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The Wait is Over: Overwatch Returns

The Wait is Over: Overwatch Returns

The Overwatch beta has finally returned, satiating the palates of many Blizzard fans and FPS addicts alike.  After nearly a month-and-a-half of downtime, the servers went live with a massive influx of new content based on popular demand from players and careful planning from developers. The highly anticipated team-based shooter came back with a new game mode, new maps, Versus A.I., a more detailed statistics page, skins, and a desperately needed player progression system.

Drawing from the popular FPS game mode commonly known as “King of the Hill,” “Control” pits two teams in a best-of-three battle for control of various objective areas. All combat centers around these areas, with players struggling to maintain a dominate foothold on the capture point until they reach 100% control. After the first objective has been captured by a team, the second objective point opens and so on. Once a team has effectively secured two of the three objective points, the game is over.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Control offers many great opportunities for exploring different team compositions. Teams may find that a high damage build will allow them to wrestle control from the opposing team, while using heroes with strong zoning and defensive capabilities to maintain the point until it is captured. Additionally, with players crowding one area, each hero type is able to explore high-intensity game play. Heroes such as Pharah or Hanzo may find great success with their AOE ultimates, but tanks such as Reinhart, Winston, and D. Va are able to defend and zone these tight spaces. The two Control maps, Nepal and Lijang Tower, both offer great vantage points for ranged assassins, such as Junkrat and Widowmaker, to pick off defenseless heroes in the fray. Every match in Overwatch is dynamically evolving, so the possibilities are endless.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Speaking of the maps, the Blizzard art department has delivered once again with a high level of polish and finesse. Every map in Overwatch features vibrant colors, rich lore, advantageous spots for every type of character, and many fun Easter eggs for the keen eye. As is the case with all of Blizzard’s IPs, Overwatch finds a good balance between the functionality and aesthetic of its visual components. With the addition of unlockable skins and sprays, Overwatch brings a high visual standard while allowing for player-invested uniqueness to bring more life into the game.

Before the beta servers went down, the Overwatch hype seemed limitless. The game was universally praised for its addictive and high-quality gameplay; however, there was a serious demand for some sort of player progression system. This was a tricky problem to solve on Blizzard’s end. Unlike Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone where player progression is directly tied into the characters, cards, or skins you unlock, the gameplay of Overwatch hinges on having access to all of the available characters. Blizzard had already committed to the pricing model in which players pay a flat fee for the game title and receive all future content patches and heroes for free. The onus was on the developers to create a player progression system that is meaningful and fits within their pricing model without being disingenuous. What they created seems to fit the bill.

The progression system in Overwatch, rather than leveling up individual heroes, centers on earning experience through gameplay and leveling up the player’s account. This allows the player flexibility in playing whatever hero they need/want and rewards them even if their team loses a match. Players earn more experience if they win a match or perform well enough to receive commendations at the end. Experience is obtainable in Quick Play and the new Play vs A.I. mode; however, Quick Match will offer more experience. Every time a player reaches a new account level, they will receive a Loot Box. Opening a Loot Box feels much like the sensation of opening a card pack in Hearthstone, where sight, sound, and anticipation come together with great reward. These Loot Boxes contain common, rare, epic, and legendary player icons, skins, emotes, sprays, voice lines, victory poses, and highlight intros. Boxes may also contain credits which allow you to directly purchase the items you want.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

Image ©2016 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

This system focuses on one thing, which is the center of Overwatch’s theme: thanking players for playing the game. Ultimately, Overwatch is about fun and playing with friends. While the game has a highly-anticipated eSports scene, casual players will have a very hard time not having fun in Overwatch. The short game times allow players to quickly recover from a loss and the leveling system rewards them for their time spent. As has been the case with Blizzard’s recent titles, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, Overwatch continues the trend of elegantly simple design opening doors towards complexity for the hardcore gamer, while maintaining approach-ability for casual players. Blizzard has removed all of the unnecessary bells and whistles in the interest of making a truly solid game, and Overwatch has delivered on that promise.

It's Time for Developers to Stop with the Illusion of Choice Based Games

It's Time for Developers to Stop with the Illusion of Choice Based Games

It's definitely a lot to ask of game developers, but I think gamers have earned it.

Every game has a budget, and the content always becomes a question of quality vs quantity. Some games do have very different endings based on your choices, but those tend to have a lot less voice acting, plot, and cutscenes dedicated to each, or just very few choices. It becomes a lot easier if you do away with voice acting and fancy graphics, but that results in a fairly niche product these days.

Having played games like The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, and Life is Strange in the last few years, and having played numerous other games with the same theme/mechanic of "choice" here and there I'm starting to feel as if even though the genre of choice based games is growing and becoming more popular each year, it isn't actually growing as an art form in the development community.

