ pulled in about $700k. This year, it was $1.2 million. The only word I could think of as I watched the donation tracker tick up and up was “staggering.” Since the first GDQ marathon back in 2011, the organization has brought in more than $5.5 million in donations, all given to various charities over the years. It’s an incredible way to show how much generosity the gaming community is capable of.

But it’s far from the only way. Countless gaming-related charity programs exist–be it bringing games to children in hospitals, impromptu 24-hour donation livestreams, driving a bus across a featureless desert for hours, memorializing a family member tragically stricken, or making games available for the disabled to enjoy. There can be no doubt that games enlighten and enliven, no matter your taste, budget or even cognitive or physical ability.

Some people, though, remain stalwart.

round and around

Comics were huge in the Nineties. I’m not even sure “huge” is the word for it. They were really something else. Maybe a synonym can explain it:

Synonyms for huge

adj extremely large

  • colossalstar
  • enormousstar
  • extensivestar
  • gargantuanstar
  • giantstar
  • giganticstar
  • greatstar
  • humongousstar

  • immensestar
  • magnificentstar
  • mammothstar
  • massivestar
  • monstrousstar
  • monumentalstar
  • toweringstar
  • tremendousstar

  • vaststar
  • behemothicstar
  • bulkystar
  • cyclopeanstar
  • elephantinestar
  • grossstar
  • immeasurablestar
  • jumbostar

  • leviathanstar
  • lustystar
  • mightystar
  • mondostar
  • monsterstar
  • mountainousstar
  • outsizestar
  • oversize 

Regardless, it was a hell of an industry. Top 20 comics regularly sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies per monthVariants and other methods were exploited to exhaustion. Perhaps the single largest problem was the speculator boom–thousands, if not millions, of people were buying comics to collect. And the publishers catered to this mindset with comics sold specifically for collecting. Heavy duty mylar bags, rare variant covers with creators’ autographs, constant relaunches so everyone could own a #1 copy.

And they were priced to sell. Whereas a “common” comic might sell for $1.50-2.00, variants could command ten times, or a hundred times, or a thousand times that much. And this was purely at the whim of publishers like DC and Marvel, and the lone monolithic distributor that was Diamond (at least, after competitor Capital City was bought out and Heroes World folded). They created prices for these “special” comics, whatever they thought would sell, and sold it for that much. If it was successful, they increased the price a little bit the next time.

Brian Clevinger hits the nail on the head with a nuclear-powered railgun.

And buyers ate it up. Some people bought multiples of these “collector” variants, which were themselves printed in enormous quantities, expecting them to magically gain immense value. The long-observed mechanics of supply and demand were ignored en masse…at least, until around 1995, when reality finally started sinking in. Collectors realized their comics weren’t rare; their variant comics weren’t even worth what they paid for them. Thus, the bottom fell out. Publishers and distributors disappeared or were bought out, and comic shops across the country folded almost as one.

Fortunately, the comics industry managed to avoid vanishing overnight, though these days publishers still have something of an addiction on variant covers. One minor boon to collectors, or even those who just enjoy comics, is that it’s pretty easy to find comics from the 90s that haven’t appreciated much, or even depreciated–often I can buy said comics for less than cover price. It makes collecting easy and very low-risk. Someday my 90s comics may have some value, but I’m not banking on it.

This is a highly compressed and simplified account of events, but’s good enough to get a handle on what happened and why. The reason I bring this up is that it’s happening again. But in a different industry.

Video game publishers and developers have their own addictions. Games are constantly being parsed into smaller and smaller portions; buyers are paying more and more for less content overall. “Day One Editions” are rampant, masquerading as limited-quantity collectors’ items. What do players get for buying on day one? Sometimes a map and a sword. Sometimes a gun, a sword and a skin. Or maybe a few “exclusive” cars to drive around. Often the “exclusive” “collectible” box art that’s trumpeted so much is simply the standard artwork with a “Day One” stamp over it. At least in comics, variant artwork is actually different.

And that “exclusive” content that won’t be found anywhere else? Nine times out of ten, it’s published some months after release, often parsed into as many individual items as possible, to get as much money as possible out of the late adopters. Either you preorder, and risk regretting your purchase, or you don’t and pay more later for the full experience. Either way, publishers win.

It smacks of the exact same ignorance and greed that dominated comics in the early 90s. Players are happily paying out the nose for content that is trivial or cosmetic–and thus worth very little–or content that seriously threatens the balance of the game.

