Thursday, March 29, 2012

Skylanders -- Swinging virtual markets back into material goods

If you don't have an excuse to play Skylanders, find some family member who does. It's an enjoyable mix of Pokemon with Gauntlet (turns out I'm not the first to think of this, but the gameplay is uncannily similar), though the most fascinating thing for me is its use of good ole, old school, material toys. I'm old enough to remember playing with toys before video games, and even spending most of my free play time using toys I could move, rather than staring at the fancy sprites on the TV. If you asked me to draw the way a Star Wars figure with a lightsaber worked, I could probably create a drawing accurate to within a millimeter or two. You could give me five different types of plastic of varying solidity, and I could tell you exactly which was used to create Luke. That's the sort of obsessive concentration kids give things. I'm not saying you can't obsess over video games -- I have, and jokingly took the author of Indenture to task for not getting wall collisions just right in his remake of Adventure for the 2600. But there's something about holding a toy, not just make-believing, but simply holding, that would seem to be lost with video games. You might know your controller inside and out, but that's where the material exploration ends.

Skylanders puts that back into console gaming in an exceptionally creative way. There's something already magical about a totem. And the portal is awesome. It glows. It changes color depending on what's put on top of it. Seems it even rings the base of your statues with more concentrated color, but I didn't get to play too long before the PS3 was taken over by younger folk.

If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, this is a video game for one or two players, where you run around blasting monsters, collecting treasure, and occasionally healing yourself by grabbing food. It's decently 3D (as opposed to a 2D platformer). You have two attacks (at least?). And what character you play is determined by which one or two toys you've picked to place on the "Power Portal" pictured above. Your two attacks, the "elemental type" of characters you're using, etc, are all driven by these little statues. The game with 3 statues and the portal runs $60. Statues/figures are sold separately too for at one time as little as $5 and now around $10 a piece. There are, I think, thirty-two of the buggers now, though Toys R Us has their own, slightly different, "legendary" versions of four more, soon to be eight. One of the neatest hooks for me is that these things apparently remember when you earn them new powers, and they (with their powers) can be transferred from one platform to another. So your friend who used his figure on his Wii and powered it up could trade you for another figure you've used on your PS3 to allow you both to access different parts of the game.

I was happily surprised to find that that magic was at least partially inspired by Paul Reiche III. He's one of the fellows behind Mail Order Monsters, perhaps the mother of all of these stat-driven, totem-based games, as well as a number of Advanced Dungeon and Dragons modules. Reiche (who I just noticed I'd misread as Richie for decades) is Skylander's creative director. He also did Archon, and, even more impressive, its sequel, the gaming gem Adept, which for me is still a perfect blend of strategy and gameplay. He's also a guy I can't think of without this music going off in my head.

I'll try not to go too much into how having a good to sell in what was supposed to be a market now driven by digital distribution has to be a game-changer for Gamestop and, with their exclusive "Legendary" skylanders, Toys R Us. Instead, there's a very good article by Matt Matthews (full disclosure: a college buddy) over at Gamasutra from last December called How GameStop Is Conforming To A Digital Economy that details how important GameStop is to game publishers, and how the move to downloadable content (DLC) is affecting their stores. A quick quote:

The genius of GameStop's retail business model is that it combines a quick trade-in program with a large selection of games, both new and used, which can then be bought with trade-in credit. A highly-optimized distribution network ensures that many stores are well-stocked and GameStop's employees are trained to zealously promote products to consumers and extol the benefits of the trade-in system.

Publishers grumble, but the retailer is simply too big to ignore. For example, in its last quarterly statement Electronic Arts reported that 16 percent of its total net revenue came from direct sales to GameStop. Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world? They're just 10 percent of EA's revenue.

He then, and this is why his article is well worth the read, goes on to explain how GameStop has entered the "high-margin" for publishers world of downloadable content, though that sort of distribution seems at absolute odds for a brick & mortar store.

Again, though, Skylanders swaps out both that used-sales-plus-trade-ins and DLC models and swaps them out, I discovered, almost completely. First, the demand for the toys is insane, which is an absolutely unfathomable boon for stores. When I went to Toys R Us to pick up a legendary Trigger Happy (the most Gauntlet-elf-like of the characters I'd tried -- very fast runner with good ranged attacks), the cashier said that the truck that came in the week before Trigger's sold out the same day. In the recent load, they'd apparently recently gotten sixty or more Legendary Trigger Happys, and they'd sell out of them too before a week was out. Insane. Black Friday in March insane. And Toys R Us is smart enough not to sell these things online. I left with Trigger Happy, a Barbie movie, and some other silly stuffed animal that sings. Hello, impulse sales. That's something that's much less likely to happen when I buy online, if only because of the relative minimization of the number of times I hear a high-pitched "please!!!" That Apple put a music store in a pocket that goes everywhere I do was scary, but there's still something singularly powerful about a well-arranged, physical store that DLC will likely never completely recreate.

