Having a minor crank about games PR

There’s something that’s always bothered me about games PR and marketing: some companies turn out hype copy that’s either grammatically incorrect, soulless, or nonsensical. Stuff that reads more like a frantic commercial software pitch than an attempt to capture my imagination. It’s true for plenty of products, yeah—I mean, this is the whole point of having television commercials—but it usually only bothers me when it’s for games. See, try reading the new XCOM FPS’s press release aloud:

XCOM is the re-imagining of the classic tale of humanity’s struggle against an unknown enemy that puts players directly into the shoes of an FBI agent tasked with identifying and eliminating the growing threat. True to the roots of the franchise, players will be placed in charge of overcoming high-stake odds through risky strategic gambits coupled with heart-stopping combat experiences that pit human ingenuity – and frailty – against a foe beyond comprehension. By setting the game in a first-person perspective, players will be able to feel the tension and fear that comes with combating a faceless enemy that is violently probing and plotting its way into our world.

It’s miles better than a lot of other stuff out there, but it still fights my tongue: I feel like I want to pause for a comma, but I never get a chance. The second half tends toward evocative description, but it’s not enough to make up for OVERCOMING HIGH-STAKE ODDS THROUGH RISKY STRATEGIC GAMBITS COUPLED WITH HEART-STOPPING COMBAT EXPERIENCES et cetera et cetera.

PR people sometimes seem to think that LOTS OF WORDS WITHOUT STOPPING is better than dramatic pacing. Have they been locked to a certain number of sentences? Is there some company rule commanding that “YOU ARE LIMITED TO ZERO COMMAS,” or something like that? Maybe every PR staffer contributes one ‘exciting’ phrase to a giant bucket, and their team leader stays up until four in the morning trying to figure out how to fit them all into a hundred words? I sometimes feel like these things are written by robots or Pinocchio-boys who desperately want to understand human ecstasy: they grasp helplessly at words while we pity them for their sterile alien minds. It’s almost wistful, it is.

Passion’s the thing here—why do they dance around the original game so much? Why not reference it directly? So many wonderful things have been written about X-COM that it this marketing fluff seems even more out of place to me than it normally does: ever since I started keeping up with games journalism about five years ago, I’ve been constantly impressed by the enthusiasm great writers have for X-COM. Alec Meer wrote a powerful account of his youthful collision with the game only a few days ago, and it made me want to run out immediately, find a copy, and slobber all over it. It grates against my sense of justice, this marketing nonsense does. There should have been some genuine emotion here—I mean, if any game has really grabbed people by the hearts and the brains simultaneously, it’s X-COM. There are a bunch people out there who could have made pretty words about the new game. It shouldn’t have been hard to put together a release that’s more– more on an emotional level– than just a picture and a paragraph. If they’d done that, the response might not have been so hypercritical.

I know this is not terribly important. It’s just that XCOM is the thing this week, and for once, the Thing of the Week demonstrates a long-standing pet peeve of mine. I mean, take a look at this blurb about Assassin’s Creed from Steam:

Assassin’s Creed™ is the next-gen game developed by Ubisoft Montreal that redefines the action genre. While other games claim to be next-gen with impressive graphics and physics, Assassin’s Creed merges technology, game design, theme and emotions into a world where you instigate chaos and become a vulnerable, yet powerful, agent of change.

It sounds like the kind of thesis proposal I would churn up at two in the morning on a Sunday.

Guest Article: Your Social Network Sucks

Morgon Kanter writes about an irritating new trend in game design.

The first time I ever played an MMORPG online was in 1996. It was called Medievia, and it was back in the days when “MMOs” were really just called “MUDs”, short for Multi-User Dungeons (anyone remember those?). The first time I ever played a video game online was in 1999. I was 11 years old, and I had just gotten my hands on a shiny new copy of Unreal Tournament. For those of you not old enough to remember, Unreal Tournament was, at that point, considered to be the greatest multiplayer shooter ever made. It even managed to accomplish this when most of the world was still playing it on dial-up.

