For some games mods are the lifeblood that keep them going for many years after their initial release. These mods add in things that the developers either didn’t think to create or simply wouldn’t, elevating the game well past its intended station. Some of these mods even take on a life all of their own with many of the most successful titles of all time being born out of mods, some of them even creating entire new genres as they rose to stardom. These mods were often born out of the free time and relentless dedication of their creators and provided free to gamers worldwide. Last week Valve announced a paid mod program for Skyrim, a natural extension of their other paid content programs, which has not been well received and, honestly, I think the community needs to stop drinking the haterade.
The system is pretty simple: mods that are on the Steam Workshop can now set a price for their mods which users can pay for if they’re so inclined. It’s not a mandatory system, Steam still supports modders who want to peddle their wares through the system for free, however if you want to you can set a price you can. Looking over the mods that have decided to do that most of the prices are what you’d expect to be typical prices for apps or cosmetics in other games (and indeed the most popular items are cosmetics) with a few content mods here or there. Of course this may be due to the program still being early days and the backlash that’s resulted from the announcement but it’s largely inline with what I expected a program like this to generate.
Generally I think this program is a great idea as it gives modders an easy way to monetize their content without resorting to begging for donations or trying to do something inane like streaming them creating mods over Twitch. Indeed it works much the same way as the app ecosystem does on mobile platforms today, with people who want to release a labor of love to the wild world for free doing so using the platform. On the flip side there are those who’d really like to put in a lot of effort but couldn’t justify doing so without some kind of compensation and it’s these people that I think this system was designed to attract. Sure you’ll get the scammers, plagiarizers and other unwanted people attempting to game the system but you get that with anything that relies predominantly on user submitted content so I don’t think that’s an issue worth discussing.
One thing I do disagree with is the rather unfair revenue distribution that the system current has with a whopping 75% of the total revenue going to Valve (30%) and Bethesda (45%). This means that for every dollar that the mod makes the vast majority of that doesn’t end up in the hands of the developer with them taking home a measly 25 cents. I think much of the criticism of this system would be much less severe if the revenue that the creators received was much higher, say in the 70% region that’s typical of most app store purchases, although I’m unsure as to whether Valve and Bethesda would be keen to take such a hit. Realistically for both of them it’s free money (well, for Bethesda anyway, Valve has to provide the infrastructure) so the hit they take would be small compared the goodwill they could win from the community.
The problem I see with most of the outrage is that it assumes that a system like this will inevitably lead to a split among the mod community, one of haves and have nots which is contrary to the ethos that the modding community holds. Sure, it may attract some unscrupulous individuals, but by and large modders are aware of the communities that they’ve helped develop and the last thing they’d want to do is alienate those who’ve made them so popular. Indeed if they did then free alternatives are far more likely to rise out of their ashes, providing the same service that those mods once did without the paywall. On the flip side if a mod is really worth it then I’m sure the community would be more than happy to support a modder in the quest to deliver something of value to the community, rather than them giving up all semblance of decency and going for a cash grab.
Suffice to say I think the program is a good idea from Valve, it just needs a little more tweaking to make it more fair to the modders and more palatable for the community. I know calling for rationality on the Internet is likely to be met with a blazing wall of silence but paid mods aren’t the devils that many would make them out to be and, if they are, then people will simply not pay for them. Those kinds of modders will quickly realise that this is a community that’s not ripe for exploitation and those who’ve served that community for years, for free in most cases, will continue to reap the benefits of the relationships they’ve created. To think that the opportunity to make money on a platform would somehow ruin that relationship is honestly hurtful to those who’ve put their hearts and souls into these mods and the community should be their advocates rather than their critics.
I’m a big lover of Steam. Whilst it had a rather rocky start, something that was exacerbated by the fact that I was still on dial up, since then the platform has managed to make me part with many of my dollars and I have done so gladly. Sure part of this is due to me moving up in the world, no longer being a poor uni student whose only indulgence was his World of Warcraft subscription, however Steam providing titles at a very reasonable price has also led me to spend more than I would have otherwise. So when rumours start to spread that Steam might be bringing things like music, TV shows and movies to the platform you can imagine the excitement I have at that prospect.
