Stranger of Sword City

Have you been waiting for a dungeon crawler in the vein of Etrian Oddyssey or classics like Wizardry for the Xbox One? Your day is coming soon! NIS is bringing Stranger of Sword City to Microsoft’s console! I was fortunate to be selected to receive a preview copy and will be sharing my thoughts with you over the next several weeks.

My initial impressions are positive. The game features English-subtitled Japanese language dialogue. It’s a slight disappointment, but given the financials involved, not a surprise. Past that, it seems like the budget went into art design. The game features two sets of artwork you can hot-swap between, one with a more lighthearted design and the other with a bit more of a serious vibe. There is automapping as you’d expect, and the dungeon designs are nice. There is a fun feel that everything is a dungeon inside another dungeon.

I will be playing on Twitch over the next couple of weeks so everyone can get a sense of the game for themselves. For now, I am enjoying it and I hope you will enjoy exploring the game with me!

Pokemania

Pokemon week is here again. For me, this is the first time I have tried a Pokemon game since those heady early days when the idea of collecting and battling Tomagochis was a novel and new concept. The series, though, is still going strong with a half dozen updates over the Gameboy/DS series of portables and a handful of things to do on your home console.

I remember playing the original and getting bored pretty quickly. I was well outside the target demographic, but the reviews were so good, I figured it must be worth playing. Other than the novelty of collecting various critters and leveling them up, little else stood out to me. I’m sure there was some sort of plot, but it made so much impact that I have no idea whatsoever what it might have been. Since the original release, Nintendo transitioned to releasing the games in pairs with each half having some exclusive pokemon (pokemen?) for you to collect from friends, acquaintances or random people walking around with Gameboys and copies of the game. Again, for the target demographic, that worked pretty well, but until I had nephews, I hadn’t actually seen another human being that played the game in the meatspace.

Having purchased a 3DS XL over the summer for MegaTen IV, I’ve once again read glowing reviews and been persuaded to purchase the game once again. I chose Pokemon Y (instead of version X) because some people believe the theme of X is order and Y is chaos, and chaos just seemed more fun. There was one interesting thing I read in the reviews: Pokemon X/Y apparently maxes out the limited hardware capabilities of the 3DS in such a way that it barely has any 3D content, and when it does, the game can be terribly laggy. Knowing this, even if you are playing in 3D, sometimes the game will turn the feature off so you can actually play. Seemingly Nintendo’s 21st century trait of releasing systems with only minor technological improvements seems to have come home to roost in the handheld division.

But outside of keeping my 3D slider down, the game is the best looking 3DS game I have yet played. Even good Nintendo games for portable systems seem to have horribly ugly textures. This is not the case with Pokemon X/Y. Sure, you can see the game is built with something not terribly unlike RPG Maker, but everything just looks great. While I haven’t been much of a Nintendo gamer since the N64, Pokemon X/Y also features the first good camera I have experienced in a Nintendo game. It always moves just to where you need it to be. This isn’t a major thing. Constantly moving and readjusting the angle in MegaTen IV didn’t stop me playing that game, but not having to move the camera has made Pokemon Y a pleasure to play.

Next, trading pokemon is a hallmark of the series. Pokemon X/Y has broken down my personal barriers and set up online swapping in several different ways that makes it something I can actually do. Besides trading pokemon with someone you meet in the meatspace, there are several different ways to trade online. You can set up a trade for a particular pokemon you want. A few taps and you just wait for someone to find and accept the trade. Next, you can use the online system as a proxy for meeting someone in real life, that is, you can find someone, offer them a pokemon and have them offer something back. Simple and easy. So far the way I best enjoy trading is doing a blind trade with someone at random. The system facilitates it. It might take a few minutes while it finds someone who is up for the trade, but there’s something nice with sending off a pokemon and getting something different and unknown in return. The people who accept your trade are added to your “acquaintance” list in the game, so you can find them in the future for other interactions.

I am enjoying the game thoroughly. I will write more about the game the more I advance through its content. Good luck trying to catch them all.

