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May 12, 2014

Destiny (Or: This Isn’t Funny Anymore, Video Games)

So have you ever played that game Tokyo Jungle?  I have recently, and the best way I can describe it is by saying…yikesy mikesy.  It’s been a while since I’ve played a game so amazing.  I’m even considering putting it in my personal Top 10.  It goes without saying, then, that it’s going to get a post somewhere down the line -- because it does everything The Last of Us did, but better.  Much better.

Speaking of coming attractions, I tried my first imported game -- and thus, I’ve gained one more level in nerdiness.  Can you guess what it is?  I’ll give you a hint: you can press buttons to do stuff.  Seriously though, I haven’t gotten into it as much as I want to, but it looks like there are plenty of systems to dive into.  Thing is, playing it kind of requires me to change my mindset; you kind of have to think like a pilot (hint hint) to survive, let alone win. 

And in non-gaming news, I’ve been pecking away at certain files.  And I’ve made some real progress!  I’m hoping that I can reach a point where I can talk about it in earnest, because there are some pretty cool things I can say.  Exciting stuff, without a doubt…for me, at least.  It’s not that often where I hype myself up with something I do, after all.

If you’re wondering what those points have to do with Destiny, then consider them little more than delay tactics.  From this point on, the post is set to take a nasty turn -- because I can’t think of time when a single piece of news made me this angry.

Excluding the announcement of a nostalgia-bait Power Rangers movie.  Man.  That was not a good week for entertainment.


Anyway.  Let me see if I’ve got this right.

Arctivision, the company famous for franchises like Call of Duty, other stuff, and other stuff, is going to push their latest product, Destiny, with full force.  It goes beyond just bringing in Bungie to make the next big multiplatform franchise.  And it goes beyond just making (from what I can gather) a cross between Halo, Borderlands, and World of Warcraft.  No, Activision wants Destiny to be the next big thing.  So much so that they’re willing to put in five hundred million dollars to make their goals a reality.

Yes, you read that right.  Five hundred million dollars. 

Now, let’s be fair here.  From what I’ve heard and what others are saying, this isn’t technically half a billion dollars on a single game (though some imply that the money IS going all into one game, but let’s set that aside).  It’s half a billion on what’s effectively a promise -- servers, and infrastructure, and sequels, and all that jazz…marketing well among them.  The strategy here, it seems, is to make Destiny into an entertainment juggernaut, much like Call of Duty.  There’s a lot to be proven, and a lot of risk involved.  But if it works, then it could be the next big step -- the one move that’s guaranteed to take games to the next

I’m sorry, I can’t finish that sentence.  I just can’t -- and not just because IF Destiny pulls this off, it’ll set one hell of a nightmarish precedent.  Again.


I just love how this news came out a day after a filibuster I wrote on next-gen woes went up.  And even if it didn’t, then Activision’s move -- or at least the reveal of that move, given that this probably wasn’t a snap decision made a week ago -- still flies in the face of every logical argument and opinion that people have been making for years.  Jim Sterling has to dip into the “triple-A developers are being dumb” well pretty much every other week.  Yahtzee’s videos have grown increasingly caustic, and with good reason (I suspect that the new Thief was his personal last straw).  Pretty much anyone who has ever made a comment on a gaming site -- or even knows the name of a gaming site -- has had their fill of triple-A shenanigans.  Everyone knows something is wrong at this point.  Everyone.

And yet they keep.  On.  Doing.  The same.  Stupid.  Bullshit.

They’re making a product -- one game, or two, or whatever -- that has a half-billion dollar price tag.  And apparently, in order to break even -- I repeat, break even -- they have to sell 15 to 16 million units.  Of this one game.  As others have said, that’s a staggering number, especially for a new, untested, and currently-short-on-details franchise.  Okay, sure, Grand Theft Auto V is supposed to reach 32.5 million sold, and thus justify its quarter-of-a-billion dollar price tag.  And BioShock Infinite supposedly (though no one can/will confirm it) cost $200 million, but walked away with plenty of accolades.  So these big gambles and bigger ventures can pay off.  But those are exceptions to the rule.  Not justifications of them. 

