Earlier today, I was sat at my desk listening to the chorus of early-morning tweets from friends and co-workers, and one stuck out to me. GamesIndustry International editor Matt Martin reflected on his time in Cologne this week with this: "Almost all my interviews at Gamescom this week were about free-to-play. Anything else was just filler."
That makes sense - Matt's job is to report what's hot in the industry to people who work in it, and right now F2P is hot. Boss Alien's CSR Racing makes $12 million a month, which just led to NaturalMotion buying out the studio, and while its gameplay fundamentals are rooted in the brilliance of former Black Rock Studio employees' inspirational racing game design, it's the extraordinarily aggressive monetisation that leads to that big figure, not base sales. (It makes you wonder how Black Rock would have fared if Disney had let them experiment with new business models for Split/Second post-release.)
Matt enjoys reporting on that stuff. Personally, I find it a bit depressing. I don't like CSR Racing - I deleted it within a day. I have previously described Tiny Tower, NimbleBit's microtransaction-supported tower-building chore-a-thon and the iTunes App Store's Game of the Year for last year, as "the antichrist". In the same way we round on people who ship £40/$60 games that lure us in with slick graphics and then repeat themselves boringly for eight hours and offer nothing else of any value, we should be blasting people who lure us in with slick core mechanics and then use psychological tricks to rinse our wallets for weeks afterwards. There's a responsible way to do F2P - I hear Tribes Ascend is great, for example. Unfortunately people are getting rich doing the other thing.
Fortunately, two amazing things happened to me in video games in the last 24 hours to make it all seem less depressing.
I'm currently reviewing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (spoiler: it's amazing) and last night I played for a few hours with a couple of friends. We were playing Classic Competitive on a Bomb Defusal rotation, meaning we were playing best-of-30 games of Terrorists trying to plant a bomb while Counter-Terrorists worked against them, and we were doing reasonably well working as a unit, keeping in touch on Skype. (Note: this isn't cheating. Classic Competitive doesn't let you use chase-cams to spot for your friends once you're dead.)
As our session was winding down for the evening, we gave ourselves one more round on the Counter-Terrorist side on Dust 2. The Ts had been telegraphing their tactics a bit of late, sending one guy through the centre of the map while the rest came in force through the long run to bomb site A. Anticipating this, I headed through the middle and, sure enough, took down the guy they sent. Unfortunately, my team-mates were all wiped out by the main force, and, as I was circling back round behind them, the bomb was planted. I was the only guy left, with four Terrorists guarding a planted bomb.
At this point, it should be noted that while I sound proficient at this sort of thing, I am a little... inconsistent. There are indeed times when I wipe out the entire opposite team like a sniper-rifle-equipped act of god, but there are also times when I get over-excited and hit the 'drop weapon' button when I'm trying to defuse a bomb, which is never a good look when you're being closed down by a pair of angry Dutch clan players who have spent the last half-hour saying "FU NOOB" and "L2P".
Anyway, I rounded the corner towards the bomb site and popped off a couple of M4A4 rounds at the first guy I saw. None connected. Unfortunately, they did raise the awareness levels of the four guys who I had hoped weren't all clustered in exactly that spot waiting for me. I had no options here. I had no time to retreat and circle back, and these guys were better shots than I was. Plus, they would expect me to retreat. I could hope they would be hubristic and charge me down, but a few seconds crouched with my sights trained on the corner revealed they would not be so stupid.
However, it turns out that there was one thing they did not expect. They did not expect the mad Englishman to appear, hopping and crouching wildly through the air, spraying them with lead. They did not expect that shit. And so one fell. I darted back into cover. I did it again, and got two! One more guy. Surely it can't work again. It works! F*** you too, Appelmoejse! The crowd (Martin and Dan on Skype, long dead and watching from my POV in limbo) went wild. I sprinted for the ticking bomb.
Sure, the bomb blew up in my face, but I had nearly done something amazing. I went to bed happy. Then, this morning, I went one better.
