The Bethesda Situation is Gross, but Vindicates the Gaming Press

skyrim on youtubeThe gaming press is up in arms today after Bethesda announced they would no longer provide early copies of their games to reviewers. This began with Doom back in May and prompted many at the time to speculate they were trying to sweep a dud under the rug. While the game exceeded expectations, it left a lot of sites rushing to get reviews out the door. The news that this will be the way of all Bethesda games from now on is understandably concerning for publications whose stock and trade is prompt reviews. Bethesda’s reasoning for this is, allegedly, a desire for reviewers and customers to experience the game at the same time. The problem with this is firstly, that games reviewers and general consumers have entirely different reasons for playing the game, and secondly, Bethesda is already busily handing out early copies of Skyrim Special Edition to influential Youtubers

 

 

jim-sterlingThis leaves only the disappointing conclusion that Bethesda is withholding review copies to maintain greater control over their sales and avoid any bad press that might jeopardise those precious pre-orders. As pre-selling becomes a greater part of the industry’s marketing strategy, publishers grow more risk averse when it comes to the press. Only this week, Jim Sterling of thejimquisition.com is reporting that publishing giant EA has effectively blacklisted him because he is perceived as a “wild card”. Both publishers want to remove that unknown element, a reviewer whose opinion they don’t already know.

I won’t speculate about what’s coming from Bethesda, bugs aside their games have been unfaltering high quality, it’s folly to suggest this implies a lack of confidence in their products. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for studios like Warner Bros. or Ubisoft, that have much more shaky records, and would benefit greatly from getting the likes of Assassin’s Creed Unity or Arkham Knight out the gate without any reviews. When they follow in Bethesda’s footsteps, and follow they will, it’ll take one more chip out of consumer confidence.

This has been taken by some as a death knell for the gaming press; the final blow to an industry that got too clever. There is a passionate and vey entrenched crowd who were much more comfortable in the days of “Planet Quake” when everyone had a fanpage, everyone liked everything, and the press only existed to hype sequels and host patches. Youtube shares some of that pioneer spirit of the early web, with small creators carving up uncharted territory and discovering fertile ground. But the gold rush has started, the big companies want a piece of the action too, and they’re not afraid to buy it. While much ink has been spilled about how Youtube is the new media; consumer and critic all rolled into one, it should be concerning to Youtube viewers and gaming press doubters that those same Youtubers are regarded as consistent producers of positive coverage by big companies who want your money.

 

While it’s true the balance of the media is changing, I’d like to suggest a more positive interpretation for the gaming press. The field has grown up. It has been a difficult few years, but in the last decade it has matured with the artform. As games like Bioshock and Deus Ex talk more about art, and ideas, and emotion, so does the press. Similarly, as digital media becomes more intricate, it begins to affect how we play games, and how we pay for them. In the era of DLC and micro-transactions, the business side of the industry is influencing the player in more and more direct ways. In recent years the press has become much more comfortable discussing how the business of video games works, and why we should care.

We like to talk about video games like they’re a young medium, a new art form, but that isn’t really true anymore. Video games are going through their difficult adolescence. As creators fight with consumers about what games should and should not be, the indie market is freed the death grip from the old studios. We see greater signs of an industry in crisis. The future has never been brighter for games, and never worse old companies who aren’t interested in games as an art form and never were.

doom 2016

 

Bethesda might seem untouchable, their games are great sellers and critical darlings and they own some of the most successful franchises of all time. In an industry where critical success seems as random as a toss of the dice, they’re one of the few studios that doesn’t seem to be wandering blindfold. Yet they must confront the same crisis. The bubble is at bursting point, the pre-order gravy train is one more No Man’s Sky away from derailing, and to squeeze one more analogy into this sentence, the boot will soon be on the other foot.

Five years ago when Skyrim launched it got rave reviews. It cleaned up on Metacritic and went on to be one of the most successful games that year. In fact, during its launch window it received only one modestly critical review, from the UK’s Official Playstation Magazine. I don’t have a copy of a five year old print magazine to hand, but here’s an extract neatly saved by Metacritic. (sans author, unfortunately.)

“I love this game, I really do, but I can’t give it the score I want in its current state. That would be unfair to anyone forking out £40 for a something that might work. It might not. The most amazing game of the year is in there somewhere. I really hope Bethesda can get it out.”

This is the only review that discovered the infamous Skyrim PS3 bug, a game crippling error that gradually reduced the framerate until the game was unplayable. All outlets would be on the story after launch, but only one caught it in time to warn PS3 owners not to buy the game. Why did it go unnoticed? Bethesda only sent out review copies on Xbox 360. This didn’t stop a huge number of outlets publishing the same review for both platforms, of course, and despite the fact that OPM got a PS3 copy there’s no evidence anybody else seriously considered it necessary.

