Idle Hands

I feel like I haven’t been gaming for a while, at least I certainly haven’t been writing about gaming for a while. Truth be told, much of my evening is spent trying to score just those few extra minutes of sleep that you miss when being the Dad of a teething six-month old.

This then, of course, opens up a new gaming repertoire. The late-night, bleary eyed game, one that it’s OK to fall asleep in, and still not loose a lot of story or substance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love idle clickers. My clicker-of-choice is, and remains, Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms.

While it took me quite a while to work out how to play an idle clicker, something beyond the simple click-and-upgrade methodology, and learning about resets and the benefits that it entails has made the game far more strategic than I first envisioned. This means that I’m now paying more attention to things like individual hero DPS and things like race-relations, that is, which races have better buffs when aligned with others. Understanding these in a little more detail is more helpful than simply trying to leverage a guide that doesn’t take into account which quests you’ve completed and what your current buffs are, or what equipment you are using. It doesn’t take into account what point in the game you’re ‘stepping in’ on (there are a number of formation guides that have heroes in it that I either haven’t unlocked, or it assumes that I’m able to unlock them easily).

However, the thing that annoys me the most is the lack of cross-save. Right now, I have instances of Idle Champions across PC, Xbox and Mobile – all of which have varying DLC purchased and different levels of progress. Not being able to have a single source of truth is just outright annoying, and while I can appreciate the commercial benefit of allowing one to ‘double dip’ on players across platforms, it instead, to me, makes more sense to utilise the Destiny 2 and Bungie model, in which specific equipment or familiars, etc. couldn’t be used on a particular platform unless purchased on that platform. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good player-friendly practice, and it absolutely frustrates me when I can’t see it implemented any-and-everywhere.

That, plus the developers get to double-dip. I am certain that the CFOs of almost any major game publisher would salivate at the thought.

History tells me that this teething journey can go on for quite a while, and so while the rest of the world is twirling lightsabers with Jedi: Fallen Order, or flossing in Fortnite, I’ll be chipping away at my Torm’s Favour balance …

… or sleeping while my Xbox does it for me.

On the Road Again

I remember when I undertook the Achievement a Day challenge, with some fondness, needing to locate a selection of a games that I could play on the road without needing to take my entire Xbox console with me. Bear in mind, this is a couple of years – an eternity in tech – before xCloud or Game Pass for PC, where my options would have been a little better. Other than a few first party games and one or two iOS games, it was, largely, a case of strategically finding well-paced console games (such as the Telltale series’) and saving the others for emergencies (such as Christmas).

These days, I’m less attached to the Xbox ecosystem, though it still remains my platform of choice, but hitting the road across the last two weeks has forced me to re-examine my mobile game library, and find a few solid titles that I could enjoy while on a plane and in flight mode (which ruled out online titles like Hearthstone and Call of Duty Mobile), as well as something a bit ‘meaty’ to satisfy my gamer lust.

I’m not entirely convinced I managed to meet that brief.

For the most part, my gaming life over the past few weeks has consisted of Gears POP! and Tetris Blitz, bath staples on my mobile, but other than the occasional path towards an achievement on Gears, the pair don’t really offer much substance. Recently, I’ve been considering a play through of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on iPad considering I haven’t really managed to ever finish it, but that takes away from the excellent backwards compatibility option available to me on Xbox, or the comfort offered by playing on PC. But, still, as history tells me, it might also be the only way I’ll ever get the game finished. I haven’t made a decision about the best approach to take – but it’s food for thought.

What these past few weeks have highlighted to me though is the need for me to shift back to PC over Mac. It’s a hard thing for someone like me to say, considering I’ve had the same Mac since 2012 and it runs better than any PC I’ve ever had. It is exceptionally hard for me to point to a PC, or more specifically a laptop, manufacturer, and say that they build machines ‘as good as’ a Mac – but it’s also been a while since I’ve really tested the market. Dell, including Alienware, look awfully tempting these days.

The reason for the shift back to PC is simple. Well, it’s two reasons really. (1) my existing game library is huge and in desperate need for some love; and, (2) Game Pass for PC is increasingly awesome. Imagine being able to smash through some AAA new games like The Outer Worlds while on the road for a week.

It sure beats Tetris Blitz.

I hope to be a little more active on this blog. I had a brief hiatus while I attempted NaNoWriMo for this month, but to be honest, taking so much time away from my family and on the road just made it too hard to land, so I think – unless I can write 30,000 words in a week – I’ve probably failed for 2019.

And that’s OK. There’s plenty of other writing and gaming to keep me busy!

Call of Duty Mobile

Make no mistake about it: I love Call of Duty. I’ve never really loved either the historical or the futuristic war settings, though I did find the game-play fun, but my passion has always been in the Modern Warfare era. Part of this has to do with my own interest in the military and contemporary warfighting, but I also find the stripped-down mechanics of run-and-gun to be the most well-rounded, and perhaps well-grounded, in the real-world.

