Get over here!!

MK_Logo

I’ve been a Mortal Kombat fan from day one. I played the first game on the SNES and fell in love with it right away. MK2, also on SNES, was even better in every regard and became my favourite fighting game for a very long time. It actually held on to that throne all the way until the series’ reboot came to the PS3 generation in 2011.

In my opinion the games inbetween weren’t quite as good. MK3 was okay, but the more modern stage settings weren’t as stylish and the new characters didn’t do much for me. Then came the time during which many established franchises of pretty much all genres had the same problem: the shift from 2D to 3D graphics wasn’t favourable for them. They looked crappier, felt clunkier, had camera problems and often didn’t run as smoothly as their 2D predecessors. Additionally many of those MK titles were relatively complex mechanically, with different fighting styles to switch between during battles, weapons and stuff like that. That wasn’t what MK had always been about.

The reboot, just titled Mortal Kombat (sometimes called MK9 by fans), was a return to old strenghts gameplaywise and looked pretty amazing to boot. All of my favourite characters were there, it had a good story mode and loads of stuff to unlock. I had a lot of fun with it.

Despite that I didn’t really keep a close eye on what Netherrealm Studios were up to afterwards. I can’t even say why, I guess I just had my hands full with the MMOs I was playing. I took note of Mortal Kombat X’s release, but didn’t buy it and pretty much forgot it existed right away.

Then, some time in December of last year, I watched Angry Joe and his crew react to a surprise reveal at the Video Game Awards:

To say that this got me fired up to play a Mortal Kombat title again would be an understatement. I especially appreciated the short timespan between reveal and release of the game. I don’t know about you, but I can’t hold my excitement for an upcoming game on a high level for, like, two years or more. If you want me to get excited and stay excited up until launch, dear game developers and publishers, this is how you do it.

During the few month’s wait more and more info became available. Previews looked very promising and Ed Boon and co. don’t have a reputation for delivering half-assed games or ripping off their playerbase, so I decided to buy it at my local GameStop as soon as they had it.

Minor spoilers ahead.

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I jumped into the story mode right away, and I gotta say it’s awesome. The story itself is typical Mortal Kombat stuff, so don’t expect too much, but I quite liked it. They use a plot device to bring some fan favourite characters who had died and basically become zombies during the past few games back in their living state. It’s especially nice to see Liu Kang, the game’s original main hero and winner of the first two tournaments, alive and kicking again.

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Him and his little, fiery friend

The cutscenes are extensive and very well done, the transitions into and out of the fights you actively play are pretty seamless. During some chapters you can even choose between two fighters, which is great. One aspect of MK9’s story mode I didn’t like was that I had to win too many fights with heroes I don’t like to play very much, and this is a cool way to reduce that.

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Guess who this chapter’s main cast is

It’s not really that hard to get into the groove with different fighters though, which in my opinion has always been one of Mortal Kombat’s strenghts.

You see, I’m not a hardcore fighting game buff. I don’t want to study and practice a single character for months so I can hold my ground against the best of the best. I just want to play some fun matches every now and then. When playing against the CPU I choose the medium difficulty setting at most. I also like to be able to pick up the controller and just play even after a longer break.

Mortal Kombat is perfect in that regard. The basic attacks are the same for every character and pretty much haven’t changed at all over the last 27 years. When I pick up any MK game and choose any fighter I always know that I need to use Down + Triangle for an uppercut and Back + Circle for a sweep, for example. Coming back or transitioning from one title to the next couldn’t be easier. It’s the casual gamer’s dream, really.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun here if you like your fighting games to be complex though, far from it. Learning all those special moves, blocks, counters, combo-breakers and stand-up moves definitely takes a while, becoming proficient in reading your opponent and executing the best moves in the exact right moment is a science in itself.

This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way when I tried to play some Towers of Time. These are beefed up versions of the series’ staple single player mode and have fixed difficulties and various modifications to make them more challenging. Since the game’s release many players have already reported them to be too hard and frustrating, and unfortunately I have to agree. Getting repeatedly shot at with unblockable missiles or attacked by a second enemy whom you can’t hit back is really not much fun. There’s been a patch already though, with more on the way. Netherrealm studios seem to take our feedback to heart.

