DriveClub Review: Off A Cliff

DriveclubboxartI’m going to come right off the bat and say I don’t like DriveClub. I’d refrain from calling it a bad game, but it is a confused one that gets very little right.  Everything from the handling to the tracks to driver AI feels slightly off kilter to the point where nothing in the game feels as though it was developed by the same team.  In the end what we’ve got is a game that seems like a confused mish-mash of a racing game that does nothing particularly wrong, but will probably have most people asking themselves why it exists.

And its been a bit like that in the whole lead up to the game.  What is DriveClub?  Is it an arcade racer?  Is it a simulation racer?  How will the career be structured?  The confusion prior to release was palpable.  Sadly none of these questions are answered now we have the game in our hands, and from the moment you hit the track to the moment you put the game on the shelf to gather dust, you’ll be trying to make sense of how exactly you should be driving.  Taking the racing line won’t get you the speed necessary to beat some of the times required to meet race objectives, but the cars’ handling doesn’t invite the more fast and furious style either, so you’ll constantly be wondering how the game wants you to drive.  And if you manage to make your peace with the handling of the cars, the often narrow and overly complex track design, and dumb-as-dogs-balls opponents will more than likely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

DriveClub probably also isn’t going to win any awards for innovative single-player career design, but in that regard I can’t say that it make me screw my nose up in disgust at its conservatism.  Within a couple of button presses you’ll find yourself staring at a matrix of events, starting off with the slower cars, and finishing up with high-powered aerodynamic powerhouses, and aside from objectives for each event which often deviate from winning the race, you’d be hard pressed to differentiate it from what the menu for racing games looked like 15 years ago.  And its this staunch adherence to career structures of yore does work to the game’s advantage, hiding the paradoxically erratic and lethargic handling of the bulk of the game’s cars, behind the less-powerful and less-maneuverable cars found in the lower classes. After all who expects a ‘hot hatch’ to be nimbly and ably making its way around corners and through chicanes?  So to the game’s credit it did take me a while to realise that the game isn’t really my cup of tea, but once I did, by jove that was a long and hard realisation.

Whichever way I look at it, DriveClub is a game that seems to take any opportunity to be unlikeable.  The whole thing feels like it’s been pulled in three different directions, and as a result, is stuck spinning its wheels in the middle, not going far enough in either direction to make a good go of any of them. I think we’ll see a lot of debate as to whether the online portions of the game, which have been the major selling point for the game, ostensibly being offline has resulted in the sour taste it has left in people’s mouths. Perhaps it would have.  But the ability to join clubs and what amounts to ‘levelling up together’ don’t seem to me like they’ll save what is a fundamentally flawed racing game.  Online or off, no amount of leader boards was ever going to stop DriveClub from being stuck somewhere in racing game limbo.

I’m sure the intentions were there, and somewhere in someone’s mind at Evolution Studios, sits a bloody excellent racing game. But the developer’s seeming reluctance to make a decision about what they were setting out to achieve with this game has resulted in a confused and directionless racing game that is very hard to enjoy.  Because of this, despite the very occasional flashes of potential, DriveClub is perhaps first major letdown of the generation.

Driveclub

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LittleBigEconomy: the possibilities for user-generated content in economics-based videogame

economistsI have spent almost all of my career in public policy, and while I’m almost always surprised by some of the solutions governments put forward to policy issues, I’m never surprised by how much the work resembles playing a video game. As an economist who builds all sorts of models, and bases work on all kinds of microeconomic and macroeconomic theories, the parallels are even greater than they may otherwise be.  Needless to say regulation of the telecommunications market feels more than a little bit like an abstracted round of Super Smash Bros.

And there’s good reason for this.  Games, however fictional take inspiration from life.  In games that slant toward economics or world-building, in a lot of ways, often try and model their mechanics after real world economic forces, and use them as key parts of their games. While the term ‘in-game economy’ has been hijacked and misappropriated by the enthusiast press, the approximated and in many ways crude representation of market forces and government edicts or policies is a great introduction to sorts of variables governments grapple with in making some of the tougher decisions that face an economy.  But they’re there and usually a pretty good abstraction of how things work in the real world.