While today is the launch day for the reboot of the Modern Warfare series, I wanted to spend a few moments talking about the quiet sibling of the COD series, Call of Duty Mobile. I’ll be honest, it’s probably not something that I expected to enjoy quite as much as I had, but after my first few wins, well, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve become a little enamored with the game – to the point where I’m now consistently winning Battle Royale’s and multiplayer games at a fairly regular rate. I mean … I don’t want to tout myself as the Ninja of Call of Duty Mobile … but I’m the Ninja of Call of Duty Mobile.

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It’s a measure that’s somewhat imperfect, but judging by the usernames playing in-game, it seems that COD Mobile has a fairly healthy playerbase in Japan and the East more generally – with a solid mix of Russian, Chinese and Japanese names and characters littered throughout the players in each game lobby. I can’t say I’m surprised, given that Chinese mammoth, Tencent, are the parent company for the COD Mobile developer, TiMi Games, but when they’re pumping out games of this quality for mobile devices – well, I’m happy to play with anyone from anywhere.

There are some delightful nods to the COD maps of yesteryear throughout the game, including Nuketown, and while I might not remember the names of each of them – I certainly remembered the layout. TiMi have done a good job of pulling two or three of the more popular maps and wrangling them for mobile.

The other thing I’ve done in-game was to lower the graphics settings to Low. I’m not sure that it’s entirely necessarily, but at the same time, I don’t want to add complexity to the data connection, which is already questionable at the best of times. Thanks, Australia(!) I can tell you from experience, it’s bad enough being trapped out in the open waiting to reconnect during a normal multiplayer game, but being killed while you’re waiting is just down-and-out embarrassing.

I haven’t spent a single cent in-game yet, and I’m happy with the experience so far. Oh, who am I kidding – I love it! This is a welcome addition to my mobile gaming repertoire, and far surpasses some of the other behemoths in-play at the moment such as PUBG and Fortnite.

Now, all we need is some sort of added cross-save benefit for the ‘main’ COD game.

An Apple a Day

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Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

Make no mistake about it – we have entered the age of distribution and subscription. When it comes to distribution – we have Epic, Microsoft, GOG, and the powerhouse, Steam. As for subscription, it used to be Netflix sitting all alone up on the throne of subscription power, with the others’ all at the bottom of the hill, pointing and laughing. Well, these days, everyone has built their own hill and their own throne, and so now we are spoiled for choice with Netflix, Stan, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video, Ten All Access and we’re not that far away from NBC and others launching their own offerings to the market.

In the gaming sphere, we’ve been relatively infantile in discovering subscription. Humble Bundle was perhaps the first ‘big player’ on the scene, offering up a selection of games to keep for a monthly fee (which is still a great model). Xbox joined in next with it’s Game Pass, and then expanded the service to offer up PC games as well in the ‘Game Pass Ultimate’. Google has flagged its new Stadia service as, by-and-large, being a subscription model – though it will still have purchases available, and there’s no doubt PlayStation and Nintendo will both join the fray soon, or certainly as part of their next-generation offerings.

But this week, we have a new kid on the block: enter Apple Arcade.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying mobile gaming for a little while now, and while it has been pooh-poohed a lot in recent memory (I still remember the female gaming audience being considered less-than-real-gamers because they played were perceived as simply playing Candy Crush), the breadth of games, and the quality of them, has now reached a point where they are able to stand alone as a solid gaming choice along the likes of the contemporary platforms. Everyone raised an eyebrow when Fortnite was offered on mobile, though it managed to attract enough interest and, perhaps more importantly, numbers, to be able to offer up a very real and pragmatic alternative for playing a AAA title on-the-go.

It’s my own frugalness that sees me reluctant to spend money on a mobile game outright, given that I find it a risky purchase for something that I’m not sure I’ll have forever. Unlike my consoles, I can still pull out a PS3 and play any number of games I’ve bought digitally on that platform, likewise for the Xbox – which has been made infinitely easier since Phil Spencer pushed for backwards compatibility. As such, the idea of a subscription model for mobile gaming makes a lot of sense.

However – and this is the point of this post – I have two issues of note.

The first is the ability to have, and chronicle, a mobile gaming career. I know, I know, a lot of people ‘don’t care’ about achievements, but I am very much someone who likes to chronicle my gaming journey and keep track of what I’ve played. This is why I’ve made Xbox and Steam my preferred combination, because both platforms keep an excellent record of my gaming career. Game Centre on iOS has a long way to go before it can compete with Xbox Live or PlayStation Network – and that should be saying something. The latter took over a decade before it allowed for name changes (and even then it’s not really a long-term fix, instead relying on some sort of clunky workaround that, in practice, really just means they’ve masked your original PSN ID and started displaying some other new field), and about the same length of time before it had any meaningful phone app or web interface. It might be a personal preference, but this is what it boils down to: I don’t really like Game Centre. And for me, this is absolutely an underpinning element of my choice to use a gaming service. It’s why I’ve all but abandoned PlayStation for this generation with the exception of a few first-party titles, and a big reason why I’ve gone Team Xbox. On the sliding scale of platforms and gaming choice, iOS Game Centre certainly doesn’t come close.

