League of Legends eSports: Focus On the Human Factor (from 2013)

Mar 22, 2016 by

wearelcs2

A piece from 2013 blending commentary and an interview I conducted at E3 about the changes to League of Legends’ League Championship Series (LCS), and how those changes emphasize the human factor, and represent a reliable, relatable new system that intended to further focus global regional competition on the fans. Originally published on RTSGuru.com in 2013 (but freshly edited).

For League of Legends, it’s showtime again. The League Championship Series started up again last week. The day before competition began once more for the first time since LoL All-Stars in Shanghai in May, I was at E3 and got to chat with Whalen “Magus” Rozelle, the Senior eSports Manager at Riot, about how Season 3 is different than previous championship years, and some of the philosophies behind those changes, as eSports grows along with its potential.

It’s about telling stories.

Riot went back to the drawing board and made some significant changes for Season 3, including the structure of the championships, but with an eye ahead on growth and a format that could do a couple of key things – grow with the game and audience, as well as work with a global model. With LoL the most played online game in the world right now, getting things to work on that massive scale has to appeal to a lot of people, and ultimately, the structure of what Riot is doing relies on the human factor. That means not just investing in global infrastructure for tournaments but appealing to many of the factors that bring people to watch physical sports, with emphasis on people’s interest in other people’s stories.

Season 3 also brought a few stabilizing factors. Teams going pro is a reality now, and those teams need an income and more are looking at living together.  Riot helped with “a formal structure with established teams – the pro teams—making sure those teams had a stable income  so those teams could focus on being the best pros they could be,” as well as creating a competitive structure that would allow new teams to come onto the scene and develop. “And we already see this in the structure in Korea and Southeast Asia with the GPL and  the League of Legends Pro League coming out in China.”

Ultimately, though, it’s all about the people. Both the audience and the competitors.

“[What] we wanted to do is to focus on storytelling broadcast narrative, and really delivering a viewing experience more akin to traditional sports. Like your college game day or a Monday Night Football.” So the new structure is predictable, and there’s a familiarity to returning to watch each week.“We want to create a league worthy of planning your time around, ” hence drawing from many aspects of physical sports as well as sports broadcasts. “If you’re an eSports fan, we want you to go ‘Well, I know what I’m doing on Thursdays and Fridays because the LCS is on.” The numbers on streams show that this is indeed working, and the creation of the LoLeSports.com website has also helped connect fans.

They’ve gone ahead to produce packages and a reliable format.  As someone who has been watching sports ever since she was a little girl, they are creating a similar environment, even though the competition is in a completely different space. They’ve hired feature producers that have worked on Olympics clips and NFL and know how to convey this kind of narrative when it comes to a sports audience.

Aside from a predictable schedule with segments, the real heart is on the people. Team spirit is great, but it’s only one piece of that narrative. “Telling these stories that eSports fans can connect and latch onto” in other words. The audience might not be as good as the pros, but by highlighting the stories and that human factor, everyone can find something to relate to. Rozelle gave an example of the Chaox and WildTurtle stories when it came to TSM duing the spring.

They have been doing this also to bring a more relatable experience to eSports and hopefully get those casual fans or those just curious who might be inclined to watch or play to give it a shot. By focusing on who these players are and what their goals, dreams, conflicts, and even training methods are, it creates an entry point for observers, both new and seasoned.

One of the best stories out of the Spring was how some of these newer teams were able to rise and gain confidence. Teams like Vulcun and GGU (now Team Coast),  and watching them grow as the season progressed. On the esports site, the polls under each match would shift throughout the season. You’d start with new teams hitting maybe 20% in their favor and all these lopsided votes, where by the end of the spring you’d see more leveling out as these teams were able to make their way in the competition as well as gain lots of new fans. Now, these teams have fans backing them and some new faces are coming up once again. It just shows the dedication and growth that can happen in this system.

The system is working, as the attention over spring showed, but they still want to go bigger and better. They’re pretty happy with how they’ve accomplished their goals so far but there’s still more work to do as well as more tweaks and more to come on the way.

With the arrival of summer competition, the news of the World Championships location and dates are coming this month. Competition heats up since it’s not just about getting into and staying in the LCS (though there are definitely new faces this season), but about looking further out toward a championship.

