Take 5: JDR's Gaming Conclusions - 10/05/19

May 10, 2019
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A regular look at gaming-related stories from the past week or so whereby conclusions are drawn from anything and everything. These may be incredibly well reasoned based on events from the week. Alternatively, they may be highly speculative, drawn from very little evidence. More likely, they will be somewhere in between.

Conclusion One: Riot Games just doesn’t get it

It isn’t just crunch that is being paid lip service within the gaming industry, as we found out this week. You may recall that back in August last year Riot Games were hauled over the coals for their discrimination against female employees, before apologising and stating in an open letter that: “In the days, weeks, months, years to come, we’re going to make Riot a place we can all be proud of.”

What a difference nine months makes. Or rather, in Riot’s case, how little difference. This week saw employees at the studio stage the biggest mass walkout in the history of the video game industry in protest against Riot’s policy of forced arbitration. Essentially, this policy meant that Riot was trying to make their employees waive their rights to make a legal claim in court, by instead forcing them to go through a company-led system. For animal lovers out there, it’s the equivalent of a sheep bringing a court case about its friends being eaten by wolves in front of a jury made up entirely of wolves, all taking place in a den of wolves, with sponsorship from Wolf Blass. It is a frankly ludicrous agreement which benefits only companies rather than employees, and unfairly discriminates against women and minorities.

Image: Nathan Grayson via Kotaku

Google was forced to end a similar policy earlier this year after 20,000 staff organised against the company, and Riot has stated that forced arbitration will only be ended for new employees once the existing suits are resolved. This has been deemed inadequate and unacceptable by the 150 staff who walked out of the Los Angeles Office on Monday.

Given the success of the Google movement, it’s highly likely that Riot will back down in the coming weeks and implement something similar. Anything less would be seen as a betrayal of the claim that Riot made last year, proving that saying one thing and doing another are two very different beasts. Riot’s name was already tarnished after the “bro culture” report, but this latest challenge could cause some serious ripples — not just in the company, but across the wider industry. That can only be seen as a good thing by employees who have been beaten down over the years through crunch, unfair contracts and morally and ethically dubious practices.

Conclusion Two: Sony finally recognises EA’s worth

Five years ago EA launched its early access programme, EA Access. On Microsoft Xbox and PC via their own Origin store, those who signed up to it have been able to play up to ten hours of most games launched by EA, plus reap extra benefits like reduced retail prices and more. Xbox owners have enjoyed the service greatly over time, enabling folk to try before they buy on a variety of titles such as FIFA, Anthem and more. The opportunity has been ahead of release too, so for games like FIFA with its Ultimate Team card-collecting mode, it has allowed players to get ahead of the game. For titles like Anthem? It’s provided a safe place to ensure you don’t hand over money for something broken and failing before it’s even started.

Sony used to say it wasn’t good value. Obviously they’ve changed their tune, as from this summer, the subscription service will be available on PlayStation 4.  

This is significant. It’s one of the points of difference Microsoft had over Sony, providing a reason for gamers to choose Xbox over PlayStation in this generation. With this difference wiped out, whither the next Xbox? Whilst it won’t confirm anything — and the next generation console race is looking like it will be decided by the usual factors (arms race, release date, backwards compatibility) — it will reduce the pros on the Xbox side, a side already playing catch-up. Sony isn’t silly. It makes complete sense to enable the service, take some money from EA and give gamers even less reason to say no to the PS5.

Conclusion Three: Nintendo will win the world by making fine China

Yes, that is an incredibly laboured conclusion title. Deal with it. The point though is this: Nintendo recently started to do a variety of things indicating it was entering the Chinese games market. They’ve since answered some questions about it, in a question and answer session, largely because they’re going to be selling the Switch there.

Why is any of this important? The size of that market is ginormous, and if you can penetrate it, sustain initial business and then grow, the opportunity to scale is greater than via any other strategy in the gaming world. Of course, your overall strategy then needs to change to accommodate China if all goes well, and that is the crux for gaming fans — what will Nintendo’s entry into China mean, for us?

In the short term, very little. China is a PC and mobile-dominated market. Nintendo recognises this, and they are also going into the territory in partnership with Tencent, a massive player in China’s gaming world. It’s a long play and as such I hope that any change will be incremental and an evolution over time. So, no crazy changes to Mario or Zelda — even if such things would ever be considered.

