Category: Articles

Watch Dogs 2 and the problem of marketing versus reality

When Ubisoft revealed Watch Dogs 2 at E3 2016 I was not impressed. The first game was bogged down with controversy surrounding its graphical downgrade compared to the promotional materials. It took itself seriously in a way which seemed at odds with its own mechanics, positioning itself as a William Gibson-esque gritty cyberpunk thriller but was a fairly standard third-person open world shooter with a few extra UI overlays and some nifty environmental interaction; not to mention its fundamentally unlikable protagonist. The reveal trailer for Watch Dogs 2 showed a fundamentally different but, to me, an equally off-putting premise. It looked like an example of corporate executives and marketing gurus trying to be “down with the kids”:


Fortunately for me (and less fortunately for the first-week sales figures which were down 300,000 from the first game) I was wrong. Beneath the memes and millennial-baiting buzzwords is a game with some real moments of emotion and camaraderie as you work with the crew of DedSec, find out more about them through inter-character dialogue and the documents you find/hack during missions. Watch Dogs 2 discusses the murky legality of mass surveillance, criminal profiling, election fraud and corporate collusion by those who do not necessarily have our best interests at heart, all filtered through a neon analogue to real hacker groups. These issues are more immediately relatable to the everyday life of the game’s target audience than Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s pro-war space jingoism disguised as deep commentary moral browbeating or Battlefield 1’s inconsistent and one-sided narrative on the horrors of the First World War as a framing for what appears to be more of the same old Battlefield experience but with biplanes.

However Watch Dogs 2 does more than that, but in a way that may be too subtle for its bombastic purple and green neon visage. During conversations between the members of DedSec the point that what they’re doing – hacking corporations and government departments all over the San Francisco Bay area – is only reinforcing the position of the tech and big data giants who they are targeting; showing that such security and control is necessary to counter these dangerous hacker groups. This tautological loop is similar to the problems faced by real groups like ‘Anonymous’ who Ubisoft have candidly explained were the inspiration behind DedSec in the first place in a now unfortunately deleted interview. This inspiration is clear throughout Watch Dogs 2, whether it be arranging attacks on the game’s Scientology analogue or the textual/visual language of DedSec’s public releases.

Science fiction presents an opportunity to extrapolate real-world issues to their extreme; certain episodes of the original series of Star Trek are blatant Vietnam allegories and Paul Verhoven’s 1999 adaptation of Starship Troopers is a scathing critique of US foreign policy. Watch Dogs 2 achieves similar ends through taking current real-world issues, which is no mean feat considering how long games take to make, and expanding them for the player to unpick in a detached and experimental environment. Unfortunately in this case Ubisoft have hidden this so successfully its flashy exterior that the marketing is potentially sabotaging the game’s appeal to certain audience demographics, who may only discover its appeal when its price drops or when an inevitable “Complete Edition” or “Game of the Year” bundle comes out next year.

“Walking Simulators” like Dear Esther and Gone Home are often criticised for not having enough game behind their exposition, something that Watch Dogs 2 successfully deals with. Even if you don’t care about the direction of its political and technological commentary there is still a large and robust open world action/stealth game to enjoy underneath that deserves to succeed, almost in spite of itself and the intentions of its publisher.

Free to Play

I can recall the theme tunes for many of the programs I watched when I was very young because children’s brains just absorb information as a survival mechanism; a process which advertisers and producers use for merchandise and general awareness among their hyper-receptive audience as a vector to their parents’ wallets.

However fondly we remember the entertainment media of our past, things cannot remain the same. In the same way the stop-motion puppets of Postman Pat and Fireman Sam have given way to CGI, videogames have grown in scale and complexity. As well as moving from solid-state cartridges to discs to digital distribution, new business models have come to the fore as an alternative to conventional ‘boxed’ retail. Nostalgia for the good old days when you put a game in a slot and it just worked is fine, however it should not come at the cost of technological and narrative development. Secondly the idea of entertainment trying to bypass the rational and decision-making structures of our brains through manipulation and playing to our inherent psychological weaknesses is something I find unpleasant as a child of the early 1990s.

Previously the domain of Asian MMOs, the concept of playing a game with no up-front cost but an in-game market for items or service bought with real money has become a mainstream and largely accepted practice outside of its geographic and genre limitations. The first and one of the most memorable examples of this practice was an article from 2007 which is fortunately still available to read online about how one player in the Chinese MMO ‘ZT Online’ rebelled against the games’ heavily monetised and random chance-based systems which rely on inter-player conflict to promote their use. Examples such as this gave such games a reputation as ruthless money-vacuums designed to exploit behavioural conditioning techniques to make as much money as possible. In the West this kind of business model was frowned upon at the time, however it would soon become the business model of choice for MMOs as an alternative to being turned off.

The first major example of this taking place in a Western game was Dungeons and Dragons Online’s switch to F2P in 2009 and Lord of the Rings Online the following year. Both these games are still active today, most likely as a direct result of this change; removing the cover charge at the door gets more people in, gets more eyes on the real-money purchases and crucially provides other people for the “whales” to play with and reassure they aren’t wasting their disproportionate spending habits on a dead game.

After DDO and LOTRO shifted to an F2P business model the floodgates opened; more and more post-World of Warcraft subscription-based MMOs with dwindling populations took the opportunity to re-brand and re-launch; from giants such as Everquest 2 and City of Heroes to smaller games like Warhammer Online and Star Trek Online. However this is not a panacea for all of a game’s financial woes. Warhammer Online and City of Heroes eventually shut down despite this change. The launches of modern subscription-based MMOs such as The Elder Scrolls Online, Wildstar and Star Wars The Old Republic were met with scepticism and ridicule, mocking the hubris of pre-release videos of developers explaining why their game would be fine with a subscription, how it offers so much more to the passionate community etc. Invariably these games have moved away from subscriptions, often accompanied by more PR videos explaining how its a new opportunity for even more people to experience the game world, opening it up like never before.