And once those details are released, both fans and players will still be focused on Summer, but there’s no doubt mentally, that both will be peeking past and wondering who will be taking it all. And thanks to the new system, we probably know the players involved just a little bit better, even if we have been following for a couple of years.

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With eSports’ Undeniable Global Reach, Employment Visas Open a New Debate (From 2013)

Mar 9, 2016 by

Photo I took at the League of Legends Worlds final. 2013.

This was originally published at RTSGuru.com in the summer of 2013. It contains some references to interviews I conducted at E3 about how Riot actively tried, with growing regional competition, to reflect the global scale of the audience, and to create more moments that would resonate with those watching.

Last week’s announcement of the location for the upcoming League of Legends World Championships was followed by the news that the US government was now issuing visas for visiting international players to work in the country. This is important, since most of the players in the tournament will be from other lands, in addition to demonstrating that pro gaming is making its mark. The topic of visas has sparked much debate outside of the pro-gaming community since it broke. Yet, this is a natural step for a worldwide competition that has an $8 million global pool and 14 teams participating, eleven from outside North America. Let’s also not forget that several players on North American teams are Canadian.

The international nature of the competition is no accident. In North America, eSports has been growing in both recognition and audience for some time. It’s not limited to League of Legends, either. MLG has been around for over a decade, but it’s only in the past couple of years that audiences have truly blown up and bigger deals struck. Whereas maybe a few years ago, you might have seen the rockstar treatment for pro gamers in places like Korea, but now we’re seeing it over here in North America. Like anything else, this did not happen overnight.

Yet some question why pro gamers and not say, students, are getting special visa permission to work in the country. And the current debates over immigration in general have caused some negative reactions to this news among general populations. If eSports is going to continue with its growth, the general population is the potential audience since those of us actively watching, playing, and discussing these issues are already in the net. We’ve been caught and trawled in. It’s those guys you have to convince, eSports event organizers.

That’s another good reason for choosing The Staples Center to hold the event. At E3, I spoke to Riot’s Whalen Rozelle (Magus) about how their goal has been to create a global series that is centered around not just competition, but around relatable moments. Little did I know that not far away was the destination LoL fans would be centering their attention upon in the fall. Trying to extend that relatability is one of the goals and moving to a well-known sports arena is about as big of an arrival as you can get here in this country. Making the mainstream news for the location and the visa issue don’t hurt either, despite the debate.

I’ve seen several people making the case for the visas by defending people like pro poker and billiards players, whose particular competitions are less physical and involve more mental skill. Yet, even pro gamers are subject to physical limitations, as well as changes to the game’s meta. Those changes happen frequently, and keeping up is part of the challenge. I’ve seen some question what pro players contribute to society such that they deserve visas over students or scientists. But it’s not a question of ‘instead of’, it’s a matter of this category being open and these competitions rising to a level where their international nature requires this to happen.

To be fair, people argue that highly-paid basketball players contribute less than teachers and argue about relative pay often. But part of the reason behind questioning the visa grants for LoL players is, let’s face it, the lingering perception of gaming as lazy, immature, and as ‘just’ playtime. That’s one of the next hurdles to overcome when it comes to the mainstream audience. Yet that is a problem that remains for gaming in general. With surveys consistently returning information that the average gamer is well into adulthood, there’s still a disconnect between perception and reality among some.

To bring this back around to the selection of the Staples Center, the fact this is an arena that has seen mainstream physical sports championships is no accident. Bringing the eyes of millions worldwide to the arena in October might seem like a huge thing in itself, yet it’s really a beginning.

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Devs: How To Not Leave Your Audience Behind

Feb 12, 2016 by

Note: This piece was first published on RTSGuru.com in October, 2012. I’m republishing it here on my blog since the site is no longer live. I am highlighting this one, since more games lack campaigns, or release with ones designed as a blip, designed to be completed very quickly, thus leaving the focus solely on multiplayer once more. While multiplayer enthusiasts do drive attention in today’s market, the story-driven campaign still has a place. Original title, hyperlinks, and images are missing.

sc2-kerrigan

A short time ago, I asked the question of whether or not the single-player campaign was still relevant. Ultimately, I do think these campaigns, even in an RTS, are indeed still relevant for various reasons, some of which are personal for players and sometimes overlooked by companies. That said, some startling numbers have emerged that highlight just how many people are still very much campaign-centric when it comes to their games. So, knowing what we know now, what can companies do to not forget these gamers?

