PIXEL BURN – The Amiibo Shovel Knight Buyer’s Plight

In which Matt probes the ethics of putting exclusive game-modes behind toy purchases, and investigates reports of Konami-run "boot camps."
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Hello my name’s Matt and this is Pixel Burn, where I take a sarcastic look at some of the more important, interesting or irritating things to have happened the week’s gaming news.

Starting with the news this week that not only is indie hit Shovel Knight by Yacht Club games getting an actual bricks-and-mortar physical disc release, but that it’s also getting its own Amiibo! Which, for those of you who don’t own a Nintendo system or obsess over trivial gaming knicknacks, is a little plastic figurine with an RFID chip in its base that can be used to unlock various features in supported Wii U and new 3DS titles.

The majority of Amiibos are of core Nintendo characters like Mario, Link and so forth, with a handful of well-known non-Nintendo characters like Pac-Man, Megaman, and Sonic the Please Dear God Someone Put Him Out Of His Misery Already.

That a character from small indie title funded via Kickstarter is getting an official Amiibo of its very own, is pretty big news, although according to Nintendo it will only work with Shovel Knight and future Yacht Club Games titles. So don’t expect to see the blue armoured chap in Smash Bros anytime ever.

The Shovel Knight Amiibo was also, in a surprising moment of internet savvy on Nintendo’s part, announced in this video by popular YouTubers Game Grumps. As well as pimping the dinky plastic curio in question the GameGrumps were also on-hand to announce a co-op mode exclusive to the Wii U version. So whereas Shovel Knight’s previous outings on PC, PS3, PS4, Vita and Xbox One were strictly solo affairs, anyone who buys the Wii U version will be able to play it with a friend!

Well…not quite anyone, because there’s a catch. Namely a small, blue plastic one with a recommended retail price of £10.99, or your regional equivalent.

What’s that? You thought the Shovel Knight Amiibo was just to look pretty on your desk, mantelpiece or stone altar dedicated to an unspeakable god? Nope! If you have a Wii U and want to play Shovel Knight co-operatively with a friend, child or significant other, you will have to buy a plastic toy in order to unlock that game mode. This mode isn’t available any other way either: you can’t buy an unlock from the eShop, or ask Nintendo really nicely to unlock it for you. The number of people who’ll be able to play Shovel Knight’s new co-op mode is strictly limited by the number of Shovel Knight Amiibos in circulation and people willing to share them. And Nintendo’s record for ensuring a healthy number of various Amiibos for sale hasn’t exactly been exemplary, to a point where they’ve been accused of outright limiting the number of Amiibos they release.

Which wouldn’t be the first time Nintendo have dabbled in artificial scarcity.

Even if Nintendo did release more than enough Shovel Knight amiibos for every person who wanted one, there’s another hurdle regularly encountered by avid Amiibo collectors: scalpers who buy up the rarest of these tiny little plastic bobbins to sell on Ebay for grossly inflated prices. Meaning if you REALLY want that co-op mode, or even just the Amiibo itself, you could end up paying an arm and a leg. Perhaps literally.

Issues of supply and demand aren’t my main quibble with this however. What really chafes my arse is this idea of locking an entire game mode behind a sodding toy purchase.

A game mode that, incidentally, is exclusive to the Wii U version. The Xbox and PlayStation versions have their own platform-exclusive content too of course, but you’re not forced to buy the videogame equivalent of a fucking Beanie Baby to access them.

Nay-sayers will argue that co-op mode isn’t essential to the game, but it’s still locking content behind a paywall! There’s no practical difference between making you buy a toy and making you buy some DLC to unlock something already in the game. People are quick to grumble when Capcom make you pay extra for characters that are ALREADY ON THE FUCKING DISC, because Capcom are big and corporate. Boooooo! Yet an indie studio doing something similar? Oh that’s completely fine and dandy, because they’re indie, and ickle, and TOYS!

