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Activision Patent Encourages Microtransaction Spending Through Matchmaking (Update: Activision Responds)Tue, 17 Oct 2017 23:22:00 GMT

UPDATE: Activision has responded to our request for a comment. An Activision Spokesperson has said "This was an exploratory patent filed in 2015 by an R&D team working independently from our game studios.  It has not been implemented in-game."

The original story is as follows:

Earlier this month, Activision received a patent for matchmaking for a system that "driv[es] microtransactions in multiplayer video games."  The patent was originally filed in May of 2015 but was just approved. The patent dives into the nitty-gritty of this system, which also factors in skill and internet latency when matchmaking. However, things get really interesting when the patent outlines matchmaking based on grouping players who haven't spent money on items with those who have:

For example, in one implementation, the system may include a microtransaction engine that arranges matches to influence game-related purchases. For instance, the microtransaction engine may match a more expert/marquee player with a junior player to encourage the junior player to make game-related purchases of items possessed/used by the marquee player. A junior player may wish to emulate the marquee player by obtaining weapons or other items used by the marquee player....The microtransaction engine may match the junior player with a player that is a highly skilled sniper in the game. In this manner, the junior player may be encouraged to make game-related purchases such as a rifle or other item used by the marquee player.

Using an example that would be right at home in one of Activision's first-person shooters, the patent also details how players who make in-game purchases might be placed in situations that optimize rewarding the player for that purchase:

For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase. This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results.

Activision Blizzard publishes a vast array of popular multiplayer titles like Call of Duty, Destiny, Overwatch, as well as mobile titles like Candy Crush, We reached out to Activision to ask which games use the patent, and haven't received a statement yet. However, Bungie's community director claims this functionality is not in Destiny:

If we hear anything back from Activision or any of the developers of games possibly affected by this patent, we'll update the story.

[Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office via Glixel]


Our Take
While there are plenty of opinions and justifications to go around for microtransactions in video games, the system described here borders on insidiousness and game disruption. Skewing matchmaking in the direction of in-game purchases flies in the face of competitive balance, shifting emphasis onto who has fatter wallets instead of skill and experience.  Obviously, we don't have the full story yet but at first glance, this is not a good look for a publisher that continues to endure criticism for its microtransaction-based practices. Still, with Activision-Blizzard's revenue constantly going up largely because of microtransactions, it's hard to see the publisher leaning away from them anytime soon unless gamers stop spending money on them.

Watch The Archive Of Our South Park: The Fractured But Whole Live StreamTue, 17 Oct 2017 23:00:00 GMT

Update: Thanks to everyone who tuned in earlier, and check out the archive below to see our journey through South Park and our climactic final battle with Morgan Freeman.

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Original Story: South Park: The Fractured But Whole is out today so we will be streaming the game's opening moments.

Tune in to watch me and intern Keenan McCall play the game, and ask questions about the total experience (or you can read my review here). I was also part of the trip from when we had The Fractured But Whole on our cover so I saw the game being made in person, which should foster even more questions!

We'll be starting the stream at 4 p.m. CT and playing for about an hour. You can click the banner below to watch the stream on Twitch, or you can watch on YouTube by clicking here.

Five Games That Tackle Mental Health IssuesTue, 17 Oct 2017 22:00:00 GMT

It can be hard to express, process, or understand mental health issues, but these games are great places to start.

Of the many themes and ideas tackled in indie games, mental health has stood out as a topic that, when handled right, offers a chance for empathy, understanding, and discussion some might argue is only possible through the medium of gaming. To be clear, many of these games aren’t fun, and they aren’t perfect representations of these illnesses, but they do offer a good jumping off point for learning more about the causes or impact of mental illness. These five in particular are some of the best options for approaching mental health discussions, whether you want to learn more or are looking for a game to convey the experiences you go through yourself. *Spoilers ahead for each game*

Depression Quest
A simple text adventure, Depression Quest tasks players with making it through their days as someone with depression. Through a series of choices, players must do their best to maintain their social circle, hold down their job, and otherwise make it through the day, with status descriptions representing the impact of whether or not they’re speaking to a therapist, on medication, or currently being hit by their depression. Due to their illness, however, the player’s choices become more limited as the game goes on, eventually leaving players with as few as one option to proceed regardless of the consequences. Depression Quest can be a frustrating experience, but also an accurate depiction of some of the daily struggles those with depression face.

This simple iOS game seeks to convey the challenges veterans face living with post-traumatic stress disorder, offering a new take on text-based story games. Focused on a soldier who has returned home from war, Pry allows players to zoom toward and away from text and braille hanging in the air to open new pieces of information about what he experienced during his service. The longer players spend focusing on a memory or topic, the harder it becomes for the soldier to bear the memory, which forces the player to leave once it becomes too difficult. By the end of the game, the memories block out images of the real world, offering a view of what can result from a constant struggle against PTSD.

That Dragon, Cancer
One of the hardest challenges when dealing with grief is the strain it puts on one’s mental health. Created by Ryan and Amy Green, whose son Joel was diagnosed with cancer at 12 months old, the game serves as an autobiographical experience of what their family went through. It’s an experience that is uplifting at times but also heart breaking, with the progression of Joel’s illness hitting Ryan and Amy harder and harder as time goes on. This comes through in the gameplay, with the players often just as powerless to help as the parents are. When the pain of Joel’s illness makes him struggle and hit his head against the bars of a hospital crib, the player can do nothing to calm him or ease his pain, instead hoping for the best and that the doctors will find a way to give Joel some peace soon. It’s uncomfortable, but incredibly moving and enlightening.

For more on That Dragon, Cancer, you can read Jeff Marchiafava's thoughts here.

