Kena: Bridge of Spirits – First Impressions

Don’t worry, there aren’t going to be any big spoilers for the story of Kena: Bridge of Spirits this time. I just wanted to take a moment to share my first impressions of one of the games I’d been looking forward to all year!

Unfortunately, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an Epic Games exclusive on PC, meaning I had to finally break my year-long streak of avoiding the company. Long story short, I had a falling-out with Epic Games last year due to getting locked out of my account, and I had hoped to avoid spending money with them again. But Kena: Bridge of Spirits proved just too tempting, so I succumbed and bought the game. It had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year, so I was content to make an exception.

Promotional artwork for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab, a studio which originally worked on animation and CGI for film and television. Considering this is their first ever game, and that they’re a small studio, I’m absolutely blown away. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is incredible, and I’d be impressed if it had come from a major developer with the backing of a huge publisher. But knowing that the title is the culmination of years of hard work by a small, independent team working on their first ever interactive project leaves me speechless.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab.

In the couple of hours I’ve spent with Kena: Bridge of Spirits so far, the game plays beautifully. There aren’t any loading screens getting in the way of gameplay, platforming is intuitive and smooth, combat is fast-paced and exciting, the transitions from gameplay to cut-scenes and back again are well-integrated, and I haven’t found so much as a single bug, glitch, or visual goof.

Kena hangs from a ledge during an early platforming section.

Sticking with gameplay, Kena: Bridge of Spirits offers some incredibly fun adventuring. Kena has all the moves you would expect for this kind of game: she can run, jump, double-jump, and climb ledges. The Rot – Kena’s adorable companions – have a range of abilities, the most useful of which include being able to move objects and obstacles to clear a path or open up a new area for Kena, as well as occasionally pointing the way so she doesn’t get lost.

The Rot moving a platform for Kena to jump on.

Gameplay is all very intuitive, with the default controls and buttons doing everything you’d expect. The design of the game’s early levels shows a lot of thought and planning; it was always clear which path to take and I never felt like Kena was lost. There were some paths that led to dead-ends, but these seem to be areas that can be unlocked or expanded later in the game, so I should be able to return to them later.

Kena in the game’s opening level.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t heavy on dialogue, and while it was certainly pretty clear what to do and where to go, I didn’t feel the game was holding my hand and dragging me down a narrow path. To give one example, at an early point in the game the camera panned wordlessly over three vulnerable spots that Kena had to take out before she could defeat the main boss during a fight. It was obvious that these three spots needed to be hit first, but the game didn’t say so explicitly, it merely pointed me in the right direction then left me to fight the battle.

Kena takes damage in an early fight.

Combat feels great in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Kena has a couple of primary attacks and one defensive shield. Using her shield at just the right moment can lead to a defensive parry, and she has a light and heavy attack. The Rot can also play a role in combat, but I won’t spoil exactly what they can do. Combat is fast-paced, but not so blindingly fast as to feel overwhelming. I also felt that the number of enemies present at each encounter was about right as well.

Kena performs a heavy attack on a monster.

The game offers three difficulty options at first, with a fourth “master” difficulty that unlocks after completion. For players who like a very tough challenge, this adds replayability. I’m categorically not a “hard mode” gamer by any stretch, so I’ve been playing on the easiest difficulty setting. I found that to be quite enough for my skill level! Difficulty settings change the recharge rate of Kena’s Rot companions, which will affect their ability to participate in combat encounters, and also ramps up the aggressiveness and damage of enemies. Increasing the difficulty doesn’t add additional enemies into the game.

Kena is hit by a monster and flies backwards!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is without a doubt the most visually stunning game I’ve played all year. After traversing the game’s opening area, Kena climbed a staircase overlooking a mountain and valley, and I was blown away. I literally put down the control pad and said “woah” out loud! How many games – ever – have made me say “woah?”

I had to stop for a moment when I saw this incredibly beautiful vista so I could take it all in.

The animation and visual effects work are absolutely beautiful. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a bright colour palette, with sunlit areas that are positively glowing. Shades of blue, yellow, white, and particularly green present a striking contrast with the “corrupted” areas of the map, which feel depressingly dark with faded greys and browns and flashes of an evil, glowing red. Ember Lab’s past as an animation studio absolutely shines through, and the animators’ work with the game’s colours is pitch-perfect.

The contrast between the verdant green living areas and the grey-brown corrupted areas is striking, and the game uses colour to great effect.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in a big budget animated film from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks. The game doesn’t prioritise gritty realism over beauty, and what results is an astonishingly pretty animated look to both its characters and environments. Kena herself is a lovingly-crafted protagonist, and everything from her hair and outfit to her magic staff just looks fantastic.