But that’s assuming this was even Yacht Club Games’ decision to make. Nintendo are the ultimate gatekeepers for which videogame characters get their own Amiibo, and they’re not going to make one for a third-party character if there’s no added incentive to buy it.

To give Yacht Club Games the benefit of the doubt here, Nintendo probably insisted they offer some digital incentive for the Shovel Knight Amiibo, and all they could offer was the non-essential co-op mode. I’m also willing to bet they would have surrendered something else if they’d had the resources and time to do so, because locking content behind a paywall is such a stark contradiction of Yacht Club’s great approach towards content expansions.

Everyone who owns Shovel Knight also gets the forthcoming Plague of Shadows update, the future Spectre Knight and King Knight expansions, and the eventual player-vs-player Battle Mode, completely for free. Hardly the modus operandi of scheming money-grabbers.

Nope, you can most likely thank Nintendo for partitioning an entire gamemode behind a novelty plastic paywall. They only did the same thing with Splatoon after all, locking high-tier items behind amiibos so rare that a truckload of them was stolen en-route to retailers.

That’s my charitable assumption anyway. The alternative is indie devs are happily picking up bad mercenary habits from the likes of Konami, an idea that frankly depresses the hell out of me.

Speaking of Konami, unless you’ve been living in a tent in the wilderness you’re doubtless already aware of the swarm of reviews for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain that emerged this week. Wildly positive reviews at that, some giving the game a perfect score and nearly all painting a very glowing picture indeed of Hideo Kojima’s swan song for the now venerable Metal Gear Solid series.

Among the outlets that gave Metal Gear Solid V a perfect score were Gamespot with 10/10, GodisaGeek.com with 10/10 and Metal Gear Informer with…you guessed it, 10/10. That last one might seem just a teeny bit biased what with it being a fan site and called “Metal Gear Informer”, but then the greatest fans of something can often be its fiercest critics. Meanwhile on the mainstream news side of things even The Telegraph, the daily UK newsletter for the British Conservative party, gave it a 5/5.

IGN also gave it a perfect score, but then Hideo Kojima could fart into a box and IGN would give it 10/10.

Outlets that didn’t give MGS V a perfect score still rated it highly with a swathe of nine-out-of-tens and their equivalents across the board, speckled with the occassional and respectable 8 out of 10 or 4 out of 5. All of which came as very good news to long time fans of Kojima’s bonkers series about…

[METAL GEAR BONKERS ENSUES]

Etcetera, etcetera

Meanwhile some sites that had access to Metal Gear Solid V for review didn’t give the game a score, but posted “impressions” pieces instead. In the case of Kotaku and Eurogamer this is because those sites don’t use a score system, meaning you have to actually read their pieces instead of skipping to a whopping great number at the end. Yet Videogamer.com didn’t give MGS V a score either, and they DO use a scoring system on the one-to-ten scale. Most surprisingly Polygon, which not only uses scores but will change them at the drop of a hat, also elected to run their initial review as an impressions piece. Or “pre-review” as they called it.

They’ve since given the game a 9 out of 10, marking it down for reasons of excessive cleavage.

The reason for these curious scoreless reviews and first-impression pieces is that most of the first reviews to emerge were done at a special “review event” held by Konami, at their Los Angeles studio formerly known as Kojima Productions LA.

Which also explains why small fan blogs and the like had reviews up while established sites like Giant Bomb.com didn’t.

According to Games Radar’s Dan Dawkins Konami invited members of the press to review MGS V at a five-day “Boot Camp” event, for which they were required to sign strict Non Disclosure Agreements. Reviewers played the game between 9am and 5pm each day and were supervised by Konami staff the entire time, with no unsupervised play allowed outside of these set hours.

Which to me sounds like an awful way to experience a game, and I finished Red Dead Redemption in a solid two-day binge. On the one hand you are totally immersed in the game with barely anything to distract you, on the other there’s this constant ticking countdown of doom at the back of your mind.