Night in the Woods
Initially lighthearted in its presentation, Night in the Woods tackles a variety of mental health issues in a mature and nuanced way. Playing as Mae Borowski, a recent college dropout returning home to figure out what to do next, players meet a variety of characters with their own struggles related to mental health. Gregg, one of her oldest and closest friends, confides in Mae about a potential bipolar disorder. Prone to fits of high energy happiness and days of low sulking, he worries about the impact his behavior has on his relationship with his boyfriend, Angus. Likewise, Mae herself struggles with disassociation and anxiety, with incidents as a child and in college leaving her searching for a way to feel comfortable and happy again. This can lead to issues and regular tension between her and the other people in her life, making for an engaging story of coming to terms with these challenges.

For our review of Night in the Woods, head here.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Psychosis is rarely used in video games outside of being a character trait of a mad villain or enemy. As such, Ninja Theory was forthright about its intentions for this title, aiming to show an accurate portrayal of living with psychosis. As Senua, players travel toward the gates of hell to revive her dead lover; however, the world she sees and the enemies she encounters are all influenced by her psychosis, along with other symptoms like a constant stream of voices guiding and misleading her simultaneously. This often leads to her placing obstacles in her own way, fleeing from a perceived but imaginary beast, or even inflicting self-harm to appease the chorus of shouts in her head. The experience is confusing and difficult at times, and criticisms of the game are well founded – see the opinion piece by Dia Lacina on where the game still only presents a view of psychosis from those who don’t suffer from it – but it still offers an earnest attempt to convey psychosis past its usual use as a villain’s character trait, and offers players a chance to form a different view of the condition.

For our review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, head here.

Though they aren’t perfect representations, these games can help you get started in learning more about an illness and, if needed, help you figure out what to seek more information about for treatment. For those who’d like to know more or find someone to talk to, check out the list of different organizations and services below.


Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Wildlands' PvP Based Ghost War Mode Carves Its Own NicheTue, 17 Oct 2017 21:38:00 GMT

Seven months after Ghost Recon Wildlands’ debut, the popular open-world cooperative shooter finally has a competitive mode. On October 10, Ubisoft officially launched the free Ghost War update, which pits two teams of four ghosts armed with all the latest Ghost gadgetry against each another at various locations around Bolivia.

Like Rainbow Six Siege before it, Ghost War only has one multiplayer mode with a unique set of rules. The best-of-three-round battles have no other primary objective than neutralize the opposing team. The setup sounds basic, but the interesting rules of engagement and class system help Ghost Wars feel unlike any other competitive experience out there.

Each round starts with teams spawning at opposite ends of the map, which range from dense forests and logging sites to coca farms and quarries. The mode only has eight maps, but variations like weather and time of day inject more variety into the experience. No matter the weather report, taking a cautious approach is critical while getting the lay of the land. The environments are small enough to traverse into hot zones quickly, but large enough to create an element of uncertainty as to what the other team is doing. Did they set up along the perimeter, hoping to get the drop on you from afar? Are they rushing toward the buildings that frequently sit at the center of a map?

Players choose their role from variants based on four classes: marksman (snipers), assault, support (drone operators), and the all-purpose “multiclass.” Each role has a different special ability, and perks that you unlock along the progression scale add further customization. The wide variety of special abilities demands tactical considerations during team composition, not unlike Siege. Do want to create a team built for stealth and diversions, or trust in your shooting skills by taking more offensive-focused roles that neutralize the enemy technology? Customization fans should be happy that you can tweak the look of each class, effectively giving you four distinct visual styles to choose from for each match, but I wish they weren’t class dependent so you could pick your look based on the map/time of day you’re playing.

The Ghost War gunfights have no player respawns, but come with the caveat that you’re never truly dead (just potentially left for dead). At any given point during the skirmish, a teammate can revive you. This leads to interesting scenarios where teams may try to use a downed player as a trap to lure other enemies to their crosshairs (or a strategically placed mine). Downed players can ping areas on the map from the perspective of their fellow teammates, so even if you are incapacitated you can still help your team identify threats. 

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I love the pacing of these matches. After a slow and tense build up where teams creep into position, searching for one another with drones and setting up countermeasures, eventually the bullet volleys begin. Sometimes the battles end up being close-quarters, with suppression playing a key role to staying alive. If a hail of bullets is flying your way, only a few select classes can return fire effectively while suppressed, so oftentimes it’s better to head for cover and regroup. Other battles became hide-and-go-seek long-distance firefights. As the rosters dwindle and it becomes harder to locate the enemy position, you can run for a radio tower in the center of the map that reveals the location of all the remaining threats. This location provides minimal cover and everyone on the map sees an indicator that someone is accessing the tower, so activating it requires you expose yourself to gunfire. The rush to reveal the enemy positions is always nerve-wracking. 

Sound plays a key role to staying alive in Ghost War. Unless you have a class equipped with a silencer, each time you fire your gun a sound indicator reveals your general position to the opposition. Dense, lush grass fields or forest vegetation can obfuscate your view while you’re trying to shake a marker, making listening for encroaching footsteps a key to survival. 

Ghost War is largely a success, but does have some trouble spots. Matchmaking can be problematic, pairing several low-ranking players against veterans. Host migration disrupts the flow of play, and far too many people drop out after only one round with no penalty. The thermal optics are also too powerful, allowing players who equip the perk to easily track enemies through foliage with no real penalty. My other minor gripe is inherent to third-person shooters – players hiding in building doorways can manipulate the camera to get an unrealistic jump on incoming attackers. 

As one of the best-selling games of the year, Ghost Recon Wildlands has had a great run already. The addition of Ghost Wars to the mix provides a great incentive to return for those who have already powered through the cooperative campaign and DLC. It doesn’t hurt that the update is free, either.


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