Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Have Professional Reviewers Intentionally Sacked Ryse and the Fun in Gaming

I'll intentionally start from the gamers' viewpoint. Yes, I have intentions. Lately I've been asking myself if I have fun playing video games. The Witcher, a highly praised game, is the last thing I brought myself to try and then brought myself to play on and on. Till I stopped and don't know if I'll continue it. Doesn't sound like I had fun?

Well, I've beat many games that I hadn't fun playing. Beat that game, made a check mark. From Elder Scrolls to Call of Duty, yes I once brought myself to beat a Call of Duty game. Of course I try to remember when is the last time I had fun playing a game. As I recall I had fun playing many of my SNES games, my first PC game Wing Commander IV, Archimedean Dynasty, Terra Nova, Red Alert and many other RTS games of that time. I guess every gamer has a time when he likes what he's playing or should I say, like in my case, he likes the virtual worlds born in the imagination of game developers that he gets transported to.

I bought my first PC because I saw a PC gaming magazine that a classmate let me read. Oh the wonders I saw in that magazine. But when I got my shiny and expensive new PC with Pentium inside after a lot of let's say persuasion of my parents, I forgot the gaming magazines and just gamed. I chose my games based on the pretty covers and descriptions on the back. There were duds and there were shining beacons among them. After getting a game, the duds were weeded out in no time. I still regret exchanging Archimedean Dynasty for a dud that I can't remember with a classmate. Every time I went into my local game shop I was in anticipation what wonders it will bring into my life.

But then life changed, the world changed. There were more and more games, which also means more duds, one could get pirate CD copies of games and the internet was coming. My local game shop closed, did I help kill it? Through pirate CD copies and later Warez downloads I consumed more games than ever. Then came Steam and now cloud gaming, it's easier and easier to consume games. And of course I read game magazines and game reviews. I don't know if fear of giving money for duds brought this upon me, or simply me changing with the world. Fun with games was getting less and less.

It seems to me that I now read more game reviews and previews online that I game. I know almost everything about a game before I play it and it looks to me that I have formed an opinion on a game before I play it based on online reviews, previews and other information. The crowdfunding wonder Star Citizen has made a game out of releasing information about the development of its universe and I look upon it as the next big thing that will give me fun and transport me to another world. Will Chris Roberts bring my fun and sense of wonder back? Looks like many gamers are like me based on the money that Star Citizen is getting.

I also frequent gaming forums like IGN, GameSpot and NeoGAF. Do you know that GameSpot has a subforum named System Wars? It's even the most frequented one there. One would think this has to be a very successful game, System Wars sounds very similar to Star Wars, so could be a space game. But when you enter that forum you notice very fast that other systems are at war there. There fight modern gaming crusaders under the banner of gaming systems. PlayStation is killing the Xbox, and Xbox is slaughtering the PC. Nintendo they don't even take seriously anymore.

IGN is not much different and NeoGAF is more the place of the backstabby passive-aggressive diplomat type that hopes to lure the enemy over to his side with a well informed opinion.

What are the weapons of these modern crusaders, the system warriors. Metascores, game previews and technical analysis a la Digital Foundry. And of course a lot of name calling, which former Microsoft man Adam Orth can say a word or two about. The words toxicity and troll are often associated with these system war arenas. The word fun is not often used there, could it be that you can't fight with something that you don't have?

Let me now come to the professional game reviewers, and I call most of them that way because they are paid for that. Do they turn which way the wind blows? Bam, I started with the hammer.

Last year was again the launch of a new generation of consoles, and the flames of war burned hotter than ever. There was aggression, even the passive-aggressive type, there was hate. And there were victims. The victim of the last generation launch was Sony, this time it was Microsoft that made blunder after blunder and made life easier for Sony to win the PR war at launch.

The Sony win was so big that the SDF (Sony Defense Force) is still overwhelming the forums, game review comments and articles about the consoles and their games. The Xbots are on the retreat, afraid of the SDF. The SDF is full of praise of almost every move that Sony make, one could call them PSbots, religiously following their leaders like the Manson family.

And the gaming press went where the wind was blowing. You could read digital rights bla bla bla, Kinect privacy bla bla bla. Some lords of war at Microsoft had to go because of this defeat and some Xbox One games fell victim. I'm concentrating on the highest profile launch victim here, namely Ryse: Son of Rome.

The game was first presented at E3 last year, so after the shitstorm that was the unveiling of the new Xbox. And right away Ryse was labeled by the gaming press as QTE bla bla bla, repetitive bla bla bla, boring bla bla bla. Some of the gaming press chose to ignore the game or only mentioned it casually. It got the lovely nickname Ryse: Son of QTE by the SDF.

You could almost feel the fear of the SDF and some of the gaming press that went where the wind was blowing. Would Ryse get great reviews the tide of battle could turn and the gaming press would look like amateurish idiots. First and foremost Ryse's unmatched graphics and high production values made them nervous. What if a good game was hiding under that shiny surface?

