Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Cost of games in the coming generation

Have video game costs actually gone down for the consumer? Are they on the rise again? Are developers finding ways around those costs? And will this coming generation be sustainable for developers?

"Money, it's a hit" Pink Floyed - "Money"

  Talking about money and video games is almost too broad a subject. There are literally dozens of things you could talk about, and now more than ever, dozens more distribution methods you could examine. I'm going to try and take a broad look at the rising costs of development, how they impact the prices of games, and take a look at whether or not we're actually paying more for our games than we ever have. There's also the aspect of whether or not the coming generation of gaming can maintain increasing costs, or whether this industry has perhaps overloaded it's slate.

  First of all, there's no surprise to see that consoles themselves have just been rocketing skyward each generation, although none of them compare to the long-term costs of owning a high-end PC. Handhelds have also seen this trend, with the Vita costing as much at it's launch as the Wii did when it launched 5 years later. (The Vita is arguably more powerful than the Wii, and handheld, so that's not terribly unexpected.) With the WiiU currently priced at $349 (we're going to forget the $299 model exists, okay?) and current consoles 360 and PS3 ranging from $250-$300 (depending on which bundle/deal you get), the only logical conclusion is that the next consoles are going to have two options. The first is to be unreasonably expensive ($599 US dollars!) or go the mobile contract route. Intersting, you can get an XBOX 360 for $99 but it requires a 2-year gold subscription for $14.99 a month. If I had to guess, Microsoft is testing the waters for the viability of that as a permanent pricing structure for the "720" system.

Is this our Console Future?

  As a bit of a side, I like to crack a joke at the $600 price tag of the PS3 at launch, but the NeoGeo was $650 at it's launch in the 1990's with it's games running as high as $200 a pop. So, I think we can all agree that we are far from the craziest pricing structures thus far.

  In researching the costs of games back then and now, the most noticeable trend I've found is that games are far, far more regularly priced now than they have been. I posit that it's related to the growing "legitimacy" of the medium for averaging out a price, much like music and movies. But back in the SNES days, you could find games ranging from $50-$60, and if it was a SquareEnix title, it could be as far up as $80. I remember a $70 dollar price tag on Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars being the reason I had to rent and re-rent that game to completion. My tiny, tiny allowances just couldn't make that difference in any reasonable time. These days, nobody's putting their game higher than $60 on a shelf, and if it came out on a 'last gen' system (read also, Wii) it was $50. 

I loved this game. I still do, but I did back then, too.

  Speaking of game prices, I think there's a lot of different perspectives of costs for games these days.There are so many ways to approach the concept of "value." Does a game like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance justify it's $60 dollar price tag with a 5 hour story mode and some challenge modes? Does DmC? Why would you buy those when you can get Ki No Kuni for the same price, which features tons more gameplay time and content. Why are you buying any of these when you can get the nearly bottomless, insanely replayable (and arguably one of the best games ever made) Persona 4 Golden for the Vita for $40, or Etrian Odyssey IV for the same price on the 3DS? One step further, why would you buy any of that, when you can by $40 dollars with of 99 cent apps on your iPhone or Android, and get content-filled games like the unreasonably popular Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Super Hexagon, and so many others on a device you likely already own? It's a strange, strange market right now, and a lot of developers are using mobile and Facebook games to help make a quick, easy buck, which helps offset their crazy big triple A games like Halo, Madden, or Mass Effect. But, at which point are game companies going to look at this and realize that they could just make slightly better mobile games, and just make pure profit from those? It honestly seems crazy to think that Activision is still making console games when they could just keep trying to make an Angry Birds and make just as much of a profit.

Money Pig.

