suibhne

May 122011
 

So hey, the game’s out.

Reviews since the Tuesday launch have been a mixed bag. Joystiq excoriated the game with a 2/5, while other outlets have gone up to 8/10 and 88/100. Ars Technica went so far as to explain why it won’t be reviewing the game until the messy launch is sorted out. What’s a gamer to do?

I’ve dropped an hour or two in the Challenge modes, solo. It took about that long to unlock everything available through the Challenges (which is mostly weapons and attachments; character skills are unlocked by leveling up), and many reviews have criticized the game for this ease of getting new stuff. (Just fyi, I narrowly avoided a “Master of Unlocking” reference there.) Reviews have also opined that you can reach the maximum level with your character in just a handful of additional hours.

On both of these counts, I think reviewers are spectacularly missing the point. Brink doesn’t try to offer a 75-level drip-feed of character progression, unlike the current vogue among the CoD-alikes (plus BC2) which dominate the shooter market. It wants you to unlock (almost) everything quickly, then just play the game. If anything, Brink fails by not clarifying its distinct approach in a crowded market.

Splash Damage spokespeople also encouraged people to get the wrong idea about the game when they talked about the “seamless” integration of the competitive multiplayer, cooperative multiplayer, and single-player modes. Just like TF2, this is a class-based, objective-based multiplayer game – full stop. If you’re looking for a single-player experience, move along. Nothing to see here.

Brink is hurt by an overall lack of polish, too, but you can get that story elsewhere. Some reviews might be missing the point of the game, for better or worse, but they’re accurately tallying many of its technical shortcomings. The good news is, Splash Damage has a consistent history of providing responsive, long-term support for its games and has already issued two quick patches for the PC version – within two days of the game’s North American release, and before it even unlocks in Europe.

I haven’t played the game online yet, and I’ll be out of town for the next few days. Funkmaster will also be installing Brink next week, so we’ll have more in-depth impressions later. At the moment, the most I can say is that the game might become something great – and if it fails, it’ll be an interesting failure. I can’t predict which of those paths it will take.

In the meantime, I’ve started a new wiki page for the game, covering some important details about configuring the PC version for the best Brink experience possible. Check it out.

May 062011
 

Following up on my blathering on about Eric Chahi’s groundbreaking game Another World, back in distant April, I want to point out this Destructoid-exclusive designer diary for Chahi’s upcoming game From Dust. In a nutshell, From Dust is a “god game” based on terrain deformation. And it looks fantastic:

It’s slated to be a mid-priced title ($20 or so, presumably?) for multiple platforms, including PC. (Who knows, PSN might even be back up by the game’s release, sometime in the coming months.) Ubisoft is publishing it, and they seem to be putting some marketing muscle behind the game while still providing Chahi the independence to create a new world. Maybe they’re trying to work off some of their sins accumulated from the last few years of draconian DRM.

From Dust looks beautiful and new, and that means it’s important.

May 012011
 

A quick follow-up on Funkmaster’s post from Thursday: On 4/30, Sony released more details about restoring PSN and attempting to woo back customers.

Not everything is set in stone, but it’s worth looking at the press release/blog post. Sony is promising a “Welcome Back” program that includes the following features:

  • Each territory will be offering selected PlayStation entertainment content for free download. Specific details of this content will be announced in each region soon.
  • All existing PlayStation Network customers will be provided with 30 days free membership in the PlayStation Plus premium service. Current members of PlayStation Plus will receive 30 days free service.
  • Music Unlimited powered by Qriocity subscribers (in countries where the service is available) will receive 30 days free service.

The company also promises “additional “Welcome Back” entertainment and service offerings” to be rolled out in the coming weeks.

Is that enough for you – a free month of PlayStation Plus and a free PSN game? It’s hard to get excited about the free content that’s promised, because Microsoft set a precedent of mediocrity in this regard several years ago; I’m not holding my breath about the quality of this newest round of freebies. I’m also pretty uninterested in a free month of PlayStation Plus, since Sony never sold me (or many people) on the value of this service in the first place. I appreciate the general direction implied by the name “Welcome Back”, and these moves are nice gestures, but they don’t feel that relevant to me personally.