Which is a good thing, because the biggest gripe players have right now has to do with the game’s microtransactions. Gee, what a shocker. And here I had promised not to talk about that stuff anymore for a while.

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Even Raiden is seriously pissed off

The gist of the complaints is that unlocking costumes and stuff in the Crypt is now completely random, and it takes too long to earn the multiple currencies needed for those unlocks. There’s no question that this is supposed to encourage us to spend additional money in the cash shop, so I’m glad that they have promised to shift the balance to the players’ benefit somewhat.

Personally I’m not affected all that much to be honest. While it’s very important to me that my MMORPG characters look exactly the way I want them to look, in a game like this I care much less about that. My current main character, Baraka, looks perfectly fine from the start, and I wouldn’t notice his blades looking differently or his tunic having a different colour while fighting anyway. Still, it feels much more motivating and rewarding to get shiny new stuff regularly of course, so I’m looking forward to the changes.

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Is there something on your mind?

Even in its current state MK 11 is the best Mortal Kombat yet. It plays great, it looks awesome and to me the story mode alone was worth the purchase. If you liked any of its predecessors you won’t be disappointed.

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Case study: BDO’s business model

From my next post onward I’ll talk about playing games and having fun again instead of all this meta stuff, pinky promise. In fact I can hardly wait to talk about this:

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It’s so good to see you again, old friends

First I’d like to get something out of the way though.

As you all know I’m a huge fan of Black Desert Online. If you’ve read my posts about it I assume you can understand why I enjoy it so much, even if the kinds of gameplay it offers might not be for you.

On the other hand, if your knowledge about the game mostly stems from what you’ve read somewhere else on the internet, for example in the comments over at Massively OP, you are probably under the impression that it’s a mismanaged, RNG-riddled, Pay to Win trainwreck, albeit a good looking one.

If that were true, and I were still supporting it financially despite of what I talked about in my last two posts, that’d make me quite the hypocrite, wouldn’t it? Maybe I am. I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder, as everything.

Anyway, today I’ll talk a bit about the game’s business model, and why I’m ok with it.

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The shop front sure ain’t subtle

First of all, its monetization isn’t perfect. Far from it, actually. The game definitely encourages you to open your wallet, and I’d say you need to spend about 70-100 bucks total to be able to really enjoy the experience. In my opinion it’s totally worth that though. More than that even. There’s so much content to enjoy here, so much variety in things to do and classes to play, so much to explore; there just aren’t enough hours in the day to indulge in everything. It’s also still expanded and iterated upon on a weekly basis, years after launch. Pretty much every week’s patch notes have stuff in them that I’m happy about. Proper expansions have been huge, and always free of charge. I guess what I’m saying is, regardless of how much you actually decide to spend, you’ll definitely get a lot of bang for your buck here.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of this business model, shall we?

Technically the game is Buy to Play. I say technically because buying it sets you back just 10 bucks, only half that during its quite regular discount periods. I realize that even at that price point it isn’t the same as F2P. Still, when I look at a game’s cash shop and ponder if I’m ok with it it makes a huge difference to me whether buying the game itself already costs 60 Euros, or just 5 or 10.

There’s an optional subscription called Value Pack. Many players say that you definitely need it, thus making it anything but optional. I do agree that it’s a big advantage to have every now and then, but I certainly don’t need it all the time. It gives a bunch of bonuses, the only really important of which is a reduction in marketplace sales tax. The math is a bit complicated, but the bottom line is that you get 85% of your item’s selling price with an active Value Pack, only 65% without. That is a pretty huge difference. The thing is, since I started playing the game I was gifted a total of twelve 7-day Value Packs just for logging in regularly, doing events and stuff. To this day I’ve only used up three of those to sell expensive goods I had stockpiled beforehand, so I don’t see me ever feel the need to actually buy a Value Pack for real money.

Of course the cash shop also sells all kinds of items we’ve already seen in most other such shops, if applicable. Costumes, weapon skins, pets, horse-, wagon- and ship-armor, furniture, consumable XP boosts, the works.

