Kev’s Slog #10

I’ve been watching several presentations from this year’s GDC conference, and some of them are extremely good.  The Game Developers Conference is about people in the video game industry talking to other developers about what they are doing, and maybe they can help others learn from their successes and mistakes.  Some of the presentations are quite informative and interesting.   I’ll try to see if any are worth commenting on in the future, but the presentations are an hour long each so they are quite time consuming.

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Some press, including Jim Sterling, recently blasted the conference for some of the presentations.  One of the worst offenders was called “Monetizing Teens in a Safe and Legal Manner.”  I will admit that looking at that title will make many people feel truly disgusted, as I think that video games are already exploiting fans enough, and now they are going after children that may not know better.

But this proves a point.  If you just read the headline and not any of the context, then you often miss the big picture.  I hate to say it, but that means that Jim Sterling jumped to conclusions and got some of his information wrong.

If you’re wondering, that GDC presentation wasn’t about monetizing teens at all.  It’s about free-to-play games that are targeting all audiences (which there are millions), and telling developers how to put in parental controls and prevent kids from unintentionally spending money.  Unfortunately, yes, many F2P games target children.  I need to emphasize that I do not approve of it.  However, I’m saying that singling out video games for criticism is very silly, because millions of products intentionally exploit children, including animated movies, breakfast cereal, toys, snack food, and fast-food restaurants.

In any case, I think that parents should be more active in their children’s lives and families should establish ground rules about phone usage.

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Alexander Bruce, the creator of Antichamber, talked about his game at the GDC conference that happened last month.  He talked about how he spent seven years working on the game.  There were a number of truly fascinating things that I learned from the hour-long presentation.

You may know that the game was originally called Hazard: The Journey of Life and it was a very deliberate and personal reason for this.  The game represented what he was going through and it’s almost an extension of himself.  Since it was called Hazard for the first four years in development, he didn’t want to change it.  But he talked to many other indie developers who told him that the title didn’t match the gameplay, and it made the game sound like a FPS game.  He then changed it after debating about it for weeks, and this was the right choice in retrospect.

I was surprised to hear that he didn’t actually write to Valve to have the game on Steam.  Instead, Valve contacted him and asked if he would use their platform, thus making his game an exclusive Steamworks title (like Civilization 5 and others).  This was in 2011, two years before he was ready to ship the game.  That’s how much they wanted his game.

Toward the end of the game development, Alexander Bruce started to lose his mind, and I’m not saying that figuratively.  The pressure of making the game was immense and he was literally breaking down.  He had been fighting so hard to get noticed and get recognized by the media and the industry.  When he was starting to get it, it only made him more depressed as all the negatives of fame came with it, such as the fear of failure.  And worse, he spent so long working on getting fame that when he got it, then it felt like he had no goal anymore.

I need to point out that he is not alone.  Davey Wredon, the developer of The Stanley Parable, mentioned the exact same thing–that fame makes you sad after a time, and it’s hard to understand unless you’ve become relatively famous.  Wredon says that he doesn’t like talking about his game anymore and wants to move on.

At the very end, Antichamber was a huge hit.  It became the #1 best selling on Steam for a time, a feat that’s very hard to do as an indie game developer.  Alexander Bruce had the three things that every person wants:  He was incredibly rich.  He was famous and respected by his peers.  He had dozens of awards across the industry.  You’d think that having the holy trinity of success would make him very happy, but it didn’t.  It broke something inside him.  He had the kind of mental breakdown that is frequently exaggerated on TV, where he would scream at himself in a mirror.  He said that it’s hard to understand because most people can’t see a downside to wealth or fame.

At the very end, he had a Q&A session.  He only answered five questions, but the shortest one was the most powerful.  “Was it worth it?”  Alexander Bruce paused for a second and gave a very interesting answer.  He said that if it was a year ago, then he would have said that he wasn’t sure.  But now that he’s gotten help and he’s doing better, then maybe it was worth it.  However, it’s unclear if Alexander Bruce will ever design another video game ever again.

