This Dumb Industry: A Lack of Vision and Leadership

By Shamus
on Jul 18, 2017
Filed under:
Column

In the past I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the behavior of the big videogame publishers: EA, the Game Division of Microsoft, Ubisoft, and the rest. I’ve criticized their approach to staffing, scheduling game development, marketing and selling products, setting prices, fighting piracy, forging business relationships, and managing creative decisions. I see a lot of problems in all of these areas and I always hope that if I outline their shortcomings in enough detail, using clever enough metaphors, and using interesting enough stock photos, that eventually more people will follow my site and I’ll be able to complain to an even larger audience.

Well, let’s give it another go…

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 1: This Is Already So Dumb I Can’t Even

By Bob Case
on Jul 17, 2017
Filed under:
Television
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

For the first time, I’m going to attempt to complain about Game of Thrones in a timely manner.
This is a momentous occasion. In the past, I’ve griped about things that I had months to process – episodes that I was able to watch at least two times, episodes that I had time to digest afterwards. Now, I’m trying to gripe about something that just happened a few hours ago (as I’m writing this). So it may  be a bit sloppy, a bit undercooked. But never let it be said that rudimentary standards of quality got in the way of my can-do spirit. Here goes.

This Is Already So Dumb I Can’t Even

We start at the Twins. Walder Frey (not actually Walder Frey, it’s obviously Arya in disguise) is giving a speech to his assembled family. We can already tell that the murder of the real Walder Frey has gone undetected, as has the murder of two of his sons, as has the act of baking those two sons into a pie for Walder Frey to eat (or possibly just look at) before he died.

So while she wasn’t busy making two different disguises, murdering the Lord of a major house, killing his two sons, butchering them, and baking them into a pie, Arya also managed to find time to poison the wine of what looks to be at least twenty people without anyone noticing.

Hey, at least it wasn`t Merlot.

Hey, at least it wasn`t Merlot.

I’m tempted to ask all sorts of questions, like “how exactly did she pull this off?” and “how exactly DOES this whole face-swapping thing work, since that was never really explained,” and “seriously, how do the faces work, because Arya is clearly physically a much smaller person than Walder Frey,” and “how is she possibly going to get away with this, since presumably House Frey has guards, and she pulled her face-mask-thing off and admitted to her crime in front of a half-dozen (at least) witnesses, and she’s still inside the castle,” and other questions along those lines.

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STRAFE: The Lost Patch

By Shamus
on Jul 16, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Back in May, I mentioned that I was playing STRAFE, the procedurally generated FPS with permadeath. About that time, I got sick of the game and quit. I’d played 42 games, and the random number generator still hadn’t blessed me with the random drop required to begin the game in the second zone. Which means I had to play through the entire first zone every single time I started a new game. I was sick to death of the first zone and I just wanted to see what the later levels looked like. The typical game went like this:

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Game of Thrones Griping 14: Am I Watching This Show Wrong?

By Bob Case
on Jul 14, 2017
Filed under:
Television
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

Picking up where we left off, the Great Sept of Baelor is now a pile of scorched rubble. The Queen, Margaery Tyrell, and her brother, Loras Tyrell, are both dead. So are Kevan Lannister (head of House Lannister) and Mace Tyrell (head of House Tyrell). So are Kevan’s son Lancel, small council member Grand Maester Pycelle, head of the Faith the High Sparrow, at least seven Septons and Septas who were to judge the trial, and dozens of nobles and other spectators. Oh, and then King Tommen jumps out of a window.

So that’s the King, the Queen, the heads of the two most powerful houses currently remaining in Westeros, both of their respective firstborn sons, the head of the continent’s dominant religion, and presumably a big chunk of both the religious and political leadership of King’s Landing, and, by extension, all of Westeros. All dead. Even by this show’s standards, that’s quite a butcher’s bill for one episode.

The most obvious suspect by far is Cersei Lannister, who was conspicuously not at her own trial shortly before it burst into flames, and whose son, the King, died in a highly suspicious way, with her giant murder-zombie as the only possible witness.

So the people of King’s Landing do the obvious thing and crown her queen.

In honor of the occasion, she wore her special evil shoulderpads.

In honor of the occasion, she wore her special evil shoulderpads.

The most common and plausible explanation for this turn of events I’ve seen given is that there’s no one left to challenge her. In a sense, that’s true – virtually every other named character in King’s Landing is now dead. But I’d always flattered the show’s world-building chops to assume that there are other non-named characters who, even if they’re not given specific personalities, would react to the destruction of almost the entire government with dismay.

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Borderlands Part 1: Welcome to Pandora, Kiddo

By Shamus
on Jul 13, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

I love the Borderlands series. Nothing else offers this unique blend of hyper violence, off-kilter humor, comic book art style, RPG leveling mechanics, shooter-based gameplay, cooperative multiplayer, and Skinner Box based reward systems. According to Steam, the Borderlands series has devoured about 1,200 hours of my life. That’s a lot of life, and I enjoyed most of those hours.

I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened during the development of the first game. My source for all of this is a video from the GDC Vault entitled “Behind Borderlands’ 11th-hour style change”, which was a post-mortem style talk given in 2010 by the developers. I think it’s only available to people with GDC access, but you can read an overview of the talk here.