And expecting a games reviewer to evaluate the nuances of a sprawling open-world stealth game, under those conditions, is like throwing an entire three-course meal into a blender and pouring it into a restaurant critic’s mouth. Just as the restaurant critic couldn’t possibly discern all the flavourful subtleties of the meal, a games reviewer is going to miss things they would otherwise discover when playing in their most preferred environment.

But I’m getting carried away with myself. Rather than talk about “things reviewers probably missed”, which would mean delving into possibly spoiler territory so be thankful, I’d like to focus instead on these types of events and what they mean for the regular game-playing public like what you and me is.

At press events, whether at places like E3 or invitation-only ones such as Konami’s, there is often a fair amount of wining and dining involved. There may be an open bar and buffet table, servers might bring snacks to peckish reviewers, and publisher representatives will usually be on-hand to help with difficult gameplay sections or answer any questions. The scale of this depends on the game of course, but for big budget triple-A titles like Metal Gear Solid V there is often little expense spared to make the event as pleasant as possible.

The idea behind this is nothing so crass as simple bribery. Nobody who takes reviewing games seriously is so easily swayed by some free wine and sandwiches. No the idea behind these events, besides keeping a lid on spoilers, is to build a positive association between the game itself and the circumstances in which its played.

If Konami’s event had been a literal Soviet-style bootcamp, where attendees had to complete a gruelling daily physical trial before they could play the game, the average review scores for Metal Gear Solid V would probably be a point or two lower than they are. The game wouldn’t have become magically worse, but any flaws in the game could end up being overaggerated by a grumpy exhausted reviewer tpissed-off with their miserable circumstances.

Conversely, by making the experience as pleasant as possible for reviewers, Konami and other publishers build up a positive association between the game itself and the circumstances around playing it. No amount of Ferrero Rochert served on silver platters can make a terrible game good, but it can make a good game seem even better. The same way having a romantic meal for two is more pleasant at a nice restaurant than it would be inside a skip.

You might think this is all looking a bit too deeply into such things. Perhaps, but Konami and other companies wouldn’t spend so much money on such events if they didn’t work, and reviewers are only human.

I’m confident Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be a good game, perhaps even a great one. Will it be as nigh-on perfect as some reviews seem to indicate? Probably not, so you should take any reviews of it you read with a pinch to a fistful of salt. Any review of any game for that matter, big or small. Press events like Konami’s are part and parcel of the games industry, and while most reviewers who attend do their utmost to cut though the smokescreen of hospitality and hors d’oeuvres, even they can still be subtly influenced by it. So temper your expectations, don’t swallow all the hype, and enjoy or dislike Hideo Kojima’s final Metal Gear outing for what it is, when it’s released on September 1st.

Which reminds me, I’m still half-expecting one last mad Kojima-esque big reveal on launch day. Something like giant black banners emblazoned with the words “Outer Heaven” unfurling down the side of the Konami building, and Hideo Kojima livestreaming to the industry from the CEO’s office.

Calling on developers to leave their publishers behind them and become one with their audience. No nation, no philosophy, no ideology. To go where they’re needed, making games, not for shareholders but for themselves. Needing no reason to develop games, but developing games because they are needed. To be the inspiration for those with no other recourse. Developers without restrictions, their purpose defined by the platforms they work with. They will sometimes have to sell themselves and their services. If the times demand it, they will be contractors, indie developers, GDC speakers. And yes, they may be all be headed straight to Kickstarter. But what better place for them than that? It is their only home. Their heaven and their Hell. This…was a really long winded reference to the end of Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker.

As for Kojima himself, with this likely being his last game for Konami, all that remains is to see what he does next. Will he try to go the independent route, find a place at another publisher, or retire from the videogame industry altogether. Who knows? I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.

That’s all for this episode of Pixel Burn. If you still liked it then please let me know by clicking the button down below, and let your friends, family and Militaire Sans Frontiere know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable. In the meantime, until next week, as nearly always, you can go now.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.