A dreadful return

Parts of the Internet loves Metroid, but to an ill degree. Outside a few hot takes about sidescrolling games shouldn’t cost as much as games with three dimensions of movement, Metroid Dread has seemingly gained quite the amount of positive attention. Not that I’m here to piss into your cereal, but the developers of Dread have misunderstood Metroid to a degree. At its core, Metroid has been about powering up as you adventure through the game world in a balanced manner. There are obstacles that are required to beat, though not necessarily only in one manner. At its core, Metroid games are sidescrolling open-world games, or as we used to call them, adventure games. What does this have to do with Dread, and by that extension, that Metroid 2 remake on the 3DS? That modern Metroid is broken, and it was Fusion that shattered it.

For better or worse, Metroid missed the cereal train back in the day. Super Mario Bros. and Zelda were always the bigger franchises anyway

If you play any Metroid game prior to the modern era, there are few things you should notice. One of them is that Samus is strong by default. She may not have a long-range shot, but she has great mobility nevertheless and her rate of fire is not diminished like it is in Samus Returns remake and Dread. All the areas in the Classic era are filled with all sorts of little crawly animals you’re supposed to take down, which require Samus to be strong. It makes it much easier to kill enemies that fly in front of you as you power up, yet not all that necessary if you don’t want to item hunt. While Fusion manages to replicate this to a point, Samus Returns is a hollow game with large areas of one or two crawlies around, and this design change was made to compensate for the new melee and aiming mechanics. Much like how Other M had awkward as hell controls between third and first-person modes, Samus Returns suffers from awkward shooting and melee mechanics that necessitated changing the core play, and through that, how Metroid plays out. Perhaps you can argue that it offers a more relaxed pace for the game and the player is now required to time his actions better. However, the player already could dictate the pace they wanted, and weapons always took a degree of skill.

There is a concept of adding unnecessary mechanics for the sake of differentiating from the flock. Samus Returns reeks of this with everything it changed during the remake period to accommodate the melee mechanic. As weird it is to say aloud, Metroid is a shooting game much like Mega Man or Contra. Leave the melee for the Belmonts. Some fighting games, like Guilty Gear Accent Core, are faulty of this same thing, where there are additions of new mechanics for the sake of new mechanics that do not add any real value. In Metroid‘s case, this has caused a core change in how the game now must be played and approached while still being represented as being the same game. Metroid has become its own imitator. The surefire way to make a better Metroid title than Metroid 2 or Super Metroid (do you remember when people were arguing which one is better? I sure do) is to take the core element and expand upon them and see how far you can take them. The only reason people seem to prefer the melee mechanic is that Samus’ firepower was otherwise gimped and kicked down. If Samus Returns would have kept her firepower the same, there would be no reason for melee counters.

I don’t mind Samus’ new look though. It’s fine, but they should’ve stayed away from using white in the standard armour

An element that Dread is lifting from Fusion is the unkillable enemy chasing you. While SA-X is often cited as one of the more memorable things from the game, in Dread this seems to be a game-wide threat. This is turning Metroid into a stealth game, as now there seems to be a mechanic where you can turn Samus into a statue so one of these coloured robots (which look like iPhone store guards) can’t scan her. I’m sure we’re going to get story reasons why they can’t be destroyed and the game’s story will allow them to be destroyed by the end. That’s so goddamn tiresome. Metroid being an adventure game, an open-world title, fights this kind of written-in-stone story-driven progression fights against its nature. The same criticism was laid down on Fusion as well, though there it even broke the game’s core mechanic of non-linearity as you could only get items in a certain order as programmed into the game’s code. There was no sequence-breaking or creative choices done from the player’s part. Just like Samus Returns and Dread have minimised the player’s part in the exact same manner.

The thing is, Castlevania can do close-combat in non-linear games with some projectiles is because the overall design lends to it. It feels and looks like Castlevania, and more importantly, plays like Castlevania. It has balanced the game systems with the AI and game world to a fine point. Neither of these modern 2D Metroid Nintendo is making, and yes I am putting this on Nintendo as Sakamoto is still spearheading this franchise to hell, play like Metroid should. We have tons and tons of Metroid clones on the market with superior design in every aspect, and yet whatever the hell Samus Returns tried to be is shoddy lower-midtier garbage. Metroid doesn’t need to have melee attacks or counters. All of the play mechanics got gimped because of the want of this one extra mechanic that the game’s design can’t handle without breaking down. You can shave Samus Returns play to counter everything. All other mechanics are secondary and borderline useless. Unlike Castlevania, Samus Returns and Dread have screwed up whatever design the best of Metroid had to offer. Samus isn’t a goddamn ninja; she’s a fucking space Terminator. She’s not supposed to be a bac knock-off copy of her Smash Bros. version in her own games.

I won’t find any spot to talk about this otherwise, but holy shit doesn’t Samus Return have a terrible soundtrack. Most of the time you’re listening to this trash ambient soundtrack, and only in areas where you’re supposed to have a nostalgic rush you hear what is essentially re-used tracks from Prime. If you back and listen to Classic Metroid game soundtracks, the scary ambient things were saved for very specific areas and moments, but otherwise, you always had a rocking tune in the main areas. Maybe that’s for the better. Every time modern Metroid tries to do something new it flounders and fails like a fish on the Sun’s surface.

Speaking of white, these iPod dogs look less threatening and more… boring. Why would Samus shoot its face though? It looks like its most armored spot, while its lanky joints look like they would snap off from the ball sockets

Metroid is never going to escape Other M and Sakamoto. Hell, you might as well drop all hopes for Metroid Prime 4 at this point, as Metroid has long gone to be a story-driven adventure rather than the player’s adventure. Metroid was about the player facing a world and the sort of adventure that would be. Now, unlike its current contemporaries, it is about the player having to play out the outlined story. Best examples of this in the series? Metroid Fusion as a whole, and gimped world and adventuring in Metroid‘s GBA remake. Metroid has become about Samus despite Samus herself was never important. How the player had his adventure was, and we’ve lost it.

We can pinpoint the day when Metroid was lost. It’s the day when Gunpei Yokoi was killed in that car crash. I’m sure some people remember that there was an era where Yokoi’s name was attached to Metroid like Sakamoto’s is nowadays. I don’t like blaming one person for a failure of the whole team, but when you have a person who is put into a leadership position and publically proclaims his role in making and spearheading Samus’s story and knows her secrets, we can put his head unto the guillotine bed just fine. Just like with Link and other silent player characters, they’re supposed to be there for the player to play as. Take that away, and you’re forced to create a proper characterisation and framing for them, and seeing how video game writing is dumpster fire tier, and people like Sakamoto have zero talent or experience with actual story writing, you’re going to get stuff like repeating THE BABY the nth time.

Metroid Dread looks, sounds and probably will play cheap. This is sock-filling, a stopgap game. I’m sure it has a competent budget and all that, yet its lacklustre nature compared to independently made adventure games are laughing it out from the park despite their shoestring budget. Hell, just ignore what Nintendo is making and go play AM2R again.

Skies and lands promised

Cyberpunk 2077 is on the news and its reception has been mixed, to put it diplomatically. It’s been compared to No Man’s Sky in various aspects, like how many promised elements seemed to be missing and was ridden with bugs. As NY Times puts it, when a game is supposed to be The Biggest Video Game of the Year, expectations are high, especially when there’s almost a decade’s worth of marketing and hype behind the title. An expansive world that would be endlessly explorable just doesn’t happen without sacrifices or will be sacrificed in favour of other elements that make up a video game. I’d say that’s largely a no-brainer, as some of the more expansive worlds that have intense detail and hidden content often end up having less structure and directed play, which is contrasted to games with a tighter field of play. Take The Legend of Zelda or The Hunter: Call of the Wild as examples; both have massive worlds that can take years to properly venture through, but their main “quest” if effectively letting the player do whatever they want with few main objectives. I admit that this comparison is a bit off to Cyberpunk, but the reality is that open-world games have been an industry standard for about two decades, or more depending on how you want to define open-world.” It’s something that’s hard to realise properly, often ending up empty or played being walled from exploring every nook and cranny, but that’s the spot where both technology and game design puts up a challenge. The whole open-world genre, if it can be called that, has a history of being built on promises and failed expectations and yet the core video and computer game customers seem to expect even more. Clearly, the gaming industry hasn’t broken through how to do fully living 3D world yet, which isn’t just a technological challenge, but also a matter of paradigm. Perhaps putting fewer resources into licenses and hiring real-world actors would lease resources to where they truly matter.

