Thursday 31 December 2015

Games of the Year 2015

So a fourth year of picking out notable games released (approximately) within a calendar year. I guess that makes it a tradition for this blog.

Life is Strange

I've already written about why this game is emotionally resonant, necessarily pondering, and mechanically important for several genres. To quote myself this is "one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years". A slow and considered story about young adult (queer) women coming to terms with the world and growing into who they are. It's also the shot in the arm that graphic adventure games needed since coasting on the success of Telltale's first Walking Dead season and it's hugely informative for anyone working on the narrative systems for modern RPGs.

Visually the decision not to chase photorealism pays dividends with the brushwork even extending to things like rain splash effects and wet shaders - the cohesion tied together with a thoroughly modern engine to render it in detail without distracting defects. The one area which could really have done with more investment is animation - the audio performances are mainly incredible and are leaned heavily upon as the face animation is very basic. Max and Chloe('s voice actors) sell the game throughout with plenty of strong performances from others. When you're telling a love story, you need those two main performances to chime and they do. The fandom that grew out of this game have clearly found fertile ground to grow from.

Everything in Life is Strange is painted broad and universal but also small and specific. Everyone is a caricature but also given depth and time to show their quirks beyond the exaggerated surface. Most people can identify with the themes of the story and the main characters but this isn't a story about straight men. It works because the glut of stories about straight white cis men distorts what stories we commonly see told in major, "all audiences" media. It is an everywoman story in a medium where the notion of an everywoman is barely explored above a very low budget ceiling. Hopefully it is the start of a new wave of published-funded projects. [photo source]

Pillars of Eternity

As I mentioned earlier in the year, this is a classic CRPG right down to the painted backdrops and limited use of 3D acceleration to make it pop. Of course, coming 15 years after the height of that genre, this use of 3D now extends to fully 3D characters and monsters with very detailed artwork for the backdrops but this is more of a "what a classic CRPG could look like today" than even the modest fully-3D top-down competitors like Wasteland 2 or Divinity: Original Sin. This is a 2015 take on the Infinity Engine, not the Aurora Engine.

What PoE does add to the table is a much-improved interface and some systems changes away from GURPS/SPECIAL/(A)D&D that allow more playing of the game and less working through the rule system to find how to progress. The combat is deep enough that dungeons are a great time exploring your party's classes but it doesn't ever dominate the game (and things like a 15-level mega-dungeon are offered as completely optional content for those who want more time to enjoy that incredibly refined tactical real-time with pause system); it's a CRPG so most people will come for the story. You can feel the experienced writing team in every inch of the game's narrative - a story that manages to vault the bar of even a rose-tinted view of those classic CRPGs.

Cities: Skylines

Another game I talked about at the same time, this is what SimCity (2013) should have been. Offline (no always-on DRM), mod-friendly, simulational, and built to allow fans of the classic SimCity games to enjoy a similar experience with a new layer of infographics and citizen simulation to run on top of it. For this game, that means importing a lot of the transit simulation from the developer's previous Cities in Motion series into a core city-builder template.

Not every citizen is simulated in detail (something EA planned for SimCity 2013 but only managed to reach simulating 10% of the Sims as agents and those acted too stupidly to generate meaningful outcomes) but there are certainly enough of them milling around and travelling to make traffic quickly become a constant system you need to master to enable your city to grow. The initially small plot of land grows as your city does and you can pick where it expands to rather than just getting a centred square of land. But most of the rest of this game is the classic (low & high density) R,C,I city-builder you expect from the genre and which has only slowly evolved since SimCity 2000 solidified the template.

This is exactly what you want after EA's Maxis completely dropped the ball in every way and left the somewhat archaic SimCity 4 from 2003 as the latest proper entry in the series. A thoroughly modern, infinitely moddable, 3D city-builder that reacts exactly how you expect and with a deeper-than-expected traffic simulation that shows the developer's previous focus. Anyone who enjoys this genre should be satisfied by this budget release (even if the headline feature from the expansion actually turned out to be part of ongoing support and so robbed that additional purchase of much value).

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

So I grew up in very rural England. This game was to me what many games have been to people who grew up in locations like New York, LA, San Francisco, or London. This even goes back to around when I was born for the period setting. All rendered with incredible fidelity and underlaid by another exceptional Jessica Curry soundtrack. Just as in Dear Esther, the soundtrack really sells the piece and makes wandering around uncovering the places and narrative never feel plodding.

This is definitely far larger in scope to that previous game and you can see every inch of Sony's involvement in the assets, rendering these villages and fields in detail you expect from AAA, not indie. There are a couple of slightly unclean edges to remind you this hasn't had the funding and army of artists you get for Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, or Battlefront; but otherwise it's amazing to wander round something that looks like where my life started.

The actual narrative, told via audio plays, helps to build a living, breathing space in which you are walking (after a cataclysm that has left every leaf untouched but no person remaining). It speaks to smart allocation of resources on the project and completely held me throughout the game. A game about isolation, searching, and small village toxicity that eventually falls to self-sacrifice and the tail end of the nuclear scare that fits the period.

The Beginner's Guide

As I touched on around release, this game has some meat to dig into both considering the text and the metatext that it has created. Advertised as 90 minutes of narrated game design, this follow up to The Stanley Parable shares a lot of the build process but uses it for a completely different exploration into game design.

Here the question is not about the illusion of choice in constructing levels but how a game developer can cope with the stress of the indie game process. How does an artist hold it together to complete a project? How do they deal with other people (or other facets of themself) during development and sharing their creations? How does feedback or just the act of letting a work grow without you pull on a fragile nerve?

It's a game that benefits from going into blind but being prepared to work for your fulfilment. You will spend 90 minutes with a narrator and look at a series of levels but this is like describing an audio-book as 4 hours of listening to someone speak: technically accurate but saying nothing about the actual experience of listening. If you have any interest in small-scale game development or discussions of mental health then this is an outstanding game to play.

Until Dawn

Do what the writers of Agents of SHIELD refuse to and construct a scenario where we can all enjoy watching Ward die, permanently. Then watch it a few more times, you deserve the catharsis if you've been putting up with that TV show. Also contains plenty of Peter Stormare emoting, again, and that's almost worth the entry fee alone.

While this had a tough development cycle (originally a PS3 Move-controller game), the final product shows none of that uncertainty. This is a confident horror story with state of the art performance capture the likes of which Sony normally only get to roll out for their David Cage projects (Heavy Rain, Beyond). It's also structurally very similar to those games, with emphasis on decision making and branching narratives driving a cinematic experience.

The advantage that Until Dawn has is competent writing and editing staff that bring together a post-Cabin in the Woods horror story that nods at the genre tropes while offering a game where, depending how you play it, everyone (individually) can live or die. American teens painted to been just unlikeable enough that their gruesome deaths aren't too much of a downer for the plot but don't destroy your investment in at least some surviving. As is necessary in the modern era of horror, tropes are either played with or inverted left and right so you're never quite sure what will be played straight and the different paths allow for some genuine unexpected moments as you know that theoretically everyone can survive whatever situation they're in.

DiRT Rally

Proper rally games that you can play on a standard joypad are back.

There's always a bit of give and take developing a game about driving (and with rally it's always about driving; racing is for people who are fighting the other cars, not the cliff face that will squash them if they don't take this corner [caution jump into right 4 tightens] just right): how demanding should the game be vs how much money can be spent on something that only appeals to a few driving game fans. In recent years it seemed like all rally games moved further and further from the sim side of the scales and towards arcade handling and difficulty.

