Words about games – SavyGamer http://savygamer.co.uk What're you buying, stranger? Wed, 16 Jan 2019 12:00:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.9 The Epic Store: An Epic Blunder or An Unreal Opportunity? http://savygamer.co.uk/2018/12/15/the-epic-store-an-epic-blunder-or-an-unreal-opportunity/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2018/12/15/the-epic-store-an-epic-blunder-or-an-unreal-opportunity/#comments Sat, 15 Dec 2018 16:51:27 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=86437 It’s always interesting to me when a major industry player makes a bold move into a new space. Seeing game engine powerhouse and creator of the biggest game on the planet, Epic Games, make a push into also being a shop that you can buy games from is a fascinating turn of events, with potential to make large waves throughout the industry. They’re making some good decisions, and certainly their revenue split of 88:12 in favour of developers grabbed industry attention and headlines alike, but I have some significant reservations about how exactly Epic are implementing the strategy for the Epic Store. I thought I’d outline my views here, with hope that perhaps they can improve their offering in a manner that will result in better serving consumers, and a healthier industry for all involved parties.

Curiously, in the immediate run up to Epic relaunching their store, Valve took to their Steamworks Development blog to announce a new revenue share arrangement for games sold on Steam. Valve have never publicly announced their revenue share prior to this blog post. I was somewhat taken aback by how low key this announcement was. Publicly discussing this element of their internal operation represents a radical departure from how they have previously conducted business, and how secretive they have been regarding these subjects. It wasn’t accompanied by a press release, or any kind of media push or fanfare. Given that the number of publishers that will actually be impacted by these changes is probably just in double figures, it’s not entirely clear who the intended audience for this announcement was, since it likely won’t apply to anyone but the largest publishers. They could have just as easily got this information out there with an email round to the relevant individuals at the minority of publishers on Steam who would qualify for these new rates. The flat rate 70:30 split was obviously an open secret for those in the know, and is directly in line with the industry standard across the likes of PSN, Xbox Live, Nintendo eShop, iOS App Store and Google Play.

Perhaps this new deal was deliberately intended to preempt Epic’s new push for their store, or perhaps the specific timing is entirely coincidental, but either way this decision did not occur in a vacuum. There’s been an increasing push from multiple larger publishers to pull away from Steam. EA, Activision Blizzard and seemingly now Bethesda, have already left Steam either entirely or mostly for their major new releases. Ubisoft and Rockstar continue to grow their efforts for selling their PC games outside of Steam. Discord, Twitch and others have made efforts towards launching their own stores, albeit not particularly successful efforts so far. Humble have been bought by IGN, and have been making moves to flex their corporate connections to bolster their offering. I don’t think it was accidental that coinciding with the announcement of the change in revenue split, Valve have also granted devs more freedom to announce their sales figures. Developers releasing sales figures highlighting to what extent Valve represents the largest store on PC certainly works in Valve’s favour.

This all as Valve, whilst still making progress in some key areas, have been to some extent asleep at the wheel in other areas. There’s the absurd situation where Valve think it is appealing to customers, on the front page for the various sales that they organise, to have a button that says “Click to see all 8,472 currently on sale”. I’m pathological about browsing sales for the best deals, and I know I certainly can’t be bothered to scroll through a list of 8,472 games. Steam search is extremely basic, and lacking in robust advanced search controls that make it easier to find exactly what you’re looking for. Valve have offloaded much of their storefront organisation to their community curators and to developers/publishers themselves, resulting in (in my view) the shortcoming of there being little to no editorial voice in how the store is presented. Are the games pushed to the top good? I don’t know, but Valve have some data to say that players matching my profile are more likely to buy them. I think this metrics driven approach is partly valid, but I think it should be in support of, rather than a replacement for, Valve making subjective editorial declarations.

There’s been plenty of chatter from some indie developers not happy that their games are having to increasingly compete with other games. In some instances, this seems to me like it’s successful developers wanting to pull up the ladder behind them. In others it’s developers with bad/uninteresting games and/or ineffectively marketed games, who think that Valve should bestow success on them over other devs because of “reasons”. I do think there’s plenty Valve could be doing to improve discoverability/search, and improve how they present their storefront. Whilst broadly speaking Steam is a meritocracy, it’s far from a perfect meritocracy.

So far Epic’s strategy for dealing with the Gordian Knot of curation/visibility/eyeball management is to reject 99% of games and focus on ‘the 1%’. The only games currently on the store are extremely safe bets. Sequels to successful games, developers with a proven track record and marketable products, indie games with significant development and marketing budgets, often backed by publishers, including one that had an actual documentary made about making their prior game. This makes sense, given that it’s not yet a mature platform, but as their lineup expands, and as they begin to establish their criteria for which games get accepted and which (if any) get rejected, they’re going to need a real solution to this problem. If they want to keep a clean front page with their customers attention divvied up between a small number of high quality games, it begs the question of what fate will fall upon those games not granted this privilege?

If you wind the clocks back a decade or so, indie games being able to secure a Steam release was practically a ticket to success. This is no longer the case. This is not a failing of steam, it is Steam becoming democratised. Whereas Valve, too, used to reject 99% of games, and only allow those which were good/interesting and/or most effectively marketed to release on Steam, now the vast majority of games are accepted rather than rejected, and a game’s success or failure is simply determined by how good/interesting and/or effectively marketed it is (with a positive/negative multiplier effect for luck/privilege).

By going to the 1% of indie developers, Epic have done nothing to solve curation/discovery etc. Perhaps they have a robust plan going forward, but looking at the store front page today, I’m curious to see how it will look with a larger library. Any discussion suggesting that Epic have solved problems related to these issues in any scalable manner are premature at best and disingenuous at worst.

Then there’s the significant question of revenue split. At first glance the 88:12 proposed by Epic seems like a power move. A bold statement that they are going to take a far smaller slice of the pie, and let developers keep more of what customers spend on their games. In truth, I think this needs to be scrutinised with a bit more nuance.

Some of the statements of developers who have signed as exclusive suggested that it was for this revenue share that they decided to make a deal with Epic, but this is clearly pretty inaccurate. 88:12 is certainly a better split than 70:30, but even still Epic was only able to get these games as exclusives because the revenue share for these devs is actually:

88 + [undisclosed payment in exchange for exclusivity]:12

Were the change in standard revenue split enough to entice developers alone, it seems to me that Epic would not also need to be offering upfront payment. It’s not clear if all games that are exclusive are receiving payment in exchange for this exclusivity, but Coffee Stain have confirmed that they have. I’m not sure if this is something that will be offered to all developers, or just a minority that Epic are actively courting.

I question what exactly the motives are behind these developers signing with some degree of exclusivity. Do they really have such a strong objection to the 70:30 revenue split at an ideological level? As far as I can tell, most of these developers don’t seem to have a problem with the exact same revenue split on Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo/Apple/Google platforms. Were the tyranny of the 70:30 split so objectionable, why on earth are these developers also releasing on other digital storefronts with the same revenue split? What’s the basis for arguments that Valve do nothing to earn their cut, but Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple and Google do? It reads to me less that they have a policy of objecting to a 70:30 split, and more that they have a policy of accepting big bags of money from a retailer that simply asks for some degree of exclusivity in return. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a policy, these are businesses made up of people that need food on the table and roofs over their heads, but framing it as a decision rooted in sticking up for developers as a whole, and holding Valve accountable, seems disingenuous to me. Maybe it’s both, but I’m inclined to think that the payment in exchange for exclusivity is the bigger factor. Broadly speaking, I’d say that if Valve were in fact not earning their cut, I don’t think you’d need to pay developers to not release their game on Steam.

I’d also say that it’s reductionist to say that the Steam cut is 70:30. Valve are also perfectly happy to let developers have (effectively) unlimited key generation to do as they please with. Developers can sell Steam keys directly to customers, keeping 100% of the proceeds from sales. Developers are also free to sell Steam keys via one of many stores offering more favourable revenue splits. Indie bundles, Humble Store, Itch.io and many other digital retailers sell Steam keys, from which Valve don’t see a penny of revenue. Depending on how actively a developer pursues these options relying on the Steam backend, but entirely outside of the Steam store, the revenue split could be far more favourable. The comparison between 88:12 and 70:30 is not a direct comparison unless it also takes into account these types of sales, or until Epic commit to also allowing developers (effectively) unlimited key generation for this same purpose.

Ultimately though, it’s not the proposition for developers that’s giving me the most unease. It’s the proposition for customers. The three year old Epic store/launcher is remarkably barebones. Comparing directly with Steam, there’s a significant list of missing features, some basic and some more advanced. By releasing exclusively on Epic launcher, these developers are denying their customers access to Steam features such as cloud saves, system-wide controller integration, big picture mode, native Linux support, Proton integration for running Windows games on Linux, family account sharing, robust regional pricing, tech support forums, universal user reviews, information regarding language support on store pages, automated refunds.

The last one particularly stands out to me. On Steam, users get unlimited refunds processed automatically as long as they meet the reasonable requirements of having bought the game in the last two weeks, and having played it for less than two hours. Epic say that “We will offer two no-questions-asked refunds per player within two weeks of purchase”, this has been clarified to mean that each customer is allowed to get a refund twice a year. Dunno why only two, but I guess cross your fingers that you don’t have any problems with any games you buy from Epic Store if you’ve used up your refunds. One of their flagship launch games, Ashen, launched with non-functional multiplayer on PC, and they were still selling it with no warnings whatsoever on the store page that these problems were present. No user reviews, no forums detailing technical problems, and yet customers requesting a refund for games that do not function as advertised like this best just hope that it doesn’t happen more than twice a year. I’m no legal expert, but on the surface this seems to go counter to EU consumer law. Particularly irritating is that in the process of researching for this article, I’ve had to pull information that Epic have exclusively posted on Reddit. If the reason for no user forums on Epic store is to avoid the negative discourse that can thrive in these kind of spaces, why on earth is some information being exclusively posted on Reddit, a space that Epic have zero control on moderation over.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Epic’s games such as Paragon and their Unreal Tournament reboot failed to find an audience on Epic’s store, and why even after giving Shadow Complex Remastered away for free on Epic launcher, it still went on to find a healthy audience as a full priced release on Steam. Clearly Fortnite is lightning in a bottle, but it’s curious that Epic haven’t revealed just how many of those 200m active users are operating on a platform that Epic can even sell games (ie ruling out people playing Fortnite on PS4/Xbox One/Switch/iOS) and how many of them have even entered any payment details (user accounts with no intention of spending any money are not especially relevant to people selling games on Epic store).

Maybe they’ll develop their service to match these features and functionality, maybe they won’t, but as of today, they are not competitive with Steam, and I wonder if their calculation that 12% is the right cut of sales for them to take will allow for budget to implement a featureset that competes with what Valve offers, and will they offer users features that appeal to them going forward, or will their focus remain on simply using all that Fortnite money to pay developers to not release their games on Steam.

By paying developers to get a monopoly on distribution of the Windows version of their games, Epic are specifically not wanting to compete with Steam, and are depriving players of a choice where to buy these games from. I’d be much happier for them to compete with Steam by offering a better service to users, but as of right now that’s not an approach that Epic seem to be taking, focusing only on giving developers what they want. Of course it’s worth listening to developers, but I think it should be balanced by listening to customers. It’s rather telling to me that in their own FAQ discussing the decision to launch exclusively on the Epic Store, the developers of Rebel Galaxy Outlaw best effort to explain how it is good for their customers amounts to “We will get more money from every sale, we can spam you more easily”. Seems to me that users don’t directly get any benefit from developers having a larger share of revenue, especially when it comes at the expense of a great many useful platform features. As for Epic by default handing over email addresses to developers, if users wanted developers to have their email address I’m sure they’d be able to manually sign up for a newsletter. I think this apparent disregard of GDPR (which requires marketing emails to be opt in, rather than opt out) plus Epic’s 40% ownership by Tencent, might raise some serious questions about what is going to happen to user data from Epic Store, especially given Tencent’s close ties with the Chinese government.

PC gamers don’t forget. Whilst Epic were busy saying that there’s no money in PC gaming, PC gamers were a bunch of pirates, and “maybe Facebook will save PC gaming”, Valve were busy building the first viable large scale ecosystem for digital games on PC. It wasn’t Facebook that saved PC gaming, it was Valve. PC gamers remember how things were before Steam. Whilst Valve are to some extent a dictator ruling over PC gaming, it’s my view (and clearly a sizable portion of consumers in the space’s view) that they are a benevolent dictator. There’s a great many ways in which they could exploit their dominant market position, through monopolistic methods, but they opt not to. I’m very happy to see competition for market share from industry rivals, but I’d be far happier to see that competition take the form of competing to offer the best features and services for users, which so far is not the approach Epic seem to be taking at all. Whilst Valve are far from perfect, and I’d love to see them make interesting games again, the huge volume of consumer goodwill they have earned has been earned through doing right by their customers, and I feel that simply buying exclusivity rather than seeking to generate similar consumer goodwill is a shortcut to market share that has a net negative on the industry.

I hope Steam improves, and maybe this pressure is an incentive for them to do so, but I hope Epic in future seek to compete with Steam’s pro-user approach, rather than specifically avoiding competing by paying developers to not release their games on Steam. I think Epic store is going to struggle to find success with their current strategy of designing a store around their needs, and around developers needs, without having any meaningful answer to the question: What is in it for customers?

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PUBG Mobile: Report from PUBG Mobile Star Challenge in Dubai http://savygamer.co.uk/2018/12/12/pubg-mobile-report-from-pubg-mobile-star-challenge-in-dubai/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2018/12/12/pubg-mobile-report-from-pubg-mobile-star-challenge-in-dubai/#comments Wed, 12 Dec 2018 16:16:19 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=86376

I was rather surprised a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from a PR firm representing Tencent Games. I’m familiar with Tencent, but never had much in the way of professional interaction with them, nor this PR firm. I think that even among gamers, not many people know the name Tencent, but they’re probably the biggest games company in the world. Even if you didn’t realise it, there’s a good chance that your gaming diet includes a slice of pie that they’ve had their finger in. They own the majority of the Chinese mobile and PC gaming market, but also own stakes in the likes of Epic, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Frontier, Riot, Supercell and Paradox.

