Sunday, September 21, 2014

. . . A Taste of Things to Come (Digital Game Distribution)

There are not many auto racing video games that are part of a game series that command the measure of respect and anticipation that the games of Forza Racing do.  That is a simple statement of fact.

On 30 September - in just 9 days - the first sequel to the newest venture in the Forza series - Forza Horizon 2 - will launch, and when it does it will be a monumental event for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that it is the sequel to a game that broke the traditions of Forza, which for its entire existence has been a simulation of traditional track-based professional racing.

The break with tradition in the case of Horizon is that unlike the previous games in the Forza Motorsport series, Horizon took the players off the track and onto city streets and highways, country lanes, and dirt tracks.  It not only broke the tradition, it shattered it.  And it did so with quite a lot of respect on the part of the players, who just love it do death!

But that is not the bit that I am referring to when I say the launch will be monumental.  No, that bit is the manner in which a significant portion of the players will actually play the game come midnight-oh-one on 30 September...

Traditional Video Game Distribution Paths
The history of game distribution is pretty simple and easy to assess.  In the past it worked like this: the games were completed, manufactured in their retail boxed presentation, and shipped to the various outlets that sell them.

Once at the retail end, a handful of employees - and their friends - would get to buy the game early, take it home and play it, and thus join briefly with the legitimate members of the video game press in having an early go at the game.  

Their illicit access is brief compared to that of the games journos, who get the games weeks before they are released.   For example as I write this there is a copy of Forza Horizon 2 sitting on the hard drive of my Xbox One, and it has been there since last Friday.

The game - or rather a code for a digital copy of the game - was provided to me by the PRs who are in charge of that sort of thing for Turn 10 and Microsoft - and I am using it to evaluate the game in preparation for writing my review.  

That is all I can say about that, because the details of the game are under embargo until the end of the week - but FH2 makes an excellent illustration for this post, as you will shortly see...

Digital Distribution
The problem of early release copies getting out into the wild has always been the sore point in the challenge to find a way to distribute games online.  Since the introduction of broadband on a wide scale worldwide, game distribution has been headed in that direction.  But up until recently that sort of distribution had its own set of impediments...

Modern games come in two flavors these days - traditional retail boxed copies, which the gamer has to either pre-order or go stand in line on release day and hope that they can get a copy - and digital downloads, which the gamer can obtain in the comfort of their own home.

On release day though, with tens of thousands of gamers trying to redeem their digital key and download the game, issues like failure to connect to the download server and bandwidth limitations have plagued the digital side, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of many a gamer.

The release of Forza Horizon 2 though, that may change both perceptions and the experience.  Why?  Well for a very good reason!  You can buy and download a digital copy of the game right now.

Seriously - you can purchase a code online, then plug that code into your Xbox One in the Redeem a Code box, and then actually download the full game, as we speak.  I know because I downloaded the game from the standard server using a standard code provided by the PRs.  This system works!

You can't PLAY the game mind you.  Unless you also have a special Unlock Code, it will not function, will not load, and will not allow you to race up and down the streets in its virtual world, at least not until Midnight-oh-one on 30 September.  

The fact that you can't play it is not the important bit here - the fact that you HAVE it. That it is already ON your hard drive and just waiting for the release date?  THAT is the big deal.

For FH2 there will not be any slow downloads.  There will be no failure to redeem codes, or issues with the server not having adequate bandwidth or connection sockets.  In short, they have solved the problems associated with digital downloads of video games!

Now before you think, oh clever gamer, that you could buy it, download it, and then simply set the date on your Xbox One to 30 September and be playing early, no, it don't work that way.

When you run the game - every time you run the game but more important the first time you run it - it connects to the game server online to check a number of facts such as does a launch-day patch exist?  Should it update the client?  And hey, by the way, what day is it?
You were probably expecting the most modern of rides - and they are there - but were you expecting anything this bloody cool?  That is a war-vintage Willys Jeep!  How cool is that?  Massively Cool!

The Wave of the Future?
Definitely.  I don't care how you look at the whole issue of modern games and gaming - whether you think they are too expensive, or not big enough.  The many and varied ways that critics of games and video gaming have to spout their rhetoric and issue complaints do not interest me.

What interests me is the fact that some very clever people finally worked out how to sell games early and online, cutting out the necessity of dealing with the gnomes that man the counter at your typical game store and who, in my experience, enjoy feeling superior as the gatekeepers of access to the newest and bestest games out there!

I am not joking - that attitude you experience when buying a new game on launch day is very very annoying.  Words like disgusting quickly come to mind.  And these are barely educated almost children who are treating you that way.

If you ever find yourself wondering how an entire nation could go power-mad and create the sort of hard feelings and horror that leads to World War, I suggest you visit a game store on launch day for a major title.  I am just saying...