The marketing for Cyberpunk 2077 was a massive success. It sold the game to the consumers and investors like no other. While Cyberpunk 2077 will stay as a cornerstone game in terms of technical achievement and such, all the refunds the customers have been demanding because of the game’s bug-ridden nature has caused a cascade effect, where damage control has brought even more worries. CD Project Red promised refunds for all, and all Sony and Microsoft could do is follow suit. Sony kind of screwed in this, as CD Project Red promised things before proper channels were established, causing Sony to also pull the game from PlayStation Network. Microsoft hasn’t done yet on whatever their consoles. With reviews going left and right, sometimes only to the negative to attack the whole deal and other times going to the complete opposite to defend the title, CD Project Red’s stock value plummeting over 40% since early December and the possibility of physical games getting refunds too, investors do have a reason to worry. They are, after all, considering a class-action lawsuit as they see CD Project Red having mispresented the game in a criminal manner in order to receive financial benefits.

I doubt there is any malice in any of the game’s failures. It’s just how these usually go with games that come with a stupid amount of hype. Game development is stupidly hard, and while some people do it for passion, and others just because it is their job. At the end of the day, any corporation has to cut their losses at the expense of something and push a product out. They have to make a profit No product is truly finished when it leaves the providers’ hands, no game is truly finished. Some are less than others, but at least we’re well past the days when you bought a highly visible licensed game only to find out you couldn’t finish the game because one of the levels was intentionally made unclearable because they never finished the last few levels of the game. There were quite a few of these during the 8-bit computer days. Cyberpunk 2077 just happens to be a victim of circumstances that are rather common when it comes to the electronic gaming industry. We certainly need cornerstone titles that push the technology forwards, yet more often than not these titles have been less successful than the games that have pushed the play part. I presume Cyberpunk 2077 will make a decent amount of money down the line after CD Project Red has managed to put a new spin on their marketing, fixed all the most common and outrageous bugs and the gaming media has placated and absolved them of their gaming sins.

There’s a lot of emotional reaction to the whole deal. We can’t fault consumers from reacting as harshly as they have, as CD Project Red’s PR did their job admirably. Sadly, that just didn’t meet with the expectations, or with reality in some cases.  I’ve discussed the nature emotional of marketing, corporations and customers to some extent in recent years, and with some, we’re seeing core fans feeling like they were betrayed by someone they felt a close emotional attachment to. CD Project Red is closely tied to Good Old Games, or just GOG as they go nowadays, and they have their fair share of diehard fanatics, just like Steam. As the customer feels betrayed by a brand, there’s often a harsh whiplash, but also a need to find justice. Sometimes its refusal to purchase any more products, sometimes it’s venting on social media, sometimes physical harm towards the game itself. Sometimes all three and then some.

To use No Man’s Sky as a point of comparison again, the game did get effectively fixed about a year later. Promised content and play mechanics were added as well as a large amount of bug fixing. While the game still has a bad rap overall, the devs took it upon themselves to make it the game it was supposed to be. While we can debate whether or not the game is what it was promised to be, there are chances that CD Project Red will do the same and spend the next year relentlessly fixing and patching the Cyberpunk. Unless the investors go for the throat and gut the whole company. Investors are often treated as the worst kind of being right after company executives, yet these are the people who have to make the decisions that will either make or break products, and through that, people’s lives. When multiples of millions are in the play, taking chances and risks is a bit scarier task than most would think.

We can’t fault the customers’ reactions, they were taken by the hype created by the marketing. In the same breath, we can’t really fault marketing for doing their job that effectively. Considering the kind of game, development time and hype that was involved, the current state of Cyberpunk 2077 should have been expected as an industry standard, not as some sort of terrible exception. There is no real solution to a situation like this. Rarely we get a piece like Star Wars that has everything together in a perfect way with good timing. Even if the game’s bugs and overall state would have been up to much higher calibre, from what I’ve seen it would still have been found disappointment in how it plays. From all the footage, streams and the odd review I’ve seen, Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t actually push any boundaries when it comes to play mechanics. On the contrary, it seems it’s rather middle of the road and does nothing spectacular. Maybe that’s the sacrifice you have to make when you make a vast world driven by a story rather play. Maybe these games are just getting too big for their own good, and end up feeling smaller than they really are. Though personally I’d love to see customers reining in their expectations and the companies directing their marketing and PR to make the most realistic claims and ads with no embellishments. That won’t ever happen, but a man can dream.

 

 

Nintendo continues to fight piracy at the expense of the customer

Nintendo has been fighting piracy since they started the whole electronic gaming business. Donkey Kong the arcade game itself was a prime target of piracy, with copied arcade boards popping up frequently due to its popularity. The NES / Famicom piracy was massive despite the whole physical cartridge thing, with numerous Asian countries producing copies of the system and selling those systems and games across the globe. Hell, the Soviets / Russians enjoyed Dendy console as their mainline NES copy, with effectively all games being pirated copies of some kind. The SNES saw this practice much less, but few did fall between the cracks, with Super Noah’s Ark 3D being the most known in the West. Now, the N64 barely saw any piracy, as the concentrated efforts had moved to the PlayStation. In some ways, you can determine what system is the most popular in any given system generation by how much effort is there to put piracy into effect and how successful it has been. It’s no surprise then than the GameCube piracy was less enticing than PS2, mostly because a more popular system also has the most games for people to take a crack at. Then we come to the Wii, which wasn’t just a popular system, but a massive success and its piracy wasn’t just easily accessed; it was made into something everyone in the mainstream could do by themselves and take advantage of. Before this most systems required either external carts, an external device plugged in or physical modification to the PCB to make piracy easier. With PlayStation, you could just have your local electronics store install a BIOS chip that jumped over checking if the disc was legit or correct region. Then you could burn PlayStation games willy nilly. There was also an external box that allowed you to boot into a special menu and skip that checking routine. Wii U mostly had piracy because it was easy to implement after the Wii, but it never really had titles people were interested in. There’s a reason why Nintendo kicked it out rather fast and started the 9th console generation well before Microsoft and Sony were putting their systems out.

Seeing Nintendo considers themselves taking a hefty blow in their sales because of piracy with the Wii (in reality, it’s because Nintendo effectively abandoned the system mid-way through its lifecycle and gushed out garbage instead of putting further effort into high calibre titles) they have been taking rather heavy-handed actions against piracy with the Switch. Such things like the Switch having physical traces on the PCB that get burned out with certain updates to effectively suing everyone who might enable the system being cracked open for whatever reason. The latest hit was against Le Hoang Minh, who was selling RCM Loader, a dongle that would enable homebrew to run on the Switch. While Nintendo can’t attack Minh for piracy per se, their attacks as of late have been against groups selling dongles like this, or groups that are offering service that would modify the Switch to run homebrew software. In Nintendo’s eyes, these are all against the rule of law and End User Agreement as well as breaking copyright by circumventing the system’s protections. Nintendo DMCA’s these people often and drags them to court.

I’m not going to dance around the subject and claim that people who are purchasing these items and services have the end intention of running homebrew on their system or other more legitimate methods. It’s rather clear that piracy is one of the many end-goals here and both consumers and corporations have to live with it. However, most actions these hardware companies take to prevent piracy end up damaging the legitimate customers. For example, Sony removed the ability to run Linux on PlayStation 3 because someone managed to find a way to run homebrew through it. Not only a complete element was removed from the system, but Sony ended up paying millions because of that as they had advertised the system with Other OS capability. Now that the Switch destroys physical traces on the system, it might cause troubles down the line. Of course, fighting piracy with online-only systems and digital-only sales is one method of battling piracy as well, both of which don’t do favours for the general customer. If anything, battling piracy has only caused customers to lose control over their games and system, which actually has turned a minor section of these customers looking into homebrew and piracy even more in order to take full control over the products they bought and own.