When I saw they were inviting me to go undercover to attend an event for PUBG Mobile, they piqued my curiosity. My main focus both in terms of what kind of games I cover on SavyGamer, and what I personally play, doesn’t really fall in line with PUBG Mobile. But it seemed like a great opportunity to gain some insight into some areas that represent a blind spot in my otherwise comprehensive areas of expertise in contemporary games industry. I was fascinated by the intersection between what might often be considered as the hyper-casual world of top grossing mobile F2P games, and the hyper-hardcore world of professional tier competitive gaming.

It felt like a large part of the goal of this event was to send a message. I hesitate to put a figure on the total spend, but my best guest would be in the seven figure range, if not eight. They flew out staff from Tencent Games’ various international divisions, international media, influencers, 80 players and their management, a host, and commentators to Dubai. They put everyone up in fancy hotels (I think Dubai only has fancy hotels), hosted the event in the huge Festival Arena, had a prize pool of $600k, and livestreamed the event in many different languages. All for a game that launched just nine months ago. They want people to see PUBG Mobile as a legitimate eSport, whatever exactly that entails, and they wanted the world to notice.

PUBG Mobile is a separate version of the game from the PC/Console version, with a separate development team, and is published by Tencent. To me, it feels like the more complete product than the “main” version of the game. It’s optimised well enough to run solidly on my mid-range phone, and it’s F2P on Google Play and iOS. The monetisation is remarkably light, bucking much of the conventional wisdom that game design needs to aggressively coerce players into opening their wallets for F2P games to make decent revenue on mobile. It’s all just cosmetic stuff, and whilst it’s a bit embarrassing playing your first few games in your underwear, unless there’s a specific bit of cosmetic equipment you’re after, you can just wear the stuff you quickly unlock for free. Aside from a few splash screens when you boot the game, and a progression system tied to loot boxes and multiple in-game currencies, the game itself isn’t negatively impacted by how microtransactions are implemented. There’s no advantage given to players that pay up, and whilst my personal preference is still for games that you pay up front and then they never ask for another penny, this is by far towards the least egregious end of the spectrum for monetisation I’ve seen in mobile games, and you don’t get to 200 million downloads with a paid upfront game.

Controls are another question entirely, where I was not really sure if a game with such an emphasis on fast paced realtime combat, and relatively complex 3D movement was even going to be viable on a touchscreen. Truth be told, I think the touch screen controls are still somewhat of a barrier to enjoyment for me, but I think they’ve done as good a job as possible with FPS controls on a touchscreen. A few nice touches like mostly automated inventory management, gyro aiming, and context dependant virtual buttons make it smoother to operate than I’d expected, and it gets the job done. Full on keyboard and mouse or controller enthusiasts might not be able to adapt, but for a touchscreen based controls scheme I think it’s about as effective as you could hope for, although I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally fire off a few accidental shots.

As for the tournament, there was lots of glitz and glamour, hordes of dancers wearing outfits from the game, SUVs from the game dotted outside, attendees were all offered custom printed shirts to commemorate their attendance. In the words of one of the competitors, “all this from downloading a free app on your phone”.

This was the first time there’s been any large scale meeting of teams from across the globe, so it was interesting to see the mix of different playstyles and cultures interplay. Top North American team Gankstars said of the difference in playstyle between them and the Asian teams:

We came in here with the expectation of us doing better, but it’s close. They’re doing things that we don’t see in our North American tournaments, so we have to adapt. It almost seems like they’re not taking any time looting at all, they’re just immediately on the move. These guys are in every house, you never see a four man team in the same house, you might see two in the biggest house, and one in the shack, one in the small house. They’re completely split. In NA, if we’re going to rush a compound, if you only have two in the compound you’re dying, and the ones coming out to help, they’re dying too. We have some ideas to take some of their strategies back with us, but in NA the meta is totally different, so their strategies might not work.

It’s not really possible for the international teams to play each other properly unless they’re all in the same location, the latency introduced by online play limits the exposure that the teams have had to the varying strategies different region teams play by.

We would love to find a way, but there’s not going to be a way, either we’re going to have 200+ ping, or they’re going to have 200+ ping. I think the best thing we would do is watch footage. We’ve watched footage before, but never understood what was happening, but now that we’ve experienced it, we get it.

I don’t want to put anything on the record but there’s some unconfirmed reports of collusion between some of the teams here [at this point I interject to clarify that he’s very much on the record, and gesture to the range of recording devices that he’s talking into]. We were given a lot of outfits on these phones, and you can pick whatever you want to wear, and some teams are wearing the same things as each other. And also what’s weird about them choosing the same things, is that it’s not even what most people would choose, it’s a bright colour, that really stands out. We’re choosing dark colours, and they’re choosing white clothes, which has no tactical advantage at all, the only tactical advantage is ‘hey, we know who that is’. Some teams are reporting a team on a hill, and another team on a hill, and those teams have a clear view of each other, but they’re not shooting. Staff have been made aware of this.

But that’s against the rules. It could be that they don’t like the Americans, or that they like to beat the Americans. That’s throughout all competitions, all tournaments.

Team Wildcard wouldn’t be baited into discussions about collusion (might have had something to do with the PR in the room I saw gesturing in the corner of my eye) but they clearly had respect for the standard of play on the international stage.

EVOS was definitely marketed as the team to watch out for, and RRQ too. We didn’t hear too much about the Chinese, we’re really surprised by the level of play that they’re bringing. Their qualifying tournament wasn’t broadcast to us until a day or two before this tournament. They had it live on Twitch, but it was in such a different timezone that I missed it unfortunately. After that they removed the VOD, if you look anywhere for the full stream it’s gone. They posted it with edited clips, it was 30 minute videos, but more than half of it was behind the scenes footage. If you go online, you can find our VOD everywhere, it’s on youtube, it’s on Twitch, so they can see everything that we were doing, so they know exactly what we’re doing.

In NA it’s only Cloud9, Gankstars and us at this level, and we can only get so much better playing against each other.

It’s been a big learning curve, we know that 2019 is going to be much bigger for this, we’re not hanging our heads down because we’re not first place. We’re learning from it, we’re getting closer together, adversity brings the best out of people.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though, serious technical problems hit during the final day of the competition. Part way through the first round of the day, the game, viewscreen and venue PA cut out. The host put on a brave face and tried to keep the crowds entertained whilst the technical difficulties were dealt with, but it turned out that the competition wouldn’t be back up and running for another two and a half hours. We were treated to an impromptu talent contest that ranged from impressive to brave effort but distinctly unimpressive, as what felt like hundreds of event staff crowded round electrical equipment backstage to confirm that, yes, things were broken. Fair play to everyone involved, I didn’t see any tempers lost or spirits deflated, although I can’t imagine it helped with the viewing figures for the heavily promoted livestreams.

The show must go on though, and after two and a half hours of dead air, the gremlins got conquered and the tournament resumed. Favourites RRQ Athena from Thailand dominated the competition from early on, and comfortably secured first place, along with the $200k grand prize. I asked them how they were able to do so well, and they said:

We really focused on day two [the first person portion of the competition]…it’s our strength compared to the other teams. And it pays off. Day 1 and 3 we played it safe. We also trained very hard for a whole month for this tournament.” and their management are rewarding them with a well earned luxury break in Bali to unwind after the tournament.

They kept their composure both on and off the pitch, and it seems to have paid off. I’m sure they’re going to have plenty of other teams gunning for them in future tournaments. For my part, I definitely walked away with a level of appreciated for an aspect of gaming I was fairly ignorant of. The professional-level players all come from a variety of backgrounds, had their own stories for why they were competing, and all had a positive outlook, even in the face of crushing defeat.

For Tencent, I think broadly speaking they achieved what they set out to with this tournament. If it becomes a recurring annual event, and if PUBG Mobile remains popular enough to sustain a healthy competitive scene, I’m sure they’ll have plenty of things to improve on next time around, and will probably aim to keep spare hardware to avoid lengthy technical problems. I’d also hope that they remedy the glaring flaw of none of the catering options including any form of Chicken Dinner.

Disclosure: Travel, accommodation and meals were provided by Tencent.

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These are the XBLIGs that I recommend you buy before it’s too late http://savygamer.co.uk/2017/09/20/these-are-the-xbligs-that-i-recommend-you-buy-before-its-too-late/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2017/09/20/these-are-the-xbligs-that-i-recommend-you-buy-before-its-too-late/#comments Wed, 20 Sep 2017 09:23:51 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=81333 Microsoft are going to be delisting XBLIGs (Xbox Live Indie Games) from Xbox Live soon, meaning that no one will be able to purchase these games any more, and the games will be lost in time like tears in rain.

You still have between now and the 29th of September to purchase games. Any games you have purchased before the cut off will still be attached to your account, and you will still be able to download and play them going forward, but new purchases will be impossible.

There is no indication that these games will ever be made available on Xbox One via backwards compatibility, and given that they will not be available for sale going forward, I’d say that the chances of this ever happening are pretty slim, but it’s not impossible.

These are the XBLIGs that I think are particularly worth your attention.

69p
MotorHEAT (also on PC),
Shoot 1UP (also on Steam),
Groov,
SLAM,
Squid Yes! Not So Octopus! (also on PC),
The Impossible Game (also on many other formats),
Crossfire,
Crossfire 2,
Breath of Death VII (also on Steam),
Cthulhu Saves the World (also on Steam),
Apple Jack (also on Steam),
Apple Jack 2 (also on Steam),
MotorHEAT (also on PC),
Super Killer Hornet: Resurrection (also on Steam),
Titan Attacks (also on Steam),
DLC Quest (also on Steam),
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure (also on Steam),
Wizorb (also on Steam),
Soulcaster (also on Steam),
Soulcaster 2 (also on Steam).

£1.99
Atomhex,
Leave Home (hopefully coming to Steam/PS4 soon),
qrth-phyl (hopefully coming to Steam/PS4 soon),
DELTA (hopefully coming to Steam/PS4 soon),
Arkedo Series – 01 JUMP!,
Arkedo Series – 02 SWAP!,
Arkedo Series – 03 PIXEL!,
Blocks That Matter (also on Steam),
T.E.C. 3001 (also on Steam),
Bleed (also on Steam),
Mount Your Friends (also on Steam),
Escape Goat (also on Steam),
One Finger Death Punch (also on Steam).
SpeedRunners (also on Steam).

£3.49
Flotilla (also on Steam),
Weapon of Choice (also on Steam),
Beat Hazard (also on Steam),
Gateways (also on Steam),
Platypus (also on Steam).

This is just my personal selection, if you have any recommendations that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

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Ten years of SavyGamer http://savygamer.co.uk/2017/05/03/ten-years-of-savygamer/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2017/05/03/ten-years-of-savygamer/#comments Wed, 03 May 2017 07:26:48 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=79918 May 2007 was a confusing time. Tobey Maguire was teaching the world to dance, Rihanna found her true calling as a meteorologist, and some weirdo Business & Economics student decided that there should be a website where you can easily find out about all the best deals on video games in one place.

Yes, this very website has survived ten entire trips around the sun, as today marks one decade of SavyGamer. In that time we’ve posted a total of 34,053 deals posts, which is ~3,405 a year, or ~9.3 a day. And let me tell you, I have used the “select all” keyboard shortcut quite a lot during that time.

I originally started it as a fun little side project for something to pad out my CV with, and never really had any idea it would become my career. But with the perspective granted by the passage of time, it’s become clear that it was what I was always supposed to do. I’ve watched the market for buying games radically change over the years, but one constant has been the enjoyment I get from helping people push their gaming budget as far as possible, and encouraging people to take a punt on games that might have otherwise never even considered playing.

Those of you who follow me on twitter may have noticed that as of last month I’m actually balancing two jobs now. As of last month, in addition to running SavyGamer, I’m the Guest Relations Manager for a resort on the tropical island paradise of Koh Rong Samloem. There’s been a bit of an adjustment period where I’m getting the knack of juggling two responsibilities, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it now. SavyGamer users get one free beer by applying the coupon “SAVYFREEBEER” at the bar.

I’m off to open a nice bottle of red, but before I go, I need to dish out some gratitude. I’d have never made it into the second year, never mind the tenth, without the practical and emotional support of my family. The various contributors who’ve had my back and grabbed the reigns of the site whenever I’ve needed some downtime have been integral in keeping the site constantly up to date. Finally, I am eternally grateful to each and every SavyGamer user, you’re the lifeblood of the site, and the reason I keep doing this every day. Thanks to everyone.

Here’s to another ten years.

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It’s OK to be upset about the lack of multiplayer in No Man’s Sky http://savygamer.co.uk/2016/08/15/its-ok-to-be-upset-about-the-lack-of-multiplayer-in-no-mans-sky/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2016/08/15/its-ok-to-be-upset-about-the-lack-of-multiplayer-in-no-mans-sky/#comments Mon, 15 Aug 2016 08:40:30 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=76869 OvalWalkerThere’s a narrative building that people are wrong to be disappointed about the lack of multiplayer in No Man’s Sky. To those of us fully embedded in the video games bubble, and with at least some rudimentary insight into the technical side of games and how they are made, yes it was fairly obvious that it would not be a single shared entirely persistent online game at a galactic scale. But people inside that bubble are not and should not be the entire audience for games. To argue that you must meet a certain level of technical understanding of games prior to engaging with them is an unworkable elitist perspective, and serves to push games even further in an insular direction.

Lots of developers make great efforts towards demystifying games and their inner workings (I’d give a particular shout out to Vlambeer on that front), and putting the effort in to educate people who are curious to hear tales about what goes on inside the sausage factory is absolutely commendable. But as things stand today, the bulk of the audience for games are not educated about how they get made, and should not be expected to be. That’s OK. Most film viewers have little or no understanding about the technical aspects of cinematography, most people who listen to music have no idea of how things go down in a recording studio, and most people using websites or online service wouldn’t have a clue how to program them. This is an entirely ordinary state of affairs.

People will have been sold on the idea of Sony’s new space game when they heard about it from E3. Maybe they have no idea about the size of the studio, the technical wizardry behind making it, or what exactly the relationship is between Hello and Sony.

People will have also seen it when studio head Sean Murray went on Colbert, a TV show which I’m told gets quite a few viewers. In an interview that I imagine was either organised directly by Sony, or came about at least in part due to the significant marketing Sony had thrown behind No Man’s Sky, in response to the question “Can you run into other people, other players?”, Murray said:

Yes. The chances of that are incredibly rare, just because of the size of what we’re building.