Games like The Walking Dead are first and foremost trying to tell a story. They're not games about replayability, they're going for something just a bit different than watching a really engaging TV show. All the little choices along the way are about defining your character, becoming your character. They may or may not actually change the surrounding world. Are they story-based games, or choice-based?

Almost every choice-based game that's come out this year or previously relies on the illusion of choice and the illusion of freedom and power in the game’s world. This illusion can only carry the game so far. While these games offer you "hard", often emotionally testing decisions to make, your decisions can rarely have any real lasting effect on the outcome of the story. The only reason decisions are hard to make in any context is because they have consequences. When decisions don't actually have any tangible consequence, they lose power over us. They disengage the audience from being emotionally involved in the content.

For example;

  • Whether you try to save Bob from the zombie mob, or save Jim from the zombie mob, Bob will always end up dying.
  • Whether or not you blame Steve for the crime or blame Perry, whichever one is the true criminal still pulls off one last murder.
  • Whether or not you choose to study extra hard for that test, or break into the school swimming pool at 2AM, you still get a B minus on the test.

Replaying any "choice" based game doesn't ever show you how differently things could have turned out if only you had chosen differently. Most stick to a rigid storyline that allows for little deviation or player intervention. And that makes a lot of sense from the developer's point of view: allowing the player to radically change future events in their game would basically mean writing a whole different story, one that may never be played by a large percent of the game's audience. This diamond based story structure, where you start and end at the same point while the journey there can change, is not the most empowering form of storytelling for the gamer. While you still have the opportunity to make a few decisions, your decisions do not carry much consequence, so what is the point at all?

I think a big problem is how mechanical games are with how they treat completion. They overload you with information that guides players every step of the way, and in the end it diminishes the sense of exploration and choice. Open world games have lists for quest and side quests, with pointers and markers showing you exactly where everything is. In GTA, every mission is delineated down to the last step, which essentially cuts off player agency aside from those few canned instances of “choice.” Despite the game being open world, it ends up feeling no more unrestrictive than a corridor shooter.

Deus Ex gives you choice without you knowing. Generally, you’re thrown into a level, and the onus is on the player to discover and engage with NPCs and the environment to complete and improve your completion of a mission. There’s so much detail in every level and casual choice in every mission that it feels both dynamic and organic in how it presents choice. Better yet, there’s so much to be missed that consequent playthroughs have players discovering a whole bevy of things they never expected. You start to realize and wonder about all the different ways to do things. What if I don’t listen to him and run away? What if I kill that important NPC hours before the boss battle with him/her?

Furthermore, it doesn’t incorporate a morality system, it doesn’t punish you for playing the game a particular way, and because of this, choices are made based on the predilections of the player, not artificial systems imposed by the game that are tied to rewards. Players are motivated by their own reaction and input.

And yet, I think games that rely on choice as their main gimmick are required to put in that effort - to write a story not everyone will choose to play - in order for it to be a worthy game.

One example for a way to make games with significant, consequential decisions in a game could be Front Mission 3 for the original PlayStation. Front Mission 3 had one seemingly insignificant choice at the start of the game that led to two completely different campaigns spanning dozens of hours each. Each campaign put you on a different side of the same war, which led you to meet new party members, fight against some party members of the other path and overall gave you a very different perspective on events. How did they do that? By having most of the story be told via dialogue boxes, text-only and only having 3D graphics for the small cutscenes immediately before and after a battle.

It completely demolishes the replay value of these games when you find out that none of your choices really mattered - and I don't mean in a philosophic or spiritual way that says "ooh, your fate was always to come to the lighthouse at the end of the game and die tragically!" I think too many games that know they rely on the illusion of choice try to use "fate" as a plot device to hide the fact that they put less effort than was required into making a game actually based around the idea of choice.

Developers are too focused on length of play as opposed to quality of play. A game doesn’t have to be 50 hours for it to be worth the money. Leave the world open to the player without the restrictions and without the complete disclosure of where everything is. Let the game be beatable in 2, 10, 50 hours. Let the player decide how much time they want to spend in the world and how they tackle it. I’ll keep coming back to the game if it has enough there to offer me a unique play through another time around.

If we can't start to offer players choices that affect the future of their story more significantly, we need to stop making so many choice-based games.

Beta For The Division Announced

Beta For The Division Announced

Ubisoft has confirmed when most players can get their first taste of the long awaited RPG/Shooter. Also, several members of the gaming press have gotten hands on time with the game, making launch expectations as well as its RPG elements more apparent.

Is the killer app dead?

Is the killer app dead?

