Eurogamer Expo fails to inspire

I had an email from Eurogamer today asking for feedback on this weekend’s event. I thought, “What a great idea. But you guys clearly didn’t read my feedback from last year, so I’ll blog about it instead.”

The Eurogamer Expo is basically a huge set of demos for upcoming games. Imagine a big convention hall, full of stands and action. There are displays for just about every interesting game you have seen or heard about. Reps from gaming developers and publishers are on hand to tell you more about what they have on offer. You can buy or win branded mousemats, peripherals, codes for DLC and other fun fripperies. There are interesting talks and panel discussions. Then take that mental picture and edit it heavily so that the only thing that is left is a darkened hall full of shooters and action games, and a small stand for Nintendo in the corner where they didn’t even bother to bring a 3DS along and instead were demoing Dragon Quest 9 (a game I have been playing already for over a month.) To be fair, they do have a programme of talks by developers but it won’t really compare to the sort of thing you’ll read about with other targetted gaming shows.

Eurogamer Expo is really not a convention, in the general sense of the word.

I cannot adequately explain how disappointed I am that most of the games I really want to see weren’t even there. They had half the hall full of Assassin’s Creed II demos, and not a single MMO (even last year they had Star Trek Online demos set up). I noted on Sunday the games that briefly caught my eye — none of them enough to be bothered to wait around to play it. The lack of any 3DS was gutwrenching, given that it’s the one piece of hardware that I’d really like to demo before I buy and I know they have demo hardware because I read about it in accounts of US conventions this summer.

What’s even worse is that we were told off for taking pictures even though there was no sign anywhere forbidding you from doing so. Meanwhile, a guy with a press pass and a giant camera lined up exactly the same shot smugly to no issue at all. No, no, and again no. If I pay the cover price and go into an exhibition with my family and friends, you do NOT tell me not to take any pictures of them. All that will happen is that I will think that you and your convention are arses. It will not even stop the more determined among us from snapping the odd shot to capture the atmosphere. Nothing at the Expo was an industry exclusive, it had all been covered many times before in the gaming press.

We often comment that in the UK we feel that we get worse treatment than US consumers. Eurogamer Expo is like a distillation of that feeling into a single exhibition hall. All summer I’ve been reading about the cool games and demos that got shown at PAX, E3, Gamescom (admittedly that isn’t in the US) and the rest. And what do we get? A set of shooter/ action type demos. And what was even more surreal was that in all of this festival of gaming consumerism, there was no one trying to persuade us to buy. No one offering good pre-order deals. No one even seeming to care. And bear in mind that there was really no way to know exactly which companies or games would be on show until just before the Expo opened, we just had to assume that all the usual suspects would be there.

Astoundingly, the expo managed to attract more people than last year — so maybe the Expo, tedious as it was, is actually what people want.

At the same time as Eurogamer, there was a wedding exhibition in the hall next door. Amusingly, one of the women on my University course mentioned that she had gone there with a friend on Saturday. So while we were wandering disappointedly around the convention floor, she was trying FREE CAKE!  I rest my case

Return of the Inflatable Sword

dragon age 2 header

So, last year at Comic Con, one of the things I missed was Dragon Age and the chance to have a play on it. In fact, I skipped the computer games entirely because my main focus was going was to watch TV and film panels.

This year is slightly different and I’m trying to correct mistakes, so, when I had a gap in my ‘schedule’ I decided to leave the Convention Center and check out Dragon Age II.  In fact, as I walked across the road away from the Convention I was even handed a ‘come play Dragon Age II’ postcard, so even serendipity was on my side. I kind of ignored the fact there was also Dead Space 2 in the same location, so sorry about that folks – it’s not my cup of tea so I didn’t pay it too much attention (though I did get an inflatable weapon from them also!).

Ah yes, the inflatable sword swag – something I brought home from last year. They had inflatable swords advertising Dragon Age and I assumed this was just leftover stock, so I grabbed another couple – but these are branded Dragon Age II, so they just must know how much we all loved them. In addition, there were some blood splatter tattoos advertising the game, and showing a good sense of humour about one of the things people (myself included) mocked about the original game.

I should say now, don’t expect any pictures of the game or gameplay – we signed enough of an NDA to cover that, but I did specifically ask about blogs and twitter and that’s all fine, I mean, they obviously want us to spread the word. There was a queue to get in to Dragon Age II, and no queue for Dead Space 2. Make of that what you will. 12 people were let into a room at a time to get some hands-on experience, plus a couple who could stand around and watch, which is the option I took, since I just wanted to SEE the game.