This is a sentiment that was echoed across lots of the other pre-release communication. It’s not a technical answer, it’s a experiential, or perhaps even emotional answer. If you dig through the other coverage, you can find instances where he said that the type of multiplayer he had in mind was more along the lines of Dark Souls or Journey than any kind of MMO.

But if you take the Colbert interview in isolation, to me, the simplest interpretation of that would be that “me and other players are always occupying the same game space, and if we end up in the same in game location, by chance or through planning, we will appear in each other’s game.” If that’s what people gleaned from the interview , I could not fault their reasoning. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, and if the interview wasn’t scripted it would have at least been rehearsed. Going off Sony’s track record, I don’t think they’ve ever strongly suggested a game would have multiplayer prior to release, then it’s ended up not having it on release day. Why would people not take this entirely at face value?

In the actual game, it seems like no, the reason why you will not run into other players is not because the scale of the game is so huge it will be hard to find each other. It’s because the game does not feature multiplayer of that nature. A feature which was implied, if not outright promised, is not there at all.

Using deliberately vague emotional/experiential language to describe a game and it’s features is a good idea. A dream is easier to sell than cold hard reality, omitting certain details lets the audience fill in the gaps themselves, and you can avoid ruining surprises. I think for the most part, this strategy was executed well for No Man’s Sky, but the question of multiplayer is where I think it went wrong.

Had Hello and Sony done a better job of this stuff, the confirmation that actually No Man’s Sky is not a multiplayer game would not have come in a tweet 48 hours before release, and perhaps you’d not have seen anywhere near this number of people feeling disappointed or misled.

I don’t want this to come across as is I’m having a go at Hello Games. I greatly admire their ambition, and you can go and check my position on the Joe Danger leaderboards to see how fond I am of those games. I’ve also interviewed Murray a couple of times back when they were doing the Joe Danger games, and despite his modest demeanor, he is clearly a very intelligent and sensible bloke.

But I do think they’ve made a few mistakes with the release of No Man’s Sky, I already wrote about how they handled the delay, it was utterly farcical to me that Hello Games said that the game that they printed on discs and shipped to retailers to sell wasn’t actually ready to be reviewed, and the messaging surrounding multiplayer is another area that they’ve dropped the ball. It’s perhaps to be expected given the extent to which this is new ground not just for the studio, but for the industry at large. We’ve never really had an unproven game from such a small independent team be thrust into the spotlight to this extent by one of the console platform holders before, or if we did it was back when the industry as a whole was far smaller. Regardless of what anyone thinks of No Man’s Sky the game, No Man’s Sky the product is a game changer as far as video games publishing is concerned. It’s worth having a listen to former The Man From Sony Shahid Kamal Ahmad tell the story of how he signed it.

At it’s heart, this is not a question of the quality of the game, but a matter of the pre-release communication and how it informed people’s expectations. To argue that the game should have multiplayer I think would be misguided, but to argue that the developer shouldn’t have talked about the game in such a way that people would think it had multiplayer is entirely reasonable.

I don’t think this is worth getting furious about, and obviously it’s not worth making threats or sending abuse to anyone over, but hopefully Hello and/or Sony can do better next time around. Some people are enjoying the game, some people are not, but everything would have gone smoother for all involved is there hadn’t been this mismatch between the perception and the reality of the existence of multiplayer.

It’s perhaps the strongest case we’ve had for a while for making refunds available not just for No Man’s Sky but for all games. Right now, if you bought the game from Steam and feel misled about multiplayer, you can get your money back should you so wish. If you bought it from Sony, your money is now their money, no refunds. You get nothing, you lose, good day sir. I think this is a poor policy in general, and an inexcusable position when you have an instance where plenty of people didn’t get what they thought they were paying for. I don’t think making a legal argument that No Man’s Sky was falsely advertised is worth the energy required, and I’m not sure how strong the case would even be, but Sony offering a blanket no questions asked refunds policy for all games, with reasonable time restrictions, would be a step forward. Same applies to Microsoft and Nintendo who also have no such policy.

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On release dates, delays, and the turbulence inherent in releasing a video game in 2016. http://savygamer.co.uk/2016/05/29/on-release-dates-delays-and-the-turbulence-inherent-in-releasing-a-video-game-in-2016/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2016/05/29/on-release-dates-delays-and-the-turbulence-inherent-in-releasing-a-video-game-in-2016/#comments Sun, 29 May 2016 12:07:25 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=75079 nms
News dropped the other day that Hello Games’ hugely anticipated universe simulator No Man’s Sky was to be delayed by a month and a bit. For me, this is a minor source of irritation. I was looking forward to playing the game in June, whereas now I have to look forward to playing it in August. I think I’ll cope, but it’s a situation that is happening with increasing frequency, or at least it feels like it. Read on for me having a bit of a moan about it.

I think the first thing that needs to be established it is almost always better to delay a game than to ship a game that feels unfinished. Perhaps there are instances where no amount of delays will improve the end product (I’m sure Mighty Number 9 is going to be great), but in many instances, given the choice of delaying a game from it’s previously announced release date, or shipping a game that feels unfinished and fails to deliver on it’s potential, the delay is by far the lesser of the two sins. I’d have actually thought that PS4 owners would have been more receptive to this kind of delay given how many times Uncharted 4 was delayed and then how well received the final game has been. That said, I think it’s worth discussing why this scenario even occurs in the first place.

In the case of No Man’s Sky, I am confident in saying that delaying the game is the right decision. It’s a title with a large degree of anticipation surrounding it, it will be under a significant level of scrutiny when it gets around to launching, and I commend Hello Games for taking every measure they can to avoid their customers being disappointed. That said, I do think they (“they” being Hello Games and their publishing partner Sony) have made a couple of mistakes leading up to this delay that have compounded the negatives here somewhat.

Firstly, I think it was a mistake to allow Kotaku to be the ones to break the news of the delay. Clearly that was not deliberate, Kotaku weren’t supposed to find out before the general public, and yet those press sneak fucks somehow managed to anyway. I’m sure everyone at Sony and Hello Games involved in the business and publishing side of things hadn’t really planned or anticipated Kotaku getting hold of marketing materials revealing a delay before it had been officially announced. But I’d categorize the failure to anticipate this potential outcome as a result of someone dropping the ball. Someone wrote the email informing Gamestop of the delay, and didn’t check to see whether the public had been informed of the delay before clicking send.

Marketing materials leak all the time, anyone who has maintained a cursory glance over the news cycle for video games in 2016 must have surely noticed how often headlines are generated by premature marketing materials being directly or indirectly passed on to some journalist who then shoves it in front of the rest of the world. I’d suggest that prior to any marketing materials referring to the delay having been produced, there should have been some statement from the studio announcing the delay.

When there is bad news to be released, it is better coming from the horse’s mouth than gossip-mongers (with no undue disrespect directed towards gossip-mongers). The general game-buying public are not and should not be expected to be educated about the intricacies of making and shipping games. Many people were told this game would be ready in June, and they took that entirely at face value, and perhaps even bought a PS4 on the basis of this information. As such they might reasonably feel frustrated and perhaps even misled by the delay. Were the announcement of the delay to have come from Hello Games/Sony directly, at least if could have been wrapped in more reassuring language, and it would have felt more like them holding their hands up rather than being caught out.

Secondly, I think the mistake was announcing the release date so far ahead of time in the first place. The initial release window announcement came as part of this trailer in October 2015. It’s extremely easy to sit on the sidelines and state with hindsight that announcing a date when they evidently didn’t actually know if the game would be ready by then was folly, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean I’m wrong. This is hardly a problem isolated to this game, or indeed to Sony. I’d say it’s more of an industry wide problem, where a large number of publishers and developers for whatever reason announce release dates before they actually know whether they are able to meet them.

I understand that it’s not simply a case of finishing and releasing a game, but it’s also about coordinating PR, Marketing, Manufacturing, Retailer relationships, and all sorts of other boring business factors involved in video game publishing, but these kind of delays are so commonplace that it’s begs the question: Is the current approach being taken by many publishers the optimal one?

We’ve seen a host of Sony games get delayed, we’ve seen a host of Microsoft games getting outright cancelled, and Nintendo have repeatedly assured us that the new Zelda was definitely coming out in 2015, 2016 and then eventually 2017. I think it’s no coincidence that the most severe game delays are usually tied to platform holders, who are using release date announcements not just to hype up an individual software title, but also the hardware platform it’s associated with.

I’d love to see publishers avoid announcing a specific release date or window until they are actually certain they can meet it. I’m not attributing malicious intent to these delays, I am happy to accept that sometimes things go wrong, but perhaps putting more effort towards ensuring a release date is feasible before announcing it would help lots of publishers avoid these kinds of scenarios in the future.

Aspects of this situation that are absolutely not acceptable, yet a sadly predictable component of any incident in the video games industry that results in a vocal minority of man-children feeling that they are not being pandered to in a satisfactorily absolute manner:

    – Hello Games have been on the receiving end of some hideous abuse, including death threats and verbal attacks of an extremely personal nature.
    – Kotaku and their reporter Jason Schreier have been similarly attacked for having the audacity to report on current events in the games industry.

Both of these are horrific outcomes, given that it’s just people doing their jobs as effectively as they can, and yet it’s somehow become standard operating procedure for the games industry these days. I’d encourage anyone and everyone to voice their opinions about this situation, but please do so without resorting to personal attacks or hateful language.

Overall, whilst I do thinks mistakes are being made here, I’d like to encourage people to just be patient. If you are actually angry rather than just disappointed by this or any other delay, perhaps just use the extra time you’ve been granted to do something productive like get some exercise, or connect with family and friends. Hopefully this is a habit that the industry can grow out of, but in the meantime I suspect that the best course of action will be to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism for any release dates announced way in advance.

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Please do not give Retro VGS any of your money http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/09/21/please-do-not-give-retro-vgs-any-of-your-money/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/09/21/please-do-not-give-retro-vgs-any-of-your-money/#comments Mon, 21 Sep 2015 10:45:31 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=69508 At least not without seriously thinking it through.

A crowdfunding campaign for what the creators call “a high-quality, network independent video game system and first to play new games from cartridges in nearly twenty years”. I am convinced that they are either willfully misleading people with their pitch, or they do not have a clue about how the games industry works in the 21st century. Perhaps more charitably it could said that they are exaggerating their claims for effect, that effect being to coax money out of people’s wallets. But once you start to pin down the details, it becomes rapidly apparent that giving them money is going to be setting yourself up for disappointment.

They are appealing to the nostalgia factor of a console that calls back to an era of gaming familiar to Twenty-and Thirty-Somethings with disposable income. People have fond memories of these times, and romanticism for the memories of youth is a valuable commodity when it comes to crowdfunding. They are pitching a console with no networking capabilities, no frontend that appears before loading your game, no digital distribution, no optical media and no patches. I’m positing that this is also going to mean “no games”.

On of the most revealing aspects of the plans for the Retro VGS is this, taken from their official website:

This is not a closed console, meaning If you make a game for the RETRO VGS, and you wanted to order 50 copies of your own game to take to PAX and sell them on your own, you could! The plan is to be able to submit your box, cartridge & manual artwork, game code (for the cartridge), instructions and how many you’d like to order and you’d get your 50 shrink wrapped plastic cases with your awesome game cartridges all professionally packaged and sent to you.

Say I were a professional developer, making a game with pixelart and retro design elements. Let’s put to one side that I’d probably be using Unity or Game Maker, which Retro VGS has no mention of native support for. Let’s also put to one side the variety of proven healthy platforms and marketplaces where I can access a huge install base of users. Let’s also put to one side the notion of wanting to be able to sell games without dealing with the hassle of needing to either be physically present wherever the customer is, or establish some kind of physical distribution system for remote sales. Let’s also put to one side the fact that unless I’ve allocated a massive amount of funds for QA, there’s no way I can ship a game that will even approach being entirely bug free, even with the best of intentions. The real question is: Why on earth would I want to spend money ordering cartridges on which to sell my game?

There’s so many platforms that do not have this requirement. Having to pay up front for inventory and then hope you are able to sell it with a decent margin on top is a return to the dark ages. These kind of market conditions are the exact reason that the early Sega and Nintendo consoles shut out so many of the smaller developers. Developers that today are making the kind of games Retro VGS are alluding to would have been unable to exist within the market conditions they are attempting to resurrect. The very reason we have so many small studios independently creating and releasing games with a retro aesthetic and design is because of the democratizing effect of digital distribution, because of a wide variety of easily accessible tools with broad industry support, because of the scale of the install base and userbase of today’s network capable platforms and marketplaces. I can’t see many developers even being curious enough to buy the hardware to test/develop their game in the first place, never mind investing in a physical release for a platform with a tiny install base.

There are clear advantages to some of the aspects of the platform they are pitching, but these come at astronomical costs. The principals they have designed their platform around ensure that there is no possible way their platform will manage to secure broad industry support, it will be the exclusive domain of hobbyists and vanity projects. I think in 2015 it is entirely possible to do a good job of developing and releasing hobbyist hardware that might not be commercially viable outside of a niche audience, and I’d say Raspberry Pi and Oculus Rift are successful examples of these. You simply have to pitch it for what it is, not make exaggerated claims that you have no capacity to back up.

the purpose of RETRO VGS is to…become the leading and best platform to play newly created 2D/Early 3D, retro/classic style video games, a fast growing and popular genre in today’s game space

The people behind Retro VGS are either utter fools, or entirely disingenuous when they talk about this as a possibility. Without providing a platform where releasing these kinds of games are economically viable to the studios creating these kind of games, all they’ll get will be scraps. It is extremely telling that they have absolutely non-binding, vague and unspecified statements of support from developers on their IndieGogo page. They are even struggling to keep hold of the developers they initially got some commitment from, PikoInteractive who own the rights to amonst other games Super Noah’s Ark 3D have entirely pulled out of the project, despite still being listed on the Retro VGA homepage. I hope no one gives Retro VGS money hoping to be able to actually play the games they are claiming will be on their platform!

I’d also raise the serious question over whether they actually have the rights to sell a console in the shell of an Atari Jaguar. They have acquired the molds originally used to make the Atari Jaguar console, and are using these manufacture the shells of their console. With Atari Inc. Atari Corporation Hasbro Infogrames/Atari SA nuAtari being so famously litigious, I wonder if successful, whether a large chunk of the funds generated on IndieGogo will actually end up being used as legal fees. I see no evidence that they’ve done their due diligence here, owning the molds is not the same as having permission to use them to manufacture and sell a console using them.

