E3 Press Conferences and Devolver Digital: Cringefest or Genius Parody?

This article is something I wanted to discuss because it’s a common topic always brought up when it comes to E3 and company showcases: Cringe. Cringe takes a variety of forms when it comes to a press conference; sometimes it’s an off-color joke that dies on-stage. Sometimes it’s a painfully scripted event that makes everyone wince with how forced it is. There’s one common thing that connects it all back however: Cringe is a clear disconnect from the audience.

That said, there is a fine line. A line where audience disconnect loops back around to full-blown parody. That’s where Devolver Digital comes into play. I’ve seen various levels of criticism and talking points about it but one thing is clear; the jury is divided on if it was the most cringe-inducing press conference ever or if Devolver created the most snarky, pessimistic parody of a press conference ever.

If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out Devolver’s conference. Personally, I found it kinda funny in a zany out-there sort of way. They hit all the notes one expects of a press conference: Corporate shilling, announcing things nobody wants and over-the-top editing. This followed with an incredibly long post-show of people just playing games and making jokes until the next conference…but why is it so divisive?

When it comes to the E3, there’s a fine line of how sarcastic you can go before killing a joke. For many, Devolver hit this point at minute two. Very little games shown, very little in the way of actual news, and overall it was nothing but half-an-hour or so of making fun of every single press conference. The problem is that for many, the jokes wore themselves out. You can only point out how cynical the press conferences are before the audience groans and says “We get it”. If you’re not funny and if you’re not showing gameplay, you’re just wasting time.

That said, for others, this was the perfect amount of snark and reveals. You had to read between the lines but there were plenty of silly moments and reveals to be had. They just didn’t get a two minute “World Premier” trailer associated with them. Devolver went the route of making a joke more than anything else. Nothing really tops them bringing in Suda51, a famous and wacky developer, just to say he’s not doing anything with Devolver.

The importance of Devolver’s conference is that it highlights a point that blurs the line between audiences. Some say it’s hysterical, some say it was a tired joke before the camera even started rolling. Will a conference like Devolver ever happen again? Who is to say. In terms of what cringe is, Devolver found the most wonderful grey area to toy with fans, viewers and E3 goers all in the wee hours of the morning.

Video Game Journalism: Lacking the First Step

Chances are, you might have heard about the immense backlash at Brash Games. It goes to show that the entry level of video game writing and journalism really isn’t friendly. It is a system that exploits people who wish to be writers and does all manner of horrible things. While Brash is not the first, there seems to be a constant question of why people get exploited, as well as a plea from others to make sure up-and-coming-writers aren’t tricked into working for free.

The problem is that these people have no first step.

Personal Experience

This is not the first website I’ve written for, nor will it be the last. Before this, I had written for two small-time websites: Splitpush.net and Fortis Core. Let me be clear that Fortis hasn’t paid me but I do it because I know those who run it and I have high hopes for it. Splitpush, conversely, paid me for my work albeit it wasn’t all that much money in hindsight.

Perhaps what frustrates me most about others who insist on finding a place that will accept me and pay me a fair wage is that those places don’t truly exist. Paying writing jobs are often contract work or throwing your resume into a giant pile in hopes that someone will pick it up. I would love to get paid for the articles I write here but I doubt that is going to happen. They need editing and I’m not the best when it comes to editing. I could use eyes on my work but beyond posting on twitter and sharing with other sites, I can’t get that “exposure” that I need.

In the grand design, people often ask how anyone could write for exposure. The answer is simple: It’s all you can get. I was shocked when I was being offered about ten dollars for what I wrote at Splitpush because I had never been paid for my writing before barring some commissions. Often, new writers will take anything they can get because we don’t have that much available to us. So we either start our own websites and hope to garner a following or we go where they’ll take us.

