Could 2015 be the year of the MMO Journalist?

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I recently finished one of Malcolm Gladwell’s pop studies, titled, Outliers, which explores some of the biggest successes in sports, business, music and more.

One of the discoveries that Gladwell makes is that, “Outliers” – people who appeared to be miles ahead in their field, had much more than simple talent driving them forward. One of the most significant contributors to the successes of big hitters in their field spur from the fact that they’re very experienced in an unpopular field at the exact moment that society flipped and decided that it was needed.

This is not such a time, not exactly; society isn’t crying out for MMO journalists. Infact, MMO gaming isn’t really crying out for MMO journalists – gaming journalism is crying out for journalists like MMO journalists and, frankly, there’s nobody else that can fit the bill.

So what’s changing in gaming journalism that MMO journalists can fix? The bottom line, which has even been expressed by some of the industry’s top players, is that gaming news is, on the whole, boring right now and the format of how games are reported on needs to change.

Back in the days of traditional gaming media, with magazines like Games Master and Arcade, this wasn’t such an issue. Gaming in the 80’s and 90’s was new and exciting with new technology, new experiences and seemingly endless potential. Here, in 2014, this simply isn’t the case. New consoles, for example, are now treated in the same way now that upgrading a PC has been seen since the mid 90’s. Hype boils down to stats, launch titles and exclusives and it’s all pretty clear-cut how capable a console is going to be. Furthermore, the role that gaming press has changed from being purely consumer advice and insider information into virtually a PR service for manufacturers and game developers.

The tail, in a way, is now wagging the dog and the majority of gaming journalism is done behind closed doors, in early access tests and interviews before a game has been released. Post-release feedback is handled, for the most part, by the player and by social media bloggers and vloggers and is only really placed back in the hands of the professional journalists in the run up to an expansion or a DLC launch.

It almost seems like gaming journalists no longer do any of the actual gaming. Gamers want the reviews before launch. Due to pressure from developers to begin making money before a game launches, through the means of pre-orders, paid-for beta access and founder’s packs, gamers need to know how good a game potentially is months, even years, before release.

So, what does this mean for journalists? It means a lot of fast, potentially pivotal decisions on a game, from as early as possible so that when a game begins to approach the radar, reviews are ready, gamers are informed and the cashflow has already began for the game, so that the publishers and investors stay off the developers’ backs during crucial development phases.

That’s a lot of responsibility for writers and it’s a bit of a touchy subject for many, since it’s not a role they signed up for and it’s dramatically shifted the expectations of journalists in the industry. As mentioned before, it also makes professional gaming news boring. Journalists are merely sharing PR information, reviewing developers and generating an abstract opinion on an unreleased version of a game.

The hard work of exploring the game is placed on the player and the senior editors and journalists are beginning to see a very bleak endgame for journalism, if gaming continues down this path. As a result, some of them have began to take some of that power back.

In a recent interview with TotalBiscuit (aka Cynical Brit), Kotaku’s Editor In-Chief, Stephen Totilo expressed his own opinion on the current stance of gaming media, with him and Mr Biscuit both agreeing that “boring” is an overruling sentiment. According to Totilo, Kotaku have been restructuring their own websites standpoint over the past few months, swaying their writing to focus more on post-launch articles explaining that the most interesting news of this year has came from titles like Borderlands The Pre-Sequel, Driveclub and Destiny as their communities strive to find exploits, improve their experiences and, in short, play their games.

At this point, a couple of things had piqued my interest. Firstly, Borderlands, Destiny and Driveclub. These games are all forerunners in the new generation of MMO gaming. Many question the definition of what makes a MMO game these days, including Destiny’s developer, Bungie, who were intent on separating themselves from the genre prior to launch. However, in the eyes of the gamer, the Destiny and Borderlands franchises rest under the MMOFPS umbrella and Driveclub revs alongside World of Speed and The Crew in the Racing MMO genre. MMO games, according to one of the World’s most recognized gaming editors, make interesting news. As a MMO gaming journalist myself, I can whole heartedly agree. These games create continuous content; in some cases, for as much as a decade and, on top of that, their communities create their own entertainment too. This provides a wealth of post-launch news, far more than any other genre and continually playing and talking about a game keeps the game relevant, keeps the medium of gaming relevant and, of course, keeps gaming journalism relevant.

