Gaming trials, tribulations, observations, and revelations

29Mar What I’m Thinking About Now: Some Super-Quick Updates

Some things which I am finding interesting in the world of gaming, as of now:

-I came across the game Nitronic Rush recently (  It’s a racing game with a very nice aesthetic and I hope to try it out tonight.  Also, it’s totally free, so why not download it?  Also free?  It’s entire 23-track soundtrack, which I have listened to, and it’s quite respectable techno.

-Also, found on a linked page to the first one: Solace (  From the site, it’s “an interactive aesthetic experience utilizing dynamic audio and bullet hell overtones to provide a unique perspective on the five stages of grief.”  Dunno quite how that translates into actual gameplay yet, but it sounds kinda interesting.  Also free.

-There’s a kickstarter-esque campaign going on for an interesting project called CraftStudio (  It’s a sort of Minecraft-esque tool that allows you to visually assemble your own games from scratch.  This is something that should definitely happen, and I’m glad to seed that they’re already over halfway to their funding goal.  I’m definitely planning to contribute – $20 gets you the CraftStudio program and a full-length game created in the engine by the development team.

-“On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness,” one of the few good turn-based RPG games I’ve played (or even seen) recently for the PC, is on sale on Steam today – you get both episodes for the almost-free price of $1.50 each.  At that price, if you like JRPG-style game mechanics, it’s more than worth it (at the time of this writing, the deal was still good for roughly 16 hours).

29Mar A more nuanced view on gaming difficulty

As you may be aware, this blog often touches on the topic of gaming difficulty and frustration, and the issue with difficulty being a roadblock that prevents the player from experiencing the whole of what a game has to offer.   However, I should probably clarify that sentiment.   When I talk about being able to explore the entirety of a game’s content, I am generally talking about games where doing so is important in order to get the full experience, narrative-based games especially – if you run up against a difficulty spike in a Mass Effect game, for instance, you miss out on a large part of the story which is the underpinning of the game, an issue you would not have with a game like Minesweeper.   Or, for games without a narrative, you should at least be able to unlock all of the different modes of play (for an example, I recently played some Bejeweled 3, and while I generally do quite poorly at many of the game modes, even at my amateur skill I was able to fairly easily unlock all of the game modes), or for a racing-type game, to be able to have access to all of the tracks to at least play around on in time trial (a good example of this is Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, where unlocking the additional courses is handled based on how long you play the game, rather than how well you do, so that you can eventually unlock just about everything).

There are, however, other games where the entire mechanic of the game is based around simply doing as well as you possibly can before the game-over screen that don’t necessarily work with the model of unlocking everything.   SHMUPs, for example, the scrolling shooters where you’re constantly bombarded by enemy fire, can work with a level-select function (although the most recent on I can think of was Bullet Ex, for really old Mac computers), although given how such games progress in difficulty, warping to the later levels will still only yield scant seconds of gameplay before you’re overwhelmed.   In a situation like this, I would still suggest giving players the option to try all the levels, but having a system like the game Jamestown does make sense, where you can select levels, but the harder ones are locked until you can pass the initial levels with reasonable proficiency.   I’m certainly conflicted by that design, but I can see their point – if you focus on the first levels and gain reasonable proficiency with them, you at least have a chance on the more difficult later levels, and it does counteract another factor in allowing the choice of any level at any time – people complaining about difficulty by jumping into the last level first and then growing frustrated at the difficulty, when they could have jumped into the easier level without issue.   There’s also the issue that with a SHMUP, a lot of the challenge is seeing how far you can get each time, and hoping for a good run where you finally get just a bit further than before, and I can see how jumping to any level can short-circuit that kind of motivation.   Still, I like to explore games as much as I can to see what they have to offer, and I like having the flexibility to jump in and check out all of the game’s environments, even for a few seconds.

(In fact, there’s a similar progression to the track unlocks in the driving game TrackMania – while certain tracks are easier to unlock, in the harder difficulties, even if all the tracks were unlocked, if you did not have the skills to unlock them you would most likely not get much further than the first section of track anyway – and, to be fair, there was always at least one of each set of harder tracks unlocked for you to try your hand against.   Again, though, and this is true with most SHMUPs as well, there’s not much story to tie the tracks together, and you can still see as much of the environment of the game as you want through the easier tracks, or the built-in editor).

Beyond those games, however, is a realm of games where eventual failure is inevitable as an essential part of the game mechanic, or is in fact a major goal of the game.   A good example of the former is pinball, a game where the entire concept is that the ball will eventually, inevitably drain, and your goal is to score as much as you can before that happens – even if you complete everything a table has to offer, it loops around and you can do it over again, until the ball finally drains and you receive your score.   Admittedly, some of the more complex tables, like the later entries in the Pro Pinball series, have some narrative to them, but those tables also allow highly customizable settings that allow you to play for as long as you want, if your main objective is to follow that story.   For most pinball tables, though, the primary goal is the high score, and the fun is in playing the game itself for as long as you can.   In this case, it’s unclear what an unlock or easy mode could achieve – for the most complex story-based tables, it has some use, but I know from experience that playing a table endlessly gets boring quickly, and that the finite nature of pinball means that it is a self-contained experience that can keep you entertained for just long enough while you go for that high score, before it plateaus and starts to feel like a chore.

The second type of game includes roguelikes, such as the recent games Dungeons of Dredmor and The Binding of Isaac, and certain types of platform or puzzle games like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy.   In all of these games, failure is generally inevitable and sort of the point – Dredmor even congratulates you each time you die.   The notion of these games is a bit different, though.   The roguelikes are generally procedurally generated and quick to play, so each game is a bite-sized experience where you often see something new and unexpected, which then often proceeds to make mincemeat of your character.   Again, though, the fun in the game is in the experience, and the challenge of seeing just how far you can get with what the game gives you on that playthrough.   If you could simply progress through the game without challenge, the games would lose their point, as the overall mechanics are fairly simple, along with the fact that due to the generation, even a complete playthrough would only offer a small bit of what the game has to offer, which you can get with each new game regardless of how far you got on the last one.   I’ve played both, and I’ve enjoyed both quite a lot, despite never having gotten very far in either, because you do get a new experience each time, and all a death means is that you set up a new game and go exploring again with a different setup to see how well it fares.

