Thursday, June 28, 2012

DLC vs. Expansion Packs: The troubling future (well, present) of gaming

(You might notice that this entry isn't strictly WoW-related. If you read this for that specific content, I should warn you that I expect this blog to become more of a general gaming blog. That said, WoW is one of the games I play most, and I've certainly been playing it for a long time, so don't expect it to completely fall by the wayside.)

We like it when new content is added to our games. Games are devoured - we generally continue to play one until one of two things happens: we beat it, or we grow tired of it. Games with high replayability kind of force the latter, as there is either no true end to the game, or the game heavily encourages starting over. Yet often the reason we grow tired of something is that we run out of content. You can only slay Deathwing so many times before it grows old, especially if you've got the gear you want off him. So, for a very long time, game makers have found ways to extend the lives of their games.

Straight sequels, of course, are a tried-and-true method for this. Video Games are an odd medium in this regard, because while we tend to groan when we see yet another Austin Powers or Men in Black sequel (both of which were awesome original movies) a lot of the really exciting "triple A" games are part of decades-old franchises. Think how exciting it is whenever the new Zelda game comes out. That series started the same year I was born, and there have been (roughly) a billion entries in it.

In the days of Gamepaks, there wasn't really anything you could do to alter a game after it shipped, so if you wanted anything else, you just needed to hope for a sequel. Computer games, however, had the advantage of existing as files on your computer, so companies realized they could release "expansion packs," adding on significant amounts of content while still retaining the same basic framework the game was built on. It meant far less development time than a totally new sequel, and if it was the sort of game where you had an established character who had leveled up, you could keep all that progress.

But while the internet did exist then, it was not nearly as central to society. Everyone had crappy modems that often tied up their phone lines (if someone else picked up the phone to make a call, they'd break your connection. Now that most people who can afford to play video games have an independent internet connection - and indeed, that a solid internet connection is a more reasonable expectation among people of my generation than having a landline phone number - and also that consoles tend to have a significant amount of data storage, downloaded games and game content are becoming quite the norm.

Look at WoW, for example. I never bought the original WoW. I downloaded the demo version, which was limited to ten days and didn't let me trade with anyone, and when the time was up, I just kept playing and allowed them to start billing me for a subscription.

Anyway, the point is that while there's still a (shrinking) market for physical copies of our games, especially on consoles with their limited storage space, the realm of expansion packs is swiftly being taken over by DLC - downloadable content.

This is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, I think that theoretically, it's awesome. There's a quick, convenient way for you to get more of the game you enjoy.

The problem, however, is the way that DLC is produced. Understand that the original idea behind expansions was just that: it was an expansion of a complete product. If you play through, say, Warcraft III, the original, unexpanded game tells a complete story. You get to play as all four factions, and the entire Third War plays out under your command. The events of the expansion, The Frozen Throne, all took place afterwards - really fitting as more of a kind of half-sequel, one that focused in on a couple of characters and their specific conflict.

Now, however, a lot of DLC is built around the idea that the game isn't really complete if you haven't gotten it. Specifically, a lot of games are released with DLC already available: as in, they could have released the game with this stuff, but they chose not to so that they could charge extra.

The most egregious example of this is actually from one of my favorite games of the generation, Assassin's Creed II. ACII was a revelation - a vast improvement over the original game that also introduced a wonderful protagonist. But as you play through it, you eventually hit a gap where the characters literally tell you that there's missing memory, and that you have to skip ahead. The game, as it shipped, basically complained to you about not having bought the DLC.

Playing through Mass Effect 3 now (took a while to get it. Loving it so far, but let's see about this controversial ending) there's another weird little bone I've got to pick. After picking up Liara on Mars, she told me about her exploits fighting the Shadow Broker. She says that she lost a friend there, and that it would have been nice if I'd been there to help. But I wasn't, because the Lair of the Shadow Broker was DLC for Mass Effect 2, and I beat the game before it even came out. So now I've got a game making me feel bad for one of its characters because I didn't drop the extra cash to download this content. Mind you, the Shadow Broker was an established character all the way in the first game. There was no reason that he couldn't be worked into the series proper.

