Showing posts with label gaming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gaming. Show all posts

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Gaming vs Government

There are parallels between government and gaming that help disinformation and profits, respectively, thrive.

Today’s games, in particular triple-A titles like Call Of Duty and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, are top-tier games that in addition to offering a fun gaming experience also offer things like swag and other perks in exchange for real-world money.

You might pay upwards of $60 for a game to start, but then indulge in anything from special swag for your in-game character to ammo that does more damage, the former cosmetic but the latter an example of game studios’ so-called pay to win revenue model. Some players might splurge once in a while and buy emblems or weapon skins or clothing, but others go too far, like this teen in India who squandered his father’s life savings to buy in-game merch in the free-to-play game PUBG Mobile.

Game studios are private, for-profit entities for the most part, and the games they produce are a black box to their customers. They might use proprietary code and algorithms that give them an edge over the competition that could be considered trade secrets. That’s the first parallel gaming has with government; certain things simply have no public visibility or are actively withheld from the public.

Among the things a game studio might keep under wraps about its product is how much it seems to care about things like physics. Bullet drop, for example, is pretty faithfully tracked by say PUBG or ARMA 3 or the Battlefield series of games; you need to account for this when sniping especially to ensure you compensate for gravity’s effect on the bullet you just fired at a distant target’s skull hundreds of meters downrange.

Sniper's bullet drop in Battlefield 1.

Call Of Duty notably seems lax as far as “real world” game mechanics go (that is, mechanics that faithfully resemble real-life gunplay and weapon dynamics). You might wonder why that is, but it becomes clearer when you consider the hype surrounding the game.

The term “gaming industry” comes to the fore when you realize what a big business gaming is. Not merely creating and boxing and selling the game itself (more digitally than boxed nowadays, but I digress) but getting that game in front of as many eyeballs as possible to get the owners of those eyeballs excited about the game and want to get involved in it. Ideally this involvement for the play-to-win model, especially, will be in the form of a healthy in-game economy which its players actively participate in.

In generating hype, as is the case with government, truth becomes not only less important but less of a priority. Lawmakers may not push to get new laws on the books for objectively good reasons. Rather, they might’ve been treated in the U.S. for example to perks by lobbyists big and small to earn (or effectively buy) politicians’ attention. Fancy dinners, trips to the Bahamas, and of course “donations” fuel the sway lobbyists have over the politicians holding the keys to the taxpayers’ coffers.

Eventually the origin of and circumstances surrounding the hype become less important than the hype itself. This is key, because it creates an artificial, yet sustainable, relationship between lawmakers and their constituents, and game studios and their customers.

Government and game studios have in common control over what is revealed to outsiders, whether citizens or customers. In government, we the public don’t know who bombed an adversary nation’s ship in the Persian Gulf or fired missiles at their nuclear power plant. In games, we the customers don’t know how the RPG we fired at a helicopter over a kilometer distant managed somehow to knock it out of the sky.

Some things just happen, and when they do, the outcome is spectacular, and for some, profitable.

Call Of Duty is one of the most popular games out there. I focus on it here because I play the free-to-play Warzone flavor of the game, which is to its credit free, but offers players numerous and occasionally irritating reminders that you can pay real money for in-game swag.

It also pigeonholes users (including myself with less than great broadband internet, thanks to a local monopoly and lack of real competition among ISPs) into downloading sometimes ridiculously large updates, often hundreds of MB but for major updates tens of GB. When your ISP charges monthly overage fees (paused initially due to COVID-19 but after some months resumed) free becomes less so. Easier I suppose than selling USB sticks to purchase via snail mail, but more expensive to customers strapped for cash.

Games including Call Of Duty have tournaments that variously claim to test the skills of players in competition either online or on-site (the latter less so given current events). While I have no doubt there are players out there who have gaming skills that remind one of trade craft used by secret agents, that skill is likely not absolutely a reflection purely of their prowess. It instead is modified to suit the game studio’s primary objective to make money.

If a gaming studio wants to generate hype, it might actively seek to distance itself from reality. A particular game’s version of the truth might not reflect the real world. A sniper’s literally long shot from kilometers away might not be a “natural” head shot, but if you ask the game, it is, however inexplicable. 

