Belgium Nixed Loot Boxes

Relevant article

More specifically, they have come to the decision that loot boxes are gambling, with a particular finger pointing to

  • FIFA 18
  • DOTA2
  • PUBG
  • Rocket League

Further, they need to remove the “almost winning” animations, the ability to chain open loot boxes, and prevent “vulnerable groups” from using them.  This is very similar to a casino effect, where a picture is on the wall.  That doesn’t always work, curious how it will apply to virtual games – user ID I suppose.

This doesn’t mean that lootboxes are illegal, oh no.  It means that selling lootboxes without a gambling license is illegal.

I’d be curious as to the process of getting a license in Belgium.  Canada it’s a rather tough slog, since all gambling is owned by the government (or native tribes).  The US is more about bribes than it is about getting an actual license – plus a massive aversion to anything considered online gambling.

The worst outcome for gaming companies is always legislative compliance.  Governments are notorious for putting everyone through the wringer to get the last cent… and tax evasion is the easiest way to get after a company on international terms.

 

How game companies comply with this change will be interesting.  Either they modify the entire game, modify it for that region, or stop offering the game in that region seem the most likely scenarios.  My guess is to stop offering based on IP would be the simplest.

What I’m interested in is how this trickles into other nations.  The US was all bluster on this front but no action.  If I was a gaming CFO, I’d be worried about this type of change.  Loot boxes are programmed to prey on the addictive tendencies of players.  There’s a reason they are such a massive cash cow.  Unless China or the US decides to take similar strides… I’d be quite curious to see how this plays out in the long run.  Maybe it’s just a blip on the radar, which would be quite a shame.

Console Wars

There’s a story that Nintendo has enough money stashed away to be unprofitable for a dozen years with no impact.  That works out since every other console seems to have less than ideal sales numbers.  It’s hard to say that they are even in the console wars… aside from connecting to a TV they are really living on their own planet.  I would hazard to guess that people don’t think “PS4, XBOX or Switch”.  They instead think “PS4 or XBOX… and might as well get a Switch”

XBONE

All joking aside, Microsoft took some rather dumb risks at the launch of their console and followed up with rollbacks.  Kinect and always on internet anyone?  Instead of focusing on the ease of gaming experience, they went for integration into other services.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s hyper useful and an actual cross-platform system (XBOX to PC), but it shouldn’t be the focus.

They do have a solid set of free games when you are a subscriber, but is that enough?

Quick, name me 3 games that are only playable on the XBOX?  I’ll help

  • Forza
  • Halo
  • Gears of War
  • PUBG
  • Sea of Thieves

All of which are also on PC, but that isn’t exactly a stellar list.

PlayStation

Sony is hyper competitive and anti cross-platform.  They are often at the front of the “quality media” trend, but that’s expected when you have a backpocket billion dollars in the media / movie business.

Instead, let’s look at the game front.  When the PS4 launched it had a smattering of quality games, and a very large independent game base.  It’s moved on to 1st party exclusives.  Here’s a sample of top tier games.

  • Uncharted
  • Hellblade
  • Yakuza
  • Nioh
  • Street Fighter 5
  • Final Fantasy
  • The Last Guardian
  • Shadow of the Colossus  (remake)
  • Nier Automata
  • Persona
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • God of War

Spiderman should be around soon too.

Winner

The ideal state is both quality games and the ability to play with anyone else.  Microsoft does the latter, while both Nintendo and Sony do the former.  Hard to pick a winner here.  Games > integration in my eyes.

But if you’re looking for hours of quality entertainment, it is really hard to dismiss the PS4.  It can play any XBOX game (except the above list) and has a dozen “must own” games to boot.  Then go out and buy a Switch.

EA & BioWare

Casey Hudson is back, with a blog post about the way forward for BioWare as well as Anthem.  Not much there really.

He was the director of the Mass Effect trilogy, which by most accounts was quite solid – minus the ending of the 3rd game.  Ironic that, seeing as how BioWare continues to tout story as a driver.  More of a point against losing Drew Karpyshyn I think.

Aaryn Flynn took over for Andromeda, and well, there’s enough material on that topic already.

What’s neat here is that Casey does have a track record for solid RPGs and there’s some level of confidence that he can deliver that specific experience.  It would be somewhat novel to have a solid story-based shlooter, more like what Borderlands was able to provide.  Destiny sure isn’t it, nor is the Division.

That said, I think most people’s weariness to any BioWare game is the EA taint.  There’s some news going around that they are re-evaluating micro-transactions and their fundamental financial models.  I have as much faith in EA corporate as I do in Zuckerberg’s ability to “fix Facebook”.