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Kev’s Slog #9

I almost broke my hand today trying to beat the train in the Dunwall City Trials DLC in Dishonored.  I’ve never pushed so hard on some buttons trying to run a mission in only 31 seconds, and my hands really are hurting from trying so hard.  Keep in mind that I’m actually 43 years old and it’s really hard to play modern games at this age.

Which leads me into my next point.  I really don’t understand why any video game would feature achievements/game modes where they feature Speed Runs or Challenge Missions.  Both are never popular and are really hated by the general gamer audience.  For developers that don’t understand why they are so hated, let me give a quick explanation.

First of all, Speed Runs are the absolute irony of video gaming:  Games get shorter all the time, but then somebody decided to make an entire game mode where you skip as much content as possible.  Let’s pretend that all that work into your game is really unimportant and finish the game as fast as possible.  It’s like paying money to go to a theme park and you time how fast you can run to the nearest exit.

Second, Challenge Missions are nothing but asking the player to Beat the Robot.  “I programmed a gaming robot to play this game at 99% efficiency.  But if you can play at 99.1% efficiency, then I’ll give you a five star rating and a ranking on this leaderboard.”  You know what other game type makes you play like a robot?  Racing games.  If you’re wondering why the racing genre has become nothing but a niche market, then there’s your answer.

You could say that I could ignore this content if I don’t like it, but that’s not my point.  It’s junk content that many people had to take time creating.  Somebody had to come up with the level design, play test it, debug it, etc.  All that time and effort could have gone into something else.  If anything, Challenge Mission DLC (which is in many triple-A games, not just Dishonored) only seems to back the argument that some DLC are nothing but borderline junk just to increase profit margins.

As an aside, Dishonored is a game made by Arkane Studios, a company located here in Austin.  I think Dishonored is a fantastic game, just not that DLC.  If the Steam statistics are even remotely accurate, then I’m not alone in this opinion.

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Indie games that I’m seriously keeping my eye on, and they should have a release sometime this year:

* Below:  This is made by Capy (a.k.a. Capybara Games) and it’s the same team that made Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery.  The latter was a really weird art game that begged to be called pretentious, and it was either loved or hated by fans/critics.  This game doesn’t appear to be as odd.  The most recent trailer clearly states a future Steam release.

* Miegakure:  After four years of being totally silent (and being denied from the Indie Game Fund), there’s a new demo video showing the game.  This game is impossible to describe because it’s about moving along the fourth dimension.  It’s so hard to understand that many people are going to buy this game just to get their mind blown.  I am making the brazen prediction that Marc ten Bosch wants to deliver it this game this year.  It’s got a guaranteed slot on Steam since it’s an IGF winner.

* Secrets of Raetikon:  This is in Steam Early Access already but I never realized that the game was so interesting.  It’s actually a physics puzzle game but it’s barely known by the public at all.  You are a bird and you spend most of the game flying.  It’s very pretty.  The only fear that I have is how hard is it to control your character.  It doesn’t look easy since you have to do moves in mid-air.

I do know about Hack & Slash, Citizens of Earth, Last Life, Dead Synchronicity, etc.  I’m withholding judgment on those games until I can get more details.

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Kev’s Slog #8

Seven days is all we get to play BattleBlock Theater’s closed beta test.  Each day, we have to do something in the game to test a feature.  It’s serious and we have to fill out a survey afterwards.  There’s several secret forums, which only the beta testers and developers can see, to discuss bugs, suggestions, and general commentary.  I re-read my contract, and I can’t review the game.  This means, I believe, that I can’t even tell you guys what I think about the game.

However, I can tell you guys this.  I am absolutely horrible at BattleBlock Theater.  It looks so simple from the Let’s Play videos.  Youtube streaming pros just chat and tell jokes while they seemingly glide through this platforming game like an elegant swan.  On the other hand, I just play like a drunk bear.  I scream “Damn it!” (and much worse profanity) as I mistime my jump for the sixth time in a row and fall to my death.  Because of this, I can confirm that I would never be good at making Let’s Play videos.