Kena – the game’s protagonist and player character.

Other characters and Kena’s Rot companions also look visually impressive. The Rot – despite their somewhat offputting name – are utterly adorable critters. Their big eyes and cute faces make them incredibly sympathetic, which is important! Their fearful nature means they tend to scatter and hide at the beginning of combat encounters, and in another game I feel like that mechanic could become annoying. But because of just how darn cute the Rot are I actually found it spurring me on! How dare those evil monsters scare my poor little Rot!

Kena is accompanied on her adventure by the Rot. And they’re adorable!

Oh, and the Rot get to wear hats. Cute, adorable little hats. The hats can be purchased using gems that are found throughout the game world – something that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a game like this one. One thing I liked about the way Kena: Bridge of Spirits handles collecting these gems, though, is that Kena never destroys or damages property – even in abandoned houses or ruins. She carefully opens a chest or barrel, collects the gems, and then closes it again. No need to smash or break any pots!

Kena collecting gems from a chest.

There’s also a map, as you might expect. The map was easy to navigate and seems to highlight significant points and quest-relevant locations but without being overwhelmed. Some games have maps that you can barely read for all the pins and markers, but Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a well-designed map that’s legible, useable, and fits right in with the rest of the game from an aesthetic point of view.

The in-game map is useful.

When Kena puts on a spirit mask the game enters a static first-person view. This mode allows you to spot Rot, as well as certain quest-specific items. It’s a riff on the “detective mode” present in several other games, but it’s handled in such a way as to feel like a unique experience for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena putting on a spirit mask.

And that last sentence could summarise my thoughts on the game. Kena: Bridge of Spirits takes established tropes of the adventure genre but gives them its own presentation and sets them up in a brand-new world. The gameplay is fantastic, and anyone who’s played these kinds of games in the past will feel right at home. Where it truly excels is its art style and aesthetic. The designers have to get much of the credit for the unique feel of Kena and the world she inhabits.

I’m having a great time with Kena: Bridge of Spirits! The game has met all of the expectations I could’ve had going in, and at least in terms of visuals it even exceeded them. I would have been impressed if this game had been produced by an established team of developers backed up by the resources of a huge publisher, but to know that it’s the first ever game by an independent studio is truly mind-blowing. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is fantastic – and I can’t wait to jump back in!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4/5 and PC. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the copyright of Ember Lab. Some promotional artwork courtesy of Ember Lab. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Can Epic Games reinvigorate Fall Guys?

This article was originally going to be titled “Can Season 4 reinvigorate Fall Guys” – but that was before the announcement that Epic Games had bought developer Mediatonic! However, many of the points I planned to make still apply in some form, and in addition we have the buyout and its associated effects to consider. So settle in as we talk about the hit party game of the summer – last summer, that is – Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout!

A few days ago I put Fall Guys on my list of games that deserve a second look in Spring 2021, and despite some of the criticisms I have of the game, I stand by that. Fall Guys is plenty of fun, and the addition of new rounds and changes to existing rounds has extended the game’s longevity. I recently got back into playing after taking a break over the holidays, and I’ve been having fun with it all over again. There is a lot to love about Fall Guys, but there’s also no denying that right now, the game’s survival hangs in the balance.

Is Fall Guys going to survive, or did Epic Games waste their money?

This is nothing to do with the Epic Games acquisition. Fall Guys was struggling long before that was announced, and my original plan for writing this article was to look at the possibility of Season 4 bringing players back. That’s something Fall Guys needs to address urgently. They have a good social media team, being active on Twitter and elsewhere every day, churning out memes and one-liners of the sort that a modern social media manager for an online game should. But it doesn’t seem to be having much effect.

Fall Guys blew up when it was launched last August, but almost as quickly as it arrived on the gaming scene, most of its players abandoned it. On Steam, Fall Guys peaked at around 125,000 concurrent players in August last year, and sold over 2,000,000 copies within a few weeks of launch. But as of yesterday, when I checked its progress on Steam, it had fallen to fewer than 6,000 concurrent players, with a maximum for the day of fewer than 10,000, and was barely clinging on to the top 100 most-played games on the platform, occupying the 100th slot.

Fall Guys was the 100th-most played game on Steam at time of writing.

To put that into context, Fall Guys had fewer players than titles like Civilization V, The Sims 4, Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and even a title I’d never heard of called Geometry Dash, which is a port of a mobile game that originally launched in 2013. Ouch.