But back on topic, the method that they are using to distribute FH2 digitally is nothing short of brilliant.  Every gamer with an Xbox One who decides they want to own the Day One Edition of Forza Horizon 2 can own it.  Can buy the code and redeem it early so that launch day for them simply means loading the game and bam!  They are racing!

If the experience that Turn 10 and Microsoft have with this launch is smooth and trouble free, I think we can expect to see more games go this route, I certainly hope so.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

. . . Ptience and the Challenges of Combat Strategy Games

Among the many gifts that Apple's iPad has delivered in its promise to make life more interesting for gamers we must include the unanticipated breadth of entertainment offered by the many games in the  RTS, CSG, and RPG genres that the platform offers - many of them free-to-play!

One such title - Boom Beach - offers far more than simple entertainment, that is provided that the player is willing to exercise an element in gaming that comes in all too short supply regardless of the genre or sub-genre: patience.

I can think of no more perfect an example than Boom Beach, which while it presents the typical tools that are the meat-and-potato for such game genres, at the same time in its mixture of immediate and obvious gratification.

There is hardly a better example for the style of WYSIWYG game play - and its record of progress, thanks in no small part to the multi-player and player-vs-player elements with which the game is built.  In simple terms then, the player who is willing to trade lengthy delay for material improvement in both the strategic and tactical position will find success for the asking. 

Players incapable of that sort of long-term view or who place more emphasis upon direct action, while they will still find entertainment and satisfaction in the game, find a decidedly different sort.

Basic Premise
Boom Beach begins with a uniform set of challenges.  The players are given an island base with very basic facilities that they must defend and use as the source of supply, and a combination of naval and marine offensive forces in the form of a Gunboat and Landing Craft with which to flex their military might and muscle and, if they know what they are doing or are even a little bit lucky, can raid and capture islands, bases, and resource facilities.

The ever-present need to build a defensive position while at the same time thin out the local threats at nearby island, and the never-quenched need for more resources - gold, wood, stone, and metals, not to mention gems for making idols, and more of the same for building defenses - means that even the more impatient of gamers will still find plenty of targets.

But what of the patient?

Despite it being a game in which the player faces both computer-controlled NPC and human opponents, none of the action is instant.  That is to say none of the battles take place in real time.  The first that a player knows that his base has been attacked is when they log in and discover either smoking ruins of their base, or more often (if they are good at it) their local militia repairing the damages from a failed attack.

I have found the game to be incredibly entertaining, and even more so when the player is willing to take the long-view of things, and works towards progressively improving their position.

The iOS platform needs more games like Boom Beach - that is certainly true.  If you happen to know of any - and are interested in sharing - please do email me?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

. . . A Mobile Gaming Day Examined

My day job is Writer and Journalist - and being a freelancer I write for a number of different outlets and publications, some with by-line, some without.  It is as busy a day as your typical office worker's day in the sense that there is certainly a solid 8-hours of work in it - if it is a light day.

Unfortunately a typical day can easily run to 12 hours or more, and lately due to demands that are being placed upon me on the Gaming Beat side of my work, the days have been running to 16 hours as a result of major events running in mobile games of the city-building grinder type.

Specifically the iOS games Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff and The Simpson's: Tapped Out are factoring pretty heavily in the daily load just now, because both of those games have major events running.

That got me to thinking - what is the average gamer experiencing in terms of game play demands on their time right now?

This is actually a very sticky issue largely due to the fact that for the most part, the typical consumer for games like Tapped Out and QfS are actually men and women (but more women than men) who are otherwise regularly employed and who use their mobile devices - most often an iPad or an Android tablet - to play the games during work hours.

That is to say, they sneak time away from their otherwise paid employment to get their moves in, and this is especially true when major events are running in the games that they play, because the timers that are a foundation element in events - and major events in particular -require more frequent game play if the player is going to complete all of the missions and quests for the events!

The typical player wants to do that - complete all of the missions - largely because there are some very significant and desirable rewards for doing so.  Rewards like special characters, special outfits and costumes, special event-specific and unique objects, and perhaps more important, special buildings for their games.

That Got Me To Thinking...

What does a typical day of play mean then?  Just how much work time are these average players taking away from the time that they owe their employers?

Before I got to adding up the game play time, I decided that whatever the total was that I arrived at, roughly half of the game play time would take place outside of work - so off-the-cuff I concluded that it would be some modest and reasonable number.

Then I factored in that most of that game play would be very brief sessions - five or ten minutes at the most, during which the gamers updated their status in terms of collecting rent, defending buildings, and updating missions, that sort of thing.

I then realized that I would also have to deduct the time that I spent in actually writing up the various activities - since that is a major part of the work I do on the guides I am writing. 

So with those qualifications in mind, I created a paper log in which I recorded all of my game play session times for a single day.

There are actually three games that I am presently guiding that qualify in the city-building, grinder categories of mobile games: Quest for Stuff, Tapped Out, and The Sims: FreePlay.

