How To Eat EA’s Lunch

This post comes with a hidden suffix of “in 2007,” because right now EA’s lunch is FIFA lootboxes and you eat that by getting the FIFA license away from them somehow. You could also set their lunch on fire by convincing enough nations to ban their lootboxes. What I’m really talking about is how to out-Sims EA, which, much like Cities: Skylines out SimCity-ing EA, would be eating such a tiny side dish of EA’s lunch in 2019 that they probably wouldn’t notice.

But I do want someone to make Cities: Skylines but for the Sims, because although the Sims 4 lacks the spectacular cavalcade of failure that was SimCity 2013, its steady decay is just as bad for the series overall. The Sims 3 was already heavily monetized and microtransactioned, and the Sims 4 not only continued that trend, but had the gall to strip away nearly all the expansion content and even some core features of the Sims 3, then tried to sell everything piecemeal again.

The first Sims was released in January of 2000, on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap where video games released around the time of Half-Life 2 look closer to modern day graphics in 2019 than they do to video games released around the time of Half-Life 1, just a few years earlier. Like, sure, you can tell 2019 graphics are a huge upgrade, but the 1998-2004 graphics gap is even bigger than the 2004-2019 gap. All this to say, the Sims 2, released in 2004, could sell itself based on nothing but more graphical fidelity in your virtual dollhouse. On top of that, the Sims 2 was designed ground up to be a virtual dollhouse. It shipped with lots of bonafide characters in its pre-made neighborhood, not just generic-ish families that served as default friends and neighbors for mechanical purposes, but a neighborhood full of existing relationships and personal dramas to interact with.

Then the Sims 3 launched, and had a big ticket selling point: Neighborhoods were now completely open world, interconnected, living towns full of sims who went about their daily business holistically, not silo’d off into a bunch of lots each of which was its own world divided by loading screens. I don’t know how they pulled this off in 2009, because my 2017 laptop gives me 2-3 minute long loading screens when first loading a game and tends to start stuttering under the strain if I play too long. Regardless of how, this was again the kind of leap in technology that justified a new game and selling new expansion packs that were basically the same as the expansion packs for the old game, except they were for the new game. Some people are still Sims 2 adherents, but not many.

Then the Sims 4 dropped, and the fanbase legit split. The Sims 4, by virtue of receiving ongoing support, won the struggle overall, but Sims 3 communities remain intact while Sims 2 communities have mostly withered away to one guy posting content for the odd stray comment from his supportive dog. The Sims 4 was a technological step backwards, returning to silo’d lots divided by loading screens. Basic features like the toddler stage of life and even pools were not present at release for the Sims 4. In fairness to the Sims 4, the real essentials like the toddler life stage and pools were added in free content patches rather than sold as microtransactions (even though the Sims 4 is generally even more aggressive than the Sims 3 with microtransactions), and it did include some engine improvements that made one of the core features of the game – socialization – more believable and evocative. Back on the first hand, though, it also lacked the Sims 3’s incredibly flexible Create A Style system, which allowed for lots of flexibility in coloring wallpaper, flooring and roofing, and Sim clothing. Self-expression took a huge hit in favor of dynamically generated social drama. Those are both core features for the Sims, although they tend to appeal to different people, and I strongly suspect this is why the fanbase split. In terms of overall quality, sacrificing one for the other is a wash.

And just like SimCity vs. Cities: Skylines, EA can’t copyright much of anything that makes the Sims great. They have a few families like the Goths and the Altos and the Landgraabs who are recognizable to the fanbase and have some traction with the audience, but if you shipped your Sims-alike with the Mort family, people would get that it’s basically the same as the Goths and would be happy to pick up playing dolls with your Morts right where they left off with EA’s Goths. Despite having an audience who cares deeply about telling stories, the Sims is an almost purely technology and gameplay driven franchise. Anyone willing to develop the tech and polish to do it better can take over the entire fanbase. Now, that’s no mean feat. Indie devs riding a $100,000 Kickstarter would not be able to pull that off. But although Sims money pales in comparison to what it was back in 2007-ish, it’s still big money, and someone willing to do it right could plausibly see a very large return on the investment, significant upfront costs in developer expertise and literal money notwithstanding.

So how do you do it? How do you out-Sims the Sims?

Continue reading “How To Eat EA’s Lunch”

July Humble Monthly (Mostly)

July’s Humble Monthly bundle had two big headliners that they dropped early to try and entice people into subscribing: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Moonlighter. The whole bundle just dropped and I’m picking through it now, and some of the other half-dozen bundled games are pretty good.

