Sat, Oct 01, 2011 | 13:55 BST
Weekly Wrap – BF3 beta explodes, devs ogle next-gen
We didn’t have to fly halfway across the universe for news this week, so it came to us. Big time. We battled back as hard as we could, but at what cost? Huh? Our souls? Oh, no biggie, then. Here’s what it all means.
What happened: The Internet collectively tore into the Battlefield 3 beta like hungry, hungry hippos into delicious, delicious you. Things blew up, trees fell down, and Pat struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. And, you know, bullets. I like to imagine he shouted something like “How’s this for a Bulletcast? What you need to know now is that I just fucking shot you in the face,” but alas. Oh well, I can dream, can’t I?
What it means: The reactions to this thing have been almost absurdly all-over-the-place, and I think that – at least, in part – stems from a muddled perception of what a beta’s supposed to be. In one camp, there are the folks who treat these “tests” like sneak peeks behind big-budget development’s largely manufactured veil of secrecy – glorified demos, in other words. And that mentality’s hardly confined to players. Plenty of publishers roll beta tests into their marketing campaigns (“Buy Medal of Honor for 43 extra seconds of BF3 beta access!”), and it shows.
Then there’s the other, ever-dwindling side of the argument, which insists that the open testing process should hand players keys to the kingdom in exchange for a treasure trove of invaluable feedback. So, when a bug skitters into their otherwise pristine experience, these players don’t pull their pre-orders and suddenly accuse DICE of plunging a knife between their ribs. Instead, they report the bug with the knowledge that, yeah, this isn’t representative of the final product.
BF3 beta players, of course, hit varying points all over this spectrum. So then, who’s actually right? Well, that’s the issue: I’m not even sure DICE knows. On one hand, BF3′s beta has some pretty damn glaring flaws (a horrible UI and general jankiness, foremost), but on the other, the designers of Battlelog’s feedback program appear to have put about two seconds of thought into their task before popping open some champagne to celebrate a job half-done. So is this a one-level demo? Or is it an incredibly focused beta test? The answer’s obvious: It’s neither. So hooray! Everybody wins! At losing.
What happened: Developers’ ambitions finally started outgrowing the confines of the current console generation. Both Braid creator Jonathan Blow and Beyond Good and Evil maestro Michel Ancel turned their noses up at Xbox 360 and PS3, citing very different but equally valid reasons as to why these dinosaurs should don their cowboy hats and ride off into the sunset. Aside from giving me an excuse to write that sentence.
What it means: Ancel’s perspective on the matter is pretty much par for the course with these things. He wants to go bigger, better, and – dare I say it – perhaps a teensy weensy bit more badass. Sure, he might be able to throw in everything but the kitchen sink with current hardware, but he really wants that goddamn kitchen sink.
Blow’s argument, meanwhile, is a bit more interesting. Of course, he’d also prefer not to squeeze blood from a stone, but he pointed out that – as these consoles get older – their closed off approaches to certification only grow more and more archaic next to sprightly services like iOS and Steam. “These types of games only really work on PC and iOS platforms because consoles aren’t open to constant updates,” he said, referring to ever-evolving games like Minecraft. “I wonder what those console platforms are going to do when this type of development becomes more widespread, because I think it will.”
What happened: The gaming industry’s strange power over the forces of incredibly specific coincidence reared its probably minotaur-shaped head again. Two games presumed dead both re-emerged, received spiffy gameplay trailers, and pinned down release dates in the surprisingly near future. In the same week. First Syndicate finally shed its “worst-kept secret since Superman’s real identity” label, and then I Am Alive emerged from the kind of development purgatory you’re just asking for when you name your game in a manner so equal parts ominous and punnable.
What it means: The rumor mill has spat out dreaded “troubled development cycle” labels for both these games, so their respective publishers could very well be booting them out of the nest and hoping they don’t break all their legs. I’d be especially fascinated to know how I Am Alive found its way from the glamorous land of retail releases to a comparatively small-time gig like XBLA/PSN. Both games’ trailers still managed to look fairly interesting, though, so counting out either would be downright foolish at this point. And hey, Hard Reset came out of nowhere, and it was solid. Maybe these two games will just serve as further proof that millenia-spanning marketing cycles are no longer necessary – even in the big-budget console space.
What happened: Star Wars: The Old Republic finally stopped messing around and went straight for the implausibly explosive exhaust port. It’s launching in December with – gasp – subscription fees. We may be living in a free-to-play world, but when the phrase “Star Wars” is in your title, you can afford to bend the rules a bit. Case in point: Blinking Ewoks. Just… just take my money again, George. But don’t you dare look me in the eyes this time.
What it means: “Free to play is very much about trial, about ‘Hey, I don’t know what this is, I don’t have confidence that it’s any good, but I’m willing to take a look at it,’ versus ‘I know this is good, from a trusted source, and it’s the biggest license in the world.’ So it’s a different value proposition,” said BioWare’s Greg Zeschuk.
It’s a good point – to be sure – but, er, not exactly convincing. “No, no, our game’s not a unique exception to the rule,” he’s essentially saying. “But here’s what makes our game so unique, excepting it from many rules.” Regardless, free-to-play’s about options. Subscriptions of some sort will probably always be around, but as season passes in the top tier of, well, pretty much every MMO out there that’s not WoW.
Can TOR pull off a similar Jedi hat trick? Almost certainly – at least, at first. Time will tell, though, if its endgame content and update plans are strong enough to keep players from herding their piggy banks elsewhere. Other MMO endgames have traditionally fallen flat on their faces right out of the gate. If TOR can turn that trend around, it might become more than just another MMO shivering in WoW’s colossal shadow.
What happened: Well, first off, Journey got a release window. Hooray! But it’s not until spring 2012, which means I’ll be excessively uncomfortable wearing my custom-made Impressively Long Scarf while playing it. Also – probably orders of magnitude more importantly – thatgamecompany’s Kellee Santiago said a smart thing about gamers not being stupid.
What it means: Santiago’s point may not seem like a shocking revelation, but it needed to be made. In a world where it’s actually impossible to ignore big, loud, ‘splodey shooters like Modern Warfare and Battlefield, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there’s room for other types of success in this industry. And I don’t just mean on the indie side, either. Let’s not forget that both Portal 2 and LA Noire came out earlier this year. LA Noire, especially, was paced very deliberately, but still managed to ship four million units as of last count. Point is, games don’t have to be nearly pornographic displays of gun-on-face action to get noticed. You want to know the truly “stupid” thing here? Assuming that your audience is stupid. That’s a slippery slope very few creators – in any medium – come back from.