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CURRENTS
Issue #146
December 10, 2013
Sweater Weather
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. I'm hopeful that the weather is better where you are right now. As a resident of Canada's chilly Maritimes, I've already been exposed to some of the worst the winter season has to offer. Just in the past two weeks, we've seen flakes, flurries, hail storms, power outages, black ice, and more than our fair share of automotive accidents. In fact, I was involved in one just the other week. While it is good that everyone walked away healthy, my pride was certainly injured — as was my Aveo's front. To get me through the stress of subsequent bills, I've been power-marathoning the "Continue?" show:

Probably one of my favorite gaming-related YouTube series, Continue? is basically a refined hybrid between let's plays and hands-on impressions — with a dash of smart comedy thrown in for good measure. Every week, Nick Murphy, Paul Ritchey, and Josh Henderson sit down to play a random (usually) old school game for thirty minutes. At the end of the session, the three say whether they'd be interesting in continuing or if they'd rather game over. The humor is pretty priceless, and it's hard not to love each of their personalities. Check it out and subscribe!

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

  • What are your plans for the Christmas season?

  • Will you have time to game? If so, what will you be playing?

  • Are you expecting to give or receive any games as gifts? If so, which ones?

Frogmind COO Teemu Maki-Patola recently wrote a piece for GamesIndustry on choosing business models and whether going free-to-play is a good idea. There are a lot of interesting perspectives he gives on the mobile gaming world and I highly recommend you read the whole piece, but the part I really homed-in on was the challenge of going F2P. Teemu states that there is an ongoing industry debate over what works best in today's market. Some are still of the belief that creating a full experience and releasing it with a premium one-time price is the right way to go. A possible problem with that approach is that your audience will always been narrowed to the people willing to pay up front, and possibly be niche as a result. As an alternative, the free-to-play (F2P) model is growing in popularity, even outside of the mobile industry. That being said, no model is without some form of compromise.

To quote Teemu, "Free-to-play is evil. Be free, but not too free — have in-app purchases. But also have ads for those who don't use in-app purchases. Social media!" It's clear, based on the comments section of any F2P game review, that there is some stigma surrounding this new frontier of gaming. There are a number of gamers who react to F2P models with shifty eyes. It's important that we discuss why F2P isn't always embraced, and why gamers may or may not be justified in feeling apprehensive.

I feel as though part of the reason why so many people hesitate around "free games" is that we've been conditioned by modern culture to expect everything to have a price. We live in an age where fine-print is used and abused on the regular. For instance, a new car can cost "only $79 biweekly" on paper, but then you have to factor in federal taxes, an initial payment of $5000, 2% financing, no warranty, the increase to your insurance premiums, and the possibility that you may actually pay more for gas each month. Suddenly, that $79 biweekly is now looking more like $220 biweekly. We see the same kind of luring tactics used in every industry, but it's really come alive in video gaming.

Some would attribute the rise of F2P to MMOs like Guild Wars, The Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Trek Online. These games either began as subscription-based experiences or at least required the initial purchase of the game before moving into true F2P territory. Each still cater to large audiences and have apparently grown under F2P models. It is also clear, however, that the core experience has changed as a result. Specifically, gamers willing to pay real money for in-game rewards have a far different experience than their non-paying counterparts. For instance, access to previously withheld or rare items can make it easier to tackle any enemy or foe in PVP — providing you were willing to drop real dollars. Furthermore, "rich gamers," as paying players are affectionately known in MMO circles, have often boasted higher rewards in all aspects of the MMO experience, including larger inventory, more character slots, access to certain creation tools, and even in-game currency. Some would say these advantages were purchased and not earned.

