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.