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.

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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.

Quantum Break Initial Thoughts

The thing with being a gaming parent is that you know you want to milk every last opportunity out of your gaming session that you can. Whether it’s a full hour, ten minutes, or if you’re lucky enough to have an afternoon-on-the-couch-wearing-little-more-than-your-boxer-shorts-and-a-smile, you need bang for your buck.

Which is a long-winded way of giving an excuse as to why I have never gotten around to Quantum Break.

To be fair – I’ve never had anything against the game. I remember back in E3 when Shawn Ashmore came on stage to announce the title, and Aidan Gillen was touted as the next big thing, coming off his success in Game of Thrones, and even then I liked what I saw. But in the same breath, it also came at a time when Microsoft was pushing entertainment over gaming. When ‘always on’ was destined to ruin gaming for almost anyone that doesn’t live in the internet Utopia of West-Coast America. And so, for much of this generation – I’m happy to admit, I was pretty much all-in on PlayStation.

Fast forward a few years, and Game Pass has given me the opportunity to finally wander back in and have a go at Quantum Break. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched any of the episodes yet, and that’s largely for the same reasons that I described at the outset: (ironically) time. Already, I enjoy the combat. I’m playing on the easiest difficulty because I really just want a solid story experience, but there’s still something quite satisfying about the gun-play with a few spatters of time-controlling special powers thrown in for good measure.

The story is still unfolding – I’ve just completed Act 1 – so I suspect more will become apparent as I go forward, but already I’ve chosen the Hardline approach for Monarch to take – which is a nicer way of saying ‘kill anyone and everything’. I’m having some ethical issues with that choice, but at the same time, given everything I saw in the story so far, it seemed the most appropriate.

One thing I did want to highlight at this early stage was the sound design. It’s not often that I comment on the sound design, because it’s usually so vanilla from one game to the next – but whoever is doing the mastering of the gun shots and weaponry at Remedy needs to be given a pay-rise. It is easily the most satisfying gun audio I’ve heard in a game for the last decade.

For now, I’ll continue the story. There seems to be an issue streaming the episodes so I’ve had to download them for the time being, which is fine because I’d be lucky to be able to watch them until later this week anyway, but I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

And then, I suspect, I’ll also be ready to give Control – Remedy’s latest title – a look.

Gears POP!

I am a sucker for a mobile game with Xbox achievements. It’s one of the main reasons why I play Microsoft Solitaire so much, and I have no qualms in touting the virtues of Wordament to any-and-all who will listen. Sadly, people don’t really take to my warped sense of digital justice like I do, and so they just end up heading back to their match-three game or scrolling through their Instagram.

Not me though. I think it took me all of fifteen seconds from when I got the notification that the pre-order for Gears POP! was ready to having the game downloaded and starting it up.

Then the connectivity issues happened.

I’m not going to labour the point because I don’t mind a few teething errors, and thankfully they corrected themselves fairly soon thereafter, which meant that after an hour of gameplay, I had already earned myself two or three achievements, and by the end of the day yesterday, I was at 9% completion.

Not bad for a very brief afternoon’s work.

The game itself is essentially just a Clash of Clans clone, though with POP! characters based on the Gears of War franchise. It just seems like a whole bunch of licensing agreements were prepared by some junior lawyers that got too convoluted and something had to be done with them, but, strangely, it works. Considering I’m really only on level two and working with characters that are, essentially, just upgraded versions of the starting set, I’m not sure how much the game will open up as I get new characters, or, more likely, I go up against stronger opponents.

Progress from here-on out will be slow, because some of the achievements require you to play into the hundreds of games, which is not insurmountable, but it will take time. Each game I played against a human tended to run down the timer, rather than being the one-sided battle that I had anticipated, with some of the games only conquering one base, or going to sudden death. If you can get some time away from the world so that you can play this unencumbered, then you are absolutely in the best position to win, though I’ll see whether that holds true as I continue playing, or whether my own inability is just waiting to shine through.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep working towards those delicious, delicious achievements.

Cross Save for Destiny 2

It’s here. It’s finally here.

It might sound silly, but I’ve been waiting for the industry to catch-up to this point for so long. I have looked at the Mike Ybarra Tweet many times over the past few years in which he prophesied a world where you would be able to play your same Destiny characters across any platform and take your progress with you, and now – that day has arrived.

While much of the narrative in the industry has been around cross-play for the past few years, I’ve always had my heart set more on the ability to cross-save. I knew that Microsoft had made incredible in-roads in this capability, part of the sales pitch that they use for using Azure, but regardless of any anticipated marketing kick – it was the functionality that most appealed to me.

The reason is simple: I don’t want to play with other people, I just want a choice about where I play.