Of course, the payment models and approach of games that were initially designed with the intention of F2P are a bit different than with those who have converted after the fact. Yes, many mobile games like to utilize in-game advertising to monetize users that would otherwise not spend their money. However, piece-work content has become far more commonplace than banner ads and redirects. We've seen this practice done often the mobile Final Fantasy titles and in a few cases with F2P online shooters, but freemium fighting games like as Tekken Revolution, the upcoming Soul Calibur: Lost Swords, and the Xbox One exclusive Killer Instinct have also taken to only allowing players a handful of characters and stages for free. As a result of this model's implementation, previously developed content has been withheld in order to demand more cash from the consumer. This approach of monetizing content that could or should have been included in the final game release generally hasn't been well received by gamers.

Let's talk about why that is though. I understand that there is a popular opinion out there that all game releases be complete experiences, with no previously developed content being taken hostage. I like this notion, as it echoes what we have done since computers first made video gaming popular. Sadly, it also reflects a very different era. Video games today are very expensive to make, and if they happen to be mobile or online they may also be expensive to maintain. In the past, companies could invest quite a bit of time and money in game development with the expectation that those costs, and then some, would be recouped. Such is not often the case anymore. We've seen a number of once-profitable companies go under, due in part to their old way of doing business, and I think F2P (as much as many may hate to hear this) represents a natural progression.

I was once vehemently against any model that would "rob the player of content." In fact, I was that guy in the message boards that would make a whole bunch of noise over "the decline of the video gaming industry." I think I was also a bit short-sighted. You see, developers like Cryptic Studios didn't go F2P because they were greedy jerks that didn't care about the gamers. They did it to survive. By going F2P, their games gained a far more robust online community. A fraction of their players did make the choice to buy additional content with real money, but the experience was still more than serviceable for those who chose not to. As a result of implemented micro-transactions and specialized rewards memberships, online infrastructure has been maintained for a number of F2P MMORPGs and previously unsustainable games were made profitable again.

Don't get me wrong, F2P isn't a good idea across the board, and games like iOS iteration of Final Fantasy Theatrhythm still boast F2P models that are unfair to gamers. However, I've come to the conclusion that making a game free and only asking that players pay for the content they want may not be the worst thing in the world. In fact, providing it remains profitable for developers, it may just be the solution we need to the problematic, expensive development model we've become accustomed to this generation. It'll just require a bit of an adjustment on our part.

Source: GamesIndustry

Not to be tremendously cynical, but you'd think the usefulness of petitions in today's world would be abundantly clear. They have been done everywhere for everything and still lack in terms of real, tangible impact. Are you against starving orphans in Kenya? What about putting traffic circles and speed bumps in quiet suburban neighbourhoods? Would you be interested in impeaching your current prime minister or president? How about getting a video game translated and released in your region? Hey, maybe you should sign a petition. Maybe you shouldn't though.

Thanks to campaigns like Operation Rainfall, the public has been led to believe that enough signatories and petitions will eventually get real world results. Sadly, that usually isn't possible. While I acknowledge that petitions do a great job at identifying possible interest in an activity, and some have done a lot of good for the gaming community, they usually can't play a lead role in business decision making. To that point, the claim that Operation Rainfall was solely responsible for the Western releases of Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower is a fraudulent one.

Nintendo of America's Reggie Fils-Aime recently spoke to Siliconera regarding fan petitions and campaigns, telling an interviewer that they have a negligible effect on policy at best. "I have to tell you — it doesn't affect what we do. We certainly look at it, and we're certainly aware of it, but it doesn't necessarily affect what we do," he said frankly. "I wanted to bring Xenoblade here. The deal was, how much of a localization effort is it? How many units are we going to sell, are we going to make money? We were literally having this debate while Operation Rainfall was happening, and we were aware that there was interest for the game, but we had to make sure that it was a strong financial proposition."

While I acknowledge that many gamers don't have the greatest faith in Reggie Fils-Aime, I would request that we indulge in his response on the topic of fan-made petitions. Major organizations, especially those who have shareholders to please, don't do things that won't have a legitimate business case. This is a cruel fact of capitalism. It's also the reason why Square Enix hasn't localized Final Fantasy Type-0 and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask hasn't seen a 3DS remastering. Gaming companies do what makes the most financial sense. Regardless of what fans expect and desire, they cannot allow external parties, such as Operation Rainfall or Moonfall, to define their corporate direction.

