Monday, September 19, 2016

What I'm Playing

Recent Playlist: Nuclear Throne, Atlas Reactor, For Honor (Alpha)

Nuclear Throne shouldn't be as fun as it is, given how often it kills me (goddamn that 5-3 boss). There's something very endearing about its animations -- everything feels (and sounds, somehow) kind of squishy, which is good for a radiation/mutation themed setting. If I had to pin down one mechanic that hooked me, though, it's the weapons -- both the huge variety, and way it forces you to improvise as one runs out of ammo, and you toss it and pick up the next one you find. It's super fun and fast, and surprisingly challenging (I have yet to reach the final boss, even). I got it through a humble bundle, but it's on Steam for $12.

Atlas Reactor is something I just picked up, having read about it over on Penny Arcade. I have a feeling I'm going to be playing a lot of it. This is a weird game type -- it's a turn-based, player vs. player focused team arena battler. Folks have described it as X-Com meets DOTA. For me, it's a fast (20 second turns), competitive (tactics, bluffing, and reading), team-based game (silently blame teammates when you lose!), with a roster of characters to learn and master, and one that I can play without ruining my hands at just a few clicks per turn. Also, surprisingly good aesthetics and sound. It's in open beta right now, and will have a "free mode", whatever that means -- to play the full thing, you'll eventually need to make a one-time purchase of $30 ($20 before it launches in October).

For Honor in a nutshell is AAA polish applied to what seems like a very niche market: multiplayer melee combat. No guns, very little ranged abilities. This is a game about charging, bluffing, thwacking, blocking, and dodging. I played the game first at PAX a few weeks ago, and was impressed by the weighty feel of the game.  It reminds me a bit of Soul Calibur, but even moreso of Jedi Knight 2, an old game that had an amazing multiplayer dueling aspect that I believe inspired another melee combat game, Blade Symphony. These kinds of games combine a very high skill cap with surprisingly entertaining combat. Combat is typically more methodical, elegant, and flashy -- which makes for great dramatic fights and crazy comebacks. For Honor will probably cost a lot of money when it comes out, but you can sign up for the alpha/beta here.

(I decided to take a break from Duelyst for a bit. I guess I felt like I squeezed all the enjoyment I could out of it, and it started to turn into a grind. Also, everyone else got good, and I hate losing.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tips for New Duelyst Players: Card Multiples and the Replace Mechanic


Replace is a very important mechanic in Duelyst, deceptively so. Once per turn, you can shuffle one card back into your deck to draw a new one. Replace allows you to better control the options you have at any given time. It's about ensuring that you have closer to an ideal hand, especially with reference to:

  • COST/CURVE - Can you play the cards in your hand when you need to?
  • REMOVAL/ANSWERS - Do you have efficient answers to your opponent's threats, such as removal for big creates or dispel for creatures with special abilities?
  • THREATS - Will the cards advance your gameplan, whether that is to develop the board or burn life off the enemy general?
Every time you start your turn, you should ask yourself: is this the best possible hand at this moment, versus this specific opponent?  Will each of these cards fulfill a valuable role over the course of this game? Do I have all the options I expect from this deck?  If the answer is no to any of those, there's a good chance you want to replace something. When you replace, you'll get something new -- you can never get a card with the same name as the one you replace.  And this is where card multiples start to make a big difference.

People talk about the importance of running 3x of cards for a few reasons.  Obviously, the more of those specific most-awesome cards you have in your deck, the more likely you are to draw them.  Additionally, reducing the variety in your deck gives you a smaller set of possibilities of what you'll see as the game progresses, allowing you to plan your future turns with greater certainty about which cards you'll be working with

But that doesn't account for situations where you want a variety of card costs, threats, and answers.  No one card is perfect in every situation.  So why not build decks with more singleton cards, increasing the variety of each hand?  What about versatility? What about that one [[Crossbones]] who has killed so many [[Mechazor]] that you'll never take it out of your deck?

I think that's just fine. He's doing his job.  It's a specific card with a very narrow purpose, and when you don't want him, well -- into the replace bucket he goes!  Hopefully he won't be back for a while, since you've only got one.

The problem is when this extends to cards with similar functions.  When you want variety because one of those similar cards might be the "perfect" card for a certain boards, even if they're all relatively close. 2 drop minions are a good example of this.  Primus Fist, Healing Mystic, and Jax are all good 2 drops, with advantages in certain scenarios.  So why not run one of each, and be more likely to have the one that's just right?

Here's why:

Say your deck has three [[Primus Fist]] in it; when you replace one, perhaps because you are in the late game, you know you will NOT get another Primus Fist because, as previously stated, replace ALWAYS, WITHOUT FAIL{citation} finds a card with a different name.

If, on the other hand, your deck has in the same slot one Primus Fist, one [[Healing Mystic]], and one [[Jax]] -- because why not, variety -- when you replace Primus Fist, you could replace into one of the other two cards, Jax or Mystic Healer.

That might seem small, but this is a critical rule, as it means that when you have 3 of a card in your deck serving the same function, replacing one of those cards gives you greater certainty that you'll get a card of a DIFFERENT function -- i.e., not another 2 drop.  If your only three removal spells are the same card, and you replace that card, you are NOT getting another removal spell in its place.  The game will NEVER replace into the exact same card.