  Interestingly, if you look at the costs of games back in the old days, you'll find that, despite price-offsetters like Downloadable Content (DLC) and Special Editions, we're getting way more for our money now than we ever have. According to an article at 1UP.com, when you start filling in for inflation, you'll find that games were almost twice as much as they are now. It's a tad abstract of a concept, but I think you can also thank the growing rise in video game popularity as one of the ways publishers can offset game's costs without throwing the price up. If you look at 1UP's chart, a copy of Street Fighter 2 was $74.99 back in 1992. Factor in for inflation, and you're looking at $121.99, were that game to come out today with the same profit goals. Compare Street Fighter II to Street Fighter X Tekken right now, and there's no doubt that we are getting more for our money. More characters, more stages, better visuals, online play, tons of features and modes. Arguably a less competitive game, but I'm not touching fighting game talk with Kilik's 10 foot pole. But for as much slag as Capcom seems to get for their on-disc DLC, and rightfully so, I think it is fair to say that they're still giving us a better deal. Right now on Steam, you can get SF x Tekken, with all of it's character costumes, new characters, weird gem things, and more, for $69.99... just $20 more than the game itself, and still $50 dollars cheaper than Street Fighter II cost. (Again, conceptually speaking). But then again, even if you don't look at inflation, Street Fighter II was -still- five dollars more.

  Have your own favorite game from the $90's? Use this awesome Inflation Calculator to find out how much it would technically cost if it came out today!

  So if we're "technically" paying less for games that are miles above their predecessors in terms of necessary manpower, visual fidelity, live orchestra soundtracks, online server maintenance, voice actors... what are publishers doing to make a profit? In a lot of cases we're seeing DLC become more and more prevalent. Map packs, exclusive weapons, character packs and now Season Passes, allowing you to get everything for a cheaper up-front price. In fact, for many, DLC is the only way they make money. Look at the mega-hit League of Legends. It's a free game that you could play forever without paying a dime, and eventually earning all of the characters and levels yourself. But, for a very small fee, you can unlock favorite characters early, as well as tons of costumes to dress them up in. It's all strictly for the looks, but it's proven a lucrative business model for them. And it's a model that continues to grow. Most MMO's have taken a Free-to-Play style similar to that, where the only profit comes from additional benefits. Team Fortress 2 relies solely on it's Mann Store for profit, and most mobile games have entirely micro-transaction based constructions, like Jetpack Joyride. Heck, even Triple A games are starting to do it. Mass Effect 3's multiplayer allows you to earn trading card game style "booster packs" filled with weapons, consumables, and characters, that can be bought with either currency earned in-game, or with micro-transactions.Technically, you're essentially buying "Ain't nobody got time for that" cheat codes to help speed things up for you. It's hard for me to figure out whether or not I like this. I mean, I don't -have- to buy a thing. But I want that top hat on my Medic, damnit!

  Remember when we used to bitch about in-game advertisements? Kind of starting to miss those. At least they didn't cost me anything.

I'm not going to lie. I bought all of the Mass Effect 2 costumes through this that I could. I wonder how much this helped offset costs.

  So this is all fine and dandy for smaller games, and multi-player titles, but what about the next big Infamous? What about all of those neat little games Sony showed off at their press conference for the PlayStation 4? How will they offset their costs? Will they just raise the prices? Will there b e some sort of subscription service to help keep it low? Will Sony rely on some other methods to keep things priced low? They haven't even announced the cost of the console itself yet, so it's really hard to get a feel for what we're going to b e experiencing soon. If I had to make a guess, I would say that Nintendo, of all people, is going to be the only place you find the standard pricing structures for games stay in place, at least for the next few years. I foresee a lot more Season Passes, Free-to-Play Content, and micro-transactions in the future.

  All this makes me wonder: have video games grown to large? How many studios have we lost in the last generation? THQ is the most recent example, and they were all about a lot of these pricing models. Just look at the DLC page for Saint's Row the Third. Does that mean these models don't work? Or do they just not work unless your games make a certain sales threshold? Are there better ways of doing this? And despite being some big gang-buster of a game, how do you argue yourself against something like the Humble Android Bundle, which gives you 6-10 games available on Steam, and -all- of your Android Devices (including phone and tablet). And those games cost whatever you want to pay. Sure they incentivize you to spend a little more, but you still never pay more than $10 bucks to get the whole pack.

All of these for a dollar! (if you're a soulless monster)

  I think I've left a lot more questions than I have provided answers, but that's for two reasons. I haven't decided, myself, how I feel about all of these. Obviously if I think something's too gross I just won't buy the game, but there is kind of a point where being in -every- game is too much, right? I also just wanted to throw down some numbers and let you think about it yourself. Has this made you realize that we're not as bad off as we thought, or are you still just as dubious as ever of game purchases? And, finally, which of these do and don't cross your mind when making judgement? I'd love to see if maybe there's something in particular people like or dislike, and discuss on that further!


