Everyone loves games with a retro aesthetic. Even if that aesthetic isn’t very authentic, an older art style makes it possible for an indie game developer to communicate their gameplay ideas without spending all of their resources on art.
Many games choose a lo-fi art style for that reason, sometimes it’s pixely, Geneshiftis another breed. Nik Nak Studios’ Ben Johnson instead chose to start developing Geneshift 8 years ago with an overhead perspective borrowed from Grand Theft Auto 2, before that series went third-person and open world.
Geneshift borrows a lot from GTA 2, the cars, the art style, and the perspective, but it also borrows from Diablo and other action-RPGs to have a single-player story alongside multiplayer. I haven’t been able to get into a game, but there appears to be a fairly large community of players on the game’s discord server.
Rogue Legacy was a new style of metroidvania. It reset the castle when your character died, just like Rogue and Nethack, and randomly generated a new castle when you came back to life. Dead Cells has those generated dungeons and also changes out the progression system and combat to be somewhat Souls-like. I love the variety of weapons and effects that speak a little bit more to Symphony of the Night while the art reminds me of the Neo Geo classic, Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
It is in Steam’s Early Access program, but it felt very far along to me, much further than most other Early Access games.
Today we’re announcing changes to gifts on Steam. The gifting process has had a bunch of friction in it for a while, and we want to make it easier for you to share the games you love with friends. Steam Gifting will now be a system of direct exchange from gift buyer to gift receiver, and we will be retiring the Gift to E-mail and Gift to Inventory options.
The post goes on to elaborate about enabling the scheduling of Steam gifts, which is new and should have been in years ago, but also has a few more changes that aren’t good:
Declined Gifts Resolve The Way They Should
In the old system, a declined gift would sneak back into the giver’s inventory and remain on their bill. Now, if a recipient already has the title, or just doesn’t want it, they can click decline and the purchase is refunded directly to the gift giver.
A refund of a declined gift should be an option, but it shouldn’t be the default.
Picture this: Sally buys Fran Civilization V on sale. Fran decides she doesn’t want Civilization V. The only thing that can happen now is that Sally gets her money back.
Two other things that should be options, in addition to a refund for the gift purchaser, are:
Fran gets the refund as Steam credit (or cash, which is probably better), so that Fran can decide what she would rather have. This is what normally happens if Fran gets a gift that she returns from a store.
Fran sends the gift back to Sally. Sally is presented with the options of keeping the gift in her gift inventory to decide what to do with it later, or Sally can keep the gift for herself, or Sally can return it for a refund. This means that Sally doesn’t miss out if she bought Civilization V during a sale and would like to do something else with the gift without losing out on the sale price.
I also wonder how this will work out for developers. If a gift is refunded 5 months or a year from now, how is Valve going to claw those dollars back from the developer’s future profits?
Safe Cross-Country Gifting
No more worrying if a Gift to E-mail or Gift to Inventory is going to work for a friend, gifts sent through the new system will always work on the receiver’s account. When there is a large difference in pricing between countries, gifting won’t be available and you’ll know before purchase.
This is Valve working around a problem they had where people in countries that had lower prices on games could purchase games for people living in countries where game prices were artificially inflated.
For example, games can be very expensive in Australia or Canada so folks in the United States would buy games for their friends overseas. There’s absolutely no good reason for the price of games to be inflated elsewhere, they’re digital goods and aren’t extra difficult to virtually ship. It does make sense in some cases to drop the price when the local economy can’t support purchases, however.
Either way, this is a really shitty move on Valve’s part. They talk a lot about decisions only being made in favor of the people buying games from them. This is not benefiting anyone but Valve and publishers.
Multiplayer shooters are changing. What was a field dominated by arena free-for-all shooters and then samey-military combat games where the most significant change was the switch from World War 2 to the modern military aesthetic and then to the future has now become forked down the path of realism mixed with the old arena combat.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds takes a bit of survival games like the eternally unfinished Day-Z and combines it with battle royale books and movies to turn the game into an incredibly tense, brief, survival arena combat experience.
Battlegrounds is a modern-military shooter set on an island where up-to 100 players parachute in from a transport aircraft with nothing but their fists to start. All other weapons are scattered around the limited rural towns and buildings that make up the human settlements of this island along with clothes and kevlar and ammo and kitchen implements.
The hundred players have just one life each to squander as they choose. As you glide to the ground you’ll see other players picking their starting spot. Landing near buildings at the start can help you get armed, but you might have more competition.
Landing on the southern-most detached island is stupid because there are two bridges off of it and you’re going to die.
If the game stopped innovating there, everyone would be wise to just camp in buildings. That definitely still happens, but the brilliant change versus Day-Z and other survival games is that Battlegrounds forces players together by enclosing a slow moving force field on a timer around a randomly picked circular section of the map. At the same time, a player count is ticking from 100 down to 1 and you hope to be the last person left alive.
As the playable area of the map shrinks, players are forced out of camping into taking risks like running through open fields to reach the newly smaller playable zone.
