Hooray! Overpriced DLC goes on sale…

Need for Speed World is part of EA’s mission to try and conquer Free-to-Play gaming. It’s a part of the video game market which can be very profitable for a publisher even though a good chunk of it is, as its title suggests, free to play. The best way of clawing back development and maintenance costs; vanity items. Like pieces of armor, weaponry or in Need for Speed World‘s case, a ridiculously expensive virtual car. Released last Wednesday for the year plus PC racer, the Koenigsegg CCX Elite Edition will set you back $100 unless of course you grab it now because the kind old folks at EA are selling it for just $75 (via Gamespot). Baffling when you think Free-to-Play items are also know as micro-transactions. There’s nothing micro about that price.

The Koenigsegg CCX Elite Edition is said to be the first premium elite car which would mean that more offensively priced DLC will be coming to the 5 million users of NfSW. Of course no one is forcing players to buy the cars but it certainly adds to EA’s reputation of being rapacious.  Just the other week they announced a subscription-based version of Tetris. Never mind that Tetris can be found on every platform known to man, in the iOS version you can now sign up to paying $3 a month or $30 a year for exclusive discounts, challenges and a booster to speed up level progression. Because levelling up is what Tetris is all about…

Stories like these are the kind of thing usually saved for April Fool’s day when companies can announced insane ideas and promotions with consumers chuckling at the stupidity and forgetting it the very next day. But this time the stories are true and it’s EA who look like the fools to me.

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Battlefield 3(60)

The mediocre single player campaign in Battlefield 3 didn’t put off a number of gamers over the weekend who picked up a copy of the game. I’d imagine the reason for this was because very few of those early adopters give two hoots about solo play and were keen to kick some arse online. With marginally more robust service and arguably greater number of shooter fans, the Xbox 360 version dominated UK retail sales gobbling 53 per cent of the delicious money pie. But those players weren’t too pleased when the servers crapped out forcing them to experience the weakest part of Battlefield 3, the single player mode. That is if they felt like sticking with it at all. Not the best start for EA and their desperate (and a little one-sided) battle with Activision to be publisher of the greatest FPS. Still, the sales were positive and from what I hear, all is well when trying to get online so give it a few days and all will be forgotten. Though it does make the online pass packed with nearly all games seem a little ironic.

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest games this year may have sold the best on the Xbox 360 but it’s Sony that is selling more consoles in the European territory. So far, the PS3 has sold around 3.5 million units whereas both Xbox 360 and Wii are hovering at the 2 million mark. Does that mean these kinds of games are more profitable on the Xbox 360? The figures to suggest that’s where publishers should maybe focus their attention when doing timed exclusive DLC – a practice becoming more and more common. Microsoft were smart enough to snatch up all of the Call of Duty DLC packs first until 2012 but Sony are offering patrons the chance to download all the Battlefield 3 DLC a week earlier than the Xbox 360 and PC. In contrast, the fact that Battlefield 3 sold better on Microsoft’s format may also suggest gamers are getting tired of such exclusivity deals and will buy a game for whatever they feel most comfortable on.

A Frank view on consoles

From the humble beginnings of both Xbox 360 and PS3, the platform holders optimistically said this generation would last at least ten years. No more jumping ship before a console had time to truly mature, Microsoft and Sony look like companies quite comfortable with their hardware thanks to new additions such as 3D visuals and motion controls. Whether or not the WiiU will make a big enough splash to force a sudden quickening in development for whatever Sony and Microsoft do next is yet to be seen. Thought I doubt it.

Some, like EA’s Frank Gibeau, find it hard to think of a world with the next generation of consoles, wondering what their purpose would actually be. Speaking with CVG, Gibeau dismisses the need for anything new:

“It’s hard for me to conceive what you would do on a PlayStation 4. The displays are already 1080p, you’re already connected to the internet… You could make it faster, you could have more polys and you could up the graphics a little bit… but at what cost?”

It’s interesting that Gibeau focuses on graphics when enemy and NPC AI still struggles to perform acceptably in some games. That is what I’d want from a PlayStation 4 (or Xbox ‘720’). The power to make me believe who I’m fighting against or alongside is a competent representation of thought and not a bundle of scripting. We’ve definitely advanced from the steadfast tradition of static invisible tracks for AI controlled characters to aimlessly stroll down and a good FPS shooter, for example, will have enemies who constantly flank and jeopardise your cover. But there’s also still a lot of remedial AI confused by the simplest of obstacles, taking players right out of the experience in one dumb move. Partly the blame can be put on developers not utilising the full power of current consoles but I do wonder just how much more can be harvested from seven year plus technology.

