GamingExcellence contributors Liana K and Andrew Sztein don't always see eye to eye on a lot of matters in the gaming industry. Obvious height difference jokes aside, both Liana and Andrew have very different views on the new release of Left 4 Dead 2. While physical violence was avoided, a heated and humorous argument ensued between the two. What follows is a transcript of the conversation...
Liana: With Left 4 Dead 2 being released very recently, just a year after the original Left 4 Dead, I'm left in a quandary: do I let a sleeping pitbull of the gaming industry lie, or do I speak up and suffer the flaming bags of troll shit that get left on my internet doorstep every time I say some gaming emperor has no clothes?
Andrew: Wait, wait, wait. You're going to question Valve? Like, Half-life, Counter-Strike, Portal Valve? What kind of gamer are you? What other beloved institutions will you hate on next? Super Mario 3? The Beatles? Kittens? What do you have against the kittens?! Think of the Kittens!
Liana: Kittens are overrated, and Valve is one of those naked emperors who happens to be well-hung and have a cute butt. They make good, if flawed, games, each based around a single, highly marketable, mod-friendly gameplay dynamic. They also have a unique relationship with their fan base that makes them unquestioningly loyal and batshit crazy. But with the emergence of Valve's Steam service, a conflict of interest emergences, and I'm becoming concerned about Valve's unique ability to manipulate the price points of their products, as well as the consistently diminishing value they're providing consumers who pay full price. Do I care particularly about Valve's balance sheet? No. My concern is that falling quality standards involving a previously reliable company will impact the general willingness of gamers to try new things - a willingness that's already sadly lacking.
Andrew: I tend to agree on your assessment of their balance sheet a degree. At the same time, a company's balance sheet is the concern of every gamer that enjoys a publisher's products.
Andrew: That's why we haven't had sequels to beloved last gen games like Eternal Darkness and Beyond Good and Evil. As far as Steam goes, whatever inherent problems there may be with the service, it's undeniable that the service gives games a second lease on life, ones that may have been overlooked years ago, only to find a new audience today.
Liana: I'm not knocking Steam. It's a great service. I'm only pointing out that now Valve products have "first party" designation on the Steam service. But go on.
Andrew: I don't know if falling quality standards is really a concern with Valve. You can't use Steam as an example because the Steam team and their development houses are separate entitles. You don't have the Half-Life 2: Episode 3 team working on the net code for Steam on their spare time. Valve has historically been a company that doesn't release a product until it's good and ready. Even if all their products don't specifically appeal to you or I, there are more than enough gamers ready to willingly gobble up the next Valve product.
What has Valve done that says they haven't taken risks? They seem very willing to get new gamers to try new things. They got gamers to use their grey matter in unique ways with Portal. Hell, they even got the heartless denizens of Xbox Live to play nicely together in Left 4 Dead, an accomplishment that lies somewhere between uniting Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans, and solving the crisis in the middle east.
Liana: A few things there. First, saying the Steam team and the game dev teams are completely separate entities is like saying Microsoft has no influence over what Microsoft Game Studios puts in their games. They're under the same umbrella. That relationship matters. Sometimes that's actually a good thing, but it has to be watched, and when a company starts being a service provider as well, then suddenly deviates from the way they've previously done things, my alarm bells go off. Secondly, a company that doesn't release a product until it is good and ready doesn't release iffy console ports, and they don't need a sequel a year later to clean up the stuff they couldn't do in the first game. These "don't release it until it is ready" mantras are up there in the fiction section with the myth of the cut scenes taken out of the first L4D. They're a game company, which means they have deadlines and limitations like everyone else. They're not a public service; they're in it to make money. This is why I think it's so important to check their pulse. The problem is, Valve fans are so rabid, and questioning their gods is blasphemy.
Like I said from the beginning, Valve has been a reliable company and they make good games. But they've been elevated to an extremely silly status by their fans. Two things I learned from talking to Valve at PAX were: 1) this is not a risky company. It's a laterally structured company, but it relies heavily on market research and data mining. 2) Even Valve knows that XBL users can't play nicely together, which is why they're studying the rage quit phenomenon to figure out why it happens so damned often in L4D.