Similarly, there’s less frustration in something like Super Meat Boy because there’s little penalty for death – die, and you’re ready to make another attempt just about instantaneously.   (Similarly, VVVVVV saves after most puzzles, but you do sometimes have to do a bit too much to get between saves).   In fact, completing a level in Super Meat Boy then gives you a simultaneous replay of all your attempts, showing your entire progression along the way to your successful run.   In this way, even failure is entertainingly rewarded, and it sends the message that the failure is anticipated.   That doesn’t necessarily make the levels less frustrating, but knowing that you’re expected to fail multiple times before you succeed certainly makes you more willing to try multiple iterative attempts before the frustration kicks in.  Additionally, while it is true that there’s not a new, randomly-generated experience to be had each time, games like this are stage-based and generally save after each challenge, meaning that they’re easy to pop into, play a bit, and then pop back out before a lot of frustration sets in – the fun is in each of the individual challenges, and you’re generally not just grinding through them and getting frustrated because they stand between you and the next part of a story you’re involved in.

What I’m trying to get at here is that when I talk about gaming difficulty and frustration, I’m not necessarily saying that I’m against game difficulty in all cases, or that having an easy progression path is even desirable in every single game genre (as, in fact, many of these genres would have a tendency to get boring without their challenge – there’s not much to Super Meat Boy if it’s just one giant series of jumps, and I know from experience playing certain easier pinball games that I’m far more likely to quit from boredom than actually run out of balls).  However, there are certain caveats – if a game has any sort of meaningful story or narrative that is the main focus, I should be able to experience all of it, without running into frustrating, impassible barriers.  Similarly, in games with different tracks or environments, I want to be able to access them all, even if some are technically beyond my skill level – in the aforementioned Bullet Ex, I tried the final level many times from the level select, and managed perhaps a minute of play each time before my ship was obliterated, but I still had fun trying, and I don’t think being locked out of even giving something a try is worthwhile.  And, if it’s a game based primarily on exploration, I want to be able to explore everywhere possible whether or not I can pass some arbitrary mission (an area where the Saints Row series, for example, excels, and one where the GTA series consistently fails).  All that being said, though, I have no beef with difficulty per se, and I do enjoy a challenge when it’s done right.

09Mar A quick alpha funding roundup

So, it’s been a while since I last checked in on the various alpha-funding projects I’ve mentioned before, and I wanted to do a quick roundup on how they’re doing, as well as some of the other new projects I’ve been looking into.

-Minecraft, of course, has had its official release, with some fairly decent post-release support.  I’ve been busy with other games, though, so I haven’t really touched it since then.  It’s still the best at what it does, although there are a number of entries in this space, including Cube World, and the similar-in-looks-only game 3079, which I’ll talk about in more detail below.

-Overgrowth continues to grow, with considerably impressive technology and just about the most brutal combat you’ll ever see in a fighting game.  I’ll have more to say about this when I have a chance to check out one of the more recent alpha builds.  It is, as of this writing, still available for preorder.

-Interstellar Marines, after a long period of dormancy, finally released Deadlock, their multiplayer combat preview that should show off some additional gameplay – however, it is apparently restricted to those who have actually submitted a preorder, which I have yet to do.  Interestingly, they do offer two preorder options, one for the first game, and one for the entirety of the planned trilogy (which seems like especially long odds given their pace of development), but it might be worth it if you want to support a high-quality shooter that’s not CODWhatever (and admittedly, you can preorder the trilogy for about 2/3 the price of a single current FPS game).

-I do want to report that Proteus now has an official beta preorder, which I have picked up, and the game really is shaping up to be properly brilliant.  While I’m sure some people would argue whether or not it’s properly a “game,” what it does provide is a vibrant, procedurally-generated world to explore, without the interference of goals or quests, where the whole point is to wander around and enjoy the environment, as well as the dynamic soundtrack that changes with your interactions.  That explanation hardly does it justice, though – it’s really something you need to experience firsthand.  It’s an incredibly beautiful and relaxing experience, and it’s a great project that you can just fire up for a few minutes to unwind – given that there are no set goals or savepoints, it’s the kind of game you can play for whatever duration you want.  (and, in fact, it’s the kind of game that I can’t help but wonder might have uses outside of the standard gaming environment – a virtual world called SnowWorld already shows promise for treating the pain of burn victims, and it seems like there might be a real space for a game/virtual world like this in certain therapeutic environments, or to help with relaxation and stress management).  There are multiple levels of preorder, and I would highly recommend getting this one, as the current build you can access through the preorder is considerably more impressive than the alpha build, and looking to get even more impressive still.

-Starfarer and A Valley Without Wind I haven’t kept up with much, although I’ve heard that Starfarer has made some impressive progress towards a proper interstellar campaign mode.  What I can say about it, though, is that it has perhaps the most detailed and meticulous ship combat that I’ve played, certainly since the days of EV Nova, and that I’m properly rubbish at controlling them so far – but if you’re willing to deal with a bit of complexity, it’s definitely worth it, and it’s certainly much easier to control than your average simulator.  I did, in fact, also pick up a copy of AVWW, and I have played it occasionally – however, while I was playing it the game was updated quite frequently (don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing), but the core mechanics were also undergoing a lot of updating that left me confused as to how some things worked between updates (and the update notes are surprisingly copious).  I do want to give this another look once things are a bit more stable on that front, which they may well be by now, and once some of the game areas are a bit more fleshed out (more on this once I’ve played a recent build).