This is where a small skunkworks team at Codies came in and decided to fix that. Get their old engine, throw out the handling model, and try and build a semi-sim game that is the equivalent of Forza or GT in providing a soft sim focus that can appeal to people who want to take things seriously but maybe don't want to spend £300 on a wheel and pedals. People who want a challenge and for track condition to matter, to need the co-driver to guide them. DiRT Rally is an incredibly solid attempt at that which just made final release after a period on Early Access. If you fondly remember games like RalliSport Challenge or the Colin McRae Rally games, this is for you.

Notable Runners-up

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes - Just good clean cooperative multiplayer design that points to hopefully an explosion in asymmetrical knowledge co-op games coming soon (may get talked about more next year due to VR support).

Her Story - Fun, revered, almost made my list. I think the impressiveness of the design of the search system wears away with distance. While you're playing it, hunting the keywords to unlock the new videos you crave to make sense of the narrative, it seems really clever. Given distance, you start to wonder exactly how carefully constructed it all was and how it was somewhat inherent to the nature of language. It's a fun short ride through a bad search engine that is absolutely worth playing.

Just Cause 3 - From that very first moment, this game is totally upfront about how nothing is serious and everything is on fire. A sequel that refines the movement tools and builds a new sandbox. What little narrative there is shows sparks of self-awareness that raises it above the tired skeleton it is attached to. But it's the fluid traversal tools that make this game stand out; an itch that, last year, was satiated by inFamous. Just like that game, JC3 is rather copy-pasted in structure but it's all about using the varied tools to keep yourself engaged - hour 50 of Forza is only different to hour 5 because of how you make your own progression and a basic unlock chain you walk down with some freedom of selection. But it can't go on the main list because the performance (on console or many PC configurations) simply isn't there, the bugs are too many, and some of it is unquestionably stuff considered "known shippable" and that's not ok.

Lara Croft GO - Not just a reskin of Hitman GO. A really nice, cheap puzzle game with style showing how much can be done with mobile GPUs without chasing photorealism.

Sorry Undertale, I think Caro does a great job of explaining why you're not on my list. Just as with Brothers, this gets a mention for how far my views diverge from the consensus of reviewers in general and specifically critics who generally share my tastes (and politics).

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Kerbal Space Program - I just didn't have time to do more than watch others play it while working - finally out of Early Access and looking great. Space physics and rocket science, or at least an approximation of them in a construction game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider - Sorry Xbox, I'm calling this a 2016 release as I played the last game at 4K on PC and loved it, not going to sub-1080p (variable res) and buying an XBOne just to play this a couple of months earlier. When Steam put up their presale page saying this will release in January, I wondered how many people started eyeing the 30-day refund period on their 2nd console purchase.

Cibele - I didn't have time to grab this but I'll mention it as I did play Freshman Year this year. Both released in 2015 by the same dev as last year's how do you Do It? and about topics larger games fail to engage with so well worth checking out. FY is another really short vignette piece like hdyDI.

The Witcher 3 - This would take a lot of hours and I was playing quite a few top-down RPGs this year (as the last few years have been thick with new takes on the classic perspective/game systems). It helps that there is almost certainly going to be a 2.0 patch and the end-of-DLC edition, if previous games are any indication.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Choices in Life is Strange

Life is Strange is a narrative game about making choices. There are countless examples of this genre from RPGs to the popular modern Graphic Adventures but LiS embraces an element of save-scumming to remove the short-term experience of finality that drives a lot of those decisions. When players are allowed to fully explore every dialogue tree, a game about choices becomes one that can really focus on the cause and effect that occurs more than within the immediate moments after a choice is made.

Anyone who's played many games built around choices will remember plenty of occasions where the designers have reinforced the idea of consequences by inserting gotcha answers into the dialogue trees. Pick the wrong answer, see the "amusing" failure and either be thrown back into the same question to pick an acceptable answer or hit game over and reload from the last save. The equivalent of the tabletop GM getting tired of your crap and bringing the freestyle nonsense to a swift end.

The classic model, before gigabytes of audio data came with every game, was to have players read their choices, pick an option, and then jump into the response. The player was the protagonist who decided a response and then jumped into the corresponding reply, possibly with some key bits voiced for effect. Then "cinematic" because the only way to sell games and everything had to be voiced. Eventually the player character was forced into a voiced role (and so the narrowing of the avatar into only roles that matched the recorded dialogue) and it was decided that the player should not have to read the full dialogue before making a choice and hearing it delivered by the voice talent. A decision that has given us the modern dialogue wheel and which many people will push back against. Now you have to guess at roughly what your avatar is about to say and so are guessing at the reaction it will evoke once removed.

But Dontnod Entertainment, expanding on the time-manipulation sections in their previous game, Remember Me, have found a path forward that retains the voiced dialogue without requiring the player to guess at what is going to be said or putting paragraphs of text up before a choice is made. This freedom can clearly be felt in the long dialogue blocks that can be triggered when the player picks what to discuss. But none of it is a permanent, locked choice due to the mechanic by which time can always be rewound and other choices made. The player is never left screaming at the screen as their avatar does or says something they would never have wanted to role-play in a tabletop version of the story.

I've previously discussed how Life is Strange manages to carefully genericise the setting and story to allow this European young-adult tale to play in America or elsewhere (even tagged as a story in a fictional Oregon coastal town). It doesn't quite stick the landing on that, especially when measured against specific local expectations ("Well I didn't talk like that when I was a kid"). But it does provide widespread familiarity for a story that generally doesn't get funded by the publishing model for computer games. That's the reason why the narrative of this game is one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years: a reasonably highly funded studio project about two queer women finding love amongst the background of ubiquitous rape culture in higher education.

But it's also mechanically interesting and a step forward for the genre of games that provide the player with narrative choices. How can you go back to a game that offers some broad categories and emotions on a wheel and pretends that the player is making an informed choice to role-play by fumbling through the dialogue when this system offers the player genuine choices about how to interact?

The cost is that you can no longer embed gotchas into your dialogue systems. Players don't need to game the system with save-scumming to undo immediate reactions to their choices but this just means they no longer are playing a game of second guessing the writers and avoiding picking the selection under which a mine has been hidden.

Life is Strange is a game all about choices, tying the ludic and narrative strands together into a coherent whole. And none of them are a cheap way of punishing choices. When necessary, as seen at the end of episode two, the ability to see all options is restricted to avoid exploitation of the game (with save-scumming or reaching for a phone to look up a FAQ) but in general the point of a game about the effect of actions is to show them occurring over the spread of days and even years. At no point does denying the curious player the chance to see what other options the writers put into the dialogue tree ruin that.

Friday 2 October 2015

Who is the Beginner’s Guide?

If you’re curious about the toll of labour to create games, if you're a fan who likes to take ownership of what they consume, if you're a creator who struggles with balancing the aspects of your art, if you once explored with Build or Worldcraft: play this game.

You probably want to read Cara Ellison's take and Austin Walker's review (as I'm going to quote a comment he made below that review)

One of the thoughts I was wondering while playing this, especially as the revelations start to avalanche towards the end, was if this was an autobiographical game. Reading the reaction, this has been a common response.