Look: games cost a lot of money to make, but they're also fucking expensive to play. I'm not complaining about companies that are inspired to add content on to their existing creations. What I am complaining about is a kind of, well, extortion. You've bought the game for sixty bucks, and then they tell you you've got to spend another twenty to get the complete package. It's like buying a chair, but then finding it's really only a stool until you buy the back.

The sad thing is that I'm pretty sure the game designers aren't behind this practice. Instead, I think that just as big film executives will force cuts in movies to, say, speed up the action rather than allowing the characters to actually have personalities, game executives want new sources of revenue and will force certain content into the realm of DLC. DLC is the perfect product - once you've made it, there's no more cost in distributing it other than maintaining a server from which customers can download it. Games are big business - in fact, they're as big or bigger than the film industry at this point. And as we all know, the bigger the industry, the more people will be working to get away with whatever they can do to maximize profits. So what recourse do we, as gamers, have? We who want to buy the game as a complete package?

The best solution I can offer is to wait. Popular games will often come out with a "million player" or some such edition, and often they offer you a second disk with the DLC on it at no extra price (well, except that the original game will have gone down in price by then.) Like any medium, we do like to play things on the release day, but if you want to get all that cool extra content that was extracted from the game in order to make you pay twice, your best bet, I think, is to wait.

One last note: Not all DLC is bad. Oftentimes, they are truly additions created after the fact, or even things that they were working on during development that would have been cut due to various restraints otherwise. And, admittedly, I can't tell you which sort of DLC is which. But if you think that no DLC is made by cynically removing parts of a complete game, I envy your optimistic worldview.

Power Creep or Versatility: The thing that draws us to RPGs is also their core weakness

Most games have RPG elements these days - that is to say, they use some kind of leveling system, or a way in which, as you play, you become more powerful. As you level up and grow more powerful, the enemies you face grow stronger as well, but in the good games, you're not merely on a treadmill of numerical difficulty - the array of powers you have changes your behavior and the enemies will serve to test you with more complex strategies.

This is not always entirely successful. While the world of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (haven't played Skyrim yet, so bear with me) is compelling in its freedom and size, every enemy leveled up with you, regardless of when in the story you were, so it became a totally viable strategy to simply prevent yourself from leveling up and simply deal with simpler, more easily vanquished monsters.

Remember that in typical side-scrolling Mario games, Mario never really gets any more powerful. Sure, you go back to old levels to "farm" up Super Mushrooms and Cape Feathers to prepare yourself, but ultimately the Caped Mario in Donut Plains is no more powerful than Caped Mario in the Valley of Bowser. The only thing that truly changes as you go through one of these games is that the levels get much less forgiving, demanding greater and greater perfection in your timing and reflexes.

WoW is an interesting animal in this regard. While perfect execution of your rotation does require practice, and each expansion makes subtle changes while adding new abilities, for the most part your character behaves the same once all the key abilities are in place. Despite the fact that, say, End Time is a level 85 dungeon demanding iLevel 365 gear, it's actually a lot easier than Magister's Terrace was. Everything does scale in WoW - someone in awesome gear at level 60 is going to be a dark stain on the floor if they try to fight someone with crappy gear at level 85. But - at least in PvE - it's not the numbers that make the fights challenging, it's the encounter designs. Despite everyone's obsession with gear, it's really not the determining factor of how well you do - it's just a barrier to entry.