We were treated to a little overview first, explaining some of the main changes and how they’d all come from customer feedback from the first game. The graphics are sharper and use a slightly different style (I thought this would be fairly minor, but when you see the game in action it is genuinely a lot more beautiful!). Fighting is punchier and looks a hell of a lot more responsive – mages now have a cool death blow animation equivalent to jumping up and stabbing things in slow-mo, blood is less ridiculous but still flies around a lot, and some of the spell and fighting effects are just gorgeous – we saw a warrior and mage taking on some hurlocks and an ogre, each showing off their special attacks.

There’s a couple of big differences which I think will prove quite interesting, but obviously which we can’t really see in a short playtest. First of all, the hero is voiced! No more silence. Apparently, this is going to avoid situations such as a silent response to diatribe in a Landsmeet, and the little clip we saw of it was great, but it’s still a very hard one to judge. But, they do have it so you’re not just repeating a dialogue option, the options paraphrase what your char will actually say. Oh, and while we’re on dialogue options, they now have icons next to them that give you a hint how they might affect things (it looks like there are only a handful of icons to get used to though, and I quite like the idea).

Secondly, the narrative structure of the game has changed. The game covers a much longer period than Dragon Age, and is told by a couple of (not necessarily reliable) narrators – the tale of The Champion (that’s you, that is!) and who s/he was. This allows Bioware, and the player to play key points in the life of the character, with each being able to have a massive influence on the rest of the story. Your character escapes Lothering and heads north, and you know becomes The Champion of their new locale (Kirkwall, or something with Kirk in, anyway – sorry, this is all from memory). And the world is on the brink of war by the end of the time period being discussed. So you get to see how this Champion became who they are. I was dubious, but I quite like the idea now. Bioware said it helped them actually show a longer and more fulfilling timescale, and avoided things like an epilogue that just told you what happened years later, now we’ll be able to play so many flashback sessions that we get to see our character’s full story.

The section of playable game was chosen to show off some of the fighting and a little of the dialogue, but it was pretty short. I thought it definitely looked like the combat flowed more and I liked what I heard of the voices and what I saw of the new art style. In fact, there really wasn’t much I didn’t like about the changes and I’m now really looking forward to playing the game, due out in Spring next year – in perfect time for my birthday!

My adventures at eastercon: admissions of a convention noob

So, last weekend was the big adventure. I went to Eastercon, held this year at a hotel near Heathrow, which was my first experience of a SF convention. It wasn’t a lone expedition; I went with my sister and our respective partners for moral support. This is one of the larger UK SF conventions (from what I understand), and had about 1250 attendees – just so you get an idea of the scale. It is fan run, which means that the panels and events reflect what the fans are interested in and also what people were able and willing to organise.

If you have read Larisa’s poignant memories of her years of con attendance, you may wonder (as I did) whether she was looking back with rose coloured glasses. And even if she was right in all respects, had the conventions moved on? It took about 2 seconds from walking through the front door of the hotel into the reception area for me to understand that some things will NEVER change.

Two things that caught my eye immediately:

  • Lots of women around! (I’ve been to gaming conventions where the men: women ratio is about 10:1. This was closer to 1:1.)
  • It was all very well organised (again, comparing with gaming conventions). We queued briefly at reception, picked up our delegate badges and goodie bags (free mug! free easter egg! and a couple of books and more assorted useful con information … ) Even in retrospect, every part of the con I saw was very well organised. Panels started on time (give or take the odd 5 minutes), people were where they were supposed to be, sound/lighting was fine.

The whole convention and the other attendees were terrifically friendly. I was impressed at the range and variety of the panels – there were some on hard science, some litcrit type panels on speculative fiction, some about writing and getting published, a couple on games, some on social media,  some fun geek-oriented crafty activities, some family based sessions, film screenings. Plus people wandering around in a wide variety of costumes, cabaret, and a solid set from Mitch Benn.

And a room full of board games too. It shows what the atmosphere was like that when we sat down to play a game, friendly people asked politely if they could join in as they wandered through. (Again, this does not really happen at gaming conventions, oddly enough.)

It’s not often that you are torn between the possibility of watching the first episode of the new Doctor Who in a large screening room with 200+ other fans or going to a panel on ‘The Occult in Modern Urban Fantasy.’ One day, there will be cloning so we can do all of them at once …

Another highlight for me was the video game charades session, where we were wisely advised to form into teams with a variety of age groups represented. I don’t know who had more fun, the under tens who had a ball miming out Lego Star Wars or our husbands acting out Tron. I just know that it was a room full of video game geeks of all ages … and laughter. And it makes me think about how rarely I do get to hang out with mixed age groups. It’s a shame in many ways that it has become so taboo to hang out socially with kids (unless they are relatives) or with older people, because it can be a very positive experience all around.

I thoroughly enjoyed the more serious panels that I attended as well. People were generally well behaved, very engaged, and there were some animated, interesting discussions. As a fan, it’s also a privilege to be able to talk to authors you admire, or hear them discussing their writing and how they work in panels or interviews. I thought Iain Banks was an awesome writer before this weekend, I still think that but I also now think he’s a dude. And Arb did tweet me at least once to let me know that someone we were chatting to in a panel/ event had won a Nebula award (so congrats!)

