Tag: games

Why Dota 2's Immortal Treasures left me disappointed

Dota 2 is my most-played game ever. I have poured more than a thousand hours into it, made some great friends and I like spending snippets of whatever grownups call pocket money on little wizard hats and capes.

When the magical digital wizard booklet known as the Compendium was announced for 2014 I picked one up as soon as possible. A quarter of the proceeds go to The International 4 prize fund with the rest going to Valve. I like the idea of contributing to a tournament I enjoy and to players from whom I have learned a lot. Similarly, Valve’s input is cool. Reaching stretch goals means the team create items, a new game mode, different types of customisation – some of the rewards will benefit all Dota 2 players, even those who didn’t pick up a Compendium.

Today was the day for delivering the Immortal Treasures.

Last year’s Compendium Immortals were problematic because there was a clear disparity in terms of their value. Some were for popular heroes and had supercool animations, some were for less popular heroes and didn’t really deliver on the animations front either. As Chris puts it on Three Lane Highway, it was possible to feel like you’d lost.

This year is far better in that respect – the items are cool, the chest system has been changed so that with multiple chests you’re not risking doubling up on an item you’ve already received and there’s a chance for earning some ace rares. Indeed, I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s been disappointed. Except for me.

“Once the Immortal Treasure stretch goal is reached, you’ll receive an extra Immortal Treasure every 10 levels. Each time you open a treasure, you will find a different item, with a chance to get an exceptionally rare item.”

That’s the way this year’s Immortals work.

I’ve bought my Compendium and been enjoying leveling it up naturally, playing games and completing the tasks the booklet sets in order to gain points. I’m at level 7 at the moment and thus was entitled to one Immortal Treasure box. I opened it while on voice chat with friends as we queued for a game. “What did you get?!” was the question everyone was asking one another. I got a tail for Puck. It’s a lovely item but the character just isn’t one I play. Instantly I started thinking about the people I play with who pick Puck often and who I could gift it to.

I love that aspect of Dota – giving someone an unexpected present just because you know they love playing that hero. It’s a really nice feeling. In fact when I was waiting for the chest to open I was running through which items I’d love and keep and strut up and down the lanes with for months and months and which ones would be heading to other people’s armories for them to do the same.

But everyone else who was excited about the Immortals had received multiple drops. I realised I was the only person there who hadn’t spent extra money leveling up by buying extra points and, as the conversations continue, was acutely aware of how many cool items I was missing out on by not spending money. This is the first time I’ve felt that by not spending money I was having a less enjoyable experience than other people in Dota 2.

By spending the cost of another Compendium you can gain 24 levels on your current Compendium. That does things like affecting the rate at which you earn levels and items for your Dota profile. But what it also does is earn you at least two extra Immortal Treasure drops. Three in my case as I’m already on level 7. I guess looking at it like that made me feel silly for watching my level grow through meeting the booklet’s challenges and things. Like, I was doing it wrong and missing out by not just dropping another six quid into the pot.

I still have the Puck tail too. Like I said before, I was going to give it to someone I know who plays the character a lot. Thing is, he’s spent roughly three times more than I have on the Compendium – nudging towards the £20 mark – and so when I asked what he’d got in his Immortal drops the answer was “everything”.

The Dota 2 treasure system has improved so much since last year, it really has. But the feeling of missing out because I simply hadn’t spent enough money is not one I’ve associated with Dota 2 at all. Having it flash up during a moment I was excited about was unexpected and unpleasant, and then again when I was trying to decide what to do with the item. I want the cool items but they now they feel more like a set of toys you buy outright rather than having an element of reward or socialising to them. I could still spend the extra money – I’d prefer that to using the marketplace, I think – it’s just that I no longer feel good about it.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

At the beginning of Splinter Cell: Blacklist you walk along a corridor littered with dying men, your colleagues finishing them off with occasional bullet fire. The men die and the narrative strides on into a different space. But in that corridor there was a rare, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it twinge of discomfort over the actions onscreen.

I decided to ask Ubisoft Toronto game designer Maxime Béland (who worked on Blacklist as well as three of the Rainbow Six franchise) about how he approaches making a game that involves shooting representations of other human beings.