There’s been talk of Steam expanding beyond it’s current games and software market for some time now, ever since Valve announced the Steam Music overlay at the beginning of this year. There’s also already a few movies on the platform, like Free to Play and Indie Game: The Movie, and whilst they’re specifically about games it’s not much of a stretch to think that they’d extend the platform further. The only precedent not set so far is for TV shows however it’s not much of a stretch to see the same system working for that kind of content. There’s still a few questions to be answered about the service (When will it debut? How will its costs compare to other services? ) however if Steam can do for what it did for games for movies, TV and music you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be an incredibly positive thing for consumers.
The reason, for me as an Australia at least, is that there’s really no other alternative available to us. I was excited when Dendy Direct was announced, mostly because I’m a fan of their cinemas, however their pricing is nothing short of insane with a single season of a show costing anywhere from $20 to $40. Other services available here are either similarly priced or simply don’t have the catalogue of shows that many of us want to watch. Even if the services available here do have the shows they’re either significantly delayed or released in such a way that’s incongruent to the way they were released overseas, like Netflix original series being released weekly instead of all in one hit.
There’s always the geo-unblocking tools to get us Netflix of course but that’s really only a stopgap to a better solution.
We’re getting closer to a proper solution though as there’s been at least one notable entrant into this field that’s not completely bullshit. AnimeLab, run by Madman (the Australian anime distributor), offers up complete anime series for any and all to watch for free, including ones that are only just being released in Japan. Whilst I’m sure the free ride won’t last forever it does show that there’s demand for such a service in Australia, even within the niche interest area that is anime. I’m hopeful that this will encourage other services to start considering branching out into Australia sooner rather than later as it honestly can’t come fast enough.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.
It’s no secret that my preferred gaming platform is the PC and the platform I run on top of that is Microsoft Windows. Whilst OSX and Linux might be gaining more momentum as of late they’re still quite far behind in terms of support from major titles, with the indie scene being the catalyst that’s driving them forward. With the introduction of SteamOS though Valve signalled that they had lost confidence in the Windows platform to deliver the same gaming experience as it had done for decades previously, predominately due to the changes that came in with Windows 8 and the WinRT platform. This is where I and Gabe Newell start to disagree and if the latest numbers are anything to go by so do a good chunk of his customers.
The Steam Hardware Survey is a monthly data collection that Valve does through Steam to give an overview of the current trends in PC gaming. The results are a great insight into what gamers are using to play their games and is a great source of information for developers and pundits alike. The December 2013 results show a trend that even I didn’t think would be possible: a staggering 20% of Steam’s user base is now on Windows 8 or 8.1 64 bit. Compared to wider PC adoption rates this is even more impressive as it’s less than half of that of Steam users. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far to say that these figures should change Gabe’s mind (and indeed I believe he should stay the course with SteamOS) it does call into question the reasoning behind his recent musings about Windows as a gaming platform.
Another interesting titbit of information buried in the survey is that the fastest growing platform by far is Windows 8.1. Whilst it’s arguable that this is likely due to the improvements made in 8.1 (like the return of the start bar and the straight to desktop mode) I think it’s far more likely because this is the first Windows update that’s been made freely available to end users. Indeed it’s kind of hard to avoid upgrading to it as Windows will nag you every so often about it and since the update is completely non-destructive there’s really no barrier to getting the upgrade past a few hours. Still a raw increase of 2.5% of market share in a month is quite impressive and shows that Microsoft has done something right with its release.
I think it’s clear that Windows is still a very viable platform for gaming, even with Microsoft’s big push for things to start going the WinRT way. I’ve always been of the stance that the traditional desktop isn’t going to go anywhere, even in the face of tablets and other touch devices taking a bigger slice of the market that PCs used to occupy, and it seems a good chunk of the gaming community agrees with that idea. I’m sure Microsoft is also keenly aware of how much revenue the gaming community brings to them and how much of that is due to Steam so it’d be very surprising to see them do anything to push them away from the Windows platform.
I’ve been reviewing games for about 4 years now and since I’m not exactly a top tier reviewer I’ve had to employ other tactics to get my reviews in front of other people. Primarily this just used to be via my Twitter and Facebook accounts however after I noticed my reviews getting submitted to other sites (by other people, no less!) I decided to start doing that process myself rather than wait for some unknown individual to do it for me. Primarily I used to just post to N4G and Reddit however after the launch of Steam Communities I started posting my reviews on there, figuring that people who were buying the game would likely sift through there before purchasing. Seems I wasn’t the only one doing this as Valve has decided to formalize the idea in Steam Reviews.