Stairs Without a Step

This comes back to the problem that there is a lack of a clear, first step. Most writers will have a cavalcade of stories with how they got noticed: Some went to college, got a degree and worked at small time places for cheap. Others wrote a lot on the net and eventually got noticed. Some might be able to even leverage the horror story they had into job offers and being a spokesperson about the industry. Yet in terms of an actionable start to a career in video game journalism, there isn’t much.

This, in turn, leads to the abuse situations one can see on the net. Yes, exposure isn’t great and exposure can’t pay bills…but in terms of a first step, sometimes that is the best you can get. It feels dreadful because now you’re working for free but with the hopes that this can transition into something that will pay bills and let you work. It also doesn’t help that the pool of people who wish to write about games is enormous. Competition will shut out a majority of these people, which will lead them into taking less fair work and more painful jobs.

Perhaps this sounds like whining from someone who can’t find work, which is fair, but I’d hardly say my experience is unique. Outlets like Reddit aren’t well-suited to article sharing because of the format of content that shines while people will chastise you for spamming and posting your own work as opposed to reading about it.

Paving the Cracks

I think the best question to ask is if this is a problem that can’t be fixed. Honestly, it’s probably not something you can fix. Game journalism is just like any other media and breaking in is the hardest part. Sure, we can advertise and work with companies who treat up-and-comers right but those are limited jobs and there are a lot more questionable groups than admirable groups.

The earnest, best thing we can do to help those who wish to get ahead is to try and get more of those companies who can treat writers well. The more helpful groups there are who seek to nurture writers, the better the talent pool grows and the overall industry improves. It also means shady situations are avoided and left to rot. So long as there is more positive construction than negative exploitation, there will always be a net gain.

Overall, the worst thing I see being done is the posturing that “you’re worth money” and “find a place that will pay you for your work”. If that were as easy as it was said, situations like Brash Games wouldn’t happen. There are struggling writers who don’t have a place that will pay them, making them resort to working at other places for the great reward of exposure. There is so much talk about it yet very little in the way of offers of places to go.

Everyone wants to pay writers fair wages but it seems that when that young upstart comes knocking, the wallet is empty and they’re told to get to the back of the line.

Review Culture and How It Hampers Video Games

This is a seven out of ten game.

What image does that conjure in your mind?

Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t give you a great view. An OK game, likely plagued with bland segments and problems, that never really goes anywhere and isn’t worth your time. Movies and television suffer from similar problems but I feel that it is much worse in the game sphere…why is this?

To understand this, we have to go back to the advent of video game journalism. We have to look at reviews and how people consumed media. Video games appeared right when written media began to become a little less important. People wanted to know about how good or bad a game was but they didn’t want to really sit down and read an entire article about whatever the game was. People wanted a quick, concise measure about what to expect from a game. Writers saw this and knew the best way to capture an audience was to cut down the entire review into something that could fit into a single sentence. Thus, we moved to a system of numerical basis. We would rate out of five stars or ten points. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Yet most video games cost more money (at least the console or PC versions) than your standard book or movie ticket. They’re pricey purchases by comparison. The counterpoint might be that video games offer longer experiences by default than a movie or book but a game is still a hard purchase for someone whose entertainment budget might just be a hundred dollars a month, for example. We’ve slightly moved away from this with things like Steam, the indie market and free-to-play games but your standard AAA title will still set you back a pretty penny.

This had the unintended side-effect of skewing the game’s review weight. When we think about games, our views on what a ten-out-of-ten game is versus a seven-out-of-ten game are further apart than the T-rex and the stegosaurus. A perfect game that cannot be missed versus a meh experience that might be worth a rental at best. In truth, this is a growing problem with metacritic sites as well.

Take, for example, Rotten Tomatoes. An aggregation of all reviews might sound good on paper but the line gets blurred when you consider not all movies fall under “flawless masterpiece” or “garbage we filmed for two hours”. Media that lands in the middle suffers the most because of this; a five-out-of-ten film or game can have redeeming qualities about it but we are too quick to dismiss it as not worth the time. Likewise, we praise things that hit the higher echelon of gaming too highly. That eight-star game might be decent but those glaring flaws ARE glaring flaws.