No, what is perhaps most pertinent about this is twofold: the continued divergence of Nintendo from Sony and Microsoft's paths, but combined with the very real possibility that Nintendo could become so massive compared to now, it might allow them to tackle the aforementioned competition headfirst in the future, if desired. Could you imagine a Switch successor with the grunt of a PlayStation, and streaming tech of the scale and quality of Google Stadia? If they make fine work of China, they will have the growth, cash and wherewithal to take us back to the 80s and 90s when it was all Nintendo (with a little bit of Sega on the side).

Conclusion Four: This is the 21st Century — if you plagiarise, you’ll get caught.

It is incredible that given the sheer power of the internet and the amount of content it contains allowing you to search the global consciousness spanning decades (and longer thanks to digitisation), people still think they can plagiarise other people’s work and get away undetected.

In an embarrassing state of affairs for Bethesda, it came to light that their latest Elder Scrolls Online adventure expansion entitled Elsweyr appeared to be, for the lack of a more subtle phrase, ripped straight from an existing Dungeons & Dragons campaign from 2016 with a few tweaks to the wording and characters. The D&D campaign in question was The Black Road written by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler, and both authors took to Twitter to remonstrate with Bethesda about the situation. Some hours later, Bethesda pulled the campaign from their Facebook page while they investigated.

If you want to see how closely the ESO campaign mirrored the D&D adventure, here’s a sample:

Ars Technica has put up a host of comparison files and the evidence is pretty damning. It has also hosted the original Elsweyr campaign for reference, perhaps in case Bethesda decided to try and scrub it from public record.

Elsweyr was originally planned to be released on June 4th. Whether that will still happen now is anyone’s guess; we suspect that there are likely to be a few legal issues for Bethesda to iron out and probably some substantial compensation heading the way of the original campaign’s authors. The question remains though: how on earth did the people involved in this at Bethesda not realise that they would be found out immediately? Did they not realise that the internet is permanent, searchable, and ruthless when it comes to sniffing out this kind of activity? This issue was one of their own making, entirely avoidable, and another bad news day for a company still reeling from the numerous cock-ups surrounding Fallout 76.

Conclusion Five: The sledgehammer may be coming to loot boxes

We’ve covered loot boxes in our conclusions numerous times over the last year, but it is thankfully a topic which isn't going away, as much as some players in the industry would like it to. Publishers and studios implementing loot boxes have attempted to label the controversial and popular game mechanic as something completely different to gambling, a move which has been slapped down in various countries including Belgium and the Netherlands. Self-regulation hasn't even been considered.

Now the US is wading in. A Senator has proposed a new bill aimed at stopping children from falling pray to potentially addictive games which cause them to spend real money in order to enhance their experience. According to Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, the Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act would crack down on:

- Loot boxes — namely, paying for randomized or partially randomized rewards

- The manipulation of a game’s progression system — for example, artificial inflating the difficulty to promote the purchase of microtransactions to progress (items, extra lives, more time, and so on)

- Pay-to-win scenarios — where players who purchase microtransactions are granted advantages over other players in multiplayer games.

In his comments outlined on Gamesindustry, the Senator noted a particular example in Candy Crush Saga where players can purchase a “Luscious Bundle” which includes 24 hours of lives along with in-game currency and usable items. The eye-watering price tag? $150. Hawley explicitly focuses on the effects of this kind of microtransaction on children, stating:

"When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn't be allowed to monetize addiction. And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences." - Senator Josh Hawley

The Entertainment Software Association digitally shrugged at Hawley’s bill, stating that other countries (including the UK and Australia) don’t consider loot boxes to be gambling. However, if this act passes, it may be a significant step in cracking down on a phenomenon which many gamers believe to be nothing more than insidious attempts at extracting more cash from them after purchasing full price games. Star Wars Battlefront II is the mainstream benchmark which saw gamers retaliate in full force, and while we don’t expect publishers to axe such a lucrative addition to their titles overnight, we sincerely hope that by attacking loot boxes on all fronts we may finally get rid of something pervasive in the industry. The sledgehammer may already be falling.

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Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 35+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the PlayStation 5 and pretty much everything in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple in particular, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either an awful lot should you want to!