The Capy Games’ survival-focused dungeon-crawler Below has earned a well-deserved reputation for punishing difficulty—Rock Paper Shotgun used it as a prototypical example of the necessary industry niche for “ultra-hard games.” But the coming console release of the game will be introducing a new “Explore” mode that completely does away with this game-defining difficulty.
While the original game will still be available as “Survival” mode, the new Explore mode is “tuned to be accessible for players who seek more of an action-adventure style of play,” as Capy put it in an announcement. In-game mechanics like survival, death, and damage will be toned down to be more forgiving, so players can “lose themselves on The Isle without suffering the exquisite pain of Below‘s original design.”
“EXPLORE mode is our way of answering everyone who played BELOW at launch and found the challenge a bit too steep,” Capy’s Kris Piotrowski said in a statement. “It was clear that many players were intrigued by the game’s haunting underworld and rich atmosphere, but its difficulty made the game inaccessible to some. We hope to see new players to get into Below, and for seasoned players to revisit The Isle and enjoy the game in a whole new way.”
With the new mode, Below joins a small but growing trend towards allowing for extreme (and optional) difficulty tuning for players of all skill levels. That trend has encompassed everything from Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed and Soma and Bayonetta in recent years, as well as some classic gaming collections from an era when ultra-hard console games were the standard.
Regular readers may know that this is a trend I’m personally a big fan of, to the extent that I’ve encouraged every game developer to add such difficulty tuning options in their single-player titles. As I wrote back in September, “players interested in a game for its story or its world-building deserve the ability to focus on the parts they enjoy without having to jump through some reflex-based hoops. ‘Super Easy’ modes offer those players a new way into a game world without taking anything away from those who want their old-school challenges.”
Through the first half of 2022, Nintendo of America has been in the crosshairs of critics and the US National Labor Relations Board thanks to reports and formal complaints about working conditions for its contracted employees, all brought into the spotlight after a reported layoff allegedly involved pro-union sentiment. In the months since that story broke out publicly, Kotaku reporter Sisi Jiang has tracked down even more allegations about the famed game publisher’s American headquarters—and the allegations land squarely in the domain of sexual harassment and gender inequity.
A sweeping report published at Kotaku on Tuesday recounts roughly one decade of internal incidents among NoA’s pool of temporary employees, dating back to “the early Wii U era,” backed by a number of on-the-record allegations from former Nintendo staffers along with anonymous reports. The report includes attempts to reach out to Nintendo of America’s leadership, an associated temp agency, and individual staffers who were named as workplace sexual harassers, but Kotaku says it never received answers to its questions.
Many of the reported issues revolve around a divide between full-time employees, colloquially known as “red badges,” and the rest of the company’s American workforce, which was managed by temp hiring agency Aerotek before that company was absorbed into another company during a recent reorganization. The women who spoke to Kotaku both on and off the record collectively suggest that their hopes for turning part-time status into a full-time Nintendo career were strained by being women. One anonymous source said, “your chance was probably worse as a girl,” while another who spoke on the record suggested women weren’t given work-related goals or metrics to grow their careers, instead being told to essentially increase “face time” with male colleagues.
According to the sources, this unclear path to advancement led to issues where women faced workplace sexual harassment, then had to brush it off in order to not be perceived as “overly sensitive” and have a clearer path to becoming a red badge, complete with more stable pay and benefits.
She left the company after being “warned to be less outspoken.”
One former QA tester suggests she found this out the hard way after reporting a male translator’s uncouth behavior in a workplace Microsoft Teams chat room in 2020, which included comments about his favorite Pokemon character to have sex with and his attraction to a clearly underage female character in the free-to-play video game Genshin Impact. The staffer in question, who spoke anonymously, says she left the company after Aerotek not only failed to act on the report but also “warned her to be less outspoken,” all while colleagues figured out that she had filed the complaint and “blamed her” for doing so.
Stories have been circling around the Internet this past week about the re-emergence in certain Czech and German rivers of so-called “hunger stones”—rocks embedded in rivers during droughts to mark the water level and warn future generations of the likely famine and hardship to come whenever the stones became visible again. The coverage has been fueled largely by an August 11 tweet noting one stone in particular, inscribed with a dire warning: “If you see me, weep.”
Hunger stones (hungerstein) are very much a real thing with a long and fascinating history. And Europe is in the midst of a historically severe drought—severe enough that water levels may indeed be sufficiently low for the stones to re-emerge once more. But that August 11 tweet and the related coverage are actually rehashing a series of news stories from 2018, when the re-emergence of the hunger stones in the midst of that year’s extreme drought in Europe made headlines.
It’s hardly an egregious case of misinformation, but it does provide an illustrative example of why including context is so important in the digital age—even in a relatively simple tweet enthusing about newly acquired knowledge.
The recent droughts in Europe once again made visible the “Hunger Stones” in some Czech and German rivers. These stones were used to mark desperately low river levels that would forecast famines.