So here’s the question I have to ask: why gamble in the first place?


I would have thought that executives would want to spend as little money as possible while making maximum profit -- not maximizing costs and just trying to use their product to cover both the bill and their collective asses.  I mean…am I being unreasonable here?  I don’t know a lot about economics, but I’m not that far off, am I?  What is the justification for Destiny?  Is it really a game worth banking so heavily on?  Is it really?  Because the way things are looking so far, the answer is a resounding hell no.

If this is the game that’s supposed to be a revolution in gaming, then people shouldn’t be able to compare it to some of the biggest and most notable franchises out there -- and certainly not compare it to franchises that aren’t all that remarkable in their own right.  I’m no expert, but to me it seems like the only major differences between Halo 3, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4 are the graphics.  The “Combat Evolved” moniker hardly applies, and the combat in question is routine at best.  And since it’s a game that revolves around guns -- which, as discussed, is quickly turning into a dead end for games -- Borderlands doesn’t fare much better even with its “addictive” RPG trappings.  And given that people are already calling Destiny Borderlands without the humor”, then what the hell hope is there for Destiny when it’s built on two decidedly-mediocre templates?  Only they can’t even get that right, because now you’ve got the choice to play as “gunner in mask”, “gunner in mask”, or “gunner in mask”?


Okay, setting aside my biases (i.e., that I think Halo is a multimillion dollar game of Cops and Robbers pulling double-duty as dead serious Master Chief proselytizing, and Borderlands is a tedious slog relying more on loot addiction and stat obsession than being worth a damn while hiding behind its hole-filled wall of “comedy”)…I forgot where I was going with this thought.  So let’s start a different paragraph.

The only element of Destiny that’s different by design -- no matter how many bells and whistles are added vis a vis tweaks on the typical shooter arsenal -- is the MMO piece of the equation.  And isn’t that just a recipe for success?  I mean, refresh my memory -- isn’t World of Warcraft, the property (and woes) inherited in the Activision/Blizzard fusion, on the wane?  Haven’t plenty of MMOs failed before, like Age of Conan?  Didn’t Squeenix recently prove just how easy it is to screw up an MMO, so much so that they had to start over?  Didn’t EA show us with SimCity that trying to build a game around an online groundwork can backfire spectacularly?

Even if this isn’t a straight-up MMO, didn’t games like Defiance and Dust 514 try to create a bigger, more interconnected experience?  And didn’t it go poorly in both cases?  Assuming that they both made enough money to cover their costs (the former apparently costing at least $70 million), don’t you think that in order for them to be the revelations they wanted to be, people would hold them in much higher esteem and be talking about them at this very moment in a positive light?  Do people even remember Defiance?


Watch your backs, Activision.  Looks like you’ve got some steep competition.

It’s actually a point I’ve been mulling over for a while.  It seems to me like there’s a fine line between good innovation and bad innovation -- or rather, the mindset behind it.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for innovation, and games need it now more than ever.  But setting aside the fact that we need the right innovation (deployable shields.  Pop quiz: am I talking about Halo or Borderlands?), that innovation has to come from a genuine desire to do something good.  It has to come from the hope to put out the best product possible -- and even then, there is absolutely no one forcing innovation.  No one forcing change.

That sounds like a paradox, I know.  But hear me out on this.  It’s important to innovate, but that innovation has to be worth it in the end, and contribute to the overall execution, and therefore quality.  You can get that high execution in any number of ways; for example, I hold Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction in EXTREMELY high esteem, because even if it’s not the most original game by any means (it’s another installment in an established franchise), it fires on all cylinders from start to finish.  It wasn’t broken, and didn’t act like it needed to “fix” anything.  It just wanted to be, and WAS, good.