But, as I started to muse on what is possibly unknowable (without a statement by the author or the coming forward of the game’s Coda), I came to realise I didn’t care. One interpretation of the game (as Cara discusses) is that there is only one character in the game. Wreden is Coda, Coda is the creative inside Wreden and the narrator is the weight of expectations, the desire to publish, the perception of the audience. I realised that was the only way I really read the game. That was my internal canon for what this game was about. So it becomes a different question about the autobiographical nature of the game, because on some level it seems impossible not to be.

My one issue so far with the discussion is that I’m not sure everyone is asking the question in the same way, even if they’re asking it about the reading that the narrator and Coda are based on two different people:

Austin Walker:
If it's real, then it's not an apology at all, it's an incredibly gross exploitation of someone's work that isn't Wreden's. And the game seems to understand that, which is what makes me think it is in fact Not Real.
I don't think anyone would suggest it is literally real (that this game is a set of levels by someone other than the Wreden, which Wreden had edited in the ways described by the narrative) - it'd be taken down from Steam (eventually) as a copyright violation and ruin Wreden's career. The metafiction is fiction, but that doesn't mean this can't be about real events. This could be autobiographical. Just because an author writes about a plagiarist entirely in his own words, it doesn't mean it's not a story about his previous plagiarism or what it felt like to be plagiarised in the past. That's not my interpretation but I don't think it's easy to dismiss and self-contradictory to the game's theme and revelations.

What I think is possible is this is an autobiographical game (either with Wreden thinking back to him as the narrator/fan/editor or as Coda) in which the actual transgressions of the past have been replaced by entirely new content (so we never see what actually made the real Coda's work special but see work far more loosely inspired by it than map edits) in order to explore the previous exploitation that occurred without repeating the actual breech of trust. The alternative being a work of complete fiction that is only riffing on Wreden's thought experiments or far more loose experiences of fandom, creation, etc. that don't closely align with events described in the game.

I'm not sure that I think this being autobiographical (if Coda isn’t Wreden) is problematic. As long as these aren't literal recreations of the actual levels from a real Coda but rather totally new levels that may riff on some themes (or even specific glitches) that really were in some original works that inspired this (or maybe Coda is completely changed in this retelling to avoid further exploitation) then it seems ok. It would, ultimately, be a sort of apology as there is a clear admittance of wrongdoing (even if qualified by focussing on the narrator's intent so much) by the close. It is only exactly as exploitative as anyone who recounts their own history, tying in unnamed others who are core to the story without naming them.

As I interpret the game as narrating an internal struggle (with creation, with modifying your own work beyond where it may be "finished" in the eyes of your internal creativity, with the fear of publication, with the weight of indie PR) for a single person then I'm not so invested in wondering if this is an autobiography. In a sense I think it is likely to be so, as an exploration of this headspace that seems incredibly relatable to so many indies; but if Wreden is Coda then obviously none of this is a literal retelling of external events but rather the internal narrative of someone torn between silent creation and distribution of more user-palatable variants that lose that original message and substitute in more commercial design.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Video Game Metacriticism

I wrote a couple of short posts recently regarding the topics of odd omissions from and a reductively narrow gender lens concerning video games criticism so if you fancy some short-take metacriticism you can find them on my other blog (which is mainly for discussion and daily links to good writing about things other than games).

Sunday 30 August 2015

IP Infringement and Indie PR Campaigns

To save myself from an inbox of hate-mail complaining that I'm "a dirty pirate who steals games" (because the shelves of games behind me, digital games coming out my ears, etc are apparently just not enough for me!) I need to preface this by saying that I don't download games I haven't purchased and copyright is ok. Copyright is certainly much better than patents at sanely protecting creators, even if the terms are now insanely long (and locked in by international trade agreements). I have, throughout my various careers, relied on copyright to provide value to my labour (and so meet my basic needs). Be that formulating products in a chemistry lab, writing, creating art, editing videos, or engineering code (to list the most rewarding). It has been rare when I didn't need some level of copyright protection to ensure my work retained value.

However, as I've extensively covered in the past, there are limits to copyright and to not scamming the people paying for our labour by purchasing what we create. When we play fast and loose with copyright, we lose the moral high-ground from which to express our concern about software piracy. If we engage in IP infringement or claim something is infringing when it definitely isn't then all we gain is muddying the waters of what it does mean to deprive us of revenue. If you use this as an explicit target to gain press coverage then you're working as hard as you can to destroy an understanding of copyright in our customer base and you should reflect on the harm you're doing to the industry to try and push your own revenue stream.

There have been several cases over the last few years that are cause for concern where indies have attempted to make a big PR splash by lying about when their games are and are not being pirated. Usually these involve a claim that a defective version was created by the authors and seeded out, a version that punished people who downloaded it. Recently this involved a case with an explicit claim to infringement of a band's likeness, ie a trademark violation, on top of lying about "piracy". Some people pushed back when I characterised this sort of thing as both PR by harmful deception (as explained above - this sort of thing hurts us all) and technically demoware.

Here is what happened, without any deception, so you can see if you can spot any "pirates":
  1. The developer put aside significant effort to create a defective version of their new game. This was done with the explicit aim of leveraging it into a PR campaign that gained coverage and sympathy for the title on the sites that ran the story.
  2. The defective (unbeatable) version included IP infringement of a 3rd party to spice up the story.
  3. The developer uploaded this version of the software to a BitTorrent tracker and so, as noted in the terms of BitTorrent copied above, asserted they owned rights to all IP and granted a license to all others to distribute it (the process by which this technology works, allowing everyone who downloads the content to also resend it to others, requires this sort of granting of the right to duplicate, otherwise it wouldn't work).
  4. The developer sent out a press release and got as many sites as they could to provide them with free advertising for the release of their new game based on this "piracy".
As you can see, distributing a defective version of your software isn't piracy, it's demoware. The torrenting that you caused was... caused by your own hand. To facilitate this fun PR story for your game, you had to give away that broken version as demoware. No one came to your office, created the broken version themself, and then took it from you to distribute. That was all the work of the developer. All that effort to annoy people who were looking to download a game from a torrent site. But, rather than it wasting the time paid for by your actual customers who got no benefit from it, it was leveraged into PR success. Which is why this is done so often: because this story of self-sabotage plays as if it isn't self-destructive when wrapped in the cry of piracy.

I find it really sad that so many devs are basically turned into these caricatures by the weight of something they can't control and have no method to fight. The fear of piracy, that something is owed and if only copyright could be guaranteed then they'd be rich* because of those recouped "lost sales". That a $100k/year software developer who gives it up to live on Ramen deserves to be rewarded for trying to do it all themself and trusting in closed platforms to surface their content to an uncaring world that SHOULD care.

And you can't beat piracy. You can make it less of a problem; you can make your content more available and try to create goodwill (eg humanise your labour). But you can't DRM and buggy-demoware torrent-bomb your way to lasting success and you're selling your soul trying to. But it's hard to say that when you used to have a really nice software contract and now you're having a hard time making ends meet. You were sold the Just World fallacy as justification for your privilege and now the real, semi-random world is starting to become apparent.

