Wednesday, 9 December 2015

When Is It Fair To Criticise A Free Game?

OK, this is a bit later than I expected, but I finally have remembered to come back to this.

Some of you who read the site might remember in my review of Lamia Must Die that I mentioned that there is a very valid question of when it becomes fair to say a free game is a bad game and what to expect from a free game. After all, it’s a game you get for free, so you obviously can’t expect it to be on the same level of development as, say, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and, because most free games are often by developers who are starting out on their games development careers, it is very easy to take the viewpoint that a free game should not be judged by a critic.

My viewpoint? Well, I critique free games, so you can tell that I disagree with the last viewpoint. However, I feel I should take the time to try to explain my own personal stance on this debate, if only so my thoughts are as clear as they can be. After all, what I’m about to say might actually prove of interest.

Making a game at all is a process that is difficult to do well. This is something anyone who has worked on a single game before now would be able to tell you immediately, but, to give you a quick idea of what goes into making a game, you need to decide on an art direction, you need to code the game, you need to do bug fixing, you need to do playtesting, you need to consider the font and layout of everything inside the game itself, you need to get the game to run on a different combination of graphics cards, sound cards, operating systems...and that’s before you consider stuff like whether you’re going to have voice acting in the game, what the story of the game is (if you’re doing something which needs a story) and sourcing sound clips. Games development is a VERY difficult sector of work to get into, and gamers generally expect a lot from the final product due to how expensive the high profile games are. While sites like Good Old Games and stuff like Steam sales do make gaming a lot cheaper, it doesn't excuse the fact that a new game in the triple-A gaming scene can still cost around £50, and that's just for standard editions of games.

Needless to say, this is why most gamers tend to stick with the indie scene or video game sales, as spending that much on a game is not something most people can do unless they have a lot of disposable income or are a professional video game critic (in which case, they usually don’t need their money to buy a game unless they’ve been boycotted by a publisher, so the point is somewhat moot). You’d have thought the triple-A sector of gaming would have picked up on this by now, but, well, I can remember when a new high profile game cost about £30 back in the early 2000s, and the global economy was a heck of a lot better back then than it is now, so...yeah, clearly not!

Anyway, moving back a bit, free games are nothing new: even in my middle school (which was a bit behind the times because...well, this is Northumberland we’re talking about, which might as well be called The Land Which Parliament Forgot for all the attention that seems to be paid to it…), it wasn’t usual to see people playing games like Icy Tower and a tank battle game on the Internet for free and sites like Cheeky Monkey Games were somewhat common knowledge among the students. With the benefit of hindsight, most of the games on the sites were nothing special: they were fun time wasters and worked well, but, compared to what is going on in the independent gaming scene today, they were fairly primitive games. Some games were excellent, though: in particular, one free game I remember with fondness was a game which had remade Super Mario to allow you to play it with characters from other Nintendo franchises, like Contra, The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man. These free games were almost certainly made by people making their first games and putting them out there on the Internet and, in the vast majority of cases, with no major intent of turning them into a business.

Man, I sound like an old man at the moment…

Jumping forward to today, you can still see that same passion and desire in aspiring games developers today, it’s just easier to make games today (you can get game engines for a fairly small price or even special software to allow you to make an RPG like the Final Fantasy games or a visual novel) and it’s easier to be found (Steam is a good place to put a free game on due to it being among the most popular online distributors of video games, if not THE most popular). And that, ironically, is why I personally see no problem with critiquing free games now: with all of these resources now available to make games development so easy and so much information around the Internet to help you whenever you run into trouble with developing a game, there is really no excuse for a video game to be badly designed any more.

I do not say by this that one should treat a free game on the same level as a triple-A game: such an expectation would be flat out unfair! Instead, I say that a free game which is badly designed, uses unmodified assets from stores or stuff like that should be called out for it, albeit not in a malicious way. It is hard to put it properly, but think of it this way: the point of criticising these issues is to encourage an aspiring developer to put effort into doing it right in the future, not to scare them from games development forever. True, you will get those like Digital Homicide who will refuse to listen no matter what you say to them, but most indie developers will look at the feedback they get and take it on board (or, at least, won’t make a public fuss over someone critiquing their games). If you’re starting out with developing a game, it is very tempting to use pre-made assets to get the job done quickly, since it means you don’t have to worry so much about coding errors and whatnot and can focus on trying to make the game fun. However, the point of them (as any serious games developer will tell you) is to use them as the starting blocks for the game: effectively, they’re what you use in the game’s alpha (beta at the absolute latest) stage to check the game is properly running, then you put your own assets in to replace the pre-made ones. They’re kind of like rehearsals for a play: you usually show up to rehearsals wearing what you’re wearing and (at least in early rehearsals) carrying the script with you in one hand to read your lines from while following your role’s blocking, but you wouldn’t put that on a stage and call it a finished production. While the exact nature of the play depends on which school of theatre the play is being done under, a typical play (so, one you’ll usually see in a theatre and not stuff like Brechtian Theatre or Theatre of Cruelty...Google is your friend, dear reader!) will usually be noticeably different from a first rehearsal of a play because the actors will have their blocking, will have memorised their lines and will have costumes, props and sets to help enhance their performances.
Yeah, suddenly the theatre comparison doesn’t look so insane, does it?

