BioWorn Out

Anthem is shaping up to be the final nail in BioWare’s coffin

In the last week YouTube has been flooded with Anthem videos detailing the experiences of various players and outlets with the timed demonstration. Watching these, I couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension. I felt as though I was watching a general rehearsal for Anthem’s, and BioWare’s funeral.

I am not going to lie, as intrigued as I am by Anthem, I am also acutely aware of the baggage it carries. A game published by Electronic Arts, one of the worst publishers in the industry and made by a developer that had more misses than hits in recent years. Add to it that it tries to enter a crowded niche that already has several prominent titles to compete with such as Warframe, Destiny 2, The Division and with The Division 2 just around the corner. All of these make for a difficult start.

The demonstration itself didn’t help things. The myriad of technical issues from logging into the servers and instances of lag, random disconnects and characters getting stuck on scenery marred an experience that frankly, as an observer, didn’t exactly wow me. In all fairness, as nice as Anthem looks and as interesting some of its mechanics are, the feeling I got was of a heavier Destiny with a tad more aerial maneuvering. Worse yet, from all reports, it lacks even the basics of social interaction required to give a bit more life to hub world. This is the point where a difficult start slides into very challenging, and sadly the hits aren’t stopping.

2018 was a terrible year for Electronic Arts, and like many gamers, I am not shedding tears about it. The company lost a great deal of its share value, caused legislators world wide to look into loot boxes and micro transactions and even had several European countries demand, and succeed in removing them from games. It managed to rile up large segments of the gaming public with its poor launch of Battlefield V, a game that also caused controversy in various ways which could populate an article of its own. This of course, coming on the heels of the horrible monetization and mangling of Star Wars: Battlefront II, a game that was supposed to be Electronic Art’s apology to those that purchased its predecessor and received a rushed, half baked product then.

Not surprising, the gaming community at large is carrying a grudge against Electronic Arts, quite justified considering the long list of crimes it committed against gaming as a whole. However it does mean that anything associated with it, even remotely, will be under a cloud of suspicion and outright hostility. This is already putting Anthem in such a disadvantage that I scarcely believe it could overcome, not even with an 80’s montage. So damaged is the image of Electronic Arts, and to a lesser extent, BioWare’s.

People seem to forget thanks to the relative success of Dragon Age: Inquisition just how damaged BioWare truly is. The studio that brought us classics such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect also produced some of the greatest duds in those same franchises. Dragon Age II pretty much single handedly killed my interest in the entire series after being nothing but a poorly written, lazy, repetitive and obvious cash grab of a game. People may rightfully pillar Mass Effect: Andromeda, at best a mediocre game with atrocious writing that was further dragged down by a plethora of bugs that served to immortalize it but it wasn’t a true BioWare game. That said Mass Effect 2 was, and it also served to alienate me from another franchise by the same developers. The stripping out of many role playing elements, the plot holes and obvious retcons, not to mention the transition into a mediocre squad based third person shooter all contributed to create a disappointing sequel. Had it not been for the characters themselves and some of the side stories, I would have written off the entire game.

Which is why I was surprised when people were shocked at the original ending of Mass Effect 3 and some of the other issues that cropped up with the horrible downloadable content carve outs Electronic Arts had experimented with in the series. The seeds had already been sown in the previous title and were finally blooming into a great big flower of disappointment and crushed expectations. I have to admit I did enjoy sitting on the sideline watching the entire fiasco go down. That said BioWare at least addressed some of the issues, but the fact remained that the overall trend had not been reversed. In some ways it was accelerated.

Departures of prominent staff members are not uncommon in large companies, doubly so in the computer game industry which is relatively young yet extremely profitable (if you hit it big). Yet when the people that were considered the heart and soul of the company call it quits, you should take notice. Add to it the constant pressure from Electronic Arts that had been riding the loot boxes and microtransaction high from its sports games and slowly polluting the rest of its products with that toxic garbage, and you have a recipe for disaster.

First and foremost, Anthem is a departure from BioWare’s usual style. BioWare is known for creating universes from whole cloth with deep character writing and in the past, interesting and complex stories. These experiences were always delivered in a single player game. Now Electronic Arts is making the studio create an online experience, where players cooperate together to grind missions for equipment and loot in what is known as the looter shooter genre. Basically a style of gaming that can be considered anathema to the studio. Though it does have some experience in the massive multiplayer online field thanks to the Star Wars: The Old Republic title, in reality that game still played more like a regular BioWare role playing game.

BioWare only has to look at Bungie and the mess that is the Destiny franchise to realize just how dangerous this leap of faith is. Unlike BioWare, Bungie had a lot more experience with compelling shooters. After all, its Halo trilogy is still held as some of the best first person shooters in gaming history. Yet even with all that experience, Destiny had a lame start and an okay finish, with a sequel that was somehow even worse than its predecessor. Bungie also had a 10 year contract for the game. Does this ring any alarm bells yet?

This would have been bad enough if it weren’t for one last horrible fact; Electronic Arts needs Anthem to succeed. It had burned so many bridges, lost so many sales that the company is desperate to have one huge financial success. That means it will put impossible expectations on the game that will ultimately disappoint. We saw how shareholders react when a game fails to make 10% more profit than its predecessor a la Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. What will happen when a game falls far wider off the mark? I shudder to imagine.

At this point some of you will be certain that I want Anthem to fail. I’ve been ragging on and on about BioWare’s many failings, the hurdles it must jump over and other difficulties. You couldn’t be more wrong. The reality is I want Anthem to succeed because I don’t want to see a developer that created some of the best games that I truly enjoyed and was even were inspired by go under. I don’t hate what I saw from the demonstrations. I don’t think that the hard work of hundreds of developers should go down the drain, considering their passion and abilities. That said, looking at all things objectively, I just can’t see Anthem succeeding. The deck is stacked against it to such a degree that its just plain tragic.

I wish circumstances were different. I wish Anthem had been given more time to be polished and had a much better demonstration. I wish I could care about a BioWare game like I did when I was a teenager. I wish Electronic Arts didn’t own and control BioWare. I wish and I wish and I wish. But as Gurney Halleck said, if wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets into the sea. Reality is, there is nothing I, or anyone else outside of Electronic Arts and BioWare, can do to make Anthem not just successful, but worthy of that success.

Thus, after seeing all of this, I can’t help but reach the conclusion that BioWare is doomed. Anthem will not be a smash hit. Electronic Arts will once again fail to meet shareholders’ expectations and the consequences will be dire. Sadly, a lot of good people will lose their jobs due to the greed of a few who refused to see the damage they were inflicting up to the very end. Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the urge to open a bottle of whiskey and down it.

Measuring Stick

Does length matter? After you are done snickering from making the obvious jokes, the question remains: does the length of a computer game matter?

I ask this because often times I see it brought up in reviews. Time after time reviewers would bash a game for being “too short” or “too long” or lacking “replay value” whatever that means. I saw rants go on and on about criminally short campaigns in first person shooters. Saw reviews where people praised the “value per dollar” of sandbox games and companies boasting about all manner of activities their games have which will keep players occupied for the average length needed to gestate a human fetus.

With all these examples, the answer seems obvious. People wouldn’t keep bringing it up if it didn’t matter. Yet I am a still left wondering if this is truly as important a factor as people make it out to be. Or is it something we, as gamers, have been conditioned to accept.

