The Joypad: Is There An Alternative?

The console controller of today is pretty predictable.

On the whole, you can expect four face buttons, a D-pad, two control sticks, start and select button equivalents and two sets of triggers. There might be a motion sensor, or a touchpad, or a fancy light, but in most of the traditional console space, the same basic model of controller is used.

That, in many ways, is an impressive testament to the model’s effectiveness, and, as a result, its success. Dual sticks allow for fluid movement and camera control in third-person and first-person games across an impressive variety of genres. The versatile D-pad can supplement dual-stick games as a set of extra face buttons, or a movement method in of itself. Triggers and face buttons of today provide satisfying clicky feedback, and are placed strategically for your fingers’ ease of access.

But the controller in its familiar joypad form doesn’t have the dominance it once did. The rise of the PC and mobile markets have already provided meaningful alternatives to the joypad, and, looking forward, can more not be achieved in interactive entertainment without the tether of a standard input method?

Today, then, I’d like to shed light on how the joypad is not redundant, but certainly limited in how it lets us interact with games. I’d like to examine the threats the input method faces, both presently and beyond. But most of all, I’d like to explore the possibilities that could emerge in the joypad’s place, and the games and experiences that could be made possible as a result. The future, in a world with a feebler joypad, might just be very exciting indeed.

Past and Present Threats

To understand that future, though, we must better understand the controller we use today, and get an idea of how the mighty can fall.

The joypad saw a steady progression from the NES era after it replaced the then-dominant joystick of the Atari 2600 and peers- our controller of today, like the threats we’ll examine, was a radical disruptive force. Gradually, two face buttons became four, and control sticks and triggers were introduced, making new types of game possible (imagine Tetris, with its dual rotation and side-to-side movement, played with a joystick, or, similarly, something like Call of Duty). The idea of the joypad was largely standardised in the PS2 era if we discount the visionary but failed Dreamcast: the Dualshock 2 had negligible differences compared to the Dualshock 1, and the Xbox and GameCube controllers largely followed the “Dual-stick, D-pad, Triggers, Face Buttons” model I mentioned earlier.

PS2 Era Controllers
The sixth generation joypads. The GameCube, Xbox and Dualshock controllers all follow a standard formula, while the visionary Dreamcast tries to innovate and ultimately fails.

This was the input method’s peak, but it was followed by another set of disruptive forces.

In 2006 the Wii changed long-standing perceptions of who could play games, welcoming a new casual audience. Its unusual motion sensing controller, the Wii Remote, excelled at party and on-rail shooter games, and ushered in a generation of pretenders including the PS Move, as well as some genuinely unique ideas like the Kinect. Steam’s exponential growth throughout the mid-2000s led to an explosion of popularity for PC gaming, too, giving the keyboard and mouse newfound relevance.

Motion Era Controllers
The “Motion Control Craze” era of controllers. Pictured are the PS Move (left), Wii Remote (right) and Xbox Kinect (behind).

While it’s possible to write the controllers the Wii inspired off as fads, this can’t be done for the keyboard and mouse. The PC market continues to reign supreme today, making up some 28% of the games industry (as of 2017).

The resultant unprecedentedly widespread adoption of the keyboard and mouse from the mid-2000s onwards has undoubtedly changed our games. Its many buttons have allowed for strategy and tactics titles like XCOM and Civilization to achieve greater status in the mainstream, hotkeys and complex inputs and outputs having always linked genre and input method. Meanwhile, the competitive and e-sports scene seems to have grown proportionally with the PC space- the accuracy a mouse’s cursor can provide and the sheer amount of inputs a keyboard has have facilitated that.

There is, of course, another factor that led to the decline of the joypad’s dominance in the mid-2000s: the mobile industry.

It may not seem like it, but the mobile industry is far larger than the console and PC spaces, producing over 50% of the game industry’s revenue. This is despite it only really finding its footing in around 2009, with the first huge successes such as Angry Birds. With its advent and enormous rapid growth, it has popularised another form of controller- the touchscreen, a part of the device itself.

OK, so it may not possess the carefully tuned triggers and feedback of a joypad or the accuracy of a keyboard and mouse, but the touchscreen has allowed many genres to flourish. In particular, arcade games like Angry Birds and match-three games like Candy Crush Saga have seen spikes in popularity from new, casual audiences. This is because, like the Wii Remote, a touchscreen is instantly understandable and is able to be picked up by non-gaming audiences, as well as those who may not be devoting their full attention to a game (phones are obviously used on the move). Less involved games which provide a quick burst of enjoyment have been able to find a place within the accessible touchscreen of a phone, then, which has changed industry practices in more ways than you might expect: GameWatch talked about it before, here.

The touchscreen’s prominence changes games beyond their favoured audience and genre, though. Another reason arcade games have been able to flourish is the new types of input available that you can be tested on. Flicks, pinches and taps are all movements not possible on a joypad, and have a fair degree of variability- you’re interacting with the game in a completely different way to how you would with a joypad.

There’s also something more intimate about touching an output device to enter an input. Fruit Ninja is the best example of this; pressing your finger against the screen will result in your customised “blade” appearing there- it is like you are reaching into the game rather than simply pressing buttons to make things happen. The central act of slashing fruit in Fruit Ninja feels all the more visceral and caused by you because of it.