Diablo 3 is a curious example, because there are aspects of the game I think are great and aspects of it that I hate. Diablo 3 is built on replayability. You only get halfway to the level cap when you beat the game on normal, and the expectation is that you'll then immediately soldier on to Nightmare difficulty, leveling up further and getting more loot. The problem I have with this is that it is truly a treadmill approach to leveling. The levels themselves are randomly generated, which does keep you exploring rather than just walking the path you've learned by heart, but it also means there's very little flow to the levels. You might encounter the toughest enemy in the dungeon just after setting foot inside, and the rest of it could be a cakewalk.

On the other hand, I think that the approach to ability Runes is pretty clever. It's kind of what Glyphs or Talents in WoW would be if Blizzard were to start over from scratch. None of them are inherently stronger than the others, and the fact that you have to choose one Rune for one Ability in a given key-bind (yes, I know you can technically reassign ability to other keys, but I feel this breaks the spirit of the design) means you have a very tough choice to make depending on the fight. The only problem is that the fights (other than actual bosses) are randomized, so despite the potential for a kind of puzzle to figure out the optimal strategy, you'll generally just sit with the same, versatile build and keep corpse-running until the elite spawn is dead.

I love RPGs, mind you, but in an ideal game, I think the plain-old power of your abilities and skills would remain at roughly the same level, but you'd be faced with more complex foes that require new abilities to take them down.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Beta Problem

I'll admit, I haven't logged in to actual, real WoW in maybe a month. I'm not getting to a quitting point, it's mainly that the novelty of Diablo 3 and the Beta are drawing me away. My guild's been off-and-on getting enough people for actual raids, and I realize I'm not helping the situation, but I figure if I can't take a break from WoW, that's probably a bigger problem than if I do take a break.

The Beta level-cap is now 90, which as we should all know is Mists' level cap (I doubt we'll be seeing 10-level expansions again, at least until we get past level 100.) Beta Jarsus is level 88. Part of me wants to get him to 90 to start testing out the heroics and raids, but on the other hand, I think I might be at that point where I've done what I want to do in the Beta.

Obviously, the real reason anyone's in the Beta is testing. If you're not getting on the forums to report on issues you've come across, you're kind of doing it wrong. That said, there's literally over a million people who are at least eligible for the beta. The chance that the problem you've come across is one that no one else has is pretty unlikely.

I also don't really want to spoil everything for myself. Granted, as an altoholic, I'm going to be running through all this content on probably more than ten characters (every expansion I've had more toons at the level cap,) so by the time that I take, say, Torem, the Dwarf Elemental Shaman through, I'll be very surprised if I find any new quests, and there will be very little novelty left, but I've purposely left things a little spotty in my questing on the beta (well, I was pretty thorough in Jade Forest when that was all that was open) to ensure I do actually get to see new stuff (the Beta has actually been somewhat accommodating in that regard, given the missing and broken quests) when I play the game for real.

The beta's also got some frustrations. For example, several patches ago, when they implemented account-wide mounts, I lost a ton of them, including my precious Turbo-Charged Flying Machine and my Mekgineer's Chopper (the latter of which will remain character-specific - guess that answers the question of whether my Hordies will get the Mechano-Hog.) I made a forum post back when that first happened, but I haven't complained since because I'm sure that's something they'll work on before the thing gets released (if I lose my Chopper on live, though, you can be sure I'll complain. Before the release of Wrath of the Lich King, which introduced the Mekgineer's Chopper/Mechano-Hog, a friend of mine and I had literally been talking about a hypothetical video game we would make if we had any idea how to make video games that would involve, among other things, Paladins riding motorcycles.)

Probably the main reason I was interested in the Beta in the first place was to get my hands on the Monk. It's been very interesting to see how the Brewmaster's developed. I haven't actually tanked any high-level content with them, but it's definitely gone from a convoluted mess to something that actually makes a lot of sense and even makes Active Mitigation seem more interesting and less "you will now suck at tanking, suckers."

I'll probably still log onto the Beta on occasion, and I might even get Beta Jarsus to 90, and check out the Dread Wastes and the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, but (and don't hold me to this) I think I'm going to save the rest of it for the real thing.