Peter Molyneux: Overrated or overhated?

doit-peter-molyneux Peter Molyneux (who is not from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, but is in fact from Guildford, in Surrey) is a bit of a whipping boy for gamers, many of whom think of him as all hat and no cattle (as the Americans would say). Is that reputation really deserved?

One of the things that Molyneux is, is engaging. He’s a lovely, and engaging talker, calling to mind a blend of Phil Collins, Douglas Adams, and a hint of Stephen Fry. He’s clever and passionate about what he does, and what he wants to do, and what he wishes was possible, and he positively glows with it. Screw the stand-up comics. For an evening’s entertainment, you could do far worse than listen to Molyneux kicking ideas around.

And there’s the core of the problem.

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Letting out the Steam

Digital downloads are certainly a big thing at the moment. There’s Valve’s Steam, there’s Stardock’s Impulse, there’s Gametap (“Yours if you can ever get it to work” – Judge Dredd), there’s gog.com and more.

These are generally good things, however I’m going to pick on Steam for a few minutes. Actually, not quite on Steam itself, but on a couple publishers using it, who need a bit of a spanking.

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Populous, the origin of

We couldn’t sell it to anyone” — Bullfrog’s famous 1989 game, Populous was a huge hit, but it was a serendipitous one. A tiny business making a game without a clear target idea, Bullfrog hit on success with a combination of luck and plain-old hard work.

Our royalty cheques were due to be paid one quarter in arrears, and we didn’t expect to get any … The next cheque was for a quarter of a million. I thought it was a mistake at the time. I actually called EA to tell them.

Edge Online has the fascinating tale of how this hit game came about.

Play it now: Project Eden

The Earth has become overpopulated. Cities just grow up and up and ground-level is something that most people — the lucky ones — never get near. Even the rundown and decrepit levels just below the clean, shiny, and urbane upper-city are the turf of the homeless, the hopeless, the diseased and the gangers. And things get just get worse further down.

But there’s something brewing. Something calling. A piece of the past that refuses to sleep.

Core Design, which was established in 1988, is a design studio I think of fondly, although the studio is essentially gone these days. The name is still the property of Eidos Interactive who acquired them as a part of CentreGold back in 1996. Core Design was responsible for Tomb Raider, but Project Eden was probably their finest PC game.

You can still find Project Eden in game-store budget bins for just a few dollars (skip the console version, the PC version is vastly superior, as usual). The game scored above average reviews, except for Computer Gaming World who gave it a miserable 1.5 out of 5. CGW’s influence was fairly widespread then, and coupled with some launch bugs and an astonishing lack of advertising, Project Eden barely sold through at retail despite shipping a lot of copies, making it one of the best games that you’ve never played.

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Board-game culture, video-game culture, branding and quality

I confess to being rather fond of Greg Costikyan. I’ve been quite the admirer of his work for more than two decades now. He’s smart, witty, deliciously untrustworthy, and (I think) rather strikingly handsome.

In a recent column at Play This Thing, Costikyan talks about board games. He’s got some darn fine points and comparisons, though I don’t necessarily completely agree with every single one of them in full. Enthusiasts should go read his column now. I’ll still be here when you get back. If you’re in a rush, just read on.

Let’s cut to the heart of the matter:

Costikyan: If the audience has no aesthetic, no basis on which to judge the intrinsic worth of a work, on what basis do they make purchasing decisions? There are only two ways to reach them, in fact. One is by marketing “old favorites,” games with brand recognition because of their long history and exposure to the market. The other is by exploiting a licensed brand.

The English-speaking market for quality board-games (and I’m including some tabletop games in that) hit a bit of a Golden Age in the 1980s. I still have many fine examples stowed away. These days, though, the existence of a contemporary, board-game of quality — and I’ll basically define quality here as “does not suck” — comes from two basic sources: Niche publishing, and Germany.

Boxes of Scrabble, Monopoly, and Hungry, Hungry Hippos can hardly be called contemporary. They’re time-worn enough that they can’t be killed with a stick.

Why Germany, I hear you cry.

Because they’re keen enough on board-games there that they get mainstream reviews. There’s an informed buying public. Chances are, the last nifty, innovative board-game you played was translated from the German original (unless you haven’t played one since the aforementioned Golden Age).

Costikyan: In Germany, there is what you might call a national boardgame culture, with major publications reviewing new games, a highly competitive set of publishers, and designers who are minor celebrities. Consequently, many, perhaps most, of the best new boardgames are published out of Germany, and the American market is treated to the same old branded crap.

