Games Feed

Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Highs and LowsA little over a week since Niantic put the new Gyms system and Raids live in Pokémon GO, and the backlash is gradually being drowned out by the support for the way the year-old game has been reawakened by a cleverly imagined, although clunkily implemented, revision to a major part of the core game. The state of the player community is aptly summarised by these two pictures. On the left, five strangers (GPS spoofer not pictured…) took down a Tyranitar in a city in the US… on the right, someone turned up for a big Raid and found nobody there. Indeed, there’s far more of the experience on the right at the moment than the one on the left, but when it works, players are ecstatic about the Raids – and the fact that all three rival Teams can battle together makes it far more open than anything else in the game.

I mentioned before that there were too many Raids triggering for it to fulfil the needs of event gameplay, which is something any AR game wants to create if it can. Pokémon GO has had the most success with this by virtue of the power of the Pokémon brand. However, while I stand by the assessment that the sheer ubiquity of Raids makes no-shows far too likely, the one aspect of this set-up that could work out is that a group of players that set out to attempt a Raid together will have a good chance of finding one that would suit them, and big wins will generate a lot more social media buzz than the no-shows, which will be largely invisible in the secondary media. I have suspicions that part of the problem with Raids is that the app can only hold a relatively small geographic chunk of data in memory at any one time, and thus Niantic are not set up to flag Raids city- or county-wide… if they were, there are much better ways of designing the Raid allocations than those we’re currently seeing.

Meanwhile, and quite fortunately for Niantic, the furore over coins is starting to die down as players gradually adjust to the new arrangement. It becomes clearer and clearer than the most outraged players are the ousted nobility of an economy that was akin to a pyramid scheme in rewarding the players who had been at it for longest while excluding everyone else. Not long after the update, Niantic brought the cap on the Gym Defender Bonus down to 50 PokéCoins per day, but raised the rewards to 1 coin per 10 minutes (immediately after the update, it was 1 coin per hour up to a maximum of 100 per day), which didn’t go down well. But what’s becoming clear is that instead of 1-2% of players getting 100 coins a day and 5% of players getting 10-20 coins per day, now anyone who wants to can get 50 coins a day, at least if they’re not too close to the centre of a city nor too far away from any major settlement. (As someone who grew up on an island only 30 miles across, I can feel the pain of the rural players right now…)

The real switch in people’s heads is in understanding how everyone now gets ‘paid’. It used to be a salary system, where the pay was proportional to the number of Gyms occupied (up to 10). This encouraged squatting in Gyms with 3,000 CP overlords that the majority of players – especially those coming late to the game – could never match. The new pay is a mediated lottery system, because it’s not hard to get a pokémon to hold a Gym for 8 hours and get the full 50 coins (if you’re up late at night, it’s even easier!), but you need to ensure that you get at least one monster returned to you each day, and this isn’t something you can guarantee. Rather, the more defenders you put into Gyms, the better chance you have of getting your expected earnings.

The new Defender rewards is far a subtler system than the one it replaces.. you are going to get lots of creatures coming home in bandages at the weekend, when there’s a lot of player activity, so it can feel like those coins are ‘wasted’ when players still think in terms of salary. But the dominant strategy for the the new coin system revolves around ensuring that at least one 8-hour Pokémon comes back each day. I predict it won’t be long before players complain less about getting multiple monsters back at once (which at the moment feels like having ‘lost’ money, because of the comparison with the old salary system) than about living in an area where nobody comes and battles at their Gyms ever. These complains already exist, but those voices will get louder and more bitter the longer the situation persists, always assuming the players just don’t drop out entirely.

Urban players will quickly adjust to the idea that they’re going to be getting a steady 50 coins a day now (50 cents USD/40p GBP) – and I estimate 10-20 times as many players getting that full pay-out from Niantic than were getting it before, which is obviously a win for the game in terms of engagement and player satisfaction. At the same time, rural players are going to find their Pokémon stuck in Gyms and getting no coins at all. They’re asking for a button to recall the Pokémon – but this would break the Gym system. Niantic ought to be thinking about what they can do to balance the city and the countryside, although as a strict commercial decision it does make sense to favour the densely populated areas over the sparser regions. Still, they would earn a lot of brownie points for being responsive to this issue.

