Exclusively Foolish

It was recently announced at Microsoft’s Gamescom conference that the next Tomb Raider game will be coming “Exclusively to Xbox One” in Holiday 2015. This immediately (and rightfully) raised something of a shitstorm amongst PS4 and PC users. Will the game ever come to other platforms? What does this mean for the Tomb Raider franchise going forward? What exactly is Square Enix thinking?

To that last one, I think there’s a very simple answer: they hate money.

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A Five Nation Army is Bringing Me Down

So by now, many of you will have heard of this. After operating under a working title of There and Back Again, the third installment in the needlessly-trilogy’d Hobbit movies has been renamed to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, in an Oscar bid attempt to take home the award for “Most Uses of the Word ‘The’ in a Title”.

Already there’s a bit of nerd rage circulating, and while I don’t want to fall too far into the “rage” category, I’m also not super jazzed about the change. Obviously it’s just a title, and what’s important is the content of the film, not how good the film’s name looks on a movie poster. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is kind of a silly name for a film, whereas Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home actually sounds pretty great, but everybody knows that the reality of each of these films is the stark opposite; Khan is the best entry in the Star Trek movie franchise and Save the Whales is possibly the weakest. Titles are not at all an indicator of film quality, though a good title does make things a lot neater. The concern I have about this recent title change isn’t that it sounds dumb or is too long or anything like that. Rather, it seems that this is another bit of evidence indicating that Peter Jackson and company might be losing sight of what the Hobbit is really about. 

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Emotion through Polygons

What with the recent announcement of the PS4 there’s been a lot of talk stirring up again about “next generation” games and hardware. Between EA claiming that it will be narrowing its scope of development to fewer games this generation, Activision predicting that development costs will double (those two seem connected to me) and a dozen other theories, guesses, and rumors there’s a lot to talk about right now. But what I really want to focus on is a very old debate that’s seen a bit more attention ever since the Sony press event and the reveal of the PS4 a little while ago.

As part of the media blitz to let people know that the PS4 will have games and it’ll be able to do cool stuff with them, David Cage gave a short tech demo, showing us what the PS4 can do graphically. All fine and good, that’ll give people something to talk about over the water cooler for a bit, but I’m not interested in what was shown so much as I am the ideology that Cage demonstrated during the demo. In it, Cage posits that technology is the main avenue game creators use to reach players on an emotional level. He claims that with every advance in technology and visuals we get closer and closer to replicating real human emotion which can resonate with players much, much more than a graphically-inferior game could. To make this point, he talks about the early days of cinema and how actors had to over-emphasize every movement and action in order to convey the correct tone. He notes how with improved camera technology, advanced understanding of lighting and sound, and all around better production quality movies were able to convey much more subtle emotion with smaller, less grandiose gestures. Scenes from The Great Train Robbery play on the screen behind him to demonstrate his point, and he then displays the tech demo itslef, showing how with the technology available through the PS4 characters are able to make much more subtle movements, conveying a wider range of emotions. This, he says, is the foundation of all emotional storytelling within games.

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DLC Blues

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat here: I am not universally opposed to the idea of DLC. I rarely have a problem when developers opt to release DLC to increase the longevity of their game (i.e. modestly priced map packs and features for multiplayer games such as Battlefield 3) or to continue to build on an ongoing story (i.e. Lair of the Shadow Broker for Mass Effect 2, still probably the best piece of DLC ever released). Moreover, I was even a somewhat rare supporter of EA’s Project Ten Dollar due to its attempt to win back some of the profits lost to used game sales, though how much profit was/is actually lost is a matter of some debate and I won’t get into here.

That being said, there is a line that needs to be drawn and I’m going to take this opportunity to break out the chalk: The DLC plan for Mass Effect 3 has officially gotten out of control.

I mentioned above that I was more or less completely fine with the DLC for Mass Effect 2: you buy the game new, you get Zaeed (who was totally awesome) at no extra cost to you. You bought Lair of the Shadow Broker, you get a great side story about one of the more mysterious characters in the Mass Effect universe and the game repairs some of the damage done to Liara’s character in the vanilla game. You buy Kasumi’s Stolen Memory, and you get a fun new character and a very useful SMG that you can potentially use as an early replacement for the piece of crap one you start with. This was all fine and good.

However we started to see a bit of a shift towards the end of that game’s distribution cycle. Arrival was a fun enough venture in and of itself with a few issues here and there but the real problem was this: the Arrival DLC as we now know was absolutely critical to the continuation of the Mass Effect story. Information revealed months ago about Mass Effect 3 promised that the beginning of the game would take place shortly after the events of Arrival and would be a direct result of the actions taken there. This is, in my mind, exactly what DLC should not be: a 100% vital component to the understanding of the story, forcing you to pay extra in order to get the whole picture. DLC should be an extra adventure, not a core piece of the overall plot.

Things have only gotten more ridiculous from there. I’ve always had a problem with retailer exclusive DLC items because it means that completionists (like me) can never get the whole package. If I order my game from Amazon, then I can never get the items offered through Best Buy or GameStop. I understand that it’s a way for publishers and retail outlets to work out distribution deals, but it’s really aggravating for the customers. This might initially help individual stores boost sales based on “who has the best DLC” but in the long run all this is doing is making their customer base angry.

And now it’s gotten worse: in the last few days DLC items have been announced for buying the game’s art book, for buying Mass Effect action figures, and for playing the demo for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I’m inclined to chalk this up as typical EA jackassery because BioWare had nothing to do with Amalur, but that could just be the slowly dying attempts of a man trying to convince himself that BioWare is still his favorite company.

Ultimately what we’re faced with here is a world in which it is now quite literally impossible to get the full game experience without shelling out more and more money for every last bit of merchandise the company can think to sell. This would be like if movies started offering bonus scenes but only in theaters run by Regal Entertainment, or if books came bundled with several extra pages only if you redeemed a code you got from purchasing another book by the same publisher.

“To get this exclusive bonus chapter for George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, make sure to read John Grisham’s Theodore Boone: The Abduction, also from Bantam Books!”

Stupid, right? So then why is it acceptable for games to be the most obscene offender in this category of chopping up their content and selling it to us piecemeal, especially when games themselves already cost significantly more to purchase than their film or literary counterparts?

Here’s an idea: how about you guys start using the same promotions that everybody else does? Offer discount coupons through products sold by partner companies, get the game logo plastered on a slurpee cup from 7-Eleven, or have every 50 dollars you spend in Best Buy get you a few bucks off a new game release? You’ll gain the same level of partnership appreciation with major retail outlets and you won’t piss off the customers by arbitrarily locking them out of content.

I know, this is an old rant and one that you’ve all undoubtedly heard and said yourselves over the past few years. But when customers start getting locked out of getting content as significant as extra characters because they didn’t buy a Commander Shepard action figure? Well, that’s enough to make me get seriously vocal about the way DLC distribution is trending these days. Enough is enough.