Rundown (3/14-3/20) Calculated Futility

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Wherein I discuss my love of spreadsheets, a devotion reborn, the broadening of an excellent subscription service, a new Haven for western AAA development, another lopsided direct digital showcase, the corporate acquisition of thuggery and core values, and a bittersweet remaster.

I have something of a fleeting passion for organization-related projects, where I create elaborate and detailed lists and spreadsheets to compartmentalize minutiae that I am feeling passionate towards at the moment, but inevitably lose interest in them after they reach a functional, yet not optimal state. This is something I have done for… basically my entire life. From writing out a Pokémon playthrough using a strategy guide and my own experience with the game, to creating elaborate lists of games I want to purchase along with set reservation prices and links to their store pages. Hell, this was the reason why I created flowcharts for Press-Switch and Student Transfer. Because I felt the need to organize and catalog the information in those games, as nobody else was.

My Google Drive is a gosh darn graveyard of projects like these, and the only one I have been regularly updating as of late has been a Google Sheets workbook for my mobile game and live service of choice, Dragalia Lost. I love the game dearly and truly, but it has a very complicated progression system where players need to accumulate a lot of materials in order to unlock greater power and break into the crème de la crème of endgame content. 

There are a fair share of surprisingly polished spreadsheets out there to help players keep track of their progress and prepare for long auto-play grinding sessions (a staple of most mobile RPGs). And while many spreadsheets and calculators exist, I decided to make my own instead. I’ve done this for facilities, weapons, and more, learning more about general information organization and spreadsheet design as I do so. However, I sometimes go on hours-long excursions where I try to upgrade the graphic design or general usability of these sheets. Even though this is a strictly personal tool with a narrow purpose: To provide me a place where I can input my progress in order to be told how many resources I need to meet my goals. Or in other words, how many times I need to auto-play these quests before I’m done with them for good.

I know this quite well, but… I still want to polish and update these spreadsheets. To me, spreadsheets like this are this marvelous blend of math, puzzle-solving, programming, and graphic design. They are something that requires planning and some deep thinking, but the general process of making things happen is rather simple and incredibly intuitive. It is something that appeals to many of my higher needs, and also something that I can do while listening to music, a podcast, or casually re-watching a video on my second monitor. 

I love this stuff, yet I also need to get better at recognizing when I am just goofing off while doing spreadsheets. With my free time becoming more and more limited, I should strive to invest as much time as possible into making content for Nigma Box. Because the sense of accomplishment I get from finishing a new article or story is far in a way beyond whatever I get when I create a spiffy spreadsheet. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Following its February 2019 release, Devotion was set to be a modern horror classic. It saw rave reviews, had excellent production values, and shined a light on aspects of Taiwanese culture that many players were unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, the title was delisted from Steam and other digital storefronts two days after launch, when somebody highlighted how there was a placeholder and generally inappropriate art asset in the game that mocked Chinese President Xi Jinping. This incident immediately killed all momentum the game had, and since then developer and publisher Red Candle have been trying to find a new home for their games.

They tried to re-release the game on GOG a few months back, but CD Projekt did a 180 on that announcement a few hours later, claiming that they heard what “gamers” were saying, and decided against selling this game. Which is corporate parlance for “This will piss off China, and we care more about profit than making a statement. Keep this in mind whenever we try to be progressive about anything. Because right here, right now, we are saying that we put business relationships over doing the right thing.”

After over two years of this crap, Red Candle Games has seemingly given up any and all hope of hosting their game elsewhere, so they decided to do the next best thing. Make their own damn store, or E-Shop, and sell the game that way. Meaning that now, for the first time since its original release, you can buy Devotion, and the developer’s earlier title, Detention, for a very reasonable price in exchange for a DRM-free copy of the game.

While this is not quite the best ending for this game, it is nevertheless great to see it come out for a widely accessible storefront, and I would encourage anybody who was interested in this game, or played a pirated version of it, to support the official release and help these developers out. Hell, I bought a copy of Devotion for $17, and I’m probably never going to so much as download it.

Not because I think the game is bad or anything, but because I don’t have the right mindset to enjoy a game like this. This is a game that wants the player to engross themselves into an uncanny and disturbed world. Yet if I were to play it, I would inevitably spend half of my time cracking jokes, making perverted puns, and reciting the Parappa the Rapper soundtrack.

As part of Microsoft’s continued efforts to bolster Game Pass as the premiere video game subscription service, they have been (presumably) footing the bill for Xbox ports of various Japanese games that typically would have never found their way to the Xbox. This was seen with a deluge of Final Fantasy games, the entire modern Yakuza series, and even Disgaea 4. However, something that made me raise both eyebrows was seeing them bring Octopath Traveler to the Xbox One

Yes, the former Switch exclusive classic-flavored JRPG has shed its console exclusivity and instead of making its way to Sony systems, it is being brought over the Xbox One on March 25th, where it will be added to Game Pass at launch. From Microsoft’s perspective, this makes a lot of sense, picking up more niche titles, funding what I’m guessing are not super expensive ports and paying a licensing/distribution fee that has depreciated since the game’s original release, all in order to keep the current subscriber-base engaged, and possibly draw in more potential subscribers.