As a player, this has become noticeable. Though most games I play are usually fully-populated (with 55-60 out of a maximum of 60 players) it can take several minutes of waiting just to begin a game, with long loading times in the queue as the game struggles to assemble enough players. With no cross-platform play between PC and PlayStation, this is obviously beginning to become an issue. One of the highlights of Fall Guys – something I praised it for back in August – is that because rounds are so short, losing or failing to qualify doesn’t feel so bad. All you had to do was jump immediately into the next one! But if you have to wait several minutes at a time to even just begin a game, one of the absolutely vital components of Fall Guys is lost, making it significantly less enjoyable. Not only are the waits themselves frustrating, but losing at a round risks becoming frustrating too – because you know if you don’t qualify it’ll take a while to start a new game.

So what caused Fall Guys to lose much of its playerbase? That’s the key point, because addressing it – if indeed that’s even possible – is the key challenge facing Mediatonic and Epic Games.

Jump Club, one of the better rounds.

As much as I hate to say this about a game I’ve come to greatly enjoy, the fundamental problem is that Fall Guys was a “release now, fix later” title. I’ve talked at length here on the website about the live service business model, and how the ubiquity of internet connections has led developers and publishers to push out games that weren’t quite ready with a view to improving them later. It almost never works, and Fall Guys, as much as I love the cute little title, is an example of that phenomenon too.

Firstly, Fall Guys launched with no anti-cheat software. I know that it’s scummy and pretty disgusting for a basement-dwelling low-life to cheat at a fun little game like this, but realistically, developers Mediatonic and original publisher Devolver Digital should have anticipated it. Cheating happens in any online game, and if you give players even the tiniest opportunity, some will cheat. Playing Fall Guys before the addition of anti-cheat was not fun, because what was the point in progressing through the rounds only to lose in the finale to an invincible cheater or a cheater who can simply fly above the course?

Cheating was a problem in Fall Guys on PC for a while.

The cheating problem pushed players away, just as I said it would when I discussed Fall Guys’ impending Season 2 update back in September. When I’ve spoken to people about the game or seen comments on social media, aside from the “dead game” memes the one thing that seems to come up most often is that people remember how Fall Guys had a cheating problem. Folks don’t know that’s been solved because most didn’t stick around, preferring to move on to games that weren’t plagued by cheating. The game should never have been released without anti-cheat software, and that’s perhaps its biggest mistake.

The rise of Among Us stole Fall Guys’ thunder in some ways, even though the two titles aren’t really comparable from a gameplay perspective. But there is a vague aesthetic similarity between the crewmates in Among Us and the jelly beans in Fall Guys, so it’s worth considering why Among Us is doing so well while Fall Guys appears to be in decline.

Among Us is one quarter the price of Fall Guys, at least on PC. On mobile or tablet, the game is free. Among Us is available everywhere, compared to Fall Guys which is currently only on PlayStation 4/5 and PC. Among Us has never had a cheating problem.

Among Us came from nowhere to overtake Fall Guys.

Both games had the potential to break into the mainstream and become ongoing successes, but only Among Us really has. The biggest factor in its favour is its ubiquity, particularly its availability on mobile devices and tablets, which are the platform of choice for many younger players. This enabled the game – which was originally released in 2018 – to become so popular. The fact that it’s free-to-play helps immensely too; younger gamers in particular are always on the lookout for free titles, which goes a long way to explaining the success of Epic Games’ mainstay: Fortnite.

When considering Fall Guys’ release, one huge factor preventing it growing was the natural ceiling on its playerbase caused by not being available on every platform. There was no Xbox or Switch release, and while those platforms are now scheduled for this summer, that’s a year too late. Without knowing more about the technical side of the game I can’t say for sure whether it would be possible to port it to mobile devices, but if that were possible then obviously that would open up the game still further.

Fall Guys is finally coming to Switch – but not till the summer.

Nintendo Switch is the platform I would have chosen to prioritise if I were in charge of Fall Guys’ development and release. PlayStation 4 has a larger install base, but Switch players are, I would suggest, more interested in this kind of fun pick-up-and-play party game on the whole. With over 60 million Nintendo Switch consoles having been sold, that’s a massive potential playerbase that Fall Guys missed at launch – and will continue to miss until this summer. By then it could be too late.

An online game that barely breaks 10,000 concurrent players is not doing well, and while that doesn’t account for PlayStation 4 players, it’s hard to imagine the game is doing significantly better on its only other platform. There are still people interested in Fall Guys, and there are still new players jumping on board, but the big challenge facing Epic Games and Mediatonic as they begin their partnership is shoring up the playerbase and bringing in as many new players as possible. Fall Guys was a hit last summer. Whether it can be a hit again is up to its new owners.

Season 4 is coming soon, promising new rounds and new cosmetics with a futuristic theme.