FruitNinja
Fruit Ninja’s fantastic feedback is thanks in large part to its touchscreen controls.

This is another example of the way we input a command greatly affecting the way we experience a game- Fruit Ninja wouldn’t be the same if we were moving a blade on a screen indirectly with a control stick. Indeed, in each case here a specific controller has facilitated superior experiences of specific genres: the keyboard and mouse its strategy and tactics games requiring lots of inputs, the Wii Remote its party and on-rail shooter games generally with a casual focus, and the touchscreen its arcade and match-three titles with unique possibilities of intimate interaction.

The joypad is limited in the amount of experiences it can provide on its own, then, and as a result has lost (and continues to be under threat of losing) influence in the gaming space. But similarly, a WASD platformer doesn’t feel quite right, and the less said about a mobile FPS the better. Any controller is limited and specialised in what it can achieve, and therefore there is always a space for new methods of input, and as a result new experiences, to come through. So what could the controllers of the future look like? What devices could we be using in a few years’ time that will change the way we play games?

Future Threats

Perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, though.

Control methods like the keyboard and mouse and joypad evidently take years to mature and be perfected, and, as the Wii U GamePad learnt the hard way, need to have a new audience to target (as with the Wii Remote and touchscreen) or come with an attractive platform (as with the keyboard and mouse and, well, the touchscreen again) to be financially viable. This is likely why, in the current risk-averse big-budget videogame climate, we’ve seen little in the way of experiments outside of Nintendo.

However, 2017 saw the birth of an attractive platform in need of a standard controller: VR.

Here, alternative controllers to the traditional joypad have a real chance to shine, and help advance the industry technologically. Many VR users will testify that an Xbox 360 controller with a VR platform is somewhat jarring. It’s to be expected, really- when you’re supposed to be completely immersed in a world, having your hand press a button in real life to throw something in-game isn’t exactly elegant.

Many platform holders have taken this as reason to dust off the motion controls. PSVR utilises the old Wii-imitator PS Move controllers and PlayStation Camera, and does so in a rather natural way; those silly lights on top allow the camera to track your movements in the virtual world largely without hiccup, and allow for a wave of VR games which demand more dexterity (surprise hit VR Worlds minigame The London Heist or the wonderful Superhot VR, for example).

PS Move with PSVR

Higher-end platforms have had a much larger focus on precise motion controls in recent times, too- the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift both now have PS Move-esque counterparts, albeit with greater accuracy and some future-y designs. But with each iteration they move further away from that mid-2000s template, and into their own thing.

The Vive 2.0 wands bear only a passing resemblance to Moves or Wii Remotes. They’re designed to fit the hand snugly, somewhat like a joypad, and have a touchpad comparable to a mouse or a Dualshock 4. Indeed, in many ways they feel like a middle ground between the motion control craze-era inventions and the standard joypad, but they are uniquely suited to VR, able to be used effectively without being seen, and allowing for greater immersion thanks to motion tracking. These controllers facilitate new kinds of VR games, and quietly support the up and coming platform. The hype for virtual reality may have died down, but input methods like these are advancing the industry technologically behind the scenes in a way other controllers can’t, and they’ll only grow more finely tuned and (as they become cheaper to manufacture) more widespread as time passes. Watch this space.

Vive 2.0 Controllers
The Vive 2.0 Controllers seem a little too substantial to be called wands. This is some beefy tech.

Let’s jump back to Nintendo, who I mentioned briefly earlier. Ever since the GameCube era and the standardisation of the joypad, the house of Mario has been marching to the beat of its own drum, giving us the audience-rewriting Wii and DS, as well as Wii U, 3DS and, most recently, Switch.

The runaway success of the Switch is thanks in no small part to its elegant controllers, the JoyCons. Like the modern VR controllers, they bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wii Remote, though are quite different, mainly due to their versatility.

They come in twos, and can be slotted into a screen for a Wii U GamePad-type affair ideal for portability, used horizontally as tiny controllers for easy local multiplayer, or slotted into a dock where they become a competent joypad. It’s this multi-use controller design that has allowed the Switch to fundamentally change the industry and our definitions of “console” and “handheld”. It’s facilitated and incentivised remarkable technical achievements, cramming huge titles like Skyrim, DOOM and Breath of the Wild onto a discontinued GPU on a bus somewhere. It’ll no doubt go further in the coming years.

If the Switch Pro Controller, a more standard joypad designed for console play, was the flagship control method of the Switch, I can’t imagine the portability, and thus remarkability, of the Switch would be nearly as fully realised as it is.

Joy Con Joypad & Horizontal.jpg
The JoyCons in their joypad form (left) and horizontal form (right). The only compromises to this impressive transformation are a slightly small size, and substandard D-pad.

Of course, such experiments aren’t always such huge successes, and may not advance the industry technologically. This was the case with the Wii U for Nintendo, a system which offered novel interactions- in particular for asymmetrical multiplayer- with its controller with a screen divorced from the TV, the GamePad. Sadly, poor marketing of the possibilities, along with maybe too specific a speciality, meant the Wii U was a commercial failure.

Wii U GamePad.jpg
The Wii U GamePad also lacked the elegance of its contempary, the Switch. It’s heavy and unwieldy.

