In December 2017 Cliffy B’s long-time collaborator Arjan Brussee (Killzone, Jazz Jackrabbit) left the studio they had built together. In January 2018 publisher Nexon wrote off its investment, and in April Boss Key admitted that LawBreakers was such an utter farrago that it wasn’t even worth re-launching as a free-to-play title. At this point a lesser man might’ve quit, but Cliffy B did not.
Within four months of the launch of LawBreakers he realised that the only way he could keep the lights on at his studio was to create an entirely new product, and in five short months he did just that. April 10 saw the launch of Radical Heights, a ‘Battle Royale with cheese’ – a direct competitor to the BR juggernauts of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite.
(and since this article was published in issue 271 of PCPowerPlay, the game - and its studio, have both folded. However...)
It would be easy to list the flaws in Radical Heights. There’s the garish and uneven textures, the lag, the long lobby wait times, the conflicting design elements, the wafer thin veneer of satire, the unproven economic model, and so much more.
It’s also worth noting that Radical Heights is the antithesis of everything that LawBreakers stood for. In his last game Cliffy B eschewed the cartoonish frivolity of Overwatch with something “a little more Quentin Tarantino,” and while he didn’t want to over-charge his customers (“none of that US$60 multiplayer-only bullshit”) he certainly didn’t want to sully the experience with free-to-play exploitation.
Yet here we are. Cliffy B is gradually learning about what today’s gamers want to play, and all it cost him was years of his life and millions in squandered investor dollars.
Criticism comes easy, but it would be foolish to write off Cliffy B. He is very well connected, he is independently wealthy, and crucially, he glories in the infamy that his antics attract. For he has long understood the power of social media, and how the image you cultivate in the minds of the public creates its own reality.
Consider the career of another veteran game designer: Mark Kern, one of the pioneers at Blizzard. If you were only to follow him on Twitter, you might know him as an outspoken jokester, a foe of sex-negative wowserism, and a champion of free speech. You might think highly of him for his efforts to get Blizzard to bring back Vanilla World of Warcraft servers.
But there’s another Mark Kern – the Mark Kern that (allegedly) ran Firefall into the ground. The Mark Kern that was (allegedly) a nightmare to work with, distant and erratic, only showing up at the office occasionally to (allegedly) demean his underlings’ efforts. The Mark Kern who blew US$3 Million on the Firefall Bus, a mobile LAN chamber that was mothballed for most of the game’s life. The Mark Kern who spent countless marketing dollars on expletive-laden Game of Thrones music videos for the Firefall YouTube channel.
So: which of the two Mark Kerns is the real one? If you only know his name from the occasional viral tweet scrolling down your feed, then Good Mark Kern isn’t just The Real Mark Kern, he’s The Only Mark Kern. Thus he is assured a steady supply of dopamine from all your Likes and Re-Tweets, and he’ll start with his best foot forward when it’s time to launch his next game, a giant-robots-versus-kaiju MMO that actually looks somewhat promising.
This is the reality of ‘cyberpunk’ in the year 2018. Reality flows from belief, induced by electronic stimulus; infinitely scalable, infinitely malleable.
In this environment information asymmetry reigns supreme – and even Blind Freddy can see why Valve recently tinkered with the Steam privacy settings: to destroy Steam Spy. The multitude of stats made available by Steam Spy didn’t just benefit consumers, they empowered smaller devs in their negotiations with publishers.
Steam Spy creator Sergey Galyonkin put it thus: “In any market, if you have information asymmetry, it’s bad for some of the parties that engage in any market transaction. Imagine buying a house without knowing the price of the house. Imagine signing a contract with a basketball player without knowing their performance in past games.” The juggernauts at the big end of town will still be able to afford their own market research, but the indies are already suffering.
Without Steam Spy indies will fare no better than the contestants of a deadly near-future game show, fighting for their lives in a garish and incomprehensible kill-dome – 100 contestants enter, only one leaves.
That person may yet be Cliffy B, for he knows well the power of information asymmetry. It’s how he was able to make a fortune from investing early in Oculus Rift...