But how we respond to reviews also dictates an immense amount of what we consider a good or bad score. Jim Sterling recently gave the new Legend of Zelda the score you see at the top. By all means, not a terrible score, but the fact that it was not a perfect was seen as a besmirching of the series. People thought he was viciously attacking the franchise and spitting on what they thought a perfect game was…for an “It’s pretty good” review. It goes back to the point that we’ve skewed the review system too much.

So what can be done about this review system? Using my own experiences, Fortis Core uses a different brand of scoring; rather than stars or numbers, its recommended in the form of a “yes/no/maybe” system. It’s not perfect but it does encourage reading deeper when you get to the “recommend with exception” rule. The flaw there is that you might be pigeonholing games even deeper. I’d rather recommend/not recommend a game though. Giving it an arbitrary score might actually hurt a game I genuinely enjoyed.

Review culture has become too caught up in TL;DRs. We focus too much on the end result and not on the nuances. While it is understandable due to how reviewers often have to try a lot of games over a year with only a few hours for each, this style of reviewing has polluted the idea of the review. Good games are slipping through the cracks into the trash because the crack has widened. While I wish that we could take a step back and earnestly give each game the time and review it deserved, we live in a world that is increasingly concerned about the “now”, not the “later”. If you take one thing away from this; Don’t let flaws dissuade you. That seven-out-of-ten game might be perfect for you.

My Time with Hacktag

Original Article on Fortiscore. Check it out here!

It often feels like co-op games are a dying breed. More and more often, we’re given games with PvP or extremely competitive situations where even cooperation is made in favor of smashing someone else’s team into the dirt. You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to test out Piece of Cake’s new game, Hacktag, at GDC.

Before I played, I briefly sat down with the CEO and Co-CEO of Hacktag to learn about their game. To them, there wasn’t really a game you could play with two people, especially a couples game. They wanted a challenging but co-op game for the both of them to enjoy (and even yell at each other about. Something I found both pretty funny and oddly adorable).

Thus was born Hacktag: A co-op game where two hackers are in charge in infiltrating organizations based on real-life corporations such as news stations and pharma companies. At a glance, everything is pretty stylized; Every agent and person in Hacktag is an anthropomorphic being based on some real-life creature. Wily cats, clever foxes and more are all represented here. You’ll be able to customize your character with a variety of clothes and races too. With the alpha, I slipped into the shoes of a cat-person with some pretty nifty clothing. Our target? Some valuable data in the corporation.

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Agent View…

Missions are divided into three types: A mass data-collection where you and your partner have to run around gathering a set amount of info, a mission type where you have to get to one major piece of info from a heavily guarded area, and finally a mission where you have to sabotage and hack your way through a series of tough challenges. You can customize special skills as well, though these are small benefits and won’t greatly impede new players versus old players. For the demo, we played a data-collection type twice…for a major reason.

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…and the Hacker view!

Hacktag is, interestingly enough, an asymmetrical co-op game. One player is the agent running through the real-world area of the corporation, ducking behind desks and quickly tapping computer screens. The other takes control of an agent hidden miles away behind a computer desk, hacking through the lines. It’s a fascinating change of pace and quite enjoyable, as the two play similarly enough to not get new players lost but enough to keep things fresh between the two modes.

Bérenger Dupré (The Co-CEO) and I played through the mission, with him tapping phones to distract guards while I’d run past and disable firewalls for him. Another major feature is that there is a slight element of competition in who can gather more data. It’s not enough to make you forsake your partner (as that’s a game-over for both of you) but it’s enough to make you pause and swipe some data before getting their door open.

The game uses hacking in a variety of minigames, where both players have to match lines, complete button sequences and rapidly tap. I was told there would be more to come in this department, so I can’t imagine these getting old anytime soon. Playing through both sides, I found myself greatly enjoying the world and gameplay as I helped my partner escape out of locked rooms, distracted guards and more while he disabled firewalls and bugged out security programs.