I can point out something about BattleBlock Theater without violating my NDA.  The game is clever in ways that many people don’t realize.  For example, there’s shallow water and there’s lava.  Now you can guess which would be dangerous in most games and which would be safe.  But in BattleBlock Theater, if you touch any water then you instantly fall in and drown.  Lava, on the other hand, is relatively harmless and they are used to make you jump REALLY high.

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I need to talk about GAME_JAM.  Game journalists, Youtube streamers, and indie developers have all gotten wind of this story, and it’s shown how much damage one event can do.  The story broke this morning with the writer, Jared Rosen, saying that he may get fired afterwards.  The problem is that he was writing about how his parent company (i.e., his bosses) completely screwed up and lost over $400,000 in the process.

I’ll give you the quick rundown.  Some time ago, the founders of Indie Statik and Game Jolt had an idea about coming up with a documentary show called GAME_JAM.  The idea was that famous indie game developers would be invited to their studios for an authentic game jam.  They would create a game and the whole thing would be filmed and turned into a documentary show.  What was new was that Youtube celebrities would be involved–they would work on the game also and also actively promoting it on their channels.

The idea was that this would push indie game development into the spotlight.  It could potentially be huge as it would have multiple game developers and Youtube celebrities.  Somebody began thinking that this wasn’t going to be thousands of viewers, but maybe millions of viewers.

Somebody at Polaris, the media company behind the event, got greedy or stupid.  They now wanted corporate sponsors to finance it.  And somebody did:  Mountain Dew.  If you’ve been keeping up with gaming news, this kind of corporate sponsorship has had a very negative connotation in recent times.  (Google “Doritogate” if you don’t believe me.)  At the very least, it pushes the stereotype that gamers drink “Mtn Dew”.

Once a corporation was now paying for the show, the game jam quickly devolved into a horrible reality show.  It wasn’t even a documentary anymore.  The show became a competition with (terrible) prizes attached.  Like all reality shows, the executive producer wanted to sensationalize the show to make it more interesting.  He’d intentionally goad the developers to try to get them to start in-fighting or arguments with the other groups.  (If you’ve noticed, all reality shows often feature a conflict that strangely has to be resolved in each episode.)  The show quickly turned into a farce and all the developers walked out on the first day of the shoot.

In the end, almost a half-million dollars was wasted in the production of a show that would never be made.  Even worse, stories about the fiasco are quickly spreading around the Internet, and even developers and Youtube celebrities that weren’t there have voiced their opinions about it.  But this could have an ironic silver lining:  Because GAME_JAM was such a disaster, it’s become a teaching tool and there’s now other game jams being started.

As a shameless plug and to tie this back to Steam, the upcoming Super Game Jam–a documentary series which will be on Steam for free–should be a really brilliant documentary series.  That’s going to be done as a short documentary series featuring two developers who have never worked together to come up with a game that’s out of their element.  The intent isn’t to make a super-great game, but to see how the game design process works and how developers come up with original ideas when they work in an unfamiliar environment.  As an aside, the series is being sponsored by Devolver Digital, the indie publishing company located in Austin where I live.

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Kev’s Slog #7

The game Ether One is finally coming out on March 25 and it looks very brilliant.  The original trailer made it look very action oriented, but there’s no shooting or running in this first game.  It’s an Unreal engine game, it’s a standard adventure game that’s a little different.  If you want, you can just wander around if you want with no enemies or time constraints, and you’ll experience the story at your leisure.  However, there’s puzzles in the game that when solved, add to the storyline and enhance the experience.  The puzzles are incredibly difficult.  One key feature is that you can only hold one item at a time, so this goes against adventure gaming where you randomly collect inventory items and then throw all of them at a puzzle to somehow solve a puzzle by accident.  Still, the puzzles are reportedly logical and they avoid most of the pitfalls that show up in most point-and-click adventure games.