I had a decade of crappy jobs and now have a good job that still doesn't beat minimum wage to ground me and beat the bratty kid out of me. I laugh at the idea of ever being able to live in London or NYC or SF (or afford luxury items like my own car). I still want to be a consumer advocate and can't understand why devs are so quick to say "screw the customer, I need to get mine". Devs who see the Bethesda mod stuff and say Bethsoft should have made their cut even larger because they own the game (no, the customers who purchased each copy own the copy of the game the mod runs on - you already got yours). Devs who say DRM is something that is just a reality of doing business (despite GOG). Devs who consider it a land-grab for the traditional law of goods to be exerted onto their digital law-free playground of plenty (refunds for distance goods - digital downloads should be classified as such just as much as posted disc games; the spectre of used games). Devs who would normally be with the hackers talking about DMCA horrors until someone reverse engineers something in their game and then they're suddenly happy to make engineering a crime. Devs who intentionally muddy the water by making torrents of their own games to score some free press.

* An assumption that everyone has infinite money to spend on media and so piracy is lost sales rather than most people who consume media being rather hard up and so assign their hobby/media budget as best they can and usually pirate the rest they're interested in. Ever wondered why "all you can eat" subscriptions are so dominant for media consumption: it makes it affordable and a fixed cost to fill whatever free time you need to unwind in.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Before 'Hard' vs 'Unfair', What is Difficulty?

Further to my old posts rejecting difficulty being "the point" of game design (in a *Souls style game, as an excuse for not providing difficulty levels), I made some comments recently regarding the topic of readability in game design that span out of GDC talks on difficulty.

Read that here.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

The Long Form: Keeping the Fat

The 4th of five episodes of Life is Strange was released this week. A series that gets somewhat mixed, if generally positive, reviews but is also carving out a sizeable fanbase who note it as clearly one of the strongest games released this year. I'm including myself in that group, even if they can't stick the landing in two months with the conclusion. I strongly suggest everyone experience the game before engaging with the critical reaction to avoid spoilers.
The opening of this episode seems to have gotten a generally positive reception so far. It is clearly emotionally affecting. While tearing up, I was also very aware of how manipulative putting such a choice in was, especially in the context of the relationship presented (the asymmetry of Max knowing Chloe far more than alt-universe Chloe knows Max and so is leaning on a past-relationship as a sign of desperation, looking back to better times). I normally get taken out of an experience by seeing the strings being pulled so clearly but here I was still very much in the moment.

After finishing the episode and considering this, I've started to wonder what made this moment different. Having spent 13 hours before this point must surely have something to do with it. The early pivotal moment may seem like it explodes out of the gate, but actually there's been the majority of an hour before the decision is asked of the player. A full hour-long episode of a TV drama has elapsed in this alt-universe before "the feels" are applied. The slow pace of narrative-based gaming allows something you generally don't get from the fat-free pace of other visual storytelling.
Life is Strange is a story about the end of the world. It's a story about time-travelling superpowers and how Super-Max saves the day while unravelling the bigger threat that will destroy everything by the end of the week. Only it's not. It's about social issues, abuse and suicide and harassment. It's about friends and forming social bonds even outside those who you can feel are potential friends. Life is Strange never flinches from dealing with the very real issues that young-adults face.

One of the smart moves that the game employs to distance itself from time and space is in the setting. We're looking at a college/boarding-school setting. Canonically it is an 18+ school in America with a 21+ drinking age. But it isn't University and feels just as close to a final tier of school. This setting allows for underage drinking, early partying, the removal of parental supervision, and discussion of sex. If this was set in Europe then you'd only need to change a few numbers and it would be talking about boarding at 6th form where the age of consent is 16, unsupervised drinking age is 18, and the kids are more solidly teenagers rather than young-adult but dealing with the same social issues. While some have been critical of this unreality that the distancing from the setting creates, I see this as an important act of universalising the narrative for a larger audience.

So we have an incredibly relatable story, despite the fantastic premise, and a slow pace. This is 13 hours of how Max and Chloe went from being childhood friends to... we don't yet know how that story will resolve. But it is clearly a loving relationship of some form that may be more about the confusion of youth than queer-baiting.

I posit that the opening of episode 4 can only land because games are not yet at the point of being tightly scripted packages of the absolute minimum required for the narrative. That loose form makes the moment so much more affecting because you've walked so many more miles in those shoes when it occurs than with a theoretical TV version of this same story. The audience for the medium has a tolerance for long and meandering. Each episode is 4 hours of immersion in this situation; it all builds up; to the point you can get away with such bare-faced emotional manipulation.

Tuesday 30 June 2015

AMD Doesn't Make $100 for Every Console Sold

[I]f these talks were to result in Microsoft owning AMD, it would save the firm a lot of money. Microsoft, as well as Sony, pay AMD in the range of $100 on each console produced. On top of the savings Microsoft would be making on each console, sales of PlayStation 4 would also directly benefit Microsoft. [nonsense]
Today we are going to unpack what's on display at VG247. This is why you need to pay more than minimum wage for writers to fill your news feeds if you want to get something that provides positive value for readers rather than misleading them with speculation that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny.

These numbers, which we'll go on to show are created by people misinterpreting what is just speculation, smell completely wrong. Any editor who has an understanding of chip sales should have flagged this. $100 is not the important number to look at. Sony has not added ($100 * 22.3m) $2.23bn in profit to AMD's financials in the last 18 months due to per-console fees. Note that AMD's market cap is currently $1.82bn.

ARM, who publicise their offers for IP licensing so you can get a chip design and ask anyone to make it for you (or customise it), charge in the region of 1-2% per wafer. After Microsoft got burned by nVidia on the original xbox, they're highly incentivised to pay a bit up front for R&D and minimise their licensing fees. They want to own the semi-custom design they paid to get developed. Sony have in-house expertise and are unlikely to be taken for a ride by AMD when they've done so many deals with people who generally only make this 1-2% profit on supplying the IP/chip designs.

So where did the number come from?

AMD makes more profit than Sony on the PS4 [...] This sees AMD making quite a healthy profit per console. [nope]
The Inquirer failed to understand a report from the IHS Teardown Analysis service. In this report, IHS estimated that a large (~350mm2) chip like this is likely to cost Sony or MS about $100. This is assuming a good deal from TSMC or GlobalFoundries and very little profit for anyone. So a cost of $100 for a part gets written down as a profit of $100 on that part. This is very stupid but also not the end of the journey. Note that I didn't say AMD was making the SoC.

AMD used to be able to make chips but they spun off that semiconductor fabrication plant operation, following the foundry model. They have completely divested themselves of GlobalFoundries so it doesn't matter who makes the chips, AMD doesn't profit from the actual production being profitable. I'm not sure if some of this analysis is done by people who think that GF is still part of AMD and something MS would be buying.

When MS or Sony pays AMD $100 for a SoC for their console (assuming they can't buy directly from a foundry - something ARM contracts often promote as the normal way of doing business) then AMD need to get a foundry to make the chip and provide it to the console manufacturer. This is not a highly profitable venture as that is not a small chip to make. The IHS estimate of $100 doesn't seem completely off but is an estimate that assumes AMD make virtually no profit, the actual number (or how close this guess is) isn't actually all that important. That 1-2% per-wafer fee sounds not unreasonable. That's cents to a couple of dollars. Not $100.

This would be the profits that MS could save on production of the XBOne and could extract from Sony for production of the PS4. And this is assuming Sony don't have the rights to produce the PS4 SoC paid for in full via their R&D budget and so have to buy SoCs via AMD rather than buying them directly. It's pennies, not almost a third of the current price of the console.