The problem starts with defining adequate game length. Both the film and music industry have it down pat thanks to a variety of factors; from human psychology, financial compromises and technical limitations in the early days of the mediums. All of these helped to shape the consensus that movies are about two hours long and songs are approximately three minutes long. Though its true that there are outliers and exceptions, but for the mainstream these truths still hold up.

Computer games don’t really have that benefit. There is no industry standard because the industry itself is quite young. Add to it the fact that both it and the technology upon which it relies constantly advance in leaps and bounds (though not so much the last few years) and there really is no reason, at least from the industry’s perspective, to create a game length standard.

Of course, there is a bigger issue which stops the industry from creating a standard and that is the way games are consumed. Unlike movies, books and music which are pretty much passively consumed (if you are going to argue books require effort to read and turn pages I will shove the entire works of Larry Niven up your…) games require player engagement. Okay, good games that are not walking simulators require player engagement. Players have to actively further the story and plot along.

This means that different genres have different mechanics and ways to tell their stories which impact length directly. One example are role playing games or RPGs for short. Though the genre itself is quite broad and has a huge variety of styles, still most of the games that fall under that category will take quite a long time to finish. A single game may take upwards of 30 – 40 hours not counting replay as many of them offer diverging story paths and multiple endings. Often times the player in such games will have a wealth of side quests and grinding to help them level up before confronting the final boss, all of which require a large investment of time.

Its opposite is the first person shooter. Most first person shooters will have short campaigns that can be finished in one or two sittings (looking at you, Call of Duty) while focusing mostly on the online experience where player progression in multiplayer matches takes most of the play time. The actual campaigns will often be filled with cliches, be terribly scripted and filled with loud explosions that will make Michael Bay orgasm (of course, there are outliers like Doom [2016] and Wolfenstein: The New Order).

Between the two there is a huge time gulf that can hardly be bridged, and this is without talking about simulators, grand strategy games, card games and so forth. Truly, genres in gaming differ so wildly that there can be no set standard made. And yet, people keep complaining about games being either too short (often times in relation to first person shooters) or too long (your average sandbox game) or lacking replay value (again, what the heck does replay value mean!?). Why?

The answer is quite complicated and comprised of several factors. First is the idea of the prudent consumer who buys games for the amount of entertainment they offer. It is part of the reason why the AAA game industry had mostly transitioned to making sandbox games since they offer a lot of side activities and empty, boring treks that remind me of the mundanity of my own personal life, interspersed with some flashes of actual action. After all, games are expensive (to buy, not so much to make considering profit margins) and a “prudent” consumer would want the best bang for their buck. Of course this means they often buy mediocre experiences as open world sandboxes offer terrible story pacing with constant distractions and immersion breaking moments. Subsisting on such a diet can really warp one’s views and taste in games.

Another factor is lack of satisfaction. The reality is that a good story paired with good gameplay will deliver a satisfactory experience. That experience, whether long or short, will be both memorable and worthwhile regardless of the length of time played. I bring this up because games like Spec Ops: The Line and Max Payne are some of my favorite and even though neither one takes more than 10 hours to complete, I found myself enjoying every moment of playing (in the case of Spec Ops: The Line its not really enjoyment per se but whatever) and felt they were worth every penny I paid. To contrast, Just Cause 2, a game I picked at a sale for peanuts, felt like a slug. While I enjoyed it at the start, as the game progressed and the size of the island and pace of the story became apparent to me, I just quit. I felt that even the few bucks I paid for it were a waste of cash and that game gave me around 20 hours of gameplay and I wasn’t even a quarter through.

The last factor I can identify is expectations. Players expect a certain experience in return for investing a certain amount of money. The bar for a 15$ game in terms of entertainment and length is much different than one sold at what is considered full price (60$, but considering AAA landscape that is merely an entry fee). If the experience is short, no one will begrudge it since it cost only a quarter of what a “real” or “full” game does. We adjust our expectations based on pricing and the people (studio basically) behind it and so form our opinions accordingly. Thus if a 15$ game is only a couple of hours long, we don’t see it as an issue while if a 60$ title in a major franchise is only four hours long we see it as a betrayal and a bad investment.

Taken together, its not hard to see why we insist on length as a measuring stick. It enables us to filter out possible duds and give us some illusion of a smart or prudent purchase. The reality though, is that by insisting on game length we’ve helped create a AAA industry that homogenizes experiences to create samey, sprawling monstrosities that demand a huge investment of time and artificially lengthen gameplay with grind, as I highlighted before. Thus, length has been more detrimental to gaming on a whole. Which is why we need to retire it.

A game’s length shouldn’t be totally ignored. It should still factor into reviews, but done so in a more intelligent way. It should be discussed in regards to pacing and story progression, rather as a general statistics. If the story feels rushed and incomplete its okay to say its too short. If the story feels like it keeps stalling and spinning its wheels, it should be treated as “too long”. However in both cases its given proper context which is the important part. Lastly, replay value should be ditched entirely.

I’ve already shown throughout the article that I don’t understand the concept of replay value. As a consumer of popular culture I’ve re-read books that I liked (god knows how many times I’ve re-read Dune). I re-watch TV series I liked, not to mention movies. I listen constantly to certain songs depending on mood. The same goes for games. Whether linear or open world, I replay games because I like them and the stories they presented, not because I am compelled to reach 100% completion. If I didn’t like it the first time, whether or not I could replay it means nothing because I won’t regardless.

Length should not be an important statistic used to inform game purchases but a properly contextualized factor in judging the quality of the game. It should be put alongside pacing, game flow and other components of a story experience. It should not be looked at like a supermarket bargain. If the media and consumers start treating it like this, we may all get better games. Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to have another playthrough of Max Payne.

Words Matter

*unrelated photograph of Gearbox Software’s CEO, proven liar and alleged pedophile Randy Pitchford


The gaming media has a credibility problem called game developers

There hasn’t been a week since the launch of Fallout 76 in which Bethesda didn’t somehow manage to humiliate itself. Time after time the developer\publisher was found to be either; lying to customers, overreacting and hurting loyal fans, allowing others to swindle said fans with terrible products or just being overly incompetent to a farcical degree. It has gotten so bad that I hardly want to click on any news story or video with the word Bethesda in its title.

Yet, as the slew of bad news and burnt bridges continues to spew from Bethesda’s headquarters, one word has been repeatedly used to describe this ongoing trainwreck: misled. I see it pop up again and again to describe the debacles surrounding Fallout 76. From the limited game editions canvas bags, the actual game features to other marketing ploys such as the Nuka Cola rum bottles that turned out to be just cheap plastic casings for an industrial waste cleansing solution, or so I’ve been told they taste like. The word doesn’t seem able to leave headlines and video titles even though I think it is high time it should be replaced by a different word: lie.

Because this is what Bethesda ultimately did. It lied to consumers. It lied to its fans. Its representatives such as Todd “It just works” Howard stood in front of crowds and simply lied to the faces of gamers worldwide. They lied and lied and lied again and all the gaming media had to offer in return is to label it all as “misleading”. Now, words have meaning. Misled is a very soft word in comparison to lied. It gives a wiggle room in terms of intent. It gives the impression that it was erroneous rather than nefarious. In a way it exonerates the accused of malicious intent. And it is absolutely used erroneously by reporters and writers in relation to the whole situation.