Road Redemption is a biker gang story taking place in what I assume is a perfectly accurate depiction of Australia’s interior, a racing game crossed with a healthy dose of combat which is also a rogue-lite. You run a gauntlet of races (and race-related challenges) in which murdering the other contestants is a valid and, indeed, dominant strategy for victory, receiving cash for upgrades if you win and taking health penalties if you lose. Once you get murdered yourself, you go back to the beginning, but you also get some XP to spend on permanent upgrades. It’s a fun timekiller, but I’m finding the gauntlet approach kind of kills its ability to be a timekiller. Individual races (or race-y challenges) only take 5-10 minutes, which is perfect when I just want to decompress for a bit while transitioning from working on one thing to working on another, but an entire run takes a full 1-2 hours, and I don’t love the action/racing hybrid enough to want to dedicate entire sessions of gaming to it like that.

60 Parsecs! is a game in which you are in a space station and nuclear war has just been declared on Earth. There’s a missile headed right for you, so you must quickly grab as many crew and supplies from the station as you can in the sixty seconds before the missile impact and then skedaddle in an escape rocket. After the initial panicky escape, the game is about careful resource management as you attempt to survive long enough to find a planet to colonize. I have no idea if you can ever reach a win condition or if you just keep going until you die, because my first two playthroughs ended with my captain (and often everyone else) dead in less than a month. I think maybe the goal is to live for sixty days, in keeping with the whole sixty [unit] theme the game has so far? The game has a 60s-ish sort of Hanna Barbara reminiscent art style and has a very good juxtaposition between the initial sixty second panic and the slow decision making of the subsequent hour-ish of gameplay. There is a weird drawback where the longer you survive, the worse the pace of the game gets, as a successful run means more time between the panic bits, and you don’t tend to run into a whole lot of new content unless you get farther than you have before (although it’s possible this is because I’m still getting the hang of the game and lived long enough to reach the planet only once out of my two playthroughs, so maybe there’s more randomization of what planet it is and what conditions are like there that I just haven’t seen).

Kind Words is a lovely idea poorly executed. It’s not a game so much as an app where you can send a request for messages and get replies. There’s a generic avatar sitting at a desk who does different animations based on whether you’re currently reading a note, writing a response, etc., but it’s decorative more than interactive. Each message is limited to being about a single paragraph long (roughly the length of our new beefed up 280-character tweets). People are encouraged to put out messages requesting encouragement and support for their problems, and to write replies to other people who’ve made requests. Fantastic idea, but I find myself slipping constantly into one of the less helpful things to do in these situations, trying to solve the problem. Deprived of the ability for two-way communication, though, I don’t know what else to do. Normally when having this kind of conversation you want to 1) ask questions and 2) rephrase their concerns back at the person using slightly different language to show that you’re listening and understand. With badly limited space and no way to get a chain of responses going, neither of these is as effective as they would be in regular voice or text chat. Incidentally, you can get a similar service from 7cups.com, except it’s in text chat, which works much better. I find myself keeping Kind Words open in the background for the chill music while just having regular 7 Cups chats. On the other hand, 7 Cups’ efforts to monetize itself always come across as kind of exploitative and sinister. It never stops people mid-chat and demands money from them to continue the conversation, but it does use a lot of gamification tools that feels manipulative.

Moonlighter was apparently a big enough deal to be a headline title. I’d never heard of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it had caught on and become at least momentarily famous while I wasn’t looking. It’s got Zelda-esque combat, randomly generated dungeons, and loot that, instead of selling to a shop, you sell from a shop, setting prices yourself and responding to shifts in supply and demand, and making investments into both your own shops and other, specialty shops that can sell you things like weapons and armor or magical enchantments. It’s got a good pace of dungeon crawling at night and then shop managing during the day. I’ve just about mined out the shop management aspect after a little less than an hour of gameplay, which means either this game is about to hit me with a curve ball to keep things interesting or it’s actually a shallow prototype that’s got the foundation of really good mechanics but fails to keep things interesting long enough to get anywhere near that mythical fifth dungeon. If guess-and-checking prices until you hit upon the one that people like best is all the shop end of the game has going for it, then I’d rather I just have a regular shop to sell my goods to so I can focus on the dungeon crawling, but we’ll see if things get deeper as I go on.

I haven’t tried Mechanicus, Love is Dead, or Nairi: Tower of Shirin yet, and will probably spit out another blog post when I do. These game review posts actually take longer than a book review post, but they don’t require me to commit to seeing a particular book all the way through, so as long as I’m still trying to unbury myself from my Kickstarter workload, we’ll probably be seeing more of them. On a related note, I may end up dropping Spider-Man and Philosophy halfway through to jump back into some regular fiction. I feel kind of glutted on non-fiction lately and I’m hoping I’ll have an easier time getting content out if it’s focused on fiction again. Not sure what I’ll read, but there was a Humble Book Bundle I grabbed recently and I’ll probably stick my nose into one of those.