There’s one last issue: Stardust. It is used in the game economy to power up pokémon, and under the old system it was the scarcest and most valuable resource because it could not be purchased directly by IAP, unlike PokéCoins. Players who were earning 100 coins a day used it to purchase Egg Incubators because these pay-out the most Stardust, but they also got 500 stardust for each Pokémon in a Gym (up to 5,000 maximum per day), which was enough to power up a high level monster once, or a low level monster twice. Under the old ‘Overlord’ Gym system, Stardust was essential because you had to be competitive on Combat Points (CP) to stay in a Gym. But under the new system this simply doesn’t matter because visiting Gyms frequently is much more important than having played the game for longer than everyone around you. Players who became used to having a lot of Stardust (the toppled nobility) are feeling the loss… but for most players, the new arrangement is simply better for them than the grind-heavy old regime, even if the 10 Stardust per berry fed at a Gym is peanuts next to what used to be paid out.

Right now, Niantic are doubling down on bug fixes, since launching two new systems at once has understandably broken the game in dozens of different ways. The real testament to the success of the Raid system is that players who form a group and beat a strong Raid Boss enjoy the experience so much it completely blows away their irritations over fatal crashes, bar display fluctuations, and other such problems that in a less popular game would be fatal. With a week of Raids now over, I’m going to call the update a qualified success for Niantic – and it’s going to be interesting to see what it means for their revenue when that data is released. For the time being, though, there’s never been a better time to be part of the 65 million strong player community for Pokémon GO.


Pokémon GO Raids: First Weekend

Raids

Has Niantic hurt its player community with the new update, or has it succeeded in raising engagement and monetisation? This question is not yet fully resolved, but after the first weekend of Raids and Gym battles under the new system, we have a sense of how things are going for the 65 million-player augmented reality game.

As both a player and as a videogame consultant, I’ve been keeping a very close eye on how the new Pokémon GO update affected the player community over the weekend. It was a significant event in the game’s history, because multiplayer co-operative Raids are now live for all players, having previously been through an interesting Beta-by-level countdown (such that, for instance Level 35 players had first access, then Level 30 and so on). The Raids are an important part of Niantic’s monetisation strategy going forwards, so they need to work well enough for that to pay off for them.

The good news, for both players and Niantic, is that the Raids have been very well received, offering a new kind of battle to the players that are exciting and engaging. But there is a problem. The Raids are clearly intended to be event gameplay – the idea is that groups of players get together to fight a powerful Raid boss together. But this hasn’t happened. So far, in all my skimming around Raid sites, the most I have found at any one is two players, and a single player or none at all is more typical.

The problem is, there are currently far too many Raids triggering at once. The Raids only work as events if players all descend upon one Raid together – which is clearly intended, because the monetisation of Premium Raid Tickets (IAP $1 USD or 79p GBP) is the big win that Niantic is aiming for in the new system. With one free ticket a day, and dozens of Raids to choose from between 9 am and 9 pm, players are not congregating for the Raids at all. Perhaps Niantic is expecting players to self-organise for this. If so, they are being optimistic.

Eevee GymOn the plus side, the new Gym update has brought the player community out of hiding. Outside of Raids, I have encountered more Pokémon GO players in the last three days than in my entire time with the game thus far. That’s a win for Niantic – the revision of the Gym system has worked as intended, and it has ended the domination of 3,000 CP overlords. Now, more players than ever before are able to get pokémon into gyms, and more different kinds of beasties are appearing in gyms as players realise that the old rules don’t apply. This has also generated a lot of free publicity in social media, with images like the one above circulating rather well online.

But while players who had previously been marginalised are now coming out of the woodwork, the existing PokéNobility are still seriously offended by the changes to the coin rewards, as I discussed before the update went live. This is an ongoing mini-scandal, and how offended players are about it depends on how well they were doing out of the old system. There’s a certain degree of the aristocracy-after-the-revolution about this sour grapes, especially since it was the vast minority of players (I reckon between 1 and 5% of the player base) that were benefiting from the old regime.