The FPS and RPG Had a Baby

Click to see the original trailer.

Click to see the original trailer.

Borderlands began as a fusion of two different gameplay genres: First-person shooters, and roleplaying games. Internally, the team called this “Diablo meets Halo”.

The concept makes a lot of sense, in a “Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?” kind of way. The two game styles operate on very different time scales. An RPG is good over the long haul: You level up, complete quests, and get new gear. These events are rewarding, but they only happen a few times an hourAnd if they happened more often, they wouldn’t feel so special.. Meanwhile an FPS usually has great moment-to-moment gameplay that’s viscerally satisfying, but gets to be a little monotonous over the long haul. By layering these two systems together, you could (in theory) make a single offspring genre that’s more consistently engaging than either of its parents.

The problem was that while the design was “Diablo meets Halo”, the art style was aiming for something that didn’t work with either of those: Brown, desaturated, and “realistic”. Internally the team called the style “Retro Future”. It was interesting in terms of the outlines of the models (the runner vehicles and the buildings in Fyrestone were both devised with this “retro future” style in mind) but the surface textures were gritty, dark, and industrial. This was during the Brown Age of AAA videogames, and the only thing worse than mindlessly copying fads is mindlessly copying terrible fads. Regardless of how they played, a lot of shooters of the time were visually dull and often indistinguishable from one another.

Worse still, the gritty realism was completely at odds with the madcap tone of the gameplay. This is a game where you blast a psycho killer in the face with a shotgun that shoots lightning and guns and money pop out of the exploding corpse while your character repeats one of their semi-charming one-liners for the 1,000th time. The team realized their mistake about 75% of the way through the development. At that point it was far too late to revamp the entire art style.

But they did it anyway.

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Nan o’ War CH17: …And Begin Knitting Coats

By Rutskarn
on Jul 12, 2017
Filed under:
Lets Play

Gerrit Gerritszoon, as the pirate nicknamed Roche Braziliano was most likely known to his mother, has very long held a reputation as torturer and coward and indiscriminate murderer. A typical perspective on him can be found in this translation of the 1678 account History of the Buccaneers of America:

To the Spaniards he was always very barbarous and cruel, out of an inveterate hatred against that nation. Of these he commanded several to be roasted alive on wooden spits, for not showing him hog-yards where he might steal swine.

Stories of pirate atrocities are mostly unreliable. Governments and merchants had a vested interest in making brigands look like unhinged ogres; otherwise colonies might look a little too fondly on the gruff-but-sensitive bad boys hitting the town with loads of cheap cargo and disposable income. In reality, a sober reading of the records suggests very few people were actually deliberately harmed by pirates. Blackbeard probably never hurt anyone until his sloop’s last stand at Ocracoke.Another fun takeaway is that out of a crew of nineteen people, Blackbeard managed to put together a boarding party of TEN WHOLE MEN OH MY GOD THAT FUCKING TACTICAL GENIUS It’s like H.L. Mencken said: “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin buffaloing apathetic captains into surrendering insured cargoes.”

Except—unlike most sources from the early 18th century, the author of History of the Buccaneers wasn’t writing hit piece hot takes about a bunch of edgy anti-establishment hooligans. As witness to the privateer era of piracy, he was documenting the authorized agents of a legitimate authority. And oh, yeah—he actually was a buccaneer.He worked as a surgeon for them, anyway. So if his book says Roche Braziliano was an asshole, at the very least that’s authentic industry gossip.

My point is, I’m about to attack one of the only pirates in the Caribbean(!) who anyone reasonably claims was a tenth as bloodthirsty as I am. Also, his crew looks like this.

I’m gonna need a bigger boat. Unfortunately, this is the only way to get one. So let’s get this over with.

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This Dumb Industry: Steam Interface Wishlist

By Shamus
on Jul 11, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Two weeks ago I dumped on Steam’s horrible store interface. I started to write a follow-up article criticizing the Steam UI in more detail. By a strange coincidence, this past weekend I ran into this headline: Steam UI overhaul incoming, Valve presentation confirms. We don’t know exactly what the changes are, but someone snapped some pictures of the slides in a presentation and from those we can see what sorts of things they’re thinking about. It’s all pretty vague, but I’m glad to see they’re aware that something needs to be done.

In the meantime, here’s a wishlist for the changes I’d like to see in this eventual update.

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Steam Backlog: Stormworm+

By Shamus
on Jul 10, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Maybe it’s stretching the definition of “backlog” to include a game I bought two weeks ago, but I have the game and it needs to be played so that’s what we’re doing. Stormworm+ had the magic combo of neon colors and electronic music and low price thanks to the Summer Sale, so buying it was pretty much inevitable. Who knows? Maybe if the Steam storefront wasn’t a vortex of dysfunction and confusion I might have found other games that fit that same description.

