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11:14 AM on 07.30.2014

EA Access Could Threaten PlayStation Now's Success... But That's Okay

EA is not often a company that stands for good value. In fact, they usually represent the opposite--forcing a pay-to-win model on FIFA multiplayer, charging Battlefield 4 players an extra $50 for a ďpremium membership,Ē and offering 19 bare-bones expansions for The Sims 3 at $20 each which add items and features that should have been in the original base game are good examples. This is why the announcement of EA Access comes as such a shock, because, unless Iím missing something (which Iím sure I am), then EA is offering a subscription service with actual value.

EA Access, available on Xbox One later this year, will reportedly offer unlimited access to select EA titles for a fee of $5/month or $30/year. The four titles announced for the beta are FIFA 14, Madden 14, Peggle 2, and Battlefield 4, worth a collective total of about $140 if purchased new. Even with crippling pay systems currently harming two of these games, five dollars is a pittance of a subscription and way out of character for EA, who Iím sure havenít charged five dollars for anything except maybe a power-up in their mobile Tetris game or a pack of digital cards with soccer players on them. This leads me to believe that they may be ripping out features and content from the games, making them glorified demos, but Iím sure Iím wrong and EA just wants to line their pockets any way they can. Maybe they make such profit with overpriced add-ons and FIFA transactions that they donít need to charge for their games anymore, or perhaps they are just tired of seeing used copies of their games on Gamestop shelves when they donít see a cut. At any rate, I will remain at least partially optimistic until launch.

The reason Iím optimistic is because this is a bold and important step for video game pay models. Gamers today often find that $60 is too high a price to pay for a new game, so they wait until they can get the game used, at a massive discount on a Steam sale, or maybe even cheaper in a Humble Bundle. With EA Access, EA is offering gamers another way to choose how they want to experience and price their content, and choice is never a bad thing. This is the publisherís way of cashing in big on their back catalog; their logic is that gamers wonít rent or buy used games when they could get a handful of games for five dollars, and thatís pretty sound.

But not everyone is on board. Sony released a baffling statement regarding EA Access earlier today, saying that the program wonít appear on the PlayStation 4 because ďit does not bring the kind of value PlayStation customers have come to expect,Ē and that ďgamers are looking for memberships that offer a multitude of services, across various devices, for one low price. We donít think asking our fans to pay an additional $5 a month for this EA-specific program represents good value to the PlayStation gamer.Ē This is very thinly-veiled corporate pandering, and it comes off as unbelievably bitter. Surely Sony understands that gamers would prefer to have the choice whether or not to subscribe to EA Access, and they must see that five dollars for four games (plus more eventually) is a pretty striking value, so why do they deny the service to their customer base? The answer is very simple: PlayStation Now.

Sony has their own subscription- and rental-based game service in PlayStation Now, which allows gamers access to PlayStation 3 games on their PS4, and the serviceís open beta reportedly launches tomorrow. Sony would be wary of EA Access for the simple reason that it represents much greater value than Now currently does: a four-hour, single game rental on Sonyís service can cost from $3 to $5, with weekly and monthly access to a game running from around $8 and $15. Nowís subscription prices and what they entail is unclear at this time, but you can be certain that if Sony is already decrying this new service from EA, theyíre worried about its success.

Imagine if all the major publishers--EA, Ubisoft, Activision, and others--created subscription services for their catalog titles, services which would pay them directly and whose content they could easily control; if EA Access is a success, itís possible. Consider EAís losses in the used game market every year when the new Madden, NBA Live, and FIFA titles come out; similarly, Ubisoft has started releasing a new Assassinís Creed annually, while Activision has put out more Call of Duty games than they could even fit on a subscription plan. If each of these publishers began to offer their older titles for a small monthly fee, they would no doubt make more revenue from these franchises than they do now, and probably more than through a somewhat pricey service like PlayStation Now with Sony as a middleman. Say what you will about EA, but they know how to make smart business decisions.

Sony seems afraid of EAís success with EA Access, and thatís telling. They didnít want competition to exist on their own platform, so they denied PlayStation 4 owners access to EAís subscription service, but if the service is successful and other publishers jump in the pool, they soon wonít have a choice. This is a good thing. Sony shouldnít feel comfortable with their current PlayStation Now model, and any reasonable amount of competition will drive them to improve it. Still, the most important thing to take away from all of this is that gamers are being offered more choice with how they want to pay for their content, and with that choice comes greater value. That this innovation is coming from the hands of EA is certainly a surprise, but leave it to the greediest company in the business to drive consumers to shell out money for older games. Weíre the real winners, anyway.   read

10:45 AM on 07.26.2014

A Link to the Past: On Game Preservation and Remastering

In the gaming community, remastered re-releases come with a bit of a stigma. Many people believe that releasing a remastered version of a game can disturb the originalís legacy in some way, as if the updated graphics and bonus mini-games in Super Mario 64 DS are akin to the widely detested changes to the remastered Star Wars films. Regardless of any indignation expressed by gamers over remastered re-releases, they continue to sell; in fact, this year alone will see re-releases of The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, †Metro 2033, Metro: Last Light, and the original four Halo games, among several others. Itís abundantly clear that HD remakes and cross-generation ports arenít going anywhere.