The flip side is that Gamestop, when I checked in, told me that they won't buy back the Skylanders game, and so had no used copies to sell! I was told that's because so many of the used portals had issues, but I'm not sure I'm buying that excuse. As Matt's article says, GameStop conventionally makes its cash not just selling used games, but "buying" them from customers for locked-in credit at GameStop. GameStop gets to have suppliers who agree, as part of their sales agreement, to become buyers. Brilliant. When GameStop sells used, Activision and other game publishers don't make another dime on those used sales, a position reminiscent of the Writers' Guild when they considered suing Amazon in their stare-down ten years ago.

Is the no-used-Skylanders position some sort of secret handshake? Is Activision saying, "We'll give you something tangible that'll make folks go to your store, but only if you don't sell the game to anyone without giving us our share"? That might explain Toys R Us' inside track on the Legendary Skylanders, who come slightly more powerful than the stock versions, and, obviously, are therefore a heck of a lot more desirable to gamers, a little like the Ultima Online Advanced Character. Toys R Us doesn't sell used.

So Skylanders' system seems to break down the two newest sales models for video game distribution, trade-in-to-used-sales and DLC.

Now the worst for me, and what I'd initially planned on blogging here, is the way even this kids' game requires some serious theorycrafting. That's not new, of course. Somehow, I got roped into writing a game guide for Pokemon Stadium, explaining how to use the in-game "rental" Pokemon to beat each round of foes from the game. Yes, I wrote this, right here. Which means I also played enough Pokemon Stadium to understand what all that jive in the guide means. And though it's not rocket science, it is a science.

A fun breakdown of requirements and their corresponding expense can be found here, at Kotaku, titled, "Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure Could Be The Most Expensive Game You Ever Buy".

For instance, each level in the game features doors that can only be opened by Skylanders of a specific element. The game comes with three. There are eight elements. Behind those doors lie short obstacle courses containing in-game prizes (power augmenting hats) that can’t be completely accessed unless you own a toy of each eight elements. With characters running $US7.99 a piece, that brings the total up to $US109.

But wait, there’s more!

Each Skylander unlocks its own heroic challenge in the game. Completing these challenges grants permanent stat and power buffs to whichever Skylander undergoes the trial, so in order to get the most power out of your characters, you’ll need all of them. Since only 12 additional characters are currently available, the total rises to $US165, and that’s before wave two even hits.

... and that's without having touched expansions. To see all of the game, you have to theorycraft-light your way to eight figures of different elements. If you think parents aren't going to say, "Oooops, I got you a second magic Skylander! Sorry!" fairly often, you've forgotten too much of your childhood. Further, to get the most powerful Skylander, you need every freakin' one. I've barely played, but I think that's meant literally. You have to have each one (and, again, there are 32-36 now, depending on how you count) to maximize the power of each one of your figures. You can't just play the heck out of the game with one or two. They'll still be relatively weak unless you buy THEM ALL. Muahahahaha!!!!

Even smarter? Embedded commercials!

As you play through the console game you’re constantly unlocking special powers for characters you don’t own yet. The game lets you know which power is for what character, and then shows you a preview of that character in action specifically tailored to making young children scream at their parents until they own one.

Eat that, Disney Channel!

The same sort of collecting craziness happens in WoW, of course, and it's what keeps us playing after a certain point; it's just harder to see the money leaving your pocket. There's a Pokemon-like "collect them all" mentality to WoW, whether it's "practical" stuff like gear, but gear that depreciates to worthlessness whenever Blizzard decides it should, or whether we're collecting just for fun stuff like vanity pets that I've managed to almost completely ignore. Minus my cats. And the Warbot. I really like my Warbot.

There's an addiction to collecting and a direct tie-in between addiction and successful marketing and markets (cigarettes, Coke, even Chips Ahoy), and though you can overdo Skylanders (Kotaku tallies up at least $320 of purchases for the "full" Skylanders experience), I'm awfully happy to once again see it popular to do some old school gaming -- where "gaming" here means just plain old "playing with toys". I guess that's also part of why I like FigurePrints, which makes the virtual characters a little more real. But at $28 for the game used with Power Portal and $10 for Trigger Happy, I don't think I've gone overboard just yet.

EDIT: Here's the best list of Skylanders I've found yet with some details on rarity. It's the first I've seen of silver and gold painted Skylanders that are apparently dropped in randomly with shipments to stores. Again, brilliant. The list even has a nice "Full Skylander Character Comparison" section with stats.