Don’t think, however, that this means that the new PokéCoin system was clever design work on Niantic’s part: one of the serious problems with the way the new system works is that players have lost control of how their rewards are received. Previously, players chose when to take their PokéCoins, and this setup allowed even marginal players to get some coins every now and then. Now, players have absolutely no control over when they get rewards. You don’t get coins until your pokémon are ejected from gyms, and this happens when another team decides to attack. Players feel understandably set adrift by this, which is bad for player satisfaction, and (perhaps worse) it is an additional incentive for players to start secondary accounts – which Niantic are publicly opposed to.

Overall, this new update has been a good news, bad news kind of affair. My impression of the response from the player community is that the benefits have outweighed the costs for the majority of the players, but that a minority of well-established players are displeased by the toppling of an empire that benefited them greatly. That said, no-one is happy about a reward system that quashes player agency and creates huge ambiguity about how to earn rewards by playing the game. On this front, Niantic have some crucial fire-fighting ahead of them.


Wave Goodbye to the 3,000 CP Overlords

First Gym DataThe gyms went live last night at 9:00 pm GMT, and as predicted it was the biggest land grab in videogame history… Within two hours, every gym within ten miles of me was claimed. As a Team Mystic family, I was lucky to get any pokémon into slots as there are so many more blue players than anything else – but I did meet other players for the first time in the UK, who were clustered around my local gyms, working to secure them and fill them up. As someone who missed the launch of the game, it was a nice feeling to see the community in the flesh.

With the first night over here in the UK, the effects of the Motivation system are readily apparent: eight hours later, those who put 3,000 CP+ defenders into gyms will find their pokémon bored to death this morning, with zero motivation. Now it’s a face between allied players giving them berries to perk them up and rival teams to claim the gym – which will be easier the more behemoths were fielded. This is an extremely encouraging development! It really does end the pokémonopoly, even though (sadly) Blissey will remain ubiquitous on account of her unbelievable tanking stats.

I chose to field an unusual pokémon because it seemed in the spirit of the new meta-game to do so, putting in a 1,799 Typhlosion my kids had evolved at the end of the Solstice event. I have much higher CP defenders to choose from, but I was curious as to whether the new setup really would shake things up. This morning, the 3,293 CP Dragonite and a similar-strength Gyrados were seriously flagging, and down to roughly 1,200 CP. But my Typhlosion is only down to 1,631, and the Espeon of one of the trainer I met last night is down from 1,714 CP to 1,552 CP (odd that Blissey went from 1,918 to 1,935 CP, but it may have already lost Motivation in the first case, and have been recently fed in the second). This means, as predicted, the question of what is a good gym defender is back in play – and really will be different according to the local conditions. Great news for players who are in it for the fun of battling for control.

However, it has also become apparent that the new PokéCoin mechanic utterly destroys any hope of players in cities from making much in-game currency, since a pokémon must defend for an hour to get 1 coin now. Previously, as soon as you took a gym you could claim 10 coins immediately, and it was easy to take 30-40 coins a day from occupying gyms only briefly, and perfectly viable to claim the maximum 100 coins (worth about a dollar, or 79p here in the UK). Now, rural players will be able to take advantage of the slow turnover of their gyms, which is nice compensation for their isolation, while spoofers (who use fake GPS data to cheat at the game) will at least have to work harder to work out which gyms are worth holding. 

This strangling of reward may well have the desired effect of raising real money transactions – we'll find out the next time Niantic post profits. However, I for one will dig my heels in and be much less likely to buy PokéCoins knowing that the developer is intentionally starving supply. Of course, paid Premium Raid passes might be Niantic’s endgame here – and many will be tempted to buy these to get a chance at capturing unique pokémon. But it means in the monetisation meta-game, Niantic is going to have turned a lot of its friends into enemies.


Sunset

This is a critique, not a review. My review is: ‘if you care about artgames, you should buy and play this game’.

