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Sunless Sea is getting a sequel (not a sea-quel, unfortunately for pun fans), which is set in ruddy space. You can read all about that here, but before space comes a bit more soggy sea, specifically the bit underneath it, which you can explore in Sunless Sea's upcoming Zubmariner expansion. That's due out on October 11, but we can watch the launch trailer now.
Nicely written text! A slowly moving sea vessel! This looks like Sunless Sea alright, and I like that a bit of frantic drumming, and rapid editing, is all that's required to big that up.
I see that Chris added a disclaimer to his post on Sunless Skies, so I'll add one here too. Long-time PC Gamer contributor Richard Cobbett is a writer for Sunless Sea, and maybe the Zubmariner expansion too.
This week on the Mod Roundup, a Fallout 4 mod connects almost all of the game's subway stations with a network of tunnels, giving you a new way to travel the wasteland. Also, an ancient Half-Life multiplayer mod resurfaces, and a mod for No Man's Sky makes it easier to summon your ship while wandering a planet's surface.
Here are the most promising mods we've seen this week.
Looking for an alternate route through Fallout 4's wasteland? Head underground. This mod connects most of the world's subway stations with tunnels, giving you a subterranean travel option. The tunnels aren't empty, naturally, but are populated with ghouls, raiders, and mutants some would describe as super. They will have to be dealt with before you can travel safely, and once you clear them out they won't repopulate. You'll also find some beds down in the tunnels, if you're a survival mode enthusiast.
It took a little time roughly 13 years but a Half-Life multiplayer mod has resurfaced. Threewave, originally a Quake mod, was found in an unfinished state as part of the 2003 Valve server hack. It's been re-discovered and patched into a playable state. You can watch an informative Valve News Network video about the history of Threewave here.
Some mods just make you say "Ahhh, thank you." Like this one, which adds more... I don't know what they're called, exactly. Those things you can summon your ship with using a bypass chip. In vanilla No Man's Sky, wandering far from your ship is a dubious prospect, because if you can't find one of those things you wind up having to wander all the way back. More things equals more wandering equals more freedom. Good stuff.
Failbetter Games, maker of Sunless Sea, has announced its next game: a sequel to its murky Victorian naval exploration adventure called Sunless Skies. A post on Failbetter's site titled "7 Facts About Our Next Game" gives us a few details, namely that it will provide another world "rich with stories" that will "elaborate on Sunless Sea" by enhancing the original's features and refining its systems. As you may have guessed, Sunless Skies takes place in space. If you're wondering why there's no sun in space, which is typically according to top scientists filled with a whole bunch of stars, the post explains this, sort of:
"The stars are dying. The stars are the Judgements: the inventors, arbiters and enforcers of the universe s laws but a revolution has begun, and the stars are being murdered."
Despite the obvious early blunder of not naming the game STAR MURDER! yes, with all caps and a slammer Failbetter goes on to outline its plans for Sunless Skies. It is following in the original's wake and will seek crowdfunding through a Kickstarter campaign scheduled for February (Sunless Sea gathered just over 100,000 during its campaign) to be followed by a stint in Early Access. Failbetter says the game is currently in pre-production, so hopefully we'll see some art conceptual or screenshots soon.
In the interest of disclosure, long-time PC Gamer contributor Richard Cobbett was a writer for the original game, though I just saw on Twitter that he states he is not currently involved in the sequel.
I'm not sure exactly what is going on in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, but I do know that on my first day of picking up trash in a bustling alien bazaar I wound up eating an eyeball, wandering a labyrinth, and being cursed with a hovering skull that now follows me everywhere, periodically roaring and lunging at me. I met an alien who told me that I could remove the curse, but I haven't attempted to do so yet because having a screaming skull follow me everywhere is kind of cool. It's the closest thing I've got to a friend, and I'm not ready to shed it quite yet.
In this "anti-adventure game" from developer Sundae Month you play as a custodian, picking up garbage, trinkets, food or food-ish items, vomit (sometimes your own, depending on what sort of food-ish items you were brave enough to eat), and either incinerating these items, trying to sell them to vendors, or holding onto them in hopes they might come in handy later. The stated goal is to earn enough money to leave the spaceport, but I always seem to be short of cash since I'm not paid much for my job, vendors almost never want to buy my crap, and, on one occasion, an alien stopped me on the street and simply ate most of my money.