Of course, longevity is a questionable thing and boy does Piece of Cake have you covered. Hacktag will have online and couch co-op, along with a five-hour story campaign for each of the three corporations. In addition, there will be weekly challenges to beat the studio as well as a seed/procedural-generation system where you can share levels with your friends and foes.

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This only happened once or twice. Promise.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give this game is that, during my playtest, Bérenger took a moment to gather some data while I was being chased by an angry security system that caught me trying to sneak past it. “Ugh you JERK!” is what I said, but despite this, I still wanted to help. This wasn’t a co-op game where a partner acting selfish hurts you both and provokes spite. No, it made me think of smarmy, sarcastic hackers exchanging quips and one-liners while they had a love-hate relationship from movies and television shows. Piece of Cake Studios has done something amazing with this game and I really cannot wait to play it again with a friend of mine in the near future.

Hacktag is currently on Steam Greenlight, with PS4 and Xbox One support in the future. I highly recommend you give it a go, as co-op games of this caliber should be supported and loved. Even if you exchange some harsh words with your friend who skulked with data while you nervously paced in a prison cell.

All pictures credit to Piece of Cake Studios.

Multiple Versions: Archaic Mechanic or Useful Expansion?

Since picking up Pokemon Sun for my trip next week, I started thinking about how some game companies still do multiple versions of a single game. I felt the need to dig into this and to further explore if this system is something archaic or something that is still necessary.

As an Archaic Mechanic

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Perhaps the biggest criticism one can make about games with multiple versions is that they’re no different than the board game example I linked above: The same game sporting one-or-two unique features and a handful of cosmetic fluff that doesn’t warrant the price tag of an entirely new game.

Pokemon in particular is pretty bad with this; When you consider the differences between Sun and Moon, the most you can attest is that there are a handful of different pokemon in each. Sure, there are some mechanical nuances such as starter gender or otherwise, but the games are fundamentally the same.There are rarely unique mechanics that you can find in either that don’t carry over.

To further exacerbate this issue, these games are often sold at the same price. Meaning that sometimes if you want to catch an extra ten pokemon to complete your pokedex, you need to either find someone to trade with or drop another forty on the same game. It’s no fun to have to buy the same game twice for minute differences…

As a Useful Expansion

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When done correctly, different versions can serve as impressive expansions or differences that make the two games truly unique, even if they use the same mechanics. The perfect example would be the two fire emblem games. Despite having the same mechanics, each path is radically different.

Conquest is the more traditional, harder route. Tough maps, limited gold/experience and overall more traditional fantasy units. Birthright features easier maps, the ability to grind and units inspired by the nation of Hoshido, which in turn is heavily inspired by ancient Japan. These two games, while similar, offer radically different paths and gameplay despite using the same core gameplay.

But most importantly: The other edition won’t set you back by much. Each additional story path (including a third not pictured) will set you back only a fraction of the cost of the core game. Meaning that your initial purchase can remain your initial purchase. Any content you miss out on is merely an entirely different game with different rules, maps and units that you have to work with.

Earnestly, it strikes the feelings of an old RTS expansion pack: Additional content at a reduced price that radically changes the game.

My Take

In earnest, there are things you can’t really replicate. The necessity multiple versions creates where you have to find friends to trade and communicate with. The requirement that you’re going to have to step out of your game to finish everything, if you’re a completion. The need to check a list before your buy one version in case you’re missing something important only one copy provides.

When done well? I think it’s fantastic. But I do think that most versions these days are not really worth keeping around. Doubly so when games like Pokemon often create a third, “best” version that has everything you missed from the opposite version and more. Versions and editions are not something conducive to gameplay anymore, something that we don’t truly need to worry over.

While I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for these games, take the two versions and slap them together. I’d feel far more confident buying “Pokemon: Eclipse” than I would buying either Sun or Moon.