After all, Bethesda had been caught lying not once or twice, but pretty much on a weekly basis since the launch of Fallout 76. Not calling it lies at this point looks like dereliction of duty from the gaming media. That said, I can understand why the gaming media is afraid to bust out the “lie” word. First and foremost, it opens them to libel lawsuits. Though at this point the only court Bethesda could win a libel lawsuit in would be in opposite land, the fact remains that lawyering up is expensive not to mention intimidating. No one wants to get sued, not least gaming sites and YouTube content creators who don’t generate the amount of cash needed to keep a fancy lawyer on retainer.

However, there is also another reason why these people are reluctant to name the problem child and it is the fact the entire gaming industry is built on lies. Jim Sterling made a good video highlighting this, calling it the business of lies, and he is not wrong. In his 20 minute video, Jim Sterling was able to highlight just a few examples from a few years prior to the video’s release, and since then more have been shamelessly uttered by executives and game directors. Lie after lie, all provable, all documented, all ignored or given different labels so as not to offend the people in the industry.

I can understand why, after all, the people lying are the people signing on access to exclusives, press passes and review copies. If these people are made to feel uncomfortable or get called out for their lies, of course the ones feeling the repercussions would be the reporters, not the game developers and suits in management. In the vicious and savage place that is the internet, a loss of access can cost a media outlet its advantage. Many consumers want launch day reviews and recommendations. Sites blacklisted will not be able to supply those reviews and subsequently lose readers, which in turn means a loss of revenue. A site may survive one or two blacklists, but when most of the major publishers decide not to work with a site, that can spell its doom.

Thus the media sites publish the lies and give their enthusiastic impressions to all the fancy trailers and pretty but vacuous cinematics. They’ll disregard years and years of lying, act all surprised when a publisher messes up a launch and publish the corporate response which could be literally copy and pasted from all the previous incidents. Even when they would rebuke these people, they’ll soften the blow using comfy words like “mislead” rather the obvious “lie” even though they have proof. It’s predictable as it is maddening to see.

Of course, there is another reason for the shoddy journalism on display. Like myself, most people writing in the gaming space are not professionals. They are enthusiasts who got into gaming media following their passion. As Jim Sterling himself pointed out, there are very few real journalists in the field of gaming media and it sure as hell shows. Thus it is not hard to see how many writers get bedazzled by the treatment, the access to the people that pretty much made the games they grew up on. Without the proper training or background, these writers simply succumb to the charm and the VIP treatment.

There is also another side to it. People in the game media often work with developers and public relations personal. These are the people they are in constant contact with. Whether it is for interviews, game conventions or events, the two sides often interact with each other. Thus it is no surprise that developers and media people develop friendships and relationships. It is after all, human nature. While it is always nice to see people get along, the downside of such connections is reporters are less willing to challenge or pressure their friends. Too many times reporters would softball questions, be unwilling to challenge developers or just won’t call out blatant lies and bad behavior.

If the above makes you think that perhaps this is why the gaming media often takes the side of publishers and developers, its because it does. I still remember when Geoff Keighley disrespected Angry Joe in the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards, a show that basically functions as one huge commercial. Now, Angry Joe was a young upper comer, still wet behind his ears. However the way Geoff pretty much humiliated him spoke volumes. The fact that Geoff is also a friend of Hideo Kojima and often helped him in his stupid pranks only further sheds a light on how many of the so-called “professionals” in the field view themselves: on the side of the developers. After all, these are the people they often work with, depend on, and develop friendships with.

This was on full display when Jason Schreier, a somewhat respectable game journalist, pretty much went to war with YouTube to justify microtransactions in AAA games. Even though microtransactions and loot boxes are exploitative, have been proven to be so and have poisoned much of the mainstream gaming landscape. To attempt and justify such a measure, after it was proven time and again to be harmful to consumers, exploitative of children and hurtful to the quality of the games themselves (see Middle Earth: Shadow of War) shows exactly who Jason Schreier stands with, and it is not his readership.

Last, but not least, there is also fear. The fear that clouds the gaming media is not just the fear of publisher retaliation which I already covered, but something much more stupid and horrible – the fans. Every time the gaming media actually tried to act more aggressive towards bad actors, the fanboys reared their ugly heads and attacked the reporters. To fanboys, their lives are intricately connected to the products they consume. They will defend these products, and those who produce\manage it, to the death because their entire worth as human beings rides on the perception of the product. It would be sad if they weren’t such a toxic, frothing mad population that sends death and rape threats against reporters who dare state the truth. I wouldn’t want to find myself in their crosshairs, a target for constant, unhinged harassment. Why would any sane reporter would either?

All of this contributes to the erosion of trust. It fuels reader backlash and further poisons the well. After all, what gamers need, what consumers should have is strong advocacy. That is the role of the media – to inform them and amplify their voice. It means researching, it means questioning every corporate message and public relations statement. It also means to frame things correctly. If unable to use the word “lie” outright, then at least remind the readers of the long string of disasters a company such as Bethesda had (my, Bethesda really can’t catch a break these days). George Lakoff put it best when he created the concept of the “truth sandwich”. If media must repeat a lie, it should do so by starting and ending with the truth to nullify the impact of said lie.

Gaming media needs to have a reckoning with itself. For a brief moment, I thought that was what GamerGate would force. Sadly I was mistaken as the conversation was hijacked by political agendas. Yet in its heart, the argument about ethics and disclosure remained. If the gaming media could remember that it serves gamers, not companies, and start acting accordingly we’d all gain for it. That is because there is a little secret that publishers and developers don’t want the media to know: they need the media. Without gaming sites and reviewers, there won’t be hype. Without gaming media to print the lies, no one will buy them. If gaming media stops reporting on a company, that company will die.

For once, game journalists and writers, game sites and YouTubers should look into their mirrors. They should meet the gaze of their reflections, look deep into them and decide who exactly do they serve: game companies, or gamers?

Ground to Dust

Game publishers are ruining their games with one simple mechanic

I’ve been ruminating a few weeks on the issue of cheating. It all started with Bethesda banning cheaters in Fallout 76 even though that game was so horrible and broken that cheating seemed the only option to make any parts of it bearable. I usually don’t advocate cheating in multiplayer games but considering the PvP aspect of Fallout 76 was so vestigial, cumbersome and unrewarding that I really didn’t see how cheating could even negatively effect it.

I admit that the article was poorly written for my standards, more akin to an angry stream of consciousness rant than a cohesive, well constructed argument. That said, it did serve as a catalyst for me to examine something that had bugged me considerably in the last couple of years. That subject is grind, or to be more precise, its rise in “AAA” games.

Most gamers will be familiar with the concept of grind, but for those unaware it is a term coined in MMOs (though precedes them) which means the investment of a great deal of time and resources in order to surmount an artificial obstacle in the game to unlock more content. Many MMOs are built around these mechanics as they are (or were) subscription based, and creating artificial barriers for progress encourages players to continue and pay for the experience. The form the grind takes may differ from genre to genre but it remains identical in essence.