— Shoko Asahara Appreciation Consortium 🇷🇼 (@Citizen09372364) August 11, 2022
The stone referenced in the August 11 tweet is located on the Elbe River in Děčín, Czech Republic—one of the oldest such landmarks in the region. The earliest readable inscribed date is 1616, but older carvings marking the droughts of 1417 and 1473 were wiped out by anchoring ships over the centuries. Other drought years carved in the stone include 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893. It’s actually possible to see this particular stone some 126 days out of the year, thanks to the construction of a dam that was built on a tributary of the Elbe in 1926.
The stone also features an inscription likely added in 1938: “Neplač holka, nenaříkej, když je sucho, pole stříkej” (“Girl, don’t weep and moan, if it’s dry, water the field”). Another Elbe stone can be found near Bleckede, with the inscription Geht dieser Stein unter, wird das Leben wieder bunter (“When this stone goes under, life will become more colorful again”).
A 2013 paper examining the history of drought in the Czech region from 1090 to 2012 relied in part on hunger stones as “epigraphic data” of past droughts, supplementing evidence gleaned from annals, chronicles, diaries, tax documents, religious records, letters, printed manuscripts, and modern instrumental data. (Apparently in 1393, the drought was so severe it was possible to cross the River Vltava on its bed, and the water was “as green as grass.”)
Frankly, that paper is worth reading just for the historical anecdote concerning a priest named Prokop Diviš, known for serendipitously constructing one of the earliest grounded lightning rods. Diviš set up his “weather instrument” at his parsonage in June 1754. It was composed of several tin boxes and more than 400 metal spikes, and Diviš thought it could drive off storms. (The scientific community at the time was less than impressed with his theories.)
Five years later, in the fall of 1759, local villagers demanded Diviš remove it, convinced that it had been the cause of that summer’s drought. The authors suggest the priest’s personal enemies had riled up the crowd. The following March, the villagers broke the chains holding the instrument down, and a thunderstorm the following night knocked it over. But their victory was short-lived. There were so many thunderstorms that summer, damaging the fields and vineyards, that the villagers asked him to re-install his weather instrument. “His response was not positive,” the authors wrote.
When Central Europe was yet again besieged by drought in 2018, the Elbe plummeted to its lowest levels in more than half a century, and news stories began circulating about the re-emergence of some of the hunger stones. The Associated Press, NPR, Smithsonian, and Atlas Obscura were among the outlets that covered the story.
So why has the story re-emerged now? Kim LaCapria, writing at Truth or Fiction, thinks it started with an August 10 post to the subreddit r/todayilearned, linking to the Wikipedia entry on hunger stones “simply as a point of interest.” Perhaps not coincidentally, two days before that, low-water levels in Lake Mead due to the extreme megadrought resulted in the discovery of yet another set of human remains—the fourth body found so far. So, as conversations about drought and climate change circulated in the ether, they created the perfect conditions to reignite interest in the hunger stones, sparking a fresh flurry of news stories—like this one.
In a recent interview with Nikkei Asia, Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa said the company has no plans “at this point” to increase the price of the Switch. Despite “rising production and shipping costs” for the system, Furukawa said Nintendo wants to “avoid pricing people out” of its console ecosystem (a worry apparently not shared by Meta, which recently raised the asking price of its Quest 2 VR headset).
While some are overreading the “at this point” phrasing as suggestive of a future Switch price increase, all this talk has us focused on some different questions. Namely, why haven’t we seen a price drop for the Nintendo Switch in the last five-plus years? And can we ever expect Nintendo to offer the system for less than its launch price?
A historical anomaly
When it comes to consistent console pricing, the Switch is truly in a class by itself. As of this writing, the Switch has been available in North America for over five years—nearly 2,000 days—yet it’s still being sold in the US for the same $299.99 you would have paid when the system launched in March, 2017.
To say this is unprecedented in the game industry is an understatement.
Looking back through the history of game console pricing, we found that the vast majority of consoles see their first price drop within a year or two of launch. It’s a pattern that encompasses successful systems like the PS2 (which dropped from $300 to $200 about 17 months after its US launch) to stinkers like the Wii U (which saw a $50 price drop just 10 months after launch), and almost everything in between.
The few consoles that do make it out of their second full year without a price drop almost invariably see some sort of reduction in year three. The Switch, on the other hand, has now shot through years three, four, and five at its original price.
After five years on the market, the average game console (that hasn’t stopped production entirely by that point) sells for an average price that’s about 50 to 60 percent of its nominal launch price (depending on whether you look at the mean or the median). The Switch, which is still at 100 percent of its nominal launch price over five years after launch, is a huge outlier.
The only previous console that’s really in the same price-stability ballpark as the Switch is the Nintendo Wii. That system finally dropped from $250 to $200 in November of 2009, just over 1,100 days after its late-2006 launch. The Switch, for its part, is now threatening to double that record.