This is, at heart, yet another riff on the classic Snake formula. This idea goes all the way back to 1976, which is practically the dawn of videogames. Like Oregon Trail, it’s one of those games that everyone has heard of but most people haven’t playedOr haven’t played in 30 years.. It was probably the central inspiration behind the Tron Cycles concept. In the game, you’re a snake that must constantly move around the board to gobble up food. The more you eat, the longer you get. Eventually the big challenge is just staying out of your own way, since running into your tail leads to a game over. (For some reason.)

In the 1980s it was a popular game for aspiring young BASIC programmers to clone, since you didn’t need sprites or per-pixel graphics access. You could do the whole game by using different text characters to depict the worm’s head, body segments, food, and the walls of the play area. I don’t know if I ever personally made a Snake clone, but I know I played a lot of them.

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Summer Games Done Quick 2017

By Shamus
on Jul 9, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

I really love the Games Done Quick charity marathon. It’s been running for about a week and the final game (Earthbound) is just wrapping up as I write this. This show has been the best one so far, and I thought I’d share a few of my favorite moments.

If you’ve never caught the show:

Some of the best speedrunners in the world come together to complete various games in implausibly short timeframes. Castlevania in 32 minutes. Getting all goals and medals in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 in 16 minutes. All of Half-Life in 35 minutes. Some runs have additional constraints like “no out-of-bounds glitching” or “get all secrets”, just to keep things interesting.

The whole thing is performed in front of a live audience and streamed to the world via Twitch. The event runs around the clock for a week. The show covers a variety of games from the 1990s to modern titles, although the nature of speedrunning means the list skews towards retro titles. A run is more fun to watch once the speedrun community has been able to study a game and discover the best shortcuts and techniques.

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Game of Thrones Griping 13: The Kangaroo Trial of the Century

By Bob Case
on Jul 7, 2017
Filed under:
Television
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

With the clock rapidly winding down to the start of the new season, I think it’s now time to cover the episode where Cersei blows up pretty much the entire government of Westeros.

Geez. I hope that wasn`t a load-bearing wall.

Geez. I hope that wasn`t a load-bearing wall.

When one approaches this show with my impressively high levels of grumpiness, one experiences scenes differently than the audience as a whole. The general opinion of the whole “wildfire blows up the Sept of Baelor” sequence is very high. I’ve seen terms like “poetic” and “masterfully crafted” thrown around.

I won’t deny that it’s professionally done. But look, there’s no delicate way to say this: when I first saw this scene, I was holding back laughter by the end.  It’s so freaking long, for one thing. The cello theme keeps coming back over and over again, swelling louder each time, to the point where it takes on the character of a shaggy dog joke.There’s a British comedian called Stewart Lee who specializes in shaggy dog jokes. If you’re familiar with his work, then maybe you’ll understand when I say that if Stewart Lee directed an episode of Game of Thrones, it would probably look something like this.

The sequence’s length isn’t helped by the fact that I’m pretty sure everyone, or nearly everyone, who watched it saw the wildfire reveal coming a mile away. There had been several highly conspicuous references to wildfire in the episodes leading up to this one, so the foreshadowing wasn’t exactly subtle.And I wasn’t cheating by using book knowledge, either. This doesn’t happen in the books, or at least it hasn’t happened yet. When you use very slow, deliberate pacing to reveal something that I already know about, the reaction produced – in me, at least – isn’t suspense. It’s impatience.

But I could forgive all of this if the events depicted weren’t so ridiculous in so many different ways. Let’s cover as many of them as we can.

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Diablo III Part 3: The “Story”

By Shamus
on Jul 6, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

So you go to an American football game. I dunno why. All kinds of weird stuff happens in hypothetical situations. Just go with it.

The NFL has decided they want to give the sport a bit of highbrow class, so they’re having players come out to enact random scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s terrible. Everyone is wearing mouth guards, so you can barely understand what anyone is saying. Since it’s just a bunch of random scenes there’s no sense of investment or drama. And since the actors are football players, the acting is pretty much intolerable. Half the guys are punch drunk and can’t even remember their lines.

The crowd either boos or sits in stony silence during these scenes, but the coaches don’t give up. Every 15 minutes the game stops and you have to endure more mangled Shakespeare.

At half time you’re talking about this with a friend, shaking your heads and wondering why the NFL went to all the trouble. Then a guy a few seats back starts yelling at you. He’s a burly guy in facepaint and a team jersey. He’s gesturing at you with his ten dollar beer and shouting, “Dude! Who cares if it’s good? Football has never been about the story! Just shut up and watch the game!”

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Nan o’ War CH16: Woodes Rogers’ Neighborhood

By Rutskarn
on Jul 5, 2017
Filed under:
Lets Play

I guess I’m hitting over my weight class, because every time the battle screen rolls off nowadays I plunge into a ball pit of XP and treasure. Before that blackjack comeup I was a chronically indebted vagrant granny pushing a rotten rowboat through a valley of looming trash mobs. Now my ship’s slick, my crew’s coming up, and I’m cracking character levels like Jiffy Pop.

Who knew all it took to get started in life was a vast fortune?

So I mentioned I was trying to come up in military rank–and indeed, I have! I am now a Midshipman(woman) in addition to being a Chairman(woman) and a Ship Boy(Girl).

My newest perk.
My newest perk.

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