The spaceport itself is an enjoyable place to wander: colorful and filled with shops and sights, a 3D environment populated by 2D aliens and monsters. Some look like fried eggs on legs, some look like walking turnips, and there are lizard guys and bird people and ghosts and robots and blobs and aliens. It really does feel like an interplanetary flea market.
I've been alternating my activities, spending one day picking up and burning as much trash as I can find there's a lot and spending the following day just exploring, seeing what vendors have for sale, trying to learn my way around, and getting shrieked at by the ever-present floating skull. I don't know the purpose of most of the trinkets I find, if they indeed have one, but I've discovered that candles can be placed outside shrines as an offering, which may improve my character's luck. Luck comes in handy at lotto machines, which reward you, once a day, with a free item. My luck, thus far, has not been good, which may be due to that damned skull curse that I'm unwilling to cure.
Most NPCs are just scenery, but there are a number you can talk to and accept quests from. I'm currently bringing any empty containers I find to one of them, who has promised me a reward when I bring him a certain amount. I'm not sure what that amount is he won't tell me and I'm a little exasperated at what he considers a container. An empty coffee cup I found apparently doesn't count. He's picky like that.
You do need to eat at least once a day (I'd recommend buying food rather than eating stuff off the ground) or you won't be able to sleep, which you also need to do once a day. You also need to visit a 'gendershift' terminal every few days, and if you delay the screen begins to go a bit wonky and the text becomes garbled. The genders are alien ones: so far, I've been Hellgender, Artisnal Femme, Aggramoprh, and was once even told "Your gender is now DIRT. You feel amazing!" I did feel amazing, in fact. The skull roared, perhaps in agreement.
I found a post from a member of the development team on the Steam forums about the idea behind changing and choosing your character's gender:
"Multiple people on the team are nonbinary, trans, or otherwise gender nonconforming," the post reads.
"Gender in the game reflects the way gender in real life works (tho certain aspects are maybe emphasized). Gender is highly pathologized in our society and feeling okay about it often requires spending money on expensive treatments, or struggling through constant dysphoria something represented by the screen and text effects. And, as an alien, it doesn't really make sense to have gender that aligns with human social expectations, so we felt this was an opportunity to do something potentially interesting.
"As with everything about the game, we totally encourage people to form their own interpretations! "
Much as I like my pet skull, lately I've been considering trying to break the curse. I'm afraid I might regret it, but its roaring is getting a little tiresome. I found a ziggurat I could climb, the one place in the game the skull will not follow me, and it was very peaceful up there without all its screaming. It was waiting patiently for me at the bottom of the steps, however, when I came back down. Like a dog. A loyal, shrieking, skeletal dog.
By the way, a wonderful thing about Diaries is that you can even keep your own in-game diary. Every night before you go to sleep, you can write up the day's events. Below you can page through a few of my diary entries. I guess it's a bit of a bleak read, but the life of a cursed alien spaceport janitor isn't an easy one.
Ubisoft Toronto level design director Matt West will never approve a four-meter-high wall. Three-meter-high walls look scalable, he told me over the phone, and five-meter-high walls look unscalable, but four meters high? That s a confusing wall. You ve got to run up to it and mash a key to find out if you can climb it screw that, get rid of it.
West works on some of Ubisoft s big open world games, including Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal, which feature vast environments. At the same time, another level designer, Nina Freeman, is wondering what someone s bathroom might look like. Freeman started her career studying poetry in New York, where she developed an appreciation for 70s and 80s poets and vignettes about ordinary life and people s life experiences. She s now a level designer at Gone Home developer Fullbright, working on science fiction exploration game Tacoma, and thinking about how people live on a spaceship: What s on the dinner table? Who left a sock on the floor?
Freeman probably thinks about wall height too, but level design is such a broad pursuit that gunfights and Jeeps and mountain tops and stray socks exist in the same discipline. It involves psychology and storytelling and logic mechanisms and architecture and ecology. Rand Miller, one of the creators of Myst (along with his brother, Robyn Miller) and the recent Obduction, was designing levels nearly 30 years ago as black and white still frames, and says he still hasn t really figured it out yet completely.