-Indie Royale recently ran an Alpha Fund Bundle (which may or may not still display on that link by now), where people could support three recent games in development.  The one I’m most familiar with is 3079, which I’ve actually been following for a while before it became added to the bundle.  As I mentioned earlier, 3079 has a block-style world similar to Minecraft, but that’s where the similarity ends – aside from the procedurally-generated world, the heart of the game is a modern/future combat Action-RPG, where the idea is to fight in a war between two factions of creatures, leveling up your character and amassing better equipment, while seeking out the underlying cause of the conflict.  So far, I’ve rather enjoyed the game, as I’m quite fond of these types of RPGs.  The combat is pretty fun, with plenty of types of weapons (some of which can deform the environment) and fairly dynamic gunplay.  The environments also look fairly nice in their own right, and now have some rudimentary biomes.  The game also features dynamically generated quests based on your level and location, which adds some nice variety.  The only thing lacking is that for an RPG-type game, the story is so thin as to be almost nonexistent, with the combat taking the fore.  That being said, the game is still under very active development, and in fact if you play a current build you will most likely see a few features here and there that I suggested (the author of the game is very responsive to suggestions, and I can only hope his inclusion in the bundle doesn’t leave him too overwhelmed with feedback).  While that bundle is over, I am happy to see this sort of alpha funding taking off, and even without the bundle, I would recommend a preorder on this one, as for about $9 you get an already enjoyable beta version, with more features being added constantly and a lot of ambitious plans for future updates.

I’m sure there are many more I haven’t mentioned, but these are the ones I’ve recently been involved with.  I’ll keep updating with more interesting alpha projects as I find them.  This really is an interesting way to look at game development, and it’s hard to think of a more direct way that you can vote with your wallet to see the kind of games built that you’re interested in, especially if your interests fall outside of the mainstream genres that are served by the AAA-level game publishers.

20Sep Alpha Funding, One Year Later

About a year ago, I wrote an article talking about the shabby relationship major games developers have had with the people buying their games (a trend that, as previous posts I’ve made this year illustrate, is still alive and well), coupled with the ability to vote with your wallet – if you’re not always looking for AAA high-definition graphics, there are a lot of indie projects that you can help fund with a “functional preorder” – that is, a preorder where you get access to the current development builds of the software, and can follow it all the way through to its full release (and afterwards, in some cases).  By doing these preorders, you can directly use your funds to support the completion of projects you want to see realized, as well as get a fascinating under-the-hood look at how the game is developed, and how the gameplay evolves over time.  This trend still fascinates me, and so, one year on, I’d like to talk a little more about it, as well as mention some new games that I’ve looked into with this model.

A year on, and the commercial setup is about the same – the only games I bought at full retail were Fallout: New Vegas, a couple of DLC packs for it, Test Drive Unlimited 2 (and you probably know what I thought of that, ah, car wreck), and Mass Effect 2 (I think it was this year?).  Everything else was bought on sale, at a deep discount – 50% of retail or less for games not all that much older.  Looking forward, I’ve earmarked some funds for just 2 games: TES V: Skyrim, the sequel to Oblivion, and Saints Row 3 – two wide-open sandbox games in which I’m reasonably certain I’ll be able to make my own fun, whether they’re buggy or not (as previous games in the series had bugs out to here, but I managed to enjoy both of them immensely despite it).  There’s nothing else I can think of on the horizon from a major publisher that I couldn’t take a pass on and buy a bit down the road for a small fraction of the price – there’s just nothing that compelling out there.  The only things I’ve been excited about have generally been various smaller, indie projects that are actually doing interesting things, and are generally priced at a level where you’re fine taking a risk.  Buy a big game for a lot of money, and you feel seriously burned when it fails miserably to meet your expectations – buy an indie game with a new mechanic for cheap, and even if it disappoints as well, you’re only out a little and you’ve had a chance to try (maybe) a slice of a promising gaming future.

Of the games I mentioned in the last piece, most of them are doing quite well.  Overgrowth is still a work in progress, and is coming along quite interestingly – it’s been enlightening to watch some of the weekly dev blogs and see new gaming technology coming together piece by piece, including some of the most realistic and fluid fight animations I’ve ever seen (as well as a truly harrowing, bone-cracking damage and blood flow system, which makes it the only game in recent memory, or at least since Soldier of Fortune 2, where I saw a character get hurt and viscerally cringed because it was just that realistic).  While it’s still a long way from completion, it’s getting more functional, and can be “played through” in a rudimentary way now (I have yet to install the latest build, as I’m currently having some trouble with their download system, but I’ve been able to download fine in the past so I think it’s just a temporary issue).

Minecraft, as I’m sure you’ve heard every gaming outlet ever say, has become one of the “next big things” in gaming.  It is, I suppose, a rarity, a game that’s sold millions before even coming out of beta due to creating a type of gameplay that hadn’t really been available before.  The game is still in beta, with a release planned for later in the year, with post-release support and potentially new features after that.  In certain ways, it’s advanced a lot, although the basic gameplay has remained similar throughout – build what you want, mine stuff, build stuff, survive and have fun.  I’ve only just barely touched the most recent update, which promises to add in “adventure” elements, such as new in-game villages and a somewhat opaque “leveling” system, along with basic needs (hunger), along with a revamped creative mode and other sundry improvements.  I’ve had a lot of fun with the game so far, including an epic exploration session in the vein of Towards Dawn (and then went back and marked the path and all the various safehouses along the way, in a map that I should probably post here already), and while I’ve taken a break from it lately, I always find myself jumping back in every so often to see what’s new.

