by NorseGamer, HSM Editor-in-Chief
HomeStation exists for two reasons: to serve as a platform for talented writers and artists to grow and have their work associated with a high-quality brand, and to provide a reasoned and intelligent community voice which helps in some way to shape the future of Home.
You don’t get involved in something like this for the perks — because there simply aren’t any. HSM is an all-volunteer project with no financial compensation, no benefits, and insanely high standards for a community fanzine. No, you do it because you love it. Because you have to create.
That said, if there is a perk to this, it’s when you get to have a level of dialogue with the people who make Home what it is. That’s pure fun. And, more importantly, it validates what you and your team are doing.
If you recall, last year HSM journeyed to the LOOT offices at Sony Pictures Studios, to get a sneak peek at various upcoming commodities which were slated for release into Home. And, in June, HomeStation and AlphaZone4 got to hang out at E3 with Lockwood, LOOT, Hellfire, Heavy Water, Game Mechanics and the SCEA Digital Platforms team. Granted, Cubehouse has had open lines of communication with nearly every major Home developer for years — the benefit of running the most-visited Home fansite in the world, plus Cubes is frighteningly smart when it comes to computer stuff — but for HomeStation, this is a major achievement.
This sort of interaction is wonderful, because it says that HSM’s product quality and product output have not gone unnoticed; that there is indeed an appetite for a literary journal devoted to social gaming, both from a community standpoint and a business standpoint.
The holy grail, of course, would be to have a hand in helping create a Home game. I mean, that’s every Home fan’s dream, right?
So what would happen if you got an e-mail that told you you could do just that?
Yup, you read that correctly. The e-mail came from Michael Mumbauer, the Director for Sony VASG in San Diego. And the game in question?
That’s just crazy, right? If you recall, the last time I discussed Cutthroats, I savaged its freemium economy model. I felt it was a great game — and it is, with the potential to be the best game in Home — but it was utterly and totally undermined by the disaster of its pricing structure, as well as the lack of variety in the gameplay. I actually felt kinda bad about writing the article, because I nearly always give Sony the benefit of the doubt, even when it’s put me in the position where I’m not on the side of populist sentiment. So considering how I was rather merciless towards Cutthroats, I figured the people at Sony probably wanted to hear from me as much as they wanted typhus.
You can thus imagine my shock when I opened up Mike’s e-mail, inviting me to visit the Sony offices to preview and offer feedback on the upcoming tranche of new content for Cutthroats — and offer input, in person, on how things could be improved even further.
Please understand: although I’m no stranger to business fundamentals — after you’ve ironed out (and then surpassed) a $72M budget for a major hotelier, with a regional vice president wondering what the hell he was doing getting lectured by a then-26-year-old and then inviting to you corporate headquarters to help design a new corporate sales manual, it’s not like you don’t have some accomplishments to back up your words. But in the world of game development, I’m still just a fan blogger. And fan bloggers don’t get formally invited to consult with major game studios and offer input that could actually alter a major game release. That just doesn’t happen.
It was frankly a bit of a risk on Sony’s part. It’s not possible to “buy” good press from HSM. I smirk any time I read someone (usually with an axe to grind) comment about how HomeStation does nothing but kiss Sony’s ass, considering the amount of criticism we’ve lobbed at them in the past. And if what I was about to see at VASG’s offices wasn’t impressive, I was hardly going to whitewash it.
Here’s the thing, though: what I saw was very impressive.
Before we dive into the game itself, though, a quick note on the Sony VASG offices themselves: damn. Mike gave me a quick tour of the facilities, and it’s bloody awesome. Example:
ME: “So, what’s this stage used for?”
MIKE: “Yeah, so this is where we do motion capturing, like Killzone 3. Here’s an actor going through some facial modeling right now; let’s watch for a moment.”