To the game studio it’s ultimately profitable, which achieves one of their goals. To sustain that goal, enter streamers, gamers who make it their business to play competitively or just for fun online and themselves make bank off their audiences.

Streamers are analogous to government’s taxpaying citizens. Streamers, facilitated by an agency like YouTube or Twitch or other video hosting or streaming services, play to their audience for a share of profits. They generate hype for the games they play which in turn generates new customers, a fraction of whom will pay hand over fist for swag, their or their parents’ wallets permitting.

A streamer in his natural habitat.

Taxpayers working for a living or otherwise obediently and diligently paying their taxes do what they do, and those taxes variously fund initiatives according to the whim of lawmakers and maybe themselves if they manage to make enough noise (something increasingly unlikely especially in a consumerist late-stage capitalist society like the U.S.).

Leaving the USA? Take a lobbyist!

Which would create more hype? A game that mimics a sniper’s reality faithfully? A reality that demands carefully, patiently, tediously stalking their target, lining up a shot, and firing that shot precisely for the golf equivalent of a hole in one of the first person shooter, a headshot? One shot, one kill? Or a game that puts the brakes on reality, and perhaps widens the hit box a bit, so that instead of a target’s brain case being like the head of a pin at a thousand meters is instead like a beach ball at that distance?

Clearly the latter.

Just as government would have citizens believe in different flavors of truth, games would have players, their customers, believe the hype is the truth. For game studios, hype translates into profits. For government, hype translates into power. Both once achieved are far too tempting to surrender, and far too lucrative not to maintain for as long as possible.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes Review

An acquaintance asked me to get in on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and help their group of galactic rabble (aka "guild"). I've played it off and on for several months now, and I think I can safely say that thanks in large part to EA, this game has no soul.

Built on the free-to-play model, GoH to it's credit ties in closely with the Star Wars universe. Many of the classic heroes from the franchise are present; Darth Vader, Yoda, Emperor Palpatine, Luke Skywalker, the list goes on. Even the new characters from The Force Awakens and Rogue One make appearances in special limited-time game events, a trend likely to continue with future Star Wars movies.

A recent update brings in some of the iconic ships from Star Wars, including the X-Wing, TIE fighter, Star Destroyer, even the Millenium Falcon.


The characters and ships each have classes and unique abilities; tanks are damage sponges, attackers attack, support characters support, and so on. Abilities vary widely and the trick is to gather characters and ships whose abilities complement and augment each other. For example, Darth Vader, Yoda, Princess Leia, and other "legendary" characters possess so-called leadership abilities which enhance statistics or provide other benefits for your entire squad.

Some abilities are buffs that can positively affect your character or their teammates. Teebo, an ewok tank, has a percentage chance to have your characters acquire the stealth ability for a few turns. Luminara Unduli in addition to decent damage-doing potential has a potent heal ability.

Debuffs can have similar but detrimental effects, such as the Royal Guard's ability to stun a target or the irritatingly effective ability of Darth Sidious and others which prevents a character from being healed. Emperor Palpatine's lightning can deal damage to your entire squad in a single turn. 

A few exact a toll on their users, such as Talia's Water of Life ability which heals other squad mates at the cost of a percentage of her own health.

Ahsoka Tano (the plucky Jedi from the sadly unfinished
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
animated series) makes an appearance in GoH.

Gameplay involves turn-based combat with a squad of up to 6 characters you choose from among those available in your profile versus another squad controlled by the game, and battle consists of advancing through progressively challenging rounds of combat in various familiar Star Wars locales like Tatooine, the Death Star, Hoth, Endor, and others. 

Player-versus-player "arena" style combat with another character's squad is available, which really puts to the test your ability to create a squad that can handle the opposition. Helpfully prior to battle you can analyze the opposing squad's abilities and compose your squad accordingly. I really like the challenge of meshing character attributes and abilities.

Rewards in battle include in-game currency (used to train your characters, purchase and equip gear and mods (bolt-on devices which are unlocked when your character reaches level 50), arena, guild and cantina credits (used to buy stuff in the arena, guild and cantina stores, respectively) and crystals, which can be earned through completing achievements and certain battles or events, or by forking over real money.