Is Nintendo in the right in their crusade against these homebrew enablers? They believe so, and they believe their DMCA’ing and taking legal actions to protect their intellectual property that they see is being infringement by circumventing protections. Team-Xecutor, one of the more prolific teams offering homebrew for the Switch, accused Nintendo of legal scare tactics and censorship. There’s little doubt Nintendo wouldn’t try to intimidate groups like Minh and Team-Xecutor first before taking full legal actions, although throwing censorship in there is a dubious claim. However, all these products that enable homebrew can be seen as part of the Right to Repair movement. Apple and Nintendo, and effectively everyone else who offers electronics, is in the same boat here, as third party products, be it goods or services, would take repair and service revenue out from their pocket. In some cases, like with Apple and third-party repair parts, they would lose control over the overall device and its parts. This is under the guise of offering better and more qualified service, which is straight-up bullshit. This total control over the systems has stemmed from customers trying to fix their own devices or had third party members trying to fix it for them and then claiming warranty from the corporation. It was more or less a 50/50 chance whether or not they would repair or replace the product, but more often than not they’d end up replacing it simply because that was the cheaper option. Nowadays large amounts of customers still play the system and claim warranty on functional items. Stores rarely check these products and simply send the supposedly faulty device back and the customer gets a new device for free, and another few years of warranty. Warranty which they’ll go claim back, effectively getting a replacement device every few years. This is just one common example of how the customer-provider relationship is being abused constantly by the consumer. It becomes rather understandable why companies would want to take total control over the devices and software the customer purchases simply to prevent unnecessary losses gathered from customers effectively screwing them. In the end, all the customers at large get screwed.

Whether or not these products that allow homebrew on the Switch actually infringe Nintendo’s rights in any way are less important than the results they cause, and that is piracy. While piracy is seen as a massive threat to any entertainment industry and portrayed as such, it is in actuality completely different beast.  There is no better form of advertising or showcasing the value of a product other than giving it in the hands of the customer himself and the giving freedom to go town with it. Many films and music albums have been sold when people have seen and listened to a pirated copy and the same applies to the game industry. Game demos was found to damage game sales because they showcased how terrible those games could be. All sales are final is the mantra certain companies want to repeat, as they know the product they’re selling is in many ways faulty. Both sides should find a way that wouldn’t infringe either side in good faith, but that’s something that won’t ever happen because that’d require consumers to change their habits and mindsets to a large degree and corporations to lose most of the control they have over products they’re now selling. Seeing as global corporations are moving towards abolishing the idea of owning anything you buy, replaced by a subscription model that would give them complete control over the product as well as make them more profit, that’s something we’re never going to reach. Ultimately, piracy, IP and trademark infringement are used as excuses to further destroy whatever control and ownership the consumer. You’re more or less expected to consume just the same but never see the end product truly in your hands. If and when things are digital, this applies doubly so. Even with a company like Nintendo with a family-friendly image, the end goals seems to be the same as with every other company; work to consume, but never to own or control what you are consuming.

A chance for Microsoft to push forwards in Japan

Microsoft is supposedly aiming for the Japanese market, according to Bloomberg. Some are taking this as some sort of new thing, but Microsoft has always tried to make itself a big thing in Japan with Xbox. This is, in itself, nothing new. The original Xbox S-Controller was developed and design the Japanese market in mind, and it ended up being successful enough to kick out the Duke controller for good (because the Duke, in all honesty, is kind of trash). The 360 had a hard PR push in Japan, with booth girls designed to appeal to the local tastes alongside numerous exclusive games and titles that should have been hit with the audiences. However, the X360 ultimately ended up playing the third fiddle (again), but kind of did follow the footsteps of old Japanese computers in its game selection. If you love shooting games and peculiar managing titles, the X360 is chock full of exclusive titles like many of CAVE’s shooters e.g. Death Smiles and The iDOLM@ASTER killing your hopes for a new chapter of Berserk. Down the line, these titles did get sequels and ports elsewhere, but at the time the X360 was, effectively, the otaku console to have with many niche titles. Hell, even Muv-Luv saw a port for 360 before Sony got its own. It’s niche library of Japanse games that didn’t get Western releases and were behind region locking meant that the X360 saw some limited importing within certain circles. Nowadays most of the good stuff has appeared elsewhere with no bullshit in-between outside needing to use Steam, so there’s very little reason to consider doing so nowadays.

The reason why Bloomberg is making a thing about Microsoft’s ever-continuing attempts to court the Japanese consumers is that Sony’s employees internally are more or less disfranchised. Analyst Hideki Yasuda of Ace Research Institute saying that Sony’s attention is drifting away from its consumers in the home market, and that’s an understatement of sorts. Sony’s American HQ has been making hits and after hits on the marketability and development of their third party titles, of which I’ve got few posts in the past. The fact that Sony’s pushing for censorship on games on their design phase and banning whole play elements and methods surely will push developers away, which turns the consumer tide elsewhere. Sony’s emphasize with its new internal rules and regulations has damaged the company in ways that are becoming apparent in consumer behaviour. Furthermore, an example of straight-up Americanisation of PlayStation as a whole can be seen in switching the X and O confirmation buttons around in Japan, something the Japanese consumers aren’t exactly keen on. Granted, that poll was open to a thousand participants only, but treating it as a sample size should give you an indication what the majority of the population thinks. Changing an established form factor that’s been there since the Super Nintendo days is extremely short-sighted. Not only this means long-time users have to work against their muscle memory, but also that X and O make no longer sense in cultural context, as they’re now reverse. There’s also a worry about this applying to backwards compatible games. Sony has confirmed that this isn’t optional, meaning Japanese who purchase PlayStation 5 will have one helluva time trying to figure out why the hell their O is suddenly a bad thing instead of X. However, now both Xbox and PlayStation share the same scheme of menu confirmation, with Nintendo still using the “classical” layout.

Then again, that first Bloomberg article states that Sony of Japan has been sidelined. I’ll quote this bit and then drag that horse carcass back for a moment; “The US office believes the PlayStation business doesn’t need games that only do well in Japan, employees in the California headquarters reportedly said.” Whoever said this needs to be fired from their job for effectively ruining PlayStation 5’s chances. A console’s lifeline is in its library. A console can not be a success alone. When you grind things down even slightly, hardware is just the middle man, the unnecessary evil, the crutch. You only buy hardware that has software that you want to consume. A console must have its own unique library of games that entices the player enough to purchase the hardware. If you want your console to succeed in Japan, it must have a wide variety of different kind of games that appeal to the Japanese culture of video games. These games are widely different from what appeals to general consumers in the US, UK, France etc. Every nation and culture have their own things that are bombshell sellers. For Finland, it would seem NHL and FIFA games because fuck these people are thirsty of sports.

Of course, after Jim Ryan, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s CEO, insisted that the company wasn’t Americanised when they moved HQ to California rings extremely hollow. Even the size of PlayStation 5 screams American whopper. It’s ugly as hell and larger than a man’s torso. No Japanese corporation would design their machine to be that big because space is a premium in Japan. The Switch is the king of this Generation of consoles due to its hybrid nature and a good library. Clearly Ryan was spouting bullshit, as the current global agenda is leaving Japan a cold turkey, and that probably will happen to European countries as well. Now with regional departments gone, Sony can’t have its individual arms creating specific plans and games for each region. Now, all we’re getting is what the American centre vomits outs. They can’t be flexible and nimble with only one scarecrow. 2020 has shown the downsides of globalisation to an extreme degree and Sony putting their eggs in that basket was a major blowout. It will only hurt them down the line as it will kill variety and regional specialities in favour of one corporate vision, now driven by censorship. I’ve seen claims of Japanese taking up Steam and other PC stores closer to their heart after since certain kinds of titles were banned and Visual Novels started suffering on the platform. Not only that, but Sony themselves have been shooting themselves in the leg by allowing ports of their harder hitters to Steam in hopes of making more cash. That’s a sure shot method of killing your device, exactly what they did with the Vita. Poor Vita, Sony mistreated you so hard. Whatever PR Sony wants to spin, like Natsumi Atarashi’s assertation how Japan will remain their utmost importance, can be disregarded as bullshit. Sony’s actions thus far have been telling the complete opposite. Don’t tell me a house isn’t on fire when it’s blazing just behind you.

All this is part of the continuing censorship routine and globalisation Sony has been practising for the past few years, something I have posts on. The thing about Sony’s globalisation and concentrating their decision power into one HQ is that in time it’ll be a disservice for them. I already mentioned that they will streamline their services and products with this, but it will also go against them. Global organisations with this size will see the rise of useless middle management that will drag feet down. Arguibly that’s already happening with the whole internal censorship and censorious regulation they’ve put into power. This will sap energy from regional offices and will damage their work capacity to work as they always have to wait for a reply from the main office from California. The more proper answer should’ve been to gut the middle management and allow regional offices to cater their target areas the best they can. The California HQ seems to think what applies to them applies globally. It may not be Americanisation as Ryan claims, but then it’s simply forcing a skewed view of the world forcefully unto others with ideas and values that do not apply even outside the doors of Sony HQ. Sony should value what their customers value in their brand, and they’re moving to the complete opposite direction, thinking that the consumer is a sheep who follows rather votes with his wallet. No matter how much people want to sell the idea of perfect global society as part of globalisation. Take Germany’s latest stance as an example. Globalisation doesn’t mean others will take up to your opinions and views as the holy gospel. Often it’s just the opposite. In a perfect world, we would have objectively the best standards for everything, but that’s not realistic. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for them, but in the current state globalisation, people need to come mid-way to meet each other. Sony’s current practices effectively oppressing rather than allowing themselves to create a company that would truly be of service at a global scale by adjusting themselves accordingly.

