Swap Meet sees us trade ideas and opinions (but hopefully not blows) with writers from our favourite sites. For our inaugural discussion, we’re joined by Dylan Burns and Patrick Lang of Pixel Hunt, Australia’s best gaming e-zine. The Black Panel is represented by Karen Jacobson and yours truly (Erin Marcon).
ERIN: I’ve been playing Diablo III for a couple of weeks now, long enough to get a sense of what the game has to offer, but also long enough to begin to notice what is missing. I speak of the real money auction house and PvP features that Blizzard has pledged to patch in down the track. What do you make of this practice, this notion of releasing a game in increments?
KAREN: Hello to Dylan and Patrick, by the way. Nice introduction, Erin, very smooth. Obviously you’ve spent a bit too much time hunched over your PC in a mouse clicking frenzy playing Diablo III. Some of your social skills have melted away in the process.
DYLAN: Hi all, great to be here, I’m around until Thursday… *crickets*… So, yeah, this release-a-half-finished-game business – it’s become almost an accepted practice hasn’t it? I’ve written openly of my distaste for a patchwork approach to games, but over the years I’ve kind of come to appreciate the fact that making a modern game is no easy feat, even if you are Blizzard and have a gazillion dollars. Diablo 3 (or is it “III”? I can never decide) releasing without the real world auction house is not going to make me lose any sleep as I’m not much of a hardcore player anyway, but it surely hurts the developer’s reputation. Or do we exist in a climate where we simply keep taking these punches on the chin and accept what scraps we’re given?
ERIN: Yeah, I’m not that fussed about the auctions, but I was looking forward to being humiliated in PvP. I just don’t feel comfortable walking around with all of this pesky self esteem.
KAREN: I completely agree Dylan. There is nothing more frustrating than developers releasing patchy games. It’s clearly pressure from above to meet certain deadlines, but as you say, it hurts the reputation of the game and the company. Surely those who control the purse strings can see this and take the position that it’s better to wait and release a game that doesn’t require the bug spray, than rush a release for perceived short term gain. Online gaming has provided us with many advantages, however it has given gaming companies a “we’ll fix it later” approach to developing. I’m not saying we should never see a patch to fix a bug in a game, but there’s a difference between a bug and an infestation.
ERIN: I thought we were talking about missing features, not bugs?
KAREN: One discussion naturally leads to the other.
PATRICK: I think in Blizzard’s case it’s fairly inexcusable. I mean, it’s not like they rushed Diablo III out the door or anything, they’ve taken the time to polish it to a fine point – so why leave out what hardcore fans are going to consider a fairly important feature? Blizzard are pretty bad offenders in this instance, just look at the splitting of the StarCraft II campaign. Everyone expects patches to fix bugs these days, but leaving out huge chunks of your game feels a bit… well, cheap. Plus, how many times have developers promised features, then launched without them promising them in a “future update” and then either gone bankrupt or simply ignored their obligation. Jeez, this is starting to sound like the Australian parliament and its “core election promises”. “Core launch day promises”, perhaps?
DYLAN: The main issue with Blizzard doing this is that Diablo 3 as a product is, and was always going to be, an avalanche. It has sold by the millions – the fastest selling PC title ever I believe – and I think we have to worry that this is sending the wrong message to developers and publishers. “Oh, treat us like crap, but we’re so desperate that we’ll buy it anyway!” It’s impossible to organise any kind of mass “don’t buy it” protest. Look at what happened with those Left 4 Dead II protesters, they were caught days later playing the shit out of the game.
ERIN: ‘Inexcusable’ is a strong word. Blizzard only had 12 years to get it right. Hmm, perhaps it’s precisely the right word. Still, it may be worth looking at the value proposition as a whole. Yes, Diablo III can be described as incomplete, but it still offers a decent bang for your buck. The core solo and cooperative features are intact and Blizzard won’t be charging for the additional content. This approach compares quite favourably, I think, to Capcom’s treatment of Asura’s Wrath and its DLC. Capcom basically released a five hour game at full price and then had the temerity to ask for more money.
DYLAN: Yeah, but Asura’s Wrath is a very specific kind of experience for a certain audience. Stuff like that is going to go unnoticed by the majority of gamers. Diablo 3’s awful release issues are still ongoing and still causing trouble for thousands of players. But that’s a different issue altogether, really. In terms of releasing games without all their parts, I think that it’s going to become more and more common. The ease of updating that the internet affords is just too much of a shortcut for developers to avoid utilising. Better to make your launch window than push it back – plus all those initial sales can give you an indication of whether you should actually bother to complete all the things that have been promised. We have become almost like paying beta testers.