Now.  Compare that to the mindset behind DmC


Outright hostility and antagonism by its creators.  A belief that Devil May Cry and leading man Dante “weren’t cool anymore”, in spite of the demon slayer busting out a rocking solo on an electric guitar made from a sultry vampire he just shot in the gut.  Disrespect for fans’ wishes, coupled with an earnest belief -- and offering constant, unfounded reassurances -- that the movie game would reinvent the narrative as we knew it, and everyone should just shut up and accept it.  The developers swaggered our way, and arrogantly presented DmC on a silver platter.  And because of that, they fucked it harder than a rhino in heat.

I’m concerned that that same level of arrogance is what’s fueling Activision and Destiny.  Okay, sure, they don’t have an earlier and beloved franchise to call retroactively terrible, but being willing to dump half a billion dollars smacks of suicidal overconfidence.  There are many questions that needed to be answered before the devs (or the execs, I’d wager) signed off on this, and I suspect that very few of them were. 

One of those questions, obviously, was “Is this a good idea?”  That’s a question that’ll best be answered when the game’s in player hands, and can be digested without the filter of blinding TENOUTTATENS.  Another question would be “Is this going to work?”  But given that the company’s chosen to kick logic to the curb, I’d say they’re trying to make it work in the stupidest way possible.  They’re doing something that could have been done easily if they focused on the right things…or rather, the right question.  The one question that matters most.

Is this game going to be good?  And right now, I’m leaning toward...


There was a preview on Destructoid that, while showing interest, was more than willing to point out the problems (inherent and unexpected).  And for the record?  Usually when there are previews for a game, it tends to be mostly if not all praise.  But based on that preview, setting aside the complaints?  It’s pretty much just Halo X Borderlands.  It’s an FPS.  It’s got multiple gun types.  It’s got classes.  It’s got class-based powers.  It’s got aliens you shoot, I guess.  It’s got double-jumps, which is…revolutionary?  Oh, but it’s got nice graphics, so there you go.  That’s all we really need, right?

I’m not seeing the strategy here.  Is the intent to play it safe?  If so, then how do they expect to innovate or revolutionize when they’re counting on mechanics we’ve seen in excess for the past half-decade, at least?  And those mechanics aren’t really all that exciting in the first place?  Or is their intent to make some wrinkle in the standard systems and mechanics -- or better yet, create some new system or mechanic that they’ve kept close to the chest this whole time?  If that’s the case, then why would they bootstrap the new stuff to the old stuff?  And if they DO want to innovate, and branch out, and make something new, then why would this company be willing to bet everything on an untested product?  And just in case they haven’t chomped on their tails enough, how will they innovate when they’re relying on guns?  Just like everyone else in this industry, INCLUDING ACTIVISION?


But it goes back to what I said earlier: the biggest wrinkle Destiny has, as it stands, that we know of, for us outsiders looking in, is the MMO aspect.  (Or Diet MMO, so to speak.)  And right now, I’m not seeing how that’s supposed to work out…except in the most cynical, depressing, exploitative methods.  As soon as it was revealed that the game would have a budget that would make Rhode Island sweat, people immediately -- and probably rightfully -- jumped to the assumption that in addition to always-on DRM, there would be microtransactions, DLC, and season passes to try and recoup losses.  Probably some campaign to dupe people into pre-ordering, and offering up such pleasant “incentives”.  People have prepared for the worst, and I don’t blame them.  I wouldn’t be surprised if something worse is on the horizon. 

I don’t want to invoke the specter of the “games as service” mantra, but damn does it feel like Destiny’s on the cusp of that.  I’m having a hard time thinking of Destiny as just a one-and-done game set to win favor just by being a well-executed and complete title, because the devs have made it so that they have to (or think they have to) make “a ten-year plan” out of it.  So setting aside the fact that they’re preemptively making one game into a franchise, they’re probably looking to put gamers in droves on the hamster wheel to restock the war chest…and then do it all over again.  Buy the game, then buy this, then buy that, then buy this expansion, then buy this sequel, then buy one more thing for the road!  Because that’s how you build loyalty -- the promise of bills to pay. 