Release the mathes!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ding! Rogue 10, and a whole new set of talent trees

Welp, Sandy's the big ONE-OH. So the Recruit-a-Friend bonus has me thinking about WoW enough that I'm slumming with an under 20 toon on free play while I try to figure out if it's worth $30 to come back for a couple of months -- and worth the hours of my time I'll almost certainly, um, donate to the game.

Playing freeplay without looking up any pals first really is pretty lonely. There's no real social aspect at all. I saw a guy jumping in a fire today and /chuckled. I think that's the most "interaction" Sandy's had since she left the starting zone. Not really Blizzard's best pitch, if you ask me. How can you know you like WoW if F2P is essentially a one-player game?

I'd briefly considered firing up Star Trek Online, but IGN's fairly negative review talked me out of it. Spinks can't stop talking about The Old Republic, which is free this weekend. I might give that a roll briefly. I'd like to try Look For Raid, as it would seem to pitch in perfectly with the sort of soloer player I am, one who isn't quite up for the regular rigors of a raiding guild, and, well, one who still wants him some FLAMING TREANTS, you know? But it's not quite enough to trick me into resubbing.

Oh well. I'm not sure how much more Sandy I can take. With level 10, she's threatening to go from a pretty relaxing break full of "smackdown x of y" and "gear-click 8 z's" to something I have to research/theorycraft, if only a little, to really enjoy. I really don't want to learn the difference between Assassination, Combat, and Subtlety, though I'll probably google it a bit as soon as I hit "publish post". /sigh (Yep, did it sure enough.)

I really miss the way I played Jalindrine. I started him up expecting to delete him once I knew I'd "screwed up". Took the randomly generated name. Picked druid because I played elves in AD&D and it sounded like a good way to try out a few playstyles. Chose balance because it seemed to most closely match the playstyle I'd already adopted. Theorycrafting came later, well, just because that's what it took to go from soloing to pitching in with PUGs. But I'm not sure each of those milestones is possible to "luck" into a second time. The first run with Jal was one of discovery. Every alt is repetition.

That said, I'm still looking forward to the pandas. Inner peace, you know?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Graylo wonders if the Panzer is back...

Gray Matter: MoP Talent Calc: Second Impressions:
The Moonkin Tank?

In no way do I think anything in the current MoP Talent calculator suggests that we will see a return of the TBC Panzerkin, but look at all the defensive cooldowns its possible for a druid to have in this calculator?  [read Graylo for more, natch] 

Okay, really he explicitly says the Panzerkin isn't back (which stinks, b/c it was far and away my most enjoyable time grouping in WoW), but there are some interesting damage avoidance/mitigation in his list.  And any time I see someone write Panzerkin, I'm duty-bound to bring it to you.

Yes, the RaF deal is working on me, cheating or no.  Wonder if I'd enjoy having a level 80 Horde druid, or if I should use my cheat for a different class I know absolutely nothing about.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What, free 80s? INSANE.

Gray Matter: I'm Annoyed: An SoR Rant:
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a grumpy old man rant about how hard I had it back and my day. I think the Scroll of Resurrection is a good idea and that the rewards provided were intelligently chosen. When evaluated entirely on its own, I can't find fault with the SoR.

I'm annoyed because it's hard not to look at these rewards and ask "what about me?"

I started playing this game in December 2006 and I have maintained my subscription without a break for over 5 years. I've paid for the original game along with all three expansions. I've also paid for 14 server transfers, two faction transfers, and a name change. And this doesn't even include the things not tied to my account like the books and WoW branded peripherals I've purchased.

Wait, what's going on?  That's right, as Graylo says, if you Recruit-a-Friend, that friend can have 

One character immediately bossed to level 80.  Wow.

Okay, let's get this out of the way.  Contra Graylo, I am a grumpy old man here.

If you've done RaF before, and your friend is, say, at level 20, now you can restart and boost them to 80 without any of the learning in between?  As if people didn't know how to play now...  That's insane.  I mean, they've already made it insanely easy to level, and now they're giving out 80s?  If you want to add an 80 to an account than already has an 80+, fine, but this is crazy.  Wow.  Just wow.  Even if it is, apparently, a "limited time offer".

And now that I think about it, even letting those with 80s have another is wacky.  Me as a prot warrior at 80?  Hahahahahaha.  Hilarious.  You should at least be forced to take a driver's test first.

I could understand allowing a toon account to, say, start a DK without having leveled another level 55 character, perhaps, but this cheapens the game experience something wacky.

And yes, there should be some nice bonus for keeping your account active.