Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Economy (Again!)

Star Wars Battlefront II is a really fun game. It course-corrects a lot of the problems of the first one and throws in some fun turns. Dogfighting in an A-Wing and charging through Hoth feel plain fun. But Battlefront II also has a seriously screwed up economy, one that’s intrinsically tied to how the game plays.

A lot of contemporary multiplayer games have progression systems, the more you play, the more experience points you get which in turn can unlock new weapons or buffs for your character. There’s usually a great deal of balancing gone into this, where that shiny new gun plays differently, but not usually better. Key thing is, this is all tied to you playing the game.

Not so with Battlefront II. Improving your character or class isn’t done through experience, but rather through accumulating Star Cards by buying loot boxes (or crates, in the game).

Loot boxes are a thing that have been in games for a while, though are only recently crawling into AAA games. They’re a ‘box’ you buy with in-game currency that include a random assortment of gameplay items. They can be cosmetic items, like hats and skins, or gameplay things like buffs and weapons. In a good game, like Uncharted 4, they’ll be new ways to play without upsetting the competition. For something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, they’re cool new toys that reward you for playing.

But in Battlefront II, they are the only way to improve. You can clock over a dozen hours as the Assault class, but unless you buy a crate, you won’t get any of the buffs or different weapons. This isn’t a case where you can level up a certain buff by playing with it a lot (as in other games); the only way you can get a buff – and these can be some serious buffs – is from loot boxes. Randomized loot boxes, mind you. Buying a box doesn’t mean you’ll get a Star Card for the class of your choice, you could get one for the Infiltrator you never play as and a power up for Darth Vader, who you haven’t unlocked yet.

Which, even alone, would hardly be so bad – if these crates were remotely affordable. The Trooper Crate, which contains Star Cards for the infantry you usually play as, costs 4,000 credits a pop (Starfighter and Hero Crates will run you 2,400). For reference, a single match, which can last 15-20 minutes, only gets you 200-300 credits. Optimistically, that’s a little over three hours of gameplay for one randomized pack of cards. A randomized pack which, again, mayn’t even have anything of use.

Now, you can bypass this by buying the boxes with real money (at around $2.50 a pop), but after a lot of outcry publisher EA has suspended that. But improving your characters is still a massive time investment. And no one’s really happy about that – this is a $60 AAA game, not a free iPhone app. The outcry on the internet has been cosmic, prompting EA to suspend those real money microtransactions and slash the price of heroes like Darth Vader (from a whopping 60,000 credits to a more manageable 15,000). There’s also the promise of more adjustments to come, but what those are is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, the economy of Battlefront II is completely in the lurch. We’ve already seen the price of some heroes drop by 75%, and though credits can’t be bought outright, they can be obtained through crates. In light of that, there’s (my) hope that EA will cut down the prices of the crates, so it’s less of an outright grind to improve characters (either that or tie progression to actually playing the game, but what are the chances are that?). The problem is, in the meantime, what becomes of your credits?

I’ve bought a couple Crates since the game came out, but I’ve also been stashing a lot of credits (I never dip below 10k, if I can help it [which I can]). Because if EA adjusts their economy (and at this point it’s inevitable), I don’t want to have ‘wasted’ credits. If they slash their loot box price from 4,000 to 1,000, my purchasing power quadruples. If they adjust credits from a match, well, I’ve a backlog (and they’d have to readjust milestone earnings – another thing I haven’t cashed out on yet because, again what if it changes?). And if they leave it as is, well, still credits in the bank.

But no matter what happens, adjusting EA’s economy’s gonna screw someone over. Maybe it’s someone who’s played for hours and suddenly realizes had they waited their money would be worth more. Maybe someone bought the crates before EA suspended microtransactions and just saw their dollars get undervalued. And no matter what, there’s the chance that it’ll happen because, again, they did cut the price of some heroes by 75%, so there’s a chance for another deflation. I don’t trust EA’s credits.

