Cliffy Bomb! Part 2

Hello again, folks!

Lets pick up where we left off with our friendly neighborhood game development rock-star, Cliffy B. Last time around we talked a bit about Cliff’s history in the industry and how he got to have the reputation he did prior to his pseudo-retirement and re-entry into the industry. This time I’d like to pick up with the venture following up the unfortunate failure that was Lawbreakers.

Around the time of Lawbreaker’s release there was some discussion about whether or not the demographic for that type of shooter even existed anymore or at least if it existed in sustainable numbers. In an attempt to perhaps be a little more in line with the current trends Boss Key decided to to release a new game…

Radical-Heights-Battle-Royale-release-date-943970

Radical Heights was released in an “Early Access” state which has essentially become the industry standard for, “Hey gamers, we need some money so here is something we’re working on that you can play early if you pony up some dough.”. As you can see I’m probably a little jaded when it comes to this style of pre-sale but for context I will say that I have purchased, played and, very much enjoyed games in early access. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any which have ended up incomplete or abandoned so I’ve been lucky but there are numerous early access horror stories which offer important counter examples. Watching this trailer it’s easy to see why the game is in early access as the character models look like lower res versions of OG Borderlands and the guns remind me of glossier versions of Counter Strike 1.6. At the very least the bikes look roughly equivalent to GTA… Vice City.

If you’ve lived under an active volcano for the last year or more you may have missed the rapid and somewhat stunning rise of Battle Royal games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite which probably deserve posts of their own. Their absolutely insane amount of success has caught pretty much the entire industry off-guard so naturally they are playing catch up. Treyarch announced that their next Black Ops game will completely eschew their single player in favor of this new trend. This type of trend chasing isn’t really surprising as anyone with a little spare cash and a board will try to ride the wave while its high. What tends to be the worst outcome is when companies and developers gut existing popular franchises in an effort to shove their player-bases onto the bandwagon.

Radical Heights was a similar effort to this although I’m sure Cliff and Boss Key were pushed into that position by the failure of Lawbreakers, making it was their last effort to keep the company afloat. Unfortunately such a hasty attempt to slap together something to ride the Battle Royale wave, which has already been cruising for the better part of a year, it would be too little, too late. In a genre which is going to quickly become over saturated the biggest requirement is to have something significantly mechanical or aesthetic to set you apart. So how do these three competitors set themselves apart?

PlayerUnknown’s Battleground

  • Character customization.
  • Realistic Weapons, Gear and Level Design.
  • Vehicles.
  • Battle Area That Constricts Over Time
  • Lootboxes
  • Price $29.99

Fortnite

  • Character Customization.
  • Fun Cartoonish Aesthetic.
  • Structure Building & Destruction.
  • Vehicles (In Other Game Modes. Battle Royale Has a Hoverboard.).
  • Large Play Area.
  • Content Development is Very Fast.
  • Interesting Media Crossovers.
  • Lootboxes.
  • Co-Op Game Mode.
  • Cost
    • Battle Royale: Free
    • Standard Edition: $39.99
    • Deluxe Edition: $59.99

Radical Heights

  • Early Access/Free to Play.
  • 80s Gameshow Aesthetic.
  • Dynamic “Game Show Moments”. (I’ve done my best to figure out what these are, I honestly can’t tell you besides knowing that sometimes you can spin a wheel for random prizes or effects.)
  • Bikes With Pegs So You Can Have a Second Rider.
  • No Confirmation of Lootboxes. (Probable If It Ever Exits Early Access).
  • Cost
    • Free to Play.
    • Founders Packs.

I wont deny that Radical Heights the idea certainly had potential but being rushed out the door so soon undercut its ability to garner any sort of long-term support that they desperately needed. I can’t comment factually on the financial state of the company or their ability to possibly secure outside funding in order to continue operations. I have to imagine that based on the name heading the studio and the success of Battle Royale games that it wouldn’t have been completely out of the question. The unfortunate reality of Radical Heights development is also echoed by Cliffy himself in a post on Twitter which I will give him credit for being that open and honest with the community.

All of this finally brings us to what I find most disappointing about this entire ordeal, beyond Cliffy’s general attitude through these releases, the marketing, the poor execution and ultimately the closure of the studio.