Sure, Destiny is a game which thrives on social interaction – but other than one time when I managed to get a friend online, and through the good grace of an Xbox LFG – not to mention a few drop ins and drop outs – I managed to finish a raid – OTHER than that … I like to play it solo. If I play in a fireteam, it’s because it’s been randomly assigned to me, not because I have two or three good mates that I like to regularly catch up with each week and play. No, it’s the simple fact that I’m a busy man, and sometimes I only have twenty minutes to play, other times I can settle in for a long afternoon and smash out six missions in a row. There are a lot of variables at work there – whether the kids are in bed, whether my wife wants to watch something on the TV, whether there’s housework to do, whether my in-laws are staying, etc. And when that’s the case, I want to be able to pivot to a different platform, and try and play there – in my case, the PC.

Do you know what I don’t want to have to do? Start things all over again.

So, yes, I am red-hot-keen for cross-save, and I can’t wait to get into Destiny 2 Shadowkeep a little more on PC. It is, undoubtedly, a superior way to play the game, but I have built a healthy little legacy with my Guardians on my Xbox, and so I want to be able to maintain that going forward.

If they can sustain the cross-save capability for Destiny 3, I’ll be a happy man.

Thanks, Bungie.

Pokémon Rumble Rush

I make no apologies for my love of Pokemon, and when its a game that links in with The Pokemon Company, as well as my Nintendo Account, then I’m philosophically obliged to give it a red hot go.

I’m not sure what void this game fills, but it’s a fairly mindless romp into the world of Pokémon. It’s possible that, down the track, there might be integration with the Pokémon Bank and the other Nintendo titles that use the Nintendo Network. I love to see this sort of integration in mobile gaming, and I’m optimistic to see how Xbox does more of it in the coming months with xCloud, and not to mention iOS updates to allow for use of the Xbox and PS4 controllers.

Time will tell if developers pick up and support it, but I shall remain optimistic!

Fortnite

You would be living under a fairly large boulder if you have never heard of Fortnite, considering it’s regularly news-shattering impact, notably the 2019 win by 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf (or his online alias, “Bugha”, which makes me think of the old Toyota Ad where various characters mutter one word: ‘Bugger’), who took home the US$3 million grand prize in the first Fortnite World Cup.

I feel like my early adoption of Fortnite was a sign of things to come. It came to market at a time when ‘PUBG’ was all the rage, and instead of trying to compete with the quasi-realistic shooter, it took things in another direction and just made them fun!

I don’t plan on rehashing the format of a Battle Royale, but it seems like there are a few new game modes up for grabs these days. For instance, my first game of the season was not a Royale as such, but rather a team death match with a score count. So, even when you died, you just respawned and got on with it. And it was as fun as classic Fortnite used to be.

Well played, Epic Games.

Chessplode

Chess has had a bit of a resurgence in the gaming spheres lately. I’ve seen a lot of “Chess 960” variations floating around – and that in itself is bringing people back to the original game.

This, however, is something different again. The basics of this game are somewhat simple – catch a piece and it detonates every other piece in that row and column – except if the King is in the same row or column as the captured piece (and then it’s a regular capture). It’s probably an unnecessary addition to a crowded market but on the other hand, I appreciate it not just being ‘another chess game.’

I had a go at both the “vs Ziri” the the “levels” modes in the game, and both played pretty much like standard Chessbots. I wasn’t paying attention in the levels at first and didn’t realise it was a Chess 960 startup, so it took me some time to claw my way back to victory but considering it was Level 1, I suspect the Chessbot was more sympathetic than normal.

Polysphere

There is almost a beauty to the simplicity of Polysphere, and yet its increasing levels of complexity mean that this is not your average game. It truly is ‘art’ in a digital form.

The premise is simple, you are given a fractured shape or picture, and you rotate it in three dimensions to reform the image. At first the images invoke larger chunks of colour which help bring everything into focus much quicker, but, as you’d suspect, there are more colours, more fragmentation, and just generally more complexity as the game goes on.

I played about the first dozen levels, but once again, Polysphere is another game that is almost aggressive in its attempt to force you into a paid service, or swallow as many ads as they can force down your throat in between levels. It’s incredibly off-putting, but I appreciate the need to monetise in a complicated market with very few business models from which to apply.

But that’s not my problem. I just want to play great games.

If gaming has taught us anything in the past year, it’s that a subscription based service is absolutely the way to go. Xbox’s Game Pass has opened up a world of great independent games and titles that likely would have remained obscure and niche without being attached to the pass, and now they are brought front-and-centre. With this in mind, I think Apple Arcade probably stands the best chance of discovering some great mobile titles, but we’ll wait and see the details before lauding over it too much (but it seems like it’s definitely a step in the right direction).