“I think the number one thing is respect,” said Béland after a taking some time to think. “We’re not giving you $5,000 more if you do a headshot and there’s blood everywhere. We didn’t go in and put blood everywhere. We’re doing it realistically. I think what’s great with our game is that it’s up to the player. When you’re playing Sam [Fisher] if you want to kill no-one you can.”

[Full interview at Wired.co.uk]

Another Booker DeWitt in another flooded church [BioShock Infinite spoilers, I guess]

One of the last things I wrote on here was from just after finishing BioShock Infinite. It was a piece about the frustration and the disconnection I had in the world of Columbia. I could see a beautiful thing and an interesting thing and a thing built around concepts I actively enjoy thinking about or exploring. It was a game which said “we made this for you”.

Then I played it.

Columbia was a closed world. Sure I could wander round and shoot men or pick up voxophones but there was no space for me to exist. It’s a concept central to the game’s story but one which repelled. Here I am, you made a game for me to play and interact with except it isn’t a game, it’s a movie crossed with a museum and that made the sections where it required sustained active input seem so hollow. Don’t get me wrong, I like the FPS side of things and I think the game actually benefits from the violence. But between the combat sections and the wandering about sections I couldn’t find a foothold through which to insert myself into proceedings and engage with the ideas.

Last night I booted it up again, determined to find something different, a way in and a way around.

It’s a decision which has been building for a while but I didn’t act on it because I was enjoying the state of anticipation. The weeks or months between the first play and this one have been marked by a peculiar sensation — that of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I will love so much about the game this time around. Delaying that gratification has been a tease and a pleasure and I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But a few nights ago I needed to fact check something and since then it’s been just a matter of finding the time to hit “new game”.

Maybe this will sum up the differences between playthroughs so far:

After the lighthouse, your first experience involves a flooded church. It was astonishingly beautiful the first time round but something bothered me and that was the lack of repercussions for any of your actions. As with the rest of the game all you can really do is pick up things that are glowing and interact with people in pre-determined ways. During the first playthrough I did as my trained monkey game brain desired. I picked up everything I could find, sat through the conversations and headed towards my brutal baptism. My engagement with the space was then disrupted – where was my punishment for stealing from this religion or cult?

Obviously, one of the points of BioShock Infinite is that you’re not the first Booker to have trodden this path. The Lutece coin toss set piece hints at dozens of other Bookers all unable to effect a change. With that in mind, the only interactions the game can offer you are those which can’t actually make a difference to the story. That’s the problem with the first playthrough – before the game offers you a broader hint at the difficulties of determinism and free will it signposts trashcans for you to snuffle around in and loot to pick up. The lack of censure feels bizarre and takes hold, persisting well into the rest of the game and cultivating a disconnect which is then exacerbated through the oddly punctuated battle sequences.

In terms of the flooded church, the consequence-less theft can represent both your ultimate inability to have an impact on the flow of the story and Booker’s relationship with religion. That’s not to say I now think the execution isn’t problematic. Regardless of why it happens, diminishing the player’s agency will affect their experience of the game – it definitely affected mine.

So what of this latest Booker in this latest flooded church? He picked up one single solitary coin through force of habit and then left the rest alone. He looked at everything, listened to the voxophone about sinners in relation to a redeemer, and drank in the atmosphere. That was the extent to which I knew I could exert my own agency and so this time it counted for far more. The expectation of repercussions is because games frequently encourage an externalised view of morality. It is they and their systems which will determine how good or bad you are so you behave slightly differently. This time, in response to the previous playthrough, I’m finding the tiny points of difference (moral and otherwise) where this Booker can become my Booker. I can’t change who he is overall but I can build a bridge over which we can communicate.

Interview: Capcom's Cancelled Blood Swimming Pool

Despite the dubious zombie-themed games launches which have peppered the last few years, Capcom’s Resident Evil: Revelations blood swimming pool felt like it had the potential to be fun and relevant. As it happens the event was cancelled, but I decided to interview the creative director anyway about how to negotiate the boundary between attention-grabbing and offensive when it comes to the undead.

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Zombie-themed games launches don’t have a great track record in terms of PR. At their most typical, an agency ends up hiring an incredibly slow-moving crowd to shuffle towards the cameras, arms outstretched, faces dripping with stage makeup, having raided my wardrobe back during my Seattle grunge phase. At the other end of the spectrum sit experiments in taste and traffic baiting.