The story is that you’re a Restorer, a person that is trying to fix the memories of people that have damaged minds (in this case, dementia).  But as always, there’s more to it than you’d expect.

There is one caveat that I should point out for this game.  This is called Ether One on purpose, as it’s the first game in a series.  The game will not have a definite ending yet as there’s plans for Ether Two (and who knows, maybe even Ether Three).  Of course, this is all pending as sales, press, and fan reaction will determine if more games get made.  This is a problem with many episodic games as you never really know when you’ll see the rest of it, and even my beloved Kentucky Route Zero has been criticized by some for its slow release schedule.  But even KRZ is not the most notorious episodic game with no conclusion.  Valve fans will know what game that I’m talking about.

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Super Game Jam will be a new documentary about indie game development.  While there’s been many films about indie games lately, there’s three interesting things about this one.

One, the documentary is being produced by the indie publisher Devolver Digital (located right in my city of Austin).  Devolver Digital’s most recently published game is Luftrausers, but Hotline Miami has to be their biggest success story so far.

Two, the film will go straight to Steam, indicating that Valve is pre-approving this documentary without Greenlight or anything else.  I sometimes wonder if this is part of Valve’s new initiative of releasing films on Steam.  The Dota 2 documentary “Free To Play” is on the verge of being released to everyone.  Also, in a recent Reddit AMA, Gabe Newell has stated that Valve is still working with J.J. Abrams on whatever secret film/game project(s) that they have planned.

And finally, the film will be broken into five chapters which will release one a month starting in April rather than one long film.  Each chapter will be under an hour, and each will be a self-contained story.  The idea behind Super Game Jam is that two individuals from different indie developers must sit down and create a brand-new game in a 48-hour game jam.  In short, ten total people must create five unique games.  The developers have been carefully picked to have very different styles of games to make sure that they won’t create another game of the same genre.  Some of the developers are quite famous indie developers and I think this could be an interesting experiment if done properly.

See the trailer here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyJf0k2s59g

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Kev’s Slog #6

First topic is: The Steam Greenlight

50 more games were Greenlit today. Now games are being Greenlit so fast that it barely matters anymore, and I wonder why the system is still there other than to get early fan feedback. I don’t recognize a majority of the games as there’s just too many indies for me to review. But some of them are mildly important, and I suggest that you look at these:
* Aperture Tag: The Paint Gun Testing Initiative – most Portal mods are being approved almost instantly
* BeamNG.drive – the alternative to Bugbear Entertainment’s Next Car Game
* Galactic Princess – in danger of not making its Kickstarter, but a clever idea
* GhostControl Inc. – blatantly obvious homage to Ghostbusters, but it could be better than any Ghostbusters game
* Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge – I can’t believe this game got in, but it makes me smile

I need to talk about Ultionus for a second. If you look at it, it is extremely sexist. The heroine wears a “space bikini” which barely fits her. The game is essentially a remake/reboot of Phantis, a game from 1987 that iconifies “casual sexism”. The game is intentionally trying to get people mad at how inappropriate it is, and it’s also amusing to see teenage males defend the art style. In effect, it’s one of the most trolling games out there, and now it’ll be on Steam.

Also, I’m keeping my eye out for the game Cinders, which also got Greenlit. I really love the beautiful art if nothing else.

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Second topic is: The Closing of Irrational Games
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Kev’s Slog #5

Steam is very careful about protecting certain parts of their system, such as their database and such.  Steam updates are frequently picked apart by gamers and sometimes Valve intentionally trolls gamers that keep trying to dig through it looking for “scoops”.

There’s other areas that nobody wants to look at, and this information is hilariously out in plain sight.  Steam often releases information there and nobody ever looks at it.  Seeing games there doesn’t confirm a release date, but it does mean it’ll come out in six months or less, with less being more true.