I've developed a habit recently of playing Spelunky before work. Spelunky, the roguelike 2D platform adventure - where death is never further away than the distance you cover leaping backwards in terror from an exploding frog into a spike trap - is my main addiction.
This week, I've been trying to satisfy Tunnel Man, the Tom Nook wannabe prick who 'helps' you out between worlds in Spelunky by digging shortcut tunnels for you - but only if you can satisfy his increasingly unrealistic demands for specialist loot. I've been on the verge of establishing a tunnel from the start of the game to the Ice Caves for about a fortnight, but despite having learned the preceding Jungle enemies, traps and demands off by heart long ago, I've been bouncing off Spelunky's randomly generated perils for that whole period, unable to give Tunnel Man what he requires. Today was going to be exactly the same.
So it proved. I got up at 5.45am (yes, it's that bad) and settled down for 90 minutes of adventuring. I died in every conceivable way. I was eaten by fish. I was slapped by a monkey into a spike trap. I dodged one tiki trap, positioned myself carefully to line up the second one, and then realised I was standing too close to the first. I headbutted a dozen bats. I got killed by frogs landing on my head, my side and even jumping up my backside. I hit myself in the head with a golden idol. Etc.
At 7.15, I promised myself "one proper go" before giving up for the day.
Out I set. I made it to 2-3, the third of four Jungle levels, and things didn't look good. The item I required for Tunnel Man could only be retrieved in one of a few very specific ways: if it randomly cycled into a shop's rotation, if I stole it from a shopkeeper, or if I came across the very, very specific place it is buried on levels where "the dead are restless", which is itself a random occurrence that wasn't happening for me on 2-3. I used up all but one of my bombs getting to the exit of 2-3 anyway.
2-4. "The dead are restless."
Well hello. Could this be it? Could I do it? There were no shops in evidence, so I carefully edged forward, scouting my surroundings in search of the telltale sign that the item I needed was lurking a single bomb blast away. I got deeper and deeper without spotting it, meaning I was closing in on the exit. Then I came to a sheer drop.
In Spelunky, a big drop will knock you unconscious if you don't have a means of checking your descent, and I was one KO away from death as well. It's so easy to die in this situation - not because something killed you, but because you were trying to be careful and avoid death and did something panicky or mistimed that you would otherwise never do while horsing around on earlier levels. I measured my descent, aiming to drop a rope.
Instead I hit the bomb button, scattering my only explosive god knows where, and for good measure I fell down the sheer drop.
I landed without dying, which was something. And then I noticed where my bomb had fallen. It was right on top of the thing I needed to blow up to get the thing for Tunnel Man. The only place it had appeared in the entirety of 2-4 was exactly where it needed to be in order to receive my explosive, barely 10 seconds' from the exit.
It blew. It revealed my prize. I picked it up and walked through the door. I paid Tunnel Man.
When I get home tonight, the Ice Caves - a whole new set of tricks, traps, enemies and challenges that will be completely different to the Jungle pitfalls that have completely infested my mind and dominated my fingers for the last fortnight - await me. Not a bad way to start the day, and all thanks to the miraculous serendipity of Spelunky.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive costs about 11 quid on Steam. Spelunky costs about 11 quid on Xbox Live Arcade. I have paid for Counter-Strike several times over in my life for different versions. I bought Spelunky once, but I've spent extra money on merchandise and the pay-what-you-want soundtrack. I am entirely happy with both of these arrangements. Do you guys want some more money, actually?
There isn't a particularly coherent point here, I guess, which may be a disappointment after 1500 words. But after reading Matt Martin's tweet, I just felt like telling somebody that in the last 24 hours I've gloried in the hilarity of near-success with my friends, broken through a magical psychological barrier built for me by great design and beautiful coding, and that stuff like this isn't going away for as long as you and I enjoy it and spend money on it. The future for somebody may be glitzy racing games renting you pleasure by the gas tank, but it clearly doesn't have to be for everyone, and that is an encouraging thought.