Of course, in the gaming world, things really can be rare. Or at least, rareified. Not “rareified” as in the current accepted definition; I mean to use the word to imply that something that isn’t rare now can be artifically made rare sometime down the road, usually by action of the publisher or developer. Games with centralized servers controlling multiplayer (or even singleplayer) can eventually be made unusable when the servers are permanently shut down. Or they can be removed from marketplaces, making future prospective players unable to buy them. There is even a situation not unlike a modern damnatio memoriae, in which the item in question is removed from the marketplace and made unavailable for redownload even by those who legitimately owned it previously. This case almost invariably results in wildly inflated prices, paid by those who desperately desire something that can’t be bought.

Of course, there are two easy ways to combat this. The first is to simply stop preordering. Stop showing publishers that their products can be sold before they’re on the shelves, or even finished being developed, or even been finalized in the concept phase. The second is to wait for “game of the year” editions. These are the best versions for the consumers. They typically contain all of the DLC and added content, and are put up for sale a year or so after initial release, at which point the publisher has long since stopped watching sales numbers, and are often sold for half or a third the price of the game with its DLC bought separately.

At least in the short term, neither of these options will be put to use by consumers en masse. The buying trends continue, preorders and reservations are still exploited ad nauseum, and DLC will still be the cash cow even for $60 AAA games. But eventually, someday, the system will collapse. Consumers will decide they’re fed up, and the bottom will fall out.

I can only hope the video game industry survives it.

rolling the dice

One of the most popular franchises of recent times is finally getting a new main entry, after a decade in semi-hibernation. Made by DICE, it promises to be filled with action, Imperial walkers, and the classic heroes-versus-villains gameplay Battlefront came to be known for. But perhaps the main issue with it is the developers themselves.

DICE hasn’t done much to build a reputation lately. Actually, no, they have…the resulting reputation just isn’t a great one. They’ve gone from once being considered a leading developer to little more than a shill for EA in the decade since acquisition.

As recently as five years ago, DICE stood in stark opposition to Activision, a welcome antithesis to the Microtransation Throne and the emperor seated on its gold-coin-stuffed cushion. A senior producer went as far as to go on record and state unambiguously that DICE would never charge for map packs for its flagship Battlefield franchise. But like any election promise, it turned out to be a hollow one. A year and a half later, Battlefield 3 launched, and was eventually expanded with five map packs priced at $15 each. There aren’t many things that can push me to take a principled stand, but a backpedal as anti-consumer as this was one of them. I never purchased any of BF3‘s released expansions, though I was gullible enough to throw down for the Limited Edition, getting the first map pack for free(ish).

I didn’t dislike the game; on the contrary, I played it quite a bit, particularly with friends. It was the most fun I’d had since Bad Company 2, into which I sank a similar amount of time. The Frostbite engine was easily the biggest selling point of the game for me, and larger-scale vehicle combat just put icing on the cake.

But DICE tainted the dessert with Battlelog. Taking the age-old process of finding a new server between games and loading in, and adding the extra complication of having the leave the game to do so (not to mention having to install and continually update a web browser plugin with its own problems), and also losing the ability to do things like tweak game settings and player loadouts between games. The added steps required to do this in BF3 never ceased to annoy me, as much as I enjoyed the game itself.

With the release of Battlefield 4, focii seemed to shift considerably. Less attention was given to the widespread terrain and building destruction featured in BC2 and BF3, and more to “Levolution“, large-scale semi-scripted events that could be triggered by players, which would typically result in major changes to the landscape of a given map. Bridges could be blown, mansions could be leveled and construction crane brought crashing down into skyscrapers and city streets. While this added an extra level of awe to the game, the prevalence of smaller destruction events, like blowing holes through walls or ceilings, seemed to wane. On top of that, BF4 added a plethora of new weapons, accessories, and the ability to counter the previously one-hit-kill melee execution, and of course new maps. But it was very much the sort of thing that would have been an expansion, or at least a major patch, just five years earlier. As such, I didn’t purchase it, because I viewed it as a patch with a $60 price tag, and I wasn’t willing to pay it. It didn’t help that the game had serious technical problems, such as an extremely low tick rate, which only contributed to major difficulties landing hits on enemy players.