So what needs to happen to bring players back? The launch of Season 4, with new cosmetics and new rounds will be a good start. But there needs to be more of that, with the game basically being continuously updated. New rounds and new round variants are good, but there could also be timed events, such as the recent double-kudos offer, competitions focusing on one aspect of the game (like a fixed set of rounds, for example) and other such things that will incentivise players to keep coming back.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the polar opposite of Fall Guys in so many ways, but one thing New Horizons gets absolutely spot-on is the incentives it offers players to log in at least once per day. Fall Guys needs to find some kind of hook, some way to keep its players checking in often. Once they’ve sorted that – which is no small task – bringing in new players is priority #2.

Ski Fall, another of the rounds in the game.

Releasing the game on Switch and Xbox is a good start, but I’d love to see mobile devices too if at all possible. Then there absolutely needs to be cross-platform play. If Sony remains intransigent about this – as they often are – then cross-play could be between Xbox, Switch, and PC only. But it has to be in there somehow, because splitting up the already small playerbase into walled gardens by platform makes those wait times mentioned above more noticeable. If PC players could join PlayStation 4 players right now, today, I bet those wait times would be cut at least in half. And that in itself would make the experience more enjoyable, keeping existing players around for longer.

One thing that Mediatonic teased in their announcement of their deal with Epic Games was a possible free-to-play model. To me, this is a double-edged sword for a game like Fall Guys. While it would undoubtedly bring in more players, it would mean the game would have to find an alternative way of making money, and in the games industry that only means one thing: microtransactions.

Fortnite is a free-to-play game that makes all its money via microtransactions.

Fall Guys has always offered the ability to buy in-game currency, yet it’s never felt intrusive or obligatory. The game is very generous with in-game rewards and items earned through basic gameplay, and I would hate to see that disappear or for cosmetics to be locked behind a paywall in future. Part of the fun of Fall Guys has been earning cosmetic items through gameplay, or earning in-game currency through gameplay and trading that for cool items in the in-game store. Going free-to-play would mean all of that would change, and while it would unquestionably attract more players, I’m not sure the change would be a good one.

With all of the controversy that lootboxes and randomised rewards generate these days, I would hope that even Epic Games wouldn’t try to force them into Fall Guys, but that remains a risk. From a PC player’s perspective, I’m also concerned that Fall Guys may eventually be withdrawn from Steam – Epic Games has its own store and PC client, after all, so why would they leave Fall Guys on their competitor’s platform? This may seem extreme, but it’s exactly what happened to Rocket League. That game used to be available on Steam, but following an acquisition by Epic Games it was withdrawn. The game technically still exists on Steam for players who already owned it prior to its withdrawal, but an Epic Games account is required to play, and new players can’t add it to their Steam libraries. While Mediatonic promised in their statement that this isn’t part of the plan for Fall Guys, it’s hard to see that being sustainable if the game survives into the longer term. Sooner or later, Epic Games is going to want to monopolise its purchase, just as they do with other games that they own.

Time will tell if this was a good idea for Epic, Fall Guys, and the players.

Removing Fall Guys from Steam would run counter to everything we’ve discussed about trying to retain players and expand the playerbase, so the game may be safe in the short term. But watch this space, because it feels inevitable that Fall Guys’ presence on Steam is doomed!

So to answer my original question: can Epic Games reinvigorate Fall Guys? The short answer is “maybe.” The game is a huge amount of fun, and bringing it to the Switch in particular feels like a natural fit, one which should bring in new players who are well-suited to enjoy this kind of cute, fun little title. But the game’s longer-term prospects are murky at best, and I’m surprised that a company like Epic Games would take a risk on a game which appears to be in a serious decline. Hopefully their involvement can stop the rot and turn things around. Fall Guys is such a fun game that it deserves to last longer than a few measly months.

Fall Guys is available now on PC and PlayStation 4/5, with launches on Xbox and Nintendo Switch planned for this summer. Fall Guys is the copyright of Mediatonic, Devolver Digital, and Epic Games. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Steam is going to have to address its Epic Games Store problem

Steam is the biggest digital shop in the PC gaming world. Many PC players – myself included – have built up Steam libraries over a number of years that are irreplaceable. But Steam is not the invincible juggernaut it once was. Not only is the growth of Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service something that has the potential to be a major disruption, the Epic Games Store has been aggressively elbowing its way onto Steam’s turf.

I had an Epic Games account until recently. However, when their crappy customer support caused me a problem that should have been easily resolved and cost me money, I vowed not to shop with them again. But that’s not always easy, because the way Epic has been competing with Steam has been to buy up the rights to as many games as it can, making them exclusives or timed exclusives to the Epic Games Store. Players like myself who only use Steam thus can’t access the titles – and Epic hopes that will bring more players into its marketplace.

The Epic Games Store is proving to be a major competitor to Steam.