Why are there always three guys and a girl in L4D? Research. Why are the levels arranged the way they are? Research. These aren't creative decisions, they're elected representatives of what the public already plays.
Anything wrong with that? Nope. Not at all. It's smart business. But call it what it is. Hence the Emperor's New Clothes reference off the top. And it gets me thinking, because the data that Valve (and everybody else) collects through Steam and XBL didn't exist until very recently. This is a change in the way the gaming industry works, and it's reflected in Valve's output. They now get instant feedback about what works and what doesn't, so they're starting to make their own mods - sorry, sequels - dismantling a huge piece of their previous community structure.
Look at the trend Valve has taken: Thanks to mod communities, you could play the crap out of Half-Life and Counter-Strike. The Orange Box had less longevity, since the bulk of sales were drifting to console gaming, and really, the best part of Portal was the "Still Alive" song at the end of the game. Team Fortress 2 was the best part of that collection of games, and Valve provided decent support for it. Problem was it was a strictly multiplayer title.
Andrew: If you're going to tell me that a half-baked multiplayer shooter with neat graphics was the best part of a package that included Half-life 2 AND the sublime Portal, then you and I are not on the same page. Hell, we're not even reading the same book in the same library.
Liana: (* laughs *) Maybe "best" part is too strong. Most replayable part is more accurate. Portal was the best concept of The Orange Box, and had the best writing. Valve has some awesome dialogue writers. I completely agree with that. I also agree that Portal was my personal favorite part of the Orange Box, although I'm apparently the only person in gaming media who saw its imperfections. GLaDOS is one of the best boss fights ever, but the level to get to her? Ecch, it was rough. It's the only thing that's stopped me from playing the game again, ‘cause I love the computerized trash talk!
The song is the thing I keep quoting and the half-baked multiplayer shooter is what my friends are playing again now that they're bored of Left 4 Dead. That boredom is my problem with L4D: it's a lot of fun... for about six hours. Then it gets repetitive and the entire experience depends on the other three people you were playing with, and how the Steam servers are behaving on a given night. The Xbox 360 port was the worst I've seen in a long time, and it shipped with no single player campaign and only four multiplayer levels with an inverted difficulty curve -- at full retail price. My Valve shooter buddies who haven't gone back to Team Fortress 2 have returned to Counter-Strike. (Note: Valve has insisted to me that Blood Harvest is the level with the most deaths. They waved research in my face again with that. I stand corrected.)
Andrew: You know what Left 4 Dead has going for it that Team Fortress and Counter-strike don't? Aside from the obvious co-op play I mean? Accessibility. You could pick up Left 4 Dead, and not get, well, Left for Dead. Multiple difficulties, and the "help-each-other-out" gameplay means no newb gets left behind. Well, until they get voted out of the game, that is. The biggest problem I had getting into Counter-Strike or Team Fortress was that the community was already miles ahead of my skill level, and there was no mercy for a poor newbie like me. It was cutthroat all the way, and I didn't feel like enduring hours upon hours of decimation just to be good enough to finish second-last instead of dead last in my game. Those titles are about as accessible as the fortress of solitude, which is ironically, the state that most of the players of these games live in.
You say Left 4 Dead was repetitive after six hours. What multiplayer focused game isn't? Hell, I gave up on World of Warcraft after level twelve because getting ganked and whacking little animals got more repetitive than the 450th lap of a NASCAR Race. That's the inherent problem with multiplayer gaming, it's repetitive no matter what you do. Left 4 Dead at least mixed it up with interesting level design and random events and enemy placement. The only other multiplayer focused game I can think of that did a similar thing was Diablo II, and that game came out when I was in high school and still had a full head of hair.