I’ve also noticed a certain consumer behaviour that’s tied to all this. Early in the PS4’s and Switch’s life cycles importers preferred the PS4 versions of games if there were two available. In recent years this has drastically shifted for importers to prefer Switch version, if available. This probably reflects what kind of consumer group current importers are at a worldwide scale, with most of them being aware of current happenings and decisions taking place behind the scenes the corporates want to keep behind the curtains.

Despite all this doom speak, Japanese developers won’t abandon the PlayStation. If anything, they’ll probably aim to go multiplatform more. Theirs is a traditionalist way of working, and abandoning one of the two national devices seems to go against the grain rather hard. It’s like how the US prefers Xbox mostly because it’s Xbox. Perhaps more and more companies will go multiplatform and ensure a Steam or similar release on PC as well, while moving some of their exclusive titles being developed for the two competing platforms. Sony will hire studios to make games for their hardware for sure and the usual line-up will come out that most people will be happy with, but then the question just ends up being what’s the difference between the new Xbox and PlayStation?  If the libraries end up resembling each other even more, and there’s no real difference outside an even smaller handful of exclusives, it becomes more brand battle than anything else. Here Microsoft has a chance to shine, but theirs is a steep climb. The Xbox One managed to scrape 0.1% of all console sales in Japan this year. That’s one helluva fight against PlayStation 4’s 10.1%, and all but an impossible task against 89.9% the Switch holds. The Xbox brand could turn things around in Japan if they’d manage to find that sweet spot Sony’s abandoning and working on that like no other. It’ll take a console generation and then some to turn the Japanese consumer’s opinion on Microsoft’s console around, but perhaps if they manage to properly deliver proper titles, that is achievable.

Taking an axe to a dead horse

Let me start this post by not just kicking that one dead horse, but again mince its meat and turn its hooves into glue; the story of a game is in its play, the rest of framing. The thing that makes electronic gaming so interesting is that the framing is considered equal, if not more important in some cases, than the content it is framing.

A game’s framing narrative will always be second to the play of the game, that’s part of the medium. The framing can never escape the play part, and ultimately has to be break itself apart and into segments to satisfy the needs of play. This could be, for example,  the need for the player to move a character from locale A to locale B in order to continue the narrative segment. Or in case of Xenosaga, walk from a room to another to continue from a fifteen-minute FMV. The narrative also has the option to cover game mechanics as part of the world, but that is not specifically necessary.

The game can cover rules of the play by other means as well, but for the sake of game’s own narrative consistency, more often than not the rules are implemented as part of the framing narrative. Sometimes it makes sense, like how Trails in the Sky has the whole orbs-in-slots system, something concrete that the player sees and collects, and other times it’s rather abstract like Junctioning Magic to Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy XIII. Nevertheless, the framing itself matters less than the function and rules of the play the provide.

Of course, depending on the game, the framing device can be extremely important, or matter very little. Modern audiences are used to having everything in FMVs and pre-scripted sequences that take control out of the players’ hands, but in the arcades this context was delivered via cabinet marquees and attraction screens. In the best cases, games were laid out and designed to deliver the framing without much words or time wasted. For example, the subtitle of the first Street Fighter II was The World Warrior, referring to the world stage the player’s chosen character would be in. The selection screen itself presented this concept with the world map and plane flying here and there. Much like any other visual medium, games excel in the visual side of things. Certainly, many arcade games slapped a text to give you the base framing and that was that, which is effectively an equivalent of any modern FMV. More abstract games didn’t need any. Pac-Man eats pills and tries to avoid the Ghosts. That’s the minimum amount of framing a game needs to fully justify its play. Funnily enough, that is also the description of the play, getting two birds with one stone.

The framing fights the player agency because it’s not the content, the play is. Nowadays we take for granted how large the overall framing is to give a whole world for the play to be justified, which is overreaching it rather hard, but it is one of the easier and most accessible aspects to analyse regarding games. This is because we are taught to read from a young age and how to analyse media overall. Film criticism comes a bit later, but often we build our own preferences based on certain aspects of films, which makes the whole analysing this framing device very easy.

It’s not as easy with other media, where specialised knowledge is more or less necessary to understand how the content is being framed. To drag the remains of the horse’s corpse here for a moment, not many people concentrate on the frames of a painting or on the pedestal of a statue despite the possibility that they too could have seen masterful works themselves. A painting is being elevated further when an unique frame has been designed and carved for it, accenting its strokes and colours properly. Often they just get overlooked and whatever readily made models are there on the table gets picked up, because the frame isn’t the main point. Not many know wood-crafting well enough to begin to appreciate the necessary skill and knowledge master framers have built up throughout the years to pair a painting perfectly to a frame, and proceed to frame it in an equally skilful manner. Everything from material selection to the attaching itself must be taken into account. Or, y’know, just nab that proper sized black frame from Ikea and go with that. Sure, same thing. I’m overstating this point because handiwork and craftsmanship isn’t something we all learn too deeply. We dabble in it and may learn base skills, but we aren’t taught them to any deeper extent. Craft lessons at school mostly just play rather than building up any true skill, unlike your native tongue lessons.

Games that rely heavily on the framing narrative also tend to decrease the agency of the player, the freedom of play. This doesn’t matter too much in games that are laid out as fields of challenge, like almost every action and racing game out there, but raises its ugly head when it comes to RPGs. More often than not, RPGs do not offer a whole lot of ways for the player to realise their own play. Some RPGs allow completely free character creation and follow in suit, but even then framing device is ready and sometimes can’t even be affected. When the developer concentrates on emphasizing their framing as a single narrative, the player agency is effectively nil. Very few times the framing allows the player to have a large agency on its course and in cases like YIIK the narrative is overwhelmingly more important than the play to the point of it having been designed to hate the player. The greater the narrative design, the more it has to rely on the techniques from other media, but marrying it to the play also requires an equal amount of design decisions regarding the play. For example, Kojima may have made his titles long-ass movies at times, but simply allowing the player to turn on the first person camera and look around for clues and easter eggs add to the player agency. While the player can’t continue the scene on their own terms, they are given control over an aspect nevertheless. A small thing that adds value to otherwise lengthy scenes of doing nothing.

While the framing narrative sees ever-rising budgets and effort to have the most well-scripted stories to be delivered, there is an immense lack of any effort to meld this narrative within the content. This, of course, would necessitate far larger scale of stories and pathways the player can take, making it necessary to consider completely opposite directions of their current framing narrative than intended. For example, imagine if during a Call of Duty campaign the player could at certain points make a decision to change sides. Perhaps this could be a multi-campaign element, where the player could choose to effectively change one campaign to another, but at the same time changing the way the framing of the campaign works from thereon. The rules of the game don’t change, but rather than being one of the Allied, he might end up playing a soldier who now fights for the Axis. This would offer the developers ways depict a more complex narrative as well as offer the player more options to explore. Perhaps even allow a third option of abandoning the war altogether and be chased throughout the fields by both sides. These aren’t RPG elements or the like, these would simply be options to be presented to the player in a similar manner that optional routes are. All this of course goes in the face of the current paradigm, where the narrative must one whole that the player must experience. The Last of Us 2 aimed to make the player uncomfortable by making enemies lament on their friends’ deaths while the narrative didn’t offer any other options but what the developers intended. It didn’t work out.

This isn’t exactly railroading the player as much as the paradigm for video and computer games haven’t shifted to consider these a valid option. Not that they necessarily should, as these spreading games are more or less considered gimmicks. Surprisingly, the Drakengard series, including Nier, has taken strides in this. Their multiple endings can be unlocked by player actions to different degrees, though usually, the first round is always the same. Nier: Automata has one of my favourite examples of this, where you can turn around as 9S when you first get control of him in New Game + and just fuck off from starting point, you achieve an end to the game. Another example would be when the player reaches the peaceful robot village, and despite their pacifism, the player proceeds to murder every robot there, gaining another ending. Again, these are minor things and yet they show how the developers considered possible player actions or at least their want of certain kind of action, and realised it as a solution or a path as part of the framing narrative. None of this, of course, would function if the frame wouldn’t have designed to house these deviating rules of play.