20160507203016_1The moment I finished playing Sunset, I went on to replay Façade, one of several games in 2005 to put artistic motivation firmly back into play for videogames, after languishing for decades out of anyone's concern. Façade was a landmark artgame: it reinvented the commercially dead adventure game genre as a means of delivering theatre, taking the one room, small cast format of an off-Broadway play and making it into a game. Sunset, released by Tale of Tales in 2015, revisits (probably inadvertently) the idea of taking cues from theatre while simultaneously developing something entirely original and unexpected. In so doing, it shows the remarkable distance artgames have travelled in just ten years.

Sunset is the most luxurious artgame to be released without a publisher, a testament to the capacity for crowdfunding to open up previously impossible development pathways and facilitate utterly original projects. This plush element could easily go unnoticed, but anyone who has worked in game development could not help but notice the clean, elegant interface. The control panel for the elevator that leads to the games’ apartment serves as a control panel, and from here an options screen that would be the envy of any indie game can be reached. To exit the game, you click a red button, and the panel slides across the screen; to confirm, you press red again, completely defending against accidental exit by moving the button between actions. Having played almost all of Tale of Tales previous games, this attention to small interface details immediately reveals the larger budget at work here.

Yet the interface is also feels like a site of tension... here, for the first time Michael and Auriea (the beating heart of Tale of Tales) accept the interface practices of gun games, two-handed, move and aim. True, an alternative is offered – but buried in the beautifully designed options such that anyone who might need it would likely lack the game literacy to find it. Thus, as with Dear Esther, we find ourselves in a first person shooter without guns – the derogatorily named ‘walking simulator’ insult-turned-banner-of-pride that serves as a perverse testament to the games industry’s utter dependence upon firearms and violence for producing commercial entertainment.

There are guns in Sunset, but you never see them. Indeed, this is a game that spectacularly eschews conventional spectacle. Throughout the games’ slowly-unfolding story, a civil war against a 1970s South American dictatorship is witnessed both from a distance – the sound of gunfire in the streets, an explosion at a neighbouring building – and from the intimate inside, since the player serves as maid to a key politician-turned-rebel. It is an ambitious, highly theatrical staging, and admirable when it works, which it does more often than not. As Emily Short comments of the narrative, however, it struggles with both its thematic focus and some occasionally muddy moments of exposition.

Yet to treat Sunset purely as a narrative game is to rob it of its greatest achievement, and perhaps also to misunderstand one of the layers of meaning wrapped up in its name. For while it is metaphorically concerned with the sunset on the Anchurian dictatorship, it is also at the same time quite literally concerned with sunsets, and every moment of the game occurs against one. In so doing, it takes one of the most tangential artefacts of commercial game design and makes it the star of the show; for it is not the protagonist, Angela Barnes, who can claim that title, but the most literal star in the game: the sun.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in 1998, I have been revelling in virtual sunsets. The day-night cycle was ostensibly added for gameplay purposes, perhaps because most game designers (‘planners’ in Japan) have a slender appreciation of the power of visual aesthetics. Yet I can think of nothing more spectacular in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas than its sunsets, particularly because each region had its own colour scheme and painted the most glorious tableaux at the end of each day, burned into my memory far more deeply than its casual violence or lacklustre pastiche of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.

Time CollageIn Sunset, as the title makes clear, the sunset is the empress of its tiny world. Yet rather than gaze at the landscape, as I did in GTA or Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, Tale of Tales’ game populates its apartment setting with artworks – paintings, sculptures, tapestries. While lacking the palpable tangibility of real gallery works (you have never seen a Van Gogh painting if you have only seen a print, for the furrowed grooves of his brushwork is everything), the works the team of artists has produced for Sunset are perfectly suited for their milieu. They show up every subtle shift in tint and shade as the sun crosses the imagined sky, and as a player the option to turn on a lamp and further illumine each piece is an act of agency with astonishing aesthetic force. I spent several of my in-game days staring at a single work as it gave up its palette to me in silent joy.