I interviewed West, Freeman, and Miller as well as a couple other level designers over email looking for commonalities in their work. I wanted to see what sort of tricks they use to guide players. Putting a light at the end of a hallway, according to West, will nearly always attract the player s attention and that s the sort of thing I was after. But 10 wild and wacky tricks level designers use to totally Criss Angel mindfreak us didn t turn out to be exactly the story I found. What fascinated me is how much else these designers share in common, whether they re making a firefight or a puzzle or a crumpled note on a kitchen floor, and how they seek to gently guide us toward clever thoughts.
West describes level design as the practical counterpart to game design s theoretical art if a creative director decides what kinds of decisions and experiences should be in a game, the level designer creates specific decisions and experiences. Even on the practical side of game design I found that there s a lot of theory, but wall height is important too. In the practical work and testing, you see echoes of the big ideas.
When there are boundaries that aren t walls, for instance, Warframe s lead level designer Ben Edney tries to make them clear, but at the same time, not obvious through differences in materials and lighting. Before having heard that, I coincidentally asked Miller how he makes his obscure worlds, which hint at puzzle solutions, clear, but not obvious. He laughed and acted flustered. That s one of the challenges he s been experimenting with throughout his life.
It s all experimental, as far as Miller is concerned. He got his start designing levels for children s games such as The Manhole. The advantage we had is it was just a mouse and one button, and we could sit a kid in front of it and watch what they do, and it was amazing how kids and adults did the same thing in front of those early games, said Miller. They d click on the same spot, you could entice them to click somewhere, entice them to go somewhere, and we had to figure out how to give them continuity, connect all the dots.
As a puzzle designer, Miller has a somewhat unique perspective he wants players to be stumped, at least for a little bit but the dots should all be there to see so we can connect them. At one point in Obduction, the player is asked to restore power to a building (aren t we always) and the solution is to look up, see a powerline, and follow it, a literal connection.
It s amazing how many people, though, walk out of that hut and don t see it, don t put that together," said Miller. "But at some level, then, it s not up to me anymore. We did our job.
In that case, the powerline was enough. But watching testers fumble to make sure they only fumble so much does often lead to changes. The week before Obduction was released, for instance, Miller and the team added a license plate to a desk. We put it there because we were seeing a lack of connection, and hearing it from some of our testers, and that small little change gives people, a lot of times, just the push it might even be subconscious a subconscious push to make a connection to something that was important in that space.
Aside from keeping players on track with well-placed license plates, I heard a few things that might be called tricks that Criss Angel headline isn t bad, so don t count it out for the future such as using enemy pathing to direct the player. But what I found more of were good old fashioned architectural principles, such as what Warframe s Edney calls hierarchy of space.
This is essentially designing our crazy sci-fi levels with the same considerations one might plan a new building in the real world, Edney wrote. Main through-paths are open, clear of obstacles, and generally inviting when first entering a room. Side rooms and access hallways are tighter, more defined in their usage and utilitarian.
The same goes for Freeman and Tacoma. She s concerned with spaces people live in, and how they re laid out in our world be it natural or cultural, it s what we already experience. Bedrooms are typically tucked away in the backs of houses, not the front. More fundamentally human, if you find a kitchen, you should probably find a bathroom somewhere in the same area. Granted, Tacoma takes place on a spaceship, so there s also room for set pieces that aren t going to be totally plausible but as long as they re plausible enough the player can get around with their already-learned understanding of architecture.
Good architecture is one aspect, but designers have to support the game design as well, and give players the opportunity for clever solutions a game where you can scale walls would suck if 90 percent of walls weren t scalable. And there s balance to find between complex mazes and stifling linearity.
Earlier in West s career he worked on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which he describes as linear, but Splinter Cell linear meaning that there was always more than one way to approach a problem. There d be a center path, more brightly lit and obvious than the others, for instance, and contrasting paths to either side. Maybe one goes to the left and below and the other to the right and above. And all of them should feel like good choices.
In the world, there definitely are dead ends, and I ve had level designers kind of glibly inform me of that fact, said West. But in a game, it just takes the wind right out of your sails. The whole thing is about making players feel smart, making players feel like they re intuitively selecting good routes, but then smacking into a wall? That is a personal pet peeve of mine.
Now that he works on open world games, West has many more paths to think about than he did with Splinter Cell as many as the players want. Out there in the wild, big landmarks in the distance give guidance, and that s a major principle of Obduction s design as well: there s literally a big red beam on the horizon. You can t even see what the source is, said Miller. But we knew when we put it there that everyone would head over that direction, of course they do.