Interstellar Marines is, well…  still in progress, I suppose.  Since the last time I checked, the only really new thing is that they released a fun little Unity demo thing for the holidays, and that they now have regular bulletins on their site talking about doing things, but there are no further interactive demos to play on the site that weren’t there a year ago.  I’m still on the fence with this one, but I’ll probably give it another look once the multiplayer segment comes out and there’s a good sense that the game is moving forward.

Those were the ones I looked at last year, and all of them are still moving forward in some capacity – small-number statistics, I know, but generally a pretty good sign.  This year, I’d like to talk about a few more that have come to my attention.

The first one is Kairo, a somewhat abstract exploration/puzzle game slightly in the vein of Myst (although definitely emphasis on the abstract).  Right now, there’s a version that is generally playable, and includes the first of three planned areas for the game.  I’m still not quite sure how this game came to my attention, but the notion of a game of this type, but focused a lot more on exploration and finding interesting things over a heavy emphasis on puzzles, definitely piqued my interest.  The one thing that always bugged me about Myst was the limits to what you could explore (even RealMyst had rather restricted boundaries to where you could go).  I’d always wanted a game like Myst or its sequels, but with much less focus on puzzles, one in which you could just wander around an interesting landscape and interact with interesting things, without much of a structured or linear gameplay path (which, I suppose, is why I like open-world games so much, but there isn’t much exploration in those that isn’t generally accompanied by shooting or swording something or other through the head).  Uru was a little better, but still… not quite it.  So, does Kairo deliver in that respect?  After playing it a bit, I’m still not quite sure.  It’s certainly very ambient, and you can spend a lot of time just wandering around and looking at the various interesting things contained within its world, although eventually you reach a dead end with a puzzle of some sort in it.  Whether this will change in the final version, I’m not sure, but it’s been an interesting bit of exploration thus far, and I’m quite interested to see how it will develop further.  (Additionally, browsing the game’s IndieDB news feed gives some interesting insights on the challenges and puzzles of game design, including how to make puzzles that aren’t obstacles or frustrations to the core gameplay, and insights on how to show a solitary, single-player experience to a crowd at a games expo.)

(I suppose along the same vein I should mention a game called Proteus, which should theoretically be available soon as a fairly cheap preorder, a fascinating game where the focus is almost entirely on exploration, as well as a world that interacts dynamically with you in the form of a constantly evolving pattern of sound and music.  It’s fascinating to experience, and according to their blog, there should still be an alpha version that you can download and play around with.)

Another game which I can only say a little about is a game called Starfarer, which is a semi-strategic squad combat game, only in space, with surprisingly complex action gameplay.  I honestly haven’t gotten very far with it yet, as I’m a bit, well, horrible at it so far.  There’s a part of me that wants it to be something like the original Escape Velocity, and while I realize that it probably won’t be, it has a lot of promise, as it’s more directly action-oriented than something like Gratuitous Space Battles (which is another awesome game that I am horrible at) while still having a serious amount of depth and customizability.  Since I’ve started looking at it, it’s continued to evolve, with a lot more systems, the full customization system, and improved squad command.  It’s looking to eventually be a full-fledged tactical action-RPG in space, and honestly, that’s a niche that I’m happy to see more games fill (as I can only play EV so much without wishing for something more).  It’s cheap to get right now, and I’d say the price is definitely worth the potential.

The last one I’ll talk about for now is A Valley Without Wind, from Arcen Games.  Arcen is one of those developers that I’ve heard great things about, but could never really get into their games.  Their first game, AI War, is a complex space strategy game that I installed the demo for, started up a test game, felt my eyes spin round in their sockets from the sheer complexity of it all, and shut it down after about 5 minutes (given how much I’m not good at GSB’s much more limited campaign mode, and how something more like Dawn of War is more my speed for RTS-type games, AI War, as brilliant as it might be, is simply too daunting for my usual gaming attitude).  Their second project, Tidalis, was, interestingly enough, a complete departure from their previous game – a casual block-matching game with a somewhat unique mechanic.  However, it also quickly collapsed into complexity, and I dumped the demo for it as well.  Once again, their upcoming new game takes another radical departure into different territory – but this time, I’m more than interested.  That’s probably because the new game is a procedurally-generated, open-world game with near-limitless territory for exploration, split between an RPG-style overworld map and individual map areas with 2D, “metroidvania-style” gameplay.  While the game is not yet in a playable form, it will apparently be released for preorder this month, and this is one I’m definitely looking at with some keen interest (as well as a probable purchase, at the very least to encourage more games like this one).  Right now, it’s a bit tough to tell how it will eventually turn out, as the game has already changed perspectives from top-down to side-scrolling, and the internet chorus regarding the somewhat dubious graphic style of the game (read: heavily tiled graphics that look like they’ve been pushed through some of the default Photoshop filters) may indicate another approach to graphics in the future (and wouldn’t be unprecedented either, as AI War got a graphical revamp, and I think an entire engine reworking, after launch).  Given that, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect at this point,  but assuming the preorder price is reasonable I think it’s probably worth it just to see where this game goes.

Those are the games that I’m looking at so far in terms of alpha preorders (there are also a lot of other, released indie games that I’m enjoying, and thinking about interesting things to write about regarding them).  However, I want to finish this article by mentioning a more formal version of this project: Alpha Funding, by indie game and mod distribution platform Desura.  While the games I’ve mentioned have mostly used their own sites to solicit preorders, and some others have used crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, this program is the first one I’ve seen directly integrated into a game distribution platform.  Admittedly, the currently slate of games that are currently up under the program don’t really interest me that much (with the possible exception of King Arthur’s Gold, but it seems a lot like Terraria, which I’ve played quite a bit, and probably have a lot to write about, occasionally through clenched fists).  However, I think the concept is an excellent one, and that having something like this coupled with the high visibility of a game-distribution platform could help to realize a lot of innovative new concepts in gaming, and giving someone who has a great game idea and wants to create it a viable way to fund pre-release development.