Then, DICE was bit by the heist bug. Spurred by the success of games like Payday 2, they decided to trade the military fatigues for a set of blues and make a cops-and-robbers game, calling it Battlefield Hardline. Once again, it felt like something a developer might have added as a new game mode via expansion pack, were it released several years earlier, and so far it has been perceived even by its fans and supporters as little more than a reskin, and has yet to surpass its predecessor in player base. Most damning for me personally is the lack of playtime value: I’ve played just 10 hours of Hardline thus far, and already I feel finished. The game just doesn’t feel as varied or deep as BF3. I feel no motivation to continue.

The decline of DICE, seen through the lens of review scores.

Now the record is preparing itself for another spin on the turntable, with the highly-teased development of Battlefront. Many, like Jim Sterling, are realizing how burned they’ve been over the years by developers like DICE. He hears they’re developing a new game and immediately worries about what new ways they will come up with to exploit customers. Not that it’s his fault–DICE has done this to themselves. Or perhaps it’s more accurate (and less scathing) to say that EA did this to them. Either way, it’s a sad tale to recount for someone who clearly remembers the days when they endlessly bashed Call of Duty‘s DLC model and broken game mechanics.

The worst part: So far, the fears appear to be well-founded. The list of features thus far announced for Battlefront is lacking, to say the least, in comparison to its immediate predecessor. Already people are listing reasons not to buy the game (or at least preorder it), almost all of them making the same analogy, and ones that don’t instead focus on the fact that DLC has already been announced for the game. If DICE isn’t paying attention to all the cynics they’ve made with their development practices over the past ten years, this game will be a barely-remembered one…or it will be etched in granite slabs for generations to come, a cautionary tale of how to ruin one’s legacy in a most efficient manner.

And if they are paying attention and plan to make more huge reveals before launch, I welcome it. One rarely wants to be proven wrong, but this is a subject in which I would be happy to.

perfect silence

He's actually just pumped about a new Potbelly opening nearby.

Horizons are broadening. Nintendo’s newest and most original IP in a long time, Splatoon has been looking quite impressive for something that failed to get the attention of Miyamoto the first time around. Impressions have been almost universally enthusiastic since its first public display, and the gaming world can hardly contain itself long enough to wait for its release just over a month from now. It could well be instrumental in turning around the Wii U’s fortunes.

It’s not quite perfect, though. Splatoon is missing a feature that is key to games these days, something that many people can’t imagine a game not supporting: voice chat. To many, this is simply unimaginable. How can you play an online team-based third person shooter with no way of live, direct communcation with the other members of your team? The simple answer is the internet sucks. But it’s more complicated than that.
Actually, it’s not. The internet is not known as a haven for rational, well-articulated debate, and the gaming community even less so. Playing online games is often an exercise in self-restraint, and more often than not involves use of ignore lists and offline modes to maintain a buffer against the tide of verbal excrement that constantly flows in. In almost any given online match, the majority of the participants do not have a microphone active, or have incoming voice chat muted–often, if it’s one of those, it’s both. People just do not want to interact verbally online, for the most part.
And it’s not because gamers are antisocial. It’s because gamers are assholes to each other. If they’re not raging over their most recent death streak, they’re lording over everyone else and putting all their extra character points into Hubris. Things are spoken (and screamed) over game chat channels that are often reserved for the most bigoted of rallies. And when people try to break the cycle, it only gets worse. Some games don’t have voice chat at all, and probably wouldn’t benefit from it. For many, talking to strangers on the internet is like opening a gate in a dam holding back an entire lake of fecal waste: you can do it, and you can even probably avoid getting covered in shit, but chances are you’ll be looking for a change of clothes regardless.
Nintendo is hoping to avoid the issue entirely by eschewing voice chat. In the past, they have replaced this with a simplistic interface meant to encourage positive interaction and keep focus on the game. I didn’t mind this, because I would rather play (and rage) in my own solitude than subject others to the siren call of my frustration, or subject myself to others’ frustration. I extensively played Black Ops 2 online via my Wii U and never once used voice chat. And I didn’t miss it.
Don’t misunderstand–This is also a result of some of the more inane limitations of the Wii U. Unlike with its competitors, the system has no support whatsoever for a wireless headset. If one really wants to engage in this sort of thing, there are only two possible methods: use one of an elite few USB headsets that work, or use a 3.5mm headset wired directly into…the gamepad. This is only possible with the gamepad, as the Wii U Pro Controller does not have a 3.5mm connector. It’s not nearly as asinine as some past solutions, but it’s definitely not going to motivate any “core” gamers to switch to Nintendo’s console for their gaming needs.
Then again, does anyone out there really, seriously want to LISTEN TO THIS?

requiem for a rant

CompUSA and Circuit City are finally being put (back) in the ground, after three tortuous years of Systemax trying desperately to make their gutted husks not only look alive again, but alive enough to put the fear of competition in Best Buy.