An example of grind from an MMO I played are officer modules in EVE Online. Of course with the in-game market its possible to purchase them (at a high price) from other players but if a player wants to get them themselves they’ll have to find the region the specific officer spawns. They will then have to find which systems have the highest negative security which increases the possibility of said officer to spawn in the system. After that, they will have to scan belts and celestial objects after every scheduled downtime. Once they did kill the officer, they have to loot the wreck and hope the item they wanted spawned. Otherwise they’ll have to keep doing so until the correct item drops, which is all based on loot mechanics coded and controlled by the developers.

This is of course just one example, and there are many more, but its enough I think to illustrate the point. Grind is putting countless hours into a singular activity. I don’t think there is something wrong with grind in particular. I play a lot of games where grind is a key component. A lot of JRPGs for example, like the Final Fantasy or Yakuza series. Heck, the entire dungeon crawler genre is based on it (Diablo III or Path of Exile anyone?). That said the grind in all of them is kind of the point. You grind to become stronger, get the best gear and take down bosses.

I am pointing this out because lately the grind had seeped into games in which it has no business appearing in. Games like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to name a few have all had grind shoved into them without any adequate reason. Call me old fashioned, but I thought that series about pounding tactical espionage action and assassins respectively had little to do with grind and loot. Of course I’d be very wrong.

The reason for these mechanics isn’t in service to the story or the experience because neither series had these mechanics to begin with. Metal Gear Solid had been up until then a third person stealth\tactical shooter with a somewhat bonkers premise, ridiculous characters and many botched ideas though with some poignant points (more on this in a future article) and Assassin’s Creed was about assassinating people in various historical settings and the occasional pirate adventure. So why was there an introduction of grind elements in the form of base management, unlocks, resources and weapon tiers? Simply put – Microtransactions.

In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain players could buy currency to speed up research projects or purchase the mad amount of resources needed to unlock more stuff further down the line. In Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey players can purchase experience boosts in order to level up faster, not to mention the usual loot box malarkey. Reading user reviews of the latter I got the same impression I got playing the former – A fast, smooth progression at the start which quickly hits a concrete wall in the middle game, forcing countless hours of repeated grind just to surpass what feels in every conceivable way an artificial road block.

I could feel in my playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain how the grind was negatively effecting the story and my own enjoyment. It became so slow, tedious and soul crushing that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit the game because I just couldn’t keep clearing these artificial road blocks even though I was enjoying the story (as weird and insane as it went). The grind was literally holding the story hostage for me and asking me to pay for it. Yeah, not gonna happen. I don’t negotiate with terrorists . And for what was all of this done? As stated above, microtransactions.

After all, these are genuine modern ills in genres that had never been truly plagued with them before. An experience that throttles enjoyment from a story, halves or even halts progress and threatens players with endless tedium. However this malady has a cure. Funnily enough, the same publishers that sell you this ailing game have the medicine to treat it. The only thing a player needs to do to lessen or completely ignore this disease is to pay cash. In return, the publishers will give them the experience boosts, top tier gear and all the needed resources to remove the blocks they imposed to begin with.

Of course, some people have been skeptical of this. They refuse to believe publishers will sabotage their own products to such a degree and often insist that the extra monetization is simply an aid for people who have less time on their hands. The excuses baffle me completely because they ignore the examples to the contrary. The biggest one is Middle Earth: Shadow of War. The sequel to the unexpected hit Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it was saddled with microtransactions from the start to such a degree as to cheapen its main selling point (the nemesis system) and turn the final act into a test of patience as players were forced to grind endlessly in order to unlock the game’s true ending. When the publisher saw no further profit from direct monetization, they had the developers remove it in order to score some publicity points and pick a few late sales. This forced the developers to revamp the entire game economy in order to remove the microtransactions.

Would the exclusion of microtransactions from the start had boosted the popularity of Middle Earth: Shadow of War and had players express more favorable opinions to its story? Possible. What is known though, is that the microtransactions had alienated part of the original game’s player base, caused a lot of bad publicity for the game itself and left a lot of actual paying players with bad taste. A good game completely ruined by a mechanic that had no point being included to begin with.

This is the core of it all. This addition of grind feels foreign in such series, because it is. Grind was never meant to be core to the Metal Gear Solid experience, and I certainly don’t remember Assassin’s Creed formula requiring endless faff to get better weapons. In fact, the story progression rewarded the players with the tools needed. Now though, if a player wanted a better weapon, they ought to grind enough hours to gather the resources for it, have it spawn as a percentage drop or perhaps buy a loot box and hope they get it – basically gamble.

This is the end result of the microtransactions and loot boxes. After all, for companies to get more digital currency sales, they need to create demand. For demand to exist, they need an incentive for players to purchase microtransactions. Just carving parts of the game and day one downloadable contents isn’t enough and often have negative coverage. Instead, put in soul crushing grind and offer people the ability to skip it with an easy payment. Its so scummy and transparent as to make my skin crawl. It is also very effective as microtransaction revenue keeps growing.

The worst part is that many gaming sites fail to report on this at the start. Grind itself is often set up at the middle\late game in order to trap customers. Give players the feeling of smooth progression, get them hooked on the rewards then spring the trap when they are already halfway into the story. Since many game sites compete to release early reviews, they fail to mention the effects of the microtransactions because they rarely reach the grind stretches. After all launch windows are small and writers need to push reviews out as fast as possible for consumers to read. Missing that window literally costs money for those sites. Whatsmore, if they lean too hard on the score due to the effects of over monetization, they may get blacklisted by publishers, which further decreases their launch window opportunity. Not to mention that nowadays many publishers simply keep the microtransactions offline during the review window and turn it up after the period where most game copy sales are made (usually the first couple of weeks).

The last part is that in order to accommodate these services and limit consumer recourse, many major publishers seek to introduce their own platforms. Electronic Arts’ (with the biggest quotation mark on the Arts) Origin, Activision Blizzard’s Battlenet and Ubisoft’s Uplay are all examples of platforms created specifically at first to sell the publisher’s games and now offload microtransactions. Even Bethesda has gotten into the game with their own buggy, broken launcher and I suspect we may see more major publishers go this route. The problem with such platforms is how cumbersome they become. The average gamer will often purchase a game from Steam, then will need to install a Uplay or Origin client, register in that client and make sure its online just to play the game. God forbids if that player loses connection to the internet. What happens in five – six years when the publishers’ turn off the specific game’s server? The answer is one non functioning game. So much for amassing a game library and replaying games.

Yet we continue to see the insidious introduction of more grind into games. We already lost the sports games to them and now they threaten all sandbox games. What will be next? Will we need to grind hours or buy a loot box in order to get a tank in a real strategy game? Will recruiting soldiers in grand strategy games take two real time hours unless I purchase a booster from the online store? Will a weapon in a first person shooter only become usable if I gather 230 pieces of metal playing online matches? If yes, then I suspect that I’d be turning to other developers for my games, or just cheat. Because cheating seems to be the only remedy for the amount of grinding required to play any modern game. So let us cheat and be proud of it. Fuck grinding!

The Case of Justifying Cheating in Fallout 76

Bethesda wants a written essay on why its bad to cheat in its broken game

Bethesda can’t help itself from generating bad press. After a string of disasters all related to Fallout 76’s launch, including misleading marketing, Bethesda has started banning players for “Cheating”. What falls under the definition of cheating seems broad, as people have reported that using quality of life mods (such as graphics enhancers) were also considered cheating by the company. Whether or not I believed all reports, what came next from Bethesda truly stunned me.