(Super-quick edit: I actually had an email announcement from the Kairo developer come in this evening, announcing that there’s a new alpha build with a number of bug fixes and refinements to the parts that have so far been released.  So, it’s definitely making some progress, and should be even better to explore now – I’ll take a look at it tomorrow and update the above info on it if need be. )

06Sep Followup Link: DRM vs. Respect

Yup, it’s another RPS link, this time about a studio head reiterating that DRM doesn’t really accomplish much.  However, the comments thread sums it up even better, mentioning how it comes down to a simple principle: in an industry with almost entirely up-front costs and little to no manufacturing or distribution costs, the only thing that matters to the bottom line is sales volume (specifically, enough volume to offset your development costs and make a decent profit).  You can prevent a hundred thousand pirates from copying your software, but that won’t get you a single cent more in revenue (and unlike in a physical products business, companies can’t write off theoretical product losses, so there is no benefit to your books that I can see from cracking down on piracy – it’s an additional development cost with no obvious compensatory attractiveness that would lead to more sales and profits).  The only way for your game to bring in more revenue is to get more people to buy it – and that means putting your corporate focus on making excellent games and giving your customers reasons to like your company rather than hate it.  The only profitable conversion would be from pirate to paying customer, and DRM will rarely motivate that kind of behavior – in fact, what few pirates it might convert would doubtfully even offset the loss in revenue from customers turned off by DRM and denying what would otherwise be very likely sales (I can attest to this: Ubisoft, for instance, would probably have at least $50 more revenue had they not taken games I wanted and hobbled them with their nonsense DRM).  The point is, including more DRM and hassles for legitimate customers simply isn’t a sound business decision, and may actually detract from strategies that could bring in more customers and higher revenue.  I’ve discussed that ad nauseum in previous posts, though, so I’ll leave it at that.

09Aug Respect vs. Paranoia: What games companies (might) learn from the retail industry

I will admit to starting off this article with a link to a topic that I’ve probably covered sufficiently already: an RPS article reminding everyone that Ubisoft continues its ridiculous always-on DRM scheme with new PC games.  I know, I know, nothing new under the sun.  (Although the article does make one interesting point: this sort of DRM scheme prevents people in the armed forces from playing the game as well, as most deployments don’t exactly come with reliable internet access.  In fact, I think that could be the jumping-off point for a good PR campaign against this nonsense – the message “Ubisoft won’t let our troops play their games” getting a lot of press would put a significant amount of pressure on them.)

However, I’ve already argued more than enough about this specific point.  It did get me thinking, though.  After all, games are not the only industry out there, and there are plenty of other companies that sell things to customers.  Most specifically, companies that do direct sales to people, such as retail stores.

For one thing, retail stores have a similar problem that games companies do – sometimes, people take their stuff without paying.  However, if you think about it, most retailers have a bit more of a pragmatic view of things.  For starters, they assume that, just by being in business, they are going to have some losses through theft.  If you look at the financial statements for a big retailer, you’ll notice that there’s a line item somewhere about loss from theft – it’s a known, expected expense that’s estimated and written down each quarter.  Of course, retailers want this amount to be as small as possible, so they take reasonable security measures to protect against what they can, but they also realize that they won’t catch everyone and take this into account.  That’s because they know that they’re not the only retailer on the market, and while they need to protect their merchandise, they need to respect their customers as well.  If they use overly paranoid security to prevent their customers from stealing anything, but also makes them feel suspected and hurts their shopping experience, they’ll simply take their money elsewhere – something that will usually cost retailers far more than the cost of what thefts do occur.

Games companies, on the other hand, don’t seem to have learned this concept yet, and some still treat their customers essentially like they’re thieves, putting in security schemes that make their games harder to access and assume that consumers are guilty until proven innocent.  True, their problems are a bit more complex, as while someone can steal a bag of chips from a store, they can’t then infinitely replicate that bag of chips and flood the market, reducing overall demand for future sales.  However, the reality, in any market, is that there will be theft or infringement, and it is something that needs to be factored into the cost of doing business.  Games companies, though, it seems would rather scream piracy and use it as a club to beat on their legitimate customers.  (Of course, they’re not entirely alone in this: movie and music companies have also gone ballistic over this, although notably most of them have seen the light and release content in formats that are either unencumbered or with DRM that has long been fairly easily cracked).

Ultimately, I think the important concept to grasp is this: in the long run, it’s almost entirely certain that a company will lose more money by driving away customers that want to give them money rather than limit the amount of customers who don’t want to pay but find a way to get it for free anyway.  Retailers understand that people generally come into their stores because they have money and want to exchange it for goods, and they want to make that process as easy, pleasant, and convenient for their customers in order to bring in the most profits.  Retailers that get this right can do quite well, and retailers that get this wrong end up pilloried across the internet (just search for walmart receipt checking for a good earful). Of course, the same can be said for games publishers as well, but they seem to care far more about smacking around pirates than how their actions may actually be costing them real sales from paying customers.

In summary, if you’re a big game publisher, consider that there’s only one type of customer you’re ever going to get money from – the one that intends to pay you in the first place.  This is where all your revenue comes from.  Touting your progress in preventing an illusory “loss” from people who most likely weren’t going to pay anyway won’t improve your net income.  Again, think about it from a retail perspective – if that clamshell packaging keeps someone from stealing a product, or someone gets caught shoplifting, it still doesn’t make the company any more money.  Yes, it might save on expenses, but the overall revenue doesn’t increase, as those people weren’t ever going to buy in the first place.  DRM doesn’t convince people who want it for free to buy it – if anything, it gives them just one more reason to walk away (or pirate it, for that matter, as every one of these DRM schemes, including the always-on DRM, have been cracked and widely distributed).  If a company wants to create revenue, it means bringing in more money, which means keeping the customer base that it has while bringing in new customers when it can.  If your games are so cumbersome to play that you’re driving away people who used to reliably buy your games, that’s a real hit to your revenue, and one that preventing people playing pirated copies is not going to offset.

