28 November 2008

Steam or not to Steam...... that is the question. (And L4D annoyances)

I've been partially enjoyed Left 4 Dead since its release on the (non-zombie) unsuspecting public. The problem i have (and possibly with other Valve games like Team Fortress) is that, despite coding into Steam specific Groups that you can belong to, you can only join games with the general public or with your friends.

This means that if you have a rather large group you would have to friend-up every single one of them to be able to play with them. This is stupid - to say the least. Why have the group functionality of Steam if you're not going to be able to use it in Steam games? Why do i have to add 700+ people to my Steam friend list if i want to play with them in Left 4 Dead rather than just being able to join a game with people from the group(s) i'm in..... it would be so much easier and i think it's a big oversight from Valve. I really hope they add this functionality in otherwise i'm going to end up hardly playing L4D.

Why? Mainly because i want to play with my 'friends and acquaintances' but also because the co-op AI really sucks on any level that's higher than normal. They have no sense. Valve hasn't programmed them with 'thinking of the player' in any sense.

For example: In the many set-pieces within the game where you must hold a position they do not act accordingly - they do not position themselves in useful locations allowing the player to effectively hold said position against the zombie hordes - they will frequently run off together while you're manning the minigun, leaving you open to attack from behind and they will frequently remain out in the open rather than being near the player and being able to cover and be covered by the player. They also frequently drop down off of a high point you may be holding - letting themselves get overwhelmed by the zombie hordes.

Secondly, they are really stupid when it comes to general gameplay. I was jumped on by a hunter in a recent game and, while the AI stood there, right next to me it decided that instead of meleeing the hunter off of me that they would instead reload and proceed to shoot it off.... so i lost a lot of health right there and then. Then there's the whole gift-giving aspect. If i give a pack of pills to an AI i want them to keep them.... not give them back to me instantly or to another AI!!! I gave them to that character for a reason!! I really want a simple, 'come here' 'go there' command like was in Half Life 2 for the squad AI so i can easily direct them to picking up bonuses like Health packs and pills or ammo etc. when other times they'll wander off because the AI all-of-a-sudden has a psychic premonition as to where in the level these bonuses are... though they often neglect to play the sound bite file to let me know that they found some stuff.

A few tweaks and the game would be almost perfect..... To be honest, if i didn't care about the game these issues would be non-existant.

27 November 2008

The problem with people...

There was an article by Leigh Alexander over on Kotaku recently about how she came into contact with the uninformed public - the great unwashed masses so to speak. It's true that themes run through society and this one has been coming along rather nicely. The basic fact is, as i've acknowledged time and time again, that the majority of consumers who buy games don't know about the artform.

They don't read gaming blogs or review sites and they don't read gaming magazines. In fact, i'd go as far to speculate that the majority of game purchases are purely 'impulse buys' rather than informed decisions and i think that this is reflected in the way that the games that get the most general advertising do the best - regardless of the quality offered. It's why gaming companies can get away with DRM - as the CEO of EA pointed out - the majority of the consumers who buy games don't know or care about DRM though that second point is entirely dependent on the first. Once i've explained DRM to a few of my friends they all agreed that it was a bad idea for the consumer: it is a generally agreed principle that once paid for, the consumer owns said product to do with it as they wish.

It is purely because of the above reasons that we, as a community are a minority voice in how games are made, targeted and controlled. We have little power to effect change in the industry, even though we are the loudest, because the largest corporations such as EA and Activision don't get the majority of their revenue from us. I don't mean to say that we shouldn't complain - we do have some voice after all and staying quiet represents our complicity in the actions that these companies take.

To be honest i still don't get why people are surprised by these revelations. I mean, how many of the hundreds of literature consumers would be considered experts (or borderline experts) on the medium? How many people who have bought paintings fully comprehended the socio-economic factors that went into the development of a certain artistic movement during the late 19th century in France? (I'm not a great art lover so i'm just putting this together for effect not because i know of any art movements that were spawned in France in the late 1800s)

The world is ruled by the misinformed and run by the misinformed while those who are informed rant, rave, push and press against the bindings of ignorance. Of course, everyone is ignorant and everyone is an expert.... it's how the human race can achieve the levels of information that it has done... but we've yet to find a way to get that information and knowledge usefully applied.

11 November 2008

Idiotic reports and the need for scietific methodology...