A big difference to most games I’ve played is that pretty much all those items do grant actual gameplay benefits here, which of course strongly reeks of P2W. And I guess it technically is. It doesn’t bother me though because once you understand how the game actually works you realize that most of these bonuses are negligible. Example: among other things costumes give a 10% bonus to combat XP. Not bad, but given the fact that you generally have bonuses amounting to at least 250% running whenever you actively grind for XP those additional 10% are but a drop in the bucket.

The item category that stands out are pets. You need some pets. Well, you can play without, but it won’t be much fun. What they do is pick up loot for you. Since you kill mobs by the thousands in this game, you really don’t want to pick up all that stuff by hand. New players get one pet as a login-reward pretty early on, but you’ll probably want to have more than one sooner rather than later.

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Always by my side, wherever I go

I won’t go into detail about the game’s gear upgrading system again, I’ve already done that here and here. Suffice to say, there’s indeed a lot of RNG to it, and there are pretty severe consequences to failure on higher levels. Now, there are no items in the cash shop that actually increase your chances at a successful upgrade, but you can buy costumes and melt them down to Cron Stones. Those can be used while enhancing high grade gear to protect it from falling back one grade on failure. This is obviously pretty huge, and definitely P2W if you’re dead set on getting your gear to the highest tier of PvP-competitiveness. You’d have to pay a lot of money in order to do it this way though. I mean, a lot of money. Not dozens or hundreds, I’m talking thousands of Euros here.

And that doesn’t bother you? I hear you ask. Well, yes and no. Yes, I’d rather not have stuff like that in the game. Goes without saying, really. But also no, because if you’re willing and able to spend that much money just so the little numbers on your imaginary items are a bit higher than mine, more power to you. I’m serious. You and your peers basically keep the game afloat and development rolling single-handedly, which means that Lakisa and I don’t have to feel bad for playing countless hours without paying much for it. Also, we’ll never participate in Tier 3 node wars and stuff like that, so chances are you’ll never wield your shiny weapons against us anyway.

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Besides, we’re far too good-looking for that kind of stuff

You see, the non-consensual part of the game’s PvP, despite of what you may have heard, is pretty much non-existent. I talked about how I had been ganked for the first time over a year ago. Since then it has happened to me just once more. Structured PvP, like the aforementioned node wars, is separated into tiers, with hard caps to attack power per tier. Bottom line is, you can engage in PvP and will still hardly ever be fighting significantly better geared players, unless you deliberately choose to. In consequence I really don’t care how those top geared players got their stuff. Yes, P2W still stinks, but it doesn’t ruin the game as a whole here like it would have done in, say, Battlefront II, hadn’t they reversed their course.

I obviously can’t go over each and every item on offer in the game’ shop, but this should suffice for a broad overview.

To summarize, I’m ok with BDO’s business model because it lets me play and enjoy an outstanding, content- and feature-rich virtual world for about the cost of a normal full-price game plus one paid expansion, and to me it’s worth much more than that. It has P2W aspects to it, but the way I see it those are pretty much irrelevant to all but the top 2% or less of players, and hence don’t affect me personally at all.

It sure isn’t perfect, but I actually enjoy spending money on the game every now and then. I don’t need to, I just want to. That’s saying something, isn’t it?

A game is more than just a product

In the comments to my last post Isey of I HAS PC made the interesting point that gamers tend to “put game developers and companies on a pedestal” and wondered why that is when it should be perfectly clear that game companies – at the very least the big, publically traded ones – are like any other business in that they need to prioritize maximizing profits above everything else. Like, say, their customers’ best interests.

At least to me it is absolutely clear. I don’t have to like it though, and I’m not willing to just calmly accept it. To be honest, we as consumers shouldn’t let any company get away with it anymore, no matter which industry they’re working in, because it’s gotten seriously out of hand in recent years.

The effect of greed dictating decision making is especially devastating and heartbreaking in the gaming industry though, at least in my opinion. Today I’d like to talk about why.