Unreal Tournament, in all its account-free glory

Medievia was the first and last time I ever felt it necessary to make an account for a game. It was natural, really: it’s a persistent world where you’re expected to log in and continue where you last left off. Medievia was even a little unusual about that when compared to other MUDs, because you didn’t lose your equipment when you logged off. Unreal Tournament did not require me to sign up for account. I don’t even think the developers had conceived of the notion of requiring dial-up users to log in to their weak, easily-DDoSed servers in West Nowhereville before playing the greatest multiplayer game ever made. If one of them did, I have this little fantasy in my head wherein said person walked into CliffyB’s office and brought it up to him: “So, CliffyB, do you think we should make everybody sign up for an account and log in to play multiplayer?” To this, CliffyB would dutifully reply: “That’s the most fucking retarded thing I’ve ever heard.”

Fast forward a bit under a decade, and the most fucking retarded thing that my fantasy CliffyB has ever heard has gained some traction. I don’t really know where this idea started, though I have a few ideas: Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and Steam. On both places it makes sense: the former because you had to pay for it so of course you had to log in to play, and the latter because all the games you bought ended up tied to the account so of course you had to log in to play. But wait! Now the concept has expanded…to individual games? Now I need to log in somewhere to play multiplayer on a PC game, where I don’t have to pay for the privilege? This isn’t like Steam, where you log in when your computer boots up to access your games — all your games. Now I’m expected to launch an individual game, then fill in a username and password in order to get online and shoot people.

UT3, on the other hand, demands you make an account.

My first brush with this terrible idea came, rather ironically, with Unreal Tournament 3, where after booting the game up I was expected to do these foreign actions like “create an account” and “log in” in order to play with other people online. I don’t see why this is necessary — it wasn’t necessary in Unreal Tournament, or Unreal Tournament 2004. (The realistic answer is probably “it’s not necessary, but they want to see and control who is playing their game” or in industry-speak “preventing piracy.”) Part of me is glad that that game did so terribly for that reason; I absolutely cannot stand having to sign up for an account to play a game I already paid for. It’s even worse now that the game is on Steam, where first you download it to your Steam account and then once you launch the game you have to make another separate account. WTF, man? Could you imagine if you had to do that for every game you own? But wait, you say, that’s just for multiplayer. UT3 is a multiplayer game, so making an account is okay, right? What about single player? Funny you should mention that…

Turns out that requiring accounts for single-player games is also gaining traction. Dragon Age: Origins with its “social network” is a well-known example (required for the DLC), and anything made by Ubisoft now gets a special mention for the doubly asinine requirement of remaining online while you are playing even though it’s a single player game! Now, Ubisoft is absolutely terrible, and there is absolutely no redeeming feature in that model. But the thing with Dragon Age: Origins, that doesn’t have to be so bad. But there is just one thing…and it’s the same thing that bugged me so much about UT3. How many people bought Dragon Age over Steam? Given how it was in the best-sellers list for a while, I’m willing to bet the answer to that question is “a lot”. Now, with Steam, I am already signed up for an account. I signed up for this account the first time I bought games with Steam. This account is used for multiplayer in a number of Steam-based games (not just games published by Valve). Does it seem a little annoying to anyone else to have to sign up for *another* account, solely for Dragon Age, just for the DLC? Couldn’t they have just used my damn Steam settings?!

All things considered, Dragon Age is pretty tame. I don’t care about their stupid “social network”, but at least it doesn’t require me to run the Games for Windows Live client to play the game, which some games on Steam do require. That makes even less sense to me — I bought the game on Steam. STEAM. Why do I have to download and run ANOTHER stupid client just to play the fucking game?

Really, Bioware? You want me to blog about my DA experiences on your social network?

This deal with creating new accounts to play games (multiplayer or otherwise) is getting out of hand. I recently bought a pack of indie games on Steam. I generally expect indie games to be free of the nonsense and general stupidity over these meta-gaming issues that plague larger development and publishing houses. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that I had to sign up for accounts — separately — for two of these games. I see no reason to not name and shame, so let’s do that: Altitude, and Galcon Fusion. Seriously guys, what were you thinking? I have over eighty games in my Steam account. Just think of what that would be like if I had to sign up for a separate account for every one of these. Think about that for a minute, developers. Can you start to see the problem?