Not all alternative controllers can be world-changing and ultra-profitable. Often, they’ll be too specialised, meant for one game but too expensive to manufacture on a consumer scale. They’ll tour game festivals or even museums, and offer their experiences to a limited crowd.

This doesn’t make them any less relevant, though. They still often offer an experience a joypad or other traditional controller can’t. Their relatively niche audience and lower budgets (overwhelmingly such controllers are made by indie teams) allow for greater creative freedom, and as a result specialised alternative controllers can be expected to offer genuinely one-of-a-kind experiences simply not possible at home with a joypad. Sometimes they advance the industry interactively, challenging how we interface with our entertainment. Sometimes they advance it artistically. Sometimes they do both. It’s a hidden world of non-mainstream gaming, and it’s startlingly independent thanks to its lack of a tether to one or two input methods.

One such specialised controller meant for a specific game is Line Wobbler. Touting itself as a “one-dimensional dungeon crawler”, players use a surprisingly malleable joystick-like controller connected to an LED strip (the “screen”, essentially) to move an avatar represented in green through obstacles and past enemies.

The experience goes deeper than simple directional control across this linear plane, though. “Wobbling” the joystick controller acts as an attack button, and gives a certain weight to the simple combat. And, as you play, the controller feeds acceleration data into the game which generates a sine-wave soundtrack that reacts to the player’s actions.

Line Wobbler in action
Line Wobbler in action. 

It’s clear the “wobble” controller is intrinsically linked to Line Wobbler. The actions possible with it are necessary for combat mechanics and the soundtrack, and Robin Baumgarten (Line Wobbler’s creator) even states on his website that the wobble action is “core to the experience of the game we created for it”- the controller made the game possible, not vice versa.

It’s a unique, involved experience where the game can climb up walls and across ceilings, and where a frustrated bash of the controller can dispatch enemies. It’s a game on fairy lights, for Christ’s sake- an astonishingly unique example of the possibilities of a close marriage of an input method and game.

Line Wobbler has proved to be one of the more popular examples in this field of bespoke controllers. In December 2017, a supersized Christmas tree version of the game was installed in King’s Cross Station in London. This September, it’ll be present in a V&A exhibition. In three years it’s toured some 77 different venues publicly.

Line Wobbler Xmas
The Line Wobbler Christmas Tree at King’s Cross Station. According to Baumgarten, it was played for 17,281 minutes over the course of just under a month.

Not all are this successful. Artistic short story Like Roots in the Soil tells a touching tale, and while it can be played with a mouse (you can get it on itch.io here) it’s preferably played with a custom plant pot controller designed to be rotated, in keeping with the game’s themes of time. It’s a smaller example of an alternative controller refining an experience, to create an elegant and thoughtful final piece.

Like Roots in the Soil Controller.PNG
Like Roots in the Soil’s unique controller.

The Joypad: Now and Later

It’s perhaps important to reiterate here that joypads aren’t going anywhere. Line Wobbler, Like Roots in the Soil and Superhot VR aren’t going to overthrow God of War anytime soon, and nor are the PC and mobile spaces going to replace traditional consoles or, indeed, be devoid of joypads themselves. Well, at least not anytime soon.

But, it’s important to understand the input method’s limitations. Just like the “wobble” controller or the Vive wands, joypads are designed for a specific kind of game. It’s good that more controllers have muscled onto the main stage, then, and good that there are others available for niche markets, because it means more varied games for us.

The joypad will always be the best way to play the traditional platformer, and the keyboard and mouse strategy games. As controllers diversify, there’ll be more and more “best ways” in the future. I, for one, look forward to seeing them.

Advertisements

The Modern Edutainment Boom

Edutainment has got a bad rep.

Indeed, the word can’t be said without some sort of inward groan attached. Mario is Missing, simple point-and-click games and lazy flash and mobile games spring to mind for me, and I’m sure there’s a title that you remember that felt half-baked or underdeveloped, too. But why, in a medium that should allow for unparalleled learning thanks to interactivity, is the idea of games as a learning tool so marred with negative associations?

Chocolate-covered broccoli

Even after spending only a brief time with them, it’s clear the figureheads of edutainment all share a common flaw- their gameplay is detached from the education. Take Mario is Missing, which aims to teach children geography, and the punchline of the edutainment joke at this point. In it, the player experiences a simple adventure involving item collection and map traversal, but at frequent intervals they will face quizzes about various world landmarks- the locations of the game. These quizzes are a bland, boring way of teaching a player, glorified exams, and have nothing in common with the simple adventure gameplay the rest of the game offers.

Worse, though, they act as toll booths, roadblocks making you regurgitate knowledge picked up from NPCs before you can access the next nugget of gameplay. The game itself is actively supressed in the interests of the education- it is merely used as an incentive, a carrot on a stick to get the player to keep filling out monotonous tests. Rather than making learning an enjoyable experience, Mario is Missing merely interrupts the undesirable activity with moments of fun through gameplay- the Canvas game design course calls this “chocolate-covered broccoli”.

Mario is Missing Quiz.jpg
Mario is Missing’s quizzes are a jarring way of introducing education

Even some of the less egregious edutainment games are still guilty of this. Sumdog, a maths-based website designed for schools, has minigames which, while more intrinsically linked to answering maths questions than Mario is Missing, still suffer from a disconnect between gameplay and education. In one minigame called Junk Pile, for example, adding fractions and building a Jenga tower clearly have little in common.