Sales and Merchandising

David DeMartini is the head of EA’s Origin digital distribution service. At this year’s E3, he gave a few comments on Valve’s Steam digital distribution service, the 800 pound gorilla in the field. Steam is known for having sales on games. These sales have been a source of criticism. The criticism centers around the idea that people will not buy games for their full retail price–that they’d wait for one of the big sales and only purchase the game at a generous discount. Discounting elicits different responses from different game developers. Most developers find the sales useful as a promotional vehicle for their titles. These titles typically move a lot of copies during Steam sales, but DeMartini thinks it damages the health of the intellectual property:

“We won’t be doing that. Obviously they think it’s the right thing to do after a certain amount of time. I just think it cheapens your intellectual property.”

“I know both sides of it, I understand it. If you want to sell a whole bunch of units, that is certainly a way to do that, to sell a whole bunch of stuff at a low price. The game makers work incredibly hard to make this intellectual property, and we’re not trying to be Target. We’re trying to be Nordstrom.”

A month later, Valve responded to the “Nordstrom” comment. Valve’s Jason Holtman commented:

“Ask our partners,” he said. “Ask the large to the small and see what they think about that. Putting it all in the bucket of, it’s all about the discounts, I don’t think that’s everything about it.”

“Discounts serve a lot of functions. Highlighting serves a lot of functions. The qualities of the games serve a lot of functions. Everything we’ve seen, PC games and IP and all those franchises are more valuable today than they were four or five years ago.”

“Discounting is one small function of what we do. It’s one small function of our market and our store. It certainly doesn’t seem to be anything that cheapens IP.”

Anyone who has worked in retail knows there is more to selling things than cheapening prices. Elastic prices certainly help, but real merchandising comes from placement of items. Grocery stores know how placement works. Companies pay for better placement on supermarket shelves with eye level having the highest premium. Steam offers a premium experience, but I would be shocked if games that appear on Steam’s front area, the area you see when you go to the website or launch the program, don’t have at least some kind of increased revenue sharing with Valve if not outright paying for that placement and the promotion that comes with it. Promotion is the other key value to Steam’s publishers/developers. If a publisher/developer is having a sale, but your game is placed near theirs on the home page, it’s a win for you as your game’s exposure is increased. Steam has been instrumental in exposing smaller games like Audiosurf. Games like Audiosurf have also participated in other promotions Steam has launched like last year’s potato collecting madness. That madness led directly into the launching of Portal 2, one of Valve’s own titles, sharing some of the launch promotion with independent developers. These independent developers are often strong supporters of Steam sales. Supporters also include the game buying public who visits the site regularly to see what new games are on sale generating purchasing opportunities for other titles in Steam’s main area which strengthens their position as the leading digital distribution service.

How can you make your MMOG different?

Edge talks with Matt Firor, the director for The Elder Scrolls Online in next month’s magazine.  An excerpt is online.  In the article, they talk about the different generations of MMORPGs, starting with Ultima Online and Everquest.  The second generation is described as the time of Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft.  The modern age is Star Wars: The Old Republic and perhaps Rift.

What separates these generations for me is the role of the developer after the game launches.  With Everquest, which I played quite a bit in its first two years, the developers were very active.  There were always times when word would trickle down to you that something was happening on the other continent.  You’d run to Freeport and hop on the boat and hope there was something to see when you got there.  These events were controlled by the game masters and their minions.  They gave you a reason to play every day.  I never went to these events because I thought I could aid in battling whatever creature might be Godzilla-ing the countryside.  I went because I wanted to be a part of that event even if it meant losing experience points.

Since Everquest, I have sampled several of the later MMORPGs.  Rarely have I seen a locally run event.  There were some things that could have been, but weren’t.  When World of Warcraft launched the Cataclysm expansion, there was talk of dragon attacks that would unlock an in-game achievement if you were killed by the new Big Bad.  That has promise, I thought.  I did end up getting the achievement, but only in an older zone and a year after the game launched.  The new Big Bad, it turned out, was on a timer.  There was no game master controlling him.

The new crop of MMOGs can tab into the role of the game master to push the genre forward.  Yes, they will have to pay someone per every few servers to do it.  But the dynamism an event run by a game master can add will keep people playing.  If you have an overarching story to tell, let these game masters implement it.  The more you allow those game masters the freedom to shuffle how that story is told, the more interesting it will be for us as players.