Update: There is no mention of this on their Homepage or the Indiegogo campaign, but commenter PlaysWithWolves directed me to this podcast where Retro VGS’s Mike Kennedy does indeed state that they have the rights to use the molds as they intend here. I have no idea why this isn’t spelled out anywhere else, but taken at face value this would suggest they may indeed have such rights. That might not stop Atari from disputing their rights, but who knows.

They’ve repeatedly protested that they are nothing like the Ouya, and I agree. The Ouya was a slow motion car crash from beginning to end, but at least it supported digital distribution and broadly used industry tools. This has neither of those advantages. You are clearly out of touch with reality when you think this is a feasible and preferable alternative to supporting patches:

bugs

Yes I’d like to see modern platforms put a greater emphasis on reducing the time between deciding to play a game and actually playing the game. Yes I’d like to see the industry as a whole do a better job of ensuring games function as advertised prior to release. Yes I’d like to see modern consoles do a better job of not throwing a hissy fit when they can’t connect to the internet. Giving these clowns money achieves none of this.

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On Refunds, Quality Control and Supply Chain Accountability http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/07/16/on-refunds-quality-control-and-supply-chain-accountability/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/07/16/on-refunds-quality-control-and-supply-chain-accountability/#comments Thu, 16 Jul 2015 08:59:44 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=68089 For quite some time I’ve wanted to write a thing about publishers deciding to ship games that don’t function as advertised, are full of bugs, or simply a technical mess. But aside from simply criticising those responsible, and advising people to exercise caution when committing to buying a game before the media and wider public have gotten their hands on it, I haven’t been sure what else to contribute. But then there’s the Arkham Knight PC catastrophe, which has played out a little differently to all the other similar instances of major publishers shitting the bed. There’s been plenty of speculation that Valve’s decision to offer Steam customers robust protection in the form of refunds for (practically) all games sold on Steam had a direct impact on WB’s decision to pull the game from sale, and to actually fix the broken game they shipped. I think this speculation has some credence to it, and I hope it is a sign of things to come.

For far too long now, basically every single retailer operating in the games space has opted not to offer customers a standard refund policy. Amazon tend to have decent customer service, Origin has a refund policy (specifically for EA’s games, rather than for everything sold on Origin), but outside of these you’ll probably be appealing to management’s discretion if you want any kind of refund on a game that doesn’t meet your standards for any reason.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if retailers took it upon themselves to actually ensure that they were only selling products who’s quality would hold up to rudimentary scrutiny, but they don’t. How many retailers refused to stock Colonial Marines? How many retailers played Watch Dogs and told everyone how awful it was instead of just uncritically regurgitating Ubisoft’s marketing materials? How many retailers allowed Halo Master Chief Collection and Drive Club to be sold on the promise that they would have functional multiplayer?

I’m not suggesting that the retailers should be testing everything they stock prior to selling it, but when after release it turns out that they have missold a product, or sold a defective product, they are responsible for cleaning up the mess they have profited from.

At the moment, it’s a free for all. In addition to all these recent games that have shipped with massive problems, I’ve seen online only games who’s server’s have been taken offline months ago for sale on the shelves of highstreet retailers, I’ve seen games that require a DRM service which is no longer offering activations up for sale, and I’ve seen games sold with inaccurate minimum specs. The attitude from many retailers has been “Your money is now our money”, and customers who have been lied to or otherwise mislead have little to no choice for recourse outside of legal action. The UK sale of goods act is pretty solid in principal, but unless you’re actually willing to take legal action to enforce your consumer rights, it’s fairly toothless.

If retailers are going to continue with a strategy of not really having any meaningful form of quality control, it would be prudent for them to also offer consumer protection in the form of a decent refund policy. Valve’s decision to give all their customers reasonable and robust protection from publishers and developers prioritizing their bottom line over customer service is a bit of a game changer, and I think other retailers should be following suit. It’s not going to magically ensure all games sold on Steam are entirely free of technical problems, but it will give consumers a solution in cases where the technical problems are unacceptable.

The console platform holders do require games to go through a certification process, but this process is not quality assurance, checking all aspects of the game for bug and other technical shortcomings, it’s simply checking that the game is consistent with their technical requirements for games on their consoles. Things like using the correct iconography for on screen button prompts, using the correct language to tell people not to turn their console off during saves, and ensuring that the game won’t cause damage to the hardware or expose any security vulnerabilities (although this isn’t always successful).

Realistically Sony and Microsoft couldn’t provide rigorous QA for all the games that ship on their platform. Even if they could, highlighting the existence of a problem is very different from actually fixing these problems. Sony and Microsoft also don’t have any direct control over the statements made in marketing games from other publishers, the onus on keeping a promise is entirely on the party making the promise.

But Sony and Microsoft aren’t just platform holders, they are also retailers. Games sold on PSN or Xbox Live are being bought from Sony and Microsoft, and thus I am of the opinion that they too should be offering customer protection along the lines of what Valve is offering Steam users. Simply selling products without taking into consideration the end users’ actual experience of consuming that product is not a business model which inspires confidence.

Yes such policies need to be designed in such a way that they don’t leave scope for abuse, and yes there needs to be limits in place to prevent customers from playing a game to completion then requesting a refund, but broadly speaking I can’t see any credible argument against the notion of some kind of refund policy that doesn’t come from a place of publishers wanting to keep customers money no matter how much the customer regrets spending money in the first place.

I can’t see any other clear path for enforcing accountability from publishers. I think directly hitting them in their wallets is the best way to ensure they avoid the kind of catastrophes that seem to be so commonplace these days. I’d hope that market forces, long term reputation damage, and the human emotion of shame would encourage publishers to clean their act up, but if these factors are having any impact it is taking a very long time.

I’ve already seen customers react to Steam refunds by saying that in future they will be more likely to buy directly from Steam rather than competitors (both authorised and unauthorised retailers) that offer Steam keys for the exact same product at a lower price, because they want the safety net of Steam’s refund policy. Clearly it is something customers want, and only liars, charlatans and heartless corporations stand to lose out from.

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Here’s How I Would Do Paid Mods http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/05/04/heres-how-i-would-do-paid-mods/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/05/04/heres-how-i-would-do-paid-mods/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 07:30:07 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=66236 I wrestled with the question of exactly how I felt about Valve’s decision to implement paid mods on Steam for a while. Before I had even reached anything approaching a fully formed opinion on the matter, Valve flip flopped, and scrapped the whole thing. At least for now. I think there’s the seed of a good idea there, and no doubt Valve will revisit this idea at a later stage, but there were some serious problems with implementation. Here’s my take on the big problems in the model, and how these problems could be mitigated.

I’m a passionate advocate for individuals being able to turn their hobby into a career. I also recognise that there are a whole host of mod developers who have been producing interesting, high quality work for a long time, without any prospect of financial reward. It’s also essential to state that the collective work of modding communities is of great value, and not simply economic value.

Regardless of intent, it feels to an extent that Valve and Bethesda have seen the huge value generated by the long standing Elder Scrolls modding community, plus the big piles of money Valve have been collecting from selling hats and other such digital tat in DOTA2 and TF2, and attempted to figure a way to carve up the modding community, and squeeze it into a capitalistic framework, with themselves getting something approaching free money for other people’s work.

Mods are typically developed outside of a commercial software setting, and whilst many mods are of a very high quality, no user could reasonably expect them to have similar quality assurance standards. It’s not my intention to draw a line in the sand between “professional” and “unprofessional” developers, but if I buy a game and it does not function as advertised, I’d be entitled to a refund. If I download a mod and it does not function at advertised, I’d have no such entitlement. There was no attempt from Valve or Bethesda to reconcile these differences in the proposed plans for paid mods on Steam. There was no threshhold whatsoever for testing mods prior to release, no threshold for how stable these mods would need to be before charging, and many of the mods which were charging were simply updated versions of stuff that had been available without any charge prior to paid mods being a thing on Steam.

Had Valve and/or Bethesda taken it upon themselves to get involved with the mod community, and make some effort to curate interesting and worthwhile mods, mods which Bethesda offer some kind of assurances they function as advertised, and won’t be broken by potential updates to the base game down the line, it would have been far more palatable to see them taking the lions share of revenue from mod sales. Steam does not provide any method for opting out of game updates, so under the proposed system, it would have been entirely feasible for a game update to break mods that users had spent money on. Certainly some modders might update their work to be compatible with newer versions, but if they have moved on to entirely new projects, or if there are insurmountable technical issues, would users be able to get a refund?

Earmarking a selection of mods that have been approved as being basically technically sound, not introducing adware or malware into your game, not being broken by game updates (or otherwise being refunded), would have certainly made the prospect of paid mods being available on Steam more appealing to me. The difficulty here is that this would require significant work from Valve and Bethesda, since they would have to perform some basic testing, and get hands on with community outreach. In my mind, this would simply represent them actually doing work to earn their share of the revenue. Perhaps they see it differently. Obviously judging by how Valve want to manage their catalogue of content on Steam, they’re far more inclined to put their trust into algorithms, data, and metrics from their userbase, than hiring professional staff to do the job. I think this is misguided, especially considering how much money Valve make. In my view they should hire a team to do exactly this type of curation. Not blocking anything from being sold, but elevating stuff that they have looked at in some detail, and decided that it is worth customer’s time and money. I’d still want mods that hadn’t received this earmark to be available, but having a middle ground for developers who are willing to jump through some technical and business hoops to provide customers with reasonable reasurances, and for customers who don’t want to pay for potentially broken or mis-sold software, would be preferable. Closer to outsourced DLC than simply a free for all of anyone being able to sell anything, and trusting the market to sort itself out.

This is arguably the biggest difference between Valve’s existing systems for selling user generated content for DOTA2 or Team Fortress 2. The item stores for these games are manually curated by Valve employees. None of these items will ever break your game, be incompatible with each other, or fail to function as advertised. The creators are selling items for existing games which will work exactly as expected. This is not true for the umbrella term of “mods”, which can be incompatible with each other, can impact performance/use of system resources, and break following updates to the base game.

I’d also suggest that being asked to pay for new toys, new things to do, and new experiences within a game is one thing. Being asked to pay to fix flaws within the initial product is entirely another. Bethesda should not be asking users to buy SkyUI, with themselves getting the lions share of the revenue. Bethesda should have hired the SkyUI team, and integrated their mod into the core game. I wholeheartedly believe that those developers deserve compensation for their work, they do a fantastic job, and no doubt helped shift copies of Skyrim. Bethesda should take some of the big pile of money they have made from selling Skyrim, and use it to fund modders working on fixes for their game.

Where exactly is Bethesda’s incentive to improve the UI in the next Elder Scrolls installment if they can make a bunch of money from shipping it with an awful UI, and selling people a better one?

This article was funded by the generosity of Patreon backers. If you’d like to chip in towards more similar articles in the future, you can do so here.

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GOG & CD Projekt Embrace Regional Pricing Bollocks http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/04/16/gog-cd-projekt-embrace-regional-pricing-bollocks/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/04/16/gog-cd-projekt-embrace-regional-pricing-bollocks/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 10:45:44 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=65805 In my role of bargain hunter for gamers across the UK, I encounter a whole host of deals where pricing is tied to what region the customer is based in. Customers in one country may be charged one price, and customers in another country are charged another entirely different price. This is a textbook example of price discrimination (that’s discrimination in the economic sense, rather than in any other), and there are arguments both for and against these pricing structures. Most retailers selling digital goods engage in some form of regional pricing discrimination: Steam has different prices for different regions, and Valve encourage (but do not force) developers and publishers to follow pricing structures that will help to maximise revenue. The iTunes app store has region specific pricing tiers for apps and in app purchases. Amazon also operate globally, but each national storefront is locally managed, with entirely different product ranges and pricing. However, one of the few retailers who opted to make an ideological stance against regional pricing has been GOG. They have aggressively marketed themselves as fully supporting the idea that you should be charged the same price regardless of which country you happen to reside in. However it seems that they have recently had a change of heart regarding these policies.

Here is a video from GOG, accusing their competitors (specifically GamersGate) of being “unfair” for charging customers different prices based on their location:

For the release of The Witcher 3, a title developed by a different division of the same company that operates GOG.com, rather than sticking with their prior stated policy, GOG have decided to charge customers from Russia, Ukraine and some other countries a price equivalent to around £10-15 for a preorder, whereas the UK preorder price is £41.49. This is a pretty massive discrepancy, and seems to be directly opposed to ideological statements on the matter that GOG have made in the past.

Since my primary concern with SavyGamer is simply to get my users the best deal possible, I instructed my users on how to go about circumventing GOG’s regional pricing discrimination with technical measures, allowing UK customers to actually attain the dream of flat regional pricing promised by GOG in their marketing. Sadly, GOG objected to this and canceled orders that they detected were made using these technical measures. There’s not much I can do about that other than shrug my shoulders and keep an eye out for the next best deal, but I don’t think I’ll be encouraging anyone to spend over £40 on The Witcher 3 any time soon.

For the release of The Witcher 2, GOG and CD Projekt decided to engage in regional pricing discrimination. Here certain regions were charged higher prices on GOG simply for being too foreign. As a cumbersome but ultimately acceptable solution to this issue, GOG offered any customers paying the higher price store credit to the value of the extra they were being charged compared to other customers. As recently as March 2014 they reiterated this policy on their official forums, even specifically stating this would apply to The Witcher 3. It would appear that they have forgotten about this pledge, and customers paying the UK price will not be offered the difference between their price and cheaper prices around the world back as store credit.

This situation is troublesome for two reasons for me. Firstly, I think it is a clear example of a company making promises in order to gain reputational benefits, then utterly failing when it comes to delivering on these promises. Secondly, there is an interesting discussion to be had over what is fair, right, and what should and ought to be done. I shall tackle these two areas separately.

Whether you think it is right or wrong for customers in richer or poorer countries to be charged different prices, GOG have made their stance on this matter known repeatedly. When it comes to advertising what makes them different from their competitors, when it comes down to courting custom from regions that have been treated poorly by many other entities in the games industry, GOG have taken great care to establish that they believe in one price for all customers, and not treating people differently purely because of their nationality. When it comes to actually delivering on this promise, when a lot of money is on the line, they have proven themselves to be unwilling or unable to actually deliver. This seems like hypocrisy to me. If they are dead set on embracing regional pricing discrimination, they should openly admit the change of policy, communicate to their customers why they ended up making this decision, and apologise for failing to follow through on promises they made in the past.