6e9652953ecf7cdcd329961fe9096dbf
In Junk Pile, players answer maths questions to get components to attempt to build a tower with

What you’ll also have noticed about all these games (and, indeed, the edutainment genre in general) is that they all aim to educate children, and usually prepare them for exams- there’s real missed potential in deeper interactive learning experiences that- as the term “game” would imply- are just for the fun of it.

Learning philosophies

But perhaps a lack of focus on productivity, a lack of focus on making someone learn something, just isn’t possible in the edutainment genre. The fact games within it so blatantly advertise their educational qualities (Sumdog claims it can teach one and a half years’ worth of curriculum in six months, for instance) connotes a certain desperation- there’s a requirement to get this teaching across in a certain timeframe through this gameplay, hence the aggressive quizzes and upfront educational aspects. It’s the nature of the genre.

Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place, then. Because now, we might be witnessing a golden age of edutainment- it just isn’t branded as such.

Universe Sandbox, Human Resource Machine, Kerbal Space Program, the still-strong Civilization franchise, Nintendo Labo and even games like Portal and Minecraft are all opening up new education horizons. Universe Sandbox and Kerbal Space Program offer insight into astrophysics, for example, encouraging experimentation with deeply thought-out systems. Civilization gives a condensed view of how human history has evolved from tribalism to globalism, and features real historical figures. Labo promotes engineering and coding, Human Resource Machine similarly coding, and Portal and Minecraft, despite not initially featuring any educational elements, have had their deep systems exploited to teach physics, computer science, maths, chemistry and more. That’s just scratching the surface. What about Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Discovery Tour, or Scribblenauts?

These games all approach learning in a similar way, and as a result succeed in taking advantage of the interactivity games offer. For one, their singular focus isn’t learning- Universe Sandbox can be a blast when simply watching planets crash into each other, and Civilization is first and foremost an engaging strategy game. Secondly, they’re systems-driven: from Scribblenauts’ robust notebook mechanic (in which whatever you write materialises in the game) to Kerbal Space Program’s remarkable physics engine, they nearly all allow room for experimentation and learning through failure, making use of the perks of interactivity. Third, they have wide target audiences- learning is for everyone, and doesn’t have to be prohibitive with graphic content or a specific curriculum focus. Nothing understands this better than Nintendo Labo.

35971_scr_uc2
The Civilization series educates mostly through its systems: map traversal improves to ensure a feudal earlygame and global endgame, and geographical landmarks like rivers affect food supply

And, of course, in avoiding the edutainment banner these games embrace learning for the fun of it. Learning doesn’t have to be something undesirable. Working out how to get a rocket in orbit around a planet in Kerbal Space Program is fun, and the player wants to do it. You don’t have to be quizzed on terminal velocity in between runs.

Minecraft in particular is a prime example of a game building (excuse the pun) an audience willing to learn through solely strong systems and a good attitude, to the point it’s actually come full circle with its Education Edition, which offers more learning-focused courses and maps. The game’s redstone mechanic was perhaps most greatly exploited to produce some mind-blowing contraptions (including a working computer) and inadvertently teach the mechanics of code in the process, all without any real in-game “teaching”.

Minecraft EE.PNG
Chemistry is one of the more recent additions to Minecraft: Education Edition, along with a course on wildlife conservation

Edutain me

Despite what primary school students might tell you, learning is fun, and games are the perfect medium for it. More and more game developers and players seem to be waking up to that. “Assassin’s Creed Origins Discovery Tour may be the best Assassin’s Creed ever”, Forbes contributor Dave Thier writes, and he has a point. In an industry where the idea of a reward is a daily chance at the slot machine, a satisfyingly deeper understanding of physics, computer science, history as one instead is a welcome rebuttal.

assassins-creed-origins-screenshot-2018-02-20-22-03-45-98-100750646-large
Assassin’s Creed Origins’ Discovery Tour strips away loot and murder in favour of a museum-like insight of Ubisoft’s ancient Egypt

The apparent death- through association more than anything else- of the edutainment genre may have worked wonders. Now, games can get to the fun part.

What’s killing Destiny 2, and can it be saved?

“Destiny 2 was supposed to be the new starting line, not the end.”

These are the words of Datto, one of Destiny’s biggest YouTubers. Historically an optimist on the subject of the Destiny franchise’s health, such an assertion from him- along with many others made in his video “Datto’s thoughts on Datto and the future”- feels as good as a nail in the coffin for Bungie and their looter shooter.

The video follows a string of other less than favourable words from content creators and news headlines- streamers like Luminosity have all but abandoned the game and the competitive PVP population is worryingly low (even lower than in the first game’s prolonged content droughts). Harsh criticism has surrounded Bungie’s approach to XP gains, microtransactions, balance patches and more.

Is this backlash justified? Perhaps- a franchise as large as Destiny doesn’t just fold for no reason, after all. A combination of a disappointing gameplay experience, lack of interaction between community and developer and, as a result, a damaged and divided playerbase have led to a disaster for Bungie.