Would The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D sell copies? Yes, but the original Majora's Mask only sold about half as many as Ocarina of Time was able to move. If the same could be said about the proposed 3D remake, the development process probably wouldn't be worthwhile for Nintendo. To that same point, Final Fantasy Type-0 is currently caught between a rock and a hard place. Would I buy a localized version of the game? In a heartbeat, I would. I'm also sure many fans of the genre would. However, the PSP isn't really supported anymore in the West and there haven't been enough PS Vitas sold for it to make financial sense on that platform. In both of these instances petitions have been made and fans have loudly vocalized their support — only to be met by rightfully deaf ears.

As Reggie Fils-Aime bluntly stated in his interview, "100,000 signatures doesn't mean 100,000 sales." While it may sound harsh, no company should waste its time or resources in trying to release games that will only hurt their bottom line. That's generally how game companies go under. If a game doesn't get localized here in the West, it isn't because the petition didn't get enough support. If a game does get localized, it wasn't solely because of a petition.

Source: Siliconera

After a number of critically and commercially successfully releases, Microsoft and Bungie separated in 2007. Since that time, Bungie LCC has worked on a few entries in the massively popular Halo franchise, before finally cutting ties, and grown from roughly 120 employees. Two years after finally announcing a ten year partner-publishing agreement with Activision Blizzard, it was revealed that Bungie's new title would be a role-playing first-person shooter known as "Destiny." According to Bungie's lead writer Joseph Staten, the studio was approaching the game with the intention of "building a universe" that would "take on a life of its own." As preposterous a question as it may sound, today I would like to ask: what if that universe isn't successful?

Bungie has used its infamous "seven pillars" approach to determine how this hotly anticipated shooter will move massive copies. They maintain that they've emphasized making the game accessible to casual and hardcore gamers, sure, but they've also promised quite a few things that may not be that easy to nail. For instance, Bungie has continually claimed to "redefine what players should expect" as well as "change the way people play together." They've also boasted about the storytelling, saying that they "want people to put the Destiny universe on the same shelf they put Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Wars." It all sounds very noble, and I understand their willingness to cite Destiny as a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for the company, but what if that is exactly what it turns out to be?

The latest information we have indicates that Destiny will be available in September 2014 for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, and Xbox 360. There's no doubt in my mind that Destiny will be heavily preordered and that hype train will be going full-steam around launch. It's pretty much guaranteed. That being said, is it possible that Bungie could join the growing list of belly-up developers if Destiny doesn't hit all the high points it's supposed to?

You can't make great games without taking risks. There's no doubt in my mind about that. However, Bungie isn't the first studio who has sought to "redefine what players should expect" with an ambitious, expensive release. Many of the studios who came before it have since either closed or become shells of their former selves. Duke Nukem Forever sank 3D Realms before it was even released, Haze wounded the critical darling Free Radical studios critically, Advent Rising forced Majesco to focus solely on family games, Tabula Rasa destroyed Richard Garriott's reputation, Too Human ruined Silicon Knight's winning streak, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness marked Eidos' demise as an independent publisher, and Malice managed to single-handedly destroy a studio who had been successfully operating for over twenty years. The long-reaching effects of one poorly received, expensive release really shouldn't be understated.

Humor me by imagining a summer of 2014, in which Destiny doesn't live up to expectations. In spite of strong preorders, a low Metacritic score has slowed post-release demand for the shooter and the online community isn't terribly robust as a result. The expensive development cycle doesn't recoup its costs because the game moves too few copies and DLC is being ignored. What do you think will happen to Bungie, considering that no larger organization like Microsoft is bankrolling this risky title for them?