Finally, a note for consumers: if a game has bad DRM and treats legitimate paying customers like criminals, just don’t buy it.  Don’t pirate it – just walk away and don’t reward a company for treating you badly.  In fact, let that company know why you’re not buying something you normally would.  Tell your friends.  Tell it to anyone you know or whoever will listen on the internet.

Eventually, if people respond to these crazy DRM schemes by simply not buying, companies will eventually have to treat customers with more respect, or eventually have significant problems of their own – and they can only scream piracy for so long before their shareholders start to recognize the truth behind their self-damaging business model.  That’s what I’m doing here – there are plenty of games out there, and plenty that I’d rather support.  Yes, Ubisoft, despite being somewhat interested in Driver:SF, I’m not going to buy it.  Nor am I going to buy any of your other games, even though I’m quite interested in some of them.  Maybe that’s not going to impact your bottom line much, but head over to any gaming site on the net and look at what people are saying – I’m hardly the only one taking this stance.  If you keep doing this, and more and more people just walk away from your games…  eventually, it’s going to hurt, and despite your piracy rhetoric, you’ll really have no one to blame but yourselves.

29May FNV World of Mods: More Guns, Houses

If you haven’t read the previous post on this, this is an ongoing series spotlighting the huge variety of mods I use and enjoy in Fallout: New Vegas, quite possibly one of my most favorite recent video games.

In the last version, I posted links to a number of different weapon mods, that add a wide variety of new weapons into the game.  Unlike many modern shooters, which feel the unusual need to constrain you to holding just two weapons at a time, FNV allows to to hold as many as you can carry – and while the base game already includes dozens of weapons to choose from, mods can increase that number into the multiple hundreds.

Since posting that, there have been some changes to the mods, and I’ve tried some new ones as well, so here are a few updates:

-The Book of Earache mod is no longer directly hosted on New Vegas Nexus, and there is no longer an easy way to download this mod directly.  However, at least the weapons part of it is now integrated as a patch for the mod A World of Pain, which is another important mod to have around, especially if you’re looking for new content (I’ll talk about this further in the installment that talks about new content mods).

-In the previous installment, I mentioned a number of individual weapons, including the Glock set and the Mk. 23.  The author of those weapon mods has now compiled them, and many others, into a full-blown weapons pack called Westside Munitions.  While the store it adds has been somewhat glitchy for me, the weapons themselves are top-notch, and you can add them in elsewhere with the GECK if you’re so determined (I might also upload a quick .esp mod I did that allows you to pick up the weapons in the schoolhouse instead).  In any case, this is another well-done, highly recommended weapons pack.

-I’ve also had quite a bit more play time with the Stalker and Nordic weapons packs.  The Stalker pack provides a good selection of weapons, including a couple of very nice ones, but the textures on it are a bit low-res and have occasional glitches (that being said, they might work better on computers with less graphical resources).  The Nordic pack provides around a dozen weapons or so, scattered throughout the game, and all of them are well-modeled, sound good, have a full complement of mods, and pack a serious punch.  I would tentatively recommend the Stalker pack as decent extra, and would definitely recommend the Nordic pack.

-I also installed and played around with Ahztek’s Weapon Replacer, which now goes by the name of Shrapnel – The Definitive Weapon Collection. Like Classic Fallout Weapons New Vegas, it is a major weapon replacer, putting new weapons in the hands of factions across the wasteland. So far, it actually will work alongside CFWNV, and should replace faction equipment with its own weapons, while CFWNV weapons are still available in shops like Gun Runners. I’ve played around with it a bit, and so far I’m liking the weapons on offer a bit more than the ones in CFWNV, and it has even more variety, along with some very nice-looking weapon models. This is definitely one to check out, and along with CFWNV and Book of Earache will work well if you just want to choose a one-stop shop to expand on the weapons available in vanilla FNV.

There is also one weapon that I overlooked in the previous post that  you might want to check out:

AEVegas Vol. 4 Mieze (M2-style heavy machinegun & artillery cannon)

Anyway, enough of that… on to player houses!


In Fallout: New Vegas, the primary job of a player house is fairly simple: it provides a place to store the incredibly huge amount of stuff you will pick up over the course of the game (an amount that goes up significantly if your game is heavily modded).  Aside from that, houses can offer other amenities, from something as simple as a safe place to sleep to workbenches and autodocs.  In the vanilla game, there are a few options available, and certainly more than the binary choice offered in Fallout 3, but most of those on offer are fairly limited in scope – even the “luxury” suite at the Lucky 38 only offers a relatively small handful of amenities.  There are plenty of mods, however, that make considerable strides to remedy that.

-Of the player homes that are accessible reasonably early in the game and located near Goodsprings, probably the most comprehensive one is the Yangtze Bunker player home. This mod provides a full-scale vault-type bunker for your use, along with a short, simple quest to unlock it, power it up, and access all of its features. And it’s got features in spades – a full armory with auto-sort, hydroponics lab to harvest ingredients, autodoc, full kitchen area, and more. It also features an upgrade terminal similar to the one for the Lucky 38 suite, but with far more additional options, including hiring guards and staff to populate and protect the bunker. Additionally, you can set up the bunker to be randomly attacked by raiders, for some free combat practice. While it’s not the most visually striking home, it’s packed with a ton of functionality, and is at a good location for starting players.

-The Underground Hideout is another comprehensive player home mod, this time providing a mini-bunker located under a blasted house at Mt. Spring Ranch State Park, near Red Rock Canyon.  This mod packs most of the same types of features as the one above, perhaps even a few more, including a weapon display wall and mannequins to show off your gear, as well as a teleporter and more auto-sorting, including ammo racks which automatically stock ammo on their shelves.  It also manages to pack all of this into a more compact and well-decorated floor plan, making it easier to get to all of the equipment you need.  Plus, there’s some fun stuff hidden away around the vault as well.  This is a good all-around house that works quite well.

