I have to admit to having an aversion to free to play games. Mostly its due to many of them resorting to questionable tactics to extort money from you, usually in the form of microtransactions. For those, like Marie’s Room, I often think it’s because the devs didn’t believe their work was worth charging for and thus likely not worth playing. However I’m very glad to be wrong in this instance as the developers behind Marie’s Room have created something that is very much worth playing. Due to the nature of the game, much like Gone Home, the rest of this review is just for those that have played the game as I can’t really discuss it without diving deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.
I’m not usually one for stories told in retrospective, feeling that much of the tension is lost, however in Marie’s room it works quite well. Part of this is due to the non-linear story construction, with you piecing together the various elements of the story as you go along, but also locking away key moments until you’ve heard enough story elements to progress. The developers have also done a good job in ensuring each of those story fragments works towards building out the bigger picture, rather than just being different parts of a single cohesive story cut up and thrown around randomly. That’s probably the biggest distinction I’d draw between something like this and say Dear Esther with the latter feeling like a confused mess of story elements that didn’t all drive towards the same conclusion.
In terms of pure construction Marie’s Room is well put together, especially considering it’s not done on the indie dev darling Unity (it’s actually Unreal 4). I will have one slight quibble with the hit detection used for showing you items that you can interact with as it seemed a little finicky even at the best of times. Whilst I was able to find the vast majority of the story objects there were many I had to try numerous different approaches to in order to unlock. Also it would be nice to know which items you’d already listened to, just so you don’t accidentally click on them again. Given that the game barely tickles an hour in total play time though these are minor gripes.
The story flowed well between the different core elements giving ample time to each of them to grow and flourish. I do wonder how I would’ve felt about the story if I had explored the room in a less methodical way. The way in which the story unfolded to me felt quite organic, focusing the early story on Kelsey and Marie’s relationship with a small sprinkling of external factors. Then as Todd entered the picture and Marie’s past starts to come into the picture the real core of the story, and the reasoning for your character’s motivation for being there, begins to unfold beautifully. Thinking about it going the other way, knowing Kelsey’s past before knowing about how Marie’s family saved her would give you insight into why she acted the way she did in the first place. I’d be keen to hear what other people’s experiences were and whether or not their particular story path resonated with them.
Overall I quite enjoyed the story, the full gravity of what happened really hitting home in the game’s final scenes. Whilst that exact situation is rare I’m sure many of us can resonate with the guilt of having done something they regret and how revisiting the scene of the crime can bring that all back. Indeed I think that’s universal for all grief and loss as our memories and experiences are tied to the places and people we create them in and with. If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the story of Marie’s Room its that we can’t remove the pain we caused in the past, we can only try to move forward and deal with it.
Marie’s Room is a great short story presented in game format. On first look the retrospective, fragmented presentation of the story would imply it’d be destined for disaster however the developers have done a great job in crafting a narrative that works well in the format. The craftsmanship is on point too with good visuals, great soundtrack and only a few small niggling issues that could be easily addressed in future patches. In all honesty I wouldn’t have any hesitations recommending this at the $5 price point so the fact that it’s free makes it a no brainer. If you find yourself with an hour to kill and are craving a good narrative experience then you shouldn’t look past Marie’s Room.
Marie’s Room is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 39 minutes with 86% of the achievements unlocked.
Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
The once strict definition of what constituted a video game has taken a massive beating over the past couple years. There’s been numerous releases that just weren’t different enough to be excluded from the game genre but yet also didn’t feel like they had enough game-like aspects to be included. For me these types of games are quite intriguing as their lake of gameplay is usually made up for in story or the gameplay itself is what builds the story. Velvet Sundown is one such title, including some of the basic elements of game but feels more like a digital version of a murder mystery party. It’s hard to describe how I feel about it as whilst I think the concept is novel the execution, one that relies on other players playing their part, is both the best and worst thing about it.
You’re aboard the Velvet Sundown, a private yacht that caters to the rich and famous. You’ll find yourself in control of one of many characters in the game ranging from crew members all the way up to famous tennis players or wealthy socialites looking for a good time. However everyone aboard this ship has a secret, maybe something about them or a desire they want to fulfill, and your interactions will determine whether those secrets come to life or if those desires will be fulfilled. How will you play your role? Will you seek out your goal with reckless abandon or will you be the troll that tries to fellate everyone aboard?
Velvet Sundown has this kind of Second Life vibe to it which I think mostly stems from its graphics. The environment, that is to say the ship that you can walk around on, is pretty barren in terms of detail and feels quite sterile. This is only amplified by the rigid animations that all the characters have, especially when they’re walking around. It seems this might be due to the fact that Velvet Sundown is built upon an engine called Dramagame which appears to be geared more towards social simulation rather than something with game play. Usually I wouldn’t hold this against a game, especially one which focuses on other things, however when they’re asking for a monthly subscription fee for premium content I do expect a little more bang for my buck.
A the beginning of each scenario you’ll be randomly assigned a character to play and then given a background blurb on who they are, what their motivations might be and usually a goal to start you off. After that you’re essentially in a 3D chat room with a bunch of other players which, depending on how lucky you are, will be filled with a mix of serious players and trolls. You can engage people in conversation (and, if you’ve got premium access, you can hear them talk in wonderfully horrible text-to-speech) to try and figure out who might be the right person to talk to regarding your objective or use various items to progress the scenarios story. For some characters you’ll receive prompts every so often about your changing motivations, hopefully inducing a bit more drama into the overall experience.