The thing is, with games making the framing is easier than making the content. The content isn’t as freeform or artsy, it requires intensive labour hours and demands a lot of skill even if you use a ready engine. The designs of play and choices made have to function, each and every programming error and design mistake compound on top of each other faster than it does in the framing narrative. Creating the framing for a game is the fun part, but creating the game itself is where the true difficulties lie. It’s no wonder that a multi-branching game that would allow the frames to change at the player’s decisions are still rather rare, and even then some franchises make clear-cut marketing that this is an element of their play, that routes are a franchise gimmick. That’s not even what I’m truly trying to convey with this post.

Let me try to rephrase the whole thing in short; Computer and video games still rely on methods of film and literature in their framing narrative and have not been able to truly marry it to the play. This some times comes through as route selections, sometimes as exposition being spouted during a boss battle. The main split is whether or not the player is in control. The marriage of the frame and the content would need to be as with painting that has specifically made frames for; a player should have large agency, perhaps even control, to move the framing narrative. This way the story, that is the player actions during play, would be part of the narrative. This is just a solution. Furthermore, the more the framing device aims to be the main point of the game, the more the game will suffer as it still has to accommodate the play. This is why video game adaptation on the silver screen can’t work as intended because they are written and planned around the game. Point of a game is to be played, to be the active participant.

Here’s a point where this is apparent. During TGS 2020, Square-Enix released a trailer of the new Final Fantasy because overseas customers wanted to see a trailer that shows the game’s play footage. What SquEnix did first was to offer the game’s frame, as that has always been their forté. However, what the customer always wants to see is the content and that applies to every field. You can jingle shiny keys in front of the customer however much you want, but at the end of the day, they want to go for a drive too.

Review: Streets of Rage 4

A very Sega cover

The original Streets of Rage games are a prime example of how Sega of Japan mishandled the Mega Drive in the Western markets. The three original games were never really popular in Japan or in Asian markets in general, but they were hits in American and in Europe. The whole thing about Streets of Rage series being cool at the time, hitting the rights spots with the popular culture phenomena in especially in the America with influences taken from the then-current music scenes across the pond made these games stand out, though the third game’s music splits opinions harshly due to its experimental nature. Sega was extremely good with this for a short period of time in the late 1980s and early 1990s as numerous of their projects managed to capitalise what was way cool. Sonic the Hedgehog is without a doubt their shining example of this, blending polygonal visuals that were popular in advertisement at the time with a great soundtrack, with emphasize on environmental themes that were around to a point and mixing them all in a blender to produce the most attitude ladden mascot to that point. Streets of Rage harkens a bit further back to the 1980s than Sonic, with the movie Streets of Fire being a heavy influence thematically. Other contemporary games, like Final Fight, were a massive influnce, with Street Fighter II being played at the developer Ancient Corp.’s offices and having a great impact on Streets of Rage 2. If the second game was evolution of what made the first game a success, introducing more moves and wider variety of enemies, the third game took that and gave more emphasize to the stages themselves. Branching paths became a more common thing, further moves were introduced, and for better or worse, the game’s story got more emphasize with cutscenes and dialogue. Unlockable playable characters made their first entry in the series.

 

However, the fourth game didn’t materialise for some two decades. 1994 was the deathknell of the Mega Drive, advent of Sega Saturn, Darkstalkers saw a release in the arcades among other things. Streets of Rage 3 didn’t even scratch the top ten most sold games for that year. Despite the third game attempting to push everything the second game layed down, in most terms it was a commercial failure. The beat-em-up as a genre was moving out from its golden days with Konami and Capcom still making some of the best entries, leaving Streets of Rage behind both in terms of game play, design and visuals. The fourth game in the series was attempted few times around, one of which ended up as the PlayStation/N64 game Fighting Force, or Metal Fist in Japan. One of Sega’s attempts turned into Dynamite Deka series, which was used as the basis for the Die Hard license. Ancient had been working on a Streets of Rage 4 for the Dreamcast as well, but supposedly, execs at Sega of America closed it down very early in development. Nevertheless, the DNA of Streets of Rage was carried over various directions. Ultimately, these kind of 3D action games would end up as being similar to Devil May Cry, which are a far cry from the first Final Fight and Streets of Rage.

 

The reason I wanted to include this whole bit is to show that despite all fans and fanfare the two original games got, the third game was a miss despite it taking the series further. The genre moved onwards with other games and Streets of Rage was mostly used a launchpoint. Fans have been making their own games based on the IP, and all things considered, Streets of Rage had become a dead franchise. That was until 2018, when DotEmu announced they’re working on a new entry with Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games.

The initial trailer split opinions, some liking the new style while other hating it. It showed nothing too much on the play outside few seconds, but the later DotEmu would release more footage as the game’s release was closing in. However, from the very first on, it was rather apparent that the game wouldn’t push forwards what the franchise had been back in 1994. That’s probably the whole review in a nutshell.

A revival like this can be don in two ways. First is to stick to the guns and not change much, or anything, about the formula and roll with that. You won’t disappoint anyone and you know you’re catering to the core fans who just wanted a new entry no matter what. This is effectively what Capcom did with Mega Man 9 and 10, and Nintendo with the New Super Mario Bros. line. This kind of catering to nostalgia first and foremost works few times around, but it can’t be milked. The other option would be to take core essence and see how far you can push it. With two decades and then between the SoR3 and 4, it would be rather easy to see what sort of design innovations the beat-em-up, or action games in general, have made during that period and how they could be implemented. Both are very different routes, and DotEmu and co. ultimately decided to stick with the core guns of the franchise and not deviate.

Good amount of research into the characters was apparently done

When it comes to SoR4‘s play, it’s as pure action as you can get. It’s methodical and orthodox and even fights against players who want to blitz. Timing is everything in these games, alongside positioning. The wide variety of enemies use different tactics to get away from the player, with some having moves that allow the to traverse across the screen or move in the air the way the player can’t. If you’ve ever plaued, or even watched footage of a beat-em-up, you already know what to expect from the play. However, the player is ultimately limited in their actions, even if the new control scheme does dedicate a button for picking up items and such. There is no running or dashing, nor there is a dedicated button or combination for sure certain grab and throw. You can only punch and jump, and grab when you’re close up. In terms of play and controls, there’s nothing pushing the Streets of Rage forwards. At the same time, once the slow pace clicks to you few stages in, the game becomes a bit more open. You can’t really device your own ways of approaching and playing it, however, as the design doesn’t provide the tools for that.

This approach has cost the game’s design some points. While many of the normal enemies are fine tuned, some of them exhibit unnaturally large amount of invincibility frames in their moves, something the player is lacking. Benefits are given to the enemies to the point of game feeling annoying rather than hard or challenging. There’s no point trying to counter moves, when you can almost break the game by grabbing and throwing things around. This is further examplified with the bosses, as they gain similar Star moves the player has access to, but with the difference they can use them in a pattern willy nilly without thinking about their life being drained or such. Some of the bosses are just lacklustre, like the helmetted DJ that feels like an unnecessary thoraway just to have a boss in there, while others give a satisfyingly levelled challenge with their own twist, like with Shiva.

Outside Shiva’s bullshit-bunshin, the fight’s really on the even grounds

The game is also rather long, longer than it really needed to be for a beat-em-up. This is further emphazised but that slower paced game design mentioned earlier. Cutting one or two stages out and make it an even ten, or even just nine stages with multiple paths would’ve made the game more interesting on revisits, but in one sit-through Streets of Rage 4 begins to slog and overstays its welcome rather hard. However, the game has embraced modern sensibilities in that you are able to continue with the stage you left off with a save file, with 1 Coin challenge being offered in form of Arcade Mode.

In tersm of visual design, the game is top notch. It looks great with all the lighting effects and colours being used in proper manners. It looks like a French cartoon with heavy Japanese influences thrown here and there. In this the game is rather contemporary, slightly revolting against how the original games tried to level with realistic look. The way the visuals have been realised and executed is probaby the best part of the game, testifying how 2D is still the best way to realise the age-old dream of games looking like cartoons on telly. Animation work is terrific and nothing to be scoffed at, characters are easy to tell apart and while stage designs and environments can be lacklustre, they still come through strongly simply because how well they’re visually made. Despite all this, the edge in the visusal style is rather rounded and maybe even dull. The Y Twin, the end bosses, don’t really jump out in their design, and the fact that they utilise a giant robot during the end battle is uninspired at best.

On the music side, you have what we could call classic SoR tunes. It fits and doesn’t intrude on the player’s nerves. Some tunes stand out more than others, so overall a well done soundtrack that’s not too uncommon nowadays.