I get the feeling that the local writer community is very supportive of the con scene – because I don’t really know that you’ll get enough sales from 1250 people to make it worth giving up a weekend otherwise.

It is glaring to me that the con fanbase is very predominantly white in the UK (not sure about the rest of the world), and the programming reflects that. There were panels on feminist issues, disability issues (disability in comic book villains), gay and alternative sexuality issues. But nothing on race.

To Sum Up

We had a brilliant time. The con was a friendly, supportive, fun atmosphere full of fellow geeks who were also having a good time. And some very hard working fans who made the whole thing run so smoothly (so props to you all, and thank you very much.) I do understand now why people say that going to a SF con feels like coming home. Also, if someone offers you some 100% cocoa chocolate, only take a very small piece.

We already booked our spots for 2012!

Sharing predictions, and looking forwards

This is the time of year where everyone traditionally makes some predictions for the next year, so that we all can laugh at how wrong they were in 12 months time.

Here’s a few links to bloggers who are putting their necks on the line:

The big trend in 2009 was the rise and rise of social gaming via facebook games. They’re not strictly MMOs, although massive numbers of players are involved and they are online. But a lot of investor interest is focussed again on online gaming, so I’m sure this will have some kind of knock-on effect on more traditional styled MMOs. We’ll see more effort next year put into translating the fantastically successful social networking, gift giving, strategy/ resource focus and virtual goods buying mechanisms into other gaming areas. And we’ll probably see more of this type of approach in non-gaming sites as well.

Many of the new MMOs of 2009 seem to have disappointed fans and pundits with their subscription numbers. Champions Online in particular has seemed like a flash in the pan from where I have been sitting. I’m still intrigued that so many people were happy to line up to pay for a lifetime subscription though, and I think that’s a trend worth noting.  Aion has been fairly successful but again, the pattern of excitement at launch followed by a few months of disillusionment (with the grind, on this one) is repeated. People will simply have to revise their expectations for how new MMOs behave at launch — they won’t actually revise their predictions though.

Free Realms is one that I was predicting to possibly take a slice of the WoW market. I liked the game when I tried it, but the non-existent social side failed to hook me in. SOE have struggled with their free to play model here, and shifted to an ‘all pay after level 5′ model which isn’t the same thing at all. I hope they see more success with the game in 2010 and find their audience because it was nicely executed.

Darkfall launched to a finely targeted hardcore PvP audience and has flourished, despite criticism. But this largely on the basis of catering to their core audience (not a bad idea for any business, really) rather than aiming to be something that they are not.

Fallen Earth surprised a lot of players with its focussed old style crafting and scavenging post apocalyptic playstyle.  Again, it’s a game that is focussed squarely at a core audience and aims to make those players happy.

Another trend (this is another gimme) will be the rise of gaming on smartphones. I don’t think the iPhone will take over the world, and it might be that cross-platform games will be the biggest success of 2010. It may come down to the social networking in the end and not wanting to be restricted to playing with people who use the same model of phone, rather than the better graphics you could get by tailoring to a single hardware platform. There will be some big game that uses location based technology and maybe even augmented reality — it may look better in demos than in practice but it will get vast amounts of press attention.

And the last trend I wanted to highlight was the snap sales we have seen on Steam and other online digital vendors. The sales have been very successful, and the unpredictable nature of them and the huge discounts has gotten a lot of player attention, even though there is now a good chance that you will feel like an idiot if you buy any game at full price only to see it at deep discount for one day only a couple of weeks later. I think we’ll see MMOs trying to experiment with a similar model, and maybe even occasional sales on 3 or 6 month subscriptions to keep interest up (in sub games at least).

WoW

Much of the remaining Icecrown Citadel content will be dazzling.  Players will love the cut scenes the first time they see them and will generally agree that the raid encounters are as fun as anything Blizzard ever designed — at the same time as complaining that they’re too accessible. The hard modes will have a better difficulty ramp than TotGC (ie. more people will get past the first boss) to give midcore guilds something to aim at.

The Oculus will be blown up in one of the pre-Cataclysm events.

A few months down the line, it will be generally agreed that the  dungeon finder is more successful in the EU and Taiwan than in the US. No one will dare to comment on why this might be, except to bitch that the rest of the world is cheating by having a less individualist culture.

Cataclysm will launch in Q3 2010. All the people who quit WoW in the first six months of the year due to boredom at having nothing to do with their pimped out characters will return to create new worgen. The updated Azeroth will be widely lauded but everyone will complain again as soon as they get to Outland. They will mess up the tuning again and return to the harder dungeon instances of TBC, which will be nerfed again after lots of complaints. But people will never be sure whether the dungeons actually were harder or whether players had just forgotten how to handle hard content.