But this isn't to say Microsoft are definitely not interested in AMD. The failure to crush nVidia with their new generation of GPUs (despite having a 6-9 month head-start on nVidia with stacked DRAM) and pinning their hopes at clawing back a competitive x86 part that uses more than 3 Watts being entirely reliant on a 40% IPC increase from Zen means AMD are not in a good space. They're ripe for acquisition. MS have lots of money, especially as AMD are rather small compared to people with similar IP portfolios like nVidia (who Intel is still paying to not develop x86/claim they could if they wanted to - something AMD do have). MS also have that hardware division that does Surface tablets and the xbox consoles. Although they use the best Intel has to offer for an x86 tablet, they could probably move to AMD without ruining the devices. There is some synergy there. It's just not a $100 per console obvious move.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Legalised theft

I've used the phrase "legalised theft" a few times talking about Microsoft's policy of currency conversion that moved their digital stores from MSP (Microsoft Points) to local currency balances/credit.
Any Microsoft Points that you had remaining in your Microsoft account have been retired, and we’ve added to your Microsoft account an amount in your local currency equal to or greater than the Xbox stores’ value of your Microsoft Points. This value we added is promotional and will remain in your Microsoft account until 1 June 2015. However, the currency you purchase and add to your account will not expire.
You cannot, for a single moment, believe that last line. Adding credit to your current MS account will provide absolutely no guarantee that the currency you purchase and add to your account will not expire. We know this because the entire transition to local currency described before this explains how they have stripped the non-expiring nature of the MSPs you purchased before. This is theft, but done in a way as to be technically legal.

You should never buy credit for an MS store (say, in a sale or other offer) that you do not intend to immediately use because their statement on credit expiry is known false. You may use this example of dishonesty as a reason to blacklist MS and totally avoid their digital stores, I know I will be less likely to spend money in their stores after this behaviour.

But some people seem to think I'm grossly exaggerating or lying when I make the claim this is theft, even if qualified to be a spin on theft that has been crafted to be technically legal. Let's look at exactly what happened and could happen again to see if we think this looks like theft.
  1. Someone offers for sale currency for their store (advertised as not expiring, can be used forever) and a supply of goods to be purchased using this store credit. Items have a real value of the real money required to be converted into this store credit to make that purchase.
  2. People use this store and buy credits in advance of needing them (the store actually makes it impossibly to by exactly the credit you need, you have to buy it in blocks), converting their real money into the equivalent value of store credit.
  3. The store owner, after accumulating significant real world money that is not spent but sitting as store credit that cannot be converted back to real money (thus avoiding the legal requirements applied to actual banks who provide an internal balance for people paying in real money), decides to end this situation.
  4. The store owner removes all items from sale using the store currency, making the value (in purchasable goods) of outstanding credit to be zero. But the credit has been guaranteed to not expire so cannot be removed. It is simply made worthless by removal of places to spend it. This is the opening for theft.
  5. A new store is created by the original store owner that sells the same goods and for the same real world prices, only there is a new store currency. This is where the people realise they've been stolen from.
  6. The store owner offers to convert the old, worthless currency to the new currency for use in the new store but the conversion process will create new currency credit that does expire. This is the scam that softens the theft, allowing users to sign over the non-expiring nature of their store credit for access to the credit in the new store (credit they previously thought they could spend on goods in the store forever).
  7. The store owner assures everyone that the new store currency you can buy will result in credit that never expires. Somehow the store owner doesn't think the people are on to their scam.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Commercial mods

Wouldn't it be great if there was some way for mod teams who make expansive mods to get paid for their significant work, maybe on Steam. Shame they can't and PC gaming is dead according to the backlash to the backlash about Skyrim mods.

The actual implementation chosen for the paid mod marketplace may have been one of those exceptional times when every group loses. It's not easy to build systems that fail all.

Game players now have a search issue that has financial costs rather than just being a "grab and see" process. You now have to possibly buy into some mods to get the game you want; this is a massive barrier that it's easy to understate. Especially due to "value" (games are (for the content) cheap, DLC is generally far less cheap, mods appear to be coming in at DLC or worse value levels) concerns.

Valve, who have spent forever locking down their system to avoid having too much DMCA takedown and other copyright infringement work, are now getting financial gain from an unmoderated store. Their earlier UGC stuff was all carefully crafted to avoid this issue (at the cost of making each piece expensive to put up) and a small curated store meant every item could be popular.

The publisher now has competition for the commercial DLC they put out in the form of commercial mods. This was always what "no you can't sell it" stipulations were about - it means you could sell your expansion pack. Yes, their cut doesn't have the costs associate with Valve's work (although they probably need those lawyers to be primed for the copyright infringement claims they'll be co-defendant on if Valve don't take down content fast enough and hand over any money). Their game can also lose value by perception (game players now see the PC release as worth less due to increased "cost" to find the mods they want to play with).

And modders now have the same commercial "app store" myth to push them to try and make money when 99% of people just make something no one will play. The few success stories push everyone to try and charge and find out that no one is buying their small mod (that can't compete with the value of Skyrim being $5 for the base game, which took 100+ people several years to make - your solo mod would take you literally hundreds of years to get the same work done so you're always going to be offering something like 1% of the "value" of the $5 game - so a fair price is 5 cents, or nothing when rounding). A few individual modders will get to do it for a living but as a group, modders now have a more volatile group of consumers who are expected to provide more search labour to avoid being scammed. Those who will make money this way, if they did work that wasn't incremental, could be making those mods into commercial indie releases. Those who do incremental work may well be better served working as a contractor or inside the studio system making those assets for the next game. The ideas of open collaboration and remix culture are destroyed by commercial concerns while the extrinsic motivators suppress the intrinsic ones.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

We Don't Have the Money, But We've Got a Plan

The last month has involved quite a lot of getting lost in some deep PC games. While the PS4 facilitated my gaming highlights last year, the games I've been dropping a lot of time into recently have all been on the PC.

An interesting thing about Pillars of Eternity, which is looking like one of the best CRPGs ever to be released: it was built on a budget that didn't facilitate anything cinematic. Obsidian didn't have the funds to make this a big 3D world, to provide glorious cut-scenes that compete with Blizzard, or to even provide a fully-voiced script. And those limitations have only made this game better. The game was built to hark back to the original Infinity Engine CRPGs which many of the developers had previously shepherded.

We now have the tools to create those worlds and script it together without spending as big as the industry can spend. A lot of that is the AAA tier of games has moved up in price, with the development costs alone going beyond $100 million. While Baldur's Gate and its ilk were almost certainly cheaper than $10m each, wages are much much higher compared to the end of the '90s so even a few million wouldn't bring that sort of team back and Obsidian didn't have $10m. There is a lot more rapid prototyping and efficient development possible with a modern tool-chain and knowing what you're going to build before you build it. Obsidian could map out areas using a fast 3D package, render those to both 3D data for real-time effects & occlusion for vision cones and 2D maps, and let the artists draw over the 2D maps to add in the detail without building it all in the 3D package. The game looks great, showing off the same painted backdrop love that originally wowed us playing those games in the '90s.

The script, because it didn't need to be 100% nailed down months before release so it could be given to the voice talent and because it didn't need to be paid for in VO costs, could reflect what made those old games great. This is an RPG that, if it is the child of any other medium, was descended from books. It is something you read, painting pictures with words that bring the rendered scenery to life and allow the story to dive into the areas too expensive to spend a few person-years of work rendering in a cinematic style for a short aside. The lack of any cinematic intent doesn't just provide an experience that reminds us of what was lost when CRPGs moved to making the dialogue into movies, it also allows for more options. We've already mentioned dialogue but this also extends to character skill checks. As it's nothing more than some text and a painted illustration of the challenge, the game can provide multiple paths to conquer an obstacle with real consequences depending on the skills of your party and what you attempt from the options provided. A cinematic RPG could do this, but not without heavily investing in building custom animations or pre-rendered videos for each option.