Which leads me to something I would like to share, from the bottom of my heart, to all Sony employees who get to work on PlayStation stuff: I hate you. I hate all of you. I’ve peeked inside San Diego and Foster City, and I’ve seen the funhouse romp that is Sony LOOT, and the truth is that you don’t have the right to call what you do “work.” Yeah, yeah, it’s miserably long hours and deadlines and stress and blahblahblah. Shaddap. Every job that’s worth anything is like that. You people get to build dreams. You might think I have it good because I live in Hawaii (and, to be fair, it is pretty awesome), but I’ve spent the last ten years working with people twice my age with whom I have nothing in common. You people are my age, you’re fellow geeks, and you’re at the forefront of a new entertainment medium. YOU GET TO CREATE VIDEO GAMES.
And thus it is with love that I tell you I hate all of you. Every single person who works for PlayStation. You all suck. I hate you because I’m not one of you. And for that, to borrow one of Monty Python’s more literate moments, I fart in your general direction.
Whew. That was cathartic.
Right, back to Cutthroats. While I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with the game’s brilliant original creator, John Ardussi, I’d never met the rest of Mike’s Cutthroats team at VASG, consisting of the following people:
- Sunny Chu – lead engineer and designer
- David Beltran – lead designer and UI artist (and owner of a really sweet Mustang)
- Kevin Pimental – producer
- Jeff Apczynski – gameplay engineer
- Joe Thomas – gameplay engineer
I’ll confess to an initial moment of trepidation, as I was the outside journalist who’d said some rather unkind things about their product, and while it doesn’t affect me all that much, you hate to feel like you’ve had a negative impact on somebody’s paycheck. It’s like when Al Gore shows you the polar bears to get you to reduce your carbon footprint. But they were all incredibly friendly, and I was made to feel right at home.
That was due, in no small part, to Mike. After introducing me to the team, he laid things out with a surprising level of candor: that they actually agreed with my assessment of the game’s shortcomings, they thought that the constructive criticism was (quite literally) right on the money, and they wanted to make sure that the update to the game would be a slam dunk, both in terms of entertainment and revenue generation.
(I do wish to point out, at this juncture, that this is the final, irrevocable proof that the HSM formula of “bring a problem, bring a solution” is the right way to do things. This is a battle I’ve waged for a long time with people on the Sony forum, with the counter-argument being that the consumer is not employed by Sony and thus not obliged to provide or propose possible solutions to problems. Which, granted, is true — but if you don’t propose a solution, and demonstrate that you actually want to see and help Sony succeed, you’re probably not ever going to be invited to offer that feedback and other creative input which might actually make a difference. So this is one of the rare moments where I will ever flat-out say that I’m right.)
So now then. What can I tell you about the new content update?
Well, let’s start with something small: this is very nearly a completely different game.
I’m not exaggerating. I got to play-test the new Cutthroats, and I can honestly say it feels like a different game. New types of ammunition have been added. Long-range bombardment is now possible (and, in fact, causes significant levels of damage). Differing wick times and trajectories are new strategic elements. Invulnerability is only ten seconds long and ships randomly spawn all over the map, so there aren’t any more frustrating clumps by the docks any more.
It gets better. You can actually repair the ship manually. You can teleport the ship. You can lay down mines. There are coins in the treasure chests, introducing a grind economy wherein the player can purchase power-ups just from in-game achievements.
And — most importantly — the prices have been lowered. Drastically.
If you recall, every power-up in Cutthroats is a temporary one. Unlike Novus Prime, the Sodium games or No Man’s Land, everything is limited-use — much like Midway or the Casino. Which is fine, except that the prices were too damn high. You just didn’t get enough bang for your buck. I blew through thirty bucks in the first twelve hours of the original Cutthroats, and it annoyed me that I really had nothing to show for it. If limited-use commodities were the method Cutthroats wanted to use, then the price had to be a hell of a lot lower — or offer more resources per transaction — to justify itself.
I’m happy to report that Sony did both. They lowered the prices and gave more items per transaction. Assuming that the pricing structure which makes it into the game’s release is the same one I saw, they’re practically giving away the store. Coupled with the new defensive abilities — repairing and teleporting — it’s a much more strategic game in which sinking boats can be a lot more challenging. This is quite important, because in the original version of the game, you knew that no matter what you did — no matter how smart you played — you were more or less toast after one or two engagements. This new version of Cutthroats changes all that, and makes the game infinitely more enjoyable as a result.