To Gibeau’s credit, he does point out that as gamers we have a lot of features in the current models than we’ve had before. Constant online functionality with a robust infrastructure and the highest of definitions that TVs can handle not to mention new forms of controls. These are the three usual bullet points touted as a reason to buy systems and in Gibeau’s case, a reason to stick with what we’ve got. Not only that but as he points out (coincidently), Battlefield 3 is looking really impressive on the PS3, better than a lot of games that have come before it.

I’m not advocating new consoles anytime soon, however. Like I said, we’ve just got Kinect and Move opening the possibilities for new interactions with games and I’d rather see what comes of those before having to upgrade the hardware they’re played on. Though I don’t think evolving our systems should centre around adding more features or indeed boosting the graphics when there’s a lot of transparent coding and game-shaping mechanics that can be improved by meatier CPUs. If ever there was reason to release a new console, better AI for me would be at the very top.

Limbo for PSN next week

In case you missed all the hubbub recently involving Playdead’s brilliant XBLA hit Limbo, the story goes as follows; A rumour surfaced that Limbo was headed to PC and PSN some point this year and now it’s been made official on the game’s website. Next Tuesday (19th) sees Limbo saunter onto the US PSN and Europe will get it a day later with Japanese customers having to wait a little longer as a date is still unknown for them. Steam shoppers will be able to pick up the game on August 2nd.

As part of the announcement, Dino Patti, ceo of Playdead set interest alight, teasing us of how there’s to be a “little extra secret” added to these versions. Hopefully whatever this secret is, it’ll find its way over to the Xbox 360 too.

Happy days then for anyone without a Xbox 360 as one of its best downloadable titles will soon be available for all to enjoy. I gave it top marks in my review, noting the absence of a traditional soundtrack and instead having a haunting score, adding to Limbo‘s creepiness. As of today, said score has been released onto iTunes for £3.49, including six tracks of melancholy and woe with equal measures of glee. Nice.

Crysis averted

When the first Crysis game was released, I didn’t have a hope in hell of playing it. My PC would have probably struggled with Minesweep let alone such a graphically intensive shooter. So the announcement that Crysis 2 was on its way to consoles pleased me to no end. I mean, the hallowed Crytek engine was coming to my platform of choice, what could be better? And earlier this year it did just that, playing brilliantly on my Xbox 360 and looking rather splendid in the process. Aside from the occasional moronic AI and frustrating glitches, I, the console gamer, was happy however some hardcore fans of the first game weren’t so chipper. A supposed dumbing down took place in order for it to run on consoles plus a shift in story and gameplay didn’t help matters. Worst of all for the die-hard crowd was the lack of Direct X 11 and 10 support opting to go with DX9 instead.

That meant Crysis 2 wasn’t the power hungry beast Crysis was and although looking gorgeous on places, it never truly tested GPUs. Crytek ceo, Cevat Yerli spoke with Gamasutra about the change and the upcoming patch saying: “Crysis 1’s intention was, if I were to play it three years later, it looks great. And it does, actually, it fulfilled that. But it made it difficult for entry-level players. So with Crysis 2, we took a different direction, and it backfired a little bit.” It’s unfortunate the a developer making a game more accessible in this way gets their wrists-slapped for doing so but the fans know what they want and it sounds as if they don’t want just any old gamer playing Crysis 2. The patch, coming in a couple of weeks, adds things like HDR motion blur, displacement and parallax occulsion mapping among other things which will no doubt make an already good looking game even more pretty but it really is just a peace offering of sorts to appease a certain crowd. Crytek will make no money by producing the patch as they don’t believe it’ll gin any more purchases. But ironically, the company are again trying to please everyone even though the original changes and omittance of DX11 were made in order to please everyone (my head hurts…)

“This is much more like a gift to the high-end community,” Yerli said. “And I think gamers will appreciate that. It lifts up Crysis 2 and gives a sneak peak of how PC gaming will evolve in the future, if you support a high-end preference.” It’s great that Crytek are tweaking the game so it can last a good few years but the annoyance apparently comes from PC fans wanting an upgrade over the console on release not months after. Which I can totally understand, Crysis 1 gained popularity by being intensive and why shouldn’t the sequel be too? One commenter on Gamasutra pointed out that the mainstream market wasn’t so happy with their rigs being pushed to the limit. He also pointed out a Steam survey which showed only 5% of users had a DX11 card with the majority using a DX10/11 one. That means only 5% would reap the benefits of high-end DX11 visuals and such a small number isn’t one a developer can economically focus all their attention on.

