Red Dead Redemption II

It appears that 2k is pulling a thoroughly dickish move with regard to the release of the highly-anticipated Red Dead Redemption II. They are not distributing it to small, independent game stores until a week after release. The game is scheduled to release on October 26 (4 days from now, as of the time of this writing), but mom & pop game shops likely won't receive it until at least November 7! The game will be available for digital download on the scheduled release date of October 26, and it will even be available at large corporate retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Game Stop. But if you have a favorite little indie game shop, you'll have to wait more than a week to play this game-of-the-year candidate.

What is 2K's reason for this move? Well, from what I've read, the reason is not entirely clear. 2K is citing production delays and supply issues for the discs. Even people who pre-ordered the game from the affected shops will not be receiving their copies on time, which completely negates the purpose of a pre-order, and highlights just how absurd the process is. In an age of digital distribution, pre-orders are practically moot. But even when a game is sold physically (and sells a crap ton of pre-orders), it still might not be available to you! So why bother pre-ordering?

To be honest though, I don't care what 2K's reasons are. If this genuinely is an issue with production of the discs, then 2K should have either:

  1. Reduced the number of units delivered to all retailers, regardless of size, or
  2. delay the release of the game (including online sales) a week.

A minor delay into early November would not be that much of a hit on the game's sales. It not like they'd be missing the revered holiday launch window.

At the very least, they should have provided any and all pre-order copies to the stores that sold pre-orders.

The cynic in me can't help but suspect that this is some deliberate move by 2K to harm independent game retailers. Perhaps they want even more control over the release process of their games, and independent retailers are much harder to control than massive corporate entities. Or maybe they calculated that any losses from those independent stores would be offset (either partially or in full) by online sales in which the publisher does not have to split money with the retailer.

In any case, we're living in an age when independent shops are struggling to survive against the monopolies of corporate retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, and against the online retail juggernauts like Amazon (and the online storefronts of companies like Wal-Mart and Best Buy). Withholding highly-anticipated product from such shops (while still delivering it to their corporate competitors) is outright cruel and unforgivable. That is true whether the withholding is being done maliciously or not.

All those stores that sold pre-orders, promoted the game with posters and cardboard cut-outs, and merch sales -- probably all at the expense of the store owner! -- are completely screwed. Loyal customers will hopefully wait and buy the game a week later, but most customers will probably cancel their pre-orders and take their money elsewhere. I implore you to wait till November 7 and buy the game from a small, local, independent game store! Show 2K that this behavior is unacceptable business practice! Or just don't buy the game at all...

As for me: unless 2K back-tracks and does, in fact, deliver the game to independent retailers, I will not be buying a new, retail copy of Red Dead Redemption II! Instead, I will wait a week or two and see if I can get it used off of eBay (or a local independent retailer). I will stand in solidarity with independent retailers and their customers. As such, any review that I write for it will necessarily be late -- even by my standards... And even if it turns out to be the best game that I've ever played, I will not be trading it in for a new copy of the game, or recommending it to any friends, as is my usual practice.

2K, you just lost a sale.

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Civilization A New Dawn - title

Sid Meier's Civilization computer game seems ripe for conversion into a board game. The PC game is, after all, basically just a computerized board game that plays out on a grander scale. Sid himself was inspired by many classic board games, including Risk and Axis & Allies. Fantasy Flight has already taken a stab at trying to distill the core mechanics of Civ down into a digestible board game when they released Sid Meier's Civilization: the Board Game back in 2010. I really like that game, even though it is a bit bloated and unwieldy. Attempting to directly translate Civ's mechanics down into board game form unsurprisingly results in a fairly complicated game that takes a very long time to learn and play.

Fantasy Flight's approach this time around seems to be to develop an elegant board game, and then apply the Civilization license onto it. The result is a board game that feels much more distant from the computer game, but which plays much more smoothly as a board game.

Civilization, streamlined

Perhaps the biggest problem with the older Civilization board game is the game length and amount of downtime. Games could run for over five hours, and the fact that each player resolved their entire turn phase (city management or army movement) before moving onto the next player meant that you could end up sitting for 20 to 40 minutes, twiddling your thumbs and waiting for other players to resolve their turns. That is one of my biggest peeves with a lot of epic games: too much downtime.

Civilization: A New Dawn -
A New Dawn is a very elegant game.

A New Dawn addresses that problem by having each player take only a single action in each of their turns. There are no phases; just take an action from your focus bar and then move on to the next player. Turns, therefore, are very quick, turnaround time is very short, and the game moves along at a rapid pace. This, ironically, serves to better maintain the "one more turn" addictive nature of the computer game. You might find yourself neglecting bathroom breaks for several turns because things are moving along so swiftly. Your turn is generally quick enough that you want to finish it before you step away or take a break, and other players' turns are so quick that you don't want to step away because you know it'll be back around to your turn in a few minutes.