One such launch event was the Resident Evil 5 torso treasure hunt where, as per Pocket Lint’s coverage at the time:

“From the three heads, three torsos and 12 arms and legs hidden at various locations around Trafalgar Square, only two heads, one torso and six legs were returned by players – yet the fake body parts disappeared from all the locations they were hidden.”

Oh, and:

“Apparently seeing people walking around at rush hour clutching decapitated heads and covered in blood was enough to offend some people, and the police were called to the competition finish line on Westminster Bridge, prompting an early finish to the competition.”

Another memorable moment was the, to my mind, actively malicious and cynical Dead Island Riptide torso collectible. You remember – the disembodied pair of biologically unlikely tits in a string bikini customised to your country and about which Deep Silver were really apologetic. Right up until the point when they released it as a limited edition with a £89.99 price tag.

Most recently we had a blood swimming pool created to promote Resident Evil Revelations. Despite the less-than-stellar legacy of zombie launches I had higher hopes this time around because Emma Thomas, the creative director of the event has put on a host of other gory events which have all managed to be fascinating and horrible without being offensive.

Or, more accurately, we would have had a blood swimming pool event, but the week of the event was also the week a soldier was stabbed to death in Woolwich and blood stains and pictures of his corpse dominated the news. Unsurprisingly, Capcom pulled the plug on the event before anyone dipped so much as a toe in the crimson waters.

For a little more on the pool and the problems in bringing death to the marketplace I spoke to creative director for the event, Emma Thomas (you might know her as Miss Cakehead on Twitter):

So how did the blood swimming pool come about?

We wanted to create a culturally strong event that would appeal to a wide audience, and crucially engage with those outside the core gaming press. In order to do so we felt it was important to create an event – or experience – that would appeal to the widest possible audience. The specific swimming pool was conceived for two reasons:

a) When creating a PR stunt I feel it is important to tie into current and future trends, the open air swimming pool being one of these.

b) It also needed to relate to Resident Evil: Revelations and not be bloody just for the sake of it. The setting for the game is an old cruise ship so we wanted to have an experience that would relate to this key element of Resident Evil: Revelations, swimming pools on deck being synonymous with cruise ships. A pool also features in the new title, so this seemed to be the perfect stunt.

How do you negotiate the line between what’s offensive or negative and what’s playful?

I believe it comes down to a creative approach more akin to an advertising agency than PR. We ensure a level of detail that heightens the experience and makes it much more than a PR stunt. We also look to create experiences that appeal to both male and female audiences – being a female creative director makes this instinctive.

What makes extreme PR stunts stand out and work is when there is a story being told, and gore is only used if it fits part of the narrative. If you look at Wesker & Son [a pop-up human butcher art installation also used by Capcom to promote Resident Evil] you’ll see that there was actually no blood involved for the final pop up shop and this was only featured for the murder scene press packs where it was highly relevant to the story.

You also need to be aware of potential issues before negative reactions start and take action. Wanting to have amputee butchers for example (we worked with the amazing Amputees In Action on this), we then also made the decision to donate all the money taken to the limbless society.

And what about the decision to cancel the pool event?

It was a difficult and brave decision by Capcom but there is no doubt it was the right thing to do. No only would the content not be suitable for the news agenda, it would run the risk of upsetting all those affected. This was meant to be a fun engaging experience and in light of the Woolwich attacks this was no longer the case.

Has the event been cancelled or postponed?

At present Capcom have not decided on the future of the pool.

What was the reaction to the pool from the general public before the Woolwich news broke?

The reaction has been incredible with all tickets to the event selling out in minutes. A few were rather concerned they would be swimming in real blood though!

Have any of the other gory projects you’ve worked on raised similar issues in terms of being controversial?

I believe that being purposefully controversial shows a lack of creativity, and that all PR is not good PR. For example vagina cakes could be considered ‘controversial’ but people of all ages flock to the shops to purchase them. That said I have been reported to the police for inciting cannibalism, although I have not yet managed to upset the Daily Mail…

BioShock Infinite: Did you kill a man without going outside the lines?