It’s just not interesting

A few hours with Destiny 2 reveals a clear change in Bungie’s audience focus. RPG systems, light even in Destiny 1, are stripped down to the point of non-existence. Powerful exotic weapons don’t have the punch they used to, and cooldowns on abilities like grenades and melees are greatly increased.

This makes Destiny 2 a far more accessible game than its predecessor. Younger and more time-strapped players will have a much easier time here, not now having to worry about the opaque roll system which could greatly affect the power of weapons and armour, nor the need to tweak subclass abilities to perfection. Nor, either, will they now have to worry about entering a PVP game and getting demolished by a weapon they’ll never be able to get.

destiny-2-best-exotic-weapons-1024x581
Staple exotic MIDA Multi-Tool loses some key perks in Destiny 2

Accessibility comes at a price, though. Those RPG systems? They provided a groundwork on which to build unique and memorable loot, and allowed for far more customisable loadouts, something Destiny 2 sorely lacks. Meanwhile, the blanket nerfing of top-tier exotic weapons and abilities has eroded what the community calls “hero moments”- instances of a remarkable turnaround, be it in PVP or PVE. The overall result is a game that feels a bit homogenised, capped at a certain low point of interest that simply won’t get you clamouring for more- a death knell for a “live service” game like Destiny.

There are other missteps, too: the writing has taken a nosedive, losing the balance of humour and depth Destiny 1 achieved in its later expansions; the balance-friendly weapon system of kinetic-energy-power, in which all the interesting weapons are confined to the “power” category, is universally hated and plays further into Destiny 2’s homogenised feel; and some baffling design decisions like the inability to replay story missions should really have been ironed out in the early development process. Between all this, Destiny 2 just isn’t something you want to play, whether you’re hardcore or casual, and in a world of Monster Hunter Worlds and Warframes, what’s the point in sticking it out?

In these times, Destiny 2’s uninteresting and flawed gameplay experience just isn’t good enough to retain players, and, from a community perspective, Bungie certainly haven’t done themselves any favours.

Marred by controversy and poor communication

All of Destiny 2’s issues are inherently fixable. Indeed, the moment-to-moment gunplay, environments and sound are fantastic in typical Bungie fashion- the aspects that would have required huge effort to fix if broken are solid. The problems lie simply in progression, RPG systems, and a few numbers determining cooldowns. For many in the Destiny community, this is what makes the whole thing so frustrating.

449655-nessus
Nessus is a particular environmental standout, with lush red flora and robotic alien architecture

It doesn’t feel like Bungie is listening. What look like simple issues (the Three of Coins item not dropping loot it’s supposed to, or the aforementioned sluggish ability cooldown, for example) take months to fix- the latter in particular had been flagged as early as the game’s September launch, yet it was only in March with the “Go Fast” update that Bungie made any adjustments. “Even when issues are fixed, players end up with this residual frustration,” Destiny lore expert MyNameIsByf said in a recent video. This frustration seems to have built up amongst the Destiny community over a period of four years, across content droughts, imbalanced weapons, and finally, now, Destiny 2’s gameplay experience.

Bungie communicates the majority of the time through its “This Week at Bungie” articles. Now, though, this simply isn’t enough- vague promises and a sprinkling of balance patches throughout the year are a fraction of what is needed to appease a community which, casual or hardcore, takes umbrage to the very core experience of Destiny 2. Not to mention that, next to the Warframe developers’ now famous “What do you want?” dialogue with the community, Bungie’s methods just come off as callous.

Warframe What Do You Want.PNG
The Warframe developers directly asked their community for requests and were met with an explosion of positive PR

What makes this even worse is the controversy Bungie has faced over the course of the last six months. Perhaps most famously, Bungie was caught in the act of secretly restricting players’ XP gains- the system responsible for dishing out the game’s paid lootboxes through gameplay. It wasn’t a good look, and was met with top headlines and angry opinion pieces from all sides of the gaming press. Amongst the community, “XPgate” marked a turning point from dissatisfaction, to feelings of betrayal and distrust- these persist today.

While the XP restriction was hastily lifted, it wasn’t the only incident which painted Bungie in a bad light. Their seasonal “dawning” event, so soon after the lootbox-killing Star Wars Battlefront 2, was overly stingy, reliant almost entirely on the player paying to make it worthwhile. Hell, the lootbox system in general has come under much fire for its all-encompassing nature; cosmetic ships and sparrows (land vehicles), once earnt through high-level activity or bought with non-premium currency “glimmer”, are now almost completely tied to the paid lootbox system.

Perhaps most of all, though, the source of the community’s frustration and Destiny 2’s problems in this regard comes from Bungie’s lack of direction. Who is this game for? Recent measures like the “masterwork” system (which somewhat reintroduces the random roll system of Destiny 1) seem aimed at hardcore hobbyists, but then the aforementioned homogenisation of Destiny 2 is a clear reach for the casual market.

destiny-2-masterwork-weapon
Masterworks introduce a random bonus into attributes like range or handling, which can be rerolled for a fee of Masterwork Cores

Destiny 2 doesn’t tread the line that Super Smash Bros or Pokemon does with its appeal on separate levels to both hardcore and casual audiences. Fans (and, you suspect, Bungie themselves) don’t know what this game is or where it’s heading. They don’t know if, in time, it’s going to be for them, or move even further from where they want it. Why continue with Destiny 2, then, when they can pick something more suited to their needs right now?