Remember when games used to win consumer loyalty by being good without relying on pandering hype-mongering, psychological gimmicks, or locking players out of content unless they play fast and loose with their wallets?  I miss that.


I don’t know what to be angrier about -- the fact that Activision would do something like this, or the fact that it’s probably going to work.  People like me might complain and shake our heads, but Activision doesn’t need our precious input.  Countless gamers -- customers will gladly buy in, because Halo.  Or because Borderlands.  Or because guns.  Or because next-gen.  Or because Call of Duty, as has been consistently proven for years.  If they want Destiny to be the next big thing, then it’s probably going to be the next big thing because they won’t let it be anything else BUT the next big thing.  And indeed, what Destiny is offering is going to be more than enough for plenty.  Some who are well-informed; others who just go with the flow.  Either way, Activision and crew can count on them to help stitch their pockets back together.

But like I said, this is setting up a bad precedent in an industry that’s full of bad precedents.  The entire point of the switch to next-gen hardware and engines, I was told, was to make things easier on developers and thus cheaper.  But in almost the same breath, it’s been revealed that development is likely going to get even more expensive, because more work has to be done and more talent has to be hired.  Devs across the board have been crippled from the strain, especially those that get caught in the triple-A trap. 

Remember how Squeenix declared Tomb Raider a failure despite it selling a good three million copies?  And how it took them a year to even begin to make a profit?  And how that all came at the expense of taking the tomb raiding out of a game called Tomb Raider?  And now the message Activision is sending is “spend even more money”?  “Make even bigger games”?  “Be even blander”?  Does the House of CoD know just how distorted the industry has become -- so much so that the House of CoD itself is falling prey to the delusions and problems it helped create in the first place?


Listen.  I know I’m the Eternal Optimist.  I know I’m idealistic.  I know I believe in goodness, and hope, and all the frilly stuff in life.  But I’m not stupid.  I know that every creation that gets out there -- books, movies, TV shows, comics, magazines, art, songs, plays, and even video games -- is out there to make money for its creator.  That’s why I keep using the word “product” as a sort of catch-all term.  I know how it works -- but I’m fine with that.  The assumption, and the deal at large, is that people spend money in order to get their hands on the latest product, because it’s genuinely good, and want to support the creator, so they can put out more genuinely good products. 

But lately, there’s been a compromise of that deal.  Activision is proof of that; they get consumer money not by putting out genuinely good products, but by putting out products in general.  And in the case of CoD -- and what may inevitably be the case with Destiny -- they’re not even remotely good.  They’re taking the deal for granted, and using that opulence in what’s at once the stupidest, brazen, short-sighted, and damn near insulting way possible.  Half a billion dollars is not going to ensure victory.

For a creator, true success comes from being able to make an audience happy.  From gaining loyalty by virtue of quality, not by quantity.  Earn that loyalty -- that respect -- and it’ll be worth more than mere dollars.


So, bottom line.  What’s it going to come down to?

I can’t change very much.  Nothing, really.  Activision’s made its move, and soon, plenty of gamers will be, too.  I can’t say much about the actual quality of Destiny until the complete game is out and about -- and the same goes for everyone else, even if they’ve got opinions more scathing than mine.  Likewise, I can’t tell people to “boycott this game” because (setting aside the fact that it’s usually just an empty threat), they have a right to like whatever they want, and decide for themselves if a game is worth their time.  Telling someone that their opinion is flat-out wrong is one of the greatest crimes a man can commit, and it’s the first step down a slippery slope.

But there is something I want to do.  See, there’s a school of thought that suggests that a post like this should end with a “call to action” -- telling people to do something to change their lives, or the lots of others.  It’s something that can lend the writer’s words some more credence.  Or if nothing else, it’ll just add a little oomph.  So while I can’t -- and won’t -- tell anyone outright to not buy Destiny just yet, and I’d be stupid to tell them not to even give it a glance, there is one thing I can do.  One simple call with plenty of applications.  So to anyone reading this, no matter their feelings on the subject, the game, the company, or games at large, I have one simple suggestion.