That's basically it. When you align more of the "roles" that your cards serve into stacks of 3x of the same cards, you can more easily shift gears, because replacing will always skip the same card.  If you have cards of many different names in 1x and 2x that serve similar roles, replacing is weakened, and you're generally more likely to draw you something about the same as the card you replaced.

Keep this in mind when building your decks: having one of a card isn't necessarily a bad thing, if it serves a unique purpose.  But having 3x of the same card makes replacing that card just a bit more powerful.

Thanks for reading, and leave a comment if you found this useful, or have more to add!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tips for New Duelyst Players: Blocking, Reach, and the Diagonal

I've been addicted to Duelyst for a few months now, and I think I may finally have grasped one of its most basic skills: defensive positioning.  What follows is very in depth attempt to explain how I came to wrap my head around this; if you haven't played the game before, I'd suggest watching a video, or just going and playing it for free!  It's lots of fun, has a great tutorial, and looks really cool.  And you can play it in browser (Chrome required).

Let me preface this by saying that my deepest card game experience comes from Magic. Magic does not have a tactical board. When I was first playing Duelyst, this had a big influence on my thought pattern; it was hard for me to wrap my head around the significance of where you drop units down.  If the units can move in any direction, and they can all move the same two tiles, what does it really matter where you put them? Nothing changes until the units get next to each other and fight anyway.

That may sound reductionist, but that was my initial impression. Whenever I lost a game, I felt it was not due to where I placed my units, but WHAT I and my opponent placed; in other words, I would lose because my opponent played something that I didn't have the cards to deal with at that moment. Card quality seemed to trump positioning.

Playing through all the single-player challenges, I could see how placement mattered when going for a killing blow, or in getting Provoke minions out of the way. But, playing around a static opponent over a single turn, I still didn't really get one of the most important aspects of positioning -- limiting your opponent's choices.

Most units can't act when you play them.  One of the biggest swings in control of a match is being able to take out a dangerous minion right away, before it has a chance to do anything.  If you can protect your units with good placement, however, you can make it harder to do that.

So here's how I would have explained it to myself when I started playing...

 

Basic Movement and the Diagonal


In Duelyst, every unit and general can move 2 squares. However, units cannot move directly on the diagonally: it takes them two steps to move to a diagonal space.  Look at the arrow here to see what I mean:


See the *bend* in the arrow? That's a right-up move, not a direct diagonal crossing! Don't believe the animations; it's all an illusion designed to shield you from the horror of a world without diagonal movement. (The arrow bend is especially pronounced with flying units.)

This also explains the technical details of why can't you move between two enemies staggered diagonally: you can't move through enemies, and you would need to in order to get to that corner space.  See the white movement options highlighted here:


Now, although you can't move directly to a diagonal space, you *can* ATTACK directly on the diagonal, you can PLACE UNITS on the diagonal, and you can use abilities that say NEARBY such as Ephemeral Shroud or Entropic Decay on the diagonal. The above general, blocked from moving north-west, could still attack a minion stationed there, or place a minion there.

This mismatch is important. It means that taking the above actions on the diagonal allows you to "skip" a move. So, when you block the diagonal, you are stealing not one, but two movement from the enemy, as opposed to blocking laterally or vertically.
Take the following two placements. This one looks protective, but if you end your turn like this, the general can step to the side and attack:


This position, however, prevents the general from reaching your unit directly, using a diagonal block:



All tiles are equally distant for attacks and unit placement, but diagonal movement is more expensive, which makes diagonal tiles more "distant".  If you can inhibit the enemy's movement on that axis, you can make it much harder to reach something they want to reach, whether that is a unit, your general, or a mana spring tile.  This gives some more context for thinking about "reach" and thinking beyond just anticipating movement.

 

Reach and Anticipation


I think of "reach" as the distance at which your enemy could accomplish certain placements or attacks based on the board state when you end your turn. For example, if we place our fancy, shiny, dangerous unit thusly, and end our turn:



It is safe from general attacks, true -- but not from a single "Ephemeral Shroud" placement, which dispels a NEARBY minion.


Damn those Ephemeral Shrouds!  However, if you end your turn like this:



From here, none of their options for placing one Ephemeral Shroud will reach your unit!



This assumes your opponent doesn't have multiple units to throw down, but even in those cases, anything that limits their options and forces them to play a specific combination of cards will on average be to your advantage.

This is just one way you can think about "reach" and how to position units outside the reach of certain threats you know your opponent might be playing -- or, conversely, how to position your general out of reach of potential threats.  The more meta-knowledge you can gather about likely cards to be played, the smarter you can be when placing both units and your general defensively.

 

Yes, Sometimes it Doesn't Matter


It's true that there are many, many cards that bypass the whole positioning thing, such as targeted spells, or flying units.  Still, even if you will often encounter situations where your careful placement is meaningless based on the cards played against you, don't let that discourage you from trying to make better positioning decisions. Well placed units can cut off your opponent's choices and make them spend unnecessary resources.  Poorly placed units give your opponent more options to make favorable moves and choose the least costly card to deal with your threat.  Every once in a while, that one positional choice will mean the difference between winning and losing.

So respect the diagonal when you place your next unit. And leave comments if you found this useful, or have more to add.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Very Important Message

Hello.  Today, I'd like to talk about a very important issue in nature conservancy: Ancient Crab.  This gentle creature, long thought to bring good luck, is facing an uncertain future.  Due to changing ecological conditions, Ancient Crab is being forced to leave its native habitat and venture into the unknown.