Unlike most other shooters, this take on a multiplayer battle royale is the only way to play Battlegrounds. There’s no capture-the-flag. No team deathmatch. Just trying to stay in a shrinking circle on an in-game map where each minute alive adds more value to your character and leaves behind only the most skilled players hunting each other down to be the last one standing.
I thought it would be much more terrifying to lose a character after 10 minutes, the game gently rewards you at the end of every match with some in-game currency to unlock new character customization options and tells you how many players were left when you perished.
At that point you’re almost guaranteed to have found a few nicer weapons and modified them with better scopes and found a bigger backpack.
Most modern shooters limit players to just a few weapons on their person at any time and Battlegrounds isn’t different there. You get two long guns, a pistol, and some grenades if you’re lucky enough to find them. Even better is finding a vehicle that can feel like your ticket to the top ten until the playable zone shrinks to the point where you’re forced on foot.
Managing that inventory is a bit fiddly and I wish it were simplified so that it wasn’t such an incredible risk to sort through it while playing.
Once, when I was playing with a group of three, we had been surviving for about 30 minutes and we reached the outskirts of a set of a factory buildings. One of the team was separated from us as we clambered down a hill into the valley. We heard gunfire and knew that we couldn’t do anything for him at our new lower vantage point.
Now down to just two survivors, we found a multi-story building on the lot stocked with weapons and vantage points to snipe from. It was almost in the center of the playable circle on the map, so we set up shop. Switching jobs between watching the stairs and peeking out of the windows for any survivors trying to move on our building. This felt perfect as we watched the player count dwindle down from about 50 to under 20.
As the force field closed in we realized we were going to have to give up our safe house and run for the new playable area, but Battlegrounds had a new trick. We were stuck against the side of a mountain. There’s no way to climb, so we were quickly sapped of our health by the force field in third place because we didn’t think to look for an escape route.
I don’t know yet if the gameplay is going to get tiresome without the progression of other post-Modern Warfare shooters to level your character and unlock new guns and accessories. All you can unlock now with the coins rewarded after a match are clothing items for character customization.
A lot can change, the game has all kinds of bugs as it is still in Steam’s Early Access program, but it is refreshing to play something new and different in Battlegrounds. Already it takes great moments from my favorite survival games like Day-Z and packages then up into more streamlined bite-sized chunks. Scavaging for items. Lying in wait for every other cutthroat bastard once you have something worth protecting. Every game is unique. It’s thrilling to get these scenes condensed into a new experience.
Every death is a new anecdote. Just now I made it to 12th place and had everything I could want. While racing in a newly acquired dune buggy to escape the forcefield into the new playable area, I forgot that the game’s physics are janky. I pulled up to one of the only two shacks in an open field and got out of my car, but because of the jank my character immediately died from falling damage because the car wasn’t completely stopped.
That might sound frustrating, but it was hilarious at the time.
This is what I love about Battlegrounds. Each life in its world is a delightful mess that leaves you with a story to tell.
Valve is about to overhaul Steam in order to ensure that good games are visible and lazily developed games created for the purpose of making a quick buck—which Valve apparently calls “fake games”—sink beneath a sea of algorithms.
I’m not sure how this works, Valve have gone from saying that they want to take a more hands-off approach (back in 2014) to this new war on “fake games.”
The problem with this system, of course, is that it risks burying a handful of good games, as well. To combat this issue, Valve is going to introduce a program called Steam Explorers. Explorers will play through queues of games that haven’t been selling super well. If they dig a game, they can flag it. The more games get flagged, the more the algorithmic gods will smile upon them.
Anybody will be able to be an Explorer, much like Steam Curators. They’ll also get their own forum, so they can do things like arrange multiplayer matches in games that nobody else is playing.
The solution to all problems is unpaid labor from their community while they’re raking in profits. If this were EA with Origin, or Ubisoft’s uPlay, or basically anyone besides Valve, there would be a lot more people upset about not being paid to work. Or you would hope that people would be upset about their passion for games being exploited when Valve could just hire people to help curate the service.
I’ve also noticed the Link having a positive impact on my terrible attention span. When I’m playing at my desk I’m forever alt-tabbing to check Twitter or any number of stupid distractions. And I’ll usually last an hour in a game before quitting and doing something else. But camped out on the sofa, my attention doesn’t wander as much. I pay more attention to what I’m playing, and play it for longer, which is a discipline I thought I’d lost.
The Steam Link is Valve’s tiny computer that links any HDMI display to your gaming computer, running Steam, over a local network connection. I’ve had it for a few months and have been enjoying it despite a few obstacles, some of which Valve can’t work around.
The Link doesn’t take up a lot of space but it manages to fit several ports:
3 USB 2.0
As well as Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 AC wifi.
You can connect wired Xbox One and 360 controllers as well as wireless 360 controllers with the Windows adapter. Valve also has their wireless Steam Controller, which is a middle ground for games that don’t support the Microsoft gamepads. If you need a mouse and keyboard they can be used as well.
Once everything is hooked up and the Link is connected over a wired Ethernet network to your gaming computer, you get a one-time code that allows the Link to verify your access to the remote gaming computer.