For West, open world level design is about getting out of the player s way, letting them tell their own story. It s almost like you re dressing kids to go play outside in the winter, he said, recalling a conversation with a recently-hired junior level designer. You re giving them scarves, hats, and boots and all that stuff, but eventually they re going to go outside and throw snowballs. So we re just preparing them so that they can do that stuff, but we re not telling them to throw exactly 13 snowballs and then take cover behind a tree.
He has another metaphor: a buffet table with all the different types of foods the player could want. The food is actually elements of the game design and different playstyles, of course so if the player wants to stealthily eat a banana, it s there. If they want to throw a steak at someone, that s an option as well. I might be mixing up his metaphors. The point is that West tells young designers to pull back on any urge to design specific action sequences.
The player is the best storyteller, said West. If I see this kind of elaborate set up, and the level designer is saying, Enemies are going to come in from here, and then there s going to be a big swinging scythe, and then you have to jump to this spot, and turn and fire, I will just turn around and tell her, No, we re not doing that. We re going to say the scythes can be there, and the enemies can be there, but there s got to be three or four or five ways to get out of this situation.
Miller also employs open areas and branching paths, and our conversation took West s thoughts about preparing players further. Miller compares games to trips to foreign countries, in that the unfamiliarity can be stressful at first.
We realized that providing people completely wide open space to start with, with options in every direction that you can just click anywhere and do anything is not a very reassuring way to start a game, he said. People don t respond well to that. They feel a little inhibited, they are uncomfortable with so many options.
As a result, Obduction begins in a cave which is very similar to Fallout 3 starting in a vault with only one direction to go. Outside of the cave, there s a canyon that begins to widen. (West also mentioned that widening paths attract players, while narrowing corridors do the opposite.) As the canyon widens, there s still only one way to go the world is expanding, but the player is still comfortably going in one direction and then a man gives you a goal: go to the house with the white picket fence.
It was very deliberate that we gave you the goal before we branched open the path, said Miller. Because now you have the assurances of, Well I have the white picket fence in my pocket, I know I can go there eventually, and you feel the freedom to start making some choices without anxiety. Now it s interesting to see what players do depending on their style, whether they re rebellious and like, Screw you, I m not going to the white house with the white picket fence, I m going over here to the second path that you didn t tell me to go on.
Well, they can act all rebellious but the fact of the matter is they re only doing that, they only have that rebellion in them, because they have the security of the little goal in the distance.
Freeman is less interested in how players might find their way through a canyon, and more interested in the little details of life. She loves the bar in the game Catherine, for instance, where the player can sit with friends, go to the bathroom and look at their phone, play an arcade game. It s all these little, little moments, and I like that stuff because that s just what I do every day, she said. And I think ordinary life is interesting and I like to see the ways in which these game designers are putting their characters into those situations, and what those spaces are like. I m always just like, Put more bars in your videogames!
Her focus on Tacoma is making spaces that feel lived-in, and it was her previous game, Cibele, that led her to Fullbright. The kind of level design I was doing on [Cibele] was, How do I design an in-game computer that feels plausible and feels lived in, very similar to how someone might design a bedroom in Gone Home or something, said Freeman. She had never designed a 3D level before joining Fullbright, but a penchant for designing around authentic stories was there. Tacoma is definitely about ordinary lives and people who feel like you could know them, like they could be your neighbor. That s what we share despite coming from different backgrounds.
While Freeman s focus is heavier on tasking players with putting together the remnants of an ordinary life connecting dots in a different way than in Obduction, or in Far Cry 4 all three designers share a desire to build plausible spaces.
"The puzzles have to fit the world as best as possible, at least the way we do it," said Miller. " loves to feature the puzzles, so his levels, the puzzles that are there just in some ways can be arbitrary, because the thing is the puzzle. But I think what we've done and what we've gotten to in our little niche, what we do, we're trying to balance all three of the legs that I think are interactive: the environment, the puzzles, or whatever the friction is, and the story."
He added later that it s a pain in the ass.
We have people who are in charge of those aspects. So the art guy may come up with a visually stunning looking piece of equipment, but the story guy goes, That doesn t make sense, that couldn t be in this world, and we have to figure that out. The same goes in any direction puzzles that don t fit the story, story that doesn t fit the art. It must be cohesive.