Bungie’s slow communication and actions, lack of direction and betrayal of trust through shady XP and lootbox adjustments has created a community which seems to actively resent the game they’re playing. And that means, even if Bungie can get their game on track, they’re going to have a hard time winning their players back.

A dwindling playerbase

I mentioned previously Destiny 2’s dwindling PVP population. It really is quite depressing- under 50,000 accounts participated in the endgame “Trials of the Nine” mode on April 20th, compared to almost a million at the game’s launch. While some loss is inevitable, this extent is enormous. Elsewhere, the departure of key streamers like Luminosity from Destiny (as well as the consistent sub-5000 average views on Twitch for the game) negate any competitive presence the Destiny franchise might have had. The Destiny subreddit celebrated its 500,000 subscriber milestone… again, when it dropped below it and moved back up.

Graph of Trials Population
The blue line indicates the decline in participating accounts in Trials of the Nine since the game’s launch

These are the quantified consequences of Bungie’s poor communication, over-monetisation, and misguided design decisions. “Live services” like Destiny are reliant on a healthy community and, as many dead MMOs of the late 2000s can testify, once you’re in the spiral of declining player population, it’s hard to get out.

A franchise that should have been going from strength to strength, after birthing one of the first successful “live service” games, now faces an enormous uphill battle. But perhaps there is still hope. After all, this is the studio that simply refuses to fail, who produced Halo’s revolutionary console shooter formula in under a year and the finest multiplayer shooter game with its sequel under similar pressures. How could- and how is- Bungie working to save its game, deeply flawed but with much potential?

Hope for the future

In recent months, Bungie has made huge strides on the communication front. In development roadmaps in March and April, they specifically laid out changes- and timeframes for them- in response to community feedback. For example, an increase to player inventory (another baffling oversight of Bungie’s) is due on May 8th, and movement speed and ability cooldowns received enhancements in the recent “Go Fast” update.

d2_development_roadmap_4_10_3
April’s development roadmap offers unprecedented transparency regarding Destiny 2’s development

There’s also been a noticeable increase in the amount of direct communication between developer and player- it’s not uncommon to see posts on the Destiny subreddit flaired with “Bungie replied” these days, and key development figures like Chris Barrett have been much more active on Twitter in sharing progress on Destiny 2. Here are real, telling signs that Bungie is waking up to the responsibilities of developing a “live service”, and with a bit of luck, this increased communication can lead to a better understanding of Destiny 2’s future amongst players, and begin to rebuild the trust lost in the wake of “XPgate” and money-grabbing seasonal events like The Dawning.

The experience of playing Destiny 2 has improved notably, too, and looks set to only get better with the release of the new “Warmind” expansion on May 8th. As well as the aforementioned inventory and ability cooldown fixes, the promises of more unique and meaningful loot (the upcoming powerful weapon Redrix’s Claymore available for skilled PVP players, for example) and further improvements to endgame “Nightfall” strikes, which now allow for multiple levels of play thanks to “challenge cards”, bode well.

eywkjdriy33qtgedv9vui9
Bungie estimates the top 40% of PVP players will be able to acquire the weapon

These are all greatly pleasing changes to the hardcore, hobbyist playerbase of Destiny, but Bungie still suffers from its lack of direction in its vision for the franchise. Indeed, these changes are alongside “safe place” patrol zones and fixed weapon rolls, as well as all the other “casual-friendly” features introduced to allow Destiny 2 to reach new audiences, which show no signs of disappearing any time soon. It’s an impossible balancing act Bungie has to maintain with its one-size-fits-all approach, and unfortunately, the developer’s indecision around just who exactly Destiny 2 is for clearly still persists.

And still, in spite of all these positive changes, the question remains: why persevere with Destiny 2? For hobbyists seeking loot, Monster Hunter World offers a more focused experience. For casual players looking for social interaction, Fortnite is unparalleled. Even when Bungie makes the changes that look set to greatly improve Destiny 2 on May 8th and beyond, it still won’t have that speciality, that unique selling point, that its competitors have.

img_intro02
Many Destiny personalities now produce Monster Hunter World content alongside declining Destiny content

Even if the Destiny franchise does settle on a hardcore or casual route and cultivates a more focused experience a few years from now, I worry if there’ll be anyone left to play it. As the Twitch figures, YouTube videos and news articles show, Bungie’s game is already on life support as it is. Other publishers have smelt blood in the water, too- a game like Anthem could very well seize the small, damaged community that remains.

Perhaps, in fact, the nail in the coffin for the Destiny franchise wasn’t Datto’s words or community backlash, but the mere existence of Destiny 2 in the first place. A jack of all trades, master of none that just isn’t interesting enough to hold players, made by a studio with a deep-rooted communication issue that inflicted irreversible damage on its playerbase long before it tried to make amends. Are we looking at the end of the Destiny franchise? Well, it might have already happened.

Nintendo’s triumphant year

Nintendo’s had one hell of a good year.

The 3DS has continued to tick along nicely, and the Nintendo Switch, their new console-handheld hybrid, has been astonishingly well received by hardcore fans and the casual market alike. As well as generating glowing opinions of its premise and software library, the system has sales numbers that speak for themselves; in nine months, the Switch has surpassed ten million units sold, and by April that number’s expected to nearly double.