According to Penny Arcade Report’s Ben Kuchera, when it comes to StarCraft II, “It turns out around half of the people who buy the game only play the campaign”, as confirmed by Blizzard’s Bob Colayco. While we’re consistently met with images of competition, players who are working on climbing the ladders and making new ranks, and an overwhelming rush of eSports competition and coverage, half the people that bought the game have never really taken it online. The game is the campaign for them. And these people are getting left behind as far as the attention goes. Many people claiming the single player campaign is dead somehow, and recently, all the drama erupting over the competitive scene and claims that Blizzard is not handling its franchise in a player-friendly manner, and yet, maybe we’re looking at things all wrong.

If fully half the players only play the campaign, that’s over two million people. Perhaps even Blizzard gets caught up in its own hype over eSports and multiplayer, when many players just never even touch that side of the game. I must admit that the story is one of the biggest draws for me to StarCraft and other games, so when reading these numbers, it made a lot of sense because sometimes I too, am this player.

When it comes to FPS games, I’m pretty terrible at them, even though I enjoy playing. I play them largely for the campaigns. Sure, I go online and I do play multiplayer, but there’s always someone more experienced, younger, faster, and who has way more time to spend practicing than I’ll ever have before retirement, so it can be frustrating. I bought Battlefield 3 partly for the campaign and partly for multiplayer. The Frostbite 2 engine did wonders for what a pretty shooter it turned out to be. I played the original Call of Duty for the campaign, which was great. After that series started becoming more multiplayer-dominated and the campaigns kept shrinking in length and other factors, they just didn’t seem like a value any longer.

And value is an important part of this equation when it comes to serving all of your customers. Blizzard recently entertained the idea of releasing some sort of free to play version of multiplayer competitive StarCraft II, though the company would not know yet how to monetize it. Talk of custom premium skins for your Zerg swarms is thus, premature. Blizzard is aware that a lot of players never take its games into online competitive play and makes it a point to highlight campaign material. But could splitting a game into separate editions actually serve all players better? Maybe if you’re a company the size of Blizzard and have the resources to provide teams for each release. But the idea of having separate tiers isn’t inherently a bad one.

Using StarCraft II as an example, let’s say there’s a free to play, monetized multiplayer edition. No campaign, just a freemium, accessible version of competitive play. That might lower the barrier to entry enough to attract some new blood into the StarCraft competitive scene since there would be no risk to try it. Then, let’s say, edition two would be the campaign alone. For the story fans, this could sell for say, $25 and feature the campaign portion. For completists, give them the full-fledged edition of the game, perhaps with a couple of exclusives as sweeteners.

For some, this might seem extra risky or like selling the goods piecemeal, but in terms of value, it might make sense for some developers, in certain cases, to release a game like this. StarCraft II might serve all of its players in this way, including the forgotten half that doesn’t compete.

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Will Your MOBA go Mobile? (from 2012)

Feb 11, 2016 by

Note: This piece was first published on RTSGuru.com in February of 2012. I’m republishing it here on my blog since the site is no longer live. I will be highlighting some of my older pieces now and then. I was somewhat wrong in this one, but this is the way the industry works. It’s good to look back and see where we’ve come from.

 

Though the death knell for PC gaming has been rung many times before, there’s no doubt that mobile platforms are changing at least some aspects of how we play games. PC gaming actually grew last year to an estimated $18 billion in revenue , fueled by growth in the free‐to‐play sector, as well as regions like China. Yet, mobile grew too. There are also many strategy games on mobile markets, and that now includes a huge franchise like Total War, which has launched its own foray into the mobile market from the ground up. Other games like Anomaly: Warzone Earth, Civilization Revolution, and Hero Academy have started on or quickly been ported to mobile. InnoGames, which specializes in browser‐based titles, has just brought its most popular game, Tribal Wars, to Android after a successful experience releasing it on iOS late last year.