Longer games with longer turns and more downtime can also often result in players outright forgetting what they were planning on doing by the time the turn gets back around to them. Either that, or the large amounts of moves and actions that the other players take changes the game state so much that, when your turn comes around, the thing you were planning on doing is no longer ideal -- if it's even possible.

That's rarely a problem in A New Dawn because each player does one thing on their turn, so the state of the board isn't radically changing between your turns. It's much more of a gradual change. That doesn't mean that other players can't disrupt your plans; they certainly can, especially when combat between players starts happening. It just means that you aren't going to be sitting there bouncing up and down in your chair waiting to pull off a spectacular move, only to have another player blow up all your plans at the last minute and leave you spending far too long wondering "What the heck do I do now?" when your turn starts...

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PolyCast logo

Earlier today, I served as a guest host for the Civilization podcast Polycast, episode 295. I joined regular hosts DanQ, Makahlua, MadDjinn, and TheMeInTeam. The episode covered a handful of topics, ranging from the new religion mechanics introduced by the fall 2017 patch, to a proposal for athletes to be a type of great person, the new Civilization: A New Dawn board game, to the issue of micro-transactions (or "Recurrent Consumer Spending" as Take-Two Interactive CEO, Strauss Zelnick calls it), and more.

If you missed the live broadcast, then the edited archive version will be released on PolyCast's website next Saturday (December 2). I'll update this post with a link once the archive is updated.

"Recurrent Consumer Spending"

"Recurrent Consumer Spending" was one of the primary topics of the previous episode (PolyCast #294), and so we discussed it again as part of a discussion on feedback from last week's episode. Micro-transactions (and loot boxes in particular) are a hot topic in gaming of late, especially after the fiasco that was EA's launch of Star Wars: Battlefront II. Games pundit Jim Sterling has made micro-transactions an almost weekly issue in his Youtube podcast The Jimquisition. Sterling has been comparing loot boxes to gambling for months, and recently, some European regulatory agencies have started to evaluate whether loot boxes should legally be classified as a type of gambling. As someone who has previously worked for a gambling company, I am aware of how compulsive impulses are used to keep gamblers addicted to a particular game, and I definitely believe that the current implementation of loot boxes in games like Shadow of War, Call of Duty, and Star Wars: Battlefront does try to capitalize on those same addictive impulses, and so should probably be regulated similarly to gambling. I don't want micro-transactions in my games at all, but I don't necessarily think that such things should be illegal per se. But they should be regulated, and I do think that the game boxes should clearly indicate to parents that the game includes "gambling-like elements" (or some other warning).

Jim Sterling has been making a fuss about micro-transactions and loot boxes for months.
WARNING: May not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers.

More importantly (for me), however, is the concerns for what micro-transactions do to the actual game. Just last night, I spent something like 4 hours in Shadow of War grinding my character and orc captains up to a point that I could siege the castle in Act II. I played every side mission available in the chapter, and then still had to do some Nemesis missions, in order to get Talion up to level 20 and unlock the ability to assign a third uruk captain to my siege assault. That third captain was essential to get my siege level up above the level of the defenders. I'm not sure if that was necessary, but I didn't want to risk having my captains killed during the attack. I actually happen to really like Brûz The Chopper, so I didn't want him dying because my siege was under-leveled. This is just Act II! I can't imagine how grindy the game might become during the later acts! And all this extra grind in the campaign is a direct result of the inclusion of the game's War Chest (i.e. loot boxes). You can spend real-life money to buy random orc captains to use in your sieges or to defend your captured forts. So the whole game is balanced such that it's just enough of a grind to encourage people to spend money to speed things along by buying the War Chest.

Well, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick has said that he wants every game in 2K's library to include "recurrent consumer spending". That would include my beloved Civilization...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I started writing this post months ago (back in 2015, I think) - long before I had any inkling of the impending release of Civilization VI. This post may be entirely moot now that Civ VI has been announced, and it seems unlikely to me that Beyond Earth will see further expansions. However, I still want to present these ideas, so I've re-written this post to be less speculative and more retrospective. Even if these ideas aren't fated to be implemented for Beyond Earth, it's still an opportunity to look at a way in which the game could have differentiated itself from Civ V, and they could serve as a template for future Civ titles (maybe even Beyond Earth 2) or for modders. Maybe I'll even mod it in myself if I get time and motivation.