Liana: Hmm. Interesting point. Looks like we agree on WoW, but twelve hours is still more play value than six. You're right that L4D is better than its predecessors on that count, but it still all comes down to who you're playing with. The first time I played on the hardest difficulty - and told the friends I was playing with that this was the case - someone shot one of the cars to be "funny". It was like a ganking murder/suicide. I was so annoyed. It's not Valve's fault that people are morons. It's just that as long as there is multiplayer, people will do stupid crap like that. Part of the reason I didn't get much out of the L4D2 demo is that the people I was playing with didn't understand the concept of "help-each-other-out" gameplay. Because multiplayer is fraught with peril, why not add a single player campaign... you know, like every other game with a strong multiplayer component? You know, like the Orange Box? Halo 3 got away with one that was only 7 hours, which would double the enjoyable play time of Left 4 Dead.
PS: I asked Valve's Chet Faliszek for tips for noobs buying L4D2 who haven't played the first game. He replied with a sage "shoot zombies."
But I'm digressing. I'll give you that improvement that I was unable to experience because my friends suck. Let me bring things back to the core debate issue: this sequel that's basically 5 new Left 4 Dead levels, with different wisecracking characters, plus chainsaws? That would be great for DLC, but A WHOLE NEW GAME?! What happened to Valve's traditionally strong ongoing product support? Seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of the almighty buck.
(Note: Valve says that the Director has been overhauled and there are weather effects too. Still, $60 for weather?)
Despite a boycott attempt, Left 4 Dead 2's presales are already double that of the original, and it sells well on consoles despite Valve having yet to do a console port right. This gives them no motivation to improve their products. I'm also concerned that it undermines consumer confidence in the basic principle of receiving a quality product for a fair price. I personally don't trust that new Valve titles are worth the money at full retail price. If I buy anything at all in future, I'll be waiting for the inevitable 75% price cut on Steam.
Andrew: What's wrong with a sequel so quickly? Left 4 Dead was obviously popular enough to deserve it. Is it worth the full retail price of a new game? I think so. But I'm also the guy who buys a new NHL game at the start of every season. At least Valve is still supporting the original with new DLC and even a new campaign. I think the two games can live side by side considering the stark differences in settings. In the end, I consider a value proposition to be the amount of hours I get out of a game and how much fun I have in those hours. 800 achievement points later, I would put the original Left 4 Dead as a high value proposition, despite the perceived lack of initial content. I expect no different from the sequel.
I do concur that buying Valve games at full price is a dicey proposition. Not because of any overall quality issues, but rather because their games drop in price so quickly. I originally bought the Orange Box at a full $60 during the first week of release. Just three days ago, I bought a brand new copy on the PlayStation 3 for my nephews for a mere $14.99. Valve's titles seem to drop in value faster than the Phoenix Coyotes.
Liana: Stark differences in settings? Buh? It's still two white guys, a black guy, and a chick fighting zombies in creepy night scenes taken from cheesy horror movies, plus wrecked cars and demolished buildings. Used games are the ultimate example of the free market: games that don't get traded in stay higher in price. The games people stop playing drop to $14.99. There are Wii games currently sitting at $40 used. This is why I love the used game market: it's an historical record that overrides metacritic's skewed averages. If the Orange Box is priced that low, there's a reason.
Price point is what keeps sticking in my craw when it comes to Left 4 Dead. That 75% off brings the game down to exactly what it's worth, and the sequel is going to be even more pure profit. I can't knock them for making money, but the reality is still that the product is overpriced. Five levels for $60. It's not that I don't like what's there. It's just not enough content for what you're paying, with multiplayer precedents like Gears of War, Halo, and other franchises that offer tons of multiplayer on top of a single player campaign. I would even be appeased with a tutorial for someone who's never picked up a shooter! Extra levels! Something! Either that, or be honest at launch, and sell it for less. I'd be happy even with $40, because of the costs of packaging, shipping, and the sheer fact that if it costs less than that, people will think it's crap. I just can't get behind a trend of selling less game for the same price. Valve and Blizzard are leading (thanks Starcraft 2). Others will follow. And my wallet won't be able to take it!