It’s an initial success of Wii-like proportions, and, all things considered, quite an unexpected one. What has led to such a successful debut for Nintendo’s ninth generation console, then?

First off, there’s the masterful pacing of the Switch’s opening game lineup. Realistically, more than one of the hits of the year could have been ready for launch day, the likes of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 in particular. But Nintendo bided their time with such releases and therefore, in addition to ensuring more polished experiences made it onto the shelves, made sure there was always something to look forward to on the Switch. Almost every month since the console’s launch there has been a notable first-party release: March had Breath of the Wild, April had Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, June had ARMS, July had Splatoon 2 and so on.

maxresdefault1
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe introduced a revamped battle mode with a host of new arenas

People stayed interested in Nintendo’s system. The gaming press covered this steady stream of titles, so the Switch was continually featured, as a pose to appearing sporadically throughout the year. Early adopters were able to continue talking about the Switch- and have something worthwhile to talk about- attracting new buyers. The consistency Nintendo achieved by releasing titles in a regular manner has given the Switch staying power, and thus more interest.

It helped, of course, that the games released this year for the Switch were really, really good. Nintendo was competing against itself for Game of the Year this year, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey receiving almost universal acclaim and claiming the hallowed score of 97 on Metacritic. Beyond that, even, though, Splatoon 2 and ARMS were popular with critics and players, Mario Kart 8 was as delightful as ever and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a miracle on a handheld device. It’s been said that 2017 (loot boxes aside) has been the best year for games since 2007. In Nintendo’s case, that couldn’t be truer.

Best games of all time
Two of Nintendo’s 2017 releases made Metacritic’s top 20 best games of all time list

Quality arrivals in the Switch’s library throughout the year extended beyond first-party releases, too, as the system has done a fantastic job in appealing to indie developers. As well as some ports of older titles (Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley and Super Meat Boy to name a few), Nintendo has seen multiplatform releases of highly praised independent titles like SteamWorld Dig 2 arrive as well. Even better, some indies are prepared to make full on exclusives for the Switch- Snipperclips and oddball RPG Golf Story are prime examples.

Developers such as these find the Switch attractive for a variety of reasons, and there’s no doubt Nintendo’s “Nindies” initiative has taken a more central stage since the Wii U days, but the real reason the company has seen such success here might just be the lack of strong alternatives. Steam, and therefore the PC space, has become ridiculously crowded. As a PC indie, you rely on a 24- or 48-hour window on the “New Releases” page, or just plain luck with Valve’s algorithm, for success. Sony, meanwhile, has become callous. Their indie efforts are very much on the sidelines, and with a new love of shovelware their future with indies doesn’t look promising. Microsoft had a bad start with the Xbox One- that bad first impression must surely linger for developers.

But that’s just speculation. The point is Switch’s uncrowded, high quality, carefully curated eShop is drawing indie developers in, and in an age where publishers seem more and more arbitrary, they’ll be- and already have been- key in the success of the console.

What about the system itself? Beyond the software, the Switch’s hardware is fantastic. Not gimmicky like the 3DS with its 3D or Wii U with its GamePad, the Switch is simple, sleek and easily understandable. Its hardware facilitates its worthwhile selling point: you can play full, traditional games anywhere, any time. Who hasn’t wanted to play the new Zelda in bed, or the new Mario on the bus? A childhood dream of many alienated Nintendo fans, the Switch’s ideas speak to them and countless other demographics.

20-nintendo-switch
The Switch’s selling point is easily presentable and understandable

Crucially, Nintendo strikes the balance between power and portability so that higher fidelity games like Breath of the Wild and DOOM can run acceptably on a portable system without compromising too much on performance, particularly (in the case of multiplatform titles) in comparison to other platforms’ versions. Nintendo delivers on the promise of its hybrid system- you can play real, AAA games on the go. Sure, don’t go in expecting 4K, HDR, 144fps play, but that’s the successfully balanced hardware pay-off of the Switch.

I mentioned DOOM there. Yes, that’s because Nintendo has also reclaimed the third-party support it lost in the Wii U era. Astounding early sales numbers have got big names like Bethesda (aforementioned DOOM, Skyrim, Wolfenstein II) and Ubisoft (Mario + Rabbids, Just Dance, Rayman Legends) back on board, and more are sure to follow. Why does this matter? Strong third-party offerings offer more incentive to pick up the Switch for those who may not be swayed by other means. Particularly considering the Switch’s portability, being able to play popular new releases besides Nintendo’s on the go is an enticing prospect.

mario-rabbids-kingdom-battle-gameplay
Ubisoft’s Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was one of the more surprising successes of the year

Inevitably, success from third-party backing will result in more third-party backing- perhaps we can expect Activision or EA to get on board next- which will result in more success again. It’s a positive feedback loop of sales and system health. We saw it work the other way with the Wii U, so we know this cycle can make or break a system. Third-party support is undoubtedly a factor in the Switch’s success so far, and makes me optimistic for the Switch’s future.