To be fair to Epic, despite this policy being anti-consumer it has worked. And again, to be fair to Epic, asking PC players to install a second launcher for games isn’t a huge request. The Epic Games Launcher isn’t particularly cumbersome and works as intended. It’s a minor annoyance, but one players are willing to put up with to play the games that they want to. I may have my own reasons for disliking Epic Games considering they cost me money, but most players – even those who were initially opposed to Epic’s policy of buying up exclusive rights – have softened their tone and signed up. After all, for those titles it’s the only way to play if you’re a PC gamer.

Watch Dogs Legion and the remaster of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 are two of the latest titles to be snapped up by Epic, and at this point the exclusivity problem is beginning to bite. Watch Dogs Legion looks moderately interesting, but I was definitely excited to play the remaster of a skating game I remember with fondness from the Dreamcast era. Alas, the only way to do so is to subscribe to Epic.

The upcoming game Watch Dogs Legion isn’t coming to Steam.

For Steam, this is a growing problem. One or two titles here and there can be written off. Shenmue III may have generated a lot of controversy amongst its Kickstarter backers, but since hardly anyone bought the title the actual loss to Steam is negligible. Watch Dogs Legion, however, is a pretty big release – the kind the games industry refers to as “AAA” or “triple-A.” Its loss to Steam is going to be significant, with revenue easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars simply disappearing.

One way or another, Steam is going to have to get a handle on this. Their recent partnership with Electronic Arts has brought some popular titles – like the FIFA series – to Steam, but that’s a distraction rather than addressing the problem. Steam has never faced such stiff competition; the platform had the PC gaming realm almost all to itself for a long time. I’m not sure that, at a basic level, they even know how to deal with a problem like competition from Epic Games.

Steam will need to tackle Epic Games somehow.

Epic Games has been throwing its wallet around to nab as many exclusives as possible. Not only has it worked for them, but that practice shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, we’re likely to see more games go Epic-exclusive, not fewer. In addition, the backlash games could expect to receive online for announcing a deal with Epic gets smaller and smaller every time. In the cases of Watch Dogs Legion and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2, I don’t recall seeing any criticism at all – no one even mentioned it. It wasn’t until I looked up the titles for myself that I learned they’re Epic exclusives, so from a developer or publisher’s perspective, there’s a lot to be gained and almost nothing to lose by signing on with Epic Games. Why wouldn’t they do it?

Competition in a marketplace is usually a positive thing. It forces all participants to be better in order to remain competitive – at least, that’s the theory. It doesn’t always work, and there are times where competing companies have done some pretty crappy and shady things in order to get a leg-up on their adversaries. But broadly speaking, competition can force companies to do better and to ditch bad practices. Epic Games should be a wake-up call for Steam. After years where they’ve had an effective monopoly, there’s finally some real competition. They need to step up, because Epic won’t give up and go away. Not when they’ve found a model that works, and one that’s becoming more palatable to players by the day.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 (the 2020 remastered version) is another Epic exclusive.

Even though I’m still stinging from Epic’s refusal to help me a few weeks ago, I have to admit it’s probably only a matter of time before I give in and sign up for an account again. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 almost pushed me into doing so; it’s only anger at this point that’s keeping me from jumping back in. As a single person, it’s easy to feel like any such protest against a large company is meaningless. Epic doesn’t care in the slightest that I don’t have an account. They already have the money I spent on the few titles I owned, and any lost revenue from me – especially given that I’m not someone who buys games every day of the week – is negligible to a huge company like that. Regardless, I continue my one-person protest simply out of spite!

Steam has a real problem on its hands. And they need to start looking for creative solutions. The more Epic Games’ presence in the PC gaming realm grows, the harder they will be to dislodge. Steam can no longer afford to wait it out – Epic is clearly not going away. Fighting fire with fire is one option; Steam could use its considerable resources to buy up exclusive rights for a lot of upcoming titles, beating Epic at their own game. Or they could undercut Epic on every shared title, even if that means selling some games at a loss. The point is they have options, but right now they seem to think they can coast. Steam seems to think that their position as the current number-one in the PC gaming space is unassailable, and that they can ignore Epic’s presence altogether. That is simply not viable.

The Epic Games Store homepage.

This article may have been prompted by a couple of recent games, but there are dozens of big Epic Games Store exclusives. Here’s a short list of some of the big ones that Epic has successfully kept away from Steam:

Anno 1800, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, The Division 2, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Hitman 3, Industries of Titan, Magic: The Gathering Arena, Maneater, Rocket League (free-to-play version), The Outer Worlds, Saints Row The Third Remastered, Shenmue III, The Settlers, SnowRunner, Super Meat Boy Forever, Tetris Effect, Total War Saga: Troy, Twin Mirror, and The Wolf Among Us 2.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list; there are many more titles that Epic has snapped up. In some cases the games are available elsewhere, such as on Uplay or Game Pass, but Epic has still been willing to open its wallet purely to stop the title also being released on Steam. And Steam quite happily lets them do it, offering no protest and no rebuttal.