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How was that Dead Space 3 game?

A look at Visceral Games' 3rd foray into the world of space madness.

 Dead Space was the game that made me happy I bought an Xbox 360. At the time, my computer was nowhere near prepared to run that kind of a game. I had purchased the console originally for The Orange Box and Bioshock, and nothing else for a good while. It was Dead Space that made me come back to the console, and I was elated to do so.

 It was scary, immaculately crafted, science fiction and horror bundled into one package with my name on it. It was a unique take on the third person shooter that revolved around dicing your enemies to pieces rather than running for the usual headshot. As every game with a gun wanted to be Gears of War and Halo, Dead Space was more interested in a new combat mechanic, an intuitive and world-integrated user interface, a series of unique tools for the job, and an arsenal of strange enemies to learn and experiment with. It was truly a fresh experience in every way.

I cannot stress to you enough the importance of taking those arms off. Maybe go for a leg first to hobble him?

 From a narrative perspective, it was a tad shallow, but it laid some fantastic groundwork and ultimately paid off on everything it wanted to deliver. With its none-too-subtle examination of how religion can make people a little more than crazy, a new twist on traditional gameplay, and some of the best sound design in the industry, Dead Space was hands down one of the most unique experiences on consoles.

 Dead Space 2 was an evolution on the previous title in just about every direction. New tools, new suits, new hacking mechanics (the computer kind, AND the monster limb kind), a new location, and what is perhaps the most solid narrative experience I have ever encountered; cutscenes are straight-up gone. You want a CG movie, go watch Wreck-it Ralph. (No, really, go watch it, it's great.) Video games have a unique space to work with in ways we're typically unfamiliar with. There are only 3 moments in the entire game that the camera breaks off of Isaac. While you can lose direct control of Isaac, you are never removed from the nerve-rending setting of Titan Station. Dead Space 2 was missing giant boss fights, opting instead for big arena set pieces and the occasional "holy crap" set-ups, but it was perfectly executed. I could not tell you a single thing "wrong" with Dead Space 2.

Never breaking camera made for some amazing action sequences, like jetting through exploding space stations.

 As you can imagine, Dead Space 3 has some lofty competition from itself...and pretty much only from itself. Games like Amnesia and Slender are more terrifying in their own way, but they’re also built around removing power from the player. But Dead Space 3 was probably Visceral Studios’ most ambitious title. Adding in a full drop-in/drop-out co-op immediately had many worried. How scary can it be if my buddy can just drop in and help me go plasma cutters-a-blazing? The answer: by still being Dead Space.

 Drop-in co-op wasn't the only new feature. If you factor in a gun-crafting mechanic, a wardrobe of suits, the most enemies, the grandest locations, and half a dozen different modes: you've got a lot to do. In previous Dead Space titles, all you had was New Game + to go through again and again. This game features 4 modes, each with their own New Game + capabilities, some of which require you to survive the nightmares alone. With all of these crazy new mechanics being implemented into an otherwise perfect run of a series, it's not hard to see how they may have stumbled a few times. I'm of the mindset that trying to expand your game should be valued, even if not everything panned out the right way, and in that spirit, Dead Space 3 is a total triumph. It's just got a few edges that need to be smoothed over if they go ahead with a future installment.

 I played through all of Dead Space 3 with the same co-op partner, and I can tell you that it works really well. Puzzles from single-player have cooperative requirements in the two-player mode, making things feel like more of a cohesive tag team experience. There are also exclusive co-op only zones to visit, which sucks to miss out on if you're playing by yourself. However, they're only important to the story of newcomer John Carver, so missing out on them doesn’t really ruin the overall story. As I understand it, those are some of the best experiences in the game. I was running as Isaac, so I missed out on Carver’s freak-outs, and Isaac had little to none. So far, no co-op game has really hit the level of truly asymmetrical gameplay that only those types of games can provide, but Dead Space 3 is so close to that mark, it has me salivating for more.

Co-Op means fun for everyone! And by Everyone I mean two people.