Last week, for example, I knew that Girls Like Robots was coming out along with some others, but by the time I could write about it, these games were released.  If you’re wondering, Girls Like Robots is a puzzle game and I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m awful at the game.  I can’t get a perfect score on the demo, and I feel like I should take a remedial class in puzzle-solving.
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Journey to the West: My Trip to Valve

It’s now years after the Portal 2 ARG and nobody really thinks about it anymore.  But I wanted a permanent place for my story, and so I’m posting it here.  It’s still an important time of my life, and I think this would be the biggest thing that I’ve won in my lifetime.  It’s strange thinking about it like that; my greatest achievement may be playing video games.

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Originally, I picked my screen name as “Ariel Faith Plate” only a few weeks prior to the Portal 2 launch since I thought it would be relevant and a seemingly-clever pun. Because instead of “Aerial”, it’s “Ariel” and so it almost sounds like a real name? In retrospect, it was an incredibly lame joke, and later Robin Walker told me the same thing. However, my nickname started showing up in the ARG notes and such. If I changed it, then people wouldn’t be able to identify me anymore. I was stuck with it for the duration of the event, even though it was like intentionally calling yourself “Marion” or some other tacky name.

When Anna Sweet contacted me for the first time, I assumed that it was a bad troll. She asked me to call a phone number as she was from Valve. I told her that if she was really from Valve then she could e-mail me as my e-mail address was almost completely private. When the e-mail arrived only a minute later, I said, “I’m so very sorry.”
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Kev’s Slog #4

I examine dozens of video games every day and sometimes I get excited for them.  The one game that has me the most excited is Banished and it’ll be here in a few weeks on Steam.

Banished is a real-time strategy/city building game about a group of exiled travelers that have come to settle in a new and potentially dangerous land.  The goal is to just survive and make the colony flourish.  The game uses randomly generated maps so the challenge is different each time you start.  You’ll need careful resource management and a smart planning if you want the colonists to get everything.  It sounds easy, but the game could be called a very calm roguelike.

The most amazing thing is that this is being developed by just one person.  Shining Rock Software is essentially just Luke Hodorowicz.  There are a few excellent games that have been done by essentially one person, these include Gunpoint and Dust: An Elysian Tale.  Also, any game made by Blendo Games (Atom Zombie Smasher, Flotilla, Gravity Bone/30 Flights of Loving) are created with just Brandon Chung, although the upcoming Quadrilateral Cowboy is being done by two people.  In each of these games, the music is typically done by another person but the single developer has obviously creative control.

The second thing is that this game doesn’t use money and it has no requirements for its tech tree.  It’s absolutely possible to build end-game structures immediately as long as you have the resources.  In many games, the intent is to just maximize population but this game is very different.  People aren’t treated as a simple number or an abstract concept.  Each person in the game gets a name and they are all animated, and they all age and eventually die.  People are literally your most valuable resource and you can’t just build houses and suddenly get more.

I’m doing a poor job selling the game, because it’s hard to describe without seeing it for yourself.  I strongly suggest that you look up videos or the Steam store page and see the demo video.  All I can say is that Banished is one of those games that makes me mesmerized when I watch it.  There was a Let’s Play video of the beta build and it lasted an hour.  I watched the entire video without stopping, completely amazed, and the video ended at the hour mark without being completed.  I was almost upset because I wanted to see what happened next.

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Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1 spoilers

A couple spoilery discussions for Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1.

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What I’m Playing #1

I find myself wanting to come to CootB, but just having random things to write about seems unlikely to produce the relevant mental discipline.

So! A series! Weekly (where Weekly exists in the universe that the Podcasts come out monthly)! Fun!

This is going to cover a range of things, with a single theme: What I’m Playing (hence the title). Whether that be board game, PC game, console game, MMO, iOS app, whatever, it’s going in here. Which makes sense for me, because I veer wildly between what I’m doing, often in a single night. It’s part reviews, part discussion, part musings on whatever I want. Which is what really drives readers!

So!

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