People will get bored with the new expansion quickly. The guild changes will be successful but too late to save the shattered social fabric of the game. WoW players will continue to devastate other new games, but now they’ve also failed to learn standard dungeon etiquette (ie. stay till the end of the run, work with the rest of the group, play nice with loot, etc etc) in favour of hopping in and out whenever they want to and complaining if an instance takes longer than 10 minutes.

There will be at least one major unexpected announcement before Cataclysm that will throw the hype machine into overdrive. Possibly solo instances or something that involves more solo content. Hopefully also they’ll sneak in some extra ideas which won’t garner so much attention but will make seasoned gamers happy (like cosmetic clothing).

Then there will be the expected announcements about underwater zones, dance studios, and lots of pictures of female worgen.

LOTRO

There will be another expansion in 2010 but it still won’t be Rohan. Turbine will start playing around with more methods to help players catch up more quickly. The game will chug along happily and although they will make tuning mistakes, the players who like it will mostly be pleased with any new additions. Zombie Columbus will continue to delight with every new design he gets involved with.

Other new games

Star Wars won’t release before Cataclysm, even if it means delaying until 2011.

Star Trek Online will meet with more success than Champions Online. It’s hard to call this one without having seen the beta but I was intrigued by the demo that I saw, there’s plenty of interest in the IP, and I think many players would like a space combat MMO that isn’t EVE. The longevity of the game will depend on social factors rather than solo content.

Final Fantasy XIV will do very well, surprising the pundits who forget how many fans the Final Fantasy franchise has, and that FF gets a shot in the arm with the release of FFXIII towards the beginning of 2010. Their separation of crafting and fighting classes will make a lot of crafting fans happy. If they are able to release before Cataclysm, they will have a huge influx of bored WoW players looking for something to do before their world resets.

Torchlight will release an MMO (or at least a beta) before the end of the year. Everyone will exclaim that it is fun, and then move on to Cataclysm.

Guild Wars 2 won’t release in 2010.

Neither will Diablo III.

CCP will announce their Vampire MMO which will go into beta in 2010.

Mass Effect 2 will be amazing. Voice acting is the new black?

Blizzard will still not announce anything about their next MMO because they actually threw away the current design this year and are starting again from scratch.

Neither will Jumpgate Evolution (it makes me sad to write this because I was looking forwards to that game, but we really haven’t heard much about it.)

Although there will be a lot of talk about free to play models, there will be a better understanding of how and where that model works. WAR may try to convert from subscription to F2P, but it won’t help (again, makes me sad to write that). AAA developers will continue to push the payment model of subscriptions plus virtual goods plus anything else they can think of. However, extended trials will be more common, and maybe even WoW will offer the first 10 levels free as a Cataclysm enticement.

I think 2010 will be a better year for MMOs than the past one, we’re moving out of a recession for a start and lessons of the last year will also have been learned. The games I am mostly looking forwards to are the final fantasy ones, both single player and MMO. And if buzz from the STO beta is good, I’m also jonesing for a good space fighting game so I hope that one will fit. Because there isn’t much else in the pipeline.

Do you have any predictions? Anything you are particularly looking forwards to, gaming wise?

The Shape of Things to Come

This week, two main news stories made their way out of EA. The first one is that they bought Playfish, the social/ facebook gaming developer, for a eye-bleeding $300 million plus change.

And the second is that EA laid off a lot of staff, including 40% of Mythic, developers of Warhammer Online. I think it’s fair to say that WAR’s days are numbered, and there’s not going to be any magical expansion on the way to introduce a third realm and save the game.

This is not a post of doom though, the MMO genre isn’t dead. And no big game publisher can really ignore the massive success that social games have seen for the low cost to make. But MMOs have been going through a process of experimentation and refinement over the last few years. A lot of big budget games haven’t been as successful as they might have been expected to be on paper.

2010 may see the last gasp of the AAA big budget MMOs. It’s going to be a fantastic year for MMO gamers. It will see Star Trek Online, Final Fantasy whatever (14?), Guild Wars 2, Jumpgate Evolution, Cataclysm (I don’t really count this as a new game but it’ll be big) and SWTOR.

CCP still have to announce what they’re doing with Vampire even though it’s an open secret that they are working on a Vampire MMO. Blizzard haven’t yet announced their next MMO although they’re known to be working on it. But I doubt anyone else will start working on any new MMOs with that sort of budget and scope any time soon. It’s time now to wait, and see, and find out what players actually want.

As to where social gaming is going, Mashable makes 5 predictions here — of all of those, the one I have most confidence in is that EA will find new ways to monetize.

2010 is going to be an amazing year for MMO gaming, but will it just be the beginning of the end?