Something’s got to change over at Steam, because if they don’t get a handle on this – and soon – their days as the number-one PC gaming shop will be over.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Watch Dogs Legion promo art courtesy of the press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Epic Games Store’s awful customer support

Epic Games has been in the news recently for their argument with Apple regarding Fortnite on iOS devices. This article isn’t about that, though, because much like Apple, I have my own beef with Epic Games, specifically regarding the Epic Games Store and their shockingly bad customer support.

Earlier in the year I had a problem with my old internet service provider. To make a long story short, I used to have an email account from my ISP, but after they migrated their email hosting from one company to another, I was locked out of my email account – the primary one I used. Among other accounts I’d set up with it were shops like Steam and the Epic Games Store. My ISP was utterly useless when it came to getting me back into my email, and as a result I ended up making a new email address. Most accounts were easily switched over, but one of the outliers was the Epic Games Store.

I don’t have that many games in my Epic account; I think there are eight or nine at time of writing. But some, like Control and The Outer Worlds weren’t exactly cheap, and because of Epic’s policy of throwing its money around, aren’t available anywhere else. So I might’ve spent somewhere between £50-75 in total on games in my Epic account, as well as picking up a couple of freebies along the way. That may not be a huge investment by some people’s standards, but it’s not a small amount of money either, especially for someone on a low income.

Three of the games in my Epic Games Store library.

After logging in to my account on the Epic Games website, I navigated to my account details and hoped that the process to change my email would be smooth. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Epic insisted that they send me a code to confirm my identity before they’d allow me to change the associated email address. Okay, I thought. No big deal. I had already set up two-factor authentication – something I’d encourage everyone to do for any such account – so I assumed they’d text me a code or use an authenticator app. But I was wrong – the only way Epic would allow me to change my email address was by sending a code to my old email address.

The help section of the Epic Games website was useless, but I did eventually manage to open a “support ticket”. I included as much information as I could about who I was and why I needed to make the change and submitted the ticket – at which point I was told to check my old email address for updates! This was nonsense – Epic’s own website was telling me to create a support ticket for this issue, then the support ticket was being sent to the email account that they know I couldn’t access!

There was no way to log in to the Epic website to access support tickets, either. I tried this three times, and each time received no response – or if I did receive a response it went to the email address that they knew I couldn’t access.

My fourth attempt – several weeks later – initially seemed to be going better. Epic’s website had been updated, and a new form complete with captchas asked for a lot of information including my old email address, my new email address, information about me, information about my Epic account, etc. I gave them the IP address of my PC, which is the only place I ever log in to Epic. I gave them receipt numbers for games I’d bought. I gave them screenshots of my account logged into the Epic Launcher. I gave them the unique alphanumeric code of my account. And as much additional information as I thought I could find. I was thrilled when my new email address received a reply!

But this was the reply:

They refused to change my account email address despite having ample proof that it was me – the genuine account holder – requesting this change. The customer service agent told me point-blank that this was “Epic Games security policy”. So that was that. They wouldn’t make the change.

Every other company I’ve dealt with allowed me to change my email address. Some wanted to text me a security code, some wanted me to jump through other hoops, but every single company I’ve dealt with over the last few months allowed me to make this simple change. But not Epic Games. Their customer service stinks, and their policy – if it is indeed policy to refuse this kind of request – is nonsensical. I can’t be the only person who has had to make a change of this nature, can I? It must be a common enough occurrence, or Epic Games wouldn’t have a page on their website telling you how to do it. Every other company I had an account with easily let me change my email address, so there’s no legal requirement or other such issue standing in the way. It’s purely the intransigence of one company.

When we hit the wall and it was clear the customer support staff weren’t going to be able to help, I asked them to refund my purchased games and close the account. But they couldn’t do that either, so I’m left with a useless, inaccessible account with games I can’t play, money they won’t refund, and my personal details still held by the company.

I don’t think anything will ever convince me to shop with Epic Games again. I bit the bullet and made an account because I wanted to play a few titles that weren’t going to be available elsewhere. But Epic has done nothing to ingratiate itself with the wider gaming community, and issues like this, with stupidly bad policies and poor customer support, erode the tiny amount of goodwill that they’re trying to create.