This lack of scrutiny is a large part of the reason trust in the gaming press has been eroded. In 2011 publishers could rely on this lack of scrutiny. They could rely on a press that was more concerned with early coverage, and exclusive screenshots than on effect, implications, and influence. Things have changed. It has been slow and divisive at times, but the results speak for themselves. While Bethesda has always tried to play the press, they’ve lost confidence in their ability to guarantee a good story, even without getting that bad review they fear so much. This is a sign that games journalism is living up to its responsibilities; for the first time in a long time it feels like the medium is truly necessary. And when the next Arkham Knight or No Man’s Sky rolls around, the press can say what it thinks without worrying about embargoes or getting blacklisted in future.

Also after five or six real dogs get through, maybe the consumers will finally learn to stop pre-ordering games.

Why Are Remasters Tampering with the Source Material?

Remasters are a solid part of any publisher’s release schedule these days. Starting last generation with the God of War Collection, the “HD Remaster” was a way to bring older titles to modern platforms while increasing image quality. In Sony’s case it minimised the effects of cutting Backwards Compatibility from the Playstation 3 and provided a bridge from the PS2 crowd that had defected to Xbox 360. In recent years it has given companies like Nintendo the chance to recoup investment on games developed for less successful platforms like the Gamecube. Now they focus less on “HD” but improving performance, and packaging hits together for a second shot at the charts. They’re also cheap to outsource and can keep a franchise alive between big releases. Unfortunately a disturbing trend is starting to creep in; they aren’t just updating the technology behind scenes, but altering stylistic and creative choices too.

A prominent example of this is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD on the WiiU.

Wind Waker Gamecube Ghoma Fight

Wind Waker made quite a splash when it launched on the Gamecube. One of the first Cel-Shaded games, the look was divisive but it’s part of the reason the game aged so well. Link often looks entirely two-dimensional, rendered in thick acrylic with heavy and flat shadowing that merges beautifully with the environments and hand drawn puffs of smoke. The game was ahead of its time, launching when the industry was all about realism. When Zelda returned for Twilight Princess, Nintendo adopted a style closer to Ocarina of Time.

Now let’s look at Wind Waker HD.

Wind Waker HD lightingThe same character models and general design remains, but there’s a modern lighting model here. The entire cel shading effect has been reduced by the presence of softer lighting and shadows. It might be a mistake generated by the remastering process, but given Nintendo’s admitted disappointment with the public’s response to Wind Waker, it’s likely they intentionally softened the effect for the re-release. The problem is that by destroying the flat cartoon look of the game, it exposes the age of the character models far more. Wind Waker HD is technically superior to its WiiU counterpart, but there are frequent moments where the original looks cleaner and bolder, despite its limitations.

Bioshock Textures FloorA more recent example is The Bioshock Collection, which contains a remastered Bioshock 1 and 2. Great effort has been put into revising the original game’s geometry, increasing the polygons in a lot of character and environment models. Texture quality is also massively improved over the original console releases, while time has been spent preserving the way classic Bioshock gameplay should feel. Unfortunately, one small artistic change has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the tone of the game. Originally, scenes in Rapture were flooded. Everywhere you looked, the floor was coated with a layer of seawater. These have been mostly removed in the remasters. Water still flows from pipes and appears at inopportune moments, but the feeling of water and the ocean everywhere has been stripped from the environments. Everything looks a lot drier.

Bioshock Remastered TexturesThis might seem like a petty complaint, but it represents an important part of the look and feel of the setting that no longer exists. And this is Bioshock. A game revered not just for its graphics, but for its overall visual design, and its perfect unison of look, feel, and narrative. It is one of the most respected and beloved games of the modern era, and the first game on most people’s lips when you ask the question “Are games art.” It raises serious questions for the archival of digital media, and the ability to keep playing these games in their original form in years to come, when even Bioshock can’t survive untweaked.

Even now, with the launch of the Return to Arkham Collection, we see similar retcons taking place. One of the more subtle changes, the collection is showing tweaks to the colour grading that mostly affect Arkham City. Asylum is graded and rebalanced, but largely in keeping with the game’s original look. City isn’t so fortunate, and a great effort appears to have been made to make the two look more consistent. The biggest change affects Batman himself who, after appearing in a tradition Black cowl and cape in Arkham Asylum, took on a blueish tone in City. While the blue toned Batsuit from City was the source of some complaints, it was in keeping with the look of the game, and the tone of the game which was lighter and drew more from source material in Batman’s 70s era. On the surface, it’s another small change, but it represents another classic game being altered to meet someone else’s creative vision, years after the fact. In this case it makes the games less distinct also, removing creative evolution that occurred between the two releases.

These changes are in some respects, understandable. Warner Bros. aren’t just thinking of Return to Arkham as two individual games, but a foundation of a franchise. A franchise that didn’t have a lot of luck on its last outing. Both Bioshock and Wind Waker suffer from a problem of keeping up with modern technology. Lighting and particle effects have come a long way, the temptation to tweak is very real, particularly if the tweaked is easier to implement than faking a lighting model from the early 2000s.