It’s essentially just another part of the Steam Community Hub that every game has (which now includes things like game guides and trading posts) where users can leave and rate reviews for that particular title. If this sounds similar to the recommendations that steam has had for ages you’d be right and this new review system will be replacing it wholesale. All your old recommendations will be upgraded to reviews however which means that it’s somewhat useful right off the bat (although unlikely to have anything negative due to the way the old system worked) and none of the work anyone put in gets lost in the transition.
One of the marked improvements that the Steam platform can give to reviews like this is that users will not be able to review a game they haven’t played. This doesn’t extend to needing to own the game either so if you played a game on a free weekend or got a title shared to you from a friend you’ll be eligible to write a review on the Steam page for it. Whilst this won’t entirely eliminate the bad review train that tends to happen with certain titles it does limit the scope to people who’ve actually had a crack at the game rather than anyone who feels like jumping on a bandwagon.
Currently they’re just worded reviews with no score indicator on them however that’s apparently set to change during the beta. Whilst some will lament their inclusion I still believe that they have some value so long as we, the gaming community, use them appropriately. Since I’ll be actively participating in this open beta (I’ve still got a ton of reviews on my blog that haven’t made their way onto Steam in one way or another) I’ll be submitting feedback to encourage use along those lines so that games can more easily compared against each other, rather than some subjective view of perfection. How this will come about I can not be entirely sure but if anyone can change the way scores are used in the wider gaming world its Valve and Steam is the platform to do it.
Whether this will translate into more exposure for small time reviewers like myself will be something of interest as whilst I’ve had a few people come to read my review from Steam it pales in comparison to other platforms. Steam Reviews could change that as they’ll be given a prominent location in the Community Hub rather than being lost in the wash of the general discussion forum. That’s really a side benefit for people like me however as the real value here will be from getting a much better view of what the gaming community thinks of a title, hopefully free from much of the bandwagoning that’s made Metacritic what it is today.
Valve spent all last week teasing the greater Internet community about how the Steam Universe was going to be seeing some massive expansion in the coming year. The first announcement, SteamOS, set the tone for the rest that followed them even though many a Valve fanboy hoped that the last announcement would be Half Life 3 (although honestly they do that with any announcement from Valve). Whilst it’s been known that Valve wanted to make an attempt on the living room for some time now, as Big Picture mode demonstrated, these last 3 announcements form the basis of their first dedicated attempt to bring PC gaming into the world that consoles have dominated for decades.
And the crazy thing is it might just work.
PCs were the dominant platform for quite a long time, indeed those of us who grew up with games during the 80s and 90s would have had it as their platform of choice. Many of us would have had consoles as well however but the best games that we played would always be found on a PC. Over time the convenience of consoles started to attract more and more people to gaming and this snowballed to the point where the vast majority of gamers now get their experiences through a console of some type. However to many of us there is still nothing better than a PC for gaming and with the time frames between console generations getting longer and longer the PC has seen something of a resurgence of late, especially with distribution platforms like Steam backing it.
However the primary interface for a PC, the mouse and keyboard, isn’t exactly conducive to the living room environment. Most of us PC gamers have been at a LAN where we were confined to a couch or attempting to play games on our big TVs just for the fun of it only to find that the experience is sub-par when using traditional PC input methods. However whilst you can get around this with a controller there are genres of games where a mouse and keyboard are required (any RTS and, personally FPS). The Steam Controller seems to be an attempt to bridge these two worlds together and I can see some situations where it would work however there are others where it will still struggle. I’ll reserve final judgement until I have one in my hands but suffice to say that I feel that RTS style (like DOTA2) games will struggle with it.
What I’m particularly interested to see is what kind of hardware Valve will make available as part of their Steam Machine platform. Traditionally PCs required fairly regular refreshes in order to play the latest games (I do mine every 3 years at the latest) although that has been stymied somewhat by the consolization of games. The specifications of their hardware will determine where the line is drawn between games that have a great experience and ones that don’t as whilst it’d be great to run Crysis 3 at 1080p @ 60fps the hardware required to do so would push the cost of a potential Steam Machine far beyond that of a traditional console. In short if Valve is trying to compete with consoles they’re going to have do it in the same price range and that will put an upper limit on its capabilities.
