Assassin's Creed Odyssey - A Polygonal Controvery

I noticed yesterday that "Youtubers" were taking Ben Kuchera of Polygon to task for his editorial piece about Assassin's Creed: Odyssey.  Not that this sort of manufactured drama isn't required of every potential target, but since I am predisposed to loathing of Polygon for my own reasons, I cared enough to look for myself.

Let's discuss this, because I find it really interesting.  We'll go with a timeline of events with some quotes to identify the tone of each article they've produced.

Oct 1st:

  • "Assassin's Creed Odyssey - review"

Oct 2nd:
  • "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey really picks up after the first 15 hours"

Oct 3rd:
  • "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has a huge grinding and microtransaction problem"
  • "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is great, just let us romance Herodotus already"
  • "Six ways Assassin’s Creed Odyssey improves the franchise"

Oct 4th:
  • "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s best feature costs an extra 10 bucks"
  • "Modern politics is a Trojan horse in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey"
Oct 5th:
  • "The 5 things to know to enjoy the first 10 hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey"
The first and last articles, along with the microtransaction critique are all from Ben Kuchera himself.  Ben is not some newcomer to gaming press - he started at Ars Technica, ran Penny Arcade Report, and ended up EIC at Polygon, has been writing prolifically for over a decade in this industry, and is expected to not be clueless about how video games work.  I'll assume he knows, because how can he not?

"Assassin's Creed Odyssey Review"

Here's the wrap-up of the review, where Collin Campbell lays it out:
In last year’s Origins, players were able to complete the story (in about 50 hours) and then go off and explore the rest of the Egyptian world, entering higher levels as they went. In Odyssey, the story is stretched out over much more of the game, meaning plenty of XP grinding.
Early in the game, grinding by racking up small quests, only occurs in patches, with the central story offering almost enough XP to keep up with leveling demands. But it certainly becomes more common later in the game, in which the final act is stretched over a vast hinterland of leveling.
I’m also discomforted by microtransactions that allow players to spend real cash boosting their XP in order to complete the story, without grinding. This seems to fly in the face of a design decision based on the developers’ desire to share the whole world, and all its wonders, with the player.
This is why, for all its faults, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is one of the best explorable game worlds yet made. It’s ambitious enough to recreate ancient Greece as a detailed panorama, and to populate it with lovable, faulty, funny human beings. Like great historical fiction, it feels like journey into a thrilling, alien and dangerous adventure.
Ok, so it's a great world, he had fun, thought it was a bitch stretched-out and grindy but there was enough XP in the core story missions to keep you leveled appropriate to the demands of the region you were in.  

"Assassin’s Creed Odyssey really picks up after the first 15 hours"
I had been playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for three hours or so when I realized I was lost.
I felt uncomfortably constrained by how little of the world I could safely visit. I still had no sense of the game’s pacing. None of the pieces were coming together. It’s not that the individual slivers of the game weren’t working; it’s more that none of it was cohering in a way that felt satisfying.
Because last night, I hit the 15-hour mark, and finally, finally, everything makes sense. The systems are all meshing together, I’ve leveled up to the point that combat feels badass, and I have enough creative options to fight my way out of my level-specific situations. I can comfortably explore large swaths of the world to finish side-quests and tackle the game at a pace that feels good. Heck, at this point, I’ve made a lot of decisions in the course of the game’s story, and have only just now begun to see them pay off in any real way.

Ok, so Ben has established that the "intro" of the game is 3 hours long. The title pops up once you're that far in, announcing the "start" of the game proper.  Really, it does.  But it took Ben 15 hours of grinding through a game he didn't feel engaged with in order for it to finally "click" and go from being lost in the fog to having a good time.  15 hours is a long time for that process.  Since Ben is a veteran gamer, I'll allow the assumption that he knows how most game systems work so if this doesn't click for him for that long it's "a problem" in my opinion.

Several people have taken the route of judging this to be general incompetence, like when Venturebeat published a 26 minute long video of Dean Takahashi (lead writer at Venturebeat) failing to navigate the tutorial for Cuphead. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=848Y1Uu5Htk

I'm not going to make that assumption.  Let's respect Ben's experience with games for over a decade professionally and assume he's not inept.  That means AC Odyssey takes 15 hours for it to click with a competent player.  Let's accept that opinion because it then colors the rest of the articles that followed.