One of the comments scrawled on a friend’s book manuscript after proofreading was “Has anyone ever EXPLAINED paragraphs to you?” I remember being in his kitchen and helpfully offering the advice: “Every six lines just do a line indent and you’re sorted…”

I’m telling this anecdote because that seems roughly the same approach BioShock Infinite has to fight sequences. Every, I dunno, six minutes here are some dudes in an area for you to deal with in a shooty punchy fashion. These encounters quickly stop having meaning, they feel like road blocks in between chapters of a story.

At these points the game sneaks off like an irresponsible substitute teacher going for a cigarette break after asking you to colour something in. It doesn’t matter what colours or weapons or vapours you use or whether you do it particularly well or poorly. Did you kill a man without going outside the lines? No-one asks. All that matters is that you have something that keeps your hands busy lest anyone look in to check. Then the game comes back, claps its hands and moves on to the next bit of the story except you can’t quite remember which page because the colouring in disrupted everything.

I don’t think BioShock Infinite gave a damn what I did during those sequences. It didn’t matter how I played as long as everyone’s head fell off in the end. As a result I played how I wanted.

I get that one of the overarching themes is that it doesn’t really matter what you do because what you do is what you always have done and will always do. You are moving towards a predefined end point both in the game and the game conceit. I feel like perhaps you could make an argument that in that scenario it is appropriate that the game feels no need to react to your methodology or player agency, but it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a real answer which translates into the game experience.

I found myself not exactly bored, just completely uninspired by the combat. Shock jockey, shotgun, punch, whatever. An edge of brutality is necessary to so many of the stories BioShock Infinite seems to want to tell but it only comes through at rare moments – the baptism at the beginning, the first time I used the hook to smash someone’s face in – but the rest rapidly becomes a kind of aggressive shouty porridge. I wondered whether it was on purpose. A comment on becoming desensitised to violence or on being Booker? I can’t remember the exact phrasing but Elizabeth asks something like “Will we ever be able to wash away these sins?” – so maybe the fact they don’t feel like sins or have an emotional or personal impact is supposed to tell you that this Booker doesn’t view them as such. What sins? Why should I want to wash anything away?

Again, it feels like an argument you can make if you want to and there’s logic to it but not an emotional truth. The repeated sensation is that you’re playing across a divide. There are the bits where the game is telling you the story and where the environment and mechanics are geared towards you caring about particular things or paying attention to particular things, then there’s a confection of battles which lack that focus and care towards the player. Regardless of the intention, it felt jarring – like I kept falling through a tear in the game and out into a world where it had no gravity or pull.

The lack of investment in the player’s repeated battles manifests itself most obviously in the final sequence where you’re defending Comstock’s airship from a Vox Populi attack – if your existing play style lends itself to the battle Irrational have created then fine. If not you’ll suddenly experience a bizarre difficulty spike as vapours you completely forgot existed and the weapons you didn’t upgrade leave a gaping hole in your skill set. This fight rears its head like a remnant of an older draft where the systems made sense and fights hung together.

Obviously you can still succeed, but my point is that I don’t think the game does a good job of showing or teaching you the variety of combat or of prodding you into experimentation. As a result the end doesn’t feel like an exercise in earned skill, it’s just: bang bang whoosh aim the Songbird oh wait you can’t because Elizabeth wants to chuck pennies at you and it’s the same button and what the hell does she think you’re saving up for at this point and then ACTUALLY aim the Songbird and then more bang bang whoosh until the story comes back and takes you to the end. The closest BioShock Infinite came to caring about my gameplay was having achievements for using different kinds of weapons or attacks (I was playing the Xbox version) and if you’re relying on Xbox cheevos to spice things up then something has gone horribly wrong.

Violence is important to the game but for the moments when it creates a sense of shocking brutality, not the blanket of inculcated indifference and gore it spreads over everything.

I am sitting in a chair strumming a guitar and Elizabeth is coaxing a terrified child out from under the stairs by rolling an orange to him across the floor. It’s a moment which should stand out in my mind for its sudden gentleness. Instead I remember it so clearly because I spent the scene wondering whether I had missed my chance to shoot him in the face. To get the fight over and done with as quickly as possible. To spam vapours and bullets as quickly as possible. To slaughter this child as quickly as possible.

Then: clap, clap, children. Let’s put our colouring books away and get on with the next bit…