The story doesn’t matter. While I fully expected some scenes to be voiced, I found myself more annoyed by the cutscenes more than anything. The difference in visual style becomes drastically evident during these, which also emphasize how it ultimately doesn’t fit. Within the series narrative, it’s almost like the the early 1990s never moved onward, yet we see contemporary factors dropped here and there. Perhaps fully embracing that early 2000s aesthetic would’ve been a better option rather than create this sort of fetishised hybrid of 1980s/early 1990s nostalgia through rose coloured goggles.

This game sounds, looks and plays like a standard Streets of Rage 4 fare. We’ve played this three times before. If this game has been released in the 1990s, it would’ve scored low. Now, far removed from its setting, it stands out as a classical example of well made and polished game, but a game that offers nothing special on its own. Expecting this game to deliver anything else than that will be met with gross disappointment. It’s a game that does get the franchise, it fully embraces what it is, but at the same time, it makes itself rather hard to recommend if you’re already familiar with the series, or the genre overall. If SoR5 will be a thing down the line, it can’t surf on nostalgia and has to find its way to create its own indentity and expand on already-explored play of the franchise, or go bust. I can’t fault what the game was designed to be, as that’s extremely well realised. It’s just that design was already out of date twenty years ago.

Pizza Pizza

As long as I can remember, Domino’s Pizza has been the butt of jokes to the point even my Vietnamese associates know a few. They had a massive problem with PR and their pizza for numerous years and found themselves in a downward spiral in the mid-2000s, striking the all-time low in 2008 when their stock price was just three dollars. Nowadays they go for around 380 bucks. It wasn’t the easiest route.

Despite Domino’s hitting their lowest point, they experienced a massive PR crisis following Michael Setzer’s and Kristy Hammond’s Youtube video showcasing how much they loved to ruin the food they were preparing. They pleaded guilty a year later. This video effectively confirmed how Domino’s food was prepared in the minds of the consumers, further enforcing the jokes that were made and pushed customers away. It didn’t help that the video ended up being one of the top search results if you searched for Domino’s at the time. Even disregarding this incident, Domino’s was seen as some sort of crime against food and ingredients, or as Adweek’s short story put it on their focus testing, it’s startling to hear the degree to which consumers regard Domino’s as the embodiment of culinary evil. During this and numerous other focus tests Domino’s pizzas were called all sorts of names and claims of them using fake cheese and the like in their products were common, hence the jokes of the time. Some of them have survived long enough to be part of pizza-eating culture.

Domino’s decided that they need to turn their ship around and hard. Ever since their record-low stock price and the whole PR disaster with Setzer and Hammond, Domino’s began to comb through their complaints and reviews for the most common negative mentions and comparisons, as mentioned in their four and a half minute documentary what they were doing. This video, while being a corporate produced piece, is one of the things Domino’s did to have that boat turned. They went back to the recipes and worked on them and revised what they were doing wrong. Supposedly more training was given to the workers to prevent the mishaps the aforementioned video caused. Domino’s, in all effect, owned that they were rather shit company with workers who didn’t care if your pizza was terrible or not. The linked video shows how proud Domino’s was after they went and created new pizzas, which were more or less made from scrap. Everything from the dough to toppings was tested multiple times over and changed wherever needed. Whether or not this is all true will probably be always an open question, yet even from this video it is evident how much money Domino’s spent to revise their image by revising their image through their product. They even went as far as providing their focus group members with these new pizzas to test and get their opinions. They made these into ads, no less.

Domino’s Pizza owning up and takings steps to deliver to the customer the kind of pizza they wanted while making a public, transparent stunt out of it all has made them the most valued pizza restaurant chain. While some still retain the image of Domino’s being the worst kind of pizza you can have, that’s rather outdated view by about a decade. That, and they probably never had Greek pizza. Domino’s stocks have been in constant rise, and they’ve been trying to renew customer interest in various manners after their renewal, like collaborating with Hatsune Miku in Japan. part of their whole shtick of being transparent to at least some extent, they’ve allowed Food Insider to make a short video how their pizza is made and delivered, though personally, I have to say I’m not exactly excited by the idea of the dough being made elsewhere from the spot. Delivery food is making some nice bucks at the moment, so Domino’s made some nice bucks earlier this year as people didn’t want to leave their homes.

What’s your point? I hear Wes asking me there. My point is that Domino’s pizza listened to their customers, changed their product and working methods to better fit the demand. Not only they were willing to take in feedback and were honest about it to themselves, but were willing to make rather transparent transition from what they were to what they wanted to be. Customers love that, and that made them a billion-dollar company.

This same set of ideas can be applied to any industry on their basis. While the creative industries want to sell the image of one creator or a team of creative individuals delivering an earth-shattering piece that can only be experienced in so many fashions, the reality is that any product needs to be carefully planned out and balanced between the original intent and the customers’ wants. That is far harder than you would expect, as some corporate cultures do everything by data alone, which can lead to discarding feedback in total and the only thing that says anything is sales data. This can be combined with long-term career businessmen, who are hard stuck on their own methods of working, as it has produced large revenues up to that point already, making the total renewal of their productions hard if not impossible. In the foodstuff world, this is easier to do than e.g. in automobile production or the like, where you can only begin to start this process with the next series of cars rather what you already have in production. With games, music and film this could be implemented in an easier manner, but it requires humility among these egos, and that’s something the self-clashing creative industries do not see too often. Imagine if, for example, EA would make a public announcement that they’ve listened to all the feedback they’ve gotten through the years and have begun to consider how they produce, develop and publish games, as well as how they tackle advertising in their games or in which manners lootbox mechanics function. It’d take years for them to root out these methods and manners they’ve cultivated throughout the years and end up putting efforts into making games that wouldn’t nearly kill their workforce or would contain whatever is currently the most underhanded way of making that extra money. Something like this happening in the creative industries is as likely to happen as a pig flying through your window. It happens on occasions, but extremely rarely.

Few posts ago I wrote how I’m tired of the PR game. Domino’s Pizza turned their PR disaster into a chance of renewing their image through transparency. Because transparency to that effect would necessitate losing face first in order to gain higher PR wins in the long run, you won’t see this happening with franchises like Star Wars or any of the botched film franchises. You will never see one of the head honchos stepping up, admitting the money they spent on a movie bombing like no other was a mistake and that they will look into renewing and satisfying the customer. That would go against how things are presented to the audience, the whole Hollywood/ creative myth, how glamorous it is to be a successful creator. Yet even sure-shot franchises like Star Wars, Alien and The Terminator have slumped, the latter two effectively becoming more or less dead thanks to the latest movies. Hell, even the Predator franchise is back in the casket after The Predator managed to fuck up the series. As much as it often goes against the corporate grain, transparency and honesty are two things the customer values. If a corporation manages to be open about their faults and missteps about themselves and is visibly improving themselves, that creates almost natural emotional connections to both your current customers and your possible customers.

The one place where transparency should be the most important bit is in crowdfunding like Kickstarter. If you’ve run a Kickstarter and have managed to each your funding goal, every single thing you do with the money or with the project should be logged in without censorship shared with the backers. All the good you do is doubly more worthwhile when you admit fucking something up and explaining the methods of either supplementing or fixing what’s gone wrong. With crowdfunded products you have to remember that these aren’t your customers; these are the people who funded your project. Being transparent with them is the least you can do. The PR game wants to mangle and twist every screw-up into something positive in false manners, and more often than not the customer can see through that. It’s up to each individual customer how much leeway they might allow the PR game, and most often you can see it in the form of taking their business elsewhere. Of course, if you proceed to attack the customer when you want them to buy something from you, well, not everyone is masochistic.

Perhaps Marvel and DC should take after Domino’s Pizza. Japanese comics have been outselling American Superhero comics for some time now. In the face of this fiercer competition from beyond the ocean, it would be a good moment for American comic companies and creators to stop for a moment if they’re doing something wrong.

Yet another post about the old argument about something making money and its relation of being good

The few main things this blog has covered multiple times is how good is a terrible determinant in any comparisons or discussions and that financial success is a form of determining whether or not something is the aforementioned good. You know the argument, just because something sells doesn’t mean it’s good. Mark Hamill continued this with something along the lines of It only matters if it makes money. The two, of course, don’t exclude each other, as often products that are well-made sell just as terrible products bomb like no other. Cue for references to the latest Terminator and Charlie’s Angels movies, because a well-made product doesn’t equate to something the customers want or need. Those two movies are competently made, have high production values and realise what the staff wanted those movies to be. It wasn’t something the audience wanted or fit the franchises per se, so what does it matter if they were well-made movies? The customer is the ultimate reviewer who decides whether or not your effort and time were worth it. Nobody is required to purchase or consume products you make, just as you don’t need to appease them (if you don’t look for financial success.) Often you can veto some objective point of review, like how arts used to have. There films that are seen as cornerstones of overall motion picture history, as perfect examples of how to structure and build a movie. The same can be applied to music as well, I’d have to guess, though I have no Citizen Kane of music to reference. Whether or not it is because of technology changing and evolving too rapidly to have a proper point of reference, or people thinking video games are completely separate examples from other forms of play, electronic gaming doesn’t really have that objective point that majority of the gaming industry could look at and consider as an exemplary pinnacle.