But why should they? Remastered releases present older titles to new audiences, make them play better than ever, and help to establish a legacy of culturally important video games. More importantly, remastering and re-releasing old games is the industryís way of preserving the heritage of video games for this and future generations, a necessary step for a growing medium.

The implied premise behind many of the arguments of re-release naysayers is that studios are wasting their time remastering old games when they could be making something new, but this is false logic. The amount of resources utilized in remastering an already existing game are not equatable to the amount used in the development of a brand new title, and even if it were, there is no guarantee that a studio would be working on a new game instead. This argument also assumes that everyone has already played these games, and so re-released versions are unnecessary, but this is simply not true--even the PlayStation 4 re-release of The Last of Us, a game released in 2013, will open the title to a new audience. Remastering games is an important process for this young industry looking ahead. The games of yesterday and today should not disappear with their old hardware, and developers deserve to have their work preserved for the future.

Older video games carry with them several barriers of entry that donít exist in other mediums: hardware requirements, shoddy controls, outdated graphics and game mechanics, etc. These issues can prevent new players from playing older titles, but they are often addressed in the remastering process, giving old games cleaner visuals and smoother play-styles. The argument could be made that altering the original too much defeats the purpose of remastering as a game preservation model, but very few re-released titles have this problem. In fact, consensus is usually contrary to this point--consider The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, the re-release of a title often considered one of the greatest games of all time, which was lauded for looking and playing better than ever on 3DS. Even still, some studios directly address the issue of updated visuals by allowing the player to choose between original and remastered graphics as in Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary; itís a smart solution, but it should also be noted that it isnít a viable option for most remastered games.

But remastered re-releases donít need to be strictly long-past games. For titles released last year like Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, re-releasing on new platforms can help extend longevity substantially, ensuring that ten years from now everyone will still be able to play these titles on major hardware. For games that were released at the end of a console cycle and have some significant artistic or cultural value, giving them a longer lifespan early on ensures that their legacy wonít be cut short.

All that said, the culture of remastered re-releases does have a potential major failing. The argument could be made that only games with a well-established legacy and/or a well-established fan-base get the re-release treatment, which is an issue considering that this would only serve the established canon of important video games, leaving underappreciated smaller titles to be forgotten over time; luckily, this is changing. Games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus werenít big commercial hits like Grand Theft Auto, but they had enough artistic value to the medium to warrant an HD re-release of both titles in 2011. Similarly, cult-classic adventure game Grim Fandango was recently announced to receive an HD remaster for release on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and PC, a title even further from the popular successes of games like Ocarina of Time and Halo: Combat Evolved. These games may not have a lot of intrinsic commercial value, but they are no less important to the medium. It shows that remastered releases are more than cynical cash grabs from money-hungry corporations--they are a way to preserve the art of video games for the future.

Of course, not every game that gets a re-release may ďdeserveĒ it, and they wonít all look or feel as great as The Last of Us†or†Ocarina of Time 3D, but they are still a necessary part of the art. Books are reprinted, films are cleaned, rescanned and released on new formats, and games too must be preserved. This medium is at a disadvantage because most games go out-of-print within ten to twenty years of their release--try finding an affordable sealed copy of Super Mario World, for example. People should be able to play Grim Fandango in 100 years without scouring for outdated hardware on eBay, but for that to be a reality, the culture of re-releasing must continue. It may seem like a system that rewards cynical cash grabs in the moment, but itís an important step if we want to preserve the cultural legacy of video games for future generations. With a slew of remastered re-releases on the way this holiday season, we need to remember why the back-catalog of video games is important and think about how we can make it more accessible for the future.   read

9:41 PM on 07.19.2014

Destiny Beta Review: Impressions of a New Old Adventure

Bungie is under enormous pressure to make Destiny a hit. The Halo developer defined the console shooter for the last two generations with that franchise, and by escaping the shadow of Microsoft in 2007 and becoming an independent company, they cleared the way to once again make a game they want to make without an overbearing outside influence. When Destiny was announced as a multi-platform, next-generation title with some MMO-like elements, gamers wondered if Bungie would once again revolutionize the way that shooter games are played. Later, rumors surfaced that the game cost an unprecedented $500 million (rumors that were subsequently debunked by the company), causing speculation and anticipation to hit an all time high. Even now there are articles being penned about Destiny being one of the biggest games of all time, both in scope and vision. A few E3 press conferences and an alpha test later, the Destiny beta is finally here, and hype has only gotten more out of hand.

