Is it fair to call us the Sundance/Tribeca crowd of gaming?
I was talking to a friend the other day about Microsofts's sudden decision to throw indie devs the key to the kingdom with their self-publishing plans and the surreal revelation that every Xbox One will be usable as a dev kit by the end of the console's first year. I was going on about how this is watershed moment in gaming history, when the gates are finally blown off their hinges and all the barriers for the thousands of talented (but cash strapped) devs out there come tumbling down.
And he couldn't care less. And really, I couldn't blame him.
This is big news for us. Us being the slightly pretentious catch-all term for enthusiasts who are going to spend their time reading the community blogs of a punk-rock-esq video game site. It's big news for the industry. It might even be a time we look back to in history as the moment consoles became a real venue for indies. But this doesn't matter to the majority of players out there, and that has me wondering if this is really the coup we all celebrated last week or so.
I think it's safe to call myself an indie-fan. I'm not some super-strident Neo-GAFer who only plays artsy, zero-combat, retro-graphix, pseudo-philosophical, non-games, but I do get down with a lot of indie titles. I probably spent more time with titles like Bastion, Isaac, Hotline Miami and Rogue Legacy over the last year than I have with any triple A game.
Myself, I'm excited that indies will be a bigger part of the next generation. I love that Sony spent the last year wooing them with free devs kits, support structures, and stage time during their console reveal. I love that Microsoft is doing some damage control trying to win them back and is, arguably, doing a much more interesting and liberating thing with this bizarre self-pub model and universal dev kits.
But then I remember that the PC has had all of this stuff for years now. Anyone can develop to their hearts content on the PC. They can release their game on their own site, in different communities, and on services like GOG and Steam. Microsoft isn't exactly doing something new with the Xbox One, they're just playing catch-up to the master.
- Transistor and Mercenary Kings are two indie games I'm looking forward to and would be perfect for a console experience.
I think about my gaming habits and realize that all those cool indie games I played over the last year were bought on Steam or played in a java browser. I start to wonder if the really interesting indie stuff like Actual Sunlight and Kentucky Route Zero will ever have a place on consoles even after Microsoft gets rid of the indie ghetto. Will we ever see "an exploration of the life of the life of a depressed individual" or "a David Lynch-ian episodic adventure game" hit the front page of the Xbox market?
I'm happy that the consoles are making this push, and I'm sure the extra exposure and revenue opportunities will help indie devs, but I bet no matter what they do, I'll still end up playing most of my indie games on the PC for the foreseeable future.
Mechwarrior Online is becoming fascinating. Not as a game of course (it's still a hot-mess), but with the questions it raises about reviewing games in this changing market. About the standards we hold and the lines we draw.
A big update hit this week. Mechwarrior has gone from an 8 vs 8 game to 12 vs 12 now. Supposedly the way it was "always meant to be played". Pushing aside the fact that they murdered just about everyone's frame rate in the process, even an uneducated glance could inform you that THIS was never what the game was built for. Certainly not the engine, or the maps, or the weapons, or even the mechs. It's a catastrophe.
12 on 12 was one of the big last hopes for the game. That the addition of larger teams would encourage some kind of tactical shift in the game and promote a more strategic approach then the old "rolling death-ball of the heaviest mechs ridge-humping towards the enemy". That we'd see meaningful scouting and roles for light and medium mechs.
What we've seen of course is larger and more deadly death-balls.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Mainly, for a game that is supposedly a "team-focused experience" we still have no in-game VOIP. It's crazy. It's like a time machine back to 2001. OFFICIAL documentation from PGI encourage players to seek out third party solutions like Team Speak and Ventrillo and random community servers. They're the Keystone Cops of development.
Secondly, there are still no tonnage limits. There is nothing stopping a team from fitting every player in the heaviest mech possible. In fact, since there is no lobby and you never know what random chuckle-heads you're going to be dropping with, you will naturally want to drop in your biggest and meanest- lest you be stuck on a team with nothing but pencil mechs.