Of the trio, Tapped Out and FreePlay were taking the least amount of time since their missions tend to be longer in hour count to complete - I am not sure why that is so but it is.  With FreePlay I am actually in something of a holding pattern as I work towards completing a lengthy collection of missions and quests that are, by their nature, time-consuming.

The reason I am in that holding-pattern is that I need to get all of that done BEFORE I work on the most recent of the primary story missions in the game, because if I start that one, it will alter the game dynamics in a major way by adding and triggering finite life spans for the game characters.

That being the case, FreePlay for all practical purposes does not really count for the purposes of this inquiry, so I ignored its times.

With Tapped Out, the major event that is presently running is actually in its early stages, having only recently started and having quite a while left on its game event timer yet to run (the special event in Tapped Out is the Clash of Clones Event, and it does not end until 7 October).

The event in Quest for Stuff on the other hand is a horse of a different color entirely!  It is nearing the end of its timer - it officially ends on 8 September - but it is also one of the most time and effort intensive special events that I have ever experienced or covered for this type of game.

It has lots of ongoing missions and quests to be sure, but the true nature of its time-sucking ability is the necessity to not only defend the buildings in my QfS town from attacks by mutant Stewies but also to constantly both Bomb the Stewie Minions but also keep ALL of the characters who have quests and missions that apply active with as little downtime as possible because there is so much to do in the event that if I don't, I will NOT finish them all before the timer runs out.

In fact the pace of that special event seems to have been diabolically engineered to obtain that direct result!

The QfS Comic Con Event

In the world of game geeks there are few real-world events that carry quite the massive cred as does Comic Con, so making that the theme and focus for the major summer event for QfS was bloody brilliant on the part of the wizards behind the game.

That said, the time-intensive and effort-intensive nature of the resulted in a rather shocking total play time for this average day of almost exactly six (6) hours?!

Now once I deducted the writing time - 3 hours - and then took away half of the play time that remained - 1.5 hours - under the assumption that it would be taking place when the gamer was not at work, that left a very shocking 1.5 hours of game play that must be taking place in the workplace!

Could that be right?  I asked that question seriously.

Simple math dictated that those number meant that the game was robbing employers of roughly 7.5 hours in a typical work week.  If we presume that the typical worker gets half-an-hour for lunch, what that means is that any company who is employed a gamer who plays Quest for Stuff is basically losing AN ENTIRE DAY each week!

Those gamers are getting paid for an entire standard day while they play a game each week!

I suspect that at least in corporate culture, the gamers must not be using the WiFi side of their devices to play - more likely they are using the cellular network connection - they would have to be, because the IT gnomes would easily detect their activities via the network, and if they were smart they would be blocking the ports on the network that those games use...

Unless of course it is the IT gnomes who are playing the games, in which case they not only would have a vested interest in keeping those ports open, but would also have reason not to bring the abuse to the attention of their company and its managers!

As It Turns Out

The idea that a typical corporate gamer was pulling down a paid day of gaming each week during this special event struck me as very hard to believe.  In fact so hard that I started to discretely make inquiries - first of the players who are on my friend list via Facebook and iOS's Game Center, and then by networking via Facebook, to others.

What I found out was shocking.

Not only were these gamers pretty much doing exactly what my theory suggested they were doing - playing the game at work and on company time, but they were doing so in numbers larger than I had estimated. 

When I added up the time estimates that they were admitting to it was not 1.5 hours per day, but closer to 2 hours a day!

This has to be having serious impact upon the business world - worldwide - and the next logical direction I needed to follow was to look at the corporate networks to see if they were aware of the issue and what they were doing about it, if anything?

As it turns out they are very aware of the issue, thanks to studies, articles in magazines like Forbes, and books.  In fact according to just casual research on the subject via Google searches, the costs run an estimated $650 billion a year for Smartphones alone in terms of time-wasting on websites - and games (Business Insider).
According to the book Using Information Technology: A Practical Introduction to Computers & Communications, 7th ed. (Montreal: McGraw-Hill) an estimated 8.3 hours a week are involved in non-work-related activities, particularly playing games.

Not only do they KNOW, but there is an entire sub-industry of the network apps and logging utilities whose purpose is detecting that sort of thing on corporate networks, and identifying the abusers!  Those apps generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the companies that create them.  Oof!

Chances are if you work for a corporation and you are a gamer, the company is aware of your activities on their network - which probably means as noted above, you are using your own net connection via your wireless provider, as otherwise you would probably have been fired by now.  Just saying.

When I set out to look into this topic I did not realize that at most corporations and large companies the act of gaming on the clock is actually considered a crime against the company - and the idea that thousands of gamers each year get fired for it?  Well I didn't think so but I am not surprised.

The issue - and problem - is not unique to the USA - if you are bored or have a few minutes, Google the phrase "Fired for gaming" and check out the results.  China has a big problem, as do all of the nations of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, heck, pretty much anywhere the 'net can reach.

And how was your gaming day?