Even my earliest introduction to economics was in video games.  I was fascinated by and often fixated on Sid Meier’s Civilization, which even from an early age, had me calling for just one turn.  I can vividly remember scorching hot days in school holidays sitting in front of the monitor of my Commodore Amiga 500, plodding my way across landmasses big and small, learning about trade and taxation, the costs of warfare, and managing scarce resources.  Within months I writing primary school projects on the World Bank, Communism and Industrialisation.  And it’s a similar story with Maxis’ classic city-building simulation, Sim City 2000, which introduced me to the wonders of managing a government’s budgets (and just how roads and transport departments hate to lose money), and how precarious of a balancing act managing taxation with spending really is.  These were great, and in some ways crude, approximations of an fiscal management, serving the sole purpose of regulating the player against the game’s rule set, namely through constraining their budget.  They are games after all.

But imagine if there was a game that closely and accurately resembled how a nation’s economy works, an interactive and highly modifiable (and slightly more accessible) Computable General Equilibrium model, with a game built around it.  Imagine building a nation, either one to resemble a real-life economy or an economic utopia or banana republic, and taking the reigns of a public policy maker with a job to steer your country to prosperity.  Too often we see games built with its economy shoe-horned in, often meaning the soundness and logic of the market is compromised for the sake of gameplay.  In order for an economics-heavy game to work it has to be at front and centre of the development process, something I hold out hope that what game designer Soren Johnson describes as an “Economic RTS”,  Offworld Trading Company, will achieve.  I’ve talked previously about how economics can be used to inform game design, and sung Port Royale 3’s  praises for its modelling of the closed economy, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been utterly blown away by a game’s representation of economics.  As it currently stands I think Kalypso’s Tropico series is the closest I’ve seen to an accurate representation of how real-life economies work, and even that has significant limitations.

offworld_trading_company

Perhaps that’s because are dynamic and living things and Government policy makers are always devising new ways, new models, and new approaches to playing in the sandpit that is the global economy – something the traditional video game business model, with their sequel and DLC plans, aren’t equipped to necessarily deal with.  But what if, like LittleBigPlanet, a game gave players the toolset to generate their own content, their own policies, and their own market interventions, and share them with other users through policy ‘modules’ that could be dropped into the games of others?  The LittleBigPlanet model would give players an ‘economic playground’ to experiment with , and with the core economies modelled, would allow them to experiment in the market.  Imagine wanting to build up your fictional nation’s automotive industry and having the tools at your disposal to see what it would take to make it viable, and the number of tariffs and subsidies it would take to keep the industry afloat, or putting limits on water extracted from water systems for irrigation to meet environmental objectives.  If you want to pursue  free trade with your regional trading partners, the world is your oyster.  If you want to tax beer, cigarettes, and other economic ‘bads’, be my guest. The possibilities are endless, and the ability for users to replicate real-world policies shortly after they’re announced by governments, and implement them on their own economies would be a massive step toward understanding the challenge faced by policymakers across the world every day.

Criticisms aside, developers have taken enormous strides in how they incorporate economics and politics into their games, and that isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.  But giving players the freedom to manage their ‘nations’ would open up creativity in a way that no other game has before, and would offer up endless possibilities for playing around in a global market, and watching as the realistic market forces take hold.  After all, in a world where graphics and physics are getting closer and closer to resembling real life, shouldn’t this be the next great development challenge?