Changing water levels are primarily to blame.  If no action is taken soon, we may never see Ancient Crab in the wild again.  And what kind of world would that be?

Thankfully, there is a way to help.  Raising awareness of Ancient Crab's plight is the first step.  To do so, simply place Ancient Crab in your Magic: The Gathering deck, and then use that deck in the course of regular play.  When you play Ancient Crab from your hand for the first time, take the opportunity to introduce the card and the issues surrounding this persecuted creature to the other players.  Be sure to read the flavor text out loud.

With your help, and the support of others, we can save Ancient Crab from disappearing into the history books as a mere footnote: Ancient Crab, n.  A creature said to have once inhabited the Halimar basin.  Whereabouts unknown.  The time to act is now, before Ancient Crab has faded from the public's consciousness and into the realm of obscurity inhabited by all doomed creatures.

Join us.  Help preserve Ancient Crab for future generations.  Play Ancient Crab today.

Disclaimers
  • Cards representing Ancient Crab will be available on January 15th, midnight, at the earliest. See your local card shop for details.
  • Ancient Crab may not be legal in all Magic: The Gathering formats.  See the Wizards of the Coast sanctioned format list for more information.
  • Playing Ancient Crab in a format where it is not legal or in quantities that violate deck construction regulations should be undertaken with full knowledge of the risks involved.  Consult a sanctioned Magic: The Gathering judge for more information.
  • This message is brought to you by the Friends of Halimar Basin.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

New Toy: Steam Controller


I was given a Steam Controller for Christmas this year, and given my obsession with input devices, I thought it could be helpful to write up a review.  I use gamepads above all other input devices on my computer, both for general desktop navigation and gaming, so I was excited to try one designed with PC in mind.

Steam Controller

Controller Design & Comparison w/ XBox 360 Gamepad

In terms of buttons, the Steam Controller has everything the XBox 360 controller (my default) has, with the exception of the touchpads replacing the D-Pad and right joystick.  The location of the left joystick and buttons is also closer to the center rather than on the edges, and the buttons themselves are pretty small. 

Side by side, Steam Controller vs. XBox 360


It also has two new buttons: the squeeze triggers.  These are built into the battery cover, on the underside of the handles.  They seem to be best suited as modifier keys, which change the function of other inputs temporarily.

The shoulder buttons, triggers, and squeeze buttons (part of the battery cover).

The placement of the X/Y/B/A buttons and joystick, further towards the center, seems to give favor to the touchpads.  This positioning is the most obvious sign that the touchpads are really the focus of this device, a fact is also represented physically in the shape of the controller: it's concave, instead of convex -- which makes more sense for a touchpad.

Convex vs. Concave

As a result, the touchpads are large and easy to reach with each thumb.  You can get to the full range of space without moving your hands much, thanks to the concave shape.  The touchpads can also be "clicked" by depressing them, although this requires so much force that it often interferes with aiming, so I question whether I will ever make use of the touchpad clicking.

One thing I noticed upon plugging in the receiver and booting up the controller are the crazy haptics.  Haptics are a bit of audio and physical feedback, little "beep" sounds and some vibration every time you click, use a touchpad, or press a button.  The haptics are really annoying and don't seem to serve any useful purpose.  Thankfully, they can be disabled, though they default to chirping loudly every time you use the touchpad.

Speaking of changing settings, making this controller work for you involves a LOT of customization, which is what I dove into next.

Functionality and Customization

The Steam Controller configuration interface is pretty extensive.  You can change every button, and the touchpad and joystick inputs can be switched to emulate mouse, keyboard, joystick, scroll wheels -- you name it.  You can tell the joystick to be a mouse, or the mouse to be a joystick. You can set up mode-switching to dynamically turn a touchpad into a mouse, or the joystick into buttons temporarily.

Main Config Screen

The interface is visually intuitive, and I generally found that if something annoyed me, there was a way to change it.  For example, although the shoulder trigger buttons are pretty firm and require a lot of force to click, you can customize them to perform actions on soft pulls as well, and customize the threshold for the soft pull to trigger. 

Touchpad input/output options.
This level of customization is awesome, and very helpful for a controller designed to work with games that have no idea what a controller is.  However, it can require a lot of work to dig through the settings and find the one you want to change.

The rabbit hole goes deep: I doubt I will be able to parse exactly what "Output Anti-Deadzone Buffer" represents without a lot of trial and error, no matter how much descriptive text they include.  In that respect, and in a very PC way, a lot of experimentation will be required to get things working in games with wildly different control setups.

That's a lot of text to tell you what one slider does.

One of the cooler features which may eventually alleviate this issue is the ability to use community created control profiles, and to make your own configurations public for others to use.  I think this could be a tremendous time saver in the future once more people have designed configs for each game. 

Community Configuration Profiles

Every game I played had at least one or two community profiles, although many of them were still incomplete and needed editing.  Still, there's a lot of potential there, and even a way for folks to make a name for themselves by creating good configurations and sharing them widely.

At this point, I also observed a big missing feature: you can't currently copy your OWN configuration from one game to use in another game.  This is pretty crucial, and I imagine this would be easy to fix by adding a "Personal Configuration Library" category to the above screen that shows profiles from all your games.