SWTOR took a long time to come into it’s own.  There’s a handful of spots to read about it, but it succeeds despite the overlords.  That F2P transition was a turning point as to how not to do it, what with selling action bars for money.  It’s certainly serviceable now.

I do think that Anthem will deliver a good base experience.  I do not think that the financial model and underlying mechanics will be a good experience for gamers.  At this point, it’s really up to Casey to convince everyone listening that Anthem will be the exception to the EA rule.  E3 is a good a place as any.

 

AC:O Itemization & Combat

Hand in hand, naturally.

The last Assassin’s Creed I played was 4 – Black Flag.  Pirate ships remain awesome.  That said, I missed 2 (3?) iterations between.  Bear with me.

AC uses to operate under a simple set of numbers.  Your level went up and you got stronger.  You received points to spend for additional skills.  It was rather linear and vertical.  AC4 was the same when it came to land-based combat.  On the ship you instead had a tree-like growth, with multiple upgrade paths.  There wasn’t a choice so much as a clear progression path that had many iterations.  e.g. canonball 1 to 2, and so on til 6.

Itemization

AC:O goes MMORPG instead.  There are different weapon types (4 bows and 6 melee if I recall).  Each type has a different benefit – slow and heavy, quick, used for sniper shots…so you eventually find one that fits your playstyle.  They have item levels, commensurate with your player level – e.g. level 20 bows when you are 19-21.  Each has a set of passive boosts.  Fast weapons may set enemies alight, while slow ones have higher crit damage.  On top of that, each item has a quality rating (blue, purple, gold) that changes the value of each passive buff (and may add more).  If you like a weapon, you can pay a fee to increase it’s level – sort of like a favorite I guess.

This takes a bit to get used to, but eventually you’ll find a gold-tiered weapon, with good passives and be willing to sacrifice the item level to keep it.  At the start you’re changing weapons every 5 minutes, later one you’ll stick with the same for hours.  Thankfully you can break down items to save inventory (and improve passive stats for more damage, HP and so on).

The game starts like a loot pinata, but turns into an inventory management chore later on.  Which is really the same issue all loot-based games eventually encounter.

Combat

Previous games were a simple dance.  Block, retaliate, kill.  You could take on 10-20 enemies without much worry – aside from ranged attackers.  Not here.

Combat is focused on the 1vs1, and you are better off “focusing” on a single target to survive.  There’s the meat fodder you can just swing away on, but the other half of the enemies have more to them.  They will have a red glow to their weapon when taking a big swing.  You can either dodge and counter, or have really good timing and deflect and counter.

Dodging works most of the time, but larger enemies need to have their defenses broken – meaning a large swing.  This swing takes time, and during that time you are vulnerable to attack.  Deflecting automatically breaks defense, but the timing is different for different enemy attacks.  On the really tough enemies, they can swing 3-4 times, in a large area.

Now imagine having to face 3, 5 or 10 enemies at the same time.  You end up chain-stunned, and picked apart.  Even facing 2 enemies, you need to be quite quick and nimble.  I found myself dying a half dozen times to a single strong enemy because of these mechanics… trying to learn the specific dance and avoiding new soldiers from joining the battle.  Phylakes are super-enemies in that regard…and alone it’s a real challenge.  99% of the time though, I seem to pull in extra soldiers and die in seconds.

Back to the itemization part.  While slower/longer reach weapons seem neat, in reality they are useless when facing groups of enemies, and require very good timing for hard ones.  There’s little benefit to them, so half the item types go out the window.

Mechanics

Adding to this is that a good 90% of all missions and side missions require you to kill everything in an area.  I can think of the Synchronization points, and the Constellation side quests as the only without combat.  There’s no real ability to sneak past guards because there are just so many of them.  I mean, it’s great that I don’t need to tail someone on some stupid quest with horrible AI, but the puzzle aspect of finding a solid route or just getting out of danger in time is gone.

The core mechanics of AC, killing from the shadows and combat as a last resort, seem a bit confused here.  Enemy pathing is such that you’re better off using a sniper (predator) bow until you run out of ammo, then stalking until you clear the area.  It feels more like Lara Croft than AC.  And if you do end up in combat, it’s a long-drawn affair, where you need space to properly survive.  It’s fun and hectic, but it’s a departure from the bread/butter of AC as I remember it.

I think there are some solid advances in this, it just requires a bit more tweaking.  It would probably work just fine in another game… but those don’t have 10+ years of franchise history behind them.