How “Unhappy Reunion” in Fire Emblem: Conquest exemplifies the entire series.

Picking up Fates again after a long hiatus, I discovered something. In replaying the map “Unhappy Reunion”, I came to realize just how this single map compresses every aspect of Fire Emblem into a single map. Be warned: There are VERY slight spoilers but don’t worry too much. It’s only chapter ten so there won’t be any shocking reveals here.

The Premise

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“Unhappy Reunion” takes place in chapter ten of Fire Emblem: Conquest. In this map, you’re leaving to meet the rainbow sage before you encounter your blood brother, Takumi. As it turns out, he’s more than a bit upset that you sided with Nohr over your kingdom of birth. You’ll have to hold out and defend the town until backup arrives or else risk losing a valuable port town to Hoshido.

The map itself is a bunker-style map. Takumi sits in the lower left corner, sending waves of his troops to assault you while your meager party of ten hold out against what seem to be overwhelming odds. That said, there are turrets which can change the tide…but that’s getting ahead of the real glory of the mission.

How the Mission Proceeds

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Up to this point, Conquest has been stingy with good units. From an unlucky champion of justice to an frail, smarmy mage, good units are at a premium. Along with that, experience has been low for Conquest so every kill counts. Likely at this point, the player has been relying on Corrin to get by. Further still, it doesn’t help that there are houses you can visit to gain valuable items like gold, a dracoshield and more. Even worse, your fastest units are Elise (who is made of paper) and Silas (a tanky knight). Things seem stacked against you.

That’s when this mission throws you the first (and only) bone: Camilla, Beruka and Selena appear to aid you. While Selena is another useful swordswoman, Beruka and Camilla are likely your first flying units. Camilla is also the first “godly” unit you get. A flying powerhouse known as a malig-knight, Camilla can easily tank scores of units provided you don’t send her suicide diving into her weakness of archers.

Yet as the mission progresses, things become more dire. The units keep coming as you struggle to hold out. Walls break and new paths are open. Perhaps the biggest “Oh shit” moment comes when Takumi taps a dragon vein, evaporating the water and making it even easier to assault your position. It’s a hard map, especially on harder difficulties and even more so when you try to get out without a casualty and with all the items.

Exemplifying Fire Emblem

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Fire Emblem is a game series about strategy, choice and sacrifice. It’s a series built around taking risks and maximizing resources so you can hope to make it past the later stages where the difficulty ramps up significantly. You’re often given a powerful unit early but one that degrades in value as a handful of good units often outweighs one god-tier unit. This is where “Unhappy Reunion” truly shines:

  • You have to make tough calls. Do you bumrush Takumi so he can’t tap the dragon vein or do you turtle up so it’s harder to get to the tiles?
  • You can’t rely on godly units. Corrin and Camilla might be amazing but you need your team to strengthen for later maps.
  • Planning requires thinking ahead several turns. Can Niles hit the pegasus units if they get close enough? Can Odin hold down a choke-point despite being a mage?
  • Risk-taking is rewarded. In a mode where gold and items count for everything, can you afford to miss the gold? More importantly, would losing Felicia be worth that item?
  • It’s hard. Even on the easiest mode, the game will kick you in the teeth if you make even a slight mistake. Enjoy losing Mozu to the wrong crit at the wrong time.

All in all, this single eleven turn map puts the entirety of Fire Emblem, a series spanning decades, into a single scenario. It tapped into everything about the series, good and bad, to create a great encounter. Tropes, commonalities and even overarching strategies all culminate in a single, really amazing fight against your blood brother.

Regardless of how much you like the series, one has to admire the quality and skill it took to put the entire series down into a single map.

Fire Emblem Heroes: Flawed Yet Fun

Normally, I should hate something like Fire Emblem Heroes. I should despise the simplification, the gatchapon, the incessant demand to grind for your favorite characters. Yet here I am, still playing and with intention to continue playing well beyond the initial launch and into the foreseeable future. The question is…why?