For West, a level design could start as a sketch on a soggy bar napkin (he actually once approved a bar napkin scrawl as an initial design) or an MS Paint drawing, but from there he believes collaboration with artists is vital so that they don t get handed this dodecahedron that s done in this gray flat texture and get told to turn it into a carousel. He wants to see plausible spaces, and he makes a point of saying that it s a team effort, that the best level designers are the ones who work well with their artists.
A typical level designer can be seen as a balancer of Miller s three legs environment, obstacles, and story which I prefer to call 'Miller's Pillars.' The other part of their challenge might best be summed up by that phrase I stumbled on earlier: be clear, but not obvious.
In Cibele, Freeman wants players to discover a folder of photos on a desktop, and later put together themselves why it s there and what it means to the character. Miller wants players to have a cognitive rush as they discover how his puzzles and worlds fit together, without ever telling them explicitly how it all works. West wants players to choose their own path and feel good about it without being guided too closely to know where to go, but to tell their own personal story on the way.
These level designers don't want to tell us what to do or think, but to guide us gently like good parents. I think it s telling that Miller delights that there s no difference between what adults and children click on, and West thinks of the player as a kid getting dressed to play in the snow.
It's a good principle, but of course these are hardly the only game design philosophies. Miller doesn't make puzzle games like Jonathan Blow makes them, for instance. A favorite game of mine, Lovely Planet, forces players to perfectly execute the designer s vision in an entirely implausible world a very strict parent in an abstract shapeland. West would never design a shooter like that. Miller would wonder if the planet could actually be three planets, connected by giant gears. Freeman would add a bar.
So there are methods but not rules, and every level designer brings their own experiences and ideas to the task. But however I'm guided toward a designer's conclusions, I like it best when I'm shown the way, but not told.
The Watch Dogs 2 story trailer released today introduces Marcus Holloway's buddies in the Dedsec crew, a team of elite hackers dedicated to bringing down the power-hungry Dusan Don't Call Me Douche Nemec. Power to the people!
Intros aside, the trailer doesn't really tell us much that we didn't already know: Dedsec is good, Dusan is bad, and the people are mindless sheep. The people, they don't care how it works! Nemec yells, clearly annoyed by Holloway's refusal to compromise his idealistic principles. Only that it does! It's not the smoothest dialog that I've ever had stuffed into my ears, but he's not wrong, and makes me wonder who the real bad guy is. Nemec makes cool stuff that works well and improves the quality of life of its users; Dedsec steals cars and blows things up. That's some seriously mixed signals there, guys.
More worrisome, at least if you're hoping that Watch Dogs 2 will be a game that's actually about something, is our hands-on preview, published earlier today, which declares the game slick, enjoyable, but terribly hollow. Watch Dogs 2 sounds like it might simple, silly, open-world fun, but the underlying story, which at first glance appears positioned to make pertinent commentary on the state of the world, is apparently not nearly as substantial as it seemed. That's a shame.
Watch Dogs 2 comes out on November 15.
System Rift, the first of two Deus Ex: Mankind Divided story DLCs included with the game's season pass, is now live on Steam. The expansion reunites Adam Jensen with his former Sarif compatriot Frank Pritchard, who needs help breaking into one of the most secure databanks ever created. Naturally, this isn't just your garden-variety high-tech B&E: In agreeing to help, Adam may also be able to uncover hints as to who the Illuminati really are.
Side-by-side with the expansion, Eidos Montreal has also released a new Mankind Divided patch that fixes a few bugs, improves Tobii EyeTracking support, and adds a lens flare option. DirectX 12 support is still being worked on, and remains available through the DX12_preview branch. Instructions on accessing it, and notes on why you might (and might not) want to do so, are available on Steam.
If you don't happen to own the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided season pass, System Drift will set you back $12/ 9.50.
Unexpectedly and without warning, Hello Games has announced that a new patch for No Man's Sky is ready to go. It is not, at the time of writing, live on Steam, but the studio said on Twitter that it's been released and the patch notes are up now at the NMS website.
It doesn't look to be a major update, but there are some significant fixes. It's now much much more robust at recovering corrupted save files, and it's no longer possible to bypass the Antimatter blueprint, which would leave you stranded in the game's second system. Framerates have been improved when scanning colossal structures like space stations, and galaxy generation [is] more robust during compiling, whatever that means.