Open World and Levels

I’m playing some Assassin’s Creed: Origins now.  There’s a lot of good here, which shows that not releasing a game every year is a good path.  It looks amazing, is a massive (MASSIVE!) seamless world, and has some pretty solid mechanics.  I am a huge Egyptian-antiquity fan, and this scratches a good itch.  There are many liberties taken, but overall it does a decent job humazing the time period – specifically the Ptolemic.

Even the tedium is entertaining – hunting various animals, finding treasure, and aligning stars – it all works pretty well.  There’s one nitpick and it’s the trend to apply levels to open world games, as a gating mechanism.

Open Worlds

In this case, I will define an open world as one where most/all of the activities are available at most parts of the game.  You can choose what to do, when you want to.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are the main leads in that front. Legend of Zelda is a great recent example, where the mechanics are open at the start and it’s how you leverage those mechanics to progress.

Story Unlocks

Progress in some open world games is predicated on specific points of the story being complete before moving on.  Nearly all traditional games operate on this concept, where killing a boss opens up the next part of the game.  Traditional Zelda games are like this, where you need say the hookshot in order to progress.  The game grows somewhat organically and it’s the mechanics that modify over time allowing you to go forward.  Some games only have a small handful of these gates (Horizon) to keep the story fresh, while others use the gates to ensure you’re ready for the next challenge (Monster Hunter).

The point here is that you never really feel like you’re held back or hitting a wall, as there’s a logical progression to the game.

Level Unlocks

Progress here is limited to your level.  You can see the area or task, but the underlying numbers prevent you from participating.  You could be level 10 but the enemies are level 20 and kill you in 1 hit.  Many RPGs use this model (FF games with open maps), and plenty of MMOs put “zones” at specific level ranges.  You can access the area, you just can’t do anything once there.

This model can work if the core story/game progress aligns with levels assignment.  What I mean is that if you follow the breadcrumbs of the story line, you can continually progress through levels.  You never feel handicapped level-wise, while participating in the story.  The tail end of Ni No Kuni 2 does a poor job on this front, and there’s a need to grind/side quests to progress in the last 10%.

AC:O does a worse job, since after the first zone, all main-story progress is predicated on you completing ~50% of the nearby side quests to continue.  I don’t know what the level cap is, but after around level 8, this becomes apparent.  The good news is that the side quests/tasks are generally fun.  The bad side is that you’re forced to “explore for ?” to find more of said side activities.  It doesn’t feel natural because they are so far off the main path.  For example, the 2nd zone has you moving North on the main quest.  Half the side quests are actually East/South.  And if you head too far East into the next zone, you get 1 shot.  Ehhh.

Forward

I can see the challenge around providing side tasks in a game that’s level related, to make certain they provide some benefit.  I thought that the solution was already clear – scaling numbers based on your own level.  We all learned that lesson between Oblivion and Skyrim.  That was 7 years ago.

I am truly struggling to see why that model was not applied here, if only because Ubisoft wasn’t able to get the concept of open-world and levels to jive in their operating model.  But the solution exists, so I am in no way worried that this gets addressed in the next iteration.

 

Repetition is Key

Getting better at something means that you need to be doing that thing, multiple times, until it becomes second nature.  Repetition of an activity means you naturally get better at said activity.  This applies to absolutely everything we do.  In some cases, people conflate the thought/research of doing something vs actually doing something.

Simulators are a good example of this.  Many games have simulators that artificially optimize gameplay & statistics in order to provide a ranking of options.  On paper, a DK is better at DPS than a Rogue (example).  Sure, if the entire environment is controlled.  That assumes that the lag is the same, that no movement is required, that they take no damage, that the procs are perfect, and that the player’s timing is perfect.  Let’s even go a step further, where all the variables except the player are the same – the output is absolutely going to be different.  The player skill is one of the ultimate factors.

Sports are also a prime example.  Hitting balls in a batting cage has only a little to do with actually hitting a real-life pitch.  Hitting a hundred shots on the driving range only goes so far on the actual course.  The real-world variables take time for the body to adjust and compensate.

Hockey

This one hits a bit more for me as my eldest daughter is playing hockey as a first year player.  The season is over now and there’s some analysis that always comes from it.  My kid barely knew how to skate to start the season, and the strides forward were significant, but they were despite the actual season.  There were 18 kids on the squad, meaning that in a 50 minute session, she would be on the actual ice for about 7 minutes.  Practices were better, but the coach:player ratio was large, meaning a lack of directed feedback.

I am glad I built a backyard rink.  It gave dozens of hours of skating practice – more time than she had for the entire “team” season.