On the note of configuration swapping, one of the most important pieces of software I use in bending the XBox 360 controller to my will is Joy2Key, which allows me to reprogram my 360 to behave differently in different games, emulate keyboard presses, etc.  It can be set up to switch profiles when certain games are active, and return to a standard profile when in Windows.  It's the only reason I'm able to use a gamepad for so many different types of games.

I was hoping to see similar functionality to Joy2Key with the Steam Controller, and it does this by default with Steam games - each game has its own independent configuration profile, which is saved by Steam.  However, the controller isn't as sophisticated if the game can't run with the Steam overlay.  It has some basic functionality without Steam, but dynamic profile changing only works with the overlay.  This means that for some non-Steam games, such as older games or games that run via a launcher where the overlay doesn't work, you have only one profile: the "Desktop" profile.

In-Game Testing

I tested with several games to try and gauge the controller's adaptability, including games with simple control layouts and games with more complex joystick or mouse-focused controls.

Analog 2D Shooter: Luftrausers

Luftrausers is a very simple accuracy and reflex based 2D shooter.  There are only four controls: Up, Left, Right, and Shoot.  I ran this game entirely from within Steam.

I tried playing this game using the joystick, and using the touchpad.  For the joystick method, I basically reconfigured the joystick to act like a directional D-Pad (arrow keys), and it seemed to work just fine.  I did feel that the position of the joystick, nearer the middle of the controller, made it hard to get correct vertical angle, and I was biased towards turning right.  Increasing the deadzone size and changing it to a "cross" shaped deadzone helped with this.

To test out the left touchpad, I configured it to act like a directional pad (it does, after all, have a D-Pad indentation).  This worked fine, although it takes a lot of getting used to the lack of physical feedback.  I felt like the joystick was more predictable.  The cross hatch pattern deadzone seemed best for touchpad directional movement. 

Overall the controller performed fine with this simple setup, though I can't say the controller really shines with basic analog directional controls.  All that fidelity goes to waste.

On to something more meaty...

Third-person RPG: The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is a PC and console RPG with a lot of keybindings, and a traditional third-person movement system: one joystick controls movement, and one joystick controls the camera.  This is a more consoley kind of layout, and the game already supports XBox input by default, so it's designed to work with a gamepad.  I was curious to see how the Steam Controller would fit this role, given it has sacrificed its second joystick. 

I also own The Witcher 3 through GoG, not through Steam, so this was an opportunity to test the non-Steam performance (both with the overlay, and without).

I tried a few different methods of control for this game: XBox emulation with Steam overlay, XBox emulation without Steam overlay, and keyboard emulation.  For the first method, I added The Witcher 3 to Steam as a non-Steam game, and ran it with the Steam overlay (which require a little troubleshooting & deleting a few .dll files that were interfering with the overlay).  This allows the Steam Controller to dynamically load and use a unique custom configuration for the game -- basically, to treat it like a Steam game.

With the overlay, the 360 emulation worked flawlessly, and after a few config changes was treating the controller as an XBox 360 input.  I say flawlessly because it successfully behaved as a 360 controller; my actual play experience was not quite flawless.  That missing joystick really makes a difference.  Movement was still controlled by the left joystick, so that was no problem.  However, the camera was now controlled by a touchpad, and I discovered that touchpads are not so great for steady, constant camera movement.  The touchpad seemed determined to behave either sluggishly or spastically and it was very hard to handle the camera in combat initially.

Finally I discovered an input option called "Joystick Mouse", which, according to the configuration tool, outputs as a joystick but tries to mimic the mouse's accuracy.  This seemed to work the best of all the options for making the touchpad usable where it would normally have been treated as a joystick.  The response was quick and accurate, and slid around much less.  It felt more like mouselook, but the game still treated it as joystick input.

I also wanted to try running the game entirely without the Steam overlay to see how the controller would work.  To accomplish this, I had to tell the controller to behave like an Xbox controller when using the "Desktop" configuration, which meant I couldn't use it to navigate on the desktop (although I had to leave Steam running or the desktop configuration would revert to the factory default). I launched the game from GOG, with no Steam overlay.  Unfortunately, under this method, I wasn't able to get the game to recognize the Steam Controller as a 360 gamepad at all, even though it was emulating the XBox inputs. Without the overlay, it seems some control emulations just don't work.

Finally, I experimented a little with keyboard emulation - trying to fully represent a mouse and keyboard with the controller.  Although this did work without the Steam overlay, the sheer quantity of keybindings made this an imposing task to set up completely, and I ended up abandoning this effort.

The issue is mainly that TW3 treats gamepad controls as contextual and alters the controls for combat, exploration, swimming, etc.   The masochistic keyboard jockey that is the PC gamer, on the other hand, likes to have every single control available at all times -- so there's no contextualizing. You never know when you'll want to jump around like an idiot in the middle of a sword fight, after all.  Hey, I don't judge -- I wish my hands could take KB/Mouse abuse all day.  But, I decided there was probably a better game to devote the time to binding 50+ keys.

Overall, although the configurability of the Steam Controller allowed it to provide all the required inputs, and even come close to the performance of an XBox controller, I really missed that 2nd joystick for camera control in this game.  A joystick has huge advantages when continuous smooth input is required, and touchpads are not very good at emulating this kind of input -- there is just no way to feel secure that the touchpad is going to generate the right amount of movement when you're not using a touch-and-drag system.