Hype is an unfortunate, uncontrollable side-effect of success. As I played through the beta, I couldnít help but ask myself, ďis this really gamingís next big step?Ē Thereís no evidence that says it should be, and yet millions of gamers are anticipating Bungieís next game specifically because as developers, they are innovators. Maybe it was unfair to let the hype get to me, but with the most hotly anticipated title of the year from a company whose games I grew up loving, I couldnít avoid it. The question is an unfair one, but itís on many of our minds: will Destiny usher in a new era for the genre like Halo did 13 years ago? Itís certainly poised to, but if the gameplay in the beta is any indication, we should actually be preparing ourselves for ďjustĒ another great sci-fi FPS experience instead.

The beta begins by throwing the player into a few basic missions. Each mission is more or less the same as the last--salvage ship parts, data, or information from the ruins of the old world while battling hordes of Hive or Fallen (or both). The beta offers six or seven fully-fledged missions, each of them with an identical objective and each of them taking place on the same map environment. A beta canít necessarily offer a lot of gameplay variance, but the indication here is that Bungie plans to squeeze a large number of missions out of every environment in the game, much like an MMORPG. With repetitive mission structure and minimal enemy variance, first-person shooter games are already a tedious grind; by adding MMO quest structure to the pot, Destiny may be in danger of becoming a monotonous slog.

The missions are broken up by a few cinematic cutscenes that lay the foundation of the gameís story. Bungie is clearly intent on crafting and developing the fictional world of Destiny, and these first few snippets are enticing. For a blockbuster science-fiction game, the groundwork of the story is refreshingly clear and concise: you play as a Guardian, a protector of Earth and its colonies, during a period after the golden age of space exploration, and you battle the Fallen, who have suddenly found the solar system with malicious intent. It may not be inspired or inventive, but itís succinct enough to ignore or engage with on your own terms. The mission objectives are, unfortunately, another story, and remind one all too much of the convoluted web of narratives in later Halo games, but for now one can remain cautiously optimistic that Destinyís story wonít be an embarrassing obstacle to the enjoyment of the game.

Unfortunately, when combining that foundational story with the basic gameplay mechanics at work in the beta, Destiny seems all too familiar. The narrative, the cinematics and the score all allude to the grand scope of the game, and yet the player is given the typical, mundane task of fighting wave after wave of five enemies at a time. Every mission in the beta follows this formula, even the Strike mission, which pits a fireteam of players against larger waves of enemies, culminating in large scale boss battles against bigger versions of normal enemies with larger pools of health to chip away from. The Strike is the most exciting and promising section of the beta, but the raid-like mission doesnít have the personality of a typical MMO dungeon, and the lack of diversity in the environments and enemies is a little disconcerting. There are no doubt some big set-piece moments set for the proper release, but everything shown in the beta shows no signs of altering the tired first-person shooter formula.

This unfortunately includes competitive multiplayer. Destinyís online arena--the Crucible--appears to be standard for FPS multiplayer. To be fair, the beta only offers one gametype in which to compete: Control is your typical capture-and-hold-control-points type of gameplay that has been around for over a decade in competitive shooters, and itís completely without twists or alterations. Reading descriptions for the other game modes in the Crucible, itís clear that Bungie have no interest in toying with the tried and true: weíve got deathmatch, team deathmatch, and all the other usual suspects. The few multiplayer maps offered in the beta at least point to some environments more interesting than the Old Russia of the story missions, including the moon and Venus, which do look rather attractive--itís just a shame the gameplay is so boilerplate. For one of the biggest games of at least the last five years, Destiny is showing very little in the way of forward-thinking and innovation. That may be unfair, but developers of big-budget, blockbuster games have to have some responsibility to push the medium forward, right?

I can fully admit to setting my expectations too high. I have no doubt that Destiny will be an impressive and entertaining experience come September, one thatís basically guaranteed universal acclaim from players and critics alike, but as I stormed through brown, decrepit structures and shot at endless waves of enemies that aimlessly jumped in and out of cover without fighting back, I couldnít help but think that Destiny has the distinct feel of being old. The graphics are crisp, clean, and bright, the gameplay is smooth and accessible, and the multiplayer elements are promising, but bland visuals, disorienting user interface, and poor AI arenít things that can necessarily be fixed in two months. I know I fell for the hype, but even without any discernable expectations, the Destiny beta feels rather lackluster.

Maybe now, at the beginning of a console generation, all we need is ďjustĒ a good game that prioritizes smooth and immersive gameplay over feeling new and being different. Developers have plenty of time to innovate over the lifespan of the current consoles; perhaps all we need now is something to divert our intention until then.   read

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