The obvious big hitters and the AAA games aren’t quite there embracing mobile just yet, but how long might it be before they do? MOBAs seem like they’d be playable well on a tablet. Some predict that mobile will start to truly impact the PC gaming world in a couple of years. It’s easy to scoff, since it’s highly unlikely that PC gaming will die. After all, people have been singing that tune for a long time, but there might be a bit of truth to the assessment. PC gaming was there first, and robustly shared the market with consoles, even as those consoles became better and better and even started being multitaskers. This helped to put them into many more homes, and so the days of the PS2 and Xbox were monster years. One thing that consoles, which are compact PCs anyway, have that is appealing to developers and many consumers is a consistent hardware profile. Your Xbox is the same as my Xbox. Well, this is also one reason many developers like to work with Apple’s devices. There’s a lot of consistency across the iPhone and iPad that enables a developer to only have to invest so much into the process. Just like PCs, Android models are numerous and the profiles differ. It’s one limitation to Android that I’ve personally found a little annoying, since some games I want to play either aren’t available for the platform or don’t pass a compatibility check with my particular phone model. So there are still a few hurdles similar to the PC market at work here.

Bringing this conversation back to strategy games, the variety available has really grown to include many quality titles. The RTS and turn‐based strategy games are at home on mobile devices due to their pacing, so it’s a natural fit. This might mean a greater impact on the strategy genre than others if mobile does erode some of the PC market. Even eSports is going mobile. The World Cyber Games dropped all PC games from competition and became a mobile‐only event, while MLG and Sony just signed a deal to create a mobile eSports platform. It’s clear that the mobile platform is going to be around for some time.

The casual player is a huge part of this. You probably know people who play stuff like Angry Birds but little else. Will they suddenly convert over to StarCraft mobile? Probably not, but it doesn’t quite matter yet. A lot of strategy gamers are live and die by the PC gamers too, however, so while games in the genre translate well in current examples, it seems many of us complement our console and PC habits with mobile gaming.

Mobile apps are one of the latest successes though, tying the player to the game when not even at a PC. We previewed the recent app release for Dungeon Overlord and noted that the app kept dedicated players connected to the game. But how long until the game itself is what’s being played on the go?

Maybe not long. Nvidia released a prediction in April that Xbox 360 quality GPU will be available on mobile devices by 2014. So it seems that the graphics will be there. Will the players?

As habits shift somewhat, I do think we’ll be seeing a MOBA on mobile devices. In fact, I think one of the major ones will announce such multiplatform play in the future. I might be wrong, but all the signs point to a quality experience, as well as a graphically beautiful one in just a year or two, so why not? Paging

Riot Games, perhaps? The ability to play anywhere reflects our increasingly connected culture, and it’s a wise move to take advantage of that. Using MOBAs was just one example, but as a growing and popular subgenre, it’s fair game. The current limiting factors would seem to be touch controls and the need for a guaranteed stable connection. So, ultimately, it’s a just matter of when, not if.

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Nostalgia in a Flat Cap

Jan 4, 2016 by

Fallout 4 companion Piper Wright

Piper Wright

I haven’t played Fallout 4 yet, but with the game out since November, between screenshots and articles, I’ve seen most of the companions. Piper Wright caught my eye, but I couldn’t figure out why she appealed to me so much. She’s attractive, with a certain air of presence to her; a determination in her eyes. Her dark, shoulder-length hair is topped with a flat cap. Appropriate for a journalist who goes around asking questions and interviewing people if she’s your companion, and grants a perk that lets you be more persuasive and grant access to new areas. From these basics, I guessed that she’s curious, maybe a little restless in the way the curiouser minds generally are. Yet, there was something else, something more drawing me to her whenever her image passed across one of my social media feeds.

One day, it dawned on me. It was her hat. My dad frequently wore flat caps when I was a child. I remember him wearing them, just like my grandfather did. There was one in particular, a brown herringbone tweed one with a single snap to attach the top to the brim, that I decided to wear myself. Dad noticed and gave it to me. That hat accompanied me through a couple of changes of address, classes where I wore it as intended, classes where I wore it with the snap undone.