In the realm of MMO games, journalism isn’t all about PR and reviews, it’s about what the players are doing now and it’s about what the developers are doing next, rather than simply interviewing the devs pre-launch and throwing out exactly the information that they want the consumers to see. This means, for the journalist, that continuous engagement with their games is required along with a fair amount of contact with the developers and the communities that they create for. Granted there’s still a huge amount of talking about pre-orders, micropurchases and beta tests – that’s simply the nature of the free-to-play-dominated beast the MMO gaming has become, but the important thing is that MMO journalists are already aware that there’s life after launch.

The other thing from Totilo’s statement that got me thinking, was that writing more post-launch articles had been their agenda since at-least the summer. Going back through the archives, he wasn’t wrong. I even noticed articles I’d found at time of press and hadn’t realized the significance, at the time. This style of writing is already knitting its way into their culture. So, which other non-MMO sites are at it? Joystiq, with strong influence from satellite-site, Massively were a no-brainer, but the same behavior can be observed in other sites. Eurogamer are continually exploring games, post-launch, with head-to-head tests, Sticktwiddlers are heavily integrating themselves with the Youtube, “Let’s Play” culture, Destructoid are posting multi-episode, reviews and Siliconera are covering discount sales and reviews after launch and, lastly, several sites, including GameTrailers, are posting ever-popular videogame retrospectives.

A demand for continual game coverage has been identified, media outlets are straining to provide content and MMO games have been recognized as a tappable resource. So, what happens now? Do sites turn towards MMO games for this continuous coverage? Maybe a little, but the fact is, readers want all of their favorite games to undergo this treatment. They want to see newfound secrets, easter eggs, glitches and they want their games to stay in discussion for longer than an E3 weekend. The level of hype in the build up to a game, compared to the deflation that follows launch day is jarringly noticeable. In addition, it fuels the fire of the more negative gamers; happy gamers post the occasional “OMG Aw3som3! #BestGameEver” tweet when they get their hands on the game, but it’s no secret that disappointed gamers are the more vocal party and an overall good game can be dragged down, due to a minority of unhappy gamers acting as the only long-term source of feedback. The shift in press could remove this.

I think this drive for post-launch coverage will pull MMO games back towards the mainstream, but I also think that non-MMO journalists need to see this as an opportunity to look at the likes of Massively, MMO Champion and Ten Ton Hammer as examples of how they need to push their own journalism forward. These guys have been doing it for years, they know how to talk about a 10 year old game like it’s brand new, they know how to make the fans feel valued and like their investment in a game was worthwhile and it means they always come back, week after week to talk about videogames that they’ve already bought. Do publishers care? Short term, probably not, they’ve made their money at this point and are onto the next game. However, this is exactly why journalists need to push for it. Publishers can’t keep dictating the games – that should be the gamer’s job and by encouraging gamers to keep enjoying their games and keep talking about their games after launch-week, you’re encouraging the culture as a whole.

Unlike the rest of gaming journalism MMO gaming journalism doesn’t have to take this power back – they never let go of it in the first place. Now it’s time for everyone else to play catch-up.

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Expansion Review – Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas

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At long last, the game mode that Hearthstone fans have all been waiting for – Curse of Naxxramas is finally here! Hearthstone has taken the gaming world by storm, bridging the gap for everyday gamers to engage in competitive card gaming and pave the way for a more casual CCG option. Until Hearthstone launched, the majority of competitive card games were viewed, from the outside, as being complex and difficult, with wave after wave of convoluted game mechanics, meta-rules and procedures that, for many, created a barrier to learning the game properly. Titles like Magic: The Gathering and Duel of Champions have done extremely well, but over the course of Hearthstones launch week, it quickly stomped over its competition, creating an eSports following, fansites, deckbuilder apps and all sorts; it truly solved the CCG problem.

One thing, however, was missing. Most competitive card games teach players the general rules through a story mode, or a campaign, that lets you ease yourself in and enjoy the game, with the pleasant distraction of a plot, to break the game into more digestible chunks. Despite Hearthstone’s ease of access, you really didnt have much choice when it came to how you player the game – play the computer, or play the community, in exactly the same manner. Or, at best, play “Arena”, which has a few minor differences, plus the added thrill of pseudo-gambling, but it really wasn’t a far cry from the standard game mode. That’s where Curse of Naxxramas came in, promising to give the World of Warcraft themed game some lore unto its own, a plot and some substance, for players to get stuck into.