The company decided that instead of players simply appealing the bans, they should write essays on why cheating is bad, to be reviewed by Bethesda’s senior staff like its a highschool and they caught a bunch of students copying the answers to a test. After reading this I was truly speechless. I couldn’t process how a multi million company that produced some of the most groundbreaking and commercially successful games in history, is so completely and utterly deranged in the way it treats its customers.

Recovering from the shock of Bethesda’s audacity, I’ve decided to pick up the glove it tried to throw down in challenge, smacked itself squarely in the face only to stumble and fall down flat on its ass, and write said essay. Though I haven’t bought Fallout 76 nor was banned for cheating on that horrendous mess it dares call a “AAA” game with the biggest quotation marks on the planet, I hope I could still get some course credit from clown university’s own professor Bethesda and dean Todd “It just works” Howard.

I am not going to delve into the psychology of cheating. Suffice to say its a complex and, though fascinating, is beyond the scope of this article. I won’t go into the history of cheating either, as long and venerable as it is. This is not the article’s intent. Instead I’ll focus a bit on the how (only a tad, I am no programmer) and why people did cheat in Bethesda games in the past and may be cheating in Fallout 76. With that in mind, lets jump in.

There are pretty much only two ways to cheat in modern games, either accessing the developer console and inputting codes or using outside programs for it. These programs can be divided into two categories; Cheat Engine and trainers. I am not a programmer as I professed before, but I do know that both programs basically inject code into the game to achieve intended effects. What they are depends on the script and creator, with Cheat Engine being a more recognized, multi purpose tool while other trainers are usually tailored for specific games.

Okay, so now we know how to cheat, the next question is why we’d cheat in Fallout 76. The logical answer would be the same reason people cheated in previous Bethesda games. The common sense answer would be because Fallout 76 is a horrendous mess of a game.

In an average Bethesda game, the amount of bugs and exploits can be mind numbing. The fact that there are titles that have gone years without even a rudimentary fix, including the best selling game the company ever produced such as Skyrim, whose remaster contained all the same bugs as before, should speak volumes. Time and again I found myself glitching on terrain, requiring the no clipping code just to untangle myself from the landscape rather than reload a previous save which would have meant undoing an hour or so of progress.

Add to it old game design that even in today’s standards seems terrible and unbalanced and you have a recipe for disaster. One example are the weight limits. All the time I spent listening to friends playing Fallout 76, one of the most common complaints was about the weight limits. Conversation often drifted to discussing the ways to exploit and increase them since looting and fast traveling in that game seemed to be the main activities my friends were occupied with. All of this made me remember my own experiences in Skyrim.

In Skyrim, I often found myself over encumbered after visiting a dungeon or two, even after building my own manor house because fast traveling back to my home to unload would often break the pace of the game for me, further diminishing my immersion. When players spend half the time in loading screens, its not a show of good game design. In fact, after a week of dealing with the tedium of been nothing more than a glorified sherpe, I decided to make a rare decision and remove the weight restrictions in the game using a mod. The impact was monumental. From a game I played begrudgingly, always mindful of the damn weight limits, it became a fun game of exploration and discovery. It was that simple, yet impactful a change.

This is of course just one example, but there are many more. Suffice to say that Bethesda had prided itself on making huge expansive sand boxes with plenty of stories and locations for players to discover. Yet the mechanics it chose to implement in those games seem at odds with those very goals. This results in a lot of frustration, annoyance and tedium. What is left for players who want to experience those worlds but not be limited by such oppressive mechanics? Cheat of course.

Yes, a lot in a Bethesda game is improved with cheating. There is no debating that. If removing weight limits made exploration so much more enjoyable in Skyrim, I shudder to think what it would do in Fallout 76. After all, no one goes into a Bethesda game to experience the mediocre at best combat system or the agency lacking stories (in fact I never really finished the main storyline in Skyrim and I played that game for over 200 hours!) but explore the vast worlds presented by the games.

Since Bethesda games were until now singleplayer, no one batted an eye about cheating. No one would care if a fellow player cheated just to enjoy the world. After all, the conversations I had about Skyrim revolved around side quests and locales. For this reason many felt, quite rightfully I believe, that cheating in a Bethesda game was not a big issue. I am with them. If it helped them enjoy the game, more power to them.

Bethesda must have thought the same because it allowed the community to mod these games to kingdom come. These were not just the usual cosmetics or quality of life mods often seen in many games of the nature, but some that took the game a few steps forward. These mods would range from fixing persistent bugs that the developers themselves haven’t touched even after years of reports to adding or modifying existing mechanics comprehensively. Better UIs (especially inventory!), improved AIs and more detailed fast travel maps are just the few I had to install just to get a more satisfying game experience. In fact, playing Skyrim without mods is seen detrimental to the enjoyment of the average player. Think about that!

Bethesda studios themselves encouraged this I think, partly out of sheer laziness and cost cutting measures. If the modders fix the bugs and implement long overdue UI changes to the game, then Bethesda wouldn’t need to invest resources and developer hours in doing the bare minimum required of a game studio – making sure their game works consistently. This in turn cultivated its own mindset in the community of fixing the game through intermediaries since the company itself was untrustworthy in that regard and often broke more than fixed with the few patches it did issue.

Which leads us to Fallout 76. Let’s put it simply, the company lied in its marketing. It sought to use its fan base and expand further by promising a cooperative, online experience for Fallout players while emphasizing survival mechanics and PvP to a crowd that already had plenty games of that type to choose from (H1Z1, Rust, The Forest to name a few). Marrying these two populations was an impossible feat to begin with, not helped with Bethesda’s buggy, poorly optimized engine and the implementation of the same tired mechanics that work against the players. Bethesda was courting disaster to begin with.

Thus, when players got the mess that was Fallout 76, they did the one thing they’ve been conditioned to do in previous titles: Mod, cheat and exploit the heck out of the game to glean some enjoyment from their purchase. In most multiplayer games, especially ones involving PvP, a company would put some resources into anti-cheating programs. Bethesda, ever the lazy developer it is, chose to put one line of code about detecting Cheat Engine and called it a day. To say it was laughable would be to spit in the face of all the Fallout 76 players that had to endure this catastrophe.

Of course, etiquette, not to say conscience, would require players in online games not to cheat. That is just good manners. That said, Fallout 76 is not a competitive online game. The PvP handshake is such a joke, that most players just end up avoiding it. Even if someone chooses to engage in PvP, they are put into such a great disadvantage from the start, that its hardly worth it. Worst yet, there is even less of an incentive to go through it as the rewards themselves are poultry in comparison to the effort put into the whole thing. That is if the damage bug doesn’t strike the instigator. Fun, no? (The worst part is describing this reminded me of The Division’s PvP system and that is depressing on a whole different level)

So they cheat. They cheat to make the whole mess bearable. They cheat because they want to explore the world without the myriad of hindrances that Bethesda implemented with its shoddy design. They cheat because that is what they’ve come to expect from a Bethesda game and they cheat because in reality it has no real lasting effect on an ever diminishing online community as more and more players leave the game due to general dissatisfaction.