Obviously this was a rant because I’m annoyed and disappointed, but I think it’s worth making people aware that Epic Games is hardly the “freedom fighter” that they’re pretending to be in their tussle with Apple. Like any other big corporation, Epic Games couldn’t give a fuck about any of us. Its lawsuit against Apple, which it filed after knowingly and wilfully violating the terms of service every other developer using Apple’s ecosystem agrees to, is purely about making more money and more profit for itself. And its treatment of customers like me is proof positive that Epic Games doesn’t give a shit.

This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence. Except to Epic Games.

Physical game shops in a digital world

This post was inspired by an article I read a little while ago which detailed some of the financial issues facing GameStop. Here in the UK we don’t have the chain GameStop, at least not in a big way. But many of the same issues apply to shops here in the UK – as indeed they apply to those around the world.

When I was younger – and much more into video gaming – there were a number of different gaming shops on the high street. Even in the relatively small towns near where I grew up, there could be two or even three such outlets. The ones I remember most prominently are of course Game – the biggest, and the only one still around as far as I know – Electronics Boutique, Virgin Games, and Gamestation. Shops like Woolworths, HMV, Dixons, and Virgin Megastores also had prominent video games sections – so it could be worth shopping around for the best deals!

There were three pretty great things about this from my point of view as a kid/teenager looking to get SNES, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, and finally Xbox games. Those were the consoles I had in my youth, by the way. The first awesome thing was that I could choose what to spend my hard-earned(!) pocket money on for myself. If I wanted a newer, more expensive title I’d have to save up for it, perhaps even forgoing trips to the cinema or other social activities, or simply wait longer. Or I could try my luck on a cheaper title – and then end up bringing it back a week or two later to trade it in, which was the second benefit of the abundance of specialist gaming shops. Finally, I could try to get games that weren’t suitable for someone my age!

A Nintendo 64 with some games. I had one in the late 1990s.
Picture credit: Andrea Vail on Flickr.

The concern I have as shops like Game here in the UK, and Gamestop in the US and elsewhere, continue their decline is that for children and young people in particular – as well as people on a lower or fixed income, as I am myself – the relationship they have with gaming as a hobby is going to become more difficult.

Video gaming as a medium is increasingly digital. More and more transactions are taking place in online storefronts, with titles being downloaded with no need for a disc or cartridge. Increasingly, games require large patches or updates after release, so even buying a disc can still mean an internet connection is required. And often – especially in the PC gaming space – buying a “physical copy” just means you receive a box with a download code in it. Why bother at that point, right?

For young people, the transformative years between the ages of, say, nine or ten and thirteen or fourteen are where a lot of important skills are learned and honed. Money management is one of them. For someone too young to have their own bank account or debit card, how are they supposed to learn the value of saving up, of pocket money, etc. when the only way to buy a game – if that’s their hobby – is to get mum and dad to do it with their credit card? Not understanding the value of money leads to some kids ending up spending insane amounts of money on in-game microtransactions – they simply lack any concept of money as to them it’s simply numbers on a screen. And yes of course there are still plenty of things in the real world for young people to spend money on, but for someone in the position I was in at that time of my life, where gaming is their primary hobby, there are fewer such opportunities and I think it will have an impact.

The lack of trade-in opportunities will also change the way people on a lower income – including young people but also folks with disabilities like myself – engage with gaming. A game ceases to be an asset – something with resale value – if you only own it digitally and can’t transfer that ownership to someone else. It means people will need to be much more careful when making purchases – because a game is now a permanent fixture in a Steam library or on a console hard-drive.

All this is to say that I’m confident that businesses like GameStop and Game will not survive the decade. And unfortunately, many people will be the worse for their demise, even if they don’t realise it yet.

Physical shops of all kinds find it very difficult to compete in a world where the likes of Amazon exist, able to delivery anything to your door within 24 hours. The high street in the UK has been in trouble for some time, and many smaller towns – again, like those in the area where I live – have high streets which are full of charity shops, betting shops, takeaways, and not much else any more. As more and more commerce goes online, high street shops find it hard to compete. If that’s the case for physical items, a product like a video game which can be entirely digital is even more susceptible to the world of ecommerce.

From the point of view of game publishers it makes a lot of sense. They need to spend less and less money on discs, boxes, printed labels, and shipping, and they no longer need to split the cost of a game with whatever shop it was sold in as well as the platform it’s being played on. Console manufacturers can take a bigger cut of game sales as they each now have their own, exclusive, digital shop. And increasingly we’ve seen publishers like Ubisoft, Epic Games, Electronic Arts, and of course Valve running their own digital shops for PC gamers. Valve, who once made such titles as Half Life and the Left 4 Dead series, are now essentially a company who run a digital shop. They do have a couple of multiplayer-only games, but the vast majority of their income nowadays comes from Steam, the biggest digital shop on PC.