The second issue I have with Arcade is the price. AU$8 per month (sorry, “$7.99”) is not cheap. There, I said it. For mobile gaming, I am most likely to spend $1-2 every few months as part of a microtransaction. What I won’t pay is nearly $100 a year on top of my $15pm Xbox Arcade, $10 Stan, $10 Ten All Access, and about $9 Netflix (depending on the exchange rate at any given day). I consume all of these services, regularly, and they are worth the expense, but considering I have this smorgasbord of content to consume, do you know what I don’t want? Another $8 on top of it for the ability to play 1-2 games for 2 minutes at a time.

Thus concludes today’s rant.

Cloud Crash

One word: Yikes.

Full disclosure: I haven’t played Borderlands 3 yet, and while I’m sure as a game on its own it’s worthy of all the praise it’s getting, I’m also a stickler for doing things in order, and so once I’ve cleared Borderlands 1 and 2, and yes I know there’s a Pre/Sequel in the mix there somewhere, then, and only then, will I pick up the third incarnation.

(Second disclosure: this philosophy also works for the Gears of War series, but I did play a round of multiplayer last night just to grab an achievement for a Microsoft Rewards challenge – I’m still a Gears’ story virgin).

More importantly though, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about the cloud. It seems in this instance that the issue with the Borderlands 3 saves is unique to Epic Games and the PC version, but that being said, the other services are not without their own flaws. It’s taken nearly two weeks to finally get back into Gears POP! after Xbox Live failed to let players connect, and who could forget the great Sony outage a few years ago that saw them shower us all with ‘We’re Sorry’ stuff.

The cloud is brilliant, but not perfect. Xbox, I’m my humble opinion, is the closest to the most successful cloud provider in the gaming space so far – given that I have come back from over twelve months off a game and be able to pick up where I left off. PlayStation relies on a subscription to PS Plus, and because I’ve let that lapse, I’m fairly certain my save games have gone as well.

Kiss those Vita saves goodbye.

I’m not sure how Nintendo’s service works, but in general, what we’re seeing here is an absolutely glaring need to ensure that cloud services don’t just form an ‘added extra’ to your platform, but are integral. Microsoft, to their fault, were not backward in their cloud first marketing when it came to the Xbox One, and while they were ahead of their time and that message didn’t quite land up against the more robust PlayStation offering.

Now half a decade later we see what that looks like when played out in living rooms …

… and the cloud.

God help Stadia.

Gears POP! Level 6

I wanted to revisit my first take on Gears POP! given the rather harsh assessment offered by Kotaku, and my own worry that I may be a little too optimistic about what others saw as a mediocre game.

But, nope. I’m still enjoying it – and Kotaku is wrong.

At first glance, reaching Level 6 probably isn’t quite at the top of the enlightenment period to be able to safely dismiss Kotaku’s rather short-sighted take on the game, but there’s quite a bit of work that goes into getting to this level. I don’t doubt that the gloss of many casual gamers has started to wear off for Gears POP!, and so the competition I’m left with are either the true believers, or the late-to-the-party types, but having understood how many games and how many win-losses it takes to get to that stage means that there is a not-insignificant amount of respect for anyone competing at what I’d consider this ‘mid-tier’ level.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I am regularly loosing quite a few games – it’s about a 50-50 split, but the shine hasn’t quite worn off as quick like it has with Hearthstone. Perhaps it’s because I still get the drip-feed of delicious Xbox achievements, or perhaps I’m still just simply enjoying the game. In either case – from either a philosophical or a business perspective – I’m still playing it, and that means something.

I’ll be interested to see if other first party studios lean into some mobile development for Microsoft, or whether xCloud will pickup the mobile audience – but in any case, it’s definitely not a flop for me.

Melbourne Esports Open 2019

Judging by Public Transport Victoria calculations, my trip to the Melbourne Esports Open this weekend was to take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. As part of ‘Victoria’s Big Build’, the city of Melbourne is currently undergoing quite a few disruptions at the moment, up-to-and-including train replacements and complete line shut-downs, meaning that in order to take the public transport option into the city for the Open, I would have to take a bus into the city, then navigate to Flinders Street where I could then get a tram, or – worse – walk to Rod Laver Arena in time to be able to catch an event.