As a concept I think the idea is really strong. You get given what’s essentially a character breakdown but how that character plays out is all up to the players behind them. I had some pretty fun scenarios where other people played to their characters aptly, like the Nigerian prince who spoke in slightly broken English and tried to get everyone to welcome Nigeria into their hearts. However at the same time if people don’t play to the story exactly the scenario doesn’t really go anywhere and then you usually end up in boring conversation that inevitably leads onto someone trolling. The best example of this was my last scenario whereby one person, playing Lora, tried to get everyone on the ship to do sexual things to her. Whilst it was funny at first it just ended up distracting from the overall game, and it eventually went no where.
Velvet Sundown could be vastly improved by adding in a little more interactivity and freedom into the game in order to generate more interesting narrative. The rigid structure that the story requires to be followed in order to progress it means that there’s really no freedom outside of it, even if you’re allowed to say whatever you want to anyone. Adding in some other interactions that you could apply to anyone else in the game would mean that, even if the original story wasn’t panning out, players would be able to create their own stories within the bounds of the scenario. I’m not suggesting they put in full cyber-sex animations for everyone (like the slutty Lora in my last game would love) however a few more interactions would go a long way.
Velvet Sundown is an interesting concept, taking the idea of a murder mystery party and translating that into a digital playground for players to fool around in. However it feels like a beta product, with all the environments feeling sterile and the character animations making them all look like robots with back problems. The player to player interactions are the main source of entertainment however and whilst they can be amusing at times if everyone doesn’t stick to their story exactly the scenario just ends up going no where. I feel with a couple years worth of polish Velvet Sundown could really be something but for now it’s just a curiosity that simply not worth paying for.
Velvet Sundown is available on PC right now. It is free to play with an optional subscription fee for premium content.
Make no mistake, in the world of gaming PCs are far from being the top platform. The reasoning behind this is simple, consoles are simply easier and have a much longer life than your traditional PC making them a far more attractive platform for both gamers and developers a like. This has lead to the consolization of the PC games market ensuring that many games are developed primarily for the console first and the PC becomes something of a second class citizen, which did have some benefits (however limited they might be). The platform is long from forgotten however with it still managing to capture a very respectable share of the games market and still remaining the platform of choice for many eSports titles.
The PC games market has been no slouch though with digital sales powering the market to all time highs. Despite that though the PC still remains a relative niche compared to other platforms, routinely seeing market share in the single digit percentages. There were signs that it was growing but it still seemed like the PC was to be forever relegated to the back seat. There’s speculation however that the PC is looking to make a comeback and could possibly even dominate consoles by 2014:
As of 2008, boxed copies of games had paltry sales compared to digital sales, and nothing at all looks to change. During 2011, nearly $15 billion is going to be attributed to digital sales while $2.5 billion belong to boxed copies. This is a trend I have to admit I am not surprised by. I’ll never purchase another boxed copy if I can help it.
The death of PC gaming has long been a mocking-point of console gamers, but recent trends show that the PC has nothing to stress over. One such trend is free-to-play, where games are inherently free, but support paid-services such as purchasing in-game items. This has proven wildly successful, and has even caused the odd MMORPG to get rid of it subscription fee. It’s also caused a lot of games to be developed with the F2P mechanic decided from the get-go.
The research comes out of DFC Intelligence and NVIDIA was the one who’s been spruiking it as the renaissance of PC gaming. The past couple years do show a trend for PC games sales to continue growing despite console dominance but the prediction starts to get a little hairy when it starts to predict the decline of console sales next year when there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it. The growth in the PC sales is also strikingly linear leading me to believe that it’s heavily speculation based. Still it’s an interesting notion to toy with, so let’s have a look at what could (and could not) be driving these predictions.
For starters the data does not include mobile platforms like smart phones and tablets which for the sake of comparison is good as they’re not really on the same level as consoles or PCs. Sure they’ve also seen explosive growth in the past couple years but it’s still a nascent platform for gaming and drawing conclusions based on the small amounts of data available would give you wildly different results based purely on your interpretation.
A big driver behind these numbers would be the surge in the number of free to play, micro-transaction based games that have been entering the market. Players of these types of games will usually spend over and above the usual amount they would on a similar game that had a one off cost. As time goes on there will be more of these kinds of titles that appeal to a wider gamer audience thereby increasing the revenue of PC games considerably. Long time gamers like me might not like having to fork out for parts of the game but you’d be hard pressed to argue that it isn’t a successful business model.
Another factor could be that the current console generation is getting somewhat long in the tooth. The Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 were both launched some 5 to 6 years ago and whilst the hardware has performed admirably in the past the disparity between what PCs and consoles are capable of is hard to ignore. With neither Microsoft nor Sony mentioning any details on their upcoming successors to the current generation (nor if they’re actually working on them) this could see some gamers abandon their consoles for the more capable PC platforms. Considering even your run of the mill PC is now capable of playing games beyond the console level it wouldn’t be surprising to see gamers make the change.
What sales figures don’t tell us however is what the platform of choice will be for developers to release on. Whilst the PC industry as a whole might be more profitable than consoles that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be more profitable for everyone. Indeed titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield have found their homes firmly on the console market with PCs being the niche. The opposite is true for many of the online free to play games that have yet to make a successful transition onto the console platform. It’s quite possible that these sales figures will just mean an increase in a particular section of the PC market while the rest remain the same.
Honestly though I don’t think it really matters either way as game developers have now shown that it’s entirely possible to have a multi-platform release that doesn’t make any compromises. Consolization then will just be a blip in the long history of gaming, a relic of the past that we won’t see repeated again. The dominant platform of the day will come and go as it has done so throughout the history of gaming but what really matters is the experience which each of them can provide. As its looking right now all of them are equally capable when placed in the hands of good developers and whilst these sales projections predict the return of the PC as the king platform in the end it’ll be nothing more than bragging rights for us long time gamers.