The good news is that the kids are young, so these things don’t really click with them. The bad news, for the sport at least, is that the kids are not as excited or involved as they could be, and the parents have a hell of a time justifying the cost for the time spent on ice vs pretty much any other activity.

Swimming

Another example I can use my kids for.  They’ve been taking swimming lessons for a few years now.  30 minute sessions, every week.  The last 2 seasons have been just the 2 kids, rather than 6 – again, a lack of actual swimming doesn’t make them progress.

We are lucky in that we can afford travel, luckier still that the travel includes pools.  Cuba, one weekend in a hotel, and another week in Florida gave about 4 hours a day of pool time in 4 months.  That’s about 60 hours of swimming.  That is more time in the pool in 4 months than all the time in swimming classes combined.

Games

One of my gripes with PvP games is the lack of practice due to either mechanics or power curves.  Aimbots and 1-shot-kills mean that you have a very low amount of actual combat gameplay.  Large maps where you spend 3/4 of the time walking around an empty zone is worse when combined with low combat times.  You could spend 20 minutes doing nothing but walking, then get sniped.  Not my definition of fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate the tactical aspects of the game at elite levels.  But the path to get to the elite level is littered with rookie corpses.  And that’s aside from the abhorrent cultures within the games themselves.  Toxicity breeds more of itself and I’d rather avoid it altogether.

And let’s avoid the paint-chip-eating tutorials that most games implement.

Future Think

My gut tells me that the next gap to be bridged in competitive games is exactly that “starter to ok” mode.  The gap between starter & top tier is a massive gulf of negative junk.  A focus on the core mechanics that allow someone to get better, combined with a social atmosphere that helps with growth is the next logical step.  Guess is that the former will be required before the latter… unless someone really decides to tighten their belt and start having serious repercussions on behavior (positive/negative).

Ni No Kuni 2 – Part 3

Well, it so happened I was closer to the end than previously thought.  The last bit further shaped my opinion.

Final Acts

The story ends well enough, and with typical JRPG flair.  Spoiler here, but you’re on another plane of existence for the final fight.  There are some logic lapses within the main villain, and the final twist is a bit less fun than I had hoped. Still, as compared to other RPGs, there’s a better story to hand your hat upon.

Oh, I would be remiss to mention Roland’s dream return to his world and the scene with the kid.  That was messed up.

I will say that Evan is no Oliver (main character from the first game). I never felt any agency or connection.  His story line just didn’t work for me.  All the other supporting characters seemed to be painted with a wider brush.

All dem der Options

I’ve mentioned a few times now that NNK let’s you do many activities.  Regular combat, skirmishes, quests, crafting, dimensional doors (mini dungeons), tainted monsters, and kingdom building.

Truthfully, not a single of of those things matters except for the main quest line.  There are a half dozen mandatory skirmishes, that have little bearing on your level and more to do with the ability to understand rock/paper/scissors.  I used the starter Higgildies and that went by just fine (healing is great).  I never needed to craft since all my gear from loot was at least 1 tier better than available.  I would have had to grind my Kingdom for a few more days to get a chance at something better.  Dimensional doors provide an optional kingdom character… after 9 dungeons.  Tainted monsters give a decent loot item and good exp.

And that’s really all that matters for the main quest line.  Core experience.  When I reached the start of the penultimate act, I was within level range (every enemy had a white name).  The last 2 bosses in that act then jumped over me by 12 levels and I needed to get very creative.

The final act itself was 15+ levels above me to start.  Getting experience through normal means (regular battles) is useless. Tainted enemies are the way to go.  The last string of boss fights, I was dramatically underleveled and was 2-3 shot multiple tries.  Good thing I had dozens and dozens of healing items that I had not used once in the entire playthrough.

That final challenge was what I would consider “normal mode” for pretty much any other game.  I needed to pay attention, dive smartly to avoid damage, focus my attacks at a given time.  It was a ton of fun, even if I did die a few times in the attempts.

Next Up

I am putting NNK2 on the shelf.  The remainder of the content is busy work in my eyes, and would provide no real benefit.  I can’t see what’s after the final boss in terms of challenges, and my power level is about as high as it can go without boosting my character levels.

It is really a rare event that I end up putting an RPG on the shelf after the final battle – Mass Effect series aside.  There always seems to be something to do afterwards – be it a battle coliseum, extra hard bosses, or deep dive dungeon.  Maybe I just missed it.

Still, it’s a fun game with a good story.  Little on the low challenge side (until the last bit) and there’s some busy work to be had, that’s entirely optional.