The ideas that really, truly could have been his next billion dollar franchises. After the announcement of Boss Key’s closure Cliffy took to Twitter and began posting artwork for game ideas that may have been in the studios future.

Donuts

Rover/DogWalkers

And finally, DragonFlies

If there is a universal truth in entertainment mediums it’s that new IP’s are incredibly difficult and risky to introduce due to them being large investments just to get off the ground. It’s hard to fault developers for not wanting to take on longshot ideas as their first outings before establishing a solid financial base but Cliff and his studio were in a unique spot. He had the resources to put together a studio with talent capable of turning out a Triple A quality game and possible a second within four years. Far more than what most can do at the outset.

So what was the product of their first four years as a studio?

One game in a genre that hasn’t seen widespread popularity in almost a decade and an attempt to catch a fad with two titanic entries already completely dominating the scene.

All the while in the bullpen sat new ideas that may have actually had the potential to make a splash in the industry and established Boss Key as the new developer to watch. That might fly in the face of what I said above about new IPs being risky, which is true, and while hindsight is 20/20 the reality still remains that their shot at a “Sure thing” was still wide by a mile. Taking on Fortnite and PUBG may be difficult but no moreso than trying to revive a niche community into the mainstream and in many ways I think it would have been much easier. The myriad criticisms of both games are fresh and ripe to be taken advantage of by a new motivated studio looking to establish themselves, especially considering the crop of streamers who would be looking to get in on the ground floor of a promising new entry.

It’s impossible to say whether or not any of the shelved ideas would have truly been Cliff’s next billion dollar IP, but if the choice is between chasing a year plus old trend or trying to revive a dead one, why not shoot for the stars and bring something new?

Washed up “dudebro” game developer OR legendary creative genius…depends on who you ask. – Cliff Bleszinski’s Twitter Profile

Based on this latest outing I hate to say that the answer, at least for now, seems pretty clear.

  • Non-Washable

Cliffy Bomb!

The past couple of years have been quite a ride for Cliffy B, the bad boy of game design, with the launch of Lawbreakers and it’s lukewarm reception to the attempt to chase the Battle Royale trend with Radical Heights.

So, before we get into this… for people who don’t know lets talk for a moment about who Cliff Bleszinski is. He has a relatively long history in game design going back to one of his first games released in 1994 called Jazz Jackrabbit which at the time reminded me of an emotionally broken Bubsy who went full Rambo. The biggest claims to fame on his resume are his extensive work on the Unreal and Unreal Tournament Series games which can be credited with really kicking off the Arena Shooter genre. The other jewels in his crown are the Gears of War games which were, the first two anyway, massive hits for Microsoft and the Xbox consoles. Outside of the early Unreal games my personal favorite that he was responsible for was the title Bulletstorm and, that really is going to bring us to the point of why I’m even writing this. About a year ago they released a remastered version of the game and the difference in the launch trailers from the original to the new one I think illustrates something about the mentality of the developer.

Here is the original launch trailer from seven years ago.

Here is the Full Clip Edition launch trailer from last year.

If you look at those and then say, “Well, sure, they’re playing up all the new features of the game while the original trailer had to sell it as a new IP.” You would absolutely be correct. The funny thing about that original launch trailer was just how much it ignored the real selling point of the title which was the rough edged dirty humor and over the top violence codified in their Skillshot mechanic. I actually thought, unlike a lot of people apparently, that the narrative of the game was a decent selling point but looking at Cliffy B’s most recent development efforts it clearly wasn’t what he wanted to sell about Bulletstorm. Especially apparent by the fact that one of the earliest jokes in the game includes the phrase, “Murder boner” which is a pretty accurate setup for the tone of the overall game. The comedy was something of a minor sticking point for people as many rightly viewed it as juvenile attempts to see how many different words they could hyphenate with -dick. I certainly can’t argue against that but however you felt about it that was part of the core fun of the game, ridiculous, over the top and at times beautifully nonsensical. It was a pure expression of a game that was just there to entertain whatever audience it garnered to its fullest potential, which I think is as legitimate a goal in game design as any other. A  focus on the entertainment value of a game can often avoid the pitfalls with getting bogged down in the weight of your own narrative.