KAREN: I felt like a beta tester playing Hydrophobia. My feedback would have been to release a patch which wipes the entire game from your hard drive. Speaking of promises – remember all the promises that Lionhead Studios made when developing Fable III? First it was going to be a Kinect title and then they thought better of it. Next they promoted Fable III with the enticement of an online auction system for customisable weapons, but they dropped that feature when it fell in the ‘too hard basket’. Don’t write cheques your butt can’t cash!
ERIN: I had completely forgotten about the Fable III auction house. If I recall correctly, Blizzard was touting something along the same lines for StarCraft II and we’re still waiting for that one as well. The piecemeal approach seems to be more common (and I think more accepted) in indie and mobile development. Mojang launched Minecraft with only its most basic features in place before rolling out a series of free updates. Fruit Ninja is another example. Halfbrick charged a dollar odd for the basics and then threw in some free modes and enemies (if a pineapple qualifies as an enemy) in order add some variety to the experience. In a sense, Blizzard is doing very much the same thing, but they don’t seem to be afforded the same amount of slack as Mojang or Halfbrick.
DYLAN: I think because Blizzard is an established company with a track record. In many ways, they are viewed as a “leader” when it comes to games development. The alpha/beta stumbles of indie developers are forgiven simply because they are outside the perceived (perhaps fallaciously so) multi-million dollar purses of established developers and publishers. If you are a “big” company and you say you’re going to do something, do it. All that half-arsed modes and left-open promises do is create discord in customers. Of course, creating a retail tail for your product is important, but in these times players are fickle – always moving on to the next thing. Blizzard may be safe to do this, but not many companies can enjoy such a broad safety net.
PATRICK: Blizzard are in a unique position too, as they have a huge audience who will buy their games regardless of features, critical assessments or any other factors. The Diablo brand is a licence to print money, which makes the whole issue rather more cynical. Blizzard can leave out what the hell they want to and still be rolling in dosh. In the end it’s simply disrespectful to their millions of fans.
That said, we’re also in a very weird time for retail in general; a point at which the notion of paying for information and entertainment is becoming increasingly archaic (just to note, I’m definitely not advocating piracy here, just acknowledging that the market is shifting significantly). In this sort of climate, Blizzard’s approach will be ultimately counter-intuitive. People need more to convince them to fork over their hard-earned dollars these days, so what will happen when day one fuzzy feelings wear off for Diablo III? Compare that approach to someone like CD Projekt (admittedly a much, much smaller developer to be fair, but nonetheless) who go out of their way to lavish their customers with content, love and just generally cool stuff as a way of saying “thank you” for bothering to actually purchase their products, and you’ll see that the age of incomplete, so-called “AAA” product will soon be a thing of the past.
KAREN: I can only hope that current quality wins over past glory. There has been a history of fans making statements with their wallets regarding both hardware and software. Your past efforts will only get you so far, eventually fans will rightfully ask “what have you done for me lately?” A prime example of this is Sony’s ventures into the handheld market, most notably the PSP Go (or as some of you are asking “the PSP what?”). No doubt Sony thought that their name alone would have fans flocking to their overpriced offerings. After all “it’s a Sony”. We all know how well that ended up. As they say in football “you’re only as good as your last game”, a statement Blizzard should heed as a warning.
ERIN: It’s an interesting topic and one that isn’t going to go away in a hurry. Our thanks to Dylan and Patrick for joining us for our very first Swap Meet. We’ve been Pixel Hunt fans from the get go. Tell us a little about what the philosophy behind the site. You recently changed your approach to reviews?
DYLAN: We did, although not at any expense to our heavy focus on the content of reviews. We recently added numbers at the end, primarily as a further avenue for writers to express their feelings for a game. If you’re not referring to that, but our other “promise”, well, I did have a bit of a whinge a few weeks ago about the quality – or extreme lack of it – of a couple of review titles that landed on our desk. I made the decision that if a game is so bad that we truly don’t want to keep playing it to review, then we simply won’t review it. Hence the reason why there aren’t many shovel-ware reviews on the site. Of course, this risks publisher backlash, but we do this out of love, not to get stuck with a shit game for three days and a painful write up.
ERIN: And you’ve transitioned to a print version of the magazine?
PATRICK: I know, it’s crazy, right? We just feel that the love, time and hard work we put into the magazine deserved some kind of physical artefact, so shifting over to print seemed like a logical next step for us. We’ve always felt that we offer something a little different to the usual gaming mag structure of previews/reviews and a few features – we like to focus more on discussion, analysis and commentary – and that means that the issues we produce have a quality that’s a bit… I don’t know, timeless, which also lends itself well to physical form. Issues of Pixel Hunt are for life, not just for Christmas!
KAREN: And it’s great news for fans that Pixel Hunt are offering a free puppy with every magazine purchased!
ERIN: Thanks again, guys. Best of luck for the future.
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