And now Bethesda woke up to see the utter desolation, not unlike the world of the game it created, and decided to act and curb what were acceptable norms up until this moment. Not for the players sake, of course, but for its own bottom line. If it truly cared about the health of the player base it would have overhauled its game design. It would have put more time into optimizing its engine. It wouldn’t have created an online shop and told people that mods will be supported only a year after launch. All of this speak of a company that was happy to allow its stale mechanics to devolve further, creating a horrible grind just so it could later down the line sell the fixes to its playerbase. Like a sleazy salesperson creating the very problem to which they just so happens to have a solution for. Scummy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Faced with all the broken promises and features. Hours of endless grind. Constant disconnects and glitches. Inability to save and roll back. An aging engine and ancient mechanics as well as a custom of outsourcing core development to the community. No wonder people are choosing to cheat and exploit the heck out of the game. And as shown, they have every moral right to do so. Because Bethesda lied. Because Todd lied. And because their cheating seems mostly harmless, only hurting future microtransaction sales as Bethesda will undoubtedly attempt to milk its consumers for items and solutions that should have been there from the start.

Spare a thought to what would happen in a couple of years from now when the population has shrunk down to a level that Bethesda sees no real value in keeping the servers alive? People will not be able to go back and play the game since the servers would simply won’t be there. All the mods, all the grind, all that hard work, gone with a flip of a switch. And who can guarantee it won’t happen? Can anyone believe Bethesda’s word after the countless debacles this year? Yeah, I thought so myself.

You can’t, after more than a decade, go to the community you fostered, the community you conditioned to seek solutions outside the company, to use cheats in order to overcome the myriad of glitches and archaic mechanics in your game, and tell them they are in the wrong. You can’t create a half baked product whose multiplayer component seems almost an afterthought and whose PvP is a joke, and wag your finger at us for exploiting it as we try to glean some enjoyment out of this mess. You can’t call us cheaters, Todd, with flimsy proofs after you cheated all of us with this barely functional heap of garbage. The cheaters in Fallout 76 hurt no one and at least have fun. You Todd, and the entire upper management, cheated millions of their money and seem intent on keep screwing your remaining customers. So I don’t think you have the moral ground to call us cheaters while sitting on a throne of lies and broken promises, Todd.

You can send me my grade to I am waiting with abetted breath for your reply.

Stepping Into the PewDiePile of…

YouTube needs a new face, one that doesn’t mainline racism.

I really didn’t want to write this article. This is only the second article I’ve written since I restarted my blog and yet here I am, about to step into the mire that is PewDiePie. Certainly not what I envisioned when I wanted to write about games and the culture surrounding them.

That said I can’t escape the shadow of PewDiePie’s latest controversy. The fact that I had to add “latest” should be the telling word. This isn’t the first time the “face of YouTube” (and by god, what a sad reflection is that?) had gotten into trouble, and I have a sneak suspicion it won’t be the last.

So what did YouTube’s golden boy do this time? Apparently in one of his videos he recommended viewers check the anime content of one creator going by the name “E;R”. Now this “E;R” fellow is a proven anti Semite with videos dedicated to Hitler speeches, using foul language against minorities and posting on Neo Nazi threads on Gab, the preferred (well, only) platform of the “alt right”, or Neo Nazis if we are being perfectly honest. Oops!

Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the video myself, but I trust all those who reported on it. I don’t watch PewDiePie videos for the same reason I didn’t watch the Twilight movie series: I don’t really care about them. I acknowledge that they exist and are somewhat popular and if people like them, good for them. However, while the Twilight movies were mostly harmless, PewDiePie’s actions have repercussions, not so much for himself but for others using the platform.

I am not going to talk at length about the landfill that is YouTube right now, especially in the advertising landscape. However PewDiePie and his ilk, who have built their riches off of YouTube, certainly aren’t helping. Besides mainlining hate and supplying a gateway to the “alt right” (can we just call them Nazis, please?) for impressionable teens who are the core demographic of PewDiePie, you know the moral aspect, there is the fact he is driving off advertisers. In an era where major organizations are losing funding due to association with far right (again, just Nazis) figures, no sane company would look at YouTube and think of investing major capital in an advertising campaign in a platform that generates so much controversy. That is, unless afforded more control over the content.

Whats more, I find it quite hilarious that people have been pushing PewDiePie down their audiences’ throat as some sort of answer to a growing number of non white, corporate channels in YouTube. Of course, they’d justify their stance by saying that they want YouTube to see that content creators still matter. However making or maintaining PewDiePie’s hold on the number one spot on YouTube through all these years have done little to stop the deterioration of the platform. One could argue that it even helped accelerate it as he brought more scrutiny on the platform as a whole with his constant attention seeking (at best) stunts like saying a racial slur live or guest spotting rabid Islamophobe and short person Ben Shapiro, darling of the “alt right” (again, Nazis).

The fact is, a cursory glance at the top 50 subscribed channels on YouTube reveals that a majority of them are corporate entities. Whether they are named after a band or a singer makes little difference. They are all meant to further corporate interests. The fact “T-Series”, the Indian music and film label, was picked upon for its fast growth smacked a tad racist. I’d have to ask the people who have been promoting PewDiePie if it had been say, Eminem or Katy Perry who were set to overthrow their golden boy if they had been just as adamant in pushing him.

Facts are, demographics, especially online, are changing. There are more Indians than people living in the “western world” (Europe and North America) which content like the “T-Series” would be far more appealing to. Why wouldn’t they want to subscribe to a channel that caters specifically to their tastes in music and video? How is that going to impact the landscape of YouTube negatively? If anything, I think that it will both give the greater exposure to various cultures and tastes, not to mention promote other content creators in those countries to create since they’ll see that there is an audience for it. What is so wrong about that!?

Of course, the defense goes back to “proving” to YouTube that content creators matter. Yet YouTube already has all the data it needs to realise that point and yet it has continuously ignored it, seizing instead on its monopoly to punish content creators by imposing more stringent content ID bots, demonetization tools for companies and maintaining archaic copyright dispute processes that lean heavily in favor of corporate entities. PewDiePie being the biggest channel hasn’t changed YouTube’s position once regarding these issues, so why maintaining it would do so now?

I understand looking at the desolation that has become YouTube and feeling angry, but scapegoating “T-Series” isn’t going to help. Instead realising that YouTube has been a corporate playground for years, ever since being bought by Google which sought to monetize the platform heavily, would do better for these people. There never was an “utopian” or “golden age” for YouTube but rather a wild west where everything was not so much allowed, as just existed as no oversight was in place to crackdown on it. What we see now is just the end result of law being brought to the lawless waste by corporate entities rather than government.

If you want to change YouTube for the better, instead of promoting a millionaire who just struck out for the third time with racism you should be promoting smaller, better content creators who are struggling to break through the sludge that is the YouTube algorithm feed. Lobby governments and support campaigns to bring YouTube and its corporate overlord, Google, to heel. Pressure advertisers with threats of boycotts if they won’t join the community in leveling the playing field for both the corporate and independent content creators. Do something, just not subscribe to a channel as a “declaration of support” because that is both lazy and self serving.

I don’t see a reason why corporate channels and smaller content creators can’t exist on the same platform. I don’t see why an Indian music and video company can’t coexist with a gaming channel and a history channel or a podcast about Warhammer 40k. Most important of all though, I don’t see why giving more subscriptions to a man who has proven incapable of holding himself to the standard needed of him as the “face of YouTube” is going to somehow make YouTube take content creators more seriously. I have a sneak suspicion it might just do the opposite.