The computer’s display will be mirrored to the TV over the local network almost as if it were directly connected. Steam’s big picture mode boots up and it reformats their regular desktop interface for a more console style appearance and input from devices attached to the Link is sent back to the host machine over the network.
From big picture mode you can launch any games that Steam supports, though if you’re not using a Steam controller or mouse and keyboard, and the game doesn’t advertise controller support to Steam, you’ll have to pass a warning checkpoint to continue playing the game.
Although there is also an option to minimize big picture and use the desktop directly, I haven’t had much success navigating the desktop with a gamepad.
Performance on the Link is impressive. I had previously tried Steam’s built-in streaming to a micro computer hooked up to my TV and it never worked well. There were bursts of latency and a “slow network” error message would appear in a tiny font in the lower left corner of the screen. I don’t have a lot of time to diagnose networking issues and was surprised that it wasn’t up to snuff. My networking equipment isn’t that old, and while streaming will be difficult for a wireless network it should have been OK on the wired network.
The diagnostic steps I tried, reducing the number of pieces of networking equipment between the desktop gaming computer and the TV, swapping out network switches, none of them worked and I had given up on streaming. I figured the challenge wasn’t the streaming so much as keeping it to a low latency that Steam would need for a game to be playable. That’s why it is less likely to work over a wireless connection where interference and distance could prevent a solid connection.
When the Steam Link was discounted to $35 (down from $50) I purchased it and kept the receipt thinking that it might perform better than the pre-release developer-focused Steam Machine had, and was surprised to find that the Steam Link performed perfectly on my network. It streamed 1080p, 60 FPS video fluidly.
So if the Steam Link performed well, what are those obstacles? There are a few.
When a game doesn’t work right for whatever reason, maybe it locks up when launched, maybe it crashed while you were playing, when this happens the Link can get stuck in limbo and you’ll be forced to walk away to the desktop computer and force the game to quit.
Technical issues with games aren’t something Valve can prevent. Quality control is up to the developer and publisher. When this happens and it feels like something specific to games running on computers that they’re just going to crash in ways that aren’t recoverable from a controller because computer operating systems aren’t built with gamepads in mind.
These problems happen most often for me with non-Steam games. While some work fine if they’re added to Steam in desktop mode first, like Overwatch, others just won’t work well. That makes me want to try Nvidia’s competing Shield TV console that also includes game streaming. It has the benefit of not being affiliated with any particular digital download system, so it might be better at handling games from Origin, for example. The downside to their Shield console is that it is $200 new when the Steam Link is priced at $50 (without a controller) and I’ve seen it on sale as low as $20 during holiday sales.
Overall I am very satisfied with playing Steam games over the Steam Link. It’s a terrific experience to sit down on the couch, turn on a gamepad and have the Link remotely turn on my desktop computer and start playing Fallout 4 without hauling your computer around or using an extremely long HDMI cable. I just wish the Link had better support for games from third party services, or that third parties would stop exclusively releasing their games through other desktop download stores. There’s an opportunity for a third party to develop software that encapsulates gog, Origin, itch, Blizzard, and Uplay games into Steam for more streamlined streaming and game library management.
“When you have big red letters on your profile announcing everyone you have a ban, the experience is never going to be good,” said Oliveira. “If you don’t suck at a game, they will right away point a finger at you and accuse you of cheating. You get told so many times that ‘Once a cheater, always a cheater.’ I knew I did it, I knew I would never do it again, and I wanted to prove that that was not me. But how do you do that? How will they believe you? Yeah, no. It’s the biggest badge of shame a person can have in an online world.”
Oliveira found himself taunted when playing games, years after his initial offense. He couldn’t shake the stink, and Valve offered no recourse. He was, for at least seven years, a cheater.
Bizarre to me is that everyone interviewed agreed the policy was generally acceptable.
This program lacks nuance. Policies against cheating are good, but without more granularity in enforcement it’s kind of ridiculous. Someone who cheats at Counter-Strike for ten minutes shouldn’t necessarily be punished the same as another person who cheats for a month.
A few years ago I asked at a Valve GDC booth for job-seekers if they ever had room for online community managers. It’s not surprising the Valve employee thought the idea of them hiring an online community manager was ridiculous after reading this article from Patrick. The one-size-fits-all kind of anti-cheat enforcement has the stink of developers making community decisions all over it.
The next step in these improvements is to establish a new direct sign-up system for developers to put their games on Steam. This new path, which we’re calling “Steam Direct,” is targeted for Spring 2017 and will replace Steam Greenlight. We will ask new developers to complete a set of digital paperwork, personal or company verification, and tax documents similar to the process of applying for a bank account. Once set up, developers will pay a recoupable application fee for each new title they wish to distribute, which is intended to decrease the noise in the submission pipeline.
While we have invested heavily in our content pipeline and personalized store, we’re still debating the publishing fee for Steam Direct. We talked to several developers and studios about an appropriate fee, and they gave us a range of responses from as low as $100 to as high as $5,000. There are pros and cons at either end of the spectrum, so we’d like to gather more feedback before settling on a number.
Steam Direct sounds like Valve is moving a little bit closer to the free-for-all of itch, which is good but $5000 is a bit much. They should have had the dollar amount straight before going live with this.