Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Titan Falls, Fails, and Wins

I honestly haven’t found myself enjoying an online multiplayer shooter as much as I enjoy Titanfall since… well, probably since Quake. I enjoy it’s pacing, I like the setting, and I love the fact that it takes multiplayer shooters back to feeling like they’re a real “fight” rather than just a fast-paced slaughter.

I suck at Call of Duty, and I’ve tried and failed to find my groove in Battlefield. I enjoy Halo (particularly Reach) but I really struggle to hold my own in a multiplayer match, and end up dying far too much. But Titanfall? It seems to have clicked for me, and I’m really digging it.

That said, a number of things have struck me while playing, so rather than trying to lay out a lengthy “review,” I thought I’d just list it all out here to try and bring some structure and coherence to the thoughts that have been going through my head each night while playing.

Titanfall screen 6 feature

  • I’m not sure why they bothered with the Campaign mode. It stinks to me of trying to make some kind of nod toward the obnoxiously vocal minority that wanted some kind of narrative structure to the game. It’s simply not necessary, and the half-hearted execution of it just makes me think that it was included with a “well, fuck ‘em - if they want a Campaign, I guess we’ll give them something so they’ll shut the fuck up” mentality. It doesn’t even serve as an advanced tutorial mode, because it only includes Attrition and Hardpoint matches. The story itself is sci-fi cliché nonsensical bumwank that occasionally wants to be Firefly Browncoat stuff, but my 10 year-old could write better dialogue. Also, what’s up with the mish-mash of accents? Is that some kind of attempt to show how multicultural the Frontier is? Or did they just spec “not American” for the main roles? You’ve got Idris Elba soundalike London accent guy, South African dude, and Australian/possibly-New Zealander bloke. Honestly the Spectres give better performances.
  • The map design is superb. The sight-lines work really well both for Pilots and Titans, which is quite an achievement, and they’ve managed to effective encourage vertical play without having to signpost it.
  • It owes some of its effectiveness to MOBAs like League of Legends, as much as it does to older arena shooters like Quake. The map design encourages “lane” play to a certain degree, working as a team with distinctive roles really helps effectiveness, particularly in CTF and Last Titan Standing matches, and the grunts and Spectres are basically Creeps.

  • The matchmaking kinda sucks. It’s far too frequent that you find yourself in a match with people that are substantially more experienced, and have better gear. When I pointed this out on Twitter, I was simply told to “get better friends,” by a sensitive and pragmatic individual - but that’s horseshit. I’m not 15 any more, and I don’t get home at 3pm and have nothing to do for nine hours. I can’t sink the kind of time into the game that’s necessary to regenerate once or twice in the game’s first week. That said, there are clearly a lot of people playing - so is it really necessary to dump me into games so frequently with people that have played it so much more than me? Am I in the minority, or does the matchmaking still need some work? I’m going to go with the latter until I see some data that proves otherwise.
  • I know experience should yield rewards; but I think that the way it follows the Call of Duty model of juicing experienced players with better gear is a mistake for the long-term. When you hit a match where everyone on the other team is wielding a Carbine with a kick-ass scope, and a Titan that’s rocking a Triple Threat and a Particle Screen, it just gets a bit annoying. It’s not insurmountable the way similar situations would feel in Call of Duty, but it can be irritating.
  • Titanfall’s balance seems to come from its imbalance. Things get way over-powered really quickly, especially if everyone’s picking their Burn Cards sensibly for the matches they’re in, so things get pushed way out to the edges of batshit crazy. On paper, I wouldn’t have expected this to work, but in practice it seems really effective.
  • The game strikes me as being one or two patches away from being properly fixed. The Xbox One version tears like a motherfucker when there’s a lot of stuff on screen, and I’ve not seen anything quite like that on a triple-A console game for a long time. When you throw in some dodgy server connections you get tearing and humungous frame-rate drops…which I would think they’ll get a handle on in an update.
  • They need to come up with a better way to represent connection errors. Right now, they blur the screen to show that the connection is messed up…but sometimes the game doesn’t trigger a return to things being nice and crisp, so you end up having to play the rest of the round with the screen looking like it has vaseline smeared all over it.
  • The predominantly static nature of the environments disappointed me at first, as I was hoping that next gen environment design would put an end to everything in game worlds feeling so rigid. That said, the map design being so good means I quickly got over it.
  • love that one of the classes of Spectre is called a Marvin, as a reference to the Paranoid Android from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
  • This is the first online multiplayer shooter that I’ve ever seriously considered buying the Season Pass for. Despite all of the niggles above, I enjoy it that much.

Some learnings from a year on the periphery of games media

The first thing I ever wrote “professionally” about a videogame was in 1986. It was a review of Winter Games by Epyx for the Atari ST, and my payment for the 500 words or so that I wrote about it was that I could keep the game. I was 14, and that seemed like a pretty sweet deal at the time.