However, I look at stories like these with a sense of wonder, as I try to piece together what the contracts between these parties would be. Something that would explain why the game debuted on Switch, came to PC, and is now coming to Xbox One, while never touching the PS4. I know the reason is that this is how contracts and economics worked out, but things like this still leave me wondering… 

But you know what story does not leave me wondering about anything, because it is so obvious? Hearing that Sony opened up a Montreal-based studio by the name of Haven, which is currently working on a new unannounced IP. Why is Sony opening a new studio? Because their first party prestige-style games take a very long time to make, and they need to make more studios to make more games. Why is it in Montreal? Because Montreal has one of the biggest concentrations of game developers in the entire world, meaning there is a large talent pool, and the local government actively encourages game developers to establish studios by offering generous tax credits.

I get why they are doing this, and hope the studio finds its footing and a unique creative voice… but something about this news just rubs me the wrong way. This news is coming a few weeks after Sony basically shut down their Japan Studio because their games lacked a global appeal, so now they are investing development resources and funding into forming a new studio in the biggest city for game development in the western world.

Do I blame them for this? No. The numbers look like they add up, and I trust Sony’s math. But this really feels like Sony is putting their legacy behind them as they look onwards towards the future. Which, to an extent, I admire… but I would also rather see them nourish some of their older IPs and not completely bail out of the Japanese market. Or rather the Japanese console games market, because other parts of Sony are going all-in on anime and mobile games.

Last summer was not a good time for the fighting game community. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to label it as the actual worst time to be a fighting game fan. Not because of anything related to any particular game, but because the community was cracked open and people realized it was overflowing with sexual predators, pedophiles, and groomers. A lot of prominent people were exposed for their past crimes, and the future of the community looked bleak as it was looking like a den of infinite scum, cum, and… evil.

Though the biggest loss of all this was definitely the Evolution Championship Series tournament, or rather, EVO. The 2020 installment of the event was canceled after the CEO of EVO, Joey Cuellar, was charged with sexual misconduct and most major companies involved in the event bailed out, leaving many to wonder what the future would hold for this annual event and if it even had a future.

That question has been hanging in limbo for the better half of a year before this past week, when Sony Interactive Entertainment and an eSports company by the name of RTS announced they have jointly acquired Evolution Championship Series, and intend on hosting an online event this August. Now, the idea of a bigger company acquiring EVO is none too surprising. But when I heard the exact names being dropped here, I was more than a bit confused.

Now that the news has settled, I was able to figure out that the not-SEO friendly RTS is actually part of the Endeavor Group Holdings, a company that owns the UFC and serves as a representative for the NFL, NHL, and a bunch of actors and artists. So that answers the question as to why RTS got involved in acquiring EVO— Endeavor wants to get a huge slice of the eSports market.

As for Sony, I’m guessing that Endeavor just asked them to form a joint alliance because they wanted somebody with more experience in the games industry. Mostly because Sony has never struck me as a company particularly invested in the more competitive end of gaming, even though they will occasionally support or sponsor tournaments.

Next up, Square Enix decided to try their hand at their own Nintendo Direct style marketing event with the appropriately named Square Enix Presents. A 44-minute long showcase of what their Japanese and western branches have in the pipeline. Overall, I thought the style of the presentation was nice, as were the interstitials, but it has the same problem that most of these third-party publisher showcases have, where they focused a bit too much time on each game, and the presentation felt like it was roughly 50% longer than it should have been.

I get why publishers do this, but your dedicated audience probably is not interested in mobile spin-offs of your valuable IP, deep-dive demos for games already extensively previewed, Touhou puzzle games, or certain marketing updates regarding niche product lines. If you don’t have a lot to announce, I say just offer press releases or post a video to your usual channels, because there really was not enough here to warrant a showcase like this.

That being said, there were two notable announcements that caught my attention. The first being Life is Strange: True Colors. The game follows young female protagonist Alex Chen as she is reunited with her brother, Gabe, after the two were separated by the American foster care system, and start living together in the town of Haven Springs. But shortly after Alex and Gabe start a new life together, Gabe mysteriously passes away and Alex is determined to figure out what truly happened to her brother. Or in other words, it is a vigilante murder mystery story and one where the protagonist has the supernatural abilities of an empath. Meaning that she can read the emotions of others, identify the source of said emotions, but can also be overwhelmed by more intense emotions, which affects her ability to parse reality. 