If it sounds like I’m whinging, imagine what doing the above with two kids under six would be like.

So, with that in mind – we did what any sensible human being would do: we drove to the MEO this weekend, and thanks to some well-planned pre-paid parking, scored a park right near the entrance.

Last year’s MEO was very much a social experiment, and while it seemed, at face value, to be relatively successful, I was keen to see how the event had grown or adapted based on this success. After all, there was a notable difference in PAX Australia 2013 to 2014, so if MEO was to gain traction, then this would be the event where we would be able to see some success.

The first thing I noticed was the layout had changed – considerably. Originally MEO 2018 was structured in a way that the main competition and the ‘JB Hi-Fi Game Zone’ were fairly evenly contained between and within the Rod Laver and Margaret Court Arenas. Most of the ‘outside’ activity was concentrated on the entrance to Rod Laver, whereas this year much of that content – and I feel like there was considerably less – had shifted into the open space between the two main arenas, and Melbourne Arena off Olympic Boulevard. As it turns out, this was supposed to be the ‘Main Entrance’ I later found out, and the rear entry where I had come in was actually designated the ‘Secondary Entry’, but the net result was that we got-in.

Last year, I made the assessment that I don’t think the Rod Laver Arena is the best sort of venue for the MEO. While I think the organisers have ‘made do’ with the layout, there is undoubtedly a sense that the whole event is spread too thin – something that was exacerbated this year considering it went across multiple venues. It reminded me a touch of the ESL Masters I attended in Sydney, where the Qudos Arena was simply unsuitable for a major gaming event – in the middle of nowhere and laid out in an erratic fashion. In some regards, I think these smaller stadiums are great for what they were built for: sporting matches, and by all accounts, the stadiums were perfect for the main events on the weekend, but considering that esport now has to offer competition between travelling to the venue or – like I did for the non-kid-friendly events – simply opening up a Twitch stream, then I’d expect a little more polish on my venue design.

While I didn’t get in to the main events themselves, I think it’s fair to say that MEO has matured in a good way. OPL has generally gone from strength-to-strength in the last 12-24 months, and so seeing its high production values land in Melbourne to put on a great show is certainly something to write-home about. I watched as eager fans went trawling through the venue to find ‘skin codes’ for their League of Legends accounts, and the images by brilliant esport photographer Sarah Cooper (@aquahaze) showed just how far esport has come in Australia. I only saw the highlights of the Overwatch Contenders match-up, which is surprising considering I was rapidly getting into Overwatch as an esport, but when matched up against a game like Rainbow Six, it’s hard not to have your attention slightly diverted towards that more ‘meaty’ competitive scene.

Still, it’s no fix for the otherwise toxic R6 community.

In terms of games on offer, both Xbox and PlayStation put in an appearance in the Game Zone, which is wonderful to see. PlayStation, per usual, had large ‘no photography’ signs up everywhere – which is a bit strange considering that they weren’t really showing anything ‘new’ or ‘secret’. Last year, there was Spider-Man on offer a few days or weeks before launch, and so keeping things under wraps made sense, but most of the time my kids played Crash Team Racing … something that was released in June.

The Xbox team were far better-equipped for a public-facing show like MEO, offering up Minecraft for the kids, I was able to take a photo of them playing together, and the marketing team there even had little basketballs (stress balls) with ‘Windows 10’ on the side. Dad may or may not have borrowed one of them for his own collection. There was also a behind-closed-doors demo of Gears 5 which I only have a loose interest in, but considering it is coming to Xbox Game Pass, I’m not too concerned about milking every last drop of content out of it before it drops. I mean … if I need a fix, I have four preceding titles to get through first.

Other big players on the day were Nintendo, who had a great variety of consoles setup, and my kids played Mario Maker 2 for quite some time before etiquette dictated that they get off and let someone else play. Likewise, the kids managed to score themselves some lanyards and a tote bag off the show floor, but nothing quite as cool as the Activision-offered Call of Duty 4 gift bag that my eldest managed to grab last year. I still have my COD4 hat in the cupboard, ready to be broken out again come PAX time.

And speaking of merchandise – we need to have a chat to the organisers about buying in some better hoodies, or at least some more variety in terms of clothing options. One $70 hoodie that was in plain white as the only clothing memento from the weekend? No thanks. At least I managed to walk away with a metallic keep-cup, but for $20, I’m not sure if that was entirely worth it, or I was just clinging to the hope that I’d leave with ‘some’ keepsake.

MEO is not flawless. Nor is it flawed. It is an event in its infancy, that has already shown how much it can improve on in a twelve-month period. Being able to arrange for major teams like Washington to travel to Melbourne for the Open, as well as seeing some great talent in OPL, Overwatch and Rainbow Six means that I’ll be back again next year, if only to keep an eye on what else is new and emerging on the esport scene.

I can hardly wait.