Pillars of Eternity is as good as it is because they had a plan, knew how to get to where they wanted to go, and knew that their aims fitted the constrained budget of crowd-funding. Without having to invent the typewriter or create a new style of prose, they had more time to write the book.

Another game released this month on PC is the game that EA failed to make when they mistakenly injected always-on DRM into SimCity in 2013. A small team who had previously tested their abilities building the Cities in Motion series of traffic building city-management games decided that they could take their existing knowledge and build the game that the large team at Maxis couldn't. Colossal Order is 13 people. They built on Unity (as did Obsidian) to give them a basic rendering and rapid development platform which can easily support several platforms and did their best to build the city simulator that was obvious from the pre-release enthusiasm for SimCity 2013.

And they did it. Thirteen people and a plan, with some modest funding from their publisher Paradox (who also did the publishing work for Obsidian, although not the funding of the project - these games are twins in many ways; not least that they, via backer pricing or cheap offers, both cost only £13 to get them in the first week of release), managed to build the game with the depth missing from the Maxis offering. No draconian DRM that mandates permanent server connectivity, a more deeply realised simulation of the virtual people and vehicles, and the trust that the community would enjoy finding the edges. This game has thousands of mods and props and tweaks in the official workshop, which is highlighted on the main menu of the game as a great place to check out. They already managed to scale the simulation up to vastly larger spaces than Maxis did, but mods arrived within hours that remove the limits they has put in, if your computer is up to running the simulation or you'd rather play at 10fps and build big.

It's a triumph and a massive success for Paradox and Colossal Order. Because small teams don't need to sell 10 million to break even. Reaching half a million sales so quickly triggered celebrations; quarter of a million in the first day was a record for the publisher. And we all get a game that is launched at a budget price to prevent it being a play-though for those rich enough to throw $60 at something they're not certain about while the rest of us wait for it to get somewhat closer to the price of other entertainment media.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Also Available on Tumblr

A full blog post is still coming this month (we're back to that schedule after missing three months in the latter part of last year); this is just a quick administrative post.

Due to the wishy washy way in which Google have talked about their interest in retaining Blogger as an open platform for personal expression, I've decided to start crossposting content to Tumblr. If you use that platform and would rather follow this blog there, you can do so here. On a related note, I've been crossposting the articles related to computer and video games to GiantBomb for a while, which has elicited comments both great and hostile.

Edit [July 2015]: Due to a database error on GB, the archive of blog posts and their attached comments now seem to be missing.

Sunday 22 February 2015

The "Death of Classic Reviews"

Man, the "death" of classic reviews. We previously had most launch-window reviews of (PC) games as software reviews because most games had glaring UX issues, problems in their mechanics, or simply a lot of bugs that led to weirdness. It was important to talk about how the game controlled, how it provided feedback, how it developed the new ideas and taught you how to play the game, and, only then, say if you enjoyed it. That's where previews (where I really enjoyed writing around the turn of the millennium era when I was doing that stuff seriously) could be really interesting - a lot of that stuff was exposed in a preview build so you could lay it out. This was the era of Dave Perry explaining game design as building the best thing you could around one totally new idea, the hook, that would sell your game.

There was no single, established way to do everything. FPS controls were all slightly different and how you interacted was being developed. I remember the amazing point in our LAN games of Quake where we all migrated to the mouse, because we'd played Doom and Duke 3D with the keyboard. It wasn't obvious that you had to use the mouse, we still didn't know how sensitivity and so on should be set to best optimise our frictionless input onto our avatars. What systems were involved and how you interacted was often bespoke. It's not an action adventure title with this sort of crafting and thumbstick reaction curves lifted from a previous game (pick if you want full-lock to continue to accelerate or be flat, set 80% lock to be flat, do or don't smooth) that you already know intimately. A game was something that you wanted to know about before you tried it because it could be anything, often objectively worse that other potential choices. Reviewers could tell you about the sharp edges and defects that might make it worth sitting this game out.

But now most games are polished in a way that means they are functional. They may not have been refined iteratively in the developer sense of "polished" but the importing of best practices/lifting from genre-defining titles means they don't actually have to. X came from Y, where they got it right and everyone played Y or a derivative so understands the systems involved and the interactions. Everyone is trained in "how things work", you don't need to teach the user how to shoot. We are now trapped in this place of many local maxima. So what's the point of a review when it's not a 50/50 guess if the basic functionality is even there? When 90%+ of games that get a PR push will also be mechanically solid (and people seriously suggest those that aren't shouldn't even be purchasable) and not crashy (crashes being the kiss of death you'll hear about as soon as a game is released) then the only thing left is if the reviewer liked the game.

But reviewers are still operating under the mentality we are taste-makers. Because 15 years ago you could play through a game and explore the "polish" of it and give a good estimation about the objective quality of the software. So you could predict if most people would tolerate a game. But that's not true today, and reviewers don't realise we need to focus our text on "I enjoyed" rather than "this is good/bad". Justifying your enjoyment with objective markers of quality rather than your enjoyment of the text of the game will lead to ruin.

DriveClub gets panned because it doesn't follow the conventional wisdom on controls (it is neither a Forza clone, nor a NfS clone; it's not even a Kart clone) but people who are experienced in the genre have found that it offers its own path that does have significant depth and interesting consequences. Reviewers are painted as lazy when they use shorthands that turn out to be oversimplifications (eg saying AIs stick to a racing line as if on rails). We fail to express our "I don't like this" and go after stuff that is known to be bad design that we may invent to justify our dislike. It's a minefield of ex post facto justification.

Y'know how lots of critics hate so many mainstream films? (I'd say Transformers but those do actually seem like pretty bad movies, even if lots of people enjoy them - but maybe even that helps make my point - classic example might be Pirates of the Caribbean.) Games are there now. Our reviews are filled with a range from hatred to love of games that are technically solid and so entirely reviewed on how the reviewer felt about the story and interactive elements. We're reviewing the game as a piece of media, not a software package (if it becomes a software review the it automatically fails, as it's a crash-prone buggy PoS and none of those need to be given the time of day unless the reviewer really like the game and so ignores those flaws).

Only right now a lot of reviewers are trying to establish our "discerning taste" cred by berating anything not to our palette as "mainstream rubbish, no one should like this, it's just bad". Rather than just saying it wasn't to our tastes. So we get those reviews saying DriveClub doesn't have an engaging driving model or AI, which many fans of driving games (who jumped into that title and waded through the online fiasco) will contest. A game that's compared favourably to Gears and Resi4 is called derivative tosh that's a decade late rather than another solid entry in that genre because reviewers still remember a time when devs were learning how to make games and so sanding away at rough edges.

The Order 1886 is panned for being nothing more than a mix of cinematic and 3rd person shooter in a steampunk world. The high quality of visuals is used as an excuse to pan the title for not being innovative enough. Again, "I don't like this" is warped into "this is objectively bad and justifies my dislike". But people playing in a really nice looking world they've not been to before are transported to a new place where they play a totally solid 3rd person shooter. That's exactly what a lot of people want. And reviewers said it was bad, not just not to the reviewer's tastes, but bad and not worth anyone's time. And bad has always previously meant that the software was either defective as software, often in the UX realm, or the game design failed. But that's not the case.