I’m not entirely uncharitable here. I can understand why even small game studios would want people to have accounts for stat tracking or other sorts of persistent information (or “fighting piracy”). But making me sign up for another account when I bought your game over Steam is inexcusable. If you want to handle your own accounts, you need to come up with a way to make the Steam account details automatically transfer over. I actually brought this up to the developers of Altitude, to which they replied that they couldn’t because of privacy issues. That’s a good joke, guys. Privacy issues. As if I’m not going to go sign up for an account so I can play the game I just bought. Make it transfer! Bother Valve until they make some API calls to support it, if Steam doesn’t already! It’s not impossible. It’s not even that hard. So do it already. Stop dodging the issue or issuing these weak mea culpas, because I don’t want to have to make and remember separate accounts for all 83 of my Steam games.

Galcon Fusion is good times, some of the time

The gulf between multiplayer and singleplayer Galcon is like the gulf between an adorable puppy and a dead puppy that is already rotting.

Actually, that’s very unfair. But there is a huge divide. In my opinion, this iPhone-game-turned-PC-clickyfest is practically only worth playing on multiplayer. Multiplayer, particularly the team multiplayer, is a strategy-rich experience; the singleplayer is a dull, brief, staccato process that seems particularly ill-suited to the PC. I’ve heard good things about it on the iPhone, but when you’re playing thirty-second strategy games in your hand, while, as one reviewer put it, brushing your teeth, that’s a very different experience from hunching in front of your computer while the whole screen fills with robot strategy triangles. It’s simply not interesting enough to deserve all that space in front of your face.

Somebody got owned. By triangles.

Because that’s what this game is all about: circles and triangles. Lean, lean visuals. Admirable depth evolving out of a very slight, pared-down set of mechanics. And the developers tried to give this PC version some more totally unneeded complexity by including a seething mess of ill-explained singleplayer game modes that seem to have no reason for existing. And then there’s the AI. It comes in ten levels, some or most of which I could not actually tell apart from one another while playing. So, make of that what you will. This is a game which deserved more than to be weighted down with a million irrelevancies.

This is mainly because the multiplayer is so fantastic. I played multiplayer once last week—during finals week at my college—for over three hours straight. And it did not feel like a waste of time.

See, Galcon multiplayer is is more explicitly a kind of communication than it is in any other strategy game I’ve tried, simply because it’s so stripped down. The units are triangles; they point where they’re going. More triangles means more troops. No triangles means a player’s turtling. Everything that happens is right there on the table, ready for players to draw their own conclusions from. The pull and play of triangles is like a conversation between opponents.

The result is an incredible range of strategy—incredible, really, for a game with only one kind of troop, one kind of command, and automated unit production. By manipulating your troop output, you can trick enemies into thinking you have more or less troops than you actually do; by changing your troops’ direction mid-flight,y ou can pull off some impressive feints. And because your enemies here are people, not AI, the kind of strategy and trickery you can pull off is so much broader, so much more satisfying. There are such a diversity of viable strategies that by the time you’ve grasped the basic mechanics you’ve probably developed a distinctly personal play-style. And these styles stick out. The game is so slight in visuals that player behavior takes the absolute center stage. Other players in your game will know you by your favorite tricks. And you’ll know them by theirs. And team multiplayer is even more glorious—those games are all about wordless cooperation, about games turning on a dime, about perpetrating a fantastic kind of human chaos. It’s something that simply isn’t possible in the singleplayer.

So, the game has terrible music, unimpressive graphics, and a singleplayer mode that struck me as a waste of time. But it has a multiplayer that, out of a few bare-bones elements, inspires a pretty-much endless strategy experience. This is some really tight design. I am incredibly impressed with it. What I’m not impressed with, though, is the fact that the multiplayer servers go absolutely cold during much of the day, which makes it impossible for me to enjoy the one aspect of the game that I actually adore.

Actually, this is what the game looks like most of the time. A bit more placid, I'd say.

I got the game for two bucks as part of an indie bundle; knowing what I know now about the singleplayer and the multiplayer server situation, I’m not sure I would have bought the full ten dollar game just by itself. At any rate, there’s a free demo on Steam. I’d certainly recommend that, but since I bought the game already I don’t even know if that demo has multiplayer in it. I hope it does—this game certainly wants to show potential customers the best it has to offer, not the worst.