Anyways, fast forward to present day where Cliffy’s most recent offerings have been a bit puzzling and with the recent announcement that his current studio, Boss Key, was shutting down it had me thinking about what led them here. A couple of years ago we got to see an E3 trailer for a new game called Lawbreakers which appeared to be positioning itself as an edgier, more hardcore version of Overwatch. Certainly their subsequent gameplay trailers like the Between Our Guns started sporting that much more explicit edge and the Skilled AF which asked if you were even good enough to play in the first place. For anyone who was a big enough video game fan in the late 90’s or early 00’s this should sound eerily familiar to John Romero’s hilarious attempt at an edgy marketing campaign for Daikatana.

Daikatana

Just in case you’re not sure, yes, it does actually say “Suck It Down” on the bottom center there next to the EIDOS logo. Thanks John, I’ll never forget you.

These trailers are also coupled with the media tour that Cliff did for the game which had him hyping up core aspects which he felt would be important to potential consumers come launch time. Going back and comparing some of the interviews even for Bulletstorm to Lawbreakers was somewhat eyeopening because of the shift in their overall tone and intent.

In an interview with Games Radar you can listen to Cliffy talk about the fun and entertaining design behind Bulletstorm and how they were trying to get away from the gritty, dour military shooters which dominated the FPS market. He also appreciates a question from the interviewer about how even in games like Gears of War there were still softer emotional moments for the characters.

Well first off I appreciate you mentioning that because a lot of people assume Gears is this big testosterone fest but we try to pace the story so it actually has some slightly softer moments… …. But with regards to Bulletstorm it’s more over the top than Gears but it has it’s moments where the characters get to know each other and it does have these great emotional peaks and valleys which we haven’t really spoiled too much of what happens but you never know who is gonna die or live in a given game campaign.

Versus quotes from his Lawbreakers media tour when you got things like

There is blood in it and people explode and they curse. Y’know, I wanna be, I wanna be the rated R version for all these rated PG shooters.

Whats funny to me about that quote is that it almost perfectly sums up the entirety of Bulletstorm and yet for the life of me I can’t remember it being sold that way during their pre-release press tours. He certainly spoke about the Skillshot mechanics and its overall irreverent take on violence that a lot of the more mainstream shooters treated with a more somber tone but the centerpiece of his talking points remained the entertainment. Lawbreakers and the consumer pitch seemed to be squarely aimed at the concept that it was only for the most hardcore of competitive shooter fans. A move which seems decidedly strange given what the competitive shooter scene looks like and has looked like for much of the last decade. Especially when you consider the place of Arena Shooters in that picture which have garnered little more than small nostalgia based communities around their current releases. Not exactly a market that is begging for a new IP branded as meant for the hardest of hardcore competitive players and of those only the ones interested in a specific game-type. This tactic seems to utterly ignore the fact that one of the largest hurdles for new IPs is appealing to a wide enough audience in order to build a sustainable community. Not to mention the additional hurdles of establishing a new multiplayer only IP that is being marketed to an already tiny sub-demographic of gamers. Additionally the poor decision was made to release the game on a date close to when their target demographic would be returning to school and within a few weeks of Destiny 2 launching. Whatever it was that led Cliff and the leaders at Boss Key to make those decisions they can’t really be ignored when discussing the eventual closing of the studio.

After a release that garnered less than 5,000 concurrent players on Steam for launch day Lawbreakers was at best a game that earned a DOA tag with flying colors. Although possibly the saddest aspect of the entire confusing road to its release was at the center the game wasn’t actually all that bad. It was a bit buggy, it wasn’t nearly as hardcore skill intensive as it was sold and it didn’t revolutionize the shooter genre upon arrival but at its base level it was a game worth the $30 asking price. That realization more than any other cemented for me just how ill advised this genre entry was and how detrimental the marketing campaign for it truly was.

A lot of the time when people write articles like this or break down decisions after the fact it always easy to undercut the arguments with sentiments like, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” which isn’t completely unfair. I think however its important to remember that while things are clearer in hindsight I do believe its pretty plain to see the very avoidable pitfalls Boss Key and Cliffy stumbled into on their way to releasing Lawbreakers. Personally looking back on Cliffy’s contributions to gaming overall I have a lot of respect for the work he has done but as it stands right now all that really does is make the current stumbles seem all the more painful from a fan perspective.