So it's a tune-up, rather than a comprehensive upgrade of places to go and things to see, but that fits with what Hello said earlier this month when it rolled out the 1.07 update: Our focus is first on resolving any issues people have with the game as it is, then on future free updates which will improve, expand and build on the No Man s Sky universe. The full 1.09 PC patch notes, since they're not all that terribly long, are below.
Devolver digital isn t your average videogame publisher. I realise this in a basement, fifteen minutes away from San Francisco s Game Developers Conference, watching colourful penises slither across the screen. Next to me is Mike Wilson, one of Devolver Digital s five founders. We both watch as two dicks circle one another like professional wrestlers, each trying to penetrate the other s asshole. Cheers erupt from those around us as one succeeds, then rise even higher when the other also penetrates, forming a swirling genital ouroboros. Mike turns to me and smiles. Welcome to the Devolver Bunker.
Calling it a bunker might be too dramatic unless you think several dozen game developers, a keg, and a karaoke machine are what s worth saving in the apocalypse. But this bunker, now a time-honoured tradition during the Game Developers Conference, perfectly represents everything Mike wants Devolver Digital to be: a place on the outer fringe where creators are free to create. In here it s just you, a selection of likeminded individuals, and the mutual desire to make something interesting.
For Evan Greenwood, one of the people behind the explosive shoot- em-up Broforce, interesting meant Genital Jousting. It s a game where anywhere from two to eight penises can face off in an effort to engage in mutually beneficial and consensual coitus. The way these flopping, flaccid penises are animated is both slightly disturbing and hilarious, the Mount Your Friends sweet spot of party games. From the sounds of it, it s going to be one of Devolver Digital s next games.
Devolver Digital is more than just a publishing company for weird indie games about cocks, however. It s pioneering a new way of thinking about the relationship between developer and publisher. It s been a very weird fucking journey, Mike says when I ask him about his past. It s hard not to see him as a kind of father with a dozen bastard children. Across two decades working in the industry, there s no denying how central his marketing and business development has been to the growth of PC gaming. Quake, Doom, Deus Ex, Mafia, Max Payne, Tropico over the years, Mike s had his fingers in a lot of videogame pies.
Being at ground zero of the PC gaming explosion wasn t quite the incredible experience you might imagine. Sure, he was once allowed to commission a giant vagina archway for a Microsoft Windows 95 launch event, but that doesn t seem to be much of what he remembers from that time. Instead, much of Mike s past is marked by battles against the corporate need to control game developers in every way possible that ever-present tension between business and art. He s watched as many naive developers, often barely more than teenagers, fell victim to exploitative contracts, empty promises, and delusions of grandeur. He s seen egos ballooned to unmanageable sizes, friendships torn apart by avarice, and careers ended to preserve corporate secrets.
He s also seen what happens when developers wise up and start making a fuss. The traditional method of dealing with difficult talent is to buy them, Mike explains. The publishers then own their intellectual property and can continue to crank out sequels with less uppity game developers. That s the point of owning the developer, you never have to listen to them.
Distaste for that kind of business practice is what led Mike to found Devolver Digital, along with business partners Harry Miller, Rick Stults, Nigel Lowrie, and Graeme Struthers. They wanted to create a videogame publisher that would cultivate a different kind of relationship with developers. Devolver Digital s contracts grant the developer of the game the lion s share of the royalties, and it s the developer who has the final say on every major decision, too. In the end, Devolver Digital is merely an enabler, giving scrappy indie studios the resources they need to build great games.
He who has the gold makes the rules, that s just the way that business goes, Mike says, but we saw that this industry hadn t really realised that the developers are the talent, and eventually they re going to be recognised as who s important in these relationships. It s one of the things at the heart of Devolver.
When I ask what else makes up Devolver s heart, Mike laughs. Have you met Nigel yet?
Nigel Lowrie is, at first glance, a wonderful kind of contrast to Mike Wilson. He s tall, well-dressed, and looks like he s never been to Burning Man. He s also the most important voice an indie developer might ever hear. I m a people person, he says. Most of the things that I do involve looking for games we might want to publish, talking to developers, and then, once a game has come into our warm, loving embrace, working on the marketing aspect with them.