In the end, though, the success of the Switch comes down to the focus Nintendo had this time round. They knew what they wanted the Switch to be, and set targets to ensure its success accordingly. We can see these achieved in the areas we’ve explored, all of which have an impact on the Switch’s identity, but we can also see these achieved in the way the Switch feels- unique and fresh, confident in itself.

It’s a far cry from the Wii U or Xbox One, both recent victims of the lack of a clear focus or idea. The Wii U tried to appease both the hardcore market and the casual market at once, but as a result was ill-equipped to do either. On top of that, a gimmick that required explaining as a pose to the universal appeal of the Wii or Switch was never going to work. Meanwhile, the Xbox One wasn’t sure whether it was a games console or an entertainment hub ala Apple TV. We all remember the confusing Kinect shoehorning and sharing games mess too, no doubt.

The PS4 set out to be a good games console, plain and simple. The Wii set out to be a system that appealed to a casual market. Along with many others, the Switch can now join these ranks as a games console (and handheld) with a clear vision, goal and purpose. This system’s first nine months have been textbook in their smoothness, and with the Switch’s goals met I look forward to see what Nintendo’s going to do next. The question on everyone’s lips is: can they keep up the momentum?

5 Games that’ll get you in the Christmas spirit

Wow, it’s December 10th already. Christmas is almost upon us, but it’s hard to exactly embrace the Christmas cheer when your lawn has less frost now than it did in September. Luckily, video games are here to help, giving you that cosy, but also chilly feeling that we all love when it’s the season. Here are five worth digging out or quickly picking up so that you’re ready for the turkey and the stockings and the political arguments with that one aunt who just won’t shut up.

lawn.jpg
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

#5. Super Mario Galaxy 2

It may not be the iciest or snowiest game on this list (although it certainly isn’t devoid of chilly levels), but Super Mario Galaxy 2’s upbeat, fun spirit makes it almost impossible to not grin inanely at the TV as you play it. There’s something about the expressive animations and tactile movement of Mario, not to mention the ridiculously dense level design, that makes any given moment of Galaxy 2 a joy to play. It’s impossible to miss in the run-up to Christmas; its sheer energy and fun factor will get you in the festive spirit in no time.

FreezyFlakeGalaxy
There’s at least two ice levels

#4. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

As with Galaxy, it’s the adventurous spirit of Uncharted that makes it a must-play at this time of year. Set in snowy Nepal with Nathan Drake on the swashbuckling quest for the Cintimani Stone, fairly standard third-person shooting mechanics can be overlooked in favour of strong voice acting and setpieces that, even on PS3, still impress.

Chapter17
Chapter 17, set in a Himalayan ice cave, is a particular standout

#3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Animal Crossing, at heart, is a tranquil, relaxing experience brimming with Nintendo charm. You can fish, dig, torment villagers or just relax and enjoy the scenery. Even better, the series has always celebrated key events throughout the year, and naturally Christmas is one of those. Beyond festivities on December 25th, though, there’s a seasonal shift and a blanket of snow both sides of the festive period. Calm, wintry walks through snowy orchards or a night by the cosy fire in your house are guaranteed to make you feel all Christmassy.

acnl xmas.jpg
If this isn’t Christmassy, I don’t know what is

#2. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

If you’re lucky (or unlucky, I suppose) enough to have a Wii U, you need to play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Regardless of Christmas feels, it’s a stellar platformer, but the game’s final world, Donkey Kong’s own and now very frozen island, has some of the best ice levels- hell, best levels– of any platformer ever.

Take your pick. There’s a striking, shadow-based journey across a mountain during an avalanche. A rickety ride across frozen mines during a cave-in. A dangerous trek up a frozen coastline. A thrilling journey through a still-functional factory bitten by the snow. Best of all, perhaps, is level 6-5: a serene and beautiful journey across a forest canopy, accompanied by a wandering, wondering David Wise track.

The snow flurries Tropical Freeze’s World 6 are even sweeter for longtime fans of the Donkey Kong Country series; they’ll love the familiar areas presented in all new ways. Regardless of previous experience with the series, though, this game will get you in the Christmas mood like no other. Well, almost.

dkctf snow level
6-5 is a gorgeous level

#1. Skyrim

To my mind, nothing achieves a better Christmas atmosphere than Skyrim. On top of the obvious chilly theme, especially in the cold wastes of the North of the map (Eastmarch, The Pale, Winterhold), the fifth Elder Scrolls game succeeds in creating the sense of adventure we all love at Christmas, but also the sense of winter serenity.

In the same way one might have, when it very rarely snows, walked round a Christmas market with church choirs singing carols in the background, and felt that distinct cosiness only winter can provide, a combination of Jeremy Soule’s ambient tracks and Skyrim’s stark, ice-kissed landscapes create a beautiful seasonal effect.

There’s a tavern somewhere in The Pale I remember visiting once. It wasn’t in a town or Hold. It was on a quiet road encased by hills, and I think there were pine trees. There was nothing special about it- it was just a place for some quest I hadn’t got yet- but I felt tangible warmth from that place, set against the cold night. It was a fantastic moment, and is a testament to this game’s ability to make me feel somewhere else, somewhere where ‘tis the season all year round.

Skyrim_20170327174802
You can feel the cold

 

Have a great Christmas, everybody. Hopefully you’re feeling more in the spirit! I’ll see you, with more content, in the new year.