Ben then discusses how the game is "level gated" to a great degree.  
“If your character goes from level six to seven, all of the animals and most of the nearby enemies will also jump from six to seven. This eliminates that moment where you instantly feel more capable and competent for a while after leveling up,” Gamesbeat stated. “I was making good progress with my character up until level 15. At that point, I had a story mission that required me to take on a level 17 assassin. That was so challenging that I decided to get to 17 myself first ... But it took me six hours to go from 15 to 17.”
The late game includes a brick wall that you can have to scale by leveling your character to a certain point.
The XP rewards of the game’s side-missions also seem to scale with you — which gives you quite a bit of freedom when it comes to where to go in order to grind for XP — but you’re still going to spend a significant amount of time grinding for XP unless you play like a completionist from the beginning.
This isn’t that big of a deal, in the larger scheme of things. Odyssey is fun to play, making grinds not much of a grind. The problem is introduced when you realize that Ubisoft is also selling you the ability to level up faster through the in-game store.
Well, that's certainly a negative in my book.  Specifically the mechanic of all the NPCs leveling up with you, which was excruciatingly offensive to me in Elder Scrolls Oblivion.  It took the guy from Gamesbeat SIX HOURS to grind from level 15 to 17?

Well, if you pay $9.99 in the UBI store, you can buy an XP boost that permanently gives you a x1.5 multiplier to your XP gains, effectively making the game play "as intended", by design standards past. This is covered in their follow-on editorials "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s best feature costs an extra 10 bucks" and "Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has a huge grinding and microtransaction problem".

As you're playing the game, UBI doles out a different store currency that can get you a x1.25 boost for two-hours, in the form of the store coins you get for just playing the game, which also can be spent to unlock cosmetics.  It's noteworthy that these UBI store coins can be earned in one game and spent in another, which is a system I've always felt that Xbox and other achievement awards systems should employ on other platforms.  If you're going to award me achievement points, the correct thing to do is let me spend those on something tangible in the games.  Thanks Ubisoft for being the only people to "get it". Essentially achievements are the currency to purchase some DLC, which I've always felt is a good way to get that reward into the game in a meaningful and satisfying way without interacting with my wallet.

The point though is that including the XP booster items creates impact in the game.  This was a problem in Shadow of War as well, if you remember.  If you create a purchasable item, then the game design has to be altered in such a way to encourage purchase of it to overcome some negative issue.  That's obvious.  So the way this gets expressed is in the obstacle of tedium, even if the tedium is inherently satisfying to grind through - if it's not, then pay up.  If you aren't irritated by it, then play on.

At the end of the day, it's basically that games are having irritations built-in, in order to make methods of alleviating that irritation an attractive purchase on top of the base cost of the game.  It alters the design, and isn't good in any way - but is a variable level of bad depending on the individual.  But it's never positive, unless you'd complain that games are otherwise too short.  But, it's stretching play time through nonsense the way to approach that other side of the coin?  I'd say not.  I'd much rather that a game take an efficient path through the narrative, and allow me optional detours and rewards along the way, or better still, complete the narrative and then allow me to revisit optional content afterwards until I'm content.  It's in the latter that you can properly inject DLC and get more of my money if I'm still interested in further exploration and lore - and I term this "doing it right".

Alright, enough of that.  Let's move along.

"The 5 things to know to enjoy the first 10 hours of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey"
This guide will tell you everything you need to know to get the most out of the game’s first 10 hours, as well as try to manage expectations about what those first 10 hours may be like. This is a very different take on the Assassin’s Creed franchise than you may be used to.
Days later, after some time to reflect on the comments and reaction to the review and Ben's follow-on editorial, he has another editorial where he's looking back at his 15 hours of stumbling through the fog before the game clicked with him, and feeding that advice on surviving it to new players.

Essentially, "This is how it is, expect it, and know it'll take a long while to turn into the game you want it to be."  Plus one more dig about "-- unless you're willing to spend some money."  It's pretty clear that Ben, despite enjoying the game, found the inclusion of pay-to-skip tedium perceptible and negative enough to mention it at every opportunity.