Life is Strange: True Colors is due out for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and Stadia this September, but what I find most curious about it is the developer. Deck Nine, the developer behind the 2017 prequel, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and not Dontnod, the developer behind the original Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2. Why is Deck Nine developing the next big entry in the Life is Strange series and not Dontnod? Well, no official reason was given, and probably will never be, but I think the answer is fairly obvious when looking at the history of this series.

The original Life is Strange was an unassuming game that did not have much of an audience when it was first revealed, but over the years it garnered a strong following and helped Dontnod solicit more work from other publishers. Square Enix, who owns the Life is Strange IP, was quick to commission a sequel from Dontnod, and they delivered Life is Strange 2. A title that tried its darndest to be as different from the first game as possible, and while its critical reception was generally positive, fans of the original were generally not happy with this new direction. Fans were, however, quite happy with Life is Strange: Before the Storm. A 2017 prequel to the original title developed by Deck Nine, who managed to capture the feel and vibe of the original, and were met with a positive reception from fans and critics alike.

If I were to speculate about what happened behind the scenes, Square Enix and Dontnod probably had creative disagreements about what the series could or should be, and somewhere between the discussions about their future relationship together, both realized they don’t really need the other. Dontnod has seen plenty of work in recent years, and after recently snagging a big fat sack of cash from Tencent, they have the versatility to do what they want. Meanwhile, Square Enix has already handed off the series to a new developer, Deck Nine, and was met with commercial, critical, and communal success. 

It’s an odd developer switch situation that I do not recall ever seeing in the history of the medium, but I think it might have been the right choice. As Deck Nine is definitely aiming to make something more like the first game, while also trying to push the series forward a bit. It’s still repping that early 2010s hipster energy, but it is no longer limited by the episodic format, and features an entire idyllic small town for the player to explore, filled with NPCs to interact with. Here’s hoping that this is a sequel that everybody can get behind, and that this will set a new precedent for the series to follow going forward.

The next major announcement was a slight update for Project Athia, the big next gen title from Luminous Productions. A studio best known for developing Final Fantasy XV and a massive shake-up in 2018 that involved an extraordinary loss of $33 million, the cancelation of three DLC episodes for Final Fantasy XV, and the end of the working relationship between Hajime Tabata and Square Enix. Anyway, despite many concerns over the studio’s future, they have continued work on this new next generation showpiece, and we were finally given some additional details on the title. Details that were naturally fragmented between gameplay snippets, a brief CG cutscene, and a press release summary of what the game is about.

Project Athia now has the final name of Forspoken, and the game is an open-world-looking action RPG that follows a young woman of color by the name of Frey Holland who gets isekai’d to a brutal fantasy world where she awakens magical powers. Powers that allow her to master the untamed wilderness of this world and decimate its most aggressive beasts as she pursues her grand journey to… do something or other.

Despite this nice little nugget of information, I’m still not entirely sure what this game will play like, how progression will be handled, or what the central goal is. That being said, Forspoken is a visually stunning action RPG with a cool lady protagonist with dope-looking magical powers, a rad cloak, and… sneakers that should be some real life licensed product, because people love product placement. Especially when it comes to shoes. The game is due out for PS5, and PC, in 2022, and here’s hoping it’s more than just spectacle. 

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster came out in Japan this past October and, being a remaster of a game that was previously localized into English, I assumed that it came out worldwide since the bulk of the localization work should have been done back when the game first came out 17 years ago. Instead, as I discovered looking at a recent press release, the game is not coming out in North America until May 25th, 2021.

I would hem, haw, and pontificate as to why the international release was delayed, but then I looked at the headline closer and saw that the game was indeed coming to PC via Steam. Yes, after the smashing success of Persona 4 Golden, Atlus has listened and is bringing their games to PC, and most likely pushed this release back so the team could bring this 17-year-old title to Windows for a simultaneous release. Which makes sense and is not uncommon for the western or international releases of Japanese games.

However, that was just one surprise that awaited me in this press release, while the second was… the price of the game. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster will cost $50 at launch and will also feature a digital deluxe edition with DLC that bumps the game’s price up to $70. Now, I understand that Atlus wants to make a profit off of this remaster and needs to charge something for it, but for games this old, I think that anything more than $30 is fairly steep. Unless it is a limited physical edition with assorted tchotchkes. Then you can charge whatever.

But what makes this worse is how the game also has the gall to charge $20 for a crossover character from another IP that Atlus owns, an easier difficulty, some map packs, and 8 BGMs from other Shin Megami Tensei games. Atlus should include all of those things in the main game as bonus features, but they aren’t. I get why there is Dante from the Devil May Cry series DLC, since Atlus does not own that character and needs to pay Capcom to use him, but everything else? It’s the type of garbage that… I honestly would and should expect from a company like Atlus. Because while Atlus as a western publisher is pretty dope, their owners in Japan are pretty much the worst Japanese game company… after Konami.

I mean, what other company has the cojones to restrict people from advertising their gosh darn games?

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