-There’s also an Underwater Home, which adds an undersea bunker a short distance from Calville Bay, along with a somewhat more involved quest to open and activate it.  However, once you do, it’s one of the most picturesque houses available, with subdued blue lighting and tons of portholes onto various undersea vistas, as well as plentiful animated fish tanks intermixed with all of the usual features.  Along with auto-sort for just about everything, with a full-featured armory, pantry, and display room, the armory also has a robot that offers the full Gun Runners inventory for convenient gear upgrades.  There is also a reactor room with working reactor, an underwater escape hatch, and a VR simulation machine that is currently in the works.  Its layout is a bit more convoluted than the underground hideout, but the aesthetics are even better.  And, like the two above, installing this mod is nice and easy – as all of the resources are packed in a .bsa file, all you have to do is drop two files in the data directory and activate the mod.

-If you want a house that offers a bit more than the tiny space offered in Victor’s Shack, but want a place in Goodsprings that’s not huge like the bunker, the Goodsprings Home is a decent choice.  It offers a small but decent house off to the side of the shack, and a short quest to gain access.  Inside, it’s pretty bare-bones, but functional, with a bed, both workbenches, and ample storage space.  If you have A World of Pain installed, another option is to purchase/lockpick your way into one of the new residences that it adds to Goodsprings, which offer decent accommodations as well as a technology-packed storm cellar.

I’ve only tested these ones slightly, but you might find them interesting as well:

ACM Casino

Synpathys Train Tunnel Player Home

The New Bison Steve Hotel and Lucky Casino

There are many more houses besides these, but these are the ones I have a good amount of experience with, and I’ve been generally quite happy with them.  If you’re looking for something different, though, I’d recommend browsing through the different ones available on New Vegas Nexus to find one that better suits your needs – there are houses of all sizes and feature sets, located all over the map.  For ease of use and overall features, though, any of the ones I’ve listed above should do quite well.

Coming up in the next installment, I’ll discuss player armors, and possibly other equipment (like packs, NVGs, tac vests and similar things).

29May Quick Link: Steam Games with DRM

Admittedly, despite my grousing about Steam and its somewhat-dodgy update process, it still remains one of the best, and certainly most prolific, game download store available.  However, it’s important to note that, while Steam itself provides a certain level of DRM, many games sold through it contain their own, third-party DRM, some of which can cause your games to become unplayable if your internet connection drops, interfere with the operation of your computer, or cause myriad other problems (see my previous posts on Ubisoft always-online DRM and EA account activation hell for more details on the problems DRM can cause).

While surfing RPS today, I came across a link that a commenter posted to a very useful list of the games currently using other DRM on Steam:

Especially be aware of hardware-based DRM such as SecuROM, TAGES, and SolidShield.  These can severely limit your ability to install your games down the line, and can potentially cause problems or degrade performance on your computer (as some install low-level drivers that can cause conflicts, and use background processes that can take up computer resources).

(Oh, and by the way, Ubisoft didn’t get a cent of my money this week, despite some fairly attractive sales on Steam this week.  I consciously chose not to support this company due to their anti-consumer stances, and instead chose to support the in-development indie game Starfarer, which is already pretty interesting and only looks to get better as its development progresses.)

18Apr Daydreaming: what would make an ideal game?

A while back, RPS had a thread where members of the community could describe their vision of an ideal game (  This, interestingly enough, was already on my radar, as I’ve had a few ideas kicking around in a text file on this very subject.  Of course, given the wide variety of game that I enjoy, it’s hard to narrow it down to one “dream” game, so I’ve laid out a few concepts that I’d be very interested to see, as well as the current progress towards them, and which games have come close.  I’m sure that it’s not (yet) a comprehensive list, as both the technology and overall possibilities in gaming are changing rapidly, but I think it’s a good snapshot of what I would look for in an ideal game at this point.

(You’ll note that open-world gameplay will probably factor in quite a lot here.  There is a reason for this: an open world provides for the annoying buzzword “emergent gameplay,” which actually means that having an open world to explore means that you can often find ways to create your own fun – something that also greatly expands replay value.  With a linear game, you play through the levels once, and that’s mainly it – you can revisit them, but you can only do that so many times before you get tired of retreading the same old steps.  Because of this, a game that has open possibilities, whether an open world in an action game or open-ended scenarios in strategy games, can stay enjoyable for a lot longer, as there’s always something new to do.  Beyond that, throw in enough detailed procedural generation that creates interesting worlds and scenarios, and you’ve got a game that you can enjoy in new ways almost indefinitely.)

-A city sim with sandbox mode where you can build your ideal city, and then explore it like you would an open-world game – walking, climbing, driving, flying (helicopter), etc.
-Games which are close: none, really – Sim City 4 had vehicles you could drive, but only from a top-down perspective.  In terms of the open-world aspects, Just Cause 2 is probably the closest in offering the fullest range of exploration.  This idea was first (partially) realized with SimCopter, which would let you fly around cities you had previously created in Sim City 2000.

-A racing game with arcadey, kart-racer-style driving, but instead of being a series of tracks, being set in an open driving environment with many miles of road and interesting places to drive to (either in a realistic setting or a stylized kart-racing setting like sonic & sega all-stars or smk)
-Games which are close: not a whole lot, really.  Recent releases such as Blur and split/second, as well as the mentioned Sonic & Sega racing game, all take place on a preset series of courses.  Probably the game that gets closest to this today, despite its flaws (and somewhat different driving style) would be Burnout Paradise.