To the poetry workshop I attended at sixteen, wearing a cream sweater, my flat cap on backwards, thinking it looked funny with my glasses, the frames not particularly suited for my face. How, in the words of a cute boy, the cap, glasses, and my long, wide sleeves made me look like a “real writer”. That same cute boy and I later had three phone calls. We read each other our poems. Me on the other end, no longer costumed as a real writer in those moments. The date we both agreed to was undone by differences in beliefs. He wanted to bring me to a church event. I had already left religion. I remember his last name and his brown eyes. Our reason for parting, it was fair, but I still felt the tinge of adolescent insecurity; the fear of judgment. I didn’t tell him the entire reason. Yet, I was still a real writer, with or without my cap on backwards. The words always demanded passage into the world, as they still do. Though I don’t think I wore the hat backwards after that.

I remember wanting to write for a newspaper, wishing so hard for a word processor as a child. I got my grandma’s old manual typewriter first. The slightly concave keys smoother than anything I knew, clear and shiny. Moving the carriage back, learning to use carbons and correction tape, a tangibility to leaving indentations in the paper behind; traces of authenticity. My words, they existed. I could feel them. I’d mash the keys with my small fingers until they throbbed, making sure all was clear. The word processor I received a couple of years later was more forgiving of my eagerness. The keys soft, a muted breath instead of the hard, metal clacking that left my hands ringing.

Drawing out newspapers, truly zines I intended to write and distribute, but never did. Not for lack of trying, but the nearest copy machine was 10 or 25 cents each, and we were poor. I still drew them. I wrote stories, typed them up, clipped them out and taped or glued them into the layouts I spent time creating. I thought I might be headed for the newspaper one day. Maybe I’d even wear a flat cap like the generations before me. Like newspaper reporters in a forgotten age. Like my dad. Like a character in a game from 2015 but set centuries in the future. Like Piper, who draws me in.

Piper’s hat is worn, it shows the damage of the Wasteland and the effect of time. I still don’t know all that much about her, but the combination of her long red coat and that hat make her adorable in my eyes. Her appeal is partly in a sense of nostalgia, anachronistic in the setting and year of Fallout 4, and unapologetically so. Piper, I’ve learned from friends playing, approves of when the player character chooses kind options. I knew I would have to look more into Piper, even before playing the game. It began with her hat.

Piper’s hat fills me with long-ago dreams. Piper’s hat fills me with curiosity. Piper’s hat fills me with warm nostalgia.

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Alphabear is Great, But Its Model Feels Lopsided

Jul 15, 2015 by

Alphabear Share Picture

Clearly a member of House Bolton.

UPDATE 07/18: As of the latest game update, players can now freely select which chapter they want to play. This makes a big difference and Spry Fox clearly listened to players. My one quibble with the select is it tends to drop you back into latest chapter, but it’s easiyl changed.

I’m enjoying Spry Fox’ latest game, Alphabear, which has launched a partial takeover of both my Twitter feed and private messages with friends lately with its sharp, current selfie function when acquiring new bears. Some of your spelled words appear in a preset line or two, Mad Libs style, often leading to amusing results. The game is cute, it’s fun, and several aspects of it both keep some players coming back for more and others taking issue with gameplay and the way the developer monetizes the game.

When you start Alphabear, the tutorial takes you through the word-puzzle game’s basic premise. Pick a board, spend a resource (honey) to play that board, score enough points, win bears that you can use for boosts, and repeat. Some boards are timed, and each chapter allows you to collect certain bears from the currently available collection of 67 . After playing through enough of the daily challenges, you’ll unlock a boss battle. Beat the boss score, win, and move to the next chapter. There is, however, no chapter select, and certain bears can’t be obtained outside their respective chapters. There’s no warning in the tutorial for this, and one belongs there. After the first two chapters, chapter three’s difficulty ramped up by a lot, and I have lingered within it playing and leveling my bears, getting a better win rate but falling short of good bear scores frequently as well. Spry Fox responded to an inquiry about this saying that no chapter select was an oversight and that while there are no plans to include a chapter select, some way to obtain bears you accidentally missed out on will be coming.

The daily challenges aren’t just candy-colored Scrabble either. Several are clever and can affect your strategy. On Sunday, an indicator mentioned the letters W-O-R-and K wouldn’t appear at all. If you’re used to using certain bears that might boost points for specific letters, you’d have to adjust. The bears themselves go to “sleep” for a predetermined amount of time after each use, which ranges from one minute to one day. Getting duplicates of a bear strengthens the bonuses that bear brings to a round.