I definitely respect the considerable talent Bungie boasts. In fact, I doubt any other company could craft such a dynamic and ambitious first-person shooter. I'm not alone in that belief either. I'm sure there are already gamers and review sites willing to peg Destiny as 2014's Game of the Year. Maybe Destiny really will be the second coming. I just want everyone to consider the gravity of the other eventuality.

Source: Bungie

Long-time character designer Akihiko Yoshida has recently left Square Enix. Known for his work on Bravely Default, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, and Final Fantasy XIV, his last confirmed game with the publisher will be Bravely Second. Naturally, the internet has reacted to this news by citing the general decline of Square Enix, predicting the company's eventual closure, and crying over the loss of someone they've never met or really known. Personally, I find these responses to be both unreasonable and narrow-minded.

All due respect to Yoshida, but no one person can make or break any organization. It's very pertinent to remember that we are outsiders looking in; we only ever see a handful of the dozens of people that would be a part of the development process. This is a situation I've seen many times before, as my full-time job is in the human resources field. Whenever a well-known employee leaves a role, everyone who isn't aware of his/her team likes to speculate the numerous negative consequences attached to their departure. It's frustrating in the sense that it both bemoans an event that could be good for the person leaving while simultaneously downplaying the hard work of everyone else. In short, this is a happy time in Yoshida's career and there will be plenty of other character designers at Square Enix willing to step up in his place.

As I've alluded to, this is certainly not the first time this has happened to Square Enix in particular. The most noteworthy departures the publisher has seen would have to be Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu, but there were no shortages of capable scenario directors or music producers as a result. Ryuji Ikeda and Shouta Shimoda, both known for their work on the Dissidia Final Fantasy franchise, recently left with fans of the fighting subseries in an uproar — completely ignoring the other seventy hard working people involved in its development. Similarly, people saw the end of the Ivalice universe when Yasumi Matsuno left the company due to prolonged illness and the death of both Thief and Eidos Montreal upon General Manager Stephane D'Astous announcing his departure. Square Enix, however, still exists and continues to employ extremely talented people in all of its studios.

It's not my role to police internet discourse, nor do I want it to be, but I'd really want people to stop and consider how many people pour their heart and soul into the video games we play. Tetsuya Nomura, Yoshinori Kitase, Akitoshi Kawazu, and Hiroyuki Ito may be well known for their work amongst gamers, but they also represent a very small percentage of their respective development teams. If one of these people chooses to leave, a new face who might actually be better in the role could step up. The same could be said of the teams at Epic without Cliffy B., Naughty Dog without Richard Lemarchand, Bungie LCC without Joseph Staten, Lionhead Studios without Peter Molyneux, and id Software without John Carmack. As much as they each have an impact on their titles, no non-indie game in today's market is developed by one person alone.

Sources: Square Enix

This is a newer section of RPGamer's Currents where we take a hard look at some video game industry rumors and attempt to assess how plausible they are. Nothing in this section has been officially confirmed, but who knows which rumors will float to the surface as fact in the future?

  • Alien: Isolation is a thing
    Thanks to some dedicated NeoGafers, leaked cover artwork has seemed to reaffirm the notion that Sega will be releasing a title called Alien: Isolation. The image features a young woman, assumed to be the daughter of Ellen Ripley, lit up by an Alien green glow. Interestingly, it also infers that the game is being developed by the Creative Assembly — known for their popular Total War series. Likelihood? Very high; the cover art looks legit. It seems Fox hasn't given up on this license, in spite of the critically panned Aliens: Colonial Marines, and the Creative Assembly has proven to be a strong developer. Expect an actual announcement in the future.
  • Google TV: Android's Answer to the Vita TV
    A new batch of rumors seem to indicate that Google has been developing a set-top box for content streaming that will also act as an Android-based gaming device. Reports suggest that it should be released sometime in the second half of 2014. Likelihood? Possible, but not great. Google already makes a killing by licensing its platform to tablets, phones, and currently existing microconsoles like the OUYA and Mad Catz M.O.J.O. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that these devices are tremendously profitable.

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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