These experiences go far beyond what an art museum has an opportunity to provide, and create an entirely new kind of play, what might be called a gallery game. In steadfast opposition to Michael and Auriea’s insistence that their later project, Cathedral in the Clouds is “not a game”, I shall view it as a sequel to Sunset. In so doing, I also hint at an important way that Sunset’s flawed narrative is essential to its function as a gallery game, since it creates the conditions for the ebb and flow of the artworks within the sculpted gallery-space it provides. This, as with Animal Crossing’s every-changing daily content, provided my most powerful reason to return day after day, and may also have dulled my enthusiasm in the latter half of my time playing, as the pieces gradually became boxed up and hidden. I played for just under ten hours in total. It took me seventeen months. Throughout, my experience was always changing, never compulsive, always compelling. Sunset has just what it needs to do what it does best.

Which brings me back to 2005. Although my respect for Façade will never dim, replaying it reminded me of its core problem: it’s frightfully overengineered. Its creators, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, called it an ‘AI game’, reflecting their pride in the artificial intelligence dramaturge they had created. I remember the GDC lecture on the design, and it was readily apparent at the time that this was not something anyone else could possibly have any reason to emulate. What’s more, the majority of the player experiences Façade produces could have been generated by a far simpler ‘classical’ narrative design. The genius of Façade was its taking influence from theatre, rather than film or other videogames, and this alone is more than enough to mark it out as a significant turning point for artgames, even if most of my plays of it feel remarkably similar.

Yet 2005 was not a banner year for artistically-motivated games just because of Façade, and among the other remarkable games that debuted that year was Tale of Tales’ first release, The Endless Forest. This unique ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’, which went on to inspire thatgamecompany’s Journey, created an entirely new concept, what might be called encounter games, that allowed players to meet and act out a role with no possibility of harm or competition. It was an idea they followed up with 2012’s Bientôt L’été, with their usual mixed degrees of success.

Sunset, once again, does not succeed on all counts, yet aims so much further beyond anything else I’ve seen attempted in the theatrical artgame genre that it is staggering that it came a mere decade after Façade. That alone would mark it as a phenomenal achievement. That it also contains an entirely original conception of a gallery artgame arguably renders it Tale of Tales magnum opus, and certainly places it far beyond the rather narrow achievements of most artistically-motivated games. Michael and Auriea’s work is not likely to be enjoyed by everyone, and most gamers will find nothing much to their taste in Sunset’s meanderings. Regardless, I find their gallery game to surpass several bricks-and-mortar galleries I’ve visited. I'm not sure I have a higher honour to bestow.


Games Industry Roundup

You’ll hear all sorts of crazy things coming out of the games industry at the moment, largely because the ‘social games’ bubble has burst, and so everyone’s talking VR, because that bubble is still being blown. No-one, in my view, has a clue about the shape of the market in 2 years time, let alone 10 years. But that doesn’t stop speculation. Here’s the best and worst of what’s out there, along with some annotations.

  • A must-read for indie developers is Dan Cook’s Autumn of Indie Game Markets over at Lost Garden. A brilliant and cogent summary of what has happened, and what we can expect to happen next. Don’t let the length put you off from reading this essential piece.
  • Dan quotes Will Wright’s remark that 2005-2008 was a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of videogames. But seriously, the videogame Cambrian explosion ran from 1980-1987. The key years were 1984-5. The last pivotal game was Dungeon Master in ’87, which helped turn D&D into the FPS.
  • Not many articles on VR capture my concerns about this market ‘opportunity’, but over on gamesindustry.biz Rob Fahey hits his mark once again in VR: There will be blood. (Thanks to Nicholas Lovell for bringing my attention to this one.)
  • As Dan pointed out, VR is an opportunity because investors are interested in it. That doesn’t make it a viable long-term market. I remember when episodic content was what investors wanted. Only one company (Telltale) made it work – and it certainly helped that all their staff were ex-LucasArts employees. Investors know nothing about games. But they do have money to burn…
  • Speaking of money to burn, check out this interview with Andrew Wilson, the current CEO of the once market-leading Electronic Arts, also the company that gave Will Wright his big break with, ahem, Raid on Bungling Bay (1984)*. Call me uncharitable if you must, but Wilson comes off as a steely eyed nutjob to me. Fortunately, I doubt his job has anything to do with productively influencing EA’s low-innovation, ultra-conservative business model.