And now we're here. This is the crossroads we're at. The "death of classic reviews":
"Initially I was caught off guard by the doubt cast by various critics out to smear the game. They ended up doing me a favor, in that I now have a great list of online publications which I know to avoid spending any future time reading." [source]
Flat out sentiment of disbelief between the experienced product and the expectations of how reviews of games software work. "various critics out to smear the game".

Is The Order 1886 any good? No idea, not played it yet and that £45 price tag means there's no chance I'll find out this month. Ask me when it's £20 or less. These early-console-generation prices being jacked up in the UK should end soon and we'll get £30 game releases (if history repeats). Our healthy software market seems to thrive on being cheaper than the $60 US market. But the reviews are 100% useless to me; some friends who buy release games make it sound pretty good. The things it is compared to in reviews, that may not even endorse it, are also a positive sign.

This does seem to mean reviews are basically useless at this point for actually providing consumer advice. And games are too expensive compared to movies to just blindly consume them all (outside of Steam sales - welcome to the pile of shame phenomenon).

It has never been easier to watch someone play a game, from friends or randoms streaming their play to more organised stuff like professional Let's Players. It's never been easier for us to listen to our friends as social media makes everyone a broadcaster of their daily thoughts. It's never been harder for a written review to actually be useful around launch. And attempts to lean into the taste-maker role will only cause this visceral backlash. Maybe it's time to let launch reviews be the domain of YouTube and leave the written work for a month after release when critics can dig deep into the role of deep critical analysis, for the games that generate interesting analysis of their text or mechanics.

Friday 9 January 2015

Games of the Year 2014

After a short delay, another year, another list. As with last year, these are in no particular order and are a sampling of games I considered exceptional and had something to talk about in the last 12 months. The aim is to only talk about games first released this year, but rules can be bent when required.

Killzone: Shadow Fall (2013)

And this is why rules are made to be broken. This had only been out for weeks when the end of last year arrived and I was awaiting a good deal on getting a current gen console (and making sure it wasn't going to be another PS2 vs xbox/GC generation where the weakest platform gained traction and a lot of exclusives). But, on getting round to exploring this release shooter, I found far more than I expected.

Here you can find most of my thoughts on how this game seems created for PC shooter fans who have, over a decade after Halo provided playable joypad controls, become comfortable playing without a mouse when required. It's a varied (gameplay and visual) experience that rarely drops from being excellent and which can be taken as puzzle combat encounters (similar to F.E.A.R.) by those wishing to push the difficulty up. And it's currently sitting in bargain bins for anyone with a PS4 to pick up.

inFamous (Second Son & First Light)

This was the year where the most direct sequel to the PS3's inFamous games, mechanically, was an Xbox exclusive from the guys who made Ratchet & Clank. I guess that's not such a strange thing, being that we're talking about a series that grew out of grim-dark'ing the 3D platforming of Sly Raccoon. The interesting point is that inFamous, while jumping to a fictional Seattle, reinvented their super-mobile open world shooter design to no longer be about grinding rails on your electrified shoes.

The new game and standalone expansion steps away from Cole and crafts a thoroughly new space with mobility extended to holding a button and pointing where to go (a power that becomes more super as you upgrade it). With the compact story length (with enough to do to 100% the world without it ever feeling like a major distraction) of about 10 hours, this is an open world for people who may not have enough time to play open world epics. During that time you'll unlock four skill trees and power sets with their respective mobility boosts to develop, ensuring you can almost teleport around the map. You also, via completing secondary objectives in each area, get access to an actual fast-travel teleport but I didn't find it was something I used more than a few times when I wanted to jump between the two islands.

This isn't a completely different genre, in the same way you'd not expect an F.P.S. series to drop the weapons completely, but it has shaken things up. The main peashooter is completely different depending on the good/evil unlocks and which element you've switched to (with recharge points in the world acting as where you also switch your weapon set), as are anything more than the very basics of what most weapons do. You've usually got a grenade but they can be stasis grenades to freeze enemies for precision shots, or smokers to allow you to get up close for melee finishers, or a burst shock cone attack, or even not grenades at all but a cloaking ability. You usually get to pick the element you want to be running with for most encounters and the compact play time means you're constantly unlocking the latest element and the skill tree perks.

For the expansion the developers cut back to half of the city (with some minor tweaks to keep it fresh), fix you to a single powers set, remove the good/evil choices, and created a prequel campaign that lasts about half the length of the full game. The shocking thing is how they manage to redesign the Neon power set to feel completely fresh, while still somewhat similar to the power it turns into in the main game, and update the traversal mechanic with a "boost gate" system that makes getting around feel fresh again. The sparse use of cutscenes and length (along with mainly taking place in the same city) indicate the constrained budget, as does the addition of an (score attack) arena mode that locks some of the skill tree behind completing challenges. But the expansion stands on some new powers and secondary objectives as more than just more of the thing you've already played.

I've always enjoyed the simple, comic-book-used-as-disparaging-shorthand (which would once have probably been called pulp) stories told in the inFamous games and this one is no different. Don't expect anything beyond dirty halos and demons ripping justifications for their horns out their arses. The player choice (when employed) is saving or burning orphanages so it's best to consider it two stories rather than a choice each time you're asked to pick a side (the upgrade system reinforces this point). This isn't a Bioware RPG but rather a single story in which destiny will force both good and evil players to experience the same beats. I've enjoyed playing these games twice because of how they tell two stories with the same beats but this isn't the strongest in the series for that (which makes the loss in the expansion less of a downer). Going into the games with your eyes open about the quality of the story told, even with top notch mo-cap and presentation and some decent work on the actual lines of dialogue, avoids disappointment. Sucker Punch know what they want to say and they say it, even if that mainly involves well-worn characters and tropes. That said, it was a missed opportunity when they cast two Texans as the voices of the Seattle Native American Rowes.

How Do You Do It

While no one ever talks about it (item 3), people are starting to make games about it (and so talk about it). How Do You Do It is a free gamejam game that only takes a few minutes to play. It's a short, a statement, an offer to see the world through someone else's eyes for a few moments as they revisit their past. I played a lot of good, short games that took an introspective view of the author(s) and their past(s). This one stood out as a great example of what democratisation of a medium can provide, when this didn't require a man-year of work to be produced and spur discussions of SRE and childhood.

The Last of Us: Remastered (Left Behind)

The Last of Us didn't need any more content. It was a great game last year, but this year it got a 1080p treatment on PS4 (something us PC players just expect games to do over time for free as we upgrade our hardware - most of my PC games will be running in 4K in the next decade, if they don't already). It also got a new chapter, which worked out beautifully as an episode to introduce Ellie as a playable character long after we'd already been introduced.

Once again, Naughty Dog crafted a cinematic narrative onto which I projected the characters I knew (although Joel doesn't have much to do except lie in pain due to where this fits in the chronology) and was swept away by the stories this universe had to offer. As the chapter ends on two girls waiting to lose their minds together, this added chapter becomes an essential addition to the narrative, giving those words a punch they didn't have when originally used during the ending of the main game. Some of the games on this list are just great or fun, Left Behind is essential.

80 Days

A steampunk visual novel for the phone where some choices are timed so you can't dally thinking about what to do next and can lose time as seconds burn hours. You probably already think this is a terrible game that no one should play. But it turned out to be one of the best written pieces of fiction I read all year and far more of a game than the visual novel framing might suggest. While there are times when it is very much a visual novel and relies on excellent writing, there is also a range of play and direction as you choose how to go that makes this feel far closer to a Fighting Fantasy book, or a Persona game without the dungeons (if that's your reference point).