On the other hand, I’m paying attention to Sony’s actions related to long-term change within the organization. The company is revamping PSN’s security architecture (duh), and they’re creating a new senior-level position dedicated to data security and customer privacy. Sony also continues to engage outside security consultants – which I think is essential, given the apparently massive blind spot within the company that allowed this situation to unfold as it did. And when PSN services begin to be restored this week, Sony will force all users to reset their password via basic two-factor authentication: not just logging into their old account, but also performing the password change operation either on their original PS3 hardware (where the PSN account was first created) or via the personal email address associated with the PSN account. These actions fall short of the forward-looking changes that Funkmaster advocated last week…but they might be a decent start.

Has Sony learned its lesson – or have you?

Apr 272011
 

According to Crytek staff posting in the official game forums, a hefty Crysis 2 patch is on the way. The promised changelog includes some welcome bugfixes, but the most striking improvements are at the top of the list: “Vote-kicking feature added; Further improvements to anti-cheat measures.”

I found the multiplayer side of Crysis 2 to be consistently more enjoyable than online play in both Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops. That sound like damning with faint praise, but the core shooting and movement systems are polished and satisfying. Maps are generally better than we’ve seen in recent online shooters, too. On the other hand, this patch reminded me of the game’s biggest problem since launch: rampant cheating.

Crytek seems to have shipped the game with no anti-cheat protection, a baffling decision which undermined its viability online. Funkmaster and I ran into cheaters only a few days after the game’s release. When I fired up Crysis 2 again last week, I had to try out several different servers before finding one without an obvious cheater.

I’m conservative about calling hacks. I’ve dabbled in online competition for shooters like CoD4, and most experienced gamers I know have been falsely accused of cheating in public servers. In Crysis 2, tho, I was encountering players with names like “CRYN3TkillahLOLOLOL”, racking up 55-0 nets with 100% headshots. The glaringly obvious killcam shots were just icing on the (exasperating) cake. And with no vote-kicking, honest players had no recourse but to move on and try to find another server – or “Quit to Windows” and choose another game.

With Crytek giving more attention to anti-cheat measures, will this patch make Crysis 2 playable again? It may deserve a second look from those who, like me, shelved the game due to the rampant cheating. But it’s notoriously difficult to rebuild multiplayer communities once they begin to contract, and Brink’s release is less than two weeks off. Time may have already run out for Crysis 2.

Apr 262011
 
nopsn

I want to follow up on yesterday’s post with a question: What would the past week have looked like if Sony actually understood the current research into effective, real-world crisis management? How could Sony have handled this situation if they’d wanted to, you know, do a good job?

Let’s see how things might have turned out differently.

Rewind

Within an hour of the outage, Sony posts an official statement on its PSN blog and Twitter feed – maybe something like, “PSN is currently down. We hate downtime, and we’re working as hard as we can to get things running again. A lot of new games came out this week, including PS3-exclusive SOCOM 4 and Valve’s Portal 2, which has exclusive multiplayer with PC and Mac gamers. We want you to be able to get back to your games, movies, and other entertainment as quickly as possible!”

Regular Twitter updates are posted every few hours throughout Thursday, reinforcing the message that Sony network engineers are working around the clock. Each update is another opportunity to acknowledge additional, specific customer frustrations, like the lack of Netflix availability in the US. This focus on Twitter updates also affords Sony PR staff the time to begin networking with gaming journalism sites, so that the company’s viewpoint will be fully represented in blog posts and news stories going forward.

By the end of Thursday, Sony realizes that the situation is more complex than originally hoped. A more detailed statement is needed: “Our engineers are still working on restoring PSN, and they think this might take an additional day or two. They’re doing the best they can, but we’re frustrated by this delay because we know it has a big impact on all of our customers. We know you’re waiting on us so you can play games like SOCOM 4 online, or participate in the beta program for upcoming PS3 exclusive Infamous 2. You want to access your music through Qriocity or your HD video streaming through Netflix. We know this is frustrating for a lot of our 70 million customers worldwide, and we’ll keep working around the clock to restore all of the services you rely on.”

At this point, company PR staff arrange for journalists to interview Sony execs and team leaders. All spokespeople follow the same message playbook, while still contributing unique perspectives from their individual roles. For example, a lead network engineer is available for interviews alongside a top company executive. This shows the world that Sony is addressing this challenge at all levels, and that everyone inside the company recognizes the negative impact on customers.

This is also the right time for the company to contact all of its PSN users by email, with a more formal version of their Thursday night message. The important thing is for Sony to broadcast its message via all available outlets, including direct contact with customers. The latter medium will be especially vital once Sony recognizes that private data – including credit card numbers – may have been compromised for tens of millions of customers worldwide.