As someone who worked for CompUSA (long before this whole fiasco), I didn’t get that feeling of watching a relative or parent exhumed and reanimated before my eyes. I don’t feel any nostalgia for that company whatsoever. But I would rather have seen it get just one quick death, rather than lingering on as it did. Circuit City didn’t really have much better of a reputation; in the best of times, it was regarded as a wannabe Best Buy (albeit one that carried a better selection of stereo equipment), and at the worst, it was remembered primarily for inventing things no one wanted. The electronics retail crash dive of the late 00s was a shock that left the bodies of these companies intact, but their internal workings permanently and catastrophically damaged. By 2004, most any CompUSA or Circuit City was filled with staff who were best described as demoralized and unmotivated. They were still forced to fill a quota of signups to AOL dial-up internet, in a period when far faster cable internet was becoming both easily available and very affordable. Most people were just waiting for the end, like strangers holding a candlelight vigil outside the hospital, eager to go home and continue their lives.

What concerns me more about this is the damage to their parent/sibling, TigerDirect.

2004 was probably the last heyday of the big box electronics superstores. Best Buy, CompUSA and Circuit City spent their days battling for the crown of Retail King, evoking memories of the European monarchs warring over control of the Continent in the first World War. The common people wearily endured the constant deluge of propaganda, while others served in the ranks, and all just hoped for the excitement to die down a bit so things could just be normal for a while.

Meanwhile, off to one side, was TigerDirect. I fondly remember Tiger as being a cross between these big box stores and RadioShack. One could go to Tiger for something older or more obscure, but also find plenty of newer hardware as well. They weren’t obsessed with selling overpriced TVs or games. In particular, I remember my local Tiger’s absurdly wide selection of system memory. Everything from the then-current DDR2, to archaic PC66 SDRAM, and even a few sticks of the near-mythical RDRAM, could be found with a fair degree of ease. One entire wall of the store was nothing but system memory. Similarly, older hard drives and motherboards were easily available, making working on older systems far easier. Smaller parts like molex splitters, 3-pin adapters and mounting kits to adapt components of different sizes were nearly as prevalent as the memory. I can’t even remember how many dozens of trips I made to that store when I suddenly discovered I needed a splitter to install a new fan or something of the like.

In 2007, CompUSA officially went under, and was purchased by Systemax, the parent company of TigerDirect, with its last 16 remaining stores rebranded as TigerDirects. The following year, Circuit City closed nearly all its stores, and the remainder were also acquired and eventually rebranded. Systemax had pulled these vegetables right off their hospital beds, given them a fresh change of clothing and started making them walk and talk as if they had never been in ill health at all. I had my doubts about this move, but if it meant even more access to niche hardware, I was all for it.

That didn’t happen.

Almost overnight, my local TigerDirect underwent huge changes. Within six months, fully half the store’s footprint was occupied by enormous HDTVs, with computer hardware pushed off to the side and the selection reduced to a mere sampler, rather than the imperial buffet it had previously been. Within another twelve months, the hardware was moved again, to the back corner where it had virtually no exposure. Only the cheapest and most extravagant of video cards and motherboards were on display, with the midrange underrepresented at best. For me, it was only barely a notch above Best Buy, but they still had the advantage with hard-to-find parts and kits. Eventually that dwindled to nothing, as well. After a while, I had very little reason to go to TigerDirect, and apparently most other people felt the same way.

In 2012, the CompUSA and Circuit City brands were officially dissolved and brought under the TigerDirect banner, finally putting the zombies in the ground. But TigerDirect shuffled on, apparently hoping to fulfill some obscure set of criteria to attain manhood. My local store was completely rearranged every 6-9 months, seemingly part of a mission to guarantee customer dependence on the nonexistent salesmen to find products because they were constantly on the move. They still had those obscure niche components, but my motivation to shop there continued to asymptotically approach zero. Even when I went there during the evening rush hour, I would see at most half a dozen other customers. It was nearly abandoned.

And here we are, another three years later. Systemax has announced that TigerDirect will effectively be no more, closing all but three stores nationwide, including a distribution center in Naperville that has been open since Ye Olde Dayes. Finally, the (tarnished) legacies of these three franchises are being put to rest.