My Conclusions

Given all of that, I don't think taking Ben to task as clueless or an unskilled opinionator are very valid in this case.  I think the divisive nature of personal opinion about tolerance for, or even perhaps perception of a "prolonged grind" in the game is more interesting.

  • A $10 transaction to "hasten the pace" exists.
  • This implies that the pace is artificially slowed to make that purchase attractive.
  • Altering the game design to slow the pace and encourage buying the boost is not in the interests of telling the narrative efficiently, or maximizing interesting content density.
  • Creating any disruption in the game flow is a disservice to the intended design, whether injected post-design or integrated into the design from the beginning. This is a concession to the business and is financially motivated, not narratively beneficial.
  • Each individual consumer will have a different perception of the pacing.
  • Some won't notice it's there at all, because they're enjoying the "doing" and aren't having their patience taxed.
  • Others will feel the introduction and other time-gated sections of a game are overstaying their welcome, and be irritated with it to a lesser or greater degree.
  • Those who are profoundly inconvenienced, impatient, or just want things to "get the hell on with it!" so they can play the game they've already put $60 into will, the publisher hopes, pull out another $10 to find relief.
I don't think that's a good business choice.  However, it's the world we're living in now.

I attribute the dominance of the time- and grind-gated elements which are typical of free-to-play and especially mobile games, now being present in $60 AAA major releases as not "corporate greed" but a reflection of the increased cost of producing and marketing a AAA title while attempting to find a method of funding that increase without impacting the "base unit price".

Here's a chart on average and inflation adjusted pricing for console games I pinched from Ars Technica:
The price of games is remaining generally steady for twenty years.  What is the purchase power of the dollar doing?

Well, I think that's informative of the situation.  

$60 = $88, so where can they make up the $28 difference?  DLC and in-app purchases.  That seems to generate far more profit than what they're trying to recoup, actually, because the consumer - despite copious objection by a very vocal segment - seems to pull their money out and vote in favor of it generally.  Who's fault is it?  "Yours" collectively.  They wouldn't do it if "you" weren't buying it.

Since "you" are indeed buying it, this has become the business model that turns the most profit with the least objection.  In short, it seems to be working except in cases where it has indeed gone too far - such as EA and the lootbox debacle of 2017.  But, someone has to test the limits to find out where the market limit is, and they did, making everyone in the industry well aware where the "foul line" boundary of consumer tolerance lies.

This isn't "exploitative" in cases where it doesn't tap into skinner box susceptibility of the human psyche.  It's just commerce, and allowing the consumers with more money to spend and weaker irritation thresholds to "carry" the more thrifty by making up the difference and keeping the price artificially reduced below true market value for the product.  

Consider the multiplayer-focused game's business model by comparision:  Destiny 2, Battlefield 1, etc. as a $60 base price + $30 premium edition + $40 season pass = $130 true opted-in market price to the consumer disguised as a "$60 game".  The consumer is free to opt-out of the rest of the game if they choose, but if they wish to continue participating online they are absolutely compelled to complete the full purchase price to remain able.

This is simply the reality of the system as it exists in the Ubisoft ecosystem, and game market at-large.  I understand why it is there, but that doesn't mean that I'm not dismayed that it introduces negative impact to the enjoyment of the product as the mechanism to encourage participation in the balancing act.  It would be better, in my opinion, to just let the pricing be true and return the game experience to optimal "challenge to reward" ratios.

I never thought I'd come forward to defend Ben Kuchera or Polygon on something, but they're not incorrect on this one.  Their abomination lies elsewhere.

I'd judge that Youtube critique of this situation is either ill-informed, or defiant of logic in pursuit of attention - which is their own flawed business model.  I'll leave you with Sid Alpha's example of this, which I think I have proven to be generally baseless at this point.  You're on-point quite often Sid, but this time you're manufacturing a controversy that simply doesn't exist.

The REAL question for consideration is this:

Should a publication still give a positive recommendation for a game where the reviewer felt negatively impacted by the financial incentivization baked into it?

1 comment:

  1. This is an incredibly well written article, great read. If only more critical thought was injected into games related journalism.