Is the console killer app dead? See what John has to say about the current generation of gaming and console exclusives. 

WWE 2K16 Let's Plays

WWE 2K16 Let's Plays

Watch the guys fight for the World Heavy Weight Belt in this triple threat let's play.  

Fallout 4 Glitches/Exploits

Fallout 4 Glitches/Exploits

Wanting to have a leg up in the Wasteland? Look no further we have the information you need. 

What makes Media Molecule so special?

What makes Media Molecule so special?

Over the past year, Star Wars: Battlefront has boasted one of the most unique marketing campaigns in the video game industry. Electronic Arts has not spent its time attempting to sell the game based on either its features or its gameplay. The monolithic company attacked the campaign with a fresh set of eyes. EA chose to display the inner workings of Battlefront through numerous developer videos and blogs from developer Dice. These videos communicate Dice's enormouslove of Star Wars as well as the immense honor bestowed upon them in developing the next iteration of such a beloved franchise. EA clearly emphasized showing Dice's passion for such a project so that gamers feel secure and confident in the future of Battlefront.

Why does EA need to show how much Dice cares about the franchise? The company is not alone in this need to show a developer's love of a series. Nearly every time a new developer takes over an established franchise such as Square Enix and developer Crystal Dynamics with Tomb Raider, the representatives of these companies deliver relatively similar speeches at shows and in online videos.

However, Media Molecule is one truly unique developer that ignores this strategy where the developer shows the love of their craft. It's strangeness makes them one of the more special developers in the gaming industry. Media Molecule shows its love for making games through its work in development. The games speak for themselves and show the love poured into tedious development, so the Media Molecule's love manifests itself most in little aspects that other developers seem to forget nowadays. 

Media Molecule's games always revere one's creativity, especially rough the use of the English language. The British developer's ingenious use of language fosters a variety of approaches to the use of dialogue or text in games, from the purely functional (instructions) to the purely aesthetic (the poetry of Dear Esther) and all the in-between strata of storytelling and communication. Many developers like to use a lighthearted tone to their language like Popcap, for example, or treat any text prompt as a chance for a joke whereas they often miss healthy opportunities for wittiness that really can give a game its soul. Humor is 'cheap' - it's silliness and pop culture references: it works fine in the context of Peggle or Plants vs Zombies, but this humor needs no substantial or critical analysis. 

On the other hand, Media Molecule rarely uses lighthearted text to exploit a cheap joke. In fact, the company tends to shy away from jokes altogether in the traditional sense, though certainly the games can be quite humorous despite this approach away from the norm. Each game's text and dialogue celebrates the English language itself. For example, both LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway drudge up interesting and archaic words and make them commonplace in their stories - the Sackboys, for example, are described as "gadding about", and the critters of Tearaway go "wassailling". Likewise, the names of people and places in Tearaway are also drawn from folklore and old-English custom rather than being just plucked from thin air. Just a taste of these names includes mummers, wendigos, the green man, Gibbet hill, St. Swithin's Moor, etc.

The most obvious reason for this resurrection of outdated language is for the sheer aesthetic joy. These words possess a quaintness and whimsical nature, which adds to the tone and develops a humor far more natural and endearing than the crass pop-culture references of PopCap, for instance. Aside from this imaginative strategy to incorporate quirky language in games, Media Molecule's games embody the values the developer aims to promote within its core audience. The company seems to know better than anyone that true creativity is not just making things from scratch, but stitching together the old and new. And this method, after all, is what all tellers of myths do. Media Molecule strikes that perfect balance between timely and timeless, and this sort of attention to detail demonstrates the genuine love that everyone at Media Molecule holds in his or her heart for the craft itself, far more than larger developers like Dice, or publishers like EA and Activision.

In today's industry, the theory that whether or not the creator enjoyed making their craft or not heavily influences the end result of the craft is a testament to the outstanding and unique quality of Media Molecule's games. The idea of creating something lovingly is a real concept, but that idea is much more than claiming in a video that your game was crafted with love simply because you like the property. Development must be a true passion, rarely seen, that really shines brightly in the final creation. Media Molecule's love of what they do has allowed them to forge something special with the English language and with the video game community in a way that most other developers have forgotten how to do.

Media Molecule's next game, Dreams, looks weird and quirky. Not many gamers understand what the game is or tries to achieve, but many gamers surely cannot wait to play it, because the final product will be a labor of love and care not seen in many games today.


If you're as excited for Dreams as I am, let me know on Twitter @johnmsmith15, and while you're at it reach out to Media Molecule @mediamolecule and let them know why they are such a special developer. Follow the site @nerdcavenetwork as well as the YouTube channel Nerd Cave Network.