Civilization: Beyond Earth really struggled to separate itself from Civ V. The expansion, Rising Tide takes steps to address this with some of its new gameplay mechanics and revised diplomatic engine. Sadly, these efforts don't really address one of the underlying, fundamental, disconnects that the game has with me:

"One of the things that bothered me about Beyond Earth was the way that the victory conditions create an unnecessary competition between the different civs. Aren't we all just colonists from the same earth who are supposed to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past? Aren't we trying to preserve the human race? Without the various civs starting the game with any sort of pre-established ideology or agendas, there's no reason for them to be competing with one another. Without a genuine shared victory, there's also no systems in place to share your colonial success with your fellow colonies. The net effect is that once you've defeated the challenge of taming the planet and [one way or another] eliminating the aliens as a threat to your expansion, then the rest of the game is a competition between civs to be the first to reach any of the [mechanically satisfying and varied, yet intellectually vapid] victory conditions."
   - from my Rising Tide review
Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - attacking cities
Heck, why are we competing to begin with?

Despite being mechanically different from Civ V's victory conditions, Beyond Earth still fell into the trap of being fundamentally, unnecessarily tribalistic and competitive. I don't know if this is supposed to be some kind of sad, fatalist message that Firaxis is writing into Beyond Earth: that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't Fallout. I hope that Firaxis' designers aren't that cynical, and that it was an unintentional emergent consequence of design.

This may seem like a small, trivial, superficial issue, but it's not. Regular Civilization is easy to buy into because it's based [loosely] on established history and uses real-world characters and states that most people are already familiar with. Buying into the theme of Beyond Earth is just so much harder because there's so much of the game that just doesn't make sense, or which doesn't really follow from the opening cinematic or the game's flavor text. This is why Alpha Centauri went to such great pains to personlize the leaders, and to turn them into charicatures of established real-world ideologies and standard sci-fi tropes. These are factions with established goals and agendas that we can understand, and we can buy into their conflicts. Beyond Earth doesn't have that, and so not only do its leaders fall flat as characters unto their own, but the entire basis upon which the game's core conflicts and victory conditions are based start to fall apart as well.

In any case, I think that one of the best ways that Beyond Earth could have truly separated itself from Civ V (mechanically and thematically) would have been to change the competitive nature of the victories and introduce truly cooperative victories, or maybe even a "players versus map" victory type. And I want to emphasize from the start that I haven't put nearly as much time into Beyond Earth as I have into Civ V. I'm by no means an "expert" in the game. So feel free to take the following suggestions with a grain of salt. I admit that these ideas simply might not work, but I still think that it's worthwhile to explore the possibility space that this game could have offered...

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Sid Meier's Civilization VI

A few weeks ago, Firaxis and 2K Games ensured that fall of 2016 is going to be very busy for me. They announced Sid Meier's Civilization VI, which is due out October 21. Believe it or not, my reaction to this was actually a little bit mixed. While a new Civ game is obviously exciting, I have to fight back a feeling that it's too soon.

For one thing, I was expecting at least one more expansion for Beyond Earth, which I feel still has some annoying holes in its gameplay (most notably, its air units and generally dull orbital layer). If those holes were filled, and if the game's map could change over the course of the game, then Beyond Earth has the potential to rise out of mediocrity and stand at the same level as Civ V as a unique and engrossing sci-fi strategy game. Now, that looks very unlikely. Since the first expansion (Rising Tide) would expand the shallow naval and ocean gameplay, I had expected that a second expansion (which I had personally code-named "Falling Skies") would expand air units and orbital gameplay and maybe add flying cities.

Sean Bean introduces us to Sid Meier's Civilization VI - due October 21st.

The other reason that I felt Civ VI is too soon is because I was still hoping to get back into modding for Civ V. I still had one massive mod that I've been working on off-and-on for years that just needed some bug fixes and polish before I could release it. I had put off finishing it until after I'd completed my series of strategy guides for Civ V, and I was hoping for a few years in between games so that I could finish the mod and have time for people to play it. But now that Civ VI is announced, I feel less motivated to bother with that mod, since most players (including, most likely, me) will move onto Civ VI come October anyway. Maybe I'll work up the motivation to get that mod out anyway; we'll see. In any case, I'll hopefully get more into modding for Civ VI earlier so that I can release more content for that game, and maybe make some more ambitious projects...

The good news is that Civ VI does look to be fulfilling one of my wishes of being more focused on empire-management...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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First version of my Code of Laws mod for Civilization V is now available!First version of my Code of Laws mod for Civilization V is now available!09/02/2011 Earlier today, I published my first real mod for Sid Meier's Civilization V. As you may recall, I had previously uploaded a mod as an April Fools joke. But this new one is for real! The mod is titled "Code of Laws (Version A)(v. 1)". As the title indicates, this mod's primary function is to add a new technology to the game,...

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