We do have those games though and they’re all watershed moments. Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Super Mario Bros., Ultima, Wizardry, The Legend of Zelda and a whole slew of other 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s titles should be considered as points of comparisons, but of course, things get muddled down when you consider how modern gaming has changed the way video and computer games are pushed, even if that’s not exactly working all that well. The gaming industry would like you to believe that electronic gaming is a method of storytelling over a method of playing. To repeat this point to ad nauseam, the story of a game is the story made through play. The “story” bits in FMV sequences and all those are just framing devices to justify the action of playing.

Some shirk at this notion, saying the story is the thing that keeps them playing games. That only would be natural, as each and every game has to have a core reason why it is being played. At the core level, winning against the opposing player or team is the most basic reason to play something. However, the act of playing is what makes it enjoyable. The player himself feels that it is his own actions that are carrying things forward. This is the player’s agency, which is lessened with each moment the play, the control of the game, is taken away from the player. This is why, especially in the Deep Red Ocean market, not having a Skip Movie option is considered almost a criminal offence. As a side note, you can skip PlayStation’s Final Fantasy games FMVs by opening the console’s lid and closing it again, as that forces the console to seek the next bit right after the FMV sequence. This is pretty much the only way European FF9 players can get Excalibur II due to terrible PAL port screwing with the game’s timing.

This whole post really came together because Fall Guys became the most downloaded title on PlayStation Plus. Fall Guys is nothing short of entertaining, made in a relatively short time compared to its top competition, meaning its financial results will be that much greater than Triple-A games that spend the better part of the decade on the development table. Most often you can see people citing how it beat The Last of Us 2, which is rather apt. TLoU2 was intentionally made a narrative-driven game and mentioned that it wouldn’t be fun. It would end up as gritty and gruesome, wallowing in dredges and trying to be bold as a video game. Despite the game making some kind of bank, we can’t really call it good just because it made money, right? For all intents and purposes, the play of TLoU2 is very generic and overall uninteresting. Its film-like qualities have been at the forefront and whatever agenda it’s supposed to have is a few years too late, if not whole decades. Whatever debacles it had around itself is no real interest, but Fall Guys becoming the most successful PlayStation 4 game of 2020 really says it all; the customers prefer games as games. You could say there is one core, ideological difference between Fall Guys and The Last of Us 2 and that’s in the attitude of the creators.

Fall Guys was created for profit, thus it had the need to satisfy customer wants and needs in some manner other titles on the market really didn’t. Its play is entertaining and makes for a good competition. The developers had the craftsman’s mindset and it allowed them to make a game that was good. Or as this blog often puts it; the game good enough in every aspect to satisfy the customer. The Last of Us 2 development cycle didn’t clearly consider the profit part being a question, but a rather a thing that would happen anyway, as long as they stuck to the mould. After all, the series had its fans and that already would bring in the dough. Thus, it followed the artist’s mindset, which is antithetical to craftsman’s mindset. It’s against the customer, expecting the product to sell despite it ignoring the customer altogether. TLoU2 outright hates the player at times, something that has occurred more often nowadays than it did in the past, which fights its own nature as a game. You can easily make something like this with a product that’s supposedly a guaranteed success, especially during times when macro-economics are in fine shape. If the game had still been in development and would’ve published next year, its success would’ve been smaller. The entertainment industries are feeling the effects of plummeting economics. It’s become more expensive to produce anything and customers don’t have the same amount of money to throw around willy nilly. Games like Fall Guys will become a necessity for the next few years, where the customer and their play will matter more than the creators’. The trophy project mindset hasn’t been beneficial to the game industry or to the customers overall, so perhaps forcing all the developers to re-examine their methods and games on the publishing list. There won’t be nearly as many sure-shot games in the near future.

To roll it back around, sure. Being financially successful doesn’t necessarily mean something is great by some standards, but it does mean it does scratch the itch people have had and find a superior product over its competition.

Additional media is a sacrificial lamb

The concept is well tested and solid; have your main story supplemented with additional works, such as comics and novels, that expand on the core work. This sort of franchising has become extremely popular to the point of being a standard practice and very few standalone projects get made any more. Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen its stories expanded in aforementioned media. This always leads to the question of canon, where the main piece always trumps over whatever the side material has stated. Hence why canon barely matters, when anyone in charge can say what really happened, sometimes wiping few comics away, sometimes erasing whole decades of supplementary material.

Nevertheless, they’re secondary at best. Licensed works to make some money out of the IP while the main thing is wiring its next stuff up. The stories and characters told in these works don’t really matter, and never have. Only decades later, when fans who grew up with these materials, may make references to them in proper works, giving them some legitimacy in the eyes of fellow fans. That’s all fine and dandy, no harm done by having someone in the background mentioning Life Day and reminding the people in the know how bad Star Wars Holiday Special is. It’s butt of the joke, it’s done to death, we get it.

Star Wars and Star Trek are great examples of this as both have extremely extensive supplementary material to go with the main works. The general rule has always been that what’s on the screen overrides whatever’s in other works. While they’re advertised as further adventures of our heroes, and for the time being they probably are, they’ll always be overridden when the IP owner comes up with something new, something that can be capitalised on. Prequels and midquels are sort of comfortable ground to many, as they’re mostly based on sayings and history told in the main works, so it’s easy to take the premise and go town with it. It doesn’t exactly require creating something completely new from the ground up. Hence why you often see sequels lifting material from the old stuff or reusing characters and settings. Jean-Luc Picard and all the re-used assets from the cutting room floor in Disney Star Wars movies are examples of this.

All this a somewhat inconvenient arrangement, but it makes two things possible; it doesn’t demand the audience to rummage through hundreds of pages to understand a new TV-show or a movie, but also allows them to engage with the IP and characters further. There’s this silent agreement with all the parties that it is probable that all the side content will be ignored when a new movie or show rolls in. Which happens all the time with pretty much every single large franchise out there.

There are of course times when this fails. The Rise of Skywalker had a collaborative event in Fortnite, where Emperor Palpatine’s speech was introduced. The returning villain and one of the major points of the plot, which was used in the beginning crawl, The Dead speak, was introduced and used in the aforementioned event. This effectively cut a section out from the movie, the message Palpatine send to the galaxy to announce his return, something the characters all react to and is the impetus behind the movie’s events. If you weren’t playing Fortnite at that time, you effectively missed something the core work, the film, should’ve had.

Too often Star Trek and Star Wars novelisation have been used to correct mistakes and loopholes in the main body of works. Loads of Trek novels based on The Original Series episodes were used to effectively fix continuity and conceptual errors within the episodes themselves. Similarly, The Rise of Skywalker‘s novelisation reveals that the Palpatine in the movie was a clone. Whether or not this is canon is of course for the fans to debate, as none of the corrections and fixes are rarely talked in the main body works. It’s not uncommon to see books and comics being published that fill in holes with some plot putty, sometimes even explaining whole backstories and events that were completely lacking from the main works. We can understand that a movie can’t set up decades worth of background story in a short time, and sometimes it doesn’t need to. The original crawl at the beginning of Star Wars Episode IV is work of sheer genius, setting up the premise. Further into the movie, short discussions about the Clone Wars as a background material elaborated on some bits, but those there to colour the world further. With Disney movies we have the gap between Episode VI and VII, which is just a void. Even after the last movie we barely know what happened, where did the First Order truly come from and why did the Emperor allow the Empire to fall just to wait thirty years building Star Destroyers under ground with gimped navigation systems. Maybe it’s Abrams’ mystery box killing the work again, maybe it’s just outright bad writing. These explanations of course are found in the supplementary material, meaning the work can’t stand on its two feet.