The sum total of all these different parts is a clear strategy from Valve to increase the PC platform’s market share and, consequently, grow Steam’s potential market. It’s a smart move as they’ve effectively dominated the PC as a platform and the next logical step is to grow it further. This can only be done through cannibalizing gamers from other platforms and the best way to do this is to bring Steam to them rather than try to convince them to switch to PCs. Whether that value proposition works for current console gamers is something I’m not completely sure of however if anyone can convince them to come across it’s Valve.
Ever since Steam reached a certain level of functionality any game that was distributed on it was kind of expected to make use of it. This isn’t a hard requirement from Valve or anything like that, no more it was an expectation from gamers that should Steam provide some services, like user login and what have you, then any game requiring them to do that again would be met with derision and, in my mind, rightly so. Whilst there were numerous examples of different game developers using their own login systems (Ubernet being one of the first to come to mind) by far the worst offender in this category was the Games for Windows Live service which would always manage to weasel its way into any game that came out or was published by Microsoft Studios.
Games for Windows Live got the most negative attention due to the fact that it directly replicated Steam’s technology, including things like the screen overlay, which meant that the user experience became somewhat confused. Additionally the benefits it provided were pretty slim as the only thing I could see was integration with my Live account, giving me achievement points, but considering most of those such games were cross platform intrepid achievement point hunters would likely prefer their Xbox. This was made all the more worse as since most PC gamers didn’t use it often the client usually needed to update itself, requiring multiple game restarts in order to get it working.
So you can imagine that there was no love lost when rumors started circulating that it was to be shut down next year.
The news comes from an unwitting source, Age of Empires Online, who mistakenly made the announcement as a courtesy to users who’d no longer be able to use the game after that point. The announcement was taken down almost immediately, although of course in the age of the Internet there’s always someone with a screenshot, which would seem to add a little credence to the idea that this was something Microsoft didn’t want everyone to know right now. Indeed in a strange coincidence it was also announced today that Arkham Origins would not be using the Games for Windows Live framework, strange considering that the previous two installments in that franchise did. Indeed looking at the list of Games for Windows Live games reveals that there’s been something of a dearth of titles released using the platform this year which would seem to confirm its imminent demise.
If the title of this post wasn’t a dead giveaway as to my feelings about this I’m honestly glad to see it go. The service never provided me any value and only served to get in the way of me playing the games, something which I don’t take kindly to. I’m sure this sentiment is shared by a lot of gamers, especially those who’ve made huge investments in the Steam platform like I have. Whilst I’m always wary of monopolies I’d hope that game developers took note of this and eschewed their own login systems in favor of something more standard and accepted.
Of course there’s also a dark side to this as Games for Windows Live going down will mean that games which rely on those services will simply stop working. Whilst I’m somewhat hopeful that the bigger titles might see a patch come through to remove it, at least enabling single player, I can’t imagine every title will see the same amount of effort put into it. There is a slim hope that Microsoft might make a general patch available however since a lot of the CD key authentication stuff was tied up with those servers I’m not too hopeful.
There is every chance that the Age of Empires guys got this wrong and Games for Windows Live will be sticking around but the evidence seems to say otherwise. Whilst I believe this is an overall positive for PC gamers the downsides to losing a hosted service like this are a painful reminder of the trade offs that coming with using them. We all like to believe that Steam is invincible, immune to things like this happening to it, but there’s every chance that in the future the same will happen to it. How the companies deal with this situation will be telling for the future as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see such a service go down.
I’ll have to be honest when I say that when a game comes at me out of no where I have a tendency to shoot them down. All those hours spent shuffling through the Steam store looking for games to review has shown me some pretty oddball titles and after a couple not-so-great experiences I’ve come to cast a skeptical eye in their direction. Just because a game tries something new or different doesn’t necessarily make it good and whilst I (and many others) might deride the generic indie 8bit styled platformer puzzler which has become the norm these days developers of such titles do seem to have better hit rates. Still after a boozy night I, along with a close mate, watched a good hour long Let’s Play of Papers, Please and I can say this unique game gets a lot of things right, especially when it comes to forming a compelling narrative.
Congratulations, the screen reads, the October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement report to the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin, expect a class 8 dwelling. With that you’re thrown into your new job as an admissions officer for the border to Arstotzka with little more than a handbook to guide you through all the rules, regulations and potential threats that might cross your path. Whilst these rules appear to be easy to apply at first they become increasingly blurry as you learn more about the people coming through the border and the greater geopolitical landscape.