However, all of this is still sort of dancing around the key question: when is it fair to criticise a free game?

Well, I feel that a free game should not be given a free pass for being a bad game just because it is free. What I would expect from a free game is a game that I will be happy to play for a few hours, has original assets (or, at the very least, that the assets used mix well together) and has the replayability necessary to prevent the game from being a “play once and forget about it” type of game. I also expect the game to actually be finished (which is why I don’t touch Early Access games unless they’re free...and, even then, I will probably not play it unless I really am out of options or the premise is one that I find interesting enough to justify playing it): if I’m playing a free game that isn’t finished, I will still call it out for not being finished. The ONLY exception is with episodic gaming, and even that will only work if I feel there has been enough of a story in each individual episode to make each episode a satisfying game in and of itself.

Obviously, you guys don’t have to be as strict as I am being. I have those standards because I critique free games and demand a lot out of them, but there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying a free game which doesn’t fall under that category. In fact, I would go further than that and ENCOURAGE you to play the free games I critique just so you can let me know if you feel I’ve been unfair to them.

In any case, a free game, to me, should not be given a free pass for being awful because it costs nothing. At the end of the day, a game which costs nothing is still a game: the cost of the game isn’t really a factor to the quality of the game, although it will affect your expectations from it. However, a quality release is still a quality release: I might not want to pay £60 to get Eternal Senia, but I would take that over Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 any day of the week, which I wouldn’t want to play even if I got it for free. Would love to see a digital release of the original game if that’s not happened, though…

No, seriously: I played the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game while growing up. It was awesome and had a pretty great soundtrack as well! Might do a brief look at all of the artists who released songs on the soundtrack for that album in the New Year, now I think on it…

Anyway, digression and rambles aside, what I want from a free game is something which is at least going to keep me busy for a few hours and/or has enough replayability to keep me coming back to it. I will have to cite a game which isn’t free to explain what I want from a game, but the sort of game I look for is like Dawn of War: it isn’t necessarily impressive to look at graphically (the original game is over ten years old by this point!), but it has a lot to offer to it that will make you want to play it again and again, it has enough to make replaying it worthwhile (specifically applies to Dawn of War: Winter Assault onwards, as there’s no branching storylines in the original game’s story mode, although I guess the multiplayer makes up for that) and it bundles that all up in a high quality game that is fun enough to play that you feel like returning back to it. That’s not a complicated formula to nail down, really, and, while a free game might require some time and effort to pull it all together, it really can be done: Hearthstone has done it, Eternal Senia has done it, Team Fortress 2 has done it and Everlasting Summer has done it. You might notice that these games are highly regarded among their target audiences (above 90% on Steam in the case of the latter 3 and, well, Blizzard games are always very highly regarded anyway) and are all free games, so they are shining examples of how to do free games well to me. True, they had development teams in all but one case (Eternal Senia was mostly done by one guy), but they show how important it is to put time and effort into games and that being a free game should not be a sign of a lack of quality.

So, in a nutshell, I feel it is fair to criticise a free game for when it doesn’t do stuff right, but I feel that a more supportive tone should be given than the usual one that a lot of people do, especially if the developer has made it fairly obvious that they haven’t made a lot of other games in the past. Critiquing a game (as in, being a proper critic) that is free should also be fair because, well, you can say what the game does well and doesn’t do well, which, if you take the approach of being hard of the game, but put it through a supportive tone and style of writing and offer ideas to improve the game, can be FAR more helpful to an aspiring developer than you might think. However, a free game should not be defended with the excuse “Well, what do you expect from a free game?”, for it reinforces the belief that free games are always awful, which is completely untrue.

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