Then the reviews of Ryse came in, and they were devastating. All the press were tooting in the same horn, boring with a bad combat system, repetitive, QTE, bad story, pretty but nothing to write about. The Adam Sesslers were having dissertations on how historically inaccurate it is, and so on. As often, the one black sheep was Kotaku whose reviewer dared to voice his honest opinion and write that Ryse was fun and he recommends it to gamers. He was promptly flamed by the SDF.

As the best looking console launch game, the Xbots of course used Ryse as their weapon of choice in the battle of which system is more powerful. The SDF countered violently with Killzone: Shadow Fall. A game that has higher resolution simply can't look worse than a low res launch game from the weakly Xbone. If they had to retreat from that argument, they of course countered with Metascores. Some more passive-aggressive SDF types praise Ryse for its looks but at the same time don't forget to patronizingly mention that it's still second to Killzone: Shadow Fall or inFamous: Second Son.

Just so it happened that, regardless of bad Metascore, some Xbox One gamers picked up Ryse, and surprise surprise, it was fun. Mind you, many first simply didn't dare to write fun, but used adjectives like guilty pleasure and mindless fun to not get flamed. Some admitted completing the game multiple times in contrast to some games that got glowing reviews. On the higher difficulties the game also required strategy to survive. And surprise, the combat system was more realistic than other so called hack and slash games a la God of War, and even the Dark Souls combat looks somewhat crude in execution when you compare it.

Luckily many more gamers dared not to listen to reviews and discovered that Ryse is a lot of fun. Simply poking at the Amazon game reviews you see that people have a lot of fun with the game and the game is very popular among the gamers who bought it at the Xbox One digital store. Some gamers ask themselves what were the reviewers smoking when they played Ryse, or if they even played it at all.

Seeing the tired faces of game reviewers at the consoles' launch I would say that they sure had to play a lot, the question is how much of that was Ryse. That's simply a guess, could it be that Ryse was anyways labeled as boring, repetitive, soulless since E3, so why bother if I have so much work? Why not just rehash all the labeling? Well, some of the gaming news outlets like IGN latter retracted on the harsh criticism and admitted that the game was fun. But mostly they were concerned that gamers forget Ryse and the reviews, they thought that who wants to bother with that unimportant game and we could be labeled as amateurish idiots or worse, hype followers.

One thing that is even worse to say for a professional game critic is that he lost fun playing games, or he never had it. Then they are unusable in gamers' minds, why listen to him if he does it for the money or his ego.

Should professional game critics ask themselves if they have fun gaming? Should you play video games because well it's a habit, who needs fun? Everyone has to answer these questions for himself. I know that if I want the mystery of new games to return I should stop looking for reviews, previews, yes even stop peeking at the final scores. And fun is not what I'll find in gaming forums, well sometimes it can be fun, but for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

OnLive Relaunched with CloudLift and OnLive Go

After OnLive went through ABC bankruptcy and its assets were purchased by Lauder Partners for $4.8 million in 2012, the company went into hibernation mode and started to rebuild. Now the time has come when they are showing the fruits of their labor, as they have relaunched with two new services named CloudLift and OnLive Go. They have also relocated from Palo Alto, California to Mountain View, California, and launched an official OnLive forum at community.onlive.com.



On the CloudLift service OnLive has partnered with Steam, with possible future partnerships with other digital game services like EA's Origin and Ubisoft's Uplay. With CloudLift gamers can sync their Steam games library Steam Cloud game saves with the OnLive cloud gaming service and play their games via interactive video streaming on PCs, Macs, TVs and Android mobiles. The OnLive Android App has also been updated to version 1.4 to accommodate the new CloudLift functionality. OnLive still hasn't made it to iOS devices like iPhones and iPads with Apple still refusing to let them in.

CloudLift is priced at $14.99 per month in the US and Canada, and at £9.99 per month in the UK. The list of CloudLift supported games is currently very limited with 20 games, but OnLive is in active negotitations with many game publishers and they intend to add dozens more games in short order. There is a 7-day free trial for CloudLift and gamers can also directly buy the CloudLift supported games from OnLive and get a Steam download code for them. This greatly mitigates the fear of gamers not having a product that they can own should the company go bust.

OnLive has stated that they have improved the on-boarding process for games, so very little to no modifying is necessary to bring games to OnLive. This should allow OnLive to deliver games on their retail launch dates and is a huge improvement over the cumbersome porting process of old OnLive that required a large games on-boarding team at OnLive. The limited games library was one, if not the, stumbling block of old OnLive that caused limited appeal to gamers.



The list of supported games may be short, but there are quite a few interesting among them. The 20 CloudLift supported games are: Batman: Arkham Asylum Game of the Year Edition, Batman: Arkham City - Game of the Year Edition, Batman: Arkham Origins, Saints Row IV, Dead Island: Game of the Year Edition, Dead Island: Riptide, Darksiders II, Metro 2033, Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition, The LEGO Movie - Videogame, LEGO The Lord of the Rings, Red Faction: Armageddon, MX vs ATV Reflex, Painkiller: Hell and Damnation, Strike Suit Zero, Truck Racer, Scribblenauts Unlimited, Type:Rider, The Raven - Legacy of a Master Thief and The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Deep Silver have returned with their games, and even brought some new ones, after they removed their games from OnLive in fall 2012 following the troubles of old OnLive.