We do, at least, have something of a videogame culture; major media do pay attention to them, and there are innumerable sites devoted to them. And gamers passionately debate the merits of the games they play. And yet, those discussions are curiously uncultured, too; the average gamer’s ignorance of the history of the form, of the contributions of different creators, of the evolution of genres, is staggering. Games suck or rock; no nuance here. And gamers have been trained to expect and reward spectacle over originality; the number of commercially viable genres continues to decline over time.

You have three basic factors at work in the push to make sales from either video games or board-games: Branding, spectacle and quality. Board-games don’t entirely lack the opportunity for spectacle. There are DVD-games, miniatures and other aspects where you can bring in spectacle.

When the the brand (and/or the spectacle) excessively dominates the quality, though, you get… well, dreck.

Generally branding is likely to be more expensive than quality and innovation, but requires significantly less thought, and shorter timelines. Whack the name of Hannah Montana, NCAA, John Madden on the box, and you can profit from unfinished or unplayable games, or games that would drive a five-year-old to view their math homework as favourable entertainment.

Yes, I’m looking right at you, Electronic Arts.

Why does this work? Year after year, we buy the next video game of a series that has disappointed nearly every year. Actually, only a very few of us are able to hold hope out quite that long. We drop out of the customer pool over time. Our places are taken up by people who see the brand and make unwarranted assumptions about the quality.

Marketing cheat: If you can get quality linked to your brand somewhere along the line, even briefly then you can ignore that pesky quality for years, or even decades before the connection starts to erode, and you have to repeat the process. People will buy defective crud — over and over sometimes — if you have managed to link quality with your brand in their minds.

Social media isn’t terribly effective at messing this up, either, as some savvy marketers astroturf their way to obfuscation. Who do you even trust to give you useful reviews of games? A majority of the games are flawed (sometimes fatally), and trustworthy reviews may not become available until after brand and spectacle have already worked their magic on you at retail.

Video-games are becoming increasingly mainstream, but that progress is significantly hindered by the industry that produces those games. It’s a bit of a vicious paradox, and one that’s probably going to bite us all quite a few more times before it manages to resolve itself.

Classic customer service

So, there’s this guy in World of Warcraft who’d had his account hacked and some characters swiped. Eventually (after a very very long time) Blizzard gets around to restoring the characters. Of course the characters’ original items and gear were long gone, but Blizaard tends to put a sort of randomish sort of loot on restored characters, so you’ve at least got something to go on with.

One of the items Blizzard apparently furnished was a shirt. Not just any shirt, though, a shirt that kills all the enemies within 30 feet, with 100 uses. Something that, it seems, players aren’t supposed to have. Blizzard use it for testing purposes.

Probably the item shouldn’t be in the live-game object database, but heck – Blizzard gave it to him, and he tried it out. Not a big surprise there.

Every member of his guild got a 24 hour suspension, and the player himself has been banned. For cheating. My co-workers over at WoW Insider have an interview with the poor bugger.

Now that’s classic customer service.

Valve suing Activision. Obligation shouldn’t be that difficult a concept

Back in 2002, Valve had a bit of a dustup with Sierra over royalties. The original lawsuit went to arbitration, and after reviewing the case the arbitrator decided that Sierra should pay Valve US$2,391,932. It was less than Valve wanted to get, and more than Sierra wanted to pay, but everyone signed off on it anyway.

Fast-forward. Sierra was a part of Vivendi, and as a part of the merger last year, that debt is now a part of Activision-Blizzard.

So, Activision cuts the cheque to Valve, but for only US$1,967,796, basically because they felt that they’d overpaid Valve US$424,136 in previous years. Valve, for their part is filing a suit because Activision is not paying the agreed-on amount.

Now, that’s a classic piece of stupid on Activision’s part. The smart way to go, if they have indeed overpaid Valve previously, is to pay the originally agreed-on amount (US$2,391,932). That immediately closes their obligation with respect to the 2002 decision. Then they can file a lawsuit, or seek arbitration, or get Valve to agree to pay up, or to take a lesser sum of future payments. Whatever. They’re in the clear, and their legal position is solid.

But, no. That would be too easy.

Instead they short-pay, essentially failing to meet their legal obligations, which opens them up to a lawsuit — and potentially to the forfeiture of the US$424K (and perhaps more).

It makes me wonder if Activision’s suddenly so desperate for cash that the US$424K is just out of their reach — or if Big Bird is making the calls here. Actually, no – getting this right just isn’t that complicated. It’s at the Sesame Street level of responsibility and obligation. Big Bird could probably have handled this one just fine and still managed to sing an uplifting song about it.