*Photo attributed to Hard Drive

The Fallout Fallout

Fallout 76 is out and the verdict seems to be a public lynching

The first time I learned of Fallout 76’s existence was a week before its release when I started seeing reviews of its beta. To say I wasn’t really interested would be an understatement. I haven’t touched the series since Fallout: New Vegas which I bought at a bargain price, played a few hours then uninstalled.

I have found the Fallout series, in particular under the Bethesda banner, to be a messy, buggy, visually outdated, clunky games whose stories lacked agency and interest. The real interesting stories were often buried under terrible UI design and scattered in empty brown sandboxes. The shooting mechanics were terrible for a first person shooter and the character mechanics were too dumb for any serious role playing game. The worst of two worlds is the way I often viewed the series.

As disclaimers go, its quite long but I hope you readers get the message: I don’t like the Fallout game series. However, I can’t deny their cultural importance or the place they hold in mainstream gaming. Thus I just turn a blind eye to them and focus on more interesting aspects of gaming. For that reason, I had no interest in Fallout 4, only taking notice of its mixed reception the same way a passenger on a train takes interest in the landscape flowing past their window. Yet Fallout 76 seems to have done something quite extraordinary for me to not be able to ignore it: It made Fallout fans angry.

While I admit there is some satisfaction in seeing an enraged fanbase of what I view as mediocre game series turn on its creators, I have to try and think on WHY it happened. Why did this game offend so many in the Fallout community as to review bomb the game, have news outlets damn it and give it scores so low, lower in fact than Kane and Lynch, a game so terrible that it only warranted a 6(!) on Gamestop. Like a witness to a trainwreck, I feel compelled to watch and try to decipher the mess.

Watching the many reviews online, I personally don’t get the hate. Visually the game is indistinguishable from Fallout 4: Ugly. Bethesda games were always quite graphically impaired, filled with clunky character animations, horrible shooting mechanics and copy pasted interiors. Not much has changed on that front in Fallout 76. Next is the story or lack of. People complain about the fact there are no NPC characters to give life to the wasteland but in all my experiences with Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas that is an upgrade. Bethesda’s Fallout series never had much life in it and what NPCs you could interact with would often stare at you lifelessly or repeat their pre-programed routine, making you feel as though you were wandering in an animatronic theme park.

Next comes the bugs, but as infuriating and game crashing as Fallout 76’s bugs are, how do they differ from all the previous incarnations in the series? Bethesda has a reputation, A REPUTATION, as a shoddy game developer that pushes half baked products on store shelves, does only the minimal bug fixing and often relying on the community to debug its games. Those that bought the newest game have no right to be outraged in that regard.

Gameplay then, is the last aspect to explore as to the cause of the outrage. That said, there is little change on that front. It is still the same horrible shooting mechanics and lack of meaningful character progression. This time though, instead of choosing perks every few levels you get ability cards that help customize your character and perhaps supply an opening for another avenue of microtransactions. Not much change from Fallout 4. There is still the stupid looting and building mechanics that add very little to the game. The only two major changes in my eyes are the survival aspects (needing to manage your food and water) and the VATS system.

The survival aspects themselves are almost token, and don’t seem to intrude much on the overall Fallout experience while the VATS system change is, well, dumb. In the past, VATS was a nice pause button or a free “Get Out of Jail” card if things got hectic in a shootout. You could take time to pick targets, choose what organs to shoot for maximum success\damage then see it unfold in slow motion. Since Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game, you can’t really pause the server for every individual so VATS was changed to basically an aimbot. No, I am not kidding. It is literally an aimbot, allowing you to target an enemy and lock onto them with your weapons with hardly any player input.

Did I forget to say Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game? Yeah, I guess we found the reason for the outrage. The biggest problem for Fallout 76 is its multiplayer aspect. Not because the experience itself is horrible, after all as I demonstrated, there is little deviation from the games that came before it. That said, by making it a multiplayer game, Bethesda has pretty much shot itself in the foot.

The problem with making it a multiplayer game is that what little immersion there was in the game is basically ruined. Not only are the people in the server total strangers who may dress in wacky outfits and make rude gestures at the player, they also queue to the same events and stories, meaning they hinder quest completion as well as the immersion itself. After all, part of the “Charm” (With the biggest quotation marks possible) was the solo exploration aspect.

Don’t get me wrong, players had been clamoring for a cooperative Fallout experience (The sadists!) but not one populated by a myriad of strangers who keep running around, knocking things over and just reinforcing the emptiness of the world. In a way, Bethesda managed to expose the cheapness of the Fallout experience by shedding light on it with multiplayer gameplay.

Of course, this isn’t the only reason why Fallout 76 is receiving such pillorying. The multiplayer only aspect was merely the catalyst that lit the powder keg. The real explosive powder was the fanbase’s expectations of the game. While Bethesda marketed the game with an emphasis on multiplayer and survival, they did try to have it both ways by either being evasive on the singleplayer aspect, (You know, the thing that made the series popular) or claiming the multiplayer aspect won’t hinder it (Which it doesn’t, until you get disconnected from the server and lose all your progress). Of course, they also lied about performance and graphics but that is small potatoes compared to the main selling point of the game – Exploration.

After all, Fallout games (and Elder Scrolls games for that matter) are all about the exploration. You can yell “Story” from the top of mount Everest for all you like, but all Bethesda main stories (and many side stories) are total rubbish. Playing more than two hundred hours of Skyrim I didn’t feel once the urge to continue the main plotline. It was the lore and exploration which drove the game for me. The same is true for Fallout. The game series is good in spite of its stories, not because of them. However Fallout 76 doesn’t even have that good an exploration drive. After all its not the player exploring an unknown wasteland, its a bunch of players doing it. With the spell of crafting a unique experience broken, all the faults that have existed in the series since Fallout 3 came to bite its studio in the ass.

Yes, there is nothing new in the complaints of the Fallout fanbase. Bethesda continued to dilute the series, dumbing it down for mass appeal. It seems that this time they simply crossed a line that allowed the rubes to realize they were robbed. The degradation of the series was there for all to see, but I guess you only become aware of it with a crowd, with open mics running around an event and killing the boss before you can get your chance.

I feel like a lot of the outrage comes from waking up. The army of fans who really liked the series and deluded themselves into thinking a messy, buggy game that somehow gets worse with each iteration is worth it for the experience. When that experience was cheapened by the addition of the online component, they woke up to see they’ve been living in a slum catching fire and the landlord doesn’t give a damn saying instead “It just works!”. Yeah, I guess I’d be angry too.

That said, the only recourse those fans have is either try to force a refund (Which is a tad problematic since Bethesda made their own launcher and sold it outside of Steam for what I believe could be this very reason) or boycott Bethesda products. Don’t buy the new Starfield and Elder Scrolls VI. That said, we all know that fans often like to forgive abusive game companies because they liked previous games of theirs and they hold franchises to ransom. I don’t like to make allusions to battered spouses, but it sure feels that way. Would Fallout 76’s outrage live long enough to make gamers ditch Bethesda? I feel a tad cynical in saying “I don’t think so” because like every battered spouse they’d go back after a promise of “We are sorry” and “We will change and take your feedback into account”. After all, they made Skyrim! (and how many years has it been since Skyrim?). Todd wouldn’t lie (narrator’s voice: Todd always lies).