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Pictured here: greed

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever put any company or single developer on a pedestal. There were some, like ‘old’ Bioware and Blizzard, whom I trusted to deliver great games more than others, but I’ve never been a fan or even fanboy of anyone. Well, ok, maybe except for The Bitmap Brothers and Factor 5 a long, long time ago.

That being said, I’m still very passionate about everything gaming-related, as are many others. And I think that’s perfectly ok because games are more than just commodities.

What differentiates games from most, if not all, other products – at least in my mind – is potential. Potential for greatness. Potential to be that one perfect game you’ve been waiting for. Potential to take you on an adventure you’ll never forget. Potential to meet new people and make lifelong friends. Potential to make you feel at home away from home.

Most other products don’t have that. Even the largest TV set is still just a TV set. The most powerful vaccuum cleaner still only sucks up dust. The world’s sharpest knife still only cuts stuff. You may be very satisfied with them, glad that you bought them, even have fun using them. But that’s about it.

The only type of product that comes close to matching the potential games have to be more than what meets the eye are movies and serials, but those can only be consumed passively. You may witness extraordinary adventures, but you don’t experience them yourself.

This is why I can get mad at developers and publishers when their games don’t fulfill my expectations. If you ask me why a certain game disappointed me I’ll probably name some features I deem incomplete, missing or just bad. Or bugs, hackers, whatever. What I’m really mad about though is most likely the wasted potential. I just can’t help but imagine what could have been. What, in my opinion, should have been.

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Pictured here: wasted potential (still a cool game though)

For this reason I’m not satisfied with ‘cost per hours of entertainment’-calculations either. It might be true that a 60 Euro game that I enjoyed for, say, 50 hours before getting bored/pissed/whatever has given me more hours of entertainment per buck than many other hobbies do, but I really don’t think they can be compared like that. Like I said, I expect more from a game, and as such it can’t just be measured in hours of gameplay per Euro spent.

Of course I do make exceptions. I’m perfectly fine with games like Uncharted that tell a coherent, complete story and provide good gameplay – a matter of taste, obviously – for like 15 hours and aren’t designed to do anything more than that in any way. Or gems like Limbo and Inside, that are even shorter but also cost less and are just exceptionally great experiences.

What bugs me are games that actively make me get my hopes up only to smash them. That are specifically designed to make me think there’s much more to them and would like me to play them for hundreds of hours, but where after a much shorter timespan it becomes apparent that, no, there isn’t anything else and I’m now expected to do the same shit over and over and over until the service part finally kicks in and more content is provided. For an additional cost, more often than not.

Which brings me to the second practice the gaming industry has adopted in recent years that I really hate because it is just the destroyer of potential: hacking games to bits and pieces so they can nickel and dime us for every little feature or scrap of content.

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Pictured here: content locked behind a blonde paywall

Want to look cool? Pay for it! Need more inventory space? Pony up! Fancy playing two more hours of story? That’ll be 20 bucks please!

In free to play games some of this is ok, those obviously have to make money somehow. That we find so much of that crap in 60+ dollar games nowadays is sickening though. And I haven’t even adressed the elephant in the room that is lootboxes…

All of this is actively working against any potential a game has to be great. How are we supposed to be immersed, to feel like we’re having an adventure, when big red price tags are slapped right in our faces every five seconds? When we can’t look cool unless we swipe our credit cards some more? When we can’t pick up stuff because we haven’t bought enough inventory space? When we can’t play the character we like because she’s locked behind DLC?

Say whatever you will about AAA games needing to make more than 60 bucks a copy to even recoup its development cost nowadays – if it’s even true – or whatever. This. Shit. Is. Not. Ok.

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Pictured here: NOT OK!

Every product is expected to work, to do what it’s supposed to do. Well, as far as I’m concerned games are supposed to be epic adventures that entertain us in ways no other product can. They have the potential. The big dogs of the industry seem to have forgotten that, but I hope we’ll manage to make them remember.

Games as a ‘service’, yeah, right

I think many executives currently working in game development need to look up the word service in a dictionary, because they obviously don’t know what it means anymore.

Unless they think what they’re doing is deliver games that are already very good and totally worth their price tag at release, and then continue to refine and expand them for years afterwards.

Problem is, they are not doing that. Not even close.