Now only World of Warcraft still relies on a subscription and even then you can play the game up to level 20 for free; a replacement for the old 14 day trial program. Even EVE Online is taking a similar approach to draw in more new players; a development I look forward to talking about more as a former EVE player myself. Now it is arguable that the heyday of MMOs is well and truly over. The novelty of being online in a virtual world has worn off and games like League of Legends, DOTA offer the same team play, fantasy worlds and watchable competition with none of the lengthy grind to get there. Many of these games have now jumped to the console environment too; Warframe, Smite, Neverwinter, DC Universe Online and Star Trek Online have been ported and are successful enough to keep going in a period of market uncertainty and where even the biggest releases are failing on the sales figures of previous iterations.

The most worrying aspect of these mechanics is their proliferation in said big releases; what have been called “fee to pay” games which charge you upfront for the game and then act as a platform for further monetisation. Dead Space 3 was widely criticised for skewing its crafting system to make spending real money more attractive than the long real-time slog to acquire upgrade materials.

The recent examples of YouTubers being implicated in covertly running gambling websites for CSGO and other games which have blind purchase boxes and other elements show that the issues around this area are moving away from games media pontification like this very article towards being a “real” issue. I was on a train once and saw a boy of no more than 14 or so playing a fake CSGO weapon skin opening game; one that simulated the experience of playing Valve’s slot machine, presumably as playing the real thing wasn’t an option at the time. These kind of things make me worried for the future of games as both current experiences as well as their preservation for the future. What happens when these predominantly online games are no longer profitable and are shut down? Such concerns are a topic for another article, but are issues we should be considering when encountering, discussing or supporting such systems.


Saving money on videogames

Gaming is an increasingly expensive hobby; in 2016 the traditional fixed console cycle is coming to an end with Microsoft’s Scorpio and Sony’s PS4 Pro consoles. nVidia’s 1000-series and AMD’s 400-series GPUs are providing graphical and computational power at relatively affordable prices that only a few years ago would be out of reach of almost everyone. However with the recent vote to leave the EU even the lower ends of these ranges are less financially appealing.

The intention behind this series of articles is to discuss getting the most pretend bang for your actual buck, including hidden gems in sales and noteworthy bundles. This will also involve looking at free-to-play games across the PC and console environments. Since games like The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online blazed the trail for western games to adopt this open business model which had previously been derided as only for grind-heavy Asian MMOs, many games have taken this approach to get as many players through the door as possible. Even previously stalwart subscription-only games like World of Warcraft have adopted it in a limited fashion instead of the traditional 14-day free trial, and EVE Online has followed suit. There are many games vying for your attention, time and ultimately money. Previously almost exclusive to PC both Microsoft and Sony have begun to embrace this model with ports of games like Star Trek Online, Neverwinter and Warframe.

(Disclaimer: neither I nor this website are sponsored by any of the sites mentioned in this post and none of the links are referral links.)

Steam has established itself as the biggest social and commercial hub for PC gaming, however you don’t have to buy games directly through its store to play games which make use of its social/connectivity features, which is where opportunities to save money come in. One way to do this is to buy a physical copy of a PC game and activate the included cd key, which apart from games like World of Warcraft or League of Legends is almost always through Steam. At this point the disc is fundamentally useless as it will be out of date after the first downloadable update.

This method is the least common for several reasons. Perhaps as a result of the prominence of Steam physical PC retail has withered to almost nothing. In most GAME stores the PC section consists of expensive Razer peripherals, some boxed copies of The Sims and a small selection of Steam wallet cards. PC games can’t be traded in so there is no reason to stock any more than the bare minimum. This means that the “game” itself is purely a string of numbers and letters you plug into Steam. This has led to a range of key-selling sites; from legitimate and authorised re-sellers of digital-only keys to ones which buy physical games in bulk just for the keys to ones whose authenticity is less clear. The sheer number of these sites has bred relatively healthy price competition which often result in better deals than Steam’s previously legendary sales.

Green Man Gaming is an authorised key seller with frequent sales and better discounts to registered users.

The unfortunately-named Gamersgate is another site that I used to buy from but haven’t done for a while. They have a rewards/points program that builds up credit for future purchases.

Direct2Drive is one of the oldest key retailers, I haven’t used them for a while but they have been around forever. are often and consistently cheaper than steam sales all the time and a great source of steam wallet money as well as PSN and Xbox Live if you use their 5% discount for liking them on Facebook.

A few sites I used to use still technically exist but are less popular than they used to be/are suspiciously inactive. Game Keys Now pride themselves on transparency and showing how they get their stock, however there have been no new releases available for a long time. Simply CD Keys has been re-absorbed into the main site of Simply Games.

Another source of incredibly cheap games is the “bundle” ecosystem. Kickstarted by Humble Bundle, these are collections of games sold at significant discounts or on a pay-what-you-want model. Often the proceeds of these bundles go to charities to further incentivise you to take part. Other sites like Bundlestars have launched to provide similar discounted packs of games. Humble Bundle even have their own store with frequent sales too.

Combine these with deal aggregation sites like HotUKDealsSavygamer and Is there any deal then you are well-equipped to save money on PC as well as console games.

As a final point its probably worth addressing the elephant in the room, G2A and Kinguin. They are both prominent sponsors of eSports and YouTubers and I’ve used them a couple of times but have heard conflicting reports/anecdotal evidence of dodgy dealings going on behind the scenes. I can’t confirm or deny these reports, but have steered clear of them for a long time. Your mileage may vary but it is something to be aware of.