A lot of games tend to follow a rock-paper-scissors formula, and with good reason: it works. In the case of Cutthroats, the original release was simply a monotonous grind of taking turns with invincibility. In the new version, with almost no invincibility, random spawning and all sorts of specialized weapons, this game is a hell of a lot more interesting to play.
So let’s talk about those weapons.
Some of the old ones, like the barnacle shot and the fire shot, are still there. The whistler shot is there as well, but it can fire a hell of a lot further and gets a damage bonus at long distances. But there are some new weapons, which I think are a lot of fun: the rum shot, which temporarily reverses your controls, the lightning cannon, which slows your ability to turn your ship and your guns, the scattershot, which is basically three cannons mated together for a shotgun-style blast (devastating for broadsides at close range), and the one which is quickly going to become a fan favorite: the chicken cannon.
That’s right, you heard me. You can fire poultry at each other.
This is one of the funniest, coolest things I’ve ever seen in PlayStation Home. The chicken cannon is absolutely devastating. It has a long wick and it’s got terrible range, but if it connects, you can really frak up your opponent. What makes it so nasty is that the chickens keep doing damage to your boat if you get hit, so you have to pull away from your guns to repair your ship in order to stop them. And let me tell you: it’s really damned funny to see your pirate ship getting henpecked.
I’m so not making this up.
Now, you might be wondering what ideas I contributed to this shindig. I’m not going to mention any specifics, as it’s not my place to divulge what I came up with versus what they came up with. Suffice it to say that most of my advice centered around the necessity of including social elements into the game itself, in order to encourage tournament play and easy user-to-user communication. Because, with Home, the best game is the game that allows users to entertain each other. Instead of Home being an either/or proposition — you’re either socializing or you’re gaming — Home is at its best when you can do both simultaneously.
The one cool thing that I’ll mention, just because it’s something you want to hear as a fan: “That’s a really good idea which we didn’t think of, and if it’s technically possible, we’re going to make sure that gets into the game.”
That’s the best reaction anyone can hope to receive in a position such as mine. I’ve been fortunate enough, in my correspondence with various developers, to hear that sentence more than a few times so far — and it’s always gratifying when it happens, because it means that HSM is, in its own small way, helping to make a difference.
So. Is Cutthroats 2.0 worth your money?
Yes. Without a doubt, yes. It’s such a vast improvement over what’s currently in Home that I think Mike summed it up best: “This is the version of Cutthroats I wish we’d originally released.” These guys have worked their tails off to create a game that’s worth playing, and my only hope is that SCEA provides it a proper marketing push to help drive traffic back to it — because this game needs to be rediscovered.
Oh, and in case you need a bit of a teaser: there’s even more Cutthroats content that’s already developed. Big stuff, which makes things even cooler. It just didn’t make it into the current version due to time constraints; this is a rather complex game with a lot of moving parts, and there’s only half a dozen people working on it, after all. But if you want to see this mystery content, the game’s going to have to see an uptick in sales to justify the time and money spent on the content release that’s about to drop. So I’m in the unusual position of recommending financially supporting a Home experience in order to see more of it, just because what I’ve seen is absolutely bonkers, and I know you’ll love it.
Cutthroats, when it came out, had a chance at being the best game Home had ever released. Instead, through a combination of missing content and poor economics, it became Home’s template for What Not To Do. For a lot of developers, that would simply be it; they’d abandon the game and move on, leaving it to languish until SCEA eventually pulled it. Cutthroats, on the other hand, is being revisited. No — more than revisited. Reinvented. And when it’s released into Home, you really need to check it out. Because no other game in the history of Home has ever been so completely retooled, based on user feedback, and tailored specifically to address those concerns. The end product is astonishing.
So. The big question. When is it going to come out?
I’m not allowed to give you the specific date. But, hey, let’s not be greedy here: this is possibly the first time in the history of PlayStation Home that SCEA has formally allowed a community media site to release the details of an upcoming content release before they themselves begin their regular PR outreach. It goes without saying that I’m tremendously appreciative of their support.
Special thanks really must go to Mike Mumbauer for making the trip a reality, and the VASG artists who labor day and night to make the game a reality. I went in not knowing what to expect, and came out thoroughly impressed. You guys done good.