Revenge of the Titans
Pointer-focused Strategy: Revenge of the Titans

I figured this would be a stronger test of the controller's touchpad and keyboard emulation.  Can it perform where a mouse and keyboard would normally be a requirement, in a tower defense style strategy game?

Right away, Steam let me that the game definitely did NOT support gamepads.  However, I was assured that I could still play the game thanks to my trusty Steam Controller.  Hooray!

Some assembly required.

The configuration had to be built up from scratch, and this is where I missed that I couldn't import configurations from similar games; annoying, as all the work I put into customizing one can't be copied to another game easily.  The community configurations for the game were also quite limited, and all of the ones I tested were incomplete.  Though, to be fair, the game has a lot of keybindings (one for every buildable object, plus commands, 50+ total).

However, as I was browsing the community configs, I did discover a promising input function called "touch menu", which turned out to be very useful.  This allows you to create menus full of commands which can be activated via moving your finger across the touchpad and clicking it.

Touch menu in-game, lower left, overlaid via Steam interface (note: this screenshot is not from ROTT)

The touch menu really adds a lot of potential keypresses to the gamepad - the menu can support anywhere from two to two dozen entries.  A great option for a lot of games, I imagine.  It definitely allowed me to start adding keys for commands and buildings in ROTT and have an easier time than clicking on every single object I wanted to build.  And the touchpad pointer was definitely much more responsive and accurate than using a gamepad joystick to steer the mouse around.  It's not the same as a mouse, but it's pretty close.

At this point I started to realize just how much work it is to build things up from scratch, and just how many keyboard commands a simple game like Revenge of the Titans has.  Not something you think about until you try and map every single one of them out, one at a time.

Anti-chamber
First-Person Puzzle/Shooter: Anti-chamber

I actually don't play many FPS games.  However, given the controller was feeling more and more like it was built for mouselook (move mouse = aim gun), I decided I had to test at least one.  So I chose a puzzle FPS I had yet to play in my Steam library: Anti-chamber.

Again, I was prompted to configure the controller on first bootup, as it did not have default gamepad support.  Again, community configurations were limited.  However, the controls for this game were much simpler than TW3 or ROTT's massive libraries of actions, so it didn't take long to build something that worked.

After a few short play sessions, it was clear to me that the first-person shooter is probably what the controller was made for. The sensitivity of the touchpad makes for much greater accuracy than a joystick, which is important when the camera aims your weapon. Additionally, in a first-person shooter, you are usually more concerned about aiming within a narrow corridor directly ahead of you. You don't need to be smooth when turning quickly -- all that matters is accuracy.  You also don't spin the camera in slow arcs very often (unlike a 3rd person game), which reduces some of the downside of reaching the edge of the touchpad with your finger and having to re-position in the middle.


Desktop Control

The last thing I wanted to look at was using the controller just to navigate around on the desktop.  One of the main draws to a controller with mouse emulation is being able to use it to surf the web and use basic programs, especially if you find as I do that controllers are much more ergonomic than keyboard/mouse. 

My impression from general use over a week has been that this is another of the controller's stronger selling points.  The touchpads give much finer control over mouse functions than a joystick would, and with much less movement of your arms and hands than a mouse and keyboard would.  The touchpad configurations also allow for both mouse movement and "mouse region" style control (mouse region maps the touchpad to the entire screen, so you can jump far distances easily).

Radial Keyboard, Joystick plus XYBA Buttons
Right now, the main issue I'd like to see fixed is that there's no way to use the cool "radial keyboard" that allows you to type within Steam outside of Steam.  I think enabling this for non-Steam use somehow would add a lot of value to the controller.  It's a cool system and one I wouldn't mind mastering to avoid the need to switch from gamepad to keyboard constantly, for example when searching for short keywords.

Another improvement would be for the controller to be less tethered to Steam.  Yes, I realize it's a "Steam Controller", but It's very usable for general mouse based tasks in Windows, and I'd really like to see dynamic profiles for the active window, not just Steam overlay enabled games.

 

Overall Impressions

There is a lot that I like about the controller.  I really like how customizable it is, especially with respect to the touchpads. I like the touchpads for mouse based tasks and games, thanks to the accuracy and customization options.  I like the squeeze triggers as extra buttons.  I like the Steam-based dynamic profile saving/loading and community profile sharing (which will hopefully improve in the future as more people are using the controller),

Still, I am torn about recommending it wholeheartedly.  The philosophy here is definitely not simplicity, as the "Play any Steam game from the comfort of your couch" slogan seems to imply.  The philosophy is flexibility.  

Many of the issues I saw, such as the inability to copy your own configurations, can be solved easily through patching, but the device's complexity is tied to something that can't be changed: the sheer volume of Steam games out there with vastly diverse control systems.  Games which are designed to have a library of potential actions available to the player, sub-menus and item hotkeys and all kinds of movements and reactions, will require a real time investment to get working.  Some of the settings can be hard to parse as well, though perhaps more infographics would help with this.

That said, it's true that it's much easier to configure the controller in the middle of a play session when compared to what I'm used to; alt-tabbing, picking up a keyboard, changing settings in another program, then alt-tabbing back in.  Here, there is some simplicity.  It's really awesome to be able to press the Steam button on the controller and be changing the configuration in a few seconds, without ever leaving the game or putting down the controller.