I’ve been associated with games media in one way or another for pretty much the entire time of the…gulp…28 years since. I freelanced pretty consistently between the ages of 14 and 19, and when I got my first full-time job after leaving school, it was reviewing games for a weekly games magazine in the UK called Games-X.

Much has changed in the years since. We’ve seen the transition from print to web writing, the constant evolution of video coverage, and the advent of livestreaming. One thing has stayed fairly consistent throughout though; the audience. Passionate, vocal, enthusiastic, and often quite defensive. These are people prepared to spend a huge amount of their available free time, and a large amount of their disposable income on these wonderful, magical experiences. Games provide gamers’ entertainment, but they also provide so much more; a sense of belonging to a community, being part of a rich culture, and they provide wonderful escapism. 

About a year and a half ago, I stepped away from being at the heart of games coverage for the first time in my professional life. It was a risk, but a calculated one. After spending so much time with, and creating content for people that love games so much, it was clear that some dramatic changes were occurring, and I had the good fortune of knowing some people that were seeing similar trends and were in a position to try and build something to serve these changes. That was how First for Gamers, the social network and live messaging app for gamers that we ultimately ended up building came about.

Me

As Marc Andreessen wrote recently in his blog post about the future of the news business, “On the Internet, there is no limitation to the number of outlets or voices in the news chorus. Therefore, quality can easily coexist with crap.” In gaming, the issue was more than just that of quality, it was quickly becoming one of volume. Millions of YouTube videos, billions of minutes of livestreamed gameplay on Twitch, and millions of Tweets compete with the thousands of blog posts and articles that are produced each month about videogames.

In building First for Gamers, we’ve had the luxury of spending a great deal of time speaking with the gamers that use it every day about their feelings on gaming and the way they consume content in general. It’s been quite an eye-opener, and has made me look, with renewed interest, at the possibilities for the future of games media.

What follows is not another critique bemoaning games journalism, but more a series of observations based on repeated comments from users that are starting to coalesce for me as thoughts about how the business can evolve and continue to grow in future.

  • Gamers are generally an enthusiastic bunch, you just have to look for it - and then understand how to process it. Sure, they can seem defensive, or negative, or overly critical, but by and large they are predisposed to really enjoying videogames. This sounds blindingly fucking obvious, but it’s a general truth that is at the heart of much of the disdain that growing numbers of people seem to have for certain elements of games media. While it’s expressed in numerous different ways, we’re seeing a divergence between critics and readers. Whether it’s actually true or not, the impression lately seems to be that we’re seeing more and more critics behaving as though they feel that finding things to criticize is the only way they’ll be taken seriously as a “big-C” Critic. On the other hand, there’s a sense from gamers that they feel a lot of games coverage comes off as dismissive because it’s so negative.

Consequently…

  • The lack of joy is discernible. Obviously there’s no need to be a drooling idiot dishing out fanboy raves, but when a big title is about to come out, there’s a large portion of the audience that is quite genuinely excited. And there’s usually a sizable audience that has already pre-ordered, and has already made a declaration of being pre-disposed to liking the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the lack of joy be so obvious as the 10 day period during which both the PS4 and the Xbox One came out. While the audience was giddy with anticipation after years of waiting for the next big step forward, there was a perception from the media that it was a big fucking chore to have to cover all these games. I understand that the circumstances under which a lot of the coverage was produced was far from ideal, but as a consumer of media, those circumstances needn’t be quite so apparent to me unless it’s with full transparency. I’d happily see “we haven’t had the time to cover this adequately yet,” and it seems clear that many gamers feel similarly, based on their comments.
  • TLDR: And yes, I appreciate the irony of my raising this more than three quarters of the way through a screed that is similarly plagued. Gamers just don’t have the time or (probably more significantly) the inclination to wade through thousands of words of text about anything. It’s symptomatic of a generational shift, a cultural shift, a technological shift, and the associated time constraints they impose. In the past year I’ve seen lots of really great pieces of writing dismissed by their perfect audience purely by virtue of the fact that there’s just too much content. “Seems great, but had to stop reading halfway through.” I’ve seen comments to that effect so many times. While I appreciate the ambition of perpetuating the great tradition of long-form, magazine-style writing - the audience that is pre-disposed to actually reading such a thing just doesn’t have the bandwidth any more.
  • Even though there are now 1.2 billion gamers in the world (so roughly one in six people play games of some kind) all enjoying an industry so prolific and that it generated $93 billion in 2013, many gamers still feel isolated. They just want to find people to talk to about the stuff they’re passionate about. Often they don’t have anyone around them at school or work that they can talk to in the way that they want to chat about games. Sure, they can possibly engage on the big stuff like Titanfall or Call of Duty, but if they want to really nerd-out about, say, how great Atlus RPGs are, or how epic the Assassin’s Creed IV soundtrack was, they’re pretty much shit outta luck. It not just the game-specific chat, either. The culture around games is really important too, and gamers crave discussion with people of a similar mindset. Content is often pitched as being a “conversation starter,” but often that’s not how it actually lands on the page or in the video player.