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The Greenhouse Effect: how Game and Watch helped me heal

GameAndWatchWhile I have infinite memories about growing up with Nintendo handhelds, I don’t have that many video game memories that involve its iconic Game and Watch series of products.  Probably somewhat due to my age, I really missed the Game and Watch boat that most faithful Nintendo fans latch onto as their first real memory of their love affair with the house that Mario built.  Of course Nintendo’s insistence on pushing their legacy onto Game Boy owners throughout the early nineties meant that these ‘classic’ games – from Mario’s Cement Factory to Cement Factory – weren’t entirely foreign.  But as for owning them, despite considering myself a bit of a connoseuir of video games of the portable persuasion, I’ve never really felt the need to track the original physical clamshells down, probably knowing that in all likelihood they’d sit on a shelf gathering dust.  And that’s if they’re lucky, the more likely scenario is that they’d sit in a box somewhere, sight unseen.  They are a part of videogame history that i’m happy to know and acknowledge, but don’t care so much if I never set hands on one again.

But I absolutely respect the Game and Watch line of products.  The closest I came to owning one was a Legend of Zelda GameWatch, which to mind is the only watch that does more than tell the time that I need.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s the thought that any version of the games I was playing on my Game Boy – however compromised – could fit on anything the size of a watch was a fascinating prospect.  While we’re spoilt for what we can play on seemingly any device these days, novelty was a major driving force for video game hype in the 80’s and 90’s, and portable handheld games were a huge part of this.

Despite my relative lack of ‘in situ’ Game & Watch experience, I have an unmatched fondness for  Greenhouse, one of the early G&Ws released in the early 1980’s.  But this appreciation isn’t really founded in an appreciation for the game itself, but rather the role it played in my life at a point in my childhood.  Nostalgia is a funny thing that i’ve written on before, but for me fond gaming memories aren’t necessary rational recollections of the tangible act of playing a game, but rather very vivid conduits for remembering times, people and places.  Greenhouse is no different in this respect, but rather than transporting me back to a time as a child where video games helped me through a long stint in hospital.

Greenhousescreen

When I was six years old I had a severe eye injury that put me in hospital for what seemed like a lifetime.  As a child spending time in hospital is hard at the best of times.  Being away from family, from the familiar surroundings of your bedroom filled to the brim with toys and books, and perhaps worse still the uncertainty and inherently scary surroundings that a ward brings with it.  For me that isolation and terror was exacerbated by the fact I had to lay in a dark room for days on end with only very limited time allowed in the playroom, which as a six year old is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do.  So for days I laid there, with my favourite toy dog for company, and my loving parents sleeping on what I can only imagine were tremendously uncomfortable foldout beds most nights.  I can remember being scared, I can remember crying uncontrollably, and I vividly remember my desperate parents trying to console me in any way they possibly could.  I wasn’t terminally ill, and while I was extremely lucky to retain the sight in my eye, there were other children I met in my time there that were far less fortunate.  But the irrational mind of a six year old isn’t one easily consoled.

But between the fear that darkness brought and the resultant sore eyes in the morning, for that brief period I could spend in the playroom, there was Greenhouse.  A battered and old piece of technology that had probably been held in the hands of  hundreds upon hundreds of children in the decade preceding was a shining beacon of happiness that sat unassumingly amongst Lego blocks and toy cars.  Every day I would rush to the playroom to pick up that simple game, and my smile would grow wider with every bug exterminated and every plant saved.  For 30 minutes a day that simple game made me forget that I was in hospital as I strived to beat my previous day’s high-score.  Greenhouse may have been simple, and ancient even by the late 80’s, but to me it was a window to another world that I would look forward to peering through for that brief period every day.  For that stay in hospital, it wasn’t just a game to me, it was a companion that helped me restore some sense of normality and routine to what was otherwise an incredibly scary childhood experience.

For years after Greenhouse remained a distant yet very memory in my video game history.  More recently I have played Greenhouse, in the form of the Club Nintendo Game & Watch Collection, and while the game gave me those unmatched warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and familiarity, I didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of time with it – and in some ways this is how I feel about a large majority of games I enjoyed in the past.  But as a transporter to another time and place, Greenhouse is a reminder to me for how video games can act as a crutch and as escapism at our low points – but perhaps even more importantly – how important normality and high spirits are to the healing process.  So thank you Nintendo, for helping me through my time in hospital – I’m sure there are kids all around the world that have similar stories to share.