Because Sony responded to the outage immediately, accurately, and consistently, they’ve built credibility for their continued handling of the situation. They’ve showcased their concern for customers, and they’ve cultivated relationships with journalists to ensure that the unfolding story will centrally feature Sony’s perspective. Sony has a strong foundation for its evolving response to the crisis.

Reality check

I could go on, but it’s pretty tiring to see the vast gulf between efficient, effective handling of this situation and Sony’s actual response.

My point is that this stuff isn’t rocket surgery. Sure, it might help to have a little bit of management training and experience, but Sony is one of the largest multinationals on Earth. It’s crazy to think they don’t have the resources or know-how to do this right.

It’s also crazy to think they weren’t prepared for this outage before it even happened. I don’t just mean on the technical side, tho that’s obviously a fair point. I mean that Sony should have had a detailed crisis management plan in place, ready to execute at the proverbial press of a button. Crises are a common fact of global business, and Sony’s approach has been bush-league.

Especially now that customer privacy may be at stake, this situation perfectly illustrates one of the basic rules of crisis management: respond early and often. Customers and journalists decide within hours whether the crisis is your fault and whether you’re acting in the public interest. Once the story gets written without you, good luck getting your spokespeople any significant airtime until the lawsuits hit.

Oh, and failing to plan might just be planning to fail, epicly.

Apr 252011
 
nopsn

More to the point, actually, might be the question: What is Sony not doing? One no-brainer answer is “effective crisis management”.

It might seem a little over-entitled for a bunch of relatively affluent gamers to whine about being locked out of one online network for a few days. From Sony’s perspective, tho, this is a massive crisis – one of the biggest hits to their brand in a decade or more. The PS3 has long struggled in the marketplace, especially in the US, and Microsoft seems to have lost little time in capitalizing on Sony’s most recent problem. Destructoid reports that a Microsoft spokesperson commented, “Of course it’s regretful that Sony is encountering issues at such a busy time, and Microsoft takes no joy in the problems gamers are having playing their favourite games online…. That being said, we are expecting Microsoft’s robust online network to see an increase of traffic from those gamers who own both systems.” (To be fair, sourcing on the original article at Electronic Theatre is a little sketchy. Even if the quotation turns out be to a hoax or a mistake, tho, there are at least a few dozen leaders in Microsoft’s XBox division who desperately want to say something like that. And if they haven’t already, they will.)

What have we seen from Sony? Very little communication at all – when they weren’t actually lying to us. (Don’t forget that they originally claimed the outage was due to “maintenance”.)

Dispatches from Sonyland

To appreciate the extent of this crisis for Sony, keep in mind their motto for the PS3: “It Only Does Everything”. Sony wants you to see the PS3 not as a gaming machine, but as a media server and digital entertainment hub. They want the PS3 to be your platform for hard-copy games and Blu-Ray video, but also your platform for digitally-delivered games, music, TV, and movies. They want you to access all of this digital stuff through Sony services like Qriocity, as well as through third-party services like Netflix (which, as Sony was happy to note, offered HD streaming to the PS3 before the XBox 360). Funk did a great job of covering all of that yesterday.

What do these digital services have in common? They’re almost entirely dependent on PSN. (Sure, some people have had success with Netflix after allowing the program’s login screen to repeatedly timeout, but this isn’t a universal fix. It’s also not a reasonable fix for any mass-market rollout.) The potential damage to Sony’s brand is nicely summed up in today’s Penny Arcade strip.

On top of all that, it’s important to recognize other impacts this might have – on customer data and security, not just on entertainment. Sony has now admitted that PSN was brought down by an “intrusion”, but they still won’t confirm whether PSN customers’ private data is secure. I’m one of millions of people who have given Sony my credit card information in order to purchase content over PSN, and Sony’s current word is basically “Your data may or may not be secure – we really don’t know. But hey, we’ll tell you as soon as we find anything out.”

Crisis management and Sony

Instead of rehearsing the crazy things that have come out of Sony’s various, not-always-identifiably-human PR mouthpieces, I want to focus on what they might have done instead. Let’s take a quick look at effective crisis communications, based on the work of Timothy Coombs, one of the current leaders in academic research into this area.

According to the work of Coombs and others in the field of crisis communication, there are some clear commonalities in effective crisis management. The Institute for Public Relations publishes a freely-available whitepaper/summary by Coombs, focusing on the current (ca. 2007) research in the field. Based on his own research and that of others, Coombs identifies the following traits of effective crisis communication:

Be quick and try to have initial response within the first hour.
Be accurate by carefully checking all facts.
Be consistent by keeping spokespeople informed of crisis events and key message points.
Make public safety the number one priority.
Use all of the available communication channels including the Internet, Intranet, and mass notification systems.
Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims.
Remember to include employees in the initial response.
Be ready to provide stress and trauma counseling to victims….