Nigel s involvement with Devolver goes back further than the company itself. In 2008, Mike and other Devolver founders, Harry and Rick, were trying to bring their publishing vision to life under the name Gamecock Media Group. I was working in advertising in Dallas at the time, Nigel recalls, for companies like Seven-Eleven and Hot Pockets. We got to do cool things now and again, but after a while I wanted to put my head in a microwave oven. I wanted to do marketing for something I liked, so I sent Mike a blind email telling him I loved videogames with my whole body including my pee pee. That got his attention.
The year 2008 had other plans. Gamecock, like many of Mike s previous companies, had only been possible with investment from a third party, but getting help from the outside was beginning to feel like it caused more problems than it solved. When Gamecock s sole investor pulled out during the height of the 2008 financial crisis, Gamecock crumbled to dust, and Mike, Harry, Rick and Nigel weren t about to make the same mistake again. We decided to start our own thing under our own control and not beholden to someone else, Nigel says, and that s how Devolver Digital was born.
Devolver didn t immediately become the recognised name it is now. Its first four years of life were spent working as the publisher for Croteam and its famous shooter, Serious Sam. Devolver was bringing Sam back from the grave thanks to a series of popular HD remakes, but they also wanted to experiment with publishing their own small-scale, high-concept games, and Serious Sam was the perfect test subject.
In late 2011, Devolver contracted developers Mommy s Best Games, Be-Rad Entertainment and Vlambeer the studio that would go on to make hits such as Nuclear Throne to create small indie game spin-offs set in the Serious Sam universe. While none of these contracted games set the world on fire, this did inspire a close relationship between Devolver and Vlambeer, who had just come across a group of Swedish developers whose game would.
In a rundown apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, Jonatan Cactus S derstr m and Dennis Wedin had a common problem for indie developers: no money. The two had been designing games together since meeting through Dennis s band, but if they were going to keep the lights on, they needed to create something more substantial than the bizarre freeware creations Jonatan had been pumping out since he was a teenager. Digging through the refuse of half-finished and abandoned projects, the two happened upon the remains of Super Carnage, the soul of which would go on to create one of the most successful indie games ever.
I d always been a fan of Jonatan s games, Nigel explains. They were very peculiar and weird. One day Rami Ismail from Vlambeer emailed me and said, hey, Jonatan is working on a game he wants to turn into something bigger. He introduced me to Jonatan and then he sent me a build to play. It was one of those things where it was rough, but you instantly understood why it s going to be special.
Nigel believed that this game could be something different. At that time, indie videogames were just growing into the massive phenomenon they are today, and this project between Jonatan and Dennis was going to be a huge help. Trusting his gut, Nigel showed the game to the rest of the founders at Devolver. We had no track record, we d only worked with Croteam and Vlambeer, Nigel explains. I took it to the team and everyone dug it, but, at the time, we really didn t have a lot of money, we had all been working for free to this point we didn t pay ourselves. We all had back pay, so a few of us went in and said, hey, to make this game I will forfeit some of my back pay because this is how much we believe this could work. We really put our money where our mouths were.
The prototype transformed into Hotline Miami, an eye-catching and idiosyncratic top-down shooter that demanded attention with its bloody, neon punk aesthetic. It became one of the biggest indie success stories ever, taking the world by storm with its violence and pumping electronic beats. Between the first game and the sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, the series would sell over five million copies.
The success of Hotline Miami changed Jonatan S derstr m and Dennis Wedin s lives as much as it changed everyone s at Devolver Digital. The company found its groove and began seeking more indie titles that it could help bring to life going on to publish hits such as Luftrausers, OlliOlli and The Talos Principle. As indie games exploded across PC and consoles, Devolver Digital was there, fanning the flames. To me, it boils down to one thing, Mike says. People are remembering that games are supposed to be fun rather than impressive.
Hotline Miami brought Devolver to a place where it wasn t just capitalising on a trend in videogames, but a cultural one too. Mike explains to me that indie developers aren t the same breed he worked with all those years ago when he first got into the industry. They re leaner, more collaborative, and less interested in rolling in piles of money. I love that people aren t trying to use their game as a stepping stone to make a bigger one, he says. And you really see that when someone makes it, they cannot wait to help others succeed too.
That lack of ambition for the hollow trappings of success couldn t be a better fit for Devolver. Despite their success, the founders are adamant on not turning their company into anything more than it is. They don t need an extravagant office or a pushy marketing team, Mike says, and they certainly don t need to sell out to a bigger company. In fact, the founders of Devolver Digital are so opposed to becoming the stereotypical publisher, they even invented their own fictional persona to be the face of the company.