There is an interesting debate to be had over what exactly is the fairest thing to do with regional pricing. Whenever I argue against this practice, I’m always greeted by responses along the lines of “But why on earth should customers in [relatively poor country] be forced to pay the same price as customers in [relatively rich country]”. It’s an argument with merit, but not one that matches up with reality. In my experience looking at prices globally, digital games are never priced in order to be “fair” to poorer countries. Why are prices in the US almost exclusively cheaper than prices in the poorest countries within the EU? Why are Australians notoriously served the highest prices when Australian customers on average have less disposable income than many countries with lower prices? Why do the poorest countries in Africa and Asia get pricing that is directly in line with the US? It’s because regional pricing not designed to be “nice” or “fair”, it is designed to maximise revenue, taking into account antecedent market conditions, and the economic makeup of the likely custom-base within a given region. Corporations are perfectly within their rights to engage in behavior that will help them to maximise revenue (as long as they do so within the law), this is a fundamental tenet of capitalism, but doing so is incompatible with marketing yourself as being different from everyone else, and being ideologically opposed to regional pricing discrimination. I’d be far more tolerant, supportive even, of regional pricing that was geared towards making gaming more accessible towards developing countries and individuals with less disposable income, rather than simply charging the highest price the market will bear.

Whatever you think and feel about the subject of global pricing, and pricing discrimination, it seems pretty clear to me that GOG’s current actions undermine their previous public statements on these issues.

Bringing it back to what this means for SavyGamer: GOG got in touch with me to explain that they were less than happy with my decision to instruct my users on how to bypass their regional pricing. I am signed up to their affiliate program (meaning I get a cut of sales I direct to GOG), although didn’t use an affiliate link in the post instructing people on how to bypass their regional pricing. I have never agreed to refrain from instructing my users of such loopholes, and if membership of their affiliate program was contingent on such an agreement, I would simply decline to be on the program.

I don’t know exactly how GOG plan to proceed, or if they intend to expand their use of regional pricing discrimination to other items in their catalogue, but for my part I will continue to instruct my users of how to bypass such pricing policies where possible, and wherever doing so represents the best deal on a given game.

This article was funded by the generosity of Patreon backers. If you’d like to chip in towards more similar articles in the future, you can do so here.

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Devolver Digital Have Put Regional Restrictions Across Their Entire Library On Nuuvem http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/03/10/devolver-digital-have-put-regional-restrictions-across-their-entire-library-on-nuuvem/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/03/10/devolver-digital-have-put-regional-restrictions-across-their-entire-library-on-nuuvem/#comments Tue, 10 Mar 2015 14:09:06 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=65192 In my mind, of all the unique strengths of PC gaming, the greatest is that it is an open platform. The super high end graphical fidelity of bleeding edge hardware is nice, as is compatibility with a range of input devices, and being able to tinker around with mods and tweaks and hacks. But first and foremost for me, it’s being able to buy games from basically wherever you want that sets PC gaming apart from the alternatives.

It’s this openness, many different suppliers all competing for custom, that results in prices being almost exclusively cheaper across the board than buying the same games for a closed platform. There are of course outliers, notably Ubisoft and EA have been increasing the prices of their PC games in recent years, and it’s no secret that this has coincided with seeking to gain tighter control of distribution with uPlay and Origin respectively. There’s also instances where the secondary market for games on consoles (that is preowned games being sold after someone is finished with them), and the nature of physical inventory keeping (the cost of keeping boxes with plastic discs in them in storage) results in prices collapsing far quicker than on the PC, where licenses for games are typically single use and non-transferable, and the market is primarily digital for most games.

Retailers, publishers and developers may seek to minimise this competition on price with a range of methods. One such method is regional pricing discrimination, whereby prices are decided for each regional market to maximise revenue. Where one price might be optimal for the USA, another price might be optimal for the UK. This isn’t a form of generosity, it’s not a case of charging poorer countries less out of kindness (as evidenced by many countries poorer than the USA being charged significantly more), it’s simply aiming to determine the highest price any given market will bare, and charging that. This will take into account factors like antecedent market conditions, like the historical “going rate”.

Some of the best deals on PC games in recent times have come from a Brazilian retailer, Nuuvem. Just taking a look back over deals I’ve posted from them shows that they are pretty competitive. Their prices are seemingly intended to maximise revenue in the Brazilian market, which often results in lower prices than many other retailers. They are perfectly happy to sell to international customers, although they are also happy to block certain customers from buying individual games on a case by case basis, if they happen to be too foreign. For some items, they sell region free keys, but will only sell those keys to customers from certain regions (typically South America). For other items, they only stock region locked keys.

So where do Devolver Digital come into this? Up until very recently, Devolver Digital’s games were all available through Nuuvem for international purchase. Just two weeks ago I directed SavyGamer users to Nuuvem to preorder Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number from Nuuvem, since it was the cheapest retailer by a decent margin. People were able to order it without issue. With it’s imminent release, I decided to remind everyone that Nuuvem was the cheapest place to buy Hotline Miami 2, but was surprised to discover that it was no longer available to purchase in the UK, and in fact Devolver have blocked people from the UK from buying any of their games from Nuuvem.

I think this is a shame. I’m broadly against regional pricing discrimination for digital games. I think it is better to just pick a fair price, and charge that globally. Pricing promotions are a far better way to attract customers with less disposable income, no matter where they reside. That said, obviously any developer or publisher is well within their rights to engage in regional pricing discrimination (as long as they don’t breach laws limiting this in the process, such as EU free trade law), and taking steps to curb customers bypassing these pricing discrepancies helps to maximise revenue.

But it is a disappointing to see a publisher like Devolver, who put their customers first in many other ways, putting restrictions on where their customers can buy their games from. Even aside from pricing, I’ve had excellent customer service from Nuuvem, and they’re always one of the first retailers I go to. In an ideal world, it would be best for customers to purchase their games from whichever retailer was preferable.

Massive publishers like Ubisoft and Square Enix have not put these restrictions on their games sold via Nuuvem, so it does stick out when a smaller publisher like Devolver decides to apply these restrictions. In my mind it is a customer hostile move.

Fortunately, Devolver are still selling region free Steam keys. Meaning if you are able to get a key from Nuuvem, it can be registered on Steam no matter where you are in the world. It is relatively trivial to use a service like Hola Unblocker to trick Nuuvem into thinking you are located in Brazil, and from Steam’s perspective, the key you enter will be indistinguishable from one that you got a Brazilian friend to buy on your behalf.

This article was funded by the generosity of Patreon backers. If you’d like to chip in towards more similar articles in the future, you can do so here.

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SavyGamer is on Patreon http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/02/23/savygamer-is-on-patreon/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/02/23/savygamer-is-on-patreon/#comments Mon, 23 Feb 2015 12:01:20 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=64929 Short version: Check it out! SavyGamer is on Patreon.

Long version:

We’re all friends here, so if you don’t mind, allow me to get real for a moment.

Firstly, I can’t emphasize how much I owe everyone who has used SavyGamer, and supported me in a variety of ways in the roughly 8 years I started on this journey.

Whether you’ve trusted me to inform you about the best gaming deals, recommended SavyGamer to other people who might find it useful, chucked me a few quid in my moments of need, or helped me out in any other way. None of it has been forgotten, and all of it has been appreciated.

It’s not something I particularly want to dwell on, but whilst I have had my dalliances with working for others in Games Media, the personal cost of trying to continue to do so is not worth the paltry pay and terrible job security. I’ve been chewed up and spat out too many times. I’ve not got it in me to go for another round in the ring. There are good people doing good work in games media, but I’m just not sure I fit into that machine. Not any more.

I do love writing about the world of video games, though. Particularly any opportunity I get to apply my understanding of business and the systems governing the relationship between creators and consumers. Typically the large corporations in the games industry have access to huge platforms, and mountains of resources, to push their ideas and interests. I see my role as a counter to this. I fight for the users.

In my opinion, consumer advocacy is lacking in many corners of games media. Certainly there are other areas that are important for media to focus on, and you’ll get a different interpretation of what “consumer advocacy” means whoever you ask, but this is where my expertise lie, and this is where I feel I can be most useful.

I currently earn an OK amount from SavyGamer. I’m not wealthy, and some months are better than others. I would describe my financial standing as being on the fringes of financial security, and I’ve struggled a bit since I decided I was done writing for anyone else. I’m well aware that this is a privilege by many standards, and I wouldn’t for a second disagree with anyone who decided they have better things to do than indulge my bourgeois career choice by giving me money to write words about video games.

However, I am hoping that there are enough people out there that have the disposable income to be in a position to commit to chucking me a few quid on a monthly basis, and who value my work enough to do so, that it’s worth me asking. Having an extra cushion of money I could rely on would allow me to feel far more secure, and it is something I am willing to work for.

Full details of what I’m offering can be read on the SavyGamer Patreon page. I am asking people to fund me writing articles on a regular basis, with a consumer advocacy focus, to be published here on SavyGamer for anyone to read, should they care to do so.

This Patreon is exclusively for funding me writing articles in addition to the work I do posting deals on SavyGamer. That work will be in no way limited or interrupted, and under no circumstances will there be any tiered service for SavyGamer. SavyGamer is and will remain entirely free of adverts.

Stick any questions you have in the comments, and I’ll try to address them.

Thank you, and much love,
Lewie Procter

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Here’s Why Ubisoft Are Dummies And Hypocrites For Revoking uPlay Keys Bought From Unauthorised Distributors http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/01/26/heres-why-ubisoft-are-dummies-and-hypocrites-for-revoking-uplay-keys-bought-from-unauthorised-distributors/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2015/01/26/heres-why-ubisoft-are-dummies-and-hypocrites-for-revoking-uplay-keys-bought-from-unauthorised-distributors/#comments Mon, 26 Jan 2015 12:10:32 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=64272 ubi

Update: Ubisoft have subsequently restored access to these games. So they got a PR black eye, and not much else out of this. In more positive news, they have published a fairly comprehensive list of authorised retailers.

It would appear that users of the Ubisoft official forums have found certain games revoked from their uPlay accounts, without warning or explanation, resulting in them no longer being able to play them. The best theory suggests that these keys were purchased from unauthorised retailers, since this is something all users claim to have in common, but without any statement from Ubisoft to confirm or deny this, this is only speculation. I’ve ascended the control tower to try to get some perspective on what’s going on, and see if I can get a reading of the lay of the land.

I’ve covered the subject of serial key resellers on SavyGamer previously, and you can read my thoughts on the broader implications of retailers selling on serial keys without permission from the publisher here. In short, I am of the opinion that attaching unenforceable terms and conditions preventing resale of a serial keys does not trump an individual’s or an organisation’s right to do as they please with their property.

Specifically with regards to Ubisoft and these recent instances of games being revoked without any communication, I find it somewhat troublesome.

I highly doubt any of the people on the receiving end of Ubisoft’s ban hammer of justice actively sought out keys involved in fraudulent activity. Far more likely to me is that these people were opting to buy Ubisoft games in good faith, and simply sought out the retailer offering the best price at the time.

Nowhere do Ubisoft have a comprehensive list of authorised retailers. How exactly are customers supposed to know which retailers are authorised by Ubisoft when they have chosen not to display this information anywhere? I’ve spent 8 years of my life scouring the internet for deals on games, pitting different retailers against each other, and I am intimately familiar with the majority of websites that you can buy games from. I could not off the top of my head reel out a comprehensive list of retailers that I think are authorised, and it takes some time and effort to discern whether a retailer is authorised or not, if indeed I can tell. The rule of “If something looks to good to be true, it probably is” is a good rule of thumb, but aggressive discounts are in no way exclusive to unauthorised retailers, there are plenty of authorised retailers who engage in promotional pricing.

Beyond failing to inform customers of which retailers they do authorise, Ubisoft contribute to muddying the water in other manners.

Many unauthorised retailers engage with youtubers and streamers in order to drum up business, typically with affiliate arrangements (Disclosure: much like the affiliate arrangements which fund SavyGamer). Ubisoft also grant these same youtubers and streamers permission to monetize their videos (aka surround them with paid advertising). There are terms and conditions attached to the permission to monetize, which can be viewed here. There is no rule forbidding affiliation with unauthorised distributors. Surely if Ubisoft want to avoid customers being directed towards unauthorised distributors en masse, they should make monetization permission contingent on agreeing to only direct customers towards authorised retailers. From a reasonable consumer’s perspective, you might look up a video for a Ubisoft game you are interested in, see that they have been granted permission from Ubisoft to make these videos, and then simply click on the link provided to purchase the game.

Ubisoft have also repeatedly engaged with everyone’s favourite screeching youtube personality, PewDiePie. Here is a Ubisoft community manager sharing a video of his in order to help promote their game. Here is the official Ubisoft twitter account telling pewdiepie that he is awesome. Here is Ubisoft congratulating him and sending him some swag for having reached 30 million youtube subscribers.

PewDiePie is also the face of G2A.com, one of the bigger unauthorised retailers, and indeed one of the retailers that people experiencing games being revoked are stating they bought their key from. Here is an image taken from a promotion campaign he did for them. Here is a recent post he put out on his facebook page promoting them. On the page here, he is front and centre in their lineup advertising their affiliate scheme.

What’s it to be Ubisoft? Are we expected to trust PewDiePie when he is showing off your games, but not to trust him when he tells us where to buy them? If these retailers are conducting fraudulent activity, why on earth are you engaging with someone who promotes them to a massive audience? Why are you granting him monetization permission? It’s entirely feasible that someone could discover PewDiePie via official Ubisoft marketing channels, and then discover G2A.com via PewDiePie. It seems to me that there is an element of hypocrisy in Ubisoft’s actions. They want coverage from PewDiePie and other youtubers and streamers, but aren’t bothering to check whether they are directing customers to unauthorised retailers, nor to deny monetization permission if they are.