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After playing the trial for most of its launch day, I was disappointed, and have remained underwhelmed by it ever since. Naxxramas, admittedly comes with a bunch of new stuff and the new cards are a refreshing addition to the game, but was the campaign itself all that it had been played up to be? Not a chance. Other CCG videogames take you on vast adventures across maps; creating rivalries, telling stories and giving hour after hour of enjoyment, as you lead your card-wielding protagonist through a labyrinth of tests.

Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas, by comparison, was a straight line. You are introduced to very few new characters, a couple of slightly tweaked mechanics and literally no plot at all, besides a cursory speech bubble at the start and end of each battle. Within a day I had grown bored and, even with all of the new cards and combos to experiment with, got the feeling that the other pay-to-play chapters of the game would be left to gather dust for some time.

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On the plus side, there are a couple of nice features, such as the “home advantage” given to your opponents and the challengin Heroic mode, which will teach you a thing or two about deck building along the way, as you regroup, in search of its coveted, new card-back. The new content is nice, especially since it’s free, but the $6.99 expansions are less than attractive right now and, from a competitive perspective, the time in the Naxxramas Necropolis feels like it could have been better spent in the Arena or in Ranked.

The second wing of the Curse of Naxxramas expansion goes Live tomorrow, and you can still get the first part for free, but, be sure to try it before sinking money on the sequels.

World of Warcraft: War Crimes – book review

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***This review is spoiler-free to up-to-date fans of the World of Warcraft in-game plot and will only mention elements of the new book that can be derived from the game and the book cover. Read with confidence***

Videogame based books are a lot like videogame based movies…or movie based videogames. When it comes to picking one up, there’s a high likelyhood that it’s a bad one. Any media crossover like this runs the risk of providing its developers with a cushion of safety – they don’t have to make it the best game/book/movie ever, after all; it already has a brand and a committed following before it comes out! This guarantees a scintilla of launch-day success, due to fans of the franchise showing their support, regardless of how it’ll play out. As a result, the plots of these crossovers is typically a poor, recyled cookie-cutter story, with misplaced, misinformed lore, and continuity errors, where merely they’ve replaced “Romeo” with “The Orc”, and scattered around a bunch of buzz words to keep the franchise fans’ interest. We all remember the great Mass Effect book burning of 2012.

Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft series is not that kind of book. She’s been writing Warcraft lore for over a decade, and you can tell that Blizzard have a huge deal of faith in her, granting her a vast breadth of creative license to stitch together different events from the realm, immortalizing characters and moments along the way.

Even to some of the most committed World of Warcraft players, Azerothian lore can break down to a simple dichotomy of Alliance vs Horde, but there’s so much more there than a good vs evil story, and the novels are a testament to that. I, admittedly am one such player, a “dialogue skipper” that just wants an objective and something to fight. If, like me, you have a habit of jumping from event to event without stopping to take a look around, I’d fully recommend reading the World of Warcraft books; they’ll change the way you look at the mmo and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in the realm amongst the Bloodhoof’s and Proudmoore’s, making them more than just mission-giving NPCs.

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World of Warcraft: War Crimes begins where the in-game expansion, Mists of Pandaria left off, and acts as a precursor to the upcoming, Warlords of Draenor storyline, which is promising to give the Horde its “finest hour”.

The book documents the trial of the former Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream as his atrocities are weighed up by the Alliance, Horde and Pandaren, in order to decide his fate. As you can imagine, that makes this book relatively dialogue heavy and lean on the action scenes. What it lacks in action, however, it makes up for in emotion, as you look into all of the key figures of Azeroth as they discuss their own interpretations of right and wrong, and each cope with the aftermath of Mists, Cataclysm and the Wrath of the Lich King.

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I picked up the audiobook version on Audible, which was narrated by the award-winning Scott Brick, who is fast becoming my favorite narrator; he could probably read a Volvo owners manual and still invoke some kind of emotion from the listener. I was expecting his voice to struggle in a fantasy environment, but his voice acting makes each character stand out, sound authentic and come to life.

The plot is quite heavy, due to some of the horrible things that have occurred to the characters at the hands of Hellscream, and as they recount them in court, some of it can be quite tough to hear. Whether you’re on the side of the Alliance or the Horde in World of Warcraft, prepare to be surprised; because in War Crimes, you’ll find your allegiance continuously shifting sides as accusers and defenders begin to show their true colors.