The field of crisis communication/management looks at a broad range of challenges – from issues like the PSN outage, to last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of Coombs’ points don’t apply directly to the current situation with Sony, obviously. For example, my girlfriend and I probably won’t need trauma counseling because we haven’t been able to watch Buffy: The Vampire Slayer via Netflix. But keep in mind what that list represents. It’s not a prescriptive list of tactics that egghead professors think companies should use. Instead, it’s a set of approaches that have shown real-world effectiveness. That list is based on research into hundreds of real-world crisis situations, looking at what worked and what didn’t.

Where does Sony fit into this? Well, you tell me. As far as I can see, they’ve failed on every single applicable category. Maybe they’ve come closest to expressing sympathy (“Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims”), but even those statements have sounded pretty insincere to me; Sony spokespeople have only spoken generically about gamers’ “frustration”, rather than acknowledging any specific problems caused by this outage. Overall, Sony’s record over the past six days has been unambiguously dismal. They responded late, they lied early, spokespeople have been inaccurate and inconsistent, the company buried updates in a Twitter feed or a PSN blog, and they just don’t seem to understand the magnitude of their problem – nor its effect on all of Sony’s customers.

Or, as Tycho over at PA wrote,

[Sony] have a serious problem here, and as serious as their technology problem might be, it’s not the biggest one they have. Their problem is that they don’t know how to communicate about anything but their legendary prowess. …  They need to find a human being, or hire one, and start an actual dialogue with users.

They need to do this last Friday.

Apr 202011
 
AnotherWorld

Okay, that might be an exaggeration. In particular, Another World (originally titled Out of this World in its North American release) could be criticized as featuring too much of the trial-and-error gameplay that was common back in the ’80s and early ’90s. But the same criticism could be leveled at classics like Prince of Persia – which raised the bar for games, spawned a 20-year franchise (including new classic The Sands of Time as well as a vacuous Hollywood blockbuster), and was recently remastered for PSN and XBLA. Eric Chahi’s Another World may not have launched such a far-reaching brand, but it set a similar high-water mark for the medium.

Another World modeled new approaches to animation, music and sound, gameworld design, emotionally-affecting characters, and non-verbal storytelling. The game’s Wikipedia page cites its influence on the creation of PS2 masterpiece ICO (itself soon to receive a remastered release for PS3), as well as accolades from rockstar game designers like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) and Guichi Soda (No More Heroes). On a personal level, Another World also contributed some serious lack of productivity to my freshman year of college. Along with Prince of Persia and Bungie’s Marathon, this was one of the games that made me a gamer.

Because of this, I was happy to see GOG.com put the 15th Anniversary Edition of the game on sale for $3.99. The deal is basically for today only, ending tomorrow morning at 6am, so don’t hesitate. You can’t beat this price for one of the most influential games of the past two decades.

GOG.com describes the 15th Anniversary Edition like so:

In the 15th Anniversary Edition, apart from a remastered version of the game, you will find a 20 minutes long “making of” video of Another World, the technical handbook, the development diary and the soundtrack remixed by the original composer JF Freitas.

In other news, Eric Chahi has resurfaced in recent years and is helming the upcoming game From Dust.

Apr 162011
 
newfaceen

For me, The Witcher 2 is easily the most anticipated game of 2011. Granted, that might have something to do with my expectation/fear that grad school will suck up every minute of available gaming time after July or August…but it’s also down to the magnificence of Polish developer CD Projekt RED’s first Witcher game.

The Witcher had its share of faults, but it was the most immersive and engaging RPG I’d played in years. Most of its limitations were later addressed by a sprawling “Enhanced Edition,” which replaced the game’s basic edition at retail – but was also released for free to all owners of the game. Remarkably, most of the EE’s improvements address issues so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine any other developer treating its fan-base with such regard. The EE increased the poly count of background characters, for example, and retranslated Polish text which had originally been left out of the English-language version due to word limits imposed on the game’s localization. (It also improved loading times and user interface, perhaps the game’s largest problems at release.)

At a time when the gaming news was full of major publishers slagging on the PC as a platform, CD Projekt RED’s focus on quality paid off handsomely. This independently-developed, PC-exclusive RPG sold over a million copies in its first year (Fall 2007-08), and it’s had a long tail in the 2.5 years since.