The timing of these keys being revoked is somewhat suspicious to me. Since their big Q3 2014 releases dropped, Ubisoft have increased the prices of their PC releases, up to an eye watering £50 at release in the UK. They continue to engage in regional pricing discrimination, that is charging different prices for the same product in different regions, seeking to maximise revenue. Of course customers are going to look elsewhere for better deals when you decide to start charging £50 for PC games. Unauthorised retailers have been around for a very long time, but this is the first time I am aware of Ubisoft taking any action against customers who have used them. Revoking these keys doesn’t get Ubisoft any extra revenue directly, but it does send a message discouraging customers from shopping around for the best deal.

It would seem to me that Ubisoft have chosen to take the extreme measure of revoking keys from customers bought in good faith, before having taken even rudimentary measures to allow customers to inform themselves about which retailers are authorised and which are not. If Ubisoft’s reasoning for revoking these keys is that they were somehow fraudulently acquired by the retailers in question, I am of the opinion that best practice would be to communicate this with customers, and to indeed present some evidence of this. There is currently no discernible difference between Ubisoft revoking these keys in relation to fraudulent activity, and Ubisoft simply deciding on a whim to fuck with their customers.

My perspective on linking to unauthorised retailers on SavyGamer is unchanged. I can provide no guarantee that access to a game bought from a given retailer won’t be revoked, but this is true whether the retailer has Ubisoft’s authorisation or not. Whilst all the keys that have been revoked were bought from unauthorised retailers, it is not the case that all keys bought from unauthorised retailers have been revoked. To my great disappointment, my copy of Watch Dogs bought from an unauthorised retailer has not been removed from my account. Regardless of the motives, or the eventual outcome, this is a stark reminder that due to many games increased reliance on online components, the concept of “ownership” of a game you have paid money for has been gradually eroded.

No doubt Ubisoft are within their rights to revoke these keys. Presumably the terms and conditions uPlay users agree to upon creating an account entitle Ubisoft to revoke keys as and when they please. I would, however, suggest that to an extent this is a problem of their own creation, and their handling of this situation reflects on them poorly.

I would advocate that any customers who have had their key(s) revoked respond by pirating the game, and then reconsider whether you want to buy Ubisoft games again in the future. I would also suggest that anyone who doesn’t like the idea of a digital distribution service where games can be revoked with no notice, no explanation, and no scope for recourse, avoid uPlay.

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Steam Curators: What’s that then? http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/09/24/steam-curators-whats-that-then/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/09/24/steam-curators-whats-that-then/#comments Wed, 24 Sep 2014 11:14:35 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=60463 You may remember that a few weeks back I wrote a largely speculative article about what to expect from some upcoming changes to Steam. It seems that I was pretty much spot on about what to expect from “Steam Curators”, although I was wrong on one crucial detail: Valve aren’t offering curators any commission in return for their work.

Bit of a shame for me, since I was quite keen on the idea of getting affiliate commission from Steam like I do most other major digital distribution outlets, but perhaps Valve realised that many people would be happy to curate their storefront for free. Or maybe some kind of commission structure is still in the pipeline.

What does this mean for you? Well that depends. Essentially Valve have replaced the old Steam front page with a new one. The new one will be tailored to you specifically, rather than being one front page for all customers. The new storefront picks which games to display based on games you have already bought and played, and recommendations pulled in from “Curators”, Steam users that collate lists of recommended games.

To improve the recommendations you receive, you can opt to follow a curator, and then the recommendation engine will pull titles from their recommended lists.

There’s a couple of issues I have with this system. There’s seemingly no mechanism in place whatsoever to prevent under the table payola arrangements between publishers and curators. I suppose this has been the case prior to Steam Curators, but there’s pretty big scope for abuse here. I also worry whether this system will be good for getting unappreciated games exposure, or will it just end up favouring games from established developers with a marketing budget?

Overall though, I think it’s a step in the right direction. Like many Steam features, it’s launched in an imperfect state, but I’m sure it will improve over time.

If you’d like to receive recommendations from SavyGamer on your Steam front page you can follow us here.

I’m planning to meticulously curate the store, I’ve already completed my first pass of going through the entire Steam catalogue and picking out my favourites, but I’ve probably missed out some obvious games. I’ll be sure to keep it updated as interesting new releases get added to Steam.

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What’s Happening With These Bayonetta 2 Orders From Amazon Then? http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/09/12/whats-happening-with-these-bayonetta-2-orders-from-amazon-then/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/09/12/whats-happening-with-these-bayonetta-2-orders-from-amazon-then/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 16:04:37 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=60117 It was supposed to be so easy.

Amazon put a listing on their website saying that if you agreed to give them £31.85, they would agree to give you a copy of Bayonetta 2. They also said that it would include a copy of the original game too. Quite the deal.

As such I told you lot about it, hoping that the cycle of production and consumption could continue uninterrupted.

Amazon had other ideas in mind.

See, Amazon UK’s original listing of Bayonetta 2 was based on information given out by Nintendo of America, and the situation for the UK is subtly, but crucially, different. Outside of Europe all copies of Bayonetta 2 include the original game at no extra charge. In the UK, the standard edition of Bayonetta 2 does not include the original, it’s only included with the more expensive “Limited Edition”. Amazon had put incorrect information on the item description for Bayonetta 2, information that customers (reasonably) will have taken at face value.

Some time after Nintendo publicly confirmed the plans for the EU launch of Bayonetta 2, Amazon changed their listings. They added a totally separate listing for the Limited Edition, and erased any mention of the free copy of Bayonetta from the existing listing.

I don’t actually think it’s a huge deal that Amazon accidentally listed incorrect information, these things happen, and it’s hard to keep on top of the specifics of exactly what a video game promotion involves, especially when dealing with Nintendo’s byzantine operations.

But how Amazon have dealt with the fallout of their error has so far been a total omnishambles. I’ve heard from a range of people who ordered this, and everyone has a different story about their experiences.

I’ve heard some people were offered a free upgrade to the Limited Edition (matching what Amazon actually promised would happen prior to them updating the listing).

I’ve heard some people get some kind of gift voucher to make up for the mistake. £5 in some cases, £15 in others.

I’ve heard some people told they’ll get nothing. They lose. Only option is to cancel the original order or accept not getting the promised copy of the original at no extra charge.

Personally, I spoke to their livechat, and mentioned that their twitter account had confirmed I would get the original, only for their livechat lie to me, claiming that Amazon don’t even have a twitter account. Utterly baffling. I followed up with them on twitter and got a £15 gift certificate for my trouble.

This brings us to today, where they’ve sent out a mass email to people who ordered it. Email says the following:

amazon

I’m not really sure what to expect, or what the best course of action is. Probably hold on to your orders for at least another couple of days to see what they come up with.

If you managed to get a response from Amazon, positive or negative, perhaps share it in the comments to help other people decide how to proceed.

Sorry it didn’t go as smoothly as I’d have hoped.

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What To Expect From Steam’s Open Future http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/08/15/what-to-expect-from-steams-open-future/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/08/15/what-to-expect-from-steams-open-future/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 19:03:25 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=58848 Steam’s Greenlight submission process has always been an imperfect solution to a hard problem: How can Valve present users with a reasonably curated storefront, resulting in a good experience, but still avoid placing unnecessary barriers to market for creators hoping to sell their games on Steam. It’s somewhat achieved that goal, but there’s huge scope for improvement.

There’s still dozens of fantastic games that have been languishing on the service for months, and even years in some cases. The $99 fee is a bit of a joke when likely it’s the developers with the least access to finance that will be coughing it up. It’s outright insulting that developers who have the right industry connections are able to bypass Greenlight entirely, whereas devs with a game of equal quality but without the friends in the right places are told to jump through hoops of a silly popularity contest. Valve have also given out misleading information, telling devs not to sign to a publisher in order to bypass Greenlight, but then allowed many devs that have signed to a publisher to bypass Greenlight.

But it’s far from a total failure. I think to some extent the flaws in Greenlight as it stands today highlight that the Valve employees responsible probably have a fairly privileged worldview. There are many fantastic creative people that don’t have $99 lying around to burn, just to show Valve how serious they are. Overall, it’s probably an improvement from the previous system, and just shy of 400 games have been released after being voted in by the Greenlight userbase.

Valve have never said that Greenlight would be around forever though, and they’ve even dropped hints that it might be gone sooner than later.

Timeline wise, the most concrete statement made by anyone from Valve about Greenlight’s expiry comes via Curve Studios’ Jonathan Biddle, who was told by a Valve representative that Greenlight would be gone “Within the year” back in March of this year. This echoes words spoke by Valve Managing Director Gabe Newell, on stage during their Steam Dev Days conference, where he said “Our goal is to make Greenlight go away”.

But what will a post-Greenlight Steam look like? What will the submissions process be for devs? How will they avoid making the store front page being filled with low quality products?

This was actually largely addressed in a January 2013 economics lecture Newell gave:

The entire lecture is worth a watch if you’re at all interested in Economics, or just the games industry in general, but the portion of the lecture relevant to Greenlight starts at 43m47s.

He says the following:

Right now Steam is essentially a curated store. It’s a bunch of other things, but you can also think of it as a curated store. We have these really hard working people that other companies call up and say “Hey, would you put my game on Steam”, and we’re putting up three games a day right now, and we have to put up these capsules and blah blah blah. Essentially, whether we want to or not, we’re becoming a bottleneck, in terms of content being connected with users. Now, there are reasons why you might want to create an artificial bottleneck between content creators and consumers, for example if you want to shift where relative value is towards controlling distribution, it’s great if you can create artificial shelf space scarcity, but that’s not really what we’re trying to do.

So rather than having this curated store, we’re going to say “OK, it we’re thinking about this correctly, it really should be a network API. There should just be this publishing model.” Yes you have to worry about Viruses and Malware and stuff like that, but essentially anybody should be able to publish anything through Steam. Steam is just a whole bunch of servers and a whole bunch of network bandwidth, and if people are interested in consuming the stuff that you’re putting up there, then a collective good is going to be there. So rather than us sitting between creators and consumers, we’re going to get as far out of that connection as possible. Steam stops being this “Calling up Jason Holtman and yelling at him until he puts your game up on the Steam store”, and instead just becomes a network API. That’s a consequence of our perception of the direction that the industry is going.

So on top of that, we’d also say: Right now, with Team Fortress 2, we say “anybody can make content”, so people make goofy Ushankas for all the characters (I didn’t even know that word til I saw it appear in TF2). There’s no notion of privileged content. Right now, in Steam, the store is privileged content. The store is a collection of editorial perspectives on stuff. What it should be, is user generated content, that means other companies might create their own stores that are connected to the Steam back-end, but anyone would be able to create a store, and there’s some market based mechanism for determining the price that a store gets to impose, so anyone that tries to charge too much for the goods that are falling through that, the store will get priced out of the market. But if you have a collection of games that you own and you play, and one of your friends decides to buy a game through your trivially created store, then you should get a percentage of that revenue. Now, most people won’t have interesting collections of games, or interesting friends, I don’t know. But some people will go to a lot of effort. Treating a store as another type of experience. The guys I would have loved, Old Man Murray, would have done an awesome job. Yahtzee would be another person, where either through affiliation, or through his editorial process, I’d actually purchase a product through him than in some other way.

So you take two things which you intend to think of as super valuable assets that have to be guarded really carefully, deciding who gets to be on Steam, and deciding how stores are presented to consumers, and this is how we rethink them. It’s a generalized network service, and the store rather than being some unique special thing, that represents Valve have control of this, instead it turns into “Oh, lots of people will add a lot of value to that process”. Through the market mechanism, the audience will reward, or not reward, people for building entertaining stores.

We take these high level concepts of how we’re going to change, and we turn them very concretely into a set of product changes and system level changes.

There’s a fair bit to unpack, but the core of the ideas represented here are very similar to Affiliate Commission. Retailers paying a small percentage of a transaction to a third party who was responsible for generating the sale. This is a tool that many retailers use, as it’s typically a cost effective and low risk tool for marketing.

The big difference to me seems to be integrating affiliate commission with a smart system for handling curation, and building that into the platform. The data generated by a large group of curators and users interacting has the potential to do a far better job of determining which items should get which store placement than a team inside Valve attempting the same.

The reality is that if Valve were to entirely open the floodgates to Steam, letting anyone release anything they wanted on Steam, there would be a lot of bad or uninteresting products made available to buy. It would probably be beyond Valve to play everything released, never mind decide which games to give prominent store placement to. By outsourcing the process of curation, they are able to remove the bottleneck of Greenlight, whilst protecting the user experience, and potentially improving it.

But why am I talking about all this now? It seems that these changes to Steam could be happening very shortly. The clever folks over at steamdb have found a whole host of evidence that a major update to Steam, including changes that might lay the groundwork for retiring Greenlight, could be with us before long. All the stuff here about “curators” strongly hints at the kind of “Open Steam” Newell talked about in his economics lecture.

It’s not entirely clear what the user experience will be. It seems part of the process will be allowing users to “follow” curators, and presumably when a curator recommends any given game, that recommendation will (somehow) be pushed to the user. The reference to a “Dynamic store” strongly suggests a storefront that will adapt to a given users preferences, perhaps integrating recommendations from followed curators, friends, and individuals with similar taste.

The Steam store as it currently stands was clearly never designed to handle the volume of games it’s currently dealing with, and I think these changes seem to smartly address the issues currently caused by it’s outdated layout. It’s hard to know for sure exactly how these changes will impact the market, but I’m optimistic it will be a net improvement.

I’m personally quite looking forward to curating my own Steam storefront. In many ways, SavyGamer is like a curated storefront for the entire market, and the idea of a platform built around empowering and financially rewarding curation is highly attractive to me, although it’s still to be seen exactly what control curators will have over store layouts and pricing.

The big unanswered questions, as I see them:

  • What impact will offering a percentage of sales generated have on objective games media?
  • What will the percentage given to curators be?
  • Will the cut given to curators come from Valve’s 30%? (almost certainly yes on that one)
  • Will the $99 submission fee remain in place?
  • Will devs have the ability to opt in/out of this system, or will it be a requirement of selling on Steam?

 
Exciting times for everyone involved. I don’t have much more insight to offer, this is just something I have spent far too long thinking about, but stick any questions you have in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do.

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An Update On This Mighty Deals Gift Voucher Thing http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/24/an-update-on-this-mighty-deals-gift-voucher-thing/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/24/an-update-on-this-mighty-deals-gift-voucher-thing/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 16:08:57 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=58213 So then, as you may have seen, I recently featured a bunch of deals on SavyGamer involving procuring a stack of discounted gift vouchers from website mightydeals.co.uk.