Papers, Please has that familiar pixelart style reminiscent of old adventure games. It makes use of a decidedly dreary color palette done obviously to create that oppressive Soviet-esque feeling that permeates throughout the game. One thing that really stuck with me in the game was some of the foley for the various things you do, just routine things like stamping and moving paper around, I’m not sure exactly why it did although it could be that with everything else being so dark and drab those sounds seemed so much more joyful than they really were. That’s probably the only thing that marks the game as being from this generation as otherwise it wouldn’t be out of place was it released 15~20 years ago.
The basic premise of Papers, Please couldn’t be anymore boring: you’re a border agent charged with verifying documents before granting people access to your country(indeed my wife asked me if I was “Playing DMV” when she first saw me fire this game up), Arstotzka. Essentially this entails taking the documents given to you by immigrants, checking them over for errors and then, based on the evidence you have in front of you, deciding on whether or not to let them in. In the beginning it’s rather simple as you’re only required to verify obvious things like the dates being current and the details on various documents matching each other but as time goes on the rules start to get rather complicated and there’s all manner of things that could be wrong that you probably won’t notice the first time around.
Indeed thanks to watching an hour or so of someone else playing Papers, Please I was able to breeze through the first couple days without much of a hassle. That started to change however as other documents started being added to the mix as any additional document was always a chance for something to be out of line. Worst still is that when you’re introduced to a new mechanic, such as seals potentially being forged, you’ll instinctively scrutinize that aspect very closely in the beginning (and the game will usually throw you an example of the new rule as the first immigrant of the day to test you out) which will lead to you missing things in other areas. I can’t tell you how many times I let someone through only to find out that I’d missed something as obvious as their gender not being correct, giving me a citation.
Of course this would be a rather hollow exercise if you didn’t have some kind of motivator pushing you to cycle through as many of these as you could and Papers, Please gives you one that works beautifully but is also incredibly dark. You’re the sole income provider for your family, tasked with paying the rent and providing them with heat and food. For each applicant you process successfully you’ll receive 5 dollars and in order to keep your family happy you’ll need to process at least 10 of them a day. That sounds easy right? Well you have a time limit and when that clock starts flashing you start wondering if you’ve done enough and that’s when you start making mistakes. Of course there are opportunities for you to supplement this income should your moral compass be flexible enough to accommodate it.
This is where Papers, Please starts to shine as whilst the mechanics are solid enough to carry it on its own (there’s a reason why the developer included an Endless mode) the narrative that drives it is by far some of the most compelling and depressing that I’ve encountered in a long time. Whilst the choices seem arbitrary initially, like whether or not to admit someone based on what another person has said, you’ll quickly find out that your actions have consequences with many of them not being a simple case of if I do X now Y will happen later. Indeed even if you try your hardest to avoid any kind of conflict you’re likely going to find yourself being pushed into a corner where you’ll have to make a choice that you don’t entirely agree with but will have to do if you want to keep on playing.
PLOT SPOILERS AHOY!!!
When I first started playing Papers, Please I decided that I’d be a by the book kind of guy, ruthlessly applying the rules as they were given to me so that there was no conceivable way I could get into trouble with anyone. This works, for a while, until I got into the uneasy position with The Order where they gave me a truckload of cash. Of course being by the book I denied the second agent from getting in and of course a couple days later I find myself in jail. No worries I thought, just let him through and then I can go back to being the guy I wanted to be, and so I did but that was just the beginning of my moral compass turning south as from that point I started to make more and more compromises until I got to the point where I was just doing everything I could to survive and that’s when things started to get really hairy.
I found myself weighing up bribes and how many violations I had remaining for the day to see what I could get away with in order to make the maximum amount of profit. Whilst I tried to keep myself as moral as I could, like hanging onto a watch for a guy when he said he’d be back for it with all the required paperwork, if there was an opportunity for me to make money I’d take it. This reached a fever pitch when I was told I’d be audited soon as I knew that’d be the end of me so suddenly my objective of just surviving turned into a no holds barred approach to get me and as much of my family out of there as soon as I could. Thinking back over it I’m really quite surprised how quickly I changed from being a cold, uncaring border agent to someone who’d do anything as long as the price was right, even though I couldn’t point you to a time when everything changed.