Making children and their families feel at home while undergoing treatment is an important part of the healing process.  Charities like Ronald McDonald House  and Starlight Foundation  are worthy causes that always need a helping hand.  Please consider donating to these, or similar charities in your city.

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Downloading Games From The Radio

A Sinclair ZX81 with cassette recorder.

A Sinclair ZX81 with cassette recorder.

At last, the first of my articles for Kotaku UK has gone live:

http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2014/10/13/people-used-download-games-radio

Quite a while ago, a Dutch work colleague of mine mentioned a radio show called Hobbyscoop that was broadcast in the Netherlands in the 1980s. The DJs would play the sound of data tapes (like simple games or programs), and people at home could tape the sounds and then load the programs into their Commodores or Sinclairs. In effect, it was wireless downloading long before the existence of wi-fi.

Suitably intrigued, I attempted to find out more about the radio show, and while doing so I found out that quite a few DJs across Europe had attempted the same thing, many of them coming up with the idea completely independently of each other. I tracked down and interviewed a few of them, and here‘s the resultant article. It was a fun piece to research: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

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Being Part of the Gaming Bubble

There really is little point buying a game at launch when you think about it.

For a start, you’ll be paying a premium for the privilege of owning a game on day one – up to £60 if you’re paying the RRP for a new Xbox One or PS4 game (although realistically it will probably be more like £50 or less if you shop around). And what are you getting for that money? Well, probably something that’s a bit broken. Patching a game after it’s been launched is now the norm, so the version you play at launch might be radically different – and probably worse – than the version you’d play if you waited a couple of months. The broken – and now partially fixed – loot system in Destiny is a case in point. And speaking of Destiny, I’ve no doubt that the game will be utterly transformed over the next few months as more patches and game modes are added, and it will be all the better for it. Plus in six months’ time it will be at least half the price, and probably cheap as chips secondhand.

Is it worth paying a premium for a game that isn't at its best on launch day?

Is it worth paying a premium for a game that isn’t at its best on launch day?

So why on Earth would you buy a game at launch? Logically, it makes no sense. But logic has no place in the gaming bubble.

And in fact, the premium you’re paying for that day one game is to be part of that gaming bubble – the bubble of hype and fanfare that heralds the launch of a shiny new gaming experience. Of course, this is mostly down to the marketing – the steady drip feed of information on a new game that sets hearts and minds racing on the road the launch day, whipping potential purchasers into a frenzy of excitement, ready to hand over their credit card details to gain access to the Next Big Thing in gaming. So if you pay full price for a game at launch you’re being duped by advertising, right?

Well, perhaps not. You could argue that you’re falling into the advertisers’ and publishers’ grubby hands by succumbing to the hype, but you could also argue that all the promotion and advertisng actually makes the game experience better. Picking up a few cheap, old, secondhand games is nowhere near as exciting as getting a shiny new game that almost no-one else in the world has played, and that excitement carries over into the playing experience itself. I came sorely close to buying the just-launched Alien: Isolation today, but in the end my logical mind won out and told me to wait until it comes down in price. Yet I also know that if I’d bought and played it today, I would enjoy it more than if I bought it a year from now. That’s simply because of the added excitement of being part of the bubble – and that includes all of the excited blog posts, tweets and Twitch videos being created about the game as other people play it for the first time along with you. Playing a game at launch is paying a premium to be part of a shared experience, an exclusive club that consists of you and everyone else who’s paid to be in the bubble.

How much would you pay to be part of the bubble?

How much would you pay to be part of the bubble?