Humble Trove: Roombo

The Humble Trove is a collection of indie games that you get access to if you’re subscribed to the Humble Monthly. Unlike the Humble Monthly, the trove is a constantly expanding list of games, and there’s some really good ones in there. Torchlight and its sequel are both very good action RPGs (in the “kind of like Diablo” sense), Overlord 1 and 2 have some rough edges but are pretty much the only games doing the “play as Sauron” schtick, so worth checking out, they’ve got a bunch of old X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter games which I have not yet played but which are apparently great, there’s the Bard’s Tale reboot which is a snarky parody of computer RPGs and comes packaged with the original three games from the 80s which are oldschool computer RPGs played completely straight because they are from that era (with all the charm and frustration that entails), and (in addition to the sea of games I haven’t played and don’t recognize) several indie experimental titles like THOR.N, which is some kind of dystopian nightmare where supporting an evil government’s war machine has been gamified and whose world was intriguing enough that I was disappointed when it turned out to only be about thirty minutes long, Fortune 499, which I’ve talked about before, and Orwell, a game wherein you are an agent for an evil government surveillance program, but whose clunky interface is so difficult to wrestle with that “why is this evil government surveillance program so poorly designed” overshadowed any message about actual evil government surveillance.

And then there’s the game I really wanted to talk about today, which is Roombo: First Blood. It’s Home Alone except instead of a precocious and bloodthirsty eight year old, you are a bloodthirstier yet adorable roomba. You are a roomba, your family is out, one or more burglars have broken in, and you need to use your roomba skills to straight up murder the intruders. It feels like someone had an idea for an animated short, but only knew how to make video games, so did that instead, and talking about the game’s mechanics feels like spoiling all the jokes for a short film that was never made.

Your avatar is a roomba, although you can enter “hacking” mode to open and shut doors, turn on fire sprinklers, and cause ceiling fans to spin so fast they pop off and become a booby trap, so it’s really more like you’re playing as a smart house whose only mobile component is a roomba (although it is game over if the roomba itself is destroyed, so apparently the smart house’s brain is located in the roomba for some reason). You can suck up soapy water from the shower drain and spit it out in puddles to try and slip up the burglars. There’s a knife in the kitchen that you can grab (somehow?) and use to stab the intruder(s). The burglars leave behind muddy footprints while walking around and also a bunch of blood whenever injured, and as you suck up more burglar blood, your rage meter fills up. Once maxed out, you can ram the burglar. Once all intruders are dead, you have one minute to clean up as much of the house of bootprints and bloodstains as possible before your family gets home, with a better grade based on how clean you can get the house.

This creates a progression where initially the roomba goes around gathering weapons and preparing booby traps, injuring the burglars to get them bleeding. Once enough damage has been dealt to the burglars, you suck up the blood to become enraged and ram them. This does no more damage than normal and the burglars can stomp you to pieces pretty quick once they realize that you’re a threat (but they ignore you at first, which is both strategically interesting and more immersive, in that it feels like burglars would initially ignore a roomba (the fools!) in the hypothetical comedy short this game feels like it was based off of), but it means you don’t have to set up a specific trap in advance, you just aim yourself at them and press space bar, so you want to make sure your ram finishes them off. Then you run around cleaning the place up.

You can see how this maps to the progression of a comedy short. A family leaves sometime around Christmas, when rampant consumerism becomes somehow magical and theft of material goods therefore becomes the violation of something sacred rather than just super inconvenient. During the one season when having stuff becomes sacred, a burglar breaks in. The family roomba activates, and its adorable little LED eyes narrow in anger at the intruders. The roomba activates a few booby traps, causing comical injuries to the intruder. Eventually, the roomba confronts the burglar directly and rams the burglar to death. The roomba then races around the house, cleaning up all the blood and debris and making sure the house is just like when the family left it when they get back.

Once you know the layout of the house and what can and can’t be used as a booby trap in what way, there’s not much else to do except optimize your burglar murder in such a way as to make for easy clean-up. There’s a hidden joke there in itself, in that after your first few games, once you get the hang of it, you’ll start thinking like a killer roomba – which means you start focusing less on killing the intruders at all and more on killing them in such a way that they don’t leave too big of a mess for you to clean up before the Joneses get home.

But Roombo does still get kind of old after the first hour-ish, and I find myself kind of wishing I could watch the hypothetical short that this game feels like it was based off of.

Side note: Although older posts may get retroactively recategorized, this is actually the inaugural post for the “video games” category, so it’s kinda funny that my ultimate conclusion is that I wish this video game had instead been a (short) movie.