OnLive's CloudLift enabled multiplayer games now work like normal PC games and you can play with your friends on Steam. This is also a huge improvement for new OnLive. On old OnLive gamers only had the choice of playing multiplayer games with other OnLive gamers which severely limited their choices. This was another stumbling block for old OnLive, and not only that, old OnLive even had to touch the source code of games to get the multiplayer running on their closed system which resulted in many games that normally supported multiplayer coming without it to OnLive. Looks like CloudLift uses the Steam version of games as the OnLive CloudLift page says that the games use the SteamWorks DRM.

OnLive is also keeping their $9.99 (£6.99, €9.99) per month PlayPack plan of over 250 games. The PlayPass option for purchasing single games has been removed, though the games that people have already purchased are theirs to keep.



The other new service from OnLive, namely OnLive Go, is a B2B offering. This means that other companies can use OnLive's infrastructure and cloud gaming know-how. In this case the first company that has partnered with OnLive is Linden Lab, the creators of virtual world Second Life. They've launched an app named SL Go. You can get it for Android mobile platforms, or you can run Second Life via OnLive on PCs, Macs and TVs. Second Life on SL Go has the graphics settings dialed to the maximum, so depending on how good your PC is it can look even better on an Android tablet than your PC. Second Life on SL Go is also touch enabled so you can control your virtual avatar via touch controls.

OnLive Go, including SL Go, lets you rent the way an internet café would, only it gives the freedom to use it anywhere that you have high bandwidth internet, Wi-Fi and 4G included. In the case of SL Go it costs $3.00 per hour to stream the virtual world of Second Life to a device of your choice.



OnLive has also partnered with Gaijin Entertainment and will enable cloud video streaming of their free to play MMO War Thunder via OnLive Go.

To enable the new services OnLive has added thousands of new servers to their existing data centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dallas, Virginia and Luxembourg. They've also opened two new data centers in Seattle and Chicago, and upgraded the existing servers with the latest CPUs, GPUs and other hardware.

OnLive is still supporting their own hardware accessories. They are selling the OnLive Game System for $99.99 and the Universal OnLive Wireless Controller for $49.99.

OnLive has also revamped their leadership. Lead investor Gary Lauder stepped down from his role as chairman and hired Mark Jung as executive chairman. Mark was co-founder and CEO of IGN, which he built into a digital entertainment powerhouse. After taking the company public in 2000 and then private in 2003, Mark led IGN’s sale for over $650 million to News Corp, the parent company of Fox Interactive Media in 2005. Subsequently, he was the COO of Fox Interactive Media (FIM), where he was responsible for all of its internet properties including MySpace, IGN Entertainment, FoxSports.com, AmericanIdol.com, and Scout Media. After that Mark was the CEO of VUDU, a leading provider of digital home entertainment and interactive television services.

Joining him are Don Gordon as SVP of engineering. Don was a VP at Gracenote, held executive level positions at Microsoft and holds 55 issued US patents related to video technology. Carrie Holder as VP of business development, before that she was director of partner management at EA. And Rick Sanchez as VP of product & marketing, who was also a co-founder of IGN. Most recently, he was VP of Playdom at Disney Interactive.

From the old guard of OnLive there remain Tom Paquin as EVP and chief technology officer, and Bruce Grove as general manager of OnLive UK.

The new leadership of OnLive acknowledges a humbler OnLive that wants to work with other platform holders like Valve and being an enabler of business opportunities for other companies. As opposed to the OnLive of old that seemingly went against everyone and everything, impersonated by its founder and former CEO Steve Perlman, which was also one of the causes of their demise.



OnLive's new business model may prove successful, but business models aren't enough. And not every change is necessarily for the better. Judging from OnLive's new user interface that is now built with HTML5 and takes some lessons from Microsoft's Metro design that is geared towards touch interfaces, they have some work before them to make it user friendly and good looking. The new interface may look stylish, but it also can run painfully slow and finding what you're looking for can be difficult as there is occasionally so much information displayed that you can be overwhelmed and not know where to navigate next. It might be that the initial load of the OnLive relaunch is putting the strain on the interface servers.

Gone is the cool OnLive Arena where you could move between the different live video feeds of gameplay of various games, you can now only spectate other gamers under the game you've selected. The cool looking OnLive start up sequence where the camera moved through the OnLive logo to reveal a giant planetary grid made of gameplay videos was replaced with a hip looking video of colored OnLive logos floating around. And generally the old OnLive user interface felt more solid, with fast responses, and also felt more organized though it didn't have to display so much information.

It will be interesting to see how the OnLive user interface will develop and of course the OnLive cloud gaming service at large.