As much as it is a precursor to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, the focus is very much on giving Mists of Pandaria a full and proper send-off and fans of Warcraft-old will be given plenty of opportunities to reminisce on Pandaria’s highlights.

Christie Golden has done an excellent job with War Crimes, in creating a near-perfect book, despite running several gauntlets. She has based a book on a popular, lore-filled franchise, provided little to no action in a book aimed at an action-hungry community and made the main theme of the book martial law…and came out the other end with a book that all fans will be thankful for.

Dustforce – Xbox 360 review

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Dustforce has been out on the PC since 2012, but last week, it finally swept onto the Xbox Live Arcade scene, and I had to give it a go. I’d never played the “Sweep ’em up” before or, admittedly, heard of it, but seeing the Capcom label on an XBLA title again easily warranted the $9.99 price tag for me, and I feel that it was a good, safe gamble.

Reading other reviews; I’m seeing a lot of comparisons to the likes of Super Meat Boy and n+, and although it is similar, style-wise, it feels much more like its Capcom cousin, Strider. I’d hazard to guess that the developers are fans of both Strider, the Trials series and Super Meat Boy, and, most likely, perfectionists, who aren’t satisfied with merely reaching the end of a level, unless they’re absolutely sure they’ve seen everything that can be seen on it. This seems to be the major attraction to Dustforce, and if you’re an acheivement hunter, a perfectionist or a level completionist; this was built for you.

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In Dustforce, you play the part of a humble, yet ninja-move-equipped, janitor with the aim of ridding the world of dust, which is on the walls, floors, and ceilings; turning NPCs and inanimate objects into monsters and Fantasia-like foes.

Your job is to clean, as quickly and perfectly as possible. You’ll be graded on how much of the level you’ve cleansed and by how smoothly you did it. The latter, known as your “finesse” rating will be the one that pushes you forward. Your momentum and fluency in the game are harshly penalized for bad form; which will add on precious seconds and making things just feel plain clunky. This removal from the ninja side of your janitor will grate on your every time you mess up, urging you to reset over and over again…in a good way.

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It’s a very pretty game, and becomes prettier the better you play, as you skip and slide around each 2D map, eventually getting to the point where you’re relying on twitch reactions and muscle memory to fire out impressive dash-jump-attack-slide combos to weave through obstacles, before your feet lose traction on the dusty walls.

Despite it being a dynamic game, they’ve married it up with a hauntingly beautiful, minimal soundtrack and very subtle sound effects; if you were to only listen to a game of Dustforce being played, you’d think it was Fez, or something by Nintendo. This might sound ill-fitting, but it seems to help encourage your perfectionist ways. Wheras games like Trials Evolution scream hard rock into your ears with explosions and engines revving until you feel the need to put teeth-marks in your controller (it happens…), the soft backing of Dustforce really helps provide some sticking power on the tougher challenges.

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Finesse and level completion will combine at the end of each level, with notable scores earning silver and gold keys; gaining you access to tougher challenges. On top of this, consistent dusting can accumulate and grant you the ability to throw out a five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique of a combo, smashing any threat in sight, rather rewardingly. Whatever this game set out to do, it’s your desire to turn your janitor into a ninja that’ll push you through, and much like all of the great XBLA games, will see you playing the same things over and over again in the hope of gaining those all-important S-Ranks.

It’s not the greatest platformer, or the smoothest, but the soothing movement, the cutesy, clean artwork, and the 50+, challenging, perfection-craving missions mean that, provided you’re that type of gamer, you’ll get more than your money’s worth with this one.

 

Assassin’s Tweed

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There’s a bunch of April Fool’s jokes hopping around the Twitterverse today, but one of them has got me thinking…

Geek-Chic company, Insert Coin posted a teaser of their Assassin’s Creed “Formal Range” today, which instantly sparked the idea of a Sherlock Holmes-themed AC sequel.

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I’ll set the scene:

It’s the late 1800’s, and you’re Animus’d into the life of detective, drug addict and bare-knuckled boxer, Sherlock Holmes, who has found, through one of his investigations, the hints of Templar tomfoolery. You climb and fight your way through the smoggy, cobbled alleyways of Old London Town, collecting clues, fighting crime, and encountering some of the key characters of 19th century Britain, from Jack the Ripper, Charles DIckens, and of course, Professor James Moriarty.