These deals relied on exploiting a loophole which I fully tested myself prior to posting, and had been able to confirm as working.

Sadly, subsequent to my posting it, mightydeals appear to have closed the loophole, leaving a bunch of people in a somewhat inconvenient limbo.

It seems that they have been cancelling some of the gift voucher purchases deemed to have been made by the same person. I’ve not received an email yet, but some people have received an email detailing the following:

Thank you for your recent purchase of the Curry’s High Street e-Giftcard.

So everyone can enjoy this fantastic deal we have limited the purchase to one per customer as per the deal terms we will be cancelling any duplicated purchases. It is one per customer, not one per email / Mighty Deals account created.

Only one ‘50% Off the high street gift voucher’ purchase is allowed per individual.

Any person buying multiple ‘50% off the high street gift voucher’ will have the transaction cancelled without further notice and the money refunded.

To see more please review the deal terms.

Mighty Deals and our partners will not be honoring your duplicated vouchers purchased. Your refund has been sent back to the original card you used to pay with and should be with you in the next 7 working days.

I knew that the worst case scenario according to the Mighty Deals terms and conditions would be that you’d be able to get a full refund, as such I figured that the potential savings more than offset the convoluted nature of the loophole.

I’ve looked into it a bit, and if you are affected by this, here’s my advice:

If you have no urgent need to get your refund processed quickly, my best advice is to sit tight and just wait to see how it plays out. It’s possible that some but not all of your gift voucher purchases will be fulfilled, and these might still be of use to you, even if it’s not enough to buy what you had planned to spend them on.

If you would like to get your refund as quickly as possible, I suggest contacting mighty deals directly here, and raise a dispute with paypal (or your bank, whichever you used to pay with).

If anyone has any more trouble, or anything else that they’d like me to try and clear up, please post in the comments here.

I’m always on the look out for a good loophole or trick to push things in SavyGamer users favour, but I never knowingly risk people wasting their money, and I always scrutinise a deal for the possibility of people losing out before posting it. I perhaps lean a bit more towards reckless rather than overcautious, since that’s where most of the best deals are to be found, but I hope no one feels too let down by this not panning out as we’d all hoped.

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Lying with Data: A lesson in Microsoft spin http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/18/lying-with-data-a-lesson-in-microsoft-spin/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/18/lying-with-data-a-lesson-in-microsoft-spin/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 15:52:41 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=57917 kinect

The latest in a rather long chain of 180 degree turns from Microsoft regarding policies and business decisions relating to the Xbox One came into effect last month. With Microsoft deciding that actually no, Kinect is not “an essential and integrated part of the platform” as originally stated, they made the console available to buy without their costly and unwanted camera, and in the process hit price parity with their closest competitor, Sony’s PS4.

The move to jettison Kinect was likely made in an attempt to win over consumers who aren’t sold on the notion of having a camera in their living room with barely any meaningful gaming applications. But how successful has this decision been?

According to Microsoft, US Xbox One sales “More than doubled” in June, the month that it was first made available without Kinect. More than doubled? “Doubled” is a big thing. That sounds like a successful outcome.

Except if we take a moment to scrutinise the specifics of Microsoft’s announcement, it falls apart somewhat. The announcement that they would be making the Xbox One available without Kinect came in May. Specifically on the 13th of May. The message was that if you want to buy an Xbox One without Kinect, you should wait until next month to buy one. For the rest of May, many customers who might have otherwise begrudgingly bought an Xbox One bundled with Kinect would have instead decided to wait to get one without Kinect at a lower price.

Without raw data from MS on the exact figures sold, it’s hard to know exactly how the sales pattern played out, but the announcement that a cheaper, more attractive option would be available next month will have negatively impacted sales for the month of May. How did May sales compare to the previous baseline sales they were experiencing? How big was the inflection in sales when the announcement was made on the 13th of May? Microsoft has chosen to omit this information. If May was a particularly slow month for sales, that has obvious implications for the significance of these figures doubling in June. Many of the people buying an Xbox One in June would have bought one in May had this announcement not been made.

It’s pretty easy to spot this kind of trick if you’re paying attention. Microsoft have been employing all the same kind of tricks Sony did back when they tried to make the PS3 sound like it was more successful than it actually was.

Sadly, it seems that the majority of the games press didn’t bother to scrutinise Microsoft’s claims. The likes of CVG, The Guardian, IGN, Polygon, and (A publication I up until recently worked for) Kotaku all repeating Microsoft’s claims without any scrutiny, spin fully in tact.

I’m not really having a pop at the respective authors and publications there. The consumer video games press isn’t really equipped to effectively scrutinise statistics and industry machinations, and honestly I don’t really think they have a mandate to do so from their users, but it is a bit frustrating seeing people who are supposed to be professionals falling for pretty basic spin. Seems to me that if we’re just going to get announcements parroted without any worthwhile analysis, perhaps it’s just better to go direct to the source, rather than having a journo act as an intermediary between consumers and PR departments.

But if you’re wondering how come MS opt to give out needless complex information rather than just giving us the raw data, it’s because the raw data probably doesn’t paint them in the best light, and they seem to be able to get away with giving out fuzzy information without any negative consequences.

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The SavyGamer Replacement Laptop Fund http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/11/the-savygamer-replacement-laptop-fund/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/07/11/the-savygamer-replacement-laptop-fund/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:15:47 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=57549 Update: My new laptop has been ordered, and is on the way. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed. I’m blown away by your generosity, helping me out in my hour of need. The donations I received amounted to 40% of the cost of the new one, and I can cover the rest myself. I’ll unsticky this post now, although if anyone is just seeing it for the first time, you can still contribute if you like. I’ll be sure to update this post if the total donated reaches 100% of the cost of the new laptop down the line. Thanks so much, I promise to continue to do everything I can to keep you informed about all the best gaming deals. <3 Not too long ago through my own clumsiness I managed to break my laptop. Sadly it wasn't covered by the warranty or by my house insurance. A laptop is a tool I need to run SavyGamer effectively, and without one I'm tied to only being able to post stuff when at my desktop. As such, I've just incurred the unexpected expense of buying a replacement. Luckily I have enough savings that this isn't going to negatively impact me too much, but I had earmarked that money for more important and more fun things. I figured that there might be a few SavyGamer users who, upon hearing about this situation, would want to contribute some money towards the replacement, hence this post. If you'd like to send a little bit of money my way, you can do so via this paypal button:

 

Please only contribute if you have plenty of disposable income. As I said, I’m asking for donations to make my life easier, not because I can’t get by otherwise.

If you’d like to help out, but are unable to contribute financially, I always appreciate it whenever you lot help spread the word, and recommend SavyGamer to anyone else who might find it a useful service.

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Technical Difficulties: Please Stand By http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/05/28/technical-difficulties-please-stand-by/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/05/28/technical-difficulties-please-stand-by/#comments Wed, 28 May 2014 08:44:01 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=56057 Hello everyone! You might have noticed a drop in deals over the last few days. Sorry about that.

Lewie is off gallivanting around the world right now, with a trusty laptop for company to make sure he can keep all his plates spinning while he’s doing so. Unfortunately, said laptop has turned out not to be so trusty and is currently in need of repair. While he’s done a great job of keeping the deals coming on his break until now, as you might imagine, this is a bit of a roadblock.

Lewie will be back in the UK next month, at which point normal service should begin to pick up due to having access to computers and such. In the mean time, the B Team will be filling in the gaps as best as we can. We might not be able to grab you a deal quite as quick as Lew but what we lack in alacrity we make up for in spirit of heart, or something.

If you want a deal for something specific, please ask us on Twitter and we’ll do our best – I’m @Willeth and Tony is @standardman. You can follow Lewie on Twitter at @LewieP for updates on his status too.

Cheers!

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Paying For Coverage: The Comodification Of Exposure http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/30/paying-for-coverage-the-comodification-of-exposure/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/30/paying-for-coverage-the-comodification-of-exposure/#comments Wed, 30 Apr 2014 09:04:12 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=55113

The thing that twitter users got angry about last night is a thing that anyone who has engaged with games media from any angle, whether it’s consuming it or producing it, is all too familiar with. Maia dev and opinionated rascal Simon Roth vented about a youtube channel asking for a cut of sales of his game in exchange for producing a video of his game. This echoes much of the worst conspiracy theories about paid off reviews and games journalists just being PRs in cheaper suits, but is this inherently problematic? I’m going to throw my hat into the ring on the side of “No it is not inherently problematic”, but there’s a big stack of caveats, and equal parts apprehension and confusion for what the future of the video games industry looks like. But I think we’re all going to have to get used to it.

Before sinking my teeth into this topic: Full disclosure. I make my living from running this website, and supplement it with bits of freelance writing words about games for money. This website’s only source of revenue is affiliate commission from retailers, where in exchange for directing sales their way, I get a cut of any sales I generate. Typically I get between 2% and 6% on sales I generate if a retailer does affiliate commission. Sometimes it goes as low a 1% or high as 10%. The websites I have written for are generally financed by ads, bought by the games industry.

Ask a developer who has not yet established much of an industry reputation what the biggest challenges facing their career as a person making games for a living are, and it’s likely that one of top responses will be “I want people to know about my game”. If no one knows about your game, no one can buy it. It’s never been easy to generate mass exposure, but in many ways it’s getting harder by the day. Just concentrating on the PC space, as Steam gradually erodes the barriers to entry for developers to put games up for sale, the number of games that the collective eyeballs of Steam users are split between increases.

Ask someone writing words about games, making video content, or in some other way sat on the periphery of the games industry, what the biggest challenges facing their career is, and it’s likely that one of the top responses will be “I am not earning a reliable liveable salary”. I know plenty of writers that have had successful careers, and have written for plenty of high profile outlets, but they’re still struggling to pay their bills on a regular basis.

In both these scenarios there are outliers, but for every Notch and PewDiePie, there are countless numbers of people struggling. This is the kind of problem that markets seek to address. One group of people with a product that needs an audience, and one group of people with an audience but no money. Paying people in commission for sales they generate is one way to help solve both of these groups problems, and this is clearly the direction that the industry is going in. Amazon have been doing this for years, the iOS app store does this, as does pretty much every major digital distributor that isn’t Steam, and all signs point to Valve adopting this model within the year. Exposure for games will be comodified.

I don’t quite know what this means for the future of objective games media. It somewhat blurs the line between media and PR, which is an uncomfortable situation, but more traditional games media has always been largely funded by the industry, so there’s not actually too much of a change here, it’s just being opened up wider to individual/independent developers/content producers.

Clearly, a bare minimum for integrity when using affiliate commission is transparency. If you aren’t letting your users know that you are engaging in this model, I’d suggest that’s highly questionable, and wouldn’t be confident in considering anyone engaging in this stuff under the table as trustworthy. Regardless of what business models are available, there will always be people with and without integrity. What’s important is to give the public the necessary tools to discern between the two if they care to do so.

If you know when someone is receiving a cut of sales, you know to scrutinise what they say through that lens. A reviewer saying exclusively positive things about a game, then providing you with a link to buy it from which they get a cut can be considered in a different light to one saying the same but not profiting from the sales in any manner.

I’d suggest that if consumers want media that is not in any way financed by the industry, the onus is on them to finance it themselves, otherwise you’re only going to get hobbyist stuff produced for free in spare time, and there is a limit to what kind of commitment people can make to their work on that basis alone. Entirely blurring the line between content and advert is obviously bad, but if the division is clear, I’m happy to let the market decide what happens.

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The Collective Follow Up: Q&A With Square-Enix’s Phil Elliott http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/13/the-collective-follow-up-qa-with-square-enixs-phil-elliott/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/13/the-collective-follow-up-qa-with-square-enixs-phil-elliott/#comments Sun, 13 Apr 2014 16:01:54 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=54151

After publishing this article on Square-Enix’s crowd-funding programme, Phil Elliott, who is heading up the programme reached out to me to see if we could discuss it further. I had a few key questions to put to him, which he has kindly replied to.

What assurances do you offer consumers that they will receive a finished game that matches how it is described in the pitch?

So it’s worth explaining the process in a bit more detail, because hopefully the reason we’re doing this – and why we’ve set it up in specifically this way – will become a lot clearer.

Collective has a couple of phases. Firstly, the feedback phase, which is now live – this is where anybody can present an idea in the form of a pitch. At this point, there are some submission criteria that need to be adhered to, but the point here is to allow the community to decide which ideas they like the sound of – there’s no crowdfunding at this point.

At the end of this phase (which for each pitch is around 28 days), if the community shows a strong liking for the concept, we may offer to continue to support that pitch through crowdfunding via our Indiegogo partnership. The developer may decide to walk away – if they do, there are no strings attached, and they won’t owe us anything, nor do we take anything if that happens.

If they accept, then we conduct a team assessment in the form of a questionnaire that dives into the detail around the team’s experience and expertise, previous shipped games (together and individually), tools/software they have access to, engine, pipelines, etc; plus then those things which they anticipate needing for development, such as additional headcount, outsourced services, additional licenses, etc. This also includes potential pledge tier details, total budget and expected dev timeframe.

Once they complete and return that, one of our senior dev directors will then go through it with them on a call (or in person if they’re near one of our studios). They’ll use that opportunity to sense check the plans, get a better feeling of who the devs are, whether the plans are feasible, expectations realistic, etc. Off the back of that they’ll compile a report that summarises the key elements, and we then share that with the dev team.

They need to agree that report, and it will then form part of the crowdfund phase pitch – so potential backers can get a better sense of who they’re funding. If the dev team doesn’t agree with the report, then the process will stop there (assuming that further discussions aren’t able to find consensus). We would then have no further involvement with the pitch, and the developer can choose what path to take next.

It’s really important to note that this team assessment and resulting report means that we’re happy with what we’ve seen, and that we would endorse that team via our Indiegogo campaign page. However, this endorsement isn’t a guarantee. The campaign owner is the developer, and they are responsible for providing what they say they will. It’s their IP, and they keep total control of that. Collective is intended to mitigate the risk to backers to a certain degree, in that we are able to ask questions from a qualified perspective that backers themselves might not be able to. But we can’t make assurances on something that’s not ours.

Collective isn’t a crowdfunding platform; it’s a place for developers to showcase their ideas, and the community to decide which ones deserve support.