Strategy Made Lite…

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Don’t expect anything groundbreaking going into Heroes. The story is about as basic as it gets; Warring kingdoms, plot twists you can see looming like skyscrapers in the distance and generic (but likeable!) characters. So what “does” it do well? As it turns out, the core gameplay.

Heroes has done an incredible job of boiling down the core Fire Emblem experience into an easy-to-digest mobile game with maps you can handle in the span of about five-to-ten minutes, depending on difficulty. The ever-present weapon triangle (Swords > Axes > Spears > Swords) is now more brutal than ever, with counters being damning if you flop on your face or bring the wrong party. In addition, limiting your squad to four heroes means every decision counts. While perma-death is absent, slamming your head against a wall is only going to waste stamina.

The Fire Emblem license also comes into play beautifully here. Old favorites like Lyn and Marth clash with the new hotness such as Lucina and Ryoma. A character roster spanning several games all appear, from the pot-wearing trainee Donnel to the hulking armored lord that is Hector to the busty and protective Camilla, any fan of FE can find their favorite hero. Each hero is lovingly made real with wonderful art ranging from a painted “Final Fantasy” style to a cartoony, heavy-brush style.

The story campaign is also quite robust. With around forty-five maps of varying difficulty and three difficulty levels, you’ll have some time to spend. In addition, expect seasonal maps, PvP, and maps to grind to raise your heroes from low-tier-trainees to high-tier-titans. By all accounts, Heroes could be the mobile game fans have been waiting for between 3DS releases, right?

…Grinding Made Heavy

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For the unaware, Heroes uses a “gatchapon” system of unlocking. By paying orbs (Five for an initial unlock with a cost up to twenty if you unlock every orb on your screen), you can fish for new heroes to find your favorite character. Each orb is color coded depending on the triangle so you can semi-hone your search. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take away the grindy RNG aspect of trying to get your favorite hero. Don’t let my picture fool you: I’m a lucky S.O.B. for pulling a Roy and Lucina in the same pack. Doubly lucky they’re both five stars, as you can get major heroes in lower star variants.

In additon, the rarity system takes forever to grind. Feathers can be acquired by daily log-in and arena bonuses. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get your three-star Robin to a five-star. It’s just going to take ages. There was a bandage fix released that gave a ton of feathers for players recently but in the long term, the grind will increasingly turn players off. Especially when you’re only allotted three PvP battles a day and have a fairly draconian energy meter.

Speaking of the arena and PvP, balance is a tad off at the moment and there are some real standout heroes. Takumi in particular is a colorless (and neigh-counterless) bowmaster who will shred anyone who comes within two spaces, all the while boasting good stats. Expect to see a LOT of Takumi, either from lucky people or those who were grinding hardcore. Thus we get to the other problem: Getting orbs post-campaign is impossible, meaning if you want a new hero you’re -going- to have to shell out money. While fun, Heroes will burn out quickly and go the way of Pokemon: Go if it doesn’t receive a steady stream of updates.

The Verdict

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As with many mobile games, Heroes shows promise. In a perfect world they’d lower the grinding, make orbs better available (albeit no replacement for microtransactions) and add more maps and heroes. It could very well be the perfect starter game for someone who wants to try Fire Emblem and lead into a new age for a franchise brought back from the brink of death.

In the opposite world, Heroes could expand the grinding, break balance even further and release updates that favor paying users over the standard, casual player. It would die a slow and painful death while draining a bit more money from whales in the short term rather than bank on long term success. It’d also greatly damage the Emblem brand, hurting sales for future games as this is the first forray into the fantasy worlds of Fire Emblem.

Only time will tell. For now? I recommend you try it. It’s a fun, free strategy game. Just don’t spend too long playing it otherwise you’ll burn through content like midnight oil.

TL;DR: A fun, enjoyable strategy game with a Fire Emblem skin that is somewhat bogged down by free-to-play mobile issues.