Not being a PC gamer I won’t fully appreciate the significance of the ‘degrade’ of Crysis 2 and subsequently its upgrade to DX11. But, as much as I enjoyed the game, it was the aforementioned questionable AI and bizarre glitches that spoilt Crysis 2, not the graphics.

Hail to the king?

Nearly 14 years from when first conceived, Duke Nukem Forever shambled onto PCs and consoles early this month and was met with sea of negative reviews. Taking a handful of creditable sources, the average score is around 40 per cent which doesn’t say a lot for the quality of the game. However it somehow managed to top the UK all format charts in a mere weekend, beating what is confidently positioned at the other end of the maturity scale, L.A. Noire and sales are predicted to go well above 1.5 million units. The US wasn’t so forgiving as its first day sales have been called mediocre at best but Duke Nukem Forever is still being seen as a success. Only monetarily speaking mind you.

Duke’s saviours, Gearbox Software, took the game from the shady back alley of broken dreams and finished off what 3D Realms started so for them, the high sales figures are a comforting achievement. Even more so when you think that Duke Nukem will almost definitely become a revived franchise. Gearbox wouldn’t have taken on such a turbulent property if they didn’t intend to make at least one or two more games. Randy Pitchford, ceo of Gearbox, tweeted his pleasure over the success of DNF and gave a little dig at reviews at the same time. He said (via VideoGamer): “With sales data, It seems like *customers* love Duke. I guess sometimes we want greasy hamburgers instead of caviar…”

Fair point. Sometimes we do want greasy hamburgers, we want those games that play to our most immature desires and are almost embarrassed to admit liking it. But there’s a massive difference between greasy hamburgers and out-dated mechanics and concepts. I’ve not yet played DNF but intend to soon although when critics who you trust tell you a game is terrible, chances are it will be. And it’s such a shame when Duke Nukem 3D was so good. Back in the nineties, it did things few other games tried and it sounds as if Duke Nukem Forever is still doing things few other games do. But this time, it’s because no-one wants them anymore.

What will be most telling is what happens when the initial nostalgic hype dies down. Will gamers still be buying DNF in droves or will it become a dominant feature of bargain bins and pre-owned aisles?

Pre-owned vs piracy. Which is worse?

With the PC release of Fable III around the corner, developers Lionhead Studios’ Mark West told Eurogamer that to them, piracy is actually less damaging than the pre-owned market. Stealing games online is still an issue but he believes the honest players out there will go out and buy your game if they like it whereas pirates are decreasing the opportunity for future titles. “It’s just a depressing situation we’re in that people don’t think it’s worth spending money on computer games,” he said. “What they’re doing is making sure there are fewer games coming out in the future and more people out of work, which is a terrible thing. Unless you sit down and meet a pirate face to face and have a conversation about what it does, I don’t think anything will stop them.”

Lionhead views pirates as a bit of a lost cause because they’re unlikely to every buy their games but luckily, the studio has been able to cover the cost of development with the earlier Xbox 360 release. Everything after that is purely a bonus. “For us it’s probably a no-lose even with piracy as it is.” West claims. “But, as I say, second-hand sales cost us more in the long-run than piracy these days.” It’s an odd one to get your head around but when you think that someone who is willing to buy your product does so at a cheaper rate by purchasing a pre-owned game and therefore all profits go to the shop instead of developer, it’s no wonder studios are livid.

That being said and slightly ironic is West’s comments about future releases or the lack there of due to piracy and pressumably pre-owned games too. If there wasn’t such a high volume of games coming out, more people maybe inclined to buy a full price version instead of waiting for pre-owned copies because they’d actually have the cash to pay for it. When you have so many games coming out all the time, it’s really quite hard to justify every purchase. Publishers have tried to discourage second-hand sales with free online codes allowing access to freebies and content for early adopters, penalising anyone who re-buys a game by making them pay for said code. It’s not always popular but a move towards reclaiming the profits.

What’s harder to get across or even solve is how everything about games has increased tenfold except the price. They’ve always been around the £40 mark if not more even back in the days of the NES. However gamers have changed. The market has changed and what people expect for their money has dramatically changed. Never before has the debate over a direct relationship between a game’s length and cost been so pronounced and with 59p games being all the rage with pocket gamers, some people doubt the value in full-price titles. There’ll always be the avid fans who will buy a game brand new around its launch but even with all the pre-order incentives and online passes, the option to pay less for something almost as complete is just too good to ignore.