Blizzard know how to make games, and they took what they learned from partnering for a collectible card game around World of Warcraft and created an online game that's not quite as exploitative as a CCG but not too far off.

The drafting game, called the Arena, is the main meat of the game for me. So far I've managed to avoid diving too deeply into the constructed decks but I'm constantly getting new cards via Arena play. You probably already know if you've got any interest playing something without the mechanics complexity of Magic: the Gathering but this certainly provides how you can streamline that sort of game to keep the pace fast (at the cost of some of the depth).


This game is funny. Properly, laugh out loud, funny. It has enough gags that not every one needs to hit and understands when it's time to wrap the game up and go home. Between the open and close, you'll rush around an almost nonsensical spy adventure in the future-past, unravelling a world that knows how to be absurd without being random. It's not perfect, but you're really missing out if you've not given this a shot.

Hitman Go

They took Hitman and extracted a lovely (clockwork) board game puzzler out of the elements of those more free-flowing, puzzle stealth, assassin simulation games. Then they managed to showcase the power of the mobile SoCs to render that board game to play on your tablet. There's not a lot to this, but it's one of the best things you could play on your mobile this year and I kept going back to crack a few more puzzle boards. More importantly, it wasn't just a short reskin of echochrome with some clean UI choices and it very much avoided being another Squidix attempt to exploit their IP on mobile. The team that made this game cared about Hitman and did a solid job making something perfect for mobile.

Jackbox Party Pack

You Don't Know Jack has always been good (but never as good as the one UK edition voiced by Paul Kaye) and this box of incredible value bundles the latest edition of that with takes on charades-derived stuff similar to games like Balderdash. The genius move is that all games are run via a web service so, rather than controllers, you just need a mobile device with a browser to join the game. Everyone draws their word on their device in Drawful and then everyone names the pictures to create a set of potential right answers from which everyone picks (so kinda Pictionary). Write down the missing word or question answer in Fibbage XL and then try to guess the real one from everyone's choices (so kinda Balderdash). It'll eventually run out of fresh questions and words in each of the games but it's a great bundle for having a bit of fun.


This game launched broken. The online crumbled and reminded us why always-on DRM is something to avoid, as those of us playing got to dive into a career mode and unlock cars while justifiably complaining that the leaderboards, challenges, and online weren't working. They eventually got all that stuff working and added in the changing weather conditions that make this the best looking console game released this year.

It's no Forza 4 but this is a solid racer that splits the difference between the soft-sim of console sim games (your TOCA series etc) and the sort of arcade game where the brake is more optional or engages the drifting mode. Beyond the entry tier cars you'll need to constantly be considering how far you can push the throttle, and braking is a matter of how strongly you can apply them without the scream of tyres indicating you came on too strong. But those brakes decelerate you far faster than they would in a soft-sim when applied correctly and this, combined with higher cornering speeds, gives the game a distinct feel you have to adapt to. Keep your soft-sim mentality, but compress those braking zones down.

Outside of the unusual driving model, the micro-challenges stuff that they layer onto the track sections is where this game finds new ground. As you're driving along, be that a race or a hot lap, the game will add in challenges on sections of track (as small as a single bend) and pick out a target that it thinks you can beat. Effectively every corner you're driving when online, you're putting up dynamic challenges for the game to pull from to challenge someone to beat your score. Average time, top speed, following the lines through the corners, getting a higher drive score, etc. Even if you've lost sight of the goals you're driving for (the campaign sets a series of goals for each event) and are just learning the track before you try again to get that top 3 finish or nail a lap time, the game will look for some suitable challenges to keep your drive fresh. There is also the standard race/lap/event leaderboards and you can send challenges to your friends to compete in, selecting from your recent races and drilling down to an achievement (eg hot lap time) for other to beat within the next X days. The lack of functional online for the opening month or two really harmed the areas where DriveClub stands out.

Beyond the antialiased 1080p rendering of five interesting locations with over ten tracks per location, the day-night cycle (which you can set to compress to an hour per minute raced) leads to races that don't feel like the same lap over and over, beyond the dynamic challenges. Add in snow and rain coming or going as you play and that illuminates where you can see the design intent of this game. Just because you started a race in the Sun, doesn't mean you're not looking through a storm of snowflakes, illuminated by your headlights, at night by the time you're finished. You can lock it down to give you something to learn precisely but the game excels at making sure every lap can feel a bit different to keep you on your toes.

As this is (when in a racing event) more of a racing game than a driving game, the A.I. is important. There is a bit of push and pull there, and you see some A.I. ahead making a mistake and losing traction as they drop two wheels onto the edge of the track here and there. They're 'boisterous', if you're going much slower than them then they will try going through you or push you too fast for the next corner. They might give you a gentle nudge as they complete an overtake, but not often. They're basically 99% less annoying for your day than human opponents but anyone who has seen an A.I. get totally out of their depth doing an overtake attempt and spin their car will recognise this isn't the classic on-rails design (despite what some reviews said). They just don't really care about rear-ending you if you slow down too much, which is reinforced by the driving model that only penalises really blatant "braking by impact" (with a specific penalty that locks you in 1st gear for a few seconds when you get caught).

The game passes the family fun test, with the dynamic challenges always looking to give even the slowest players something they can beat and a handling model slightly more forgiving than Forza, all while showing off what this current generation of consoles can render as you rush round diverse, ever-changing tracks.

Goat Simulator

Probably the silliest game on this list. This is a joke that, unlike Jazzpunk, can go on a bit too long. But, as an open world with very little flagged as actual mission content, this is something to wander around and enjoy the absurdity of, until you've caught a few Easter eggs and then shut it down. After the game exploded, the devs have added new modes, new whole open worlds to explore, and so on that have bulked out the offering so you're not going to get bored in the first hour. That expanded content, for free, is what pushes this from an amusing hour-long joke into a game worth mentioning in the same year as the sublime Jazzpunk.

Honourable Mentions

This was the year I put 60+ hours into Planetary Annihilation, the game that took up the massive battles and rate-based economy RTS mantle of TA. Played on spheres, with great area-selection and UI tools to refine that formula closer to where it really needs to be for a contemporary game, this should have been a shoo-in for the list. But the game balance fell short, the A.I. fell short (crucially in what could have been a very interesting roguelike-like repeatable campaign mode), and the KickStarter talk of DRM-free that turned into a post-release patch to remove the always-on server connection requirements felt like the developer was abusing the label, not embracing the idea. It's still the best rate-based economy RTS to play and something every TA fan should pick up (in the $5 or less sales that it now regularly dives into on Steam) but it's not a GotY contender.

Speaking of gaming dynasties, Forza Horizon 2 feels more devoid of life than the original, certainly a weaker sequel (to a game I didn't put on my list in 2012 but this year was more scarce for good cockpit driving games) based on a few hours of play. Any more and I'd need to buy my own Xbox to play it on and I certainly don't like it enough to pay for another console when the one I got came with 50% more GPU, widely the same game selection, and basically the same sticker price.

This year also produced some great demos, a couple that were seemingly totally unconnected to the games they are advertising. You should look out for good things in 2015 from a host of titles in early access or on partial episodic release right now, and if you've not played P.T. this year then you missed out.