It’s frustrating. Because there are these features of a game I paid $60 for that I don’t get to experience just yet, or I won’t without some serious time investment. And the shame is that Battlefront II is such a fun game marred by a horrendous, random progression system.

So hopefully it’ll get fixed. In the meantime, I’m sitting on my credits like a crazy old man theorist on gold waiting for the markets to crash.

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Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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Spoilers and Reveals

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. That’s a spoiler, right? What about Luke fights Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back? How about Yoda’s the green dude Luke meets on Dagobah? Or Luke goes to Dagobah? Where does it stop being a spoiler and become plot information?

Spoilers used to mean something that’d, well, spoil a surprise, ruin the story. It’d be telling someone that Lando betrays Han in Empire. Since at the point, the story seems to be presenting one thing, but it turns out it’s another. But saying Han and Leia go to Cloud City? That’s just information, it doesn’t tell you anything about the story.

I think we have a tendency to conflate spoilers and plot. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fun to going into something completely blind, but there’s no harm in knowing something. Knowing that Luke goes to Dagobah isn’t gonna ruin Empire Strikes Back.

But then, I’d argue that spoilers don’t always ruin stuff either. I went into LOST knowing that Charlie died, but I still had a ball of a time (and also swore of social media in between the time it aired and I was able to watch it). I started Game of Thrones knowing that Ned Stark died in the first season, but so much of the fun of it was watching how it played out. Saying a spoiler ruins something is indicative of poor storytelling: you know Han, Luke, and Leia are gonna make it out of Star Wars in one piece, but does that make it any less enjoyable? I played MGSV knowing all the twists and turns, yet it’s still a gripping story. A well crafted story doesn’t solely rely on WHAM moments to hook you. But that doesn’t mean I’m trawling through every nugget of information about The Last Jedi. I enjoy being surprised all the same.

Spoilers are a weird beast, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to Stranger Things 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first season last year and, of course, was ready for the second. I didn’t watch any of the trailers, but that was more due to apathy than any intent to avoid spoilers. But then they put out a mobile game, which, I’d usually dismiss except this one was styled after Legend of Zelda. And not the 3D ones, but the old school, top down, action-RPGs that I love (Link’s Awakening is the best Zelda game; fight me). When Season 2 dropped, the game updated with a new character, Max, and an extra quest. Cool!

But unlocking this new character, however, reveals that they she has a special ability. And it’s a doozie. Like, major turn of events type reveal. I was… less than pleased. Because this had all the shaping of being a big twist that happens part way through the season and shakes everything up. And here it was in this game.

But what makes this such a spoiler-y thing is that it could be a big reveal, an “I am your father” reveal. The sort of thing I’d rather not have spoiled for something I’m about to watch in the near future. ‘cuz I got clued in to some of the plot developments by virtue of, y’know, being on the internet. Like I knew that Steve would be taking on some adventures in babysitting (though none of the details), but that’s hardly a spoiler because the real interesting part is watching how Steve gets to that point.

So when I actually watched the show, the back of my mind was furiously anticipating That Twist. …aaaaand it didn’t happen.

Finding out that Max has psychic blasts would have been a helluva spoiler, since it’s a big reveal. That it didn’t happen is a nice gag of the developers (inaccurate game adaptions have a long and storied history) that’s a little frustrating because I kept waiting for it to happen.

But Stranger Things isn’t a show that rides or dies on its reveals. It’s a tightly crafted show, with a plot that starts as a slow burn and picks up as it goes; elements are thrown in play and developed to great effect. Furthermore, it’s anchored in strong characters with growth and relationships. Sure, a major plot spoiler would take away some of the surprise, but that’s not the main draw. Even if it was, though, I don’t think it’d have ruined the show. Spoilers aren’t that bad, guys.

But if you dare tell me anything about The Last Jedi that isn’t in the trailers…

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Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

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