While matches are bigger and last longer than ever, ammo counts have remained the same. So mechs based on guns and missiles face the prospect of running out of ammo before they run out of enemies with frightening regularity. So we have even more reason to take the ammo-less Particle Cannon, a type of sniper weapon that has been utterly dominating the game for months now and can be fitted best on, you guessed it, the biggest mechs. In a game based on customization, MWO has seen one of the most stagnant meta-games I've ever seen.
So now instead of 8 robots all clumped up on a ridge in a big messy pile, daring the other side to pop out first and be obliterated, we have 12 robots and zero frames.
What an improvement.
But this is all here and there. What I'm really interested in is the fact that the game is scheduled to "launch" on September 17th. The beta shield is coming down and the game will finally be up for official reviews and commentary. Never mind the fact that they've been operating a cash money store for the better part of a year now in their nebulous "Open Beta".
Barring some kind of miracle, a lot (frankly most) of the features and design-elements they outlined in their original sales pitch to the crowd-funding customers of the game won't make it in the game. Community Warfare, the epic struggle of Great Houses and player organized Mercenary Units as they vie for control of the stars and systems of the Inner Sphere, won't be available at launch time; or be at such a rudimentary level to barely count. The much touted 1:1 timeline that would simulate the events leading up to the Clan Invasion (a Battletech lore event where space gladiators banished generations ago return from deep space with amazing ferocity and marvellous technology to wreck havoc on the Great Houses) has long since been abandoned. Every meaningful milestone missed, the in-universe newsfeed quietly taken off the launcher and front page.
Mechs that were scheduled to be released months ago have been lost to limbo as the design team struggles to implement the features that make them unique (for example, the nitrous-like MASC system that boosts the Flea Battlemech's speed apparently busted the game wide open in tests, the mighty Cryengine unable to handle a robot moving faster then a gentle gait). After two years of development the game still only has a handful of maps – a far cry from the numerous systems and battlefields promised when backers were ponying up money for founder packages.
So called "design-pillars" have not only been ignored, but completely contradicted. The implementation of 3rd person view and heat reducing coolant flushes (which were originally implemented as cash-money one-time use items, blatant pay-to-win) might not seem all that important to outside observers, but they were essential pledges to the Mechwarrior core audience. A promise that the problems of the previous Mechwarrior games wouldn't plague this one. Until of course PGI doubled back on their word and put them all in.
My question is, how much of this should matter on September 17th?
There is no denying or excusing the incredibly troubled development of MWO. It's been a massive clusterfuck in every possible way, unlike anything I've ever witnessed. I've never seen a developer/consumer relationship turn so violently sour. I am super aware and forgiving of how hard it is to make games, the miracle of making lines of code transport a player to another world – but even I get dumbstruck at how frequently PGI will break their game with a bad patch, a terrible balance decision, or inept implementation of a simple idea, and how long it takes them to get anything done.
What do outlets review on September 17th? The game as served? No prejudice, no looking back at what was promised or planned?
Or do they consider the founders? The fans that kicked in $50, $80, or $120 for a game that was never quite made. Should reviewers look back at the promises broken, deadlines slipped, and hostile interactions from PGI over the past year?
Neither way seems completely fair. New players who never played the beta won't care about ancient history, founders and testers will never get over PGIs wild ride. Both options leave me unsatisfied.
Maybe it isn't quite fair to hold the game to the original sales pitch; shit happens in game design and features get dropped out of games all the time, we usually just never know about it. If we judged every game by the cool stuff left on the cutting room floor, I don't think we'd ever be happy.
But I think there is a big difference between a feature we never knew about, or only read about in some long ago preview article, getting dropped from a game than a sales point used to generate crowd-funding. The industry is still trying to figure out all this Kickstarter/Crowd-sourcing stuff, and I think a big part of that is determining what obligations developers have to deliver on their initial promises. It's easy to just say "buyer beware" and let pledges/founders twist in the wind, to rely on word-of-mouth to punish devs who don't live up to their pitches, but I don't know if that's enough.
It's a complicated issue that outlets are going to have to figure out pretty soon as more and more developers turn to the crowd-funding model. MWO is probably going to turn out to be a lacklustre game that won't make much of a splash in the general public, but it may be an interesting case-study on how to handle games that not only fail to live up to their pitch, but seem to revel in contradicting it.