Fast forward: The Witcher 2 is due in North America on May 17. Two “final” previews hit virtual newstands in the past few days at Destructoid and RockPaperShotgun. Destructoid’s write-up is especially glowing:

I looked back on my experience with Dragon Age II afterwards, and BioWare’s fantasy RPG now feels like it’s in almost every way a mere toddler in the shadow of The Witcher 2. That’s not to say DA II sucked, but a single village in The Witcher 2 already has more personality than all of Kirkwall.

Pre-orders on the game receive a 10% discount at a wide range of digital distribution sites, including Steam, Direct2Drive, and GamersGate. However, GoodOldGames offers a DRM-free edition with the same 10% discount and a host of extra features, including a free bonus RPG. (I highly recommend Gothic 2: Gold.) Sure, smart money says the DRM will eventually be patched out of The Witcher 2 anyway, as it was with the original game. But GOG.com is run by CD Projekt, the parent company of the game’s developer CD Projekt RED, so this is the site to use if you want more of your dollars going directly to the game’s creators.

I’d like to say that calculus homework will take precedence over The Witcher 2 this May, but who am I kidding? Keep an eye out here for additional coverage.

Mar 262011
 

One useful rule of thumb for cross-platform titles might be “If it was made for consoles, it probably needs a console”…by which “console” could mean the Sony or Microsoft toys, or could instead refer to the debugging console that PC gaming grognards have used for years in order to optimize game settings. Get it? See, it’s a pun. The word “console” means two different…bah, never mind.

You heathens.

Right, then. Moving on. Crysis 2 is getting strong initial press, including a pretty adulatory note from Jim Rossignol over at RockPaperShotgun. But there’s a fly in this butter-smooth ointment of gaming-goodness: despite a history of pushing the PC platform’s graphics capabilities (in Far Cry and the original Crysis), developer Crytek ditched any pretense at letting PC users crank this one up to 11. The PC version of Crysis 2 offers very limited configurability of its graphics options.

This leads us to the other meaning of “console”: the game’s debugging console is the best way to actually open up the throttle on this newest version of the Cry Engine that powers Crysis 2. Arcane knowledge is apparently a prerequisite for PC gamers wanting to take advantage of their machines’ power.

Or I should say, the game’s console was the best way to optimize the game’s graphics. Enter PC user “Wasdie”, who posted a tiny little program to help you generate an autoexec file to be placed in your Crysis 2 directory – basically giving you easy access to all of the game’s graphical options which are otherwise accessible only through debugging console fiddlery. Those who read our Bulletstorm wiki might recall similar user ingenuity behind the tools needed to configure that game. Borderlands is yet another obvious example, a title whose PC user community created separate applications for optimizing the game’s “hidden” settings.

Funk, Zeus, and I have spent a lot of time in the past 10 years mucking around with debugging consoles and config files, for multiplayer PC games like Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 4. This isn’t a new pastime. This used to be a technique for fine-tuning a game’s framerate or optimizing its network performance, however. What’s different now is that consoles and config files are often required for the PC versions of AAA games just to look as good as they were designed to look.

Think about that for a second. It’s idiotic. I understand some of the factors that led to this situation – for example, the economics of creating the PC-specific interface that would be required to expose the more advanced options supported by PC hardware – but it’s still inane.

Thanks for your service to PC gamers, Wasdie. Crytek should be cutting you a check…but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.


Download Crysis 2 Now!

Mar 162011
 

Killzone 3 caught a little game-journalist flak earlier this year for offering a “beta” that was, for all intents and purposes, a polished demo rather than a beta. Discussing plans for Gears of War 3, Epic’s Rod Fergusson recently weighed in on this trend at StrategyInformer.

Money quote: “For me I think it has to do with people moving from PC to consoles.”

Basically, he’s arguing that PCs require some basic familiarity with hardware and software maintenance, but consoles are a black box to most users; console users therefore expect all products to be finished products, even free “betas”. In a literal sense, Fergusson is suggesting that console users are just plain ignorant.

I think it’s obvious that PC owners tend to have more troubleshooting savvy than console owners, but his overall argument is a little too reductionist for my taste. Still, the most interesting part to me is the first line (quoted above). Who is “people”? The PC market is still here, and it’s doing pretty damn well (if recent digital sales figures are any indication). The real problem might be that the developers have moved to consoles – not the users.