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A similarly themed adventure was plotted out in the classic, Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy) interpretation of a 19th century Batman, Gotham by Gaslight, where Bruce Wayne tracks down Jack the Ripper in one of the DC “ElseWorld” style universes. The fact that rooftop-dweller, Batman can animate such a setting proves that it’s more than fitting for an Assassin, and the cityscapes would be simply staggering.

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I must admit; I’m not too bothered (yet) about the French Revolution themed sequel in the works. Personally, like many, I was hoping for a traditional, Japanese samurai variant, but if I can’t get that, Olde London Town will do.

 

Do you know what the best thing about Humble Bundle is?

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Everything.

Humble Bundle is a company dedicated to three main things; donating proceeds to charity, getting revenue directly to the game developers, and providing gamers with a host of games and gamer gear at a fair price.

The idea is simple; Humble Bundle pile together a host of games, soundtracks and downloadables, for a limited amount of time, and you decided how much you want to pay for them.

The premise hinges entirely on honesty and generosity, and is very open to being exploited, but despite the risk of everyone paying the minimum amount (you can pay any price you want), gamers have shown that they’re committed to the cause, consistently paying over the odds for the packages.

If you pay over the average amount, additional games and add-ons are thrown into your bundle too, driving up the average and perpetually aiding the cause.

Not only do you choose your price; you also choose where it goes. Once you’ve valued the bundle, you choose what percentage of the money goes to the developers, what percentage goes to charity and what percentage goes to the people at Humble Bundle too.

They put out gamer bundles, indie bundles and right now, their forth mobile bundle, featuring everything from Catan to Vector, to Gunslugs (if you pay above average). A personal favorite of the current bundle is Rainbow-Six-esque, Breach and Clear.

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Charities donated to include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Child’s Play

Follow them at @Humble or check out HumbleBundle.com for more info

Geekstore Spotlight – Insert Coin

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It’s no secret that I spend an ungodly amount of time playing Street Fighter on the weekends; so much so, that I now have a ritual when it comes to playing. I pour myself a cup of coffee, check the batteries in my fight-stick, and most importantly, roll up the sleeves on my Ryu dressing gown from Insert Coin.

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If the name sounds familiar; Insert Coin were the guys and gals who launched the original, and virally popular, Monteriggioni – Class of 1499, Assassin’s Creed hoody, complete with the signature peaked hood back in the day. I remember it well, because, much to my frustration, it was always sold out.

The stuff you pick up on Insert Coin is all fully licensed, gamer merch, catering to gamers old and new. I’ve picked up tee’s with stealthy, old, Golden Axe references, modern, Halo in-jokes and also much more blatant, simple Sonic stuff, but all of it has a quirky, “home-grown” kind of feel to it. You know that if somebody in the street spots the game it’s from, they’re going to comment on it. I put this down to it looking more low-key and subtly geeky, when compared to the “G33K” emblazoned stuff that you’d pick up on the high street.

A personal favorite deal of mine, back in my student days, was their “Mystery Box”. You threw them a pile of money and your t-shirt size and they sent you a random handful of their t-shirts, always worth more than you’d spent. It was a great way to pick up a quick, cheap wardrobe of geek chic, and since all their designs were good and trustworthy; you could buy with confidence. Sadly, the option seems to have disappeared from their store. I hope it comes back.

From Albert Wesker – S.T.A.R.S button downs to Dreamcast-shaped messenger bags, they have it all. They ship all over and add new items pretty frequently too. They don’t have a huge amount for girls, but again, they’ve began branching out more and more;  personal favorite of my girlfriend over at Tough Cookies, is their nerdy leggings range.

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Of all the stuff we’ve got piled up here, from hoodies, to t-shirts, to dressing gowns, everything has been of great quality and has been made to last. You’ll notice that their non-sale stuff costs a little more than a lot of online t-shirt stores, but there’s a significant difference in quality. I have stuff picked up from other online geek stores (rhymes with “for shoe-man sheeples”) that’s half the age, half as used and twice as worn-looking as the stuff I pick up from Insert Coin. Also, they have a tonne of stuff on sale, and almost always have a discount code doing the circuits. Follow them at @InsertCoinTees or listen to gamer podcasts like Rooster Teeth’s cast on iTunes, and chances are you’ll come across a 5-15% discount along the line.

Check them out at insertcoinclothing.com