Bethesda, Bethesda never changes.

Endless Space 2: The Most Disappointing Game I Played in Years

Endless Space 2 is the most disappointing game I’ve played in years. Not the most disappointing ever, that dubious honor was claimed by Rome II: Total War, or perhaps Command&Conquer: Red Alert 3? I am pretty sure SimCity is also a strong contender… Suffice to say there are a lot of games that had caused me no small amount of anguish, but Endless Space 2 is the most recent, and the one that sticks in my head the most.

For some context, the first Endless Space was a 4x (eXplore, eXpend, eXploit and eXterminate) released in the dreary year of 2012. At the time 4x games were few and far between, the genre having fallen out of favor with large publishers as the industry shifted more towards FPS and sandboxes to cater to larger demographics. 4x after all, has always been a niche genre, one which grew smaller in comparison as the explosion of gaming brought more players into the market.

That said, Amplitude Studios, the developers of Endless Space, saw an opportunity to cater to that neglected niche. Their debut title, appropriately titled Endless Space, brought them much acclaim and sold well. Well enough in fact that the studio was able to develop more titles set in the fictional universe of said game.

There is no need to be starry eyed about the first Endless Space game. It was quite a simplistic 4x game with rudimentary combat system, bare bones ship design and very basic empire management elements. It was also limited in scope, its generated universe felt quite small. That said it had many redeeming qualities. It managed to create a unique universe whose setting genuinely intrigued me and which made me want to play more to explore and find relics and clues about its past. Graphically, the game was stunning. Not only did the environment look great, but the artwork employed throughout the game for events was nothing less than stunning, something which would become the studio’s defining hallmark. Each of the factions had a distinct look and feel to them that made them stand out. Sound wise, the game had great music and ambient sound. Whatever deficiencies the game had in its core gameplay, it more than made up in its looks and sound.

For those wondering, the setting of Endless Space and the universe it spawned is the downfall of the Endless, a precursor civilization which colonized the galaxy first. It created many technological wonders including Dust, a resource in the game that is one part currency, one part nano machines (Hideo Kojima’s favorite word) and two parts magic. However, the Endless civilization came to an abrupt end of its own design, as a civil war between two factions tore its empire apart and brought doom to the entire race. The player assumes the reins of one of the subsequent races which reached space faring capability and must walk in the footsteps of the Endless.

That said, Endless Space may have been a hit in 2012, but since then much had changed in the gaming landscape. The explosion of Steam, Kickstarter and other platforms led to a second renaissance for genres that had long been forgotten by the large publishers. Smaller publishers, unable or unwilling to compete with the likes of Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard seized on the opportunity and brought to the fore some of these new games. With remasters growing popular, older properties saw a resumed interest and even a revival, with studios developing sequels (for better or worse). One of the main beneficiaries of these developments was the 4x genre.

The true game changer for the 4x genre would come at 2016, when Paradox Interactive would throw its hat in the ring. For those unfamiliar with the developer\publisher, Paradox Games is a company best known for its grand strategy titles. I myself must profess to be a big fan and customer of the company, having bought and played many of its games such as Europa Universalis IV, Hearts of Iron IV, Crusader Kings II and Victoria II. However, the company’s forte has always been in creating historically accurate games which translate the period they depict through complex mechanics, often iterated upon with DLC and expansion over the course of years. No one knew what to expect of their foray into true 4x territory.

The result would be Stellaris, a game so addictive as to be worrisome. It had a greater scope, more events and allowed for greater faction customization. That said it also had a very basic combat system though it did allow for static defenses and its ship design element was also lacking. Yet, when it came to empire management and colonization, it had a much more robust system than Endless Space. The other advantage the game held over its competition was Paradox Interactive’s continued support. Like many of their other in-house products, Paradox Games continued developing and releasing content for the game, slowly populating it with menacing leviathans, mega structures such as Dyson spheres and even re-working its entire faster than light system to deepen its strategic element while also further fleshing combat.

Thus, as time went by, Stellaris got even better. Any game hoping to compete with it had to overcome a huge hurdle. Sadly, Endless Space 2 was not up to the challenge. To be frank, I didn’t even hear about Endless Space 2 until a cursory glance in the Steam store as I waited for the newest expansion for Stellaris to hit shelves. That is not a good sign, considering I am pretty much the target demographic. In the end I did get a copy of the game from a friend and loaded it up, and the result was mixed feelings and a sense of missed opportunity.

By all accounts, Endless Space 2 was just more Endless Space. A lot had been refined and polished, with a few tweaks and additions but remaining overall unchanged from the original. Combat remained shallow, ship design received only an incremental improvement and the scope was virtually unchanged. System and empire managements did not progress at all and were kept as token only. On the other hand, the story elements had been further developed, with factions receiving unique quest lines to follow. The artwork was stunning and overall graphics had been brought up a notch. The soundtrack itself was so good that I actually bought it, something I have never done before.

But I wasn’t having fun. The more I played of the game, the more a certain clip started playing in my head. Any Red Letter Media fan who watched their review of the Pixels movie would be familiar with it. In it, Adam Sandler repeats the line “I haven’t progressed”. That was the feeling I got from the game. Scrape off the fancy facade and all I was left was an Endless Space n+1. Perhaps that was good enough for the casual player or die hard fan, but for me, it felt almost insulting. I expected more from a sequel but felt I’ve gotten instead an expansion pack. Had I bought this full price, I’d have demanded a refund.

The revelation itself shocked me. No matter how many times I tried to get into the game, after a couple of hours I’d quickly give up and play some other game. When Stellaris:Apocalypse rolled into stores I had already abandoned the game, uninstalling it.

When I first sat down to write the article I had a clear goal of just savaging Endless Space 2 and comparing it to Stellaris which I hold as a better game in almost every aspect. However as I delved into the writing, a strange realization came over me. Objectively, Endless Space was never a great game. As described in the opening paragraphs, it was a very basic 4x game released in a time that such games were a rarity, especially as polished as it was. Perhaps I let those memories taint my view and create unreasonable expectations for its sequel, which as I pointed before, came out at in a very different climate. Perhaps what I saw as a good game was merely adequate. Perhaps what I view as mediocre is quite in line with the overall series.

Following this line of thought, I decided to try and rate both the first and second Endless Space games. The result was a 6/10 and 7/10 respectably. Not terrible scores, but not great either. Both games fall into the spectrum of good, just above mediocre.

Thus its not hard to see why Endless Space 2 disappointed me so much when taking all of this into account. I expected something from the series that it never had an intention of supplying. I wanted another Stellaris set in the Endless Space universe, something Amplitude Studios couldn’t, and never intended to, make. I forced my own wishes on the game and when they were left unfulfilled I came to blame the game rather than myself.

Endless Space 2 is the most disappointing game I’ve played in years not because it was bad, but because of my own expectations. I thought Amplitude Studios would build on the success of the first game and make a sequel that would expand on every metric. Instead, they chose a safer route that was more in line with what their fans expected. It was my mistake to believe they’d take a riskier route. Perhaps they know their customers better, perhaps they are just following the trend in gaming of safe, familiar design. Perhaps, Endless Space was never really meant to be anything more than “My First 4X Game”.