 I love the new weapon and armor mechanics. Gone are credits for arbitrarily buying things out of vending machines. Now we have a more "in-universe" mechanic of gathering spare parts as currencies that you use to build weapons, upgrades, health packs and other necessary items. It does a great job of fleshing out the vending machine and bench systems of the previous games. The build-your-own weapon system is fun for a guy like me. You can go as simple as a tricked-out Plasma Cutter (the standard Dead Space tool), or go with a stasis-bullet firing submachine gun with a cryo-torch strapped to it that also happens to help pick up ammo and give you and your partner extra damage. It's a bit weird to look at the system in the beginning, in no small part to a slightly muddled user interface, but when you really start to figure it out, it's an absolute joy. Or, if you don't like it, just buy blueprints with upgrades and move about your business, that works too! The key theme here is options, and I am always in favor of them.

It's like the Build-a-Bear Workshop, only slightly deadlier!

 While we're on the topic of weapons and weird designs, there are some particularly frustrating moments in the game where you are required to have a particular kind of weapon. There is no precedent in any of the games for some of these, and if you don't have them, it’s impossible to move forward on the higher difficulties. My partner and I coordinated our weapon types for effectiveness; he didn't have anything rapid fire. As Carver, there are a number of segments where you -need- a rapid fire weapon, because what you're attacking requires being hit a certain number of times, not taking a X number of damage. It's kind of ridiculous as there is no lead up to that mechanic. It's entirely invisible, and only used in a couple instances. We had to stop playing the game at that point for a few hours, read up on how to beat it, and then finish it when we weren't so flustered. That's just never an experience you want in your game, and it's a real odd thing to slip in there.

 The story is pretty grandiose, and it's clear that the narrative isn't just about isolated incidents any more. Some people may hope for them to reel it in a bit, but from a narrative point of view, the Necromorph plague is just too big to be contained to small space stations. At this point it's either "keep going bigger," or pack it up and move to something new altogether.

 Early in the game, you're treated to hovering around giant, derelict space vessels that give you some real, unprecedented freedom in space. I cannot think of another game that gave me that "I'm in space!" feeling. It was a rush. Unfortunately that whole series of experience and gameplay goes away for the later two-thirds of the game when you reach the planet's surface, and while that makes obvious sense, it is kind of a bummer they couldn't have more on the surface to replicate just how expansive those first parts felt.

 But as I've said, not everything works. Transitioning in and out of story sequences is far from as seamless as it was in Dead Space 2, and in many cases (almost every case, if you're Mr. Carver), it's incredibly disjointed. It really is unfortunate they didn't create a second set of camera work for Carver to keep the story locked to each character's perspective the whole time. Even more mysterious: in single player Carver just shows up sometimes because he's supposed to have been with you this whole time, even though he's not helping you take out Necromorphs unless your buddy is controlling him. It's a step backwards in terms of the Dead Space narrative style, but with some more time and refinement, it can be absolutely the best co-op narrative experience in a game. Especially if they emphasize the moments where one character slips into hallucinations and sees things in areas completely differently from the other, or if characters have to split up altogether.

 At this point, I've completed Dead Space 3: Awakened, the downloadable content that expands upon the story of Dead Space 3, and the reason I bring this up is because of the common complaint/worry that Dead Space 3 isn't "scary" enough. Some said it isn't "Dead Space" enough, which I don’t really get. There's space and there's death, you've pretty much covered the game's promises right there. But Awakened, if nothing else, will flip that perception on it’s head. While I would gladly defend Dead Space 3's atmosphere and tone, I would bend to the argument, if only a little, that it's less "scary" of a game. Awakened settles the argument that co-op means less frightening, as it is easily the -most- terrifying Dead Space content, hands down.

It gets real in the Awakened DLC.

 There’s a feeling that Visceral Studios went big, and it hit pretty well for the most part, but because the games before it were these perfect experiences that were tighter than a facehugger's grip, it just feels a little more flat. It's not, to make a comparison, hollow and devoid of atmosphere like Resident Evil 5, but it is every bit as solid of a cooperative gameplay experience, if not more so. Additionally, the Awakened DLC does a great job of adding to the plot with some of the series' best atmosphere, some amazing battles, and even a pretty unreal ending.

 Have you had a shot at Dead Space 3 yet? What were your feelings on the design choices? Were you playing co-op or solo? How would you have changed things up? I would love to hear from you in the comments!