As long as we avoid a Star Wars Original Trilogy situation and the unaltered releases are still available in some form, changes are acceptable. Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is probably going to outlast the PS3 versions by quite some distance, but it is a very authentic port. This isn’t the case for all games. Wind Waker HD is, for most consumers, the only way to play that game right now. In time this will be true of Ratchet and Clank, God of War, and many other console exclusive remasters. That’s why we need to step back and ask what Remaster releases are for. Do they exist to respectfully convert the titles, to preserve and future proof them so future generations can share the experience, or do they exist to improve and edit the source material like a second draft. These are very different approaches, and they have very different implications for games as an art form.

So far the publishers have avoided this topic, choosing instead to prioritise budget. What they really want is to sell the game again with minimal hit to the wallet. This creates a problem, as the ultimate question of how authentic the job should be is then left in the hands of the porting house. By refusing to answer this question, publishers are letting quick-and-easy budget conversion studios make the decision for them. That’s not a professional and respectful way to treat a work of art.

Halo anniversary in classic modePublishers and developers need to take charge of this situation. Remasters need to be given a little more oversight, someone to consider these questions. Studios should feel free to embrace the opportunity to make changes, but when these changes interfere with the creative vision of the original product, preservation and distribution of the unaltered material needs to be a priority too. So far, only Microsoft has met this challenge, with their Halo Anniversary remasters offering both a total recreation and a straight port in the same package.

Early in the life of Film and Television, huge swathes of content was destroyed due to ineffective or negligent approaches to archival. The games industry needs to tackle this problem while the medium is still young, or risk losing some of its history forever

When Dragon Quest Steals, it Steals Right

Dragon Quest Builders ScreenshotDragon Quest Builders charmed players this week with its merging of Minecraft style construction and JRPG questing. Reviews have been strong with a Metacritic rating of 83 for the PS4 version at this time. The game is no low budget shovel ware release, with a 40 hour quest line, multiple worlds to build in, and an unlockable sandbox mode that sticks a little closer to Minecraft’s open ended free-building. It still launched without too much fanfare, and little hype for the game before its pre-release Demo last month, but this isn’t the first time Dragon Quest has loosened its tie, and slipped into a more casual genre.

I’m talking of course about Dragon Quest Monsters. Arriving during the Pokemon craze, Monsters shamelessly exploits the public’s desire for tiny battling monsters but never loses its Dragon Quest heritage. You play Terry, a young boy whose sister is abducted by monsters in the night. You give chase, falling down a portal to a magic kingdom in a distant land. There the king promises to help you save her, but only if you win the massive monster fighting tournament that’s coming up.

From there the King gives you access to his monster ranch, and a series of portals that will take you to new and interesting realms. Along the way you’ll meet all the famous Dragon Quest beasties, and if you can charm them enough while beating the snot out of them, they just might join you on your quest. If you thought Pokemon was an advert for Stockholm Syndrome, you haven’t seen anything yet. Each world ends in a boss battle that gifts you a unique monster, you can then breed your them to create skill combinations and devastating hybrid soldiers.

Dragon Quest Monsters CoverDid I mention this released in 1998, a year before Pokemon Gold and Silver?

The series has continued with the latest entry, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 3, on the DS, It has continued to evolve, developing its own mechanics and identity, but it’s remarkable how bold and well formed that initial fusion of genres was. As I played Dragon Quest Builders, I was reminded more and more of Monsters. The legendary hero who takes a different path to the series’ main protagonists, different worlds to save behind each portal, famous monsters put to new purposes. Both games take the mechanics of their competitors, but when they’re done with them, the result is so authentically true to Dragon Quest that it feels like they were meant to be together.

There have been other mergers, of course. Dragon Quest Heroes is the most recent, and represents the latest in a string of Dynasty Warriors crossovers. The Dragon Quest universe hosts this union but it is still, at its core, a Warriors game. Square-Enix themselves have tried this, lending their Mystery Dungeon format to Nintendo for a series of Pokemon crossovers. (Mystery Dungeon itself a Dragon Quest spin-off.) But there’s something unique about Monsters and Builders. These aren’t simple co-licensing agreements, but a reaction to market trends that takes new and exciting mechanics and responds by absorbing them entirely into the franchise and forming an almost perfect symbiosis.

People might go into Builders expecting Minecraft, but by the end of the first chapter, the game rejects that misconception. Crafting is here, but a lot of the genre’s sacred cow mechanics are tossed. Food and health are totally separate resources, the world isn’t randomly generated, and NPCs are frequent and verbose. Most importantly, you aren’t free to do as you please. Monsters attack regularly and your city needs to be ready, the people you meet have needs, quests need to be done before you can even dig crucial materials out of the ground. This is an old-school RPG to the core, what it takes from Minecraft is really nothing more than the structure of the world in which it is set.

three dragon quest slimes
Neither Builders or Monsters are going to go down as masterpieces. Instead they will be relegated to side-title status, funny knock-offs of more popular games that weren’t quite enough for either audience. There’s something criminally unfair about that. The more I play these games, Builders for the first time, and Monsters as an old and much loved favourite, the more I’m inspired by their transformative approach to their inspirations. Dragon Quest Builders isn’t Minecraft, and could never be, and yet takes liberally from it to make a beautiful and different kind of RPG. A kind that will be forgotten largely because it built the wrong kind of expectations.