I’ve seen some complaints about Alphabear’s gating, since honey is restored over time, up to the 120 you would need to play each of the daily boards once each several times a day. You can also watch an ad to get more honey or pay $4.99 to unlock infinite honey, thus letting you play as often as you’d like. Some felt tossed into a paywall early, but I haven’t. My problem with the monetization is that there is no corresponding unlock for the game’s other resource, coins. In order to gain coins, you must play through the game, watch an ad, or purchase a coin bundle. Coins are what you use to wake up a bear early from its slumber, making it usable once again. Infinite honey is a great option, since it lets you play more and thus win more coins, but if you have a limited collection of usable bears for your current chapter (chances of this are current high since there’s no chapter select and it’s easy to miss out on bears early), you’ll have to either wait up to an entire day or use your purchased or earned coins to wake your bears.

Some might argue that an unlock for coins might make the game too easy or lead to an imbalance of sorts, but as a single-player game, having just the one unlock makes the game feel lopsided in that paying for a whole game isn’t an option. I’m sure many of us would, just as I’ve noticed lots of infinite honey players.

Alphabear is still officially in beta, so there will be some changes coming in response to player feedback. Spry Fox is doing a good job listening so far, and fixing other issues promptly. As a side note, I’m happy that Alphabear is on Android and glad to have the option to support games on the platform.

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Her Story: A Compelling, Fragmented Search History

Jul 3, 2015 by

The following is spoiler-free.

A still from Her Story

A still from Her Story.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story is a game that relies upon a scripted narrative out of sequence and the player’s self-directed discovery of the fragments in a criminal investigation.  A woman is presented in old, grainy taped police interviews on seven occasions after her husband disappears. The mystery is set in 1994, but as presented in its spare lack of directed play (Barlow himself posted a development note saying he wanted to create “a game with no meaningful ‘state’ change”.), it is modern and lean. Indeed, there are no real instructions, no direction, no real goals, and no fixed end, no epilogue, and no easy answers. The only direct input from the player consists of keyword searches that bring up video clips containing that word. This sounds deceptively simple but the best, often most compelling thing about Her Story is that most of the play is not based on directed input, instruction, or even taking place within the game. The work is done by you as a response to the clips you watch, listen to, scrutinize, and finally, begin to stitch together in your head (or on paper – I have seen multiple people work with extensive notes and mind maps).

The clips are time and date stamped, and most searches turn up clips out of order. Putting together which clips come from which day is also helped by the subject’s clothing, as well as words you can search. Survey the scene, figure out what words you think might have some meaning, and then off you go into an experience that will likely be all your own. The experience can be uneven, depending what you decide to search for, with some highly revealing clips possible to reach within the first minutes of playtime. Yet, these don’t dampen the experience as much as whet appetites and open the gates to more clues.

There is one element that definitely reminds you that you’re playing a game, however. When you watch a clip of something highly relevant to the main thread of the mystery, a semi-transparent image of a face accompanied by sound will flash onscreen for a second or two. This means you’re on the right track, but it can also serve as an inadvertent jump scare. It did so for me, even after seeing it several times, because of its inconsistent appearance. It’s helpful as a way to let players know they’re making progress, but it can be startling.

A still from Her Story showing a seated woman in a white blouse.

A still from Her Story

Even after hitting on most of the major pieces, I still felt myself motivated to continue searching, to continue watching more clips. The sense of archived research, of time I spent in tiny microfiche booths, in video labs at school, listening to the voices of yesterday, came back in this experience. The mystery novels and TV shows that I grew up with and I’m still happy to dive right into to this day came back. The narrative here, a past delivered in fragments, sometimes repeated, sometimes strange, surprising, or even subtly sinister reminded me a little of the work of the late Ruth Rendell.

Without treading into spoiler territory, there are several theories as to how it all fits together and  you’ll likely come away with your own idea of how to process what you just experienced. There is a point in the game where you are asked if you’re satisfied, and a message pops up with a final piece if you say yes, but neither saying yes or no prevents you from further investigation. In other words, you’re doing research, you have questions, and it is your choice when you stop. The nature of Her Story means that once you’ve been through it, watched all the clips, and come away with your version of the events, it is essentially spent for replay value. The price, a modest $5.99, is thus, well set.

Her Story is available for PC, Mac, and iOS now.

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