There’s even more of a case to be made for massively multiplayer online games like Destiny. Yes, it was a bit broken at launch, but the multiplayer aspect means that the feeling of a shared experience was even more prominent. The people playing at launch enjoyed the thrill of discovering a new world together, but anyone joining the game a year from now will be met with probably a much-diminished and somewhat disinterested group of veteran players.

A year from now, Destiny will be a better game. But for anyone joining in for the first time, long after the bubble has burst, it will arguably be much less enjoyable.

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From The Armchair: Trading Up

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

There’s change in the air. And I don’t just mean the reddening of the leaves and the plummeting of the mercury as autumn takes hold. Although if you happen to be in the southern hemisphere, like my good chum and virtual housemate Sir Gaulie, it’s more the time of year when swimming trunks are hauled out of cupboards and the air conditioning receives its ceremonial turning on.

No, the change I’m talking of is the change in the console cycle, the inevitable business of upgrading to the next generation of newer and flashier boxes, a process that has gathered pace of late. Gaulie couldn’t wait to leap into the next gen, and even documented the shopping centre slumber party that heralded the Xbox One’s arrival in Oz. I, however, have been somewhat more reticent to upgrade, being generally underwhelmed with the range of launch games on offer, not to mention the exorbitant prices. In fact, I ended up buying a PS3 instead to catch up on all the PS3 exclusives I missed.

But recently, I’ve started to catch next-gen fever. It began with the launch of Destiny – finally a truly next-gen game that I actually quite fancied playing. Of course, it’s also available on Xbox 360 and PS3, but it seems a waste to play such a beautiful-looking game on a system that can’t do it proper justice. Likewise, I’m excited about playing Alien: Isolation, which looks fantastic, but it seems a shame to settle for the last-gen version – and that’s another thing I’ve noticed recently, the subtle shift where people are slowly beginning to refer to the Xbox One and PS4 as the current generation. Change is in the air.

So pretty... so tempting...

So pretty… so tempting…

So like many people, as Christmas looms I’m beginning to finally contemplate a gaming upgrade, especially as retailers have begun to offer some very reasonable console bundles: I recently spotted a PS4 with FIFA 15, Minecraft, Infamous: First Light and Wolfenstein: The New Order for £369.85 on ShopTo.net. The temptation to bag myself an early Christmas pressie was near overwhelming.

But £369 is still a lot of money, even if it is good value, and really I could only justify a next-gen upgrade by trading in my old consoles and games. But alas! I’m still not quite done with the current – well, last – generation, as a quick look at my games backlog will show you. There’s no way I could trade in my PS3 until I’ve at least finished the Uncharted series, Ni No Kuni, Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, Journey… and probably others too (let me know if there are any other must-play exclusives I’ve missed). All those great games, so little time… but with the weather drawing in, at least I have an excuse to stay home and play them.

So the next-gen upgrade is postponed yet again as I once more attempt to whittle down the backlog. But then again Destiny does look rather good… and £369 is a terribly good deal for four games… and then there’s the new next-gen only Batman game… and ARGH! The cycle of temptation begins again!

Well, I'll HAVE to get a PS4 for the new Batman game...

Well, I’ll HAVE to get a PS4 for the new Batman game…

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Ryse and the nebulous future of video games

RYSEI can’t help but feel that this autopsy culture and academisation of game design is detracting from what drew me into video games as a young lad in the 80’s and 90’s.  The sense of wonderment that came with every new game, acceptance of flaws in service of appreciating the broader entertainment, and the ability to incorporate me in stories or sequences taking place in both new and familiar locations, were key factors in capturing my attention as a boy, and maintaining it as a man.  But that wonderment and acceptance has fallen away from video game culture and in its place left a general feeling of discontent and unwillingness to overlook sometimes minor complaints in favour of appreciating a game as a whole.  As games evolve into big and beautiful opuses, sadly the conversation around them has devolved into a series of technical specs and thinly veiled shit-slinging about what games should be rather than what they are.

