Thursday, 12 July 2012

What I Think:- Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting game; very rarely do you get a shooter which sets out to make you question what you are actually doing. Call of Duty and the infamous ‘No Russian’ level had a slight tilt at this moral conundrum, but it wasn't the central theme of the game. For Spec Ops to task you with killing enemies and then get you to question whether what you are doing is the right thing is very rare in our medium.

The premise of the game is that as the captain of a Delta Force team you are charged with going to Dubai and finding out what has happened to Colonel John Konrad and his battalion which was sent into the city six months earlier to help evacuate the populace after a massive sandstorm hit. Dubai is now cut off from the rest of the world by a giant storm wall that prevents any communication from going in or coming out. It is your job to go in and find out what has being going on and why the 33rd Battalion has defected; so far so generic, but it isn't long before the situation starts to unravel and you learn that perhaps things are not quite what they seem. As you progress through the city the mental state of both the player character and his team-mates begin to unravel as the acts you are required to undertake, in order to get to the truth, become more and more questionable.  

There were times during the game where I really had to sit back and think about what I had done. One part in particular, which I wont go into as to do so would spoil the experience, really stood out and made me really question whether the lives I had taken were justified by the mission objective. This became even harder when the original goal to evacuate Dubai and save the populace was overtaken by the desire for revenge. It is at this juncture that I felt the game faltered slightly. To change direction in such a way means it's a whole lot easier for the game to make you feel bad about what you are doing. Whilst the saving of innocents can often justify deplorable acts, when it becomes just about revenge there is less ambiguity and it is much easier to see such acts for what they really are. Consequently the question of what behaviour is acceptable during warfare becomes less effective. While I applaud Yager Development for sticking to their objective, I feel that this change in tact did the game a disservice and watered down the central conceit about what is truly acceptable in combat.

However Yager Development should be commended for following through on their promise to centre the game around this question and they generally succeed in their objective. There are a lot of violent games released every week, but this is the first time I can remember actually questioning all the carnage. That they managed to invoke that response is testament to the world they have created. At times it can come across as slightly hackneyed, but it is mostly conveyed with finesse.

There have been complaints from various media outlets that the game surrounding this moral quandary is not up to scratch. While I will agree that in places the graphics look a bit ropey and the combat is not on a par with other cover based titans, such as Gears of War, it is functional and I found it enjoyable to play as a shooter; besides quibbling about such things is missing the point. Journalists and commentators are forever bemoaning the fact that games never bother to tackle moral issues. It is always clear who is the bad guy and you always play the good guy. However, when a game comes along that tries to tackle the issue of the morality of war, instead of recognising the bravery of such a move, the focus is instead on how the game isn’t as technically sound as the best games in the genre. There are already enough Gears of War clones in the market and Yager should be praised for trying something different. Games seem to be able to get away with average story when backed-up with good gameplay, but not when the story excels and the gameplay doesn't. To me this is wrong headed; the industry needs to grow up a bit and understand that gameplay is not the be-all and end-all.  

If, like me, you have a desire to see the shooter genre move forward and for third person shooters in particular to move away from the sterile arena in which they have been trapped, then I recommend that you take a look at this game. Don’t expect a technical marvel, but do expect to encounter something a little different; a game that is willing to buck the trend and get the player to really think about what they are doing. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Return of the Used Game

So you thought with the advent of digital distribution that second-hand sales would go the way of the dodo? Well think again ­– as yesterday the European Court of Justice ruled that publishers can not prevent their customers from reselling games they have bought digitally. This means that consumers within the European Union are now free to sell any games they have purchased from sites such as Origin, Steam and Gamersgate, regardless of any End User Legal Agreement they might have signed when they downloaded. This is bad news for publishers as they were hopeful that digital distribution would slay the dragon of used games sales.

Right now, of all the major digital distribution sites out there, only Green Man Gaming allows customers to trade some of their games back in and it is unclear whether the rest will look to incorporate this feature into their sites, or whether it will take a customer to enforce this right before there are any changes. Whatever the reaction, I am sure it is a major blow to publishers.
It is a well-known fact that second-hand sales are a major problem for companies like EA and Activision. Indeed in the past few years they have tried to come up with a variety of schemes to limit used copies of games and entice people to buy a new copy, such as EA’s Project Ten Dollar. The reason for this is because they do not receive any money from the resale and it also counts as a lost sale because the customer has not bought a new copy of the game. It was always believed that digital distribution would expunge this’ annoying’ feature of the market as it is not as easy to trade-in downloadable games and currently there is no real way to do so. However this ruling changes all that and will require publishers and content providers to provide a way for customers to be able to sell on any games they download.

I wonder whether this ruling will change minds and put a break on the current rush to a digital world. On the same day as the ruling was announced, our old friend EA Labels boss, Frank Gibeau, told Gamesindustry International that “...we're going to be a 100 per cent digital company, period. It's going to be there some day. It's inevitable." He went on to say that this change will take place in the not too distant future. Will this new development push their plans back a bit, or will they carry on regardless? Whatever publishers such as EA choose to do, there is no doubt that this ruling will eat into their profits, much like pre-owned sales at retail are currently doing.

However, with publishers now having a more direct route to customers through digital distribution and knowing about this development, ahead of it becoming a widespread practice, they can move to lessen the impact. Green Man Gaming shows the road forward in the way they currently deal with trade-ins. They have setup deals with various publishers where they receive a payment every time their game is sold, thus making them a bit of money from trade-ins. However, the boss of Green Man Gaming, Paul Sulyok, sees another issue that may arise now that people can resell digital games.

"The classic technique of deep discount, short time limited discounts, all of that will be slightly skewed now, because you don't want to have a deep discounted game that can then be sold on elsewhere. The secondary market then cuts in and then what will happen is the same sort of thing as you've seen in the high street whereby a supermarket chain puts a fantastic discount on a product for consumers and all the other high street retailers trot down to the supermarket to buy them to stop them." (Quote courtesy of Eurogamer

So you could see one company going to say, Steam, buying up a load of copies of the game at a cheap price and then selling them on at a slightly higher price, thus making a nice profit. This would be fairly easy to solve by preventing people from buying numerous copies of the same game, but it is still a headache for publishers and digital distribution companies to have to deal with.

I think the way forward is for publishers to follow Green Man Gaming’s example. They know about this ruling now so they should be proactive. Setup deals with all the major digital distributors that allow them to see a bit of the money from any resale of a product. However with publishers more concerned about the bottom line, any loss of money will most probably be seen as heresy and so instead they will no doubt try to fight against any digital distribution platform offering any kind of trade-in or resale scheme.

As it stands this is a good deal for consumers and helps to reaffirm a right that many feared may disappear with the move to a digital world; namely that when you buy a product, whether it is physical or digital, you own the rights to do with that product what you wish. This ruling strengthens that right and puts it down in law.

I look forward to seeing what the industries’ reaction to this is and in particular how the ‘darling’ of the digital distribution world, Steam, deals with it. But for now I’ll finish by quoting the prescient part of the ruling.

"Where the copyright holder makes available to his customer a copy - tangible or intangible - and at the same time concludes, in return form payment of a fee, a licence agreement granting the customer the right to use that copy for an unlimited period, that rightholder sells the copy to the customer and thus exhausts his exclusive distribution right. Such a transaction involves a transfer of the right of ownership of the copy. Therefore, even if the licence prohibits a further transfer, the rightholder can no longer oppose the resale of that copy." (Eurogamer)