I want you to think.


Think, and think critically.  If you plan to buy it, don’t just buy Destiny because it exists.  Ask yourself why you want to buy it.  Think carefully about what it can offer you in the grand scheme of things, and whether it’s worth it in the end.  Think carefully about what it entails, and if it’s truly the “next-gen experience” you’re hungry for.  Think about whether or not the game is up to your level of standards -- because if for any reason you feel like you have to lower them, or make excuses just to enjoy it, then put it the fuck down and walk away.

But in order to think about it, you have to go about it the right way.  So keep yourself informed.  Read articles, watch videos, check out the wiki, and more.  Read a handful of reviews once it’s out.  Reflect on your preferences and past experiences.  Ask your gaming buddies.  If it’s a simple question of “Hmmm, did I like Borderlands?”, ask yourself that.  But that by itself isn’t enough.  Be willing -- eager, even -- to think harder on the subject.  “Okay, so why did I like Borderlands?  What about that game would make me want to play a different version of it?”  If you can figure out what strikes your fancy, you can enjoy the games -- the products in general -- that that line up with your preferences.  Or you can be pleasantly surprised when a product that’s earned your attention, but ISN’T in your comfort zone defies your expectations and gives you some real satisfaction.  Be willing to dig deep into a product, and yourself, to come to a conclusion.

We can point fingers at Activision all we want -- and in a lot of ways, they’re deserving of it because of the problems they helped unleash upon the industry.  But if we’re not willing to blame ourselves -- to change ourselves, from top to bottom -- then it’s going to be more than just a company or two that ends up losing big.

If you want to win, then go for the win.  And realize that you’re the one who can decide what it means to grasp victory.


And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys around.

2 comments:

  1. Attaching the "next-gen experience" tag to any game that is ultimately made for two generations seems foolish to me, although the term "next-gen" does as well. We started Gen 8 with the 3DS, are technically still in Gen 7, and nobody's even going to be thinking of Gen 9 for a while.

    As for Destiny, the more I think about or hear about the game, the more needlessly presumptuous is sounds in both its own quality and how important it is. While the concept of exploring Venus and uncovering secret catacombs along with better weapons that shoot chunks of fire is enjoyable to me, it is not really anything all that different from what is on the market. Even the name of Destiny does come across as something that not only wants you attention, but is attempting to make it appear to be, just that, your destiny. A destiny filled with similarity to one game I played for an hour I didn't care much for, and one game I slogged through 70 of, loathing my time with it and detesting everything it represented.

    Yet, as you said, the game will still sell, some reviews may be tempted to give the game a good score so not to experience a fallout when they are the only one giving the game a 6.5, but near its release, you better believe the marketing will go bananas and it will break five million sold in, at most, two days. It is the current state of the industry, and hopefully companies will start being smarter with how they make and set expectations for their games, if not, nothing of much worth will be lost.

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  2. Nobody BETTER be thinking about Gen 9. Seeing as how this one is off to such a rollicking good start, I think everybody needs to take a good, hard look at themselves and figure out what they need to do.


    My sentiments aside, it really is going to be interesting to see how people will react to Destiny. They're the ones that are going to decide if the game is the next big thing, not Activision. Do people have space in their hearts for yet another uber-serious big-budget shooter? It's possible, sure, but seeing as how indie games are on the rise (in more ways than one) and triple-A games are becoming more of a black spot than a selling point...well, it's gonna be a show.


    I'm not so biased that I'm going to wish for Destiny to fail, because that'd mean a lot of good people would take the heat. But unless Activison makes good on its lofty goals, I might not have to wish for anything. And that's all I'm gonna say on that.


    Tokyo Jungle makes all the pain go away.

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