As the current generation of consoles winds down, there had been speculation that next-gen consoles – currently slated for release later this year – may not even have disc drives any more, and that all games would be fully digital. It does look as though Microsoft at least has pulled back from that, offering at least one model of the poorly-named Xbox Series X with a disc drive. There was a certain amount of annoyance from gamers at the prospect of all-digital consoles, but compared with the backlash Microsoft received in 2013 with its always-online Xbox One it was much more muted. This upcoming console generation looks certain to be the last where physical game discs are commonplace.

Not that there will be anywhere left to buy them in another seven or eight years, at least not in person. A few years ago, post-release patches or fixes for games were uncommon, often reserved for fixing major bugs or for delivering major updates and expansion packs. But nowadays, almost every game seems to launch with a major patch on day one, with multiple patches and on-the-fly fixes rolled out for weeks or months after release. Thus, buying a game on a disc, even if it’s a single-player title, does not mean there’s no need for downloading. Indeed, for the last few years in the run up to Christmas there’s been advice even in mainstream news outlets telling parents to quietly set up a new console or game and download all its updates so that their kids aren’t stuck waiting for hours on Christmas morning before they can play with their new games. In this environment, where downloading patches and updates is a necessity in any online title and something that will improve even fully single-player experiences, there’s even less incentive to buy a game on disc.

A closed Game shop in the UK.

Gamers themselves are becoming increasingly comfortable with buying games digitally, because despite some of the drawbacks mentioned above, there are some distinct advantages. Firstly, there’s no need to go anywhere. Instead of waiting in a queue in some shop at midnight or at 7 o’clock in the morning to pick up the game the moment it’s available, you can set your PC or console to download it the second it’s officially launched. Secondly, even with a slow internet connection like mine, games are downloaded in a matter of hours or overnight – a day at the most. There’s simply less effort required.

Epic Games was criticised when its PC storefront went live for being rather barebones and lacking in features, as was Google Stadia when that launched last year, but generally speaking most digital shops are good. They’re well-designed and laid out, it’s easy to both find a specific title and browse a wide array of titles, and they often have features like wishlists to save titles for later, as well as customisation options for a player’s profile.

One of the biggest factors has to be sales. Steam sales have become legendary in the industry, with the two biggest ones in the summer and around the holidays getting a lot of attention. Many PC games, even those only a few weeks out from their release, can be picked up at a significant discount – and many older titles can be 90% off or more. Some shops even offer free titles – Epic Games and EA’s Origin both have done this in the past. While PC gaming may be more expensive up front than buying a console, these kind of sales can make it a worthwhile investment.

There are also services like Xbox GamePass – Microsoft’s subscription service that aims to be the “Netflix of games”. All of those titles are digitally downloaded, with no need to visit a shop, and they’re all available for a monthly subscription fee instead of needing to buy them individually. While it remains to be seen just how popular this kind of subscription model will be with a wider audience, it’s already built up a substantial userbase. If someone asked me what the cheapest way to get into current-gen gaming is, an Xbox One S or preowned Xbox One and a subscription to GamePass is genuinely hard to beat for the sheer number of titles it provides.

Mobile phones, often derided by self-proclaimed “hardcore” gamers, are a legitimate gaming platform in themselves right now. Many iOS and Android games can be just as imaginative and interesting as games on other platforms – and they are all bought via Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. The fastest-growing gaming market over the last few years has been on smartphones, and that market is wholly digital and always has been, further pushing people to accept digital distribution when it comes to games.

So where does all of this leave shops like Game and GameStop? Unfortunately the answer is that they’re on a path to bankruptcy and closure – it’s just a case of how long they can string it out. Some shops in larger cities may be saved by converting to selling gaming merchandise like action figures and t-shirts, but in smaller towns there simply won’t be a big enough audience to make that model sustainable, and many outlets will close.

For some people who may have been interested to work a job tangentially related to their favourite hobby, it’s going to be a shame that those opportunities won’t exist in future. And for current employees of these chains, it will be difficult to have to look for a new job in what is not an easy job market. However, if I knew anyone working for one of these companies, my advice would be “get out now.” By taking the initiative and looking for another line of work before the proverbial shit hits the fan, they would be in a much better position.

There are still some investors who can’t see the writing on the wall. And they may be able to be convinced to pump money into struggling chains to keep them afloat, but eventually I’m afraid the end will come. Some shops will continue to trade in retro games, but as the games industry continues its rush to make all of its new titles digital-only, there just isn’t a place on the high street for these shops any more. There will be consequences, and we may see some brands do better than others as a result. But there is only one direction of travel, and the destination is locked in. Just like video rental giant Blockbuster lost out to Netflix and on-demand streaming, game shops are set to all but disappear as we enter a fully-digital age for the industry.

This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.