You could of course argue that this weaves the main work and the supplementary works together better, that it allows exploration of these events and concepts in a grander scale compared to what movies and television could. This is completely true and has been supported by multiple franchises for some decades now, mixing and matching each other punch to punch. The problem is of course the future. Be it removal of old canon or a new “real” work taking place of that timeframe and overriding the current works, supplementary material never really can stand the test of time. Not unless the creators are adamant on keeping one continuity and will always take notice what happens across the whole franchise. That task is nearly impossible, though if you were to hire bunch of people just to follow what the hell’s going on in your setting across all media, it would become manageable. Imagine if your day job was to read every Star Wars book and comic just to tell the future writers of whatever series or movie they’re making what stories and settings have already been used, and what are their historical consequences. Somebody’s dream job right there.

While you could boil this down to Canon doesn’t matter because it always changes, but that’d be missing the point here just slightly. We’ve seen the main work been put on the chopping block and some of its important elements have been cut off, only to appear elsewhere. This weakens the main work, but it also makes the story’s canon that much weaker. If you’d need one more example of this, the 2009 Star Trek reboot movie doesn’t ever tell what Nero was doing in the past after he came through the wormhole. In the movie, he’s just sitting there doing nothing and waiting for Spock to pop in. However in the comic he was captured and enslaved by the Klingons, making his escape and reclamation of the Narada that much more important. After seeing his home world destroyed, seeing Vulcans’ inaction as betrayal despite putting everything he had in their hands, and then forced to the past and for years being unable to do anything to prevent that from happening, Star Trek could’ve had its best and most understandable villain. All that was from the movie, making him just a jackass with a vengeance. It’s only a matter of time before someone writers a new book or a comic that explores this further, erasing already established events in the comic, which already is questionably canon. The comic version’s story is that much stronger compared to the movie, but it’s the not the story. It’s just an alternate take, which some people supplement the movie itself with.

Here’s a way you could make cross-media function for their own benefits without taking away any from the main work. The Mad Max game from 2015 was supposed to be tightly connected to Mad Max Fury Road, but ultimately wasn’t. The two would have supplemented each other, but only in a manner that there would not have been anything missing from either work. For example, the Pursuit Special is missing its spoiler in the movie. Not a huge detail, something most people probably missed altogether. However, in the game it would’ve been a collectable item with some story tied to it, adding to the overall story of Mad Max. We don’t know what these details were going to be, as the game was completely revamped and reused two decades worth of abandoned concepts alongside concepts for possible future movies. If you’re a fan of Mad Max, the game should look and feel extremely disjointed and somewhat schizophrenic because of this.

This is really convoluted and lengthy way to say how works, even sequels, need to be standalone enough to be consumed as-is without any surrounding media taken into account.

10 is the same as 0

Reviewers have always been influenced by the producers of goods and have been enticed with gifts to influence their reviews. Bribed, in other words. It’s an open secret how this happens all the time, though social media and how current reviews, especially with movies and games, are being influenced is laughably transparently covered. For example, back in 2014 when Watchdogs was about to come out, Steve Hogarty admitted how Ubisoft had put up an exclusive preview event for the game in Paris, where they gifted reviewers with Nexus 7 tablets. While this one event got some coverage, it’s far from being a rarity, though a normal consumer who doesn’t have any access or ties to any media houses wouldn’t know. Press kits for game journalists in events like this, and outside, tended to be rather expensive. Kotaku may be one of the worst sites around when it comes to objective news and articles, but a post from twelve years ago about Capcom sending them a three hundred dollar chess kit, while mentioning off-hand how EA offered to give them Porsche driving lessons so they’d get to play more of then upcoming new Need for Speed, shows how much the publishers and developers want to influence the media. It isn’t surprising that for each one who declines, there are at least two who say yes. This is an old topic in itself, and this sort of lack of independency between media and providers is always an issue. Sometimes kicking off consumer revolts. If you look up video game press kits on eBay, you can find journalists selling their gifts away. It should make you question why these kits include statues, backpacks and other goodies. If these bribes didn’t work, they wouldn’t be made.

Social media has changed the game quite a bit, especially with Youtubers. The providers don’t work with just media houses any more, but have tied single content creators around their pinky fingers as well. With Star Wars we saw large amount of media applauding the new movies, but after few years these reviews look suspect when the same writers repeat criticism consumers had with the movies in the first place. You can always argue that the reviewers bought the hype and had more objective lens after some time had passed, though that just means these people are terrible reviewers who let their own feelings and views influence their work. Youtubers often are fans making content. Fans’ love towards something is traditionally strong and can be easily exploited. They feel like they’re doing something right for the community and the brand by promoting it, and more often than not the big hits are hanging off from the companies’ strings. If you’re connected to the provider and manage to get exclusive behind the scene views or clips, the more views you manage to rack up. If you get on their bad side, this lifeline will be cut. These are fans hyping up other fans. That’s their job, in effect, and it’s not even a real one. They’re doing these companies’ PR and advertising, hyping titles up to high heavens, and they don’t even get properly paid for it. There is no self-respect at play here. Let’s not get into how Youtubers, influencers and press often get pre-release review copies, sometimes to own, sometimes with a bunch of the merch. You scratch their back, they scratch yours.

We of course come back to The Last of Us 2 and it being review bombed all the while the gaming media is praising it. Oh there are proper review scores all around for sure. It’s just telling how screwed up the system is when customer reviews are being bombed to the ground with zeroes while similarly the official side is hitting it with perfect tens. An old joke in video game reviews is that it’s really just a three-star system, or the range of score goes from 70 to 100, but that’s sort of the reality of it. The more you find popular Youtubers and press media repeating the same points in almost the same wordings and ways, the more reasons we have to ignore them. The modern review system is bust and completely tied to the providers. Social media might be completely screwed with this, outside the ones that are truly independent, but the Internet also allows us to completely ignore content creators who are just marketing, shilling, products to your face. Give all channels and sources you use a hard look. If they’re championing something that’s transparently false or hyping something overtly, they don’t have your best interests in mind. They might be fanboys hyping, they might’ve lost their independence as content creators, the end result is the same nonetheless.

I have to admit that I did go overboard with the Muv-Luv stuff when the Kickstarter was on, but none of that was from the company’s side. I’ve got only friends in the translation team, no connections to the company proper per se, and it’s highly probably nobody at âge is even aware of this blog.

Nevertheless, the Internet has given us the chance to review everything we want on multiple sites, aggregate or not, and voice our own experiences. The onus is put on the consumer in this, which is why aggregates exist to make going through reviews easier, but as you probably know, that’s not exactly a system without faults. Still, if you look at item reviews on e.g. Amazon and read through them, you notice a pattern of mid-range star reviews usually having the best pros and cons. Top and bottom reviews can often be just one word and be left that. That’s pretty much what all these 0 and full score reviews are, empty hate and hype with no value. Not many want to do the legwork themselves, going through review histories and search up opinions from people who haven’t written reviews, resorting to these Youtubers they like and find likeminded to deliver the condensed version. There’s also something about wanting to enforce your own believes and sticking with the group mentality. It’s either cool to like or hate something, join the mob, despite the mob being driven and created by providers for profits. Nothing is more profitable for providers than zealots and true believers, as dropping something that they agree with can get you nice profits. However, bet on the wrong horse, and you’ll alienate the rest of the consumers. If you bet worse and the horse gets injured behind a bush like Silence Suzuka in 1998 Tenno Sho, it’s not hard to find yourself with diminishing revenues on the long run despite all the influencing and hyping.

As stupid as it sounds, stealth marketing has crept into every area of media we consume. It’s tiresome to take everything as suspect and wage through dozens of options and reviews just to find if something like headphones work for you. The amount of reviews and opinions will ultimately always overwhelm you, and in the end, the only proper way is to educate yourself on the subject to some extent base your decisions on that. A bit hard for video games and movies, but just like with everything else, having experience and foreknowledge about the subject helps you a long way. In the end, intuition is learned through experience. The good ol’ argument of giving something a go before you make a decision or the like doesn’t really apply with games and movies, or any entertainment media, as the provider gets your money even if you didn’t end up liking the product. Movie trailers rarely do any justice to the movies, as they’re made to market it. Game demos on the other hand almost died out completely, because they ended up representing the games a bit too well and impacted sales negatively. Piracy of course is the great controversy, as it’s claimed to negatively impact sales even when in reality people tend to use it as a method to test drive movies and games before committing to a purchase.

Any time you see someone holding a torch to something, giving it higher quarter score, go through it with extreme criticism. Reviews on Disney Star Wars, Marvel movies, The Last of Us 2 or any other high-profile piece, including Star Trek Picard, are under suspect, and through them, every other reviews these content creators have. If their standards and level of criticism yields 10/10 with only minor issues here or there, there’s something amiss. Look for authenticity in the reviews you look for.