-Something along the lines of Saints Row 2, but using complex procedural generation to create an unlimited number of living cities and transport networks between them, complete with buildings, roadways, factions, activities, etc.  Add in a huge amount of customization, a wide variety of vehicles and weapons, and you’d be most of the way there…
-Games which are close: well, Saints Row 2, but with a limited environment.  Fallout: New Vegas, albeit without vehicles, but with the ability to mod/add in tons of new customizations options, weapons, etc.  While a completely different game, Subversion showcases the type of procedural generation technology you would need to generate cities on-the-fly from the ground up.

-A procedurally-generated Myst-like game, less about puzzles and more about exploring beautiful environments.  Think of the characteristic environments of the various Myst games and Uru, with options for near-infinite exploration.
-Games which are close:  Myst games have interesting-looking environments, but limited exploration and environmental scope.  Nothing is close as of yet.  Jonathan Blow is currently working on an interesting game with interesting environments and puzzles that seems a little in this vein, but is still in the very early stages.  Honestly, the closest thing there is today for “explore procedurally generated beautiful worlds” is Minecraft, which produces some impressive vistas despite its blocky graphics.

-Someone, make a sequel to Oni.  Seriously.

18Apr Steam might update for Mac… or it might not

Update 5/31/12:  It’s over a year since I posted this originally, and I’m still seeing comments coming in that this is still a problem.  Not very encouraging…

Because people are still having problems with this, below I’m going to copy the comment from the Steam forums talking about how to deal with this, so you don’t have to hunt around for it.  The following procedure did work for me to get Steam to update eventually, and once you get it up-to-date now it seems to use a different update mechanism that has, at least so far, been more reliable.  The following instructions are from Steam forum user RoyalSFlush, and I take no credit for them whatsoever (there’s also a link to the whole forum thread further down in this article).

I had a similar problem, fixed it thanks to Lavec’s post, here’s what I did:

Open up your Finder, Applications, Utilities, Terminal.
Terminal should launch – if you’re not familiar with it, don’t worry, do exactly what I say and you should be fine.
cd /
cd Applications
cd Contents
cd MacOS

That should run Steam and it’ll begin updating, exactly as you’d tried before, except this time, you have the log of what’s happening on your terminal. Let it run until you get the error. Close the dialog box and look at the terminal log, you should see this message:
“SteamUpdater: Error: Steam needs to be online to update. Please confirm your network connection and try again.”
Somewhere above it there’s “Failed! (some link that starts with”, copy the link and paste it into your browser – that should download the file. As soon as the download finish, move the file to, that is: open Finder, Applications, control-click Steam icon and select “Show Package Contents”. It will open a new window with a single folder named Contents. Open it, the MacOS, then package. That’s where the download file should go. After putting it there, you can restart the installation double-clicking the Steam icon or using Terminal (if you still have it open, just type ./ again).

Thanks for the excellent idea, Lavec, I wouldn’t figure it out if it weren’t for you =) Hope this helps, guys!


At some point, I should probably write a review of the various digital download services – after all, the frustration with a game can begin even before it arrives, due to issues with downloading it in the first place (and buying it on a disc these days is no guarantee of avoiding this, either – most games require online authentication and/or downloads of various “bonus” content).  [Here’s a quick summation, though: Steam is good if you can actually load it up (more on that in a bit), is almost flawless with a nice, simple downloader, Direct2Drive has awful download clients that have sometimes eaten/restarted downloads midway through, GamersGate is reliable but I’ve had issues with slow downloads from them, Impulse previously had a nasty habit of vanishing downloads in progress when it updated itself, and Games for Windows Live is a near-incomprehensible mess of a system that I can’t stand to use, although when you get to the point of actually downloading a file, it usually goes okay.]

Today, however, I’d like to talk about Steam, specifically Steam for Mac.  For quite some time, there’s been a bug I’ve experienced during downloads that has crippled Steam, and made me dread each notification that a new patch for it has arrived.  Simply put, when Steam starts up and finds a new update, it begins to download it, and won’t launch itself until it has finished downloading and applying the update.  Problem is, the update will often fail to download one of the update files, pop up a message about being “unable to connect to the internet” despite the internet connection being fine, and quit out of Steam.  Subsequent restarts of Steam lead to the exact same issue: load, try to download, fail, quit.  This means that, due to this update, you can’t load Steam at all, or play any of the games installed via that system.

This is, quite literally, a game-breaking bug, and it has been occurring with Mac updates for many months now – out of all the updates this year, only one has updated cleanly the first time without hanging.  Sometimes the issue will resolve itself in a day or two, sometimes it will take weeks without a more proactive intervention.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation with Steam, there is a workaround that does seem to work – at least it has resolved the issue for me on this latest update, and can be found on a thread in the Steam forums (  It’s a fairly technical fix (requiring the use of the command line), although a post further down in the thread explains it more clearly.  However, it’s not a perfect fix, and requiring users to go to these lengths just to be able to play their purchased games is ridiculous.

I would strongly encourage Steam to come up with a genuine fix for this issue sooner rather than later (heck, just downloading the update in Steam’s download manager while the application is running would probably help, as even if the update failed you’d still be able to play your games).  That being said, though, it also illustrates the wider problems with having a “gateway” application required to play your games – if the gateway application fails, then every other application that makes use of it becomes unusable.  If you are going to require an application to work like this, for DRM or other reasons, you can’t let it have a routine failure mode that prevents it from launching, thereby disabling tens or hundreds of other applications.  As it is, this state of affairs is shameful, and it is somewhat disturbing that Valve seems uninterested in resolving this issue, despite multiple and continuing reports of problems on its own forums, answered by one post from a Valve staff member, last year, that failed to resolve the problem.  I mean, really, guys, you’d think there would be an issue when you launch a big new game from your own development team, and a number of people can’t even launch your distribution platform to buy it.  It’s time to actually fix this issue.