My god, is that how it happens for people doing this in the real world? I don’t even want to think about that…
YARRRR PLOT SPOILERS OVER!!!
Papers, Please is a true gem of a game, one that could have easily been considered a top notch title based on either its core mechanics or its driving narrative. The combination of both produces an intoxicating game that draws you into its dark world and refuses to let go, forcing you to rethink how you’re playing it and to question your moral compass, whichever way it points. I could go on but honestly its a game where your experience with it will be quite unique as you navigate your way through the moral hazards, political traps and unrelenting drudgery that is the world of Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 23% of the achievements unlocked. Glory to Arstotzka.
In the digital distribution world there’s really only one player: Steam. Sure there are alternatives like GoG or Desura but they’re essentially niche branches that cater to a specific audience, ones that favour no DRM and modding respectively. The one notable competitor to Steam is Origin, the platform that was built solely for the purpose of distributing EA’s games. Love it or hate it if you want to play one of their games you’re going to have to download Origin and, for people like me who like to review games, this means a non-zero portion of my game library is on there. The only reason it exists is so EA can capture that part of the market that it was losing to Steam although if the words of EA’s EVP Andrew Wilson are to be believed it’s all about creating a better experience for gamers:
“I think your perception is absolutely correct,” Wilson agreed. “I think when I look at the journey that service has taken, I think the transaction component of that service has taken a disproportionate amount of the communication and mindshare of what we really try and provide, and the barrier that that puts in between you and the game that you want to play.”
“We think of Origin, in this new world, as the gracious host of the party. It’s not the center of attention; it’s not the DJ, it’s not the dance director, it’s just a gracious host. It’s someone who greets you at the door and ushers you in to where you want to go and points you in the direction of your friends so that you can go and party with them together. That’s really how we see it.”
Wilson is trying to change the narrative around Origin, pushing it away from the widely held perception that it’s just a money grab (which it is, there’s no doubt about this) and trying to guide it more towards it being something of a value added service. Indeed this is apparently where the future of Origin lies, in adding more features to it that mimic those that have been a major part of Steam for years. He’d like to think of Origin as the place gamers go to play their games because that’s where all their friends are, they’re just the facilitator that allows them to join up. The rest of the interview reads like the ramblings of someone trapped in a fever dream as the world that Origin exists in is so vastly different from the one Wilson paints for it.
I’ll be frank when I say that any game that’s on Origin puts up an instant barrier for me, both as a player and as a reviewer. As a player I know that a game being on Origin means that the vast majority of my friends won’t be playing it because they just can’t be bothered with Origin as a service. Indeed for many recent games that I played on there like Simcity and Crysis 3 I was either alone or one of 2 people on there at any given time despite the long list of friends I have on there. Worse still trying to simple maintenance tasks on it, like backing up game files so I can move them (and the fact that that link is on the Steam forums should tell you something), is a royal pain in the ass which eats away at the time I could be doing what I wanted to be doing: playing the damn game. This is on top of the lack of screenshot functionality which means I have to run FRAPS in order to get the screenshots for review which doesn’t help to endear Origin to me.
It’s not just the simple fact that Origin is yet another piece of software we have to install and maintain, that’s just the beginning, more it’s because Origin is an inferior service, one that we’re locked into using should we want to play an EA published game. It may make the experience for EA games better due to the common installation and patching platform but that’s all it does and it’s not something that couldn’t be accomplished through other, more established channels. It’s akin to all those social services that every game seems to have these days (and as we’ve seen are massive security risks) which are required to play the game.
Gamers don’t want this; it took us years to warm up to Steam and the idea that we’ll somehow cosy up to yet another service that provides next to no benefit for us is a ludicrous proposition. If EA really did understand gamers like they’re purporting to they wouldn’t have bothered with Origin as a digital distribution service in the first place, they would’ve just made it a back end platform that all their games can use should they not want to use Steam’s. EA might think that it’s just a matter of layering on some more services and features but it’s going to need so much more than that before gamers will consider it on the same level as Steam. With Origin’s primary focus being EA games I don’t believe that will ever be achievable, especially when Valve keep going from strength to strength with Steam.
It really is quite staggering to see how far games have come since I first started playing them nearly 3 decades ago. Even more surprising is how each style of game still has a place in the market today, even those that forego all modern trimmings in favour of recreating those early experiences. Last year saw a bevy of such titles cross my path and I was really quite surprised just how enjoyable revisiting that period of gaming could be. When I first read about Evoland it seemed like an intriguing idea as it would take you through the history of adventure games whilst also telling its own story.