In the end, I think whether the device will work for you depends both on how patient you are, and on the types of games you play.  The touchpad's accuracy with quick movements over a joystick make it ideal in mouselook or pointer focused games, and the configuration challenge is mitigated if the game has only a small number of keybindings.  It struggles in the area of steady input, such as 3rd person camera controls, and in games with many keybindings, as it will require a great deal of fiddling to set up each one up correctly.

I can imagine someone who really likes to dig into a game, set everything up just right, and then spend many at least several hours playing will get along well with this device.  People who spend less time in a wider variety of games and want things to just work immediately are probably not going to be as well served by the Steam Controller, unless the games have extremely simple controls or the community configurations really start to come through.

From my perspective, this is a highly customizable input device which is unlike most other gamepads available on the market, and it does outperform my previous gamepad solutions in a few critical areas.  It also faces some challenges, but, for its flexibility and unique design, I think it's capable of serving a valuable role in the Steam-junkie's input arsenal.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Undertale


It's a game about... choice.  Is that helpful?  No?

Undertale is pretty unique.  I don't want to tell you too much about it.  It's best at:

  • Surprising you with mechanics
  • Surprising you with emotions
  • Surprising you with meta-awareness
  • Surprising you with humor
  • Just plain surprising you

The overall game art style looks very retro in screenshots, to the point of looking amateur - especially when it comes to the terrain.  But, when you get into the game, you see that the work put into animations, dialogue timing, sound effects, and character art is tremendous.  There is a LOT of charm lurking underneath the surface of this game.



If you played Earthbound on the SNES, you'll find a lot is familiar.  An even bigger emphasis is put on character relationships and non-combat solutions.  There's a kind of... twisted innocence, I think is what I'd call it, that it shares with its spiritual predecessor as well - a sense of the world's tremendous capacity for evil, and wrongness, and at the same time just being silly, cracking jokes, and having fun.

The combat is just bonkers.  The acronym I would coin to describe it is Contextual Shape-Based Bullet Hell (CSBBH).  It really is a brilliant approach, feeding conversational elements into the gameplay, taking something very basic and making it feel novel, something that changes drastically with every foe or friend you meet.



It's also a game that, from a storytelling perspective, got me to feel invested enough that I experienced some real anger at some of the "surprises" - so angry I uninstalled it.  Then, I re-installed it, and played through from the beginning again.  And I don't regret that.  I'm completely satisfied with my experience.  I can't say that of many games now, especially not having the time to play as much as I used to.  I really felt like I had to play it again.

You can get through the game in 5-6 hours, though it offers much more with subsequent playthroughs, and might involve a significant time investment if you want to see all it has to offer.  I really enjoyed the writing, the charm, and the world the game builds.  I highly recommend it.

If you're still not sold and want to learn a bit more, I suggest the Rock Paper Shotgun article on the game.  It manages to avoid spoilers while giving you a little more on the details of what makes it unique.


Saturday, September 12, 2015

PAX 2015

I'm walking down the street in an unfamiliar city. I've been to Seattle once before, as a visitor and a sightseer, but I'm in Seattle for something very specific this time. I came here chasing down a convention I've been trying to attend for three years: the Penny Arcade Expo. And now the convention is almost over, and there's just one thing left to do.

I'm following half-remembered directions to restaurant where a concert is happening... I think. Some guy from some line mentioned it. I like everything to be planned out explicitly, so walking eight blocks toward something I think might be happening is a little unusual for me. But, after four days of roaming the convention, I'm willing to take a little risk to see something cool.

In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made that whole weekend.

***

I often ask myself why the idea of gaming is so compelling for me, when at the same time it carries such a cultural stigma. It's hard to reconcile, but the word "gaming" to me is actually kind of distasteful when written out. I want some other word to describe this hobby.  Somehow, “Gaming” brings out a feeling of judgment in my head, judgment from of the uninitiated.  Perhaps it's just too vague of a word. It doesn't really mean anything – it doesn't even describe play adequately. It sounds like running, walking, or breathing. Activities, not states of interaction.

Still, I think much of the social confusion around the word has infiltrated my own perspective. It's with this in mind that I decided to attend what is one of the largest gaming conventions in the world, founded by two people who are personally some of the most influential in my thinking about games and about what the word “gaming” means, Gabe and Tycho from the Penny Arcade comic, which I have been reading for most of my adult life. I was reading the comic when Diablo 2 came out, for Christ's sake. Am I really that old?

Anyway, I wanted to see what it was like when thousands upon thousands of people who shared the interest in this pastime gathered together. Would the stigma evaporate? Or would I just find a better word for it?

***

I walk into the restaurant. It's Monday, the last day of PAX, after the end of the last official event, but you can still see lanyards around peoples' necks – the easiest way to spot fellow attendees. I also spot some folks wearing shirts with geeky videogame lore and other science-fiction or fantasy cultural icons. So I think I'm in the right place.

It was one of the many people I met standing in line at PAX who I happened to strike up a conversation with that told me about the concert. Over the previous three days, I had spent so much time running all over downtown Seattle going to all the various panels, unreleased game demos, and other random rooms and nooks and crannies at PAX, that I had never felt up for going to any type of after-hours event. So this was my last chance.

I ordered a burger and a beer and sat down and waited. I was pretty good at waiting by that point.