The game, to EA's credit, is quite faithful to the Star Wars franchise. Visuals from the neon glow of light sabers to sparks as blaster bolts find their mark are wonderfully vivid and hearken to the movies. Sounds are similarly faithful, all that's missing are character voices as far as I'm concerned. Those players of Star Wars: Battlefront who appreciate its cinematic spectacle will probably be similarly pleased with this much smaller-scale game environment.

Here unfortunately is where the novelty of the game ends.  

The cantina (depicted below) is the game's lobby. The idea is that you're a patron and you play the different games at one of the various holo-tables. Every time you visit the cantina it's the same thing, time after time. The decor is dingy and the ambient light dim. The twi'lek bartender (aside from being your guide in your earliest levels as a player) has a never-ending one-sided conversation with some dude standing at the bar. Two guys perpetually smack the table as their arena combatants duke it out. A droid mounted with a tray full of drinks trundles among the tables.

Sound familiar? It reminds me of a divey Vegas casino, and the investment in time and effort unfortunately ends up being very similar to sitting at a slot machine.

EA is notorious for exploiting the free-to-play model (the mobile reboot of Dungeon Keeper is just one example). While GoH isn't as obviously greedy for cold, hard cash, it still can be tempting to shell out cash to get that juicy legendary character or ship or refresh one of the numerous time-limited events.

GoH is faithful to the Star Wars universe in some very obvious ways, but I'd argue a distinct lack of detail reveals EA's true focus is getting a crack at players' wallets. Take light sabers versus blasters. Any Jedi or Sith worth their salt could easily deflect blaster bolts, but here the I think the game developers could've gone the extra mile but don't, because there's no sophisticated light saber technique used to deflect blaster fire akin to how "real" Jedi for example do in the films. Instead of elaborate animations showcasing the art of light saber combat, you're given text messages like DEFLECTED. Ho hum!

It's like EA delivers this game and says "Hey everybody, we have Star Wars characters! We have light sabers! We have visuals and sounds from the franchise!" Superficially yes, that's true, but it could be so much more. Similar to how the rebooted Battlefront compares to its old-school predecessor, there's a lot left to be desired here in terms of gameplay.

Speaking of which, for someone who never has (and never will) plunk down cash money for crystals in this game, here's how a typical day plays out.
  1. Check mail for arena or guild or other bonuses and friend requests.
  2. Challenges / arenas. Play / sim, repeat until daily limit reached.
  3. Cantina / light / dark / mod battles. Burn through daily energy to meet daily goals.
  4. Guild raid. If available (highly dependent on guild participation), ~5 battles.
  5. Galactic war. Play until victorious or character pool decimated.
  6. Redeem credits, buy character shards, gear, mods, levels.
  7. Close to a promoting a character or completing a gear level? Spend crystals to regain energy, repeat step 3 until energy exhausted.
  8. Check achievements, redeem any available.
  9. Done.
When your player level is under 50 or so, your game day is over in under an hour or less. As currently level 81, mine takes a little over an hour, with much of that time spent putting my tablet aside and finding something more productive to do while waiting for the game's timers to reset. 

At least it isn't as maddening as the new Dungeon Keeper and that game's absurdly long build timers, but it's still sadly lacking in fun. Certainly, by design it has replayability; there's always that little psychological rush of completing a battle tier or maxing a character's level, which at least serve to motivate one to complete the daily activities. There's also satisfaction in collaborating with your guild mates to share in raid and other rewards, as well as help lower-level players fill their gear requests. Aside from these it lacks substance, and for myself and I'd wager many other Star Wars fans the visuals and sounds while certainly satisfying in the short term quickly give way to boredom.
In the mainstream gaming market EA dwells (and sometimes takes a dump) in, this model of free-to-play is arguably the new normal, and that's sad. If and when I ever become a grandparent, I foresee myself wistfully sharing a tale with the grandkids about how many years ago you could pay for a game once and be provided hours and hours of fun, until the new normal and the almighty dollar helped free-to-play take hold, like cancer.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Capture the Flag FAIL

Back in the days of Jedi Academy for the PC, I enjoyed playing capture the flag (CTF) games with a passion.

One game had me in pursuit of the enemy flag carrier, a guy named Skooby. As the screencap below shows, I loosed a blaster bolt at him just as he's inches away from capturing the flag.

The result...?!