That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that most creative processes undergo some changes (and other a lot of changes) between concept and release. We believe that particularly with crowdfunded games that developers should be open about challenges that arise, and seek feedback from backers on significant changes in direction.

What will you do in the event that no game is shipped? Will customers be refunded?

Any funds raised from a successful crowdfunding campaign go direct to the developer; they don’t come to us first. All transactions take place via the Indiegogo site and are subject to Indiegogo terms and conditions. So we won’t be able to refund any money pledged.

If, however, we distribute the finished game (which is something we may offer to a developer that is funded via the Indiegogo/Collective partnership… although again it’s up to them if they accept), then we would expect anybody purchasing the finished game to be entitled to a refund in the normal way via the specific digital distribution platform, eg Steam.

What fraud protection will you be offering consumers?

That’s a question that would need to be addressed to Indiegogo, as the transactions take place via their platform. I can introduce you to somebody there who I’m sure would be happy to answer your questions – just let me know. It’s also worth reading this for general background info.

Did you consult with any external developers when putting together this programme?

Yes, quite a lot. The process started almost a year ago at Nordic Game, when I first threw out some “what if?” scenarios during a session there. I had some great feedback from that, and as we put the structure for Collective together we consulted with independent developers (from teams of various shapes and sizes) at every turn. The platform underwent some significant changes of direction as a result; but it’s not the finished article yet. We expect to continue to evolve what Collective is based on ongoing feedback, both from the dev community and from gamers.

I believe that if we can create something that works for developers, and also adds something for the community, it will be good for Square Enix as a result.

Can you give me a rough idea of what the number of users voting on pitches has been so far?

Individual numbers are confidential to the individual teams, but to give you ball park number, we saw over 200,000 unique visitors and over 5000 votes cast during the pilot phase.


Hmmm.

This confirms some of my concerns. If a developer fails to ship a game for any reason, Square-Enix will have no liability whatsoever. It’s true that they aren’t taking a massive cut, but it’s also yet to be seen how significant their contribution to these projects will be. I’m still going to recommend caution for anyone considering contributing money to any games involved. Just because it has the name of a major international publisher promoting it doesn’t mean that it comes with any of the assurances you would usually associate with a game from a major international publisher.

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The Collective Sigh: Questions Over Square-Enix’s Crowd-funding Programme http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/13/the-collective-sigh-questions-over-square-enixs-crowd-funding-programme/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/04/13/the-collective-sigh-questions-over-square-enixs-crowd-funding-programme/#comments Sun, 13 Apr 2014 12:03:12 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=54130

In October last year, Square-Enix was the first of the old giants of video game publishing to dip their toe into the murky waters of crowd-funding. Their programme titled “The Collective” is, in their words, intended to give consumers a chance “to shape games development and champion ideas that you’d like to become reality”. Developers can participate in the programme either with an original IP which they retain ownership of, or with a pitch for a game using an existing S-E IP. Full details of the programme can be read here, but it seems to me that there’s some pretty significant scope for things to go wrong.

The short version of how the programme works is that developers pitch their games to the public on The Collective website, then after a round of public voting, Square-Enix hand pick pitches that they want to continue to be in the programme. Then developers launch a crowd-funding campaign on indiegogo, and Square-Enix help promote this campaign. In exchange, Square-Enix take a percentage of the funds raised. Then during development, Square-Enix perform QA, and will help with distribution once development is complete. They then take a 10% cut of all revenue generated by the game.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Firstly, Square-Enix are giving customers absolutely no assurances that they will actually receive a completed game. If you contribute a significant amount to one of the indiegogo campaigns that Square-Enix are backing, but then the developer (for any reason) fails to produce a shippable product, what happens? Looking at the terms and conditions, it seems to me that Square-Enix would get to keep their share of the revenue, but customers would be left hanging. There’s dozens of reasons why even with the purist of intentions, a developer might fail to complete a game. That’s just a reality of video games development.

Beyond that, not all individuals will have the purist of intentions. What’s to stop someone pitching a game to The Collective, getting endorsement from Square-Enix, and then doing a runner once they’ve got the money from the crowd-funding campaign? Supposedly Square-Enix are reviewing games when they are submitted to The Collective, but it seems to me that they aren’t exercising a great deal of scrutiny. The most recent game added to The Collective is “REalM“, and just spending a few minutes looking at the pitch raised a few questions from me. It appears that the team have been working on the game since at least November last year, and they’re promising that the game will be out in 2014. By the time they’ve passed through The Collective, and their crowd-funding campaign has completed, they’ll have about 6 months to meet their self imposed release schedule. Shouldn’t they probably have some gameplay footage to show at this point? Their pitch looks a lot like all they’ve produced is some art, some music, and some ideas for a game. Nothing solid whatsoever.

According to the game’s website, it’s a collaboration between two teams. Arbor Sheep & Authentic Illusions. As far as I can tell, neither of these two teams have shipped any video games whatsoever. Authentic Illusions do seem to have another ongoing project, which has it’s own kickstarter. At time of writing, they have received $5,606 from a total of 19 backers. That seemed a little suspicious to me, so I took a closer look at their kickstarter metrics. That’s a rather atypical pattern for a kickstarter campaign. It looks like they had a handful of very large backers on day one, then support almost entirely dried up. There’s a few potential explanations for this, but I’d suggest that it’s Square-Enix’s job to scrutinise the developers who they are partnering with. If they are doing less research than me spending a few minutes clicking on some links, that’s cause for concern.

With recent developments over at indiegogo, where they are seemingly trying to take less responsibility for policing the site for frauds, and with Square-Enix not offering any protection for their customers against the same, I’d strongly encourage customers to exercise caution before handing over your money.

It seems like Square-Enix are trying to mitigate as much risk as possible by asking their customers to take on the risk instead. I personally don’t think it’s an attractive option for most developers, and I certainly don’t think it represents an attractive proposition to most customers. I don’t understand why they aren’t just approaching developers with a solid track record, and offering to bankroll reboots of their otherwise stale old IP. I think there is the core of a good idea buried in The Collective, but the current execution is way off the mark, and it makes Square-Enix look rather out of touch with reality. They’ve set themselves up to potentially profit from developers selling nothing but smoke and mirrors, and if a publisher isn’t going to carry the burden of risk for game development, what exactly is the point of a publisher?

Update: Following the publication of this post, Square-Enix’s Phil Elliott contacted me to discuss the programme. You can read what he had to say here.

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On Serial Resellers, and SavyGamer’s Role In Their Use http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/03/29/on-serial-resellers-and-savygamers-role-in-their-use/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/03/29/on-serial-resellers-and-savygamers-role-in-their-use/#comments Sat, 29 Mar 2014 11:45:38 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=53604 Recently there has been much discussion of the business model of serial key resellers, and I figured it might be best for me to chime in with my position on this process. How these business operate is that they acquire serial keys for games from somewhere, and then sell those serial keys without explicit permission to do so from the developer/publisher. It is my strongly held belief that this serves to benefit consumers, and it is a pretty fundamental aspect of how markets function. I’ve linked to serial resellers regularly on SavyGamer in the past, I do so whenever I see a serial reseller offering a game at a price that constitutes a good deal, and I fully plan to continue to do so.

If the serial keys that resellers are selling are valid, then there are two possible sources they could have come from. Either a third party outside of the developer/publisher has found a way to generate these serials, which my rudimentary knowledge of cryptography suggests is highly unlikely, or the developer/publisher generated them, and then sold them either directly or through an intermediary to the reseller.

Many of the particularly good reseller deals that I have posted recently on SavyGamer appear to have been for serials that were purchased from a range of bundles. As far as I can tell, these include bundles such as Humble, Indie Royale and Groupees. In addition to these, there’s also been a host of deals that appear to have been for serials taken from retail copies of games, likely bought in whichever market represents the best price.

Reselling these serials almost certainly represents a breach of the user agreement that is included with bundle purchases, or with purchases of games at retail. And yet despite these user agreements, this secondary market for serials persists. It would seem to me that developers/publishers are selling games with terms and conditions attached that they have no practical way of enforcing.

There is of course a question of legality of this trade. Does breaching a user agreement constitute a breach of the law? It’s a good question, one which I am not really equipped to answer effectively. But it’s also somewhat redundant. Even if it could be established in court that breaching the user agreement was definitively against the law, would this fact in and of itself prevent the trade? I highly doubt it. Last time I checked, piracy was illegal and yet The Pirate Bay seems to be operational; despite an increasing crack down on trade of illegal narcotics, there is still a healthy underground drug trade; and just the other day I sold someone a packet of crisps I bought in multipack, despite the “Not for resale” disclaimer on the packet (Please don’t tell Gary Lineker).

In principal, should a shop I buy a thing from be able to dictate what I do with it once I have bought it? I am of the opinion that once I have bought something, it is my property to do with as I see fit. If I want to use it, destroy it, give it away or sell it, that is my decision. Of course, if a shop isn’t happy with what I do with the things I buy from them, they are perfectly entitled to refuse me service in the future.

Publishers have often decried the secondary market for preowned games as something that impacts their bottom line; we’re now seeing developers complain that someone has bought serial keys for their games from them at asking price and then decided to resell them. No one forced developers to flood the market with cheap serials for their games, that was an action they voluntarily engaged in. Perhaps they might not have fully thought through the consequences of doing this; whilst I have sympathy for any developer who feels unhappy about this situation, they should be examining how their actions have led to it before pointing fingers at anyone else.

The promise I have made with SavyGamer is that I will fight for my users to get the best deal. My single primary concern is to get my users the best price on games. It’s nice when this overlaps with helping out developers who I believe are doing good work, but I have absolutely zero intention of ever shying away from informing my users about something that I consider to be a good deal simply because the developer disapproves.

Part of this is bound up in the fact that Steam keys are a strange product. They are a delivery mechanism, they are goods that can be generated infinitely with essentially zero marginal cost, and they very closely resemble a currency. Friction surrounding the market for Steam keys is largely part of the growing pains of digital distribution, and I am of the opinion that the responsibility to ‘correct’ this lies with the developers and the distributors. I don’t feel any obligation to turn a blind eye to these deals simply because it upsets developers; doing so would be failing my users.

Since SavyGamer’s inception I have aimed to treat all developers equally. I have put games from unknown developers side by side with blockbusters, not giving indies any preferential treatment, and letting them compete on a level playing field with the biggest companies in gaming. This is a philosophy that has served me well so far, and I have no plan to alter it.

If developers are unhappy about this situation, I would suggesting that finding practical solutions to resolve it would be the best course of action. Humble have with recent bundles taken steps to curb this secondary market for keys, by implementing a convenient system where keys are never exposed to the user, but directly activated on Steam. Perhaps encourage other bundles/retailers to do the same before selling through them. This may require lobbying Valve to open up their authentication service to more bundles. You could also lobby Valve to give you the option of generating Steam keys with an expiry date, to prevent resellers building up a huge inventory of keys which will last forever. If you feel strongly enough that you want to prevent this secondary market, you could simply opt out of engaging with bundles that result in it. I think many devs would probably feel that the negative impacts of engaging in these bundles is more than outweighed by the positive ones, but that’s a decision for devs to make for themselves. Finally, I think making noise about it is a perfectly valid course of action too. If you want to make it clear to customers that you disapprove of these resellers, then by all means you should tell them about it. I have a comments section on SavyGamer which I am happy to allow developers to discuss their opinions on deals I have posted in.

SavyGamer is never going to be a service just for providing deals that the organisations or individuals who profit from them approve. That would be boring and terrible. I am going to stick by my policy of informing users about loopholes, misprices, early discounts on games that the creators would probably prefer weren’t happening, methods for bypassing regional pricing discrimination, and secondary markets of which the original creators may disapprove. What guides my actions is an unflinching desire to serve my users; I don’t for a second believe that there is any onus on me to perform inventory & supply chain management for the video games industry.

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Steam Tags: How Valve Are Controlling The Discussion Of Games On Their Storefront http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/03/24/steam-tags-how-valve-are-controlling-the-discussion-of-games-on-their-storefront/ http://savygamer.co.uk/2014/03/24/steam-tags-how-valve-are-controlling-the-discussion-of-games-on-their-storefront/#comments Mon, 24 Mar 2014 10:04:35 +0000 http://savygamer.co.uk/?p=53217 The information presented on a store listing for any item available to buy is critical to purchasers. People base their purchasing decisions on a range of information, and “The things that the shop I am buying them from tell me” is a key source that informs purchasing decisions. It seems that Valve are aware of this, and as such have taken steps to present games for sale in the best light possible, in a way that I would argue is concealing important information from their users.

Introduced just over a month ago, Steam’s tagging system is a mechanism for letting the Steam userbase categorise and describe games available to purchase on Steam. According to Valve, the stated purpose of this system was:

[to give] Steam customers the ability to “Tag” any title with genres, themes, attributes, or any other term or phrase. The most popular tags on any given product will be surfaced on said product’s Steam page and allow users to easily find other products associated with that same tag.

It seems to me to be a good move. It gives users a way of informing each other about games that they might want to buy or avoid, and it lightens the increasing burden of curation that weighs heavily on Valve as they gradually open steam up.

Initially these tags were entirely unmoderated, and because this is the internet and that’s what happens, some users used this system to post abusive message to developers. Valve then took steps to moderate the tags, reasonably so, and as far as I can tell, racist, homophobic and other distasteful tags are no longer present.

Sadly, Valve didn’t stop there. It appears that now many tags that would provide customers with useful information about the game, but show the game/publisher/developer in a bad light, are being entirely removed. I have no problem whatsoever with Valve wanting to prevent users from posting abusive messages to/about developers on their game’s store listing, but preventing users from warning each other about legitimate complaints about games before they spend money on them, in my opinion, contradicts the stated aims of the tagging system. Valve implied that it was to be a democratic system by which votes from their userbase determine which attributes of a game are displayed on the store. That’s not what is happening.

Tags which Valve have removed entirely from the system include “Region Locked” and “Bad Port”, words such as “Mobile” and “Overpriced” are also banned from tags.

If only Valve approved tags are allowed to be applied to a game’s store listing, then I think describing this system as a “user tagging” is somewhat misrepresentative. If they are happy to allow publishers/developers to sell region locked games, bad ports, or overpriced mobile games on Steam, why not also allow their customers to identify these games as such?

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