***

The insane Magic the Gathering set piece
PAX started with a line. It continued with many more lines. For the most popular events, it's not uncommon to try and show up two or three hours early just to ensure that you get a spot (as a general rule, I would say that if you see a long line at PAX and it's not capped, you should probably stand in it, because it is probably something awesome). The first people I met in line, Bree and Laney from Monterey, weren't even there for the panel I was in line in – the two opening panels of PAX, Storytime (with Kim Swift this year) and a Q&A with Gabe and Tycho – they were there for the third panel, two panels away, a guy named rooster teeth. Apparently, he's pretty popular on the YouTubes. And they wanted the best spots in line.

From the beginning, I wanted to talk to people. And it seemed like the other people of PAX want to talk as well. Every time I started up a conversation, it flowed naturally from various topics in common, and others nearby would join in randomly. Topics ranged quickly from gaming to culture, to the best things to do at the convention, and always back to gaming; what were people playing, what was new, etc. And, in my favorite line-based diversion, people would occasionally just sit down in the middle of the line and play something. If the line wasn't moving, you could usually get in a game of Magic or two in before you had to stand up again.

So I talked. I talked to Russ on the plane from Santa Barbara (there were four other people attending PAX on that plane). He had recently broken his foot and was going to the convention on the little knee-scooter. He was big into first-person shooters and another Rooster Teeth fan. It felt strange, realizing we had little in common in our gaming habits (I'm not a big FPS player), and yet it felt like we had so much in common in attending the convention. There was an urge to converse there that was new to me. I'm not a person who normally gets chatty with strangers, but this was special. Someone else has made the choice of expending time and money to go to this crazy thing that I'm also going to, because they love games, had even built a social circle around them – his Halo clan attended PAX regularly to meet up.

I talked to Zach, Chris, and Alex – about World of Warcraft and all that's changed since I played, about Magic the Gathering (we also played a quick game in line), and about the celebrities at the convention. The three of them were all “Enforcers”, a class of attendee who actually volunteer for most of the convention to help it operate; they manage lines, they move merchandise and gear, and they help people have fun while waiting in line by giving out goodies, organizing random little talent shows or other events, and just generally making you feel like there was a warm presence around you at all times, which you could query if you were lost or confused and get answers. Enforces are awesome, and I told them as much.

I also talked to people constantly about their early gaming memories. Nostalgia is one of the greatest bonding agents. When strangers say SNES like it's an actual word, and not an acronym, my heart melts a little bit.

***

More people are appearing now. I am starting to wonder about this band. All I know is that they're called 7bit Heros. I assume they play video game inspired music, but I didn't even ask the person who told me about the concert why they wanted to see this band. I can see they're setting up merchandise for sale in the little side booth, but I'm not exactly sure where the band is playing. There doesn't seem to be a space in the narrow restaurant/bar area for a band to stand.

Tickets for the band are about to go on sale. Two girls walking to the bar and hover near my table, so I strike up another conversation. It seems these two are big fans of the band, and mentioned something about there being an app you can install while you're listening to the concert. Interesting.

***

Enough about waiting. Let's talk about the Expo Hall, that massive space of darkness and light.

The Expo Hall is open from 10 AM to 6 PM. This year, it spanned two floors of the convention center. It is full of games which have not yet been released, and you can stand in line to play any of them, oftentimes earning some free swag for your trouble such as T-shirts, lanyards, beta access codes, etc.

When I first arrived in the Expo Hall, I was a little overwhelmed. Too many choices. Then, looking through the paper schedule that Bree and Laney had given me (they'd had an extra), I saw a gigantic spaceship.

I like spaceships. I pledged too much money to Star Citizen. And these spaceships were even bigger!

The game was Dreadnought. It's a game that I had seen Rock Paper Shotgun do a story on a while ago and had been enamored with. The game pits gigantic lumbering spacecraft against each other in team combat, over broken landscapes. It looked amazing and had the kind of graceful slow-paced combat of Mechwarrior, akin to naval warfare in its carefully planned maneuvers and slowly shifting front lines.

The Dreadnought booth
I made a beeline for the Greybox booth, saw they had a huge number of stations set up, and got in line. I was not disappointed. The fact that the game is set up as a five versus five means that some of the people you're standing in line with will invariably be your teammates, or your enemies. This makes for great conversation about the various roles and strategies – there are tankish ships, artillery ships, support/healing ships, etc. Each team also gets a set of wired headsets and microphones to help coordinate. The game was a huge blast. For beta access, you can sign up to the closed beta on their website.

I also fooled around with a few other games in the Expo Hall, mainly the VR rigs Oculus Rift and Morpheus, which were interesting but nothing mind blowing. It was really just fun to walk around and see all of the games being played, the gigantic inflated Pikachu hovering over the Pokémon booth, the grunts, grows, and impacts of the Street Fighter V booth, the sheer spectacle and newness of everything.

***

We go up and get our wrists stamped and head into the tiny venue, which I didn't even realize was part of the building. How they are going to fit 100 people in this room, I have no idea, but the girls who had been hanging around my table and I are there early enough to actually get a seat near the back. After a little longer, someone who I assume is the band manager begins walking around asking people if they've installed the app, explaining how to log in, etc. Talking to my booth mates, I'm told the app doesn't work very well on android, which is unfortunate for me.

The band has also brought their own Wi-Fi access point. Apparently there will be some sort of coordinated interaction through the app if you connect to the Wi-Fi.

The band gets set up on stage and people fill the little room. A projector displays an image behind the band. A little blocky-headed avatar appears along with the bubble-text “I'm the tutorial!”