I’m going to cut this off here and pick it up tomorrow with Part 2 where I’ll discuss the second release from Boss Key, Radical Heights, the flaws with its conception and the continuing baffling decisions made by Cliff and his studio. In addition Cliff has begun releasing concept art for some other games he had been hoping to release with the now defunct studio and why I think it offers some important context in regards to the failure of Lawbreakers and Radical Heights.

For now, have a great rest of your day and happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable

 

 

My Way Or The Highway

The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.

This quote is most commonly attributed to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, and whether or not he did actually utter those specific words the truth of them definitely was reflected in how he spoke about the game. Gary was rather vocal about his desire for people to not be weighed down by the rules but instead inspired by them to take the game in new and exciting directions. The community at large has certainly embraced that tradition and used D&D as a stepping stone to create their own fantastical worlds, classes, races, items, quests and much, much more.

In a system that relies so heavily on the imagination of a group of people in order to function the rules would seem, at best, a secondary concern. Although if we all think back to our childhood for a moment and remember that one kid, you know the one, who when playing pretend was always the best at everything and vulnerable to nothing? That’s why D&D has rules. The rules act as a scaffolding over which you can drape an infinite number of epic adventures for your players to traipse around in. Above all of that this basic framework allows players and DMs to modify the game and expand on its core content without the need for a lot of concern of unbalancing it. It can always happen certainly but there are plenty of tips and guides provided to help you bring your vision to life.

So why all this talk of the rules and structure of D&D? Well like my other posts I was spending some of my free time browsing through advice threads and came upon one where a player asked if they were being unreasonable disagreeing with some houserules a DM set out. I’ll put the list of modified rules below and then we’ll discuss some of them and why they might exist and what it could say about playing at that table.

  • Fumbles possible with every attack. Cannot Lucky out of fumbles.
  • No Initiative Rolls, everyone gets a flat 10 + DEX (Or WIS, Houserule) Mod. I brought up a Human Variant Assassin with Alert getting a free SA every encounter, and was told to stop trying to break the system.
  • Multi-Attackers only have to hit once. After that, all attacks afterward are guaranteed hits.
  • Roll for stats. If you don’t like what you get do a 27 point buy.
  • Most likely will run into a CR4 Monster with 4 level 1s.
  • DM has a list of Banned Spells for Wizards. It’s not a short list.
Now over the years I’ve certainly seen some far more restrictive table rule lists than this one and I certainly try to never tell a DM that their particular rules don’t work or shouldn’t be used. It’s their table and they should run it how they see fit. I’ve pointed out in threads of the past that the result of this is really that you limit your player pool to people who agree with your style. There isn’t anything wrong with that unless you complain that no one wants to play under your specific set of rules modifications which is the prerogative of players.
 

So, if I’m loathe to tell DMs that their ideas are flat out wrong and that everyone has the freedom to choose where, when and how they play then what is the point of writing this post? Excellent question. If I’m perfectly honest with you it’s because I was working on something else that I couldn’t get out of my brain coherently so this was my backup. That being said I still think this is something worth talking about and I would have written it up sooner or later.

As DMs we deal with a lot of headaches some of which are a result of rules conflicts, unclear rules or different interpretations of rules which will often be seen in RAW (Rules as Written) vs RAI (Rules as Intended) arguments. Speaking of which I have a good one for that coming up soon-ish. Some veteran DMs know of these pitfalls and will lay down rules in their campaign pitch documents or during a Session 0 so players know going in how specific things work in their setting. Sometimes DMs will get caught off guard and will need to make an on the spot ruling during a game which will dictate how things work for the rest of the campaign for consistency. In that situation you can always make a temporary ruling and then come back later with a better researched opinion if you care to but ultimately your word is law.

So, onto the list –

First off we have fumbles, now full disclosure I actually like causing characters to fumble their weapons or items as it almost always gets a pretty hearty laugh from the table and everyone has a good time. This is very table dependent and I usually avoid doing it in very tense moments where any little thing can swing the outcome of a major engagement. Another problem with this fumble rule that I see is that if you fumble on a roll of natural 1 that means you’re doing it roughly 5% of the time that you’re in combat. A DM I’ve gotten to know over the past month had a great way of putting it when he said, “Think about how insane it would be if you got into car accidents 5% of the total time you spend driving.” Proficiently wielding and using a weapon in the a D&D world is a matter of life and death, adventurers even moreso as their life centers around seeking out danger in any place it can potentially be found, along with the profit from facing it. Very few adventurers would ever survive if they lost their weapon 5% of the time they spend in combat, this is exacerbated even further when you consider characters who attack multiple times a turn. Outside of the mechanics of it, while it can be occasionally funny, it feels bad as a player to have one or more turns eaten up by a single bad roll. As DMs we really do strive to keep those “feel bad” moments to a bare minimum because as Gary reminds us, fun is the ultimate goal here.