It’s shocking how many high profile, full-price games that came out during the last couple of years were arguably unfinished and/or disappointing messes at release. Destiny 2, Fallout 76, Anthem, Battlefront II, Sea of Thieves, No Man’s Sky, Mass Effect: Andromeda; to a lesser degree Battlefield V, CoD Black Ops IV and probably some others I’m forgetting right now.

This is not to say there weren’t any good releases at all, quite the contrary. But it’s impossible not to notice a very disturbing trend here. Especially whenever developers or publishers can’t shut up about their fabulous Games as a Service chances are we’ll be getting only half a product for full a price. If we’re lucky.

Of the games mentioned above I can (fortunately) only talk about Destiny 2 from my own experience. I bought it at release and can’t deny that I had quite a bit of fun for a while. Though even at my pace, which seems to be considerably slower than that of most gamers, I reached the point where there wasn’t anything of interest left to do pretty quickly. The first two ‘expansions’ – more like rather meaty content drops, really – were too expensive for what they offered. The first one, Curse of Osiris, even shut out those who didn’t buy it from most endgame content. Bungie only changed that after the playerbase had expressed their outrage quite explicitly.

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With guns. Destiny 2 players solve every conflict with guns. Just kidding of course.

The first ‘real’ expansion, Forsaken, seems to have pretty much fixed the game for many a player, I hear it’s pretty great now. I don’t care though because I had given them too much money already for what they’d offered me in return up to that point. Basically Destiny 2 players who still play today have paid at least 120 bucks – if they bought everything at the time of release or shortly thereafter – to be able to play the finished game. Only now does the service part begin, which – you guessed it – won’t be for free either. No thanks. Fool me once, and all that.

Destiny 2 has yet another problem that’s become a blight in recent years: content that has been developed and could be earned through gameplay – thus making us feel rewarded and, you know, good about the time we spent playing the game – is kept off of loot tables to be sold in the cash shop instead. Gee, thanks, what a great service you’re doing us there after already taking our money for half a game and then some more for the rest of it.

Not all of this is ‘just’ caused by greed either. Sometimes there’s also mind-boggling incompetence to be blamed, as seen in the case of Anthem.

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What are you looking at? Search your feelings, you know it to be true!

On Tuesday Kotaku published an article by Jason Schreier titled ‘How Bioware’s Anthem went wrong’. I highly recommend reading it. It’s pretty long, but if you’re still here at this point I assume you won’t mind. If you’d prefer a video, Angry Joe and friends have summed up their reactions to the piece on their show.

The article is based on interviews with 19 people who either directly or indirectly worked on Anthem and basically boils down to this: while the game was in development for about seven years total, the actual production had to be done in the last 12 to 16 months, crunch time style, because years and years had been wasted flailing around and not knowing what exactly the game was to become. When they showed this ‘gameplay-demo’ at E3 2017 the ground-level developers themselves were like “Oh are we actually doing this? Do we have the tech for that, do we have the tools for that?”

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They were not only lying to us, but basically also to their own developers

How can stuff like this even happen when you have so much developer talent and a massive budget at your disposal?

In my opinion the big publishers and development studios suffer from a development (no pun intended) that Steve Jobs already talked about in fricking 1995. Basically he’d observed that once a company gets big enough the “product people” get driven out of decision making because the “sales and marketing people” become ever more important, get promoted and so on. In the end the company “forgets what it means to make great products”.

This seems to describe spot on what’s been going on with EA, Activision and the like *cough*Apple*cough* for quite some time now, but Schreier’s article proves that not even developer studios who once were hardcore gaming enthusiasts are immune to this.

Now, is there a silver lining at all?

I sure hope so. The Battlefront II disaster has shown that we can fight back, that we can make ourselves heard. It’s critically important that we keep it up now. We need to stop preordering stuff. We need to stop buying games on day one when we don’t know if they’re any good yet (review embargoes anyone?). We need to stop buying season passes when we don’t even know what those will entail. We need to stop buying stuff from the cash shop in full-price games.

I’ll do what it takes, even if I have to miss out on games I’d actually like to play. Who’s with me?