***

The Expo floor is amazing, but that's not the coolest thing about the convention. The coolest thing is all of the other little bits and bobs, hidden rooms, and random events that you can stumble into while you're wondering around.

At the top of my list of random side-attractions is the Smash Brothers and Console Freeplay rooms (plural). Arguably the most wonderful experience I had at PAX was stumbling into a room with rows and rows of tables and displays running the newest Smash Brothers – which I had never played – and immediately sitting down and battling it out with a bunch of strangers. I had forgotten how much I loved this game. It's just so satisfying, even when you aren't doing very well, to land a great attack and clobber someone. Combined with that nostalgia bonding agent that comes with the game populated by Nintendo characters, you make instant friends.

The Joust crowds are another highlight. This aspect of the convention that doesn't come out until after dark, when strange circles of people form on the upper levels of the convention center around 9 or 10pm, with figures dancing in bizarre slow-and-fast motion in the center, holding little glowy orb stick things.

video


The first day I ran into the joust crowd, I played once and got instantly eliminated. I was a little disheartened. I'm not a person who usually likes physical contact sports, and this ran a little too close for my taste. The rules are that you have to keep your little motion sensor thing moving steadily to the pace of the music, and you can push and shove other players gently. But on the second day, I walked by again, and realized that I felt like I was missing out on something.

So I jumped in and played for around two hours, until the building shut down. Something about the game really allows people's personalities to shine through their play. You could play aggressively and move quickly, try to surprise people by sneaking up behind them and bumping their arm, even try and blend in with the crowd of spectators to avoid detection. This is a game that I think anyone who doesn't really consider themselves a gamer could get into.

On the panels, of all of the random panels I went to, the Dub Fight panel is probably my favorite. I didn't even know what it was until I was in line for it. The videos should eventually be up on their website, but you can see some of their older clips there.

***

We're sitting at the back of the venue, up on the backs of the booth seats to get a good view. The two girls whom I had just met turn out to be hugely into World of Warcraft.  One of them is GM for a guild on Malfurion, and the other is a member of that same guild. They had never met in person, but had known each other online for nine years. PAX was, for them and many others, an excuse to make that meeting face-to-face meeting happen. 
 
I have never been plopped into a group of 40,000 people with whom I have so many things in common.


***



Something that I've always taken for granted as a gamer since a young age is the language we learn – the icons, the instructions, the expectations – something entirely unique, and something that takes time to master and appreciate. You learn how deep and extensive this languages when you introduce someone who has never played a game to a system and they struggle with the basic concepts – like how to navigate, what a mini map is, how mouselook works.
Although I think a lot of us like to think games are intuitive, in truth they are filled with a hodgepodge of conventions and shortcuts, almost as arbitrary and self-centered a language as something like music notation. Why should the right stick control the camera and the left stick control movement? What happens when you run over the little power-up shaped like a rocket? Why does jumping on things kill them?

If you know the answer, you're part of the club. And for once, at this convention, that meant inclusion – not exclusion.

Yes, of course it's fun to be around people who think like you do and who share your interests. There's not much new about that. But building that shared interest around a medium that is based on interaction? I think that produces something unique.

***

"A space pyramid! Let's shoot face lasers at it to see if it's friendly!”

Eight random player avatars from the audience suddenly appear on the massive projection behind the band, and they all begin tapping away on their phones and tablets, firing lasers at a pyramid looking thing. The game the band has created to accompany their concerts is exceedingly simple – press the button the fastest, get the highest score – and yet it works perfectly. No real knowledge of how the game works is necessary. Only timing matters.

The pyramid explodes, melting under the concentrated firepower of tippity-taps. A large purple thing pops out.

Oh no! It's SPACE CAT!”

The large purple thing, which I recognize now as a legless purple flying cat (or space cat), flies off screen. The game's villain is established.

***

I often wonder how to describe the things that gaming contributes to culture. Gaming is a conversation between the player and the game, in a language that takes time to master. So, after the convention, after giving it some thought, here's what I think: gaming provides an avenue of interaction not only with fiction, with narratives and art, but with other people. It can be a social conduit and lubricant. It provides a space of thought where cooperation and competitive experiences can be explored with limited consequences. And, when enough people who value these things come together in one place, it can contribute something very meaningful: acceptance. That's what a crowd of strangers, what PAX, gave to me, and what thousands of hours on the internet could never really provide.

***

As the band plays, SPACE CAT swallows the players and now they're in the SPACE CAT intestines.  There are bees for some reason, and SPACE CAT throws them all up.   

video


Now the players tap to run away on SPACE CAT's really, really long tongue to avoid being eaten again. The players fall off the tongue, and in a brief dialogue, one falling player comments on the unfinished nature of the game.  This is apt, because the game wouldn't even run on my phone.  I didn't care.  Something weird was happening as I was watching – I had a feeling of rightness, a feeling of two things put together I had never seen before (public performance and interactive gaming), a feeling of the complete absurdity of what I was watching, and a feeling that I and everyone in the room was completely invested it.

The 7bit Heros game gives off a familiar vibe; you feel like it started with a pile of weird lyrics and goofy characters, and had a story written on top to give it meaning and connect it all together into something that made sense. Looking at the big picture, I think PAX is the haven of absurdity that gives this culture meaning.  It takes the idea of gamers, of having a passion for play, and, without trying to make it serious in an academic way, makes it feel worthy on a very personal level.

I will definitely be back.