People say you can make stats say anything you want. I personally don't subscribe to this line of thinking. I believe that it's more accurate to say that if your suppositions are wrong (on purpose or by accident) then you can go looking for the answer you want and support it through biased research. It's a constant danger in the scientific profession and one that you're supposedly trained to learn how to avoid - though i'd say we're all guilty of it to some degree.

The danger isn't so much in scientific circles though as bad research will get a name for itself that can be hard to shake off the authors' backs. No, the danger is in trusting figures from 'closed' environments that conceal how they do their research and have no peer (or otherwise) review process or even worse, from people who think they know how unbiased and fair research is conducted but have no training in the field, leading themselves and others into false assumptions.

While this isn't what this particular post is about, i thought i'd make the observation due to a recent experience elsewhere on the internet...... and it's also tangentially related to the content in this post :)

Ars has an article up about game sales in the US, UK and Japan and comes to the conclusion that if you want a blockbuster title you must do well in the 'all important' US market. Frankly the assumptions that seem to have gone into this conclusion seem idiotic.

First off there's the relative market size difference between the three territories. The population of the US is approximately 300 million, the UK is approximately 60 million and Japan is approximately 127 million. This ties in with the fact that if you want to take a trend or sales figure and compare it with how well a game does in each market then you have to account for the differences in population. Saying that a game sold more in a country with more consumers in that particular market is... well, it's kinda dumb and obvious. If you want to compare the UK to the US, compare it to a state with similar population.

Then there's the games they've compared. Madden '09, Wii Fit, The Force Unleashed, Mario Kart Wii and the latest Pokemon game. Ars makes the astute observation that Madden sold best in the US and conversely Pokemon sold best in Japan while Wii Fit and Mario Kart sold in each territory but TFU only sold in US and the UK:

The number one seller, for instance, was Madden 2009, with 2,958,000 units sold in the US, out of 2,994,000 worldwide. In other words, the US propelled that game to the top of the charts alone; nothing else came close. Number two was Wii Fit, where 61.4 percent of sales were in the US, and number three is Star Wars: Force Unleashed, where 81.5 percent of sales came from the US. That sends a powerful message: games that hit big in the US hit bigger than in any other market. The sole counterexample is the 1,482,000 units of Pokemon Platinum sold in Japan; that particular entry in the long-running series has yet to be released anywhere else.

This is a classic case of not understanding how things work and then coming to false conclusions. Sure, like i said above, a larger market will have more sales of a product.... not to mention that a game that has appeal in only one market of those surveyed will undoubtedly perform best there - I'm looking at you, Madden. No one else cares about American Football so it's a wonder it sold in the UK at all. Then there are the other games on the list: Pokemon is only available in Japan. It hasn't been released in any other territory yet - similarly, TFU had a staggered release date with the US receiving it before the EU (which would be the comparable territory to the 'US') and it hasn't even been released in Japan yet.

The other discrepancy in numbers is easily explainable with the difference in market size between the three countries and would paint a more accurate picture. Take for instance Wii Fit.

Out of a population of 300 million, Wii Fit sold 1, 283, 000 copies in the US. That's a 4.28 x10(-3) copies per person. The UK had 460, 000 sales which is 7.67 x10(-3) sales per person while Japan had 346 000 sales leading to 2.72 x10(-3) copies per person. Now looking at the relative sizes of the market has shown that in fact the UK has a stronger games market for Wii Fit than either the US or Japan. There may be less sales in the UK but because of the relative strength of the pound and the higher percentage likelihood that a person will buy a game in the UK it could be argued that a blockbuster game is more likely to be made if you target what the UK tastes are because they are broader than just the US tastes in games.

I'd love for this article to actually compare all sales in the EU and then see how the numbers come out... and of course compare Fifa '09 or Pro Evolution Soccer (it's football you idiots!) worldwide sales numbers in each territory and then see how that changes their conclusion.

It's this kind of unscientific, biased reporting that gets the industry into a mess. Undoubtedly this report will be debunked by a portion of its audience.... but how much more damage will be done by people who follow along thinking that they should target all their games (or from a consumer point of view, all games should be targeted) to the US audience? This mentality then filters out and provides harmful repercussions. A similar example to this is the argument that the 360 and PS3 developers shouldn't have to support SDTVs with their games.... an argument that is similarly unfounded and based on lack of thought and understanding of the situation.

I'd like to finish the article with the same paragraph that Ars does and i want you to see if you can stop yourself laughing or crying at the state of reporting in the world today:

Take a look at how many of the biggest games either come from, or are propelled by, sales in the United States. It used to be that a system had to conquer Japan for it to be a success. That time has passed.