I’ll miss TigerDirect, but only the TigerDirect I knew before 2008. I certainly won’t miss CompUSA or Circuit City. Their time was long ago, and long past.


Technology doesn’t always move forward. Sometimes you have a solar flare, or maybe a robot revolution, and in the end the collective decides that it might be better off living a simpler life.

Sometimes the decision is made for you, by people who claim to know better than you.

Apple decided to resurrect the Macbook a couple weeks ago, to the usual media circus and fanboys (or fanpeople, to be more equal) collapsing in seizures of ecstasy. The laptop’s primary feature is that it is even thinner, as per Pope Steve‘s papal bull issued in time immemorial. All other features, apparently, are secondary. Coming in at a gaunt 13mm and just a hair over two pounds, the new Macbook continues to solidify Apple’s stance as the heroin chic of the computer industry. After seeing the absurdly-extended marathon of anorexia Jony Ive and his coworkers seem compelled to display, I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen a Macbook regurgitate some part of its mainboard live on stage.

Unsurprisingly, it has had to give up some of those pesky internal organs to maintain its girlish figure. While optical drives have been vanishing on thinner laptops for some years now, Apple decided motherboards were just too damn big. The more features you want, the more circuit board there needs to be, and who really wants either of those, right? Hard drive connections, memory slots…those are all just vestiges of previous generations that need to be evolved out. And that’s why we have Apple. To tell us what we need and don’t need.

Among the earth-shattering changes wrought upon humanity with this model is the improved runtime. The new Macbook includes a “stepped battery” design, to fit the laptop’s frame as closely as possible, and pack in that ever-so-coveted battery life. Combined with the tiny mainboard, this means the laptop’s footprint is around 90% battery. And none of these are removable. Everything is soldered, screwed and glued in, to make serviceability as impossible as possible.

Now, I’m not an engineer or anything, but it seems to me the Macbook would get even better battery life if it just had a slightly thicker battery with a few more layers. Or a user-replaceable battery that could be swapped for an extended model. Or even two batteries, allowing the user to swap between them on the road without powering down. Nope. Apparently the future is in paper-thin batteries you can’t touch or replace without destroying half of the fucking machine.

But one more thing…the new Macbook actually does possess one feature that everyone agrees is the future: a USB “C” port. This nifty new guy promises to eliminate long-standing frustrations, will increase the bandwidth to 10Gbps and carry up to 100 watts, allowing phones and even laptops to charge over a USB connection. And guess what? The new Macbook will do exactly that. It’s a fairly brilliant move–future proofing, if nothing else–and I can’t wait for a future where I don’t need to lug my laptop’s charger around, just a USB cable and wall outlet adapter. I can remember the last time a change like this had so much convenience potential. And it was glorious.

Problem is, apparently the future doesn’t include multiple ports. That’s right. The new Macbook includes exactly one USB connector. And that’s it. Oh, it also has a 3.5mm for headphones. But it has no HDMI-out (or any AV-out for that matter), no SD slot…nothing else. If you have to charge your laptop and use an external drive, you have to pick one. You have to read an SD card and use an ethernet adapter because your Macbook’s wifi crapped out? You’re SOL. The Mac world’s response basically amounts to “more ports bad, more accessories good!” Yes, because external add-ons are exactly the thing to complement portability. I mean, it’s not like this laptop is going to be on the road, right?

What makes this whole thing really entertaining (or depressing, whichever works for you) is that Asus beat them at their own game. The Zenbook UX305 is superior to the new Macbook in almost every imaginable category: While the processor is (possibly) not as powerful, the memory is user-upgradeable, as is the hard drive. The screen is capable of up to 282 pixels per inch, versus Apple’s 226 much-trumpeted Retina display. And this even comes with two free kicks in the nuts: Asus’ Zenbook has a bigger battery, has three USB ports (granted, not v3.1 “C” ports), is thinner than the Macbook, and will be almost half the price. It boggles the mind, it really does. It makes me want to buy the Zenbook just so I can stand outside an Apple store as people build their hoovervilles and wait desperately for a chance to breathe the same air the new Macbook used as intake and exhaust.

Personally I don’t see why laptops need to be thin enough to double as filet knives. I have no problem with a laptop in the 1-2cm range, and if manufacturers are going to impulsively shrink the electronics with each new generation, why not instead work on replacing that newly-empty space with more battery? That way everyone wins. Laptops are thin enough, damn it.