Evoland starts out as a classic Legend of Zelda clone, all the way down to the pixely graphics and limited colour pallette. However as you move around and start finding chests of loot you’re not greeted by additional items to help you on your journey. No instead you will typically get an upgrade to your game experience like the addition of music, better colours and, my personal favourite, extra dimensions. These all build upon each other so as you progress through Evoland it becomes an ever increasingly varied game, one that aptly captures the essence of nearly all adventure games that have come before it.
Considering that Evoland’s primary goal is to take you through the history of adventure games the art style varies wildly from flat, 2D pixel art right up to full 3D environments that are reminiscent of titles like The Longest Journey. The pixelart is quite good, especially after a couple pallette upgrades, but the 3D feels incredibly rudimentary by comparison. It’s somewhat in line with the rest of the game as nothing about Evoland is terribly complicated so it all kind of fits together, at least enough to carry the overall thrust of the game forward.
In the beginning Evoland is your run of the mill, top down 2D adventure game complete with enemies that run around randomly and you equipped with only a sword with which to dispatch them. It plays exactly like the old Zelda games as well as you’re left to run around the environment looking for the next puzzle that’s blocking your progression. You can also, if you’re so inclined, explore even further to find all the collectibles that are scattered around the map although there’s little reason to do so outside of wanting to complete all the achievements.
The more you play Evoland the complex and nuanced it becomes, something you’ll be acutely aware of because it’ll tell you every time you unlock another game mechanic with an alert plastered across the bottom of the screen. Some of them have obvious and immediate impacts on the way the game plays, like the introduction of a world map which introduces random turn based combat encounters ala Final Fantasy, and others are more subtle like the “Something happened somewhere” alert that indicates you triggered an off screen event.
Initially the introduction of new elements is quite fun as it’s like a whole new game has been opened up for you. However due to the rudimentary nature of Evoland’s many different aspects they quickly start to descend into tedium. The random turn based encounters are probably the best example of this as you can’t walk for more than 10 seconds without one of them occurring. After a while these don’t take too long to resolve but the lack of variety in these encounters means that after the 3rd or 4th fight you’ve seen all the enemies Evoland has to offer and you’re essentially just grinding away XP and glis (a nod to Final Fantasy’s Gil system) which only has a limited amount of utility.
Indeed whilst Evoland is a cohesive game on the surface the actual mechanics of it aren’t exactly uniform across every new iteration. Most dungeons have been designed with a specific idea in mind and whilst some of the abilities will transfer across (like the upgraded combo sword attack) most of them won’t. So whilst one dungeon might give you a health orb rather than the 3 hearts system you’ll likely find that once you go anywhere else the health system du jour is back again. They also all seem to have separate internal values as well as half health in the turn based combat system doesn’t seem to translate to 1.5 hearts in the dungeon system.
Realistically Evoland is more like 4 distinct games that are loosely tied together by common elements. Viewed like this I’m more inclined to overlook the faults of them not completely interacting with each other. Indeed since the overall thrust of the game is more to take you through the evolution of adventure games rather than provide an in depth experience in each successive iteration of them I’d be missing the point if I judged it on the merits of the individual section’s gameplay. I guess what I’m getting at is if you’re looking for a solid gameplay experience you’re likely to come up short with Evoland, but that’s not the reason you’d play it.
There is some semblance of a story which really only sees development during the last couple sections. It might have been because I named my characters Dudeface, Butts and Mouman respectively but I didn’t feel any attachment to them nor any real drive to move the story forward apart from the desire to see which game mechanic would be unlocked next. The final boss battle was pretty cool though with the combination of music and larger than life boss aptly capturing the essence of those same encounters in games of yore.
Evoland serves as a great history book, detailing the many transitions that adventure games have undergone during the years. As a game it’s nothing spectacular but the essence of each era of adventure games is captured within each upgrade of the Evoland’s mechanics. There’s a very specific audience in mind for Evoland and it’s for people like me who grew up on all the titles that inspired it. So if you find yourself pining for the golden age of gaming or you’d just like take a trip down memory lane then Evoland is the game for you.
Evoland is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with ~83% completion and 34% of the achievements unlocked.