The transition from one generation to the next is perhaps the most treacherous for a developer in navigating the minefield of thirsty and tech-savvy consumers.  Launch titles carry with them great expectations – often misinformed by sensationalised expectations drummed up by the media ever so eager to cash-in on increased traffic to their websites – that they will bring forth the ideas that will permeate through the industry and bring us the next great leap forward in gameplay.  Ryse’s rigid adherence of what came before it – albeit a beautiful rendition of it – meant that it fell prey to this very phenomenon.

And that’s sad.  Ryse: Son of Rome isn’t a groundbreaking game – but then again why does it need to be?  It is, however, a beautiful and seemingly lovingly crafted work of historical fiction that not only does justice to the majesty of ancient Rome as a subject matter, but also delivers on its clear intention to make an epic tale of revenge and heroism.  If it’s visceral and rewarding combat, and vivid imagery of a time lost in history you want, then Ryse is a venerable Lonely Planet guide to what an idealised version of the time and place may have looked and sounded like.  As a game, it does its job and it does it well, and presents a dozen or so hours of high quality entertainment, and at launch showcased exactly why people had been holding their breath for the next generation of hardware.  And if you regulate your play sessions, as with any game, any monotony that may arise from the combat system will give way for exhilaration every time you maim a barbarian – regardless of how many time you’ve seen it.  Ryse is a simple but fun and satisfying  game that you would most likely come away from smiling and nodding at the very least.

If you played it in a vacuum, that is.

You see our rabid obsession with progress, with change, and with revolution, soured what was a masterful execution of the historical drama in interactive form, and detracted from what was a sensible and mature approach to fictional accounts of an incredibly influential point in human history.  In some ways, Ryse is to video games as Showtime’s Tudors was to television, a popularised and palatable retelling of history that does away with any pretenses of scholarly teachings and instead makes history interesting for everyone.  But that potential analysis and angle for critiquing the game was lost amongst counting the pixels and lines of resolution, and perhaps even more poignantly, the almost unabating search for the future of videogames inside of that Blu-Ray disc.

RyseMarius

But what is the future of video games?  They are such a new media that has changed and evolved so quickly that we are always expecting games to move forward, to change and evolve, and to bring us closer to the future of video games.   A future of games that no one can define yet they are adamant they’ll know when they get there.  So what we’ve ended up with is an impossible milestone for developers to meet purely because it is highly subjective – if you had’ve asked me in the 1990’s what games would evolve into I would’ve said Outland, and that’s clearly not what modern games for the most part have come to be.  And from that surely we can determine that the definition of what the future of video games should be is an ever changing beast.  I’m sure people playing Another World 20 years ago never envisaged the scale and scope of a game like Watch_Dogs, and in a similar fashion i’m sure there will be game experiences in 20 years from now that we can’t even begin to imagine.  To me Ryse felt like one version of the future, the future I envisaged at the dawn of the 3D age where games would look so beautiful that you could truly escape into their world, and where the people in those games were so life-like they almost jumped out of the screen.  It may not have been the future of video games people expected, but is it fair to place those expectations on a developer whose intentions may not have been aligned?

I’m not writing this in defence of Ryse – I enjoyed it and that’s that.  I am also not writing this to detract from people that legitimately didn’t enjoy it, we’re all entitled to opinions providing they come from a genuine and informed place.  But what I am doing is writing this to raise the legitimate question as to why games are critiqued for what they don’t do rather than what they do, and how so many can justify this based on  the ‘unknown-unknowns’ of the medium’s evolution.  Perhaps it’s a bigger issue that people are having trouble articulating – frustration with how little games are changing over time for example.  But lumping one’s own internal expectation onto a game – as opaque as they may be- and then criticising it for not meeting them isn’t the way to change things for the better, and in the case of Ryse it has resulted in a one-track conversation about Ryse that has all-but dampened the potential for constructive and thoughtful discussion on what it does right.  And sadly this is a wider phenomenon that is making all discussion about video games a sick and sad state of affairs.

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