I’ll circle back around to the initiative thing during the wrap up as I think it illustrates something about the overall list.

Much like the decision on initiative I think this one sort of speaks to the attitude leading to the changes however this one has some additional balancing issues that I can see. For one PCs are not the only people in the game who get multiple attacks and creatures with multiattack or legendary actions could become serious party threats in short order with just one or two decent rolls. I’m not sure the time saved on rolling warrants the extra danger, especially if you aren’t explicitly running a high danger campaign. The danger certainly goes both ways but over the life of a campaign the characters will be attacked far more often than they will spend attacking, skyrocketing the chance of this turning out badly.

The next two I don’t have particular problems with as I find giving players alternatives for fixing completely jacked up stat rolls is just a simple feel good thing you can do. Characters with an amusingly low dump stat can certainly be fun to play but if you’re going in hoping to play a high fantasy hero then it can be a serious bummer if you catch a run of terrible rolls.

A CR4 monster depending on the choice for four level 1 characters is difficult but doable. A good early challenge to really give the PCs a triumphant moment I think speaks to the core of combat in D&D, if all combat is little more than rolling over goblins and orcs it can get stale fast. CR4 ratings also include one of my absolute favorite early enemies, the Flameskull. If used properly that little floating lantern of fiery death will haunt their dreams until they finally manage to kill it for good.

Last on the list was the one that really caught my attention as removal of abilities and spells is something that shouldn’t be done lightly, especially if it isn’t being replaced by anything. Its definitely understandable to limit the use of game breaking combinations but as of right now I don’t think there are any that stand out in 5th edition D&D. Also the user in question notes that it’s “Not a short list” either which I would find concerning as a player looking into playing a Wizard at that table. Without a concrete list of what spells were removed its hard to know exactly what this particular DM saw or experienced in past games to lead him to make this decision. Even without that list however I think it warrants a little exploration.

As I mentioned above part of being a DM means running your table in a fashion that makes sense to you and allows you and your players to have fun. Houseruling aspects of the game that you feel adversely affect the overall experience or don’t allow you to run the game you want are well within a DMs right to change. However removing things like abilities or spells risks unbalancing or outright crippling classes that rely on them as part of their core identity. If the issue stems from how a spell is written or how it interacts in the game then communication with the affected player is a much better starting point where a potential compromise could be reached prior to deciding on outright removal.

From my own personal experiences I have been considering ways to re-imagine spells like Detect Magic and Identify because I feel like they remove certain avenues of exploration from the game with far too much ease so I understand the impulse.

Ultimately what this list strikes me as is an attempt to streamline sometimes time consuming aspects of the game for convenience and not necessarily balance or mechanical clarity. There are certainly benefits to be had by taking steps to ensure that the game runs smoothly and efficiently but enforcing mechanical changes as a way to get that seems punitive and somewhat lazy. On a recent GM discussion I got to partake in a guest, Taran, suggested during combat using an “On deck” notice to let players know when their turn is coming up so they’re reading to go when its time. Simple reminders and things like sleeved info cards that are easily accessible for complicated spellcasting classes can solve many efficiency issues. Players getting to know their classes and things they will have to do every round like multi-attacks, concentration checks or anything else come with time and DMs need to be cognizant of that need going in. The purpose going in with modifications like this may be well intentioned but must be approached with the proper amount of care and consideration on how it may affect the table as a whole and not just on your experience as a DM.

All of this is not an argument against experimenting with different ways to run your games in an attempt to improve the experience for everyone but that like any interdependent ecosystem changes must made mindfully and unselfishly.

What changes have you made or do you wish to make to your game to improve it? Are you working on any houserules that you hope to use as a standard template for the future? I’d love to hear them!

Until next time, happy rolling!

– Non-Washable