*Actually, I really enjoyed this game, even though it was just about bombing blocky battleships with a blocky helicopter.


Save The Endless Forest

Endless Forest Skull DeerAlong with Façade and Shadow of the Colossus, Tale of Tales’ ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ The Endless Forest was one of the key games that made 2005 such a banner year for artgames. It went on to inspire Jenova Chen’s team in the design of Journey, and remains one of the most innovative designs ever offered in games.

Now Michael and Auriea want to bring back their “whimsical online magical deer fantasy” – and they need our help to do it! Please consider donating to the IndieGoGo fund for The Endless Forest: Second Decade. The original game was a milestone in the artistic history of games, as well as one of the most fascinating and engaging aesthetic experiences ever to be offered on a computer.

There are just a few days left to contribute. Please help the forest live again!


No Man's Sky Roundup

Not Really NoctisYou might have noticed a little game came out recently called No Man’s Sky. If you didn’t, you must be trawling a different part of the internet from me because I have been invaded, cajoled, frustrated, and panhandled by No Man’s Sky ads so much at this point that I’m pretty committed to not buying it. Mind you, I had already swayed against since it’s not at all what I wanted – which is just a slightly more polished Noctis. For those of you looking to read something about No Man’s Sky, however, here’s the roundup:

  • Don’t know what the game is? Start with Gareth Damian Martin’s rather reasonable review, which is let down by never mentioning Noctis.
  • Heard about its technical problems? Well the developers say that “Less than one percent” of players have reported issues. They mean ‘have raised a support ticket’. Most players report issues by bitching into Twitter.
  • Lewie Procter, on the other hand, complains about the “lack of multiplayer”, which was at least (he says) implied, if not outright promised.
  • Brendan Caldwell skips straight to ballistic and wades in with accusations of “broken promises”.
  • Brendan Keogh offers a counter-Brendan, trying to drum up sanity from the internet.
  • …and the same kind of “seriously you guys?” with a lot more amusing swearing can be found in Rob’s rambling retort.
  • Lastly, if (like me) you just wish No Man’s Sky was actually a buffed-up Noctis, there’s Dylan Roberts’ piece, Before No Man’s Sky there was Noctis, which might explain why that was what I personally wanted.

Is the opening image from No Man’s Sky or Noctis? Actually, neither, it’s Frig’s mock ups of Noctis V, the sequel that doesn’t exist, as posted to Anynowhere. If you’re making a Noctis-style game, please do let me know, because No Man’s Sky just isn’t Noctis enough for my tastes.


Pokémon GO Round-up

Before you ask, I’m not playing Pokémon GO, nor do I plan too. I’m a father, a writer, and a business owner – I don’t have time to play an MMO. But it’s interesting to me, since this is another example of a game where the fictional content is far and away the critical factor in its success. My old MUD crowd played Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, and had a lot of fun with it – but anyone who has ever enjoyed any aspect of Pokémon is playing GO, and that’s not just the power of branding – it’s the power of fictional worlds.

Here, in case you missed them, are the best articles so far about Pokémon GO:

  • Firstly, do not miss Raph Koster’s piece, AR is an MMO. The title may not grab you, but this is Raph on top form, reiterating a point he and I have both made (and that he made first…) which is that the important thing about both MMOs and AAA console games is that they are worlds – and Niantic need to wise up fast to the consequences of a player community this large sharing one world.
  • At the border of paranoia is Omari Akil’s Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man. Thanks to my old school chum, Simon Cox, for drawing my attention to this one.
  • Omari’s fears are grounded in the horrific reality of race relations in the US, of course, so it’s perhaps worth reminding everyone that there are more prosaic risks entailed in playing a game on your phone while you walk around a city… Consider the 15-year old girl in Pennsylvania who got hit by a car while allegedly playing the game.
  • As for Nintendo, the total value of their stock (their market capitalisation) has gained $11 billion (!) since the game was released…
  • …but as Steve Schaefer at Forbes correctly points out, there’s no way the game can deliver income commensurate to that increase in stock value, so Nintendo ought to prepare themselves for the other side of that particular mountain.