Wondered where we were all last week? We were doing finals. It was kind of a bitch. But we’re back now, and you’ll be seeing some interesting stuff soon!

Also, we are going to PAX East. More about that later.

ALSO ALSO, Galcon, regular iPhone Galcon, won the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award at the IGF last year. Here’s the dev’s– Phil Hassey’s–website.

That Badass Portal ARG

So, you’ve probably heard about the glut of crazy Valve news that’s popped up in the past week: Portal 2, Steam for Mac, all that jazz. When the alternate-reality game announcing Portal 2 came up, I heard about it within half an hour or so and spent the whole night camping out on the Steam forums, watching people with actual tech skills solve it while I pretended to do homework. Fantastic times. Later, when I had the chance to describe the scope of the ARG to a few of my friends, I found time to reflect on what Valve actually did with that stuff. And it was still pretty astonishing to me, even after seeing it all come out.

Change the ending to a game you released three years ago to build hype on a sequel? If they’d done it badly, people would have been pissed, but since Valve are digital wizards whose fantastic PR and mastery of our fanboy/girl brains amounts to some kind of crazy blood magic, and because they’re effin brilliant, everyone was excited about it. It’s a new kind of game marketing. How often does that happen? Some people in the Valve forums were suggesting that Valve’s hiring of super-skilled MINERVA: Metastasis creator Adam Foster, who used to like to do his releases and updates in the style of ARGs, had something to do with this. Even if they hired him just for his crazy-good map design, they would have been justified; hiring a smart-as-hell mod designer for his self-promotion techniques is a bit more than that. It’s yet another example of how much Valve know what they’re doing.

Apparently some people hate ARGs. But I am not these people, and I have never met any of them. I actually prefer it. Television advertising for games is usually a bit condescending, when you think about it: all that prerendered video, all the absurdly-brief in-game footage, clipped down to just the finishing moves and the glitter, as if they’re trying to hide something. And the enormous quantity of advertising they do on game review sites, which are ostensibly there to provide consumers with unbiased opinions, can actually be unethical.

But stuff like the Portal ARG is special. It treats consumers with a certain amount of praise and consideration that traditional marketing techniques don’t: it’s an intelligence-stimulating, community-flattering kind of thing. If Valve thought we were all dumb as bricks, it would never have decided to do the release as an ARG. If Valve didn’t give a shit about its community, it wouldn’t have done an ARG. The other kinds of hilarious advertising they do, like the TF2 updates, are drenched with an exuberant irony that also grants intelligence to the consumer, but without being exclusive, or telling jokes meant to leave anyone confused. It doesn’t take much brainpower to appreciate the Saxton Hale comic, but it’s dumb in a current, conscious kind of way. AN APE WILL DIE ON EVERY PAGEThere are plenty of cultural references in there, such as the fake comic covers, for anyone who has the context to understand them. It speaks of extraordinary care on Valve’s part. But this is what we’ve come to expect from Valve, so even though we’re excited, surprised, and appreciative, we’re not as surprised as we would have been if, say, Ubisoft pulled this.

But if this kind of thing catches on elsewhere, what could happen? Will it become typical for game studios to produce, say, mid-season DLC designed to link games with their sequels? That would be cool, but it would be coolest if the DLC was free. Will more companies start putting the attention and care into their fanbases that Valve already has? I bet a lot are trying, but they don’t have Steam, so it’s harder for them. Or is this a sign that games as products could become more fluid, that auto-updates to official game plot could become a typical phenomenon? Maybe, but there’s a lot of danger in that: mishandling such a thing could be seen as an invasion of player experience, a breach of trust. Or will this inject more energy into PC gaming as a platform experience—the only platform where games and the internet lie so close together? PC games have always been particularly creative in comparison to console games, and today we’ve got an indie community with a lot of energy and innovation—a community Valve draws from. It would be nice to see more developers get excited about PC gaming again because of that innovation, but we’re always going to have to deal with the hobbling millstone of piracy, too, won’t we?

Ambiguous situations and troubling questions aside, I see the ARG as a good sign for PC gaming. People still care, guys. There are a million bajillion of us out there, and not everybody thinks we’re idiots. It’s awesome.

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