His name is Fork Parker, and his bizarre wit allows the members of Devolver to do their work without the sweating from the heat of the spotlight. As Mike and I sit outside, taking a breather from the bunker below, he tells me something I want to always remember: There s freedom in being small.
That freedom is the foundation of a new kind of relationship between publisher and developer, one built on trust and respect rather than profit margins and value propositions. When we return to the Devolver bunker, we find it packed with people. Developers chat excitedly, people flail around wearing VR headsets, and Genital Jousting has been replaced by a new game where you play a grizzly bear trying to buck off what looks like a naked Danny DeVito. There s an undeniable sense of community here and at the centre of it stand just five people.
I don t have too much time to think about it because as soon as we step back inside Mike turns to me and smiles. I hope you like tequila.
To say that Riot has had a mixed month would be an understatement. The company has had a flurry of ups and downs over the last few weeks: on one hand, they ve released some exciting new projects, including a critically acclaimed board game. On the other hand, there have been doubts about their long-term prospects. Marc Tryndamere Merrill has ended up with egg on his face over a couple of occasions, including the that kicked off a war between Riot and team owners over the economic sustainability of the LCS.
While the #LCSForever moment was a charming end to the whole fiasco, akin to the freeze frame high five during the triumphant climax of a Disney movie, there s still a lot of work to be done. Riot has for the future with a new statement, and there s a lot of good news to start off with as well as a few lingering doubts about whether Riot will be able to meet the ambitious plans that they ve laid out.
The first piece of good news is that Riot has been made aware of the financial situation facing owners, and have laid out a clear action plan including new LoL esports revenue streams, as well as collaboration with team owners. The language here is vague, and beyond sharing revenue, it s hard to tell what, exactly, Riot has planned. However, the fact that they re working on it at all is a fantastic first step. Tryndamere s comment on Reddit suggested a remarkable ignorance of the economic situation of LoL team owners and their realities. Riot is stepping back, reassessing their viewpoint, and working to bring team owners in on the solution.There s already one very big statement that they re making: an adjustment to the Worlds prize pool. Fans have been begging for a crowdfunding option for years: it has seen massive success in Dota, boosting the pot up to incredible numbers. LoL, on the other hand, has always gone with the conservative route. Riot has even rejected the idea of crowdfunding before, referring to it as begging . By paying salaries and avoiding huge pots, the idea is that they avoid one team making out big while another barely gets by. However, as League becomes more and more competitive, and the Worlds events become more of a statement for the company, the relatively paltry prize pool has drawn criticism.
Riot is responding by unlocking digital revenue 25% of proceeds from the sale of the Championship skin and Ward (this year s candidate is Zed) will be added to the prize pool. This also gives a glimpse of the massive amount that Riot is making from microtransactions. If they had applied this to Championship Shyvana, they would have more than doubled the Worlds prize pool. 25% of Challenger skin revenue will be added to the MSI pot, and Team Championship skins (Fnatic, TPA, SKT twice over, and Samsung White) will all be subject to the revenue share program.
In addition, League is going to be introducing branded in-game items and boosting the summoner icon program, giving teams a cut of those profits. This, Riot claims, will contribute millions of dollars in additional revenue to teams and pros each year. Riot also promises that they ll have more plans regarding sponsorships and merchandise.All of the above changes go beyond being a band aid solution: they re a major step forward to repairing the damaged relationships and economy that the LCS has suffered, and it s also definitive proof that Riot is willing to admit their faults and forge a new path forward. The rest of the statement is glowing with praise for fans, which is either an apology and a promise to do better or a slick PR statement designed to win over doubters, depending on who you ask.
While this is a great start, one question remains: is this enough?
Before these changes, the dialogue around LCS economics always acknowledged that while top tier teams were doing fine, lower-tier teams would struggle. Part of the reason that the situation has become so tense is even teams like Team SoloMid, arguably the biggest brand in all of esports, were struggling under the current LCS ecosystem. Changes to the prize pools will only affect the top teams. Merchandise and branding are great for the TSMs, G2s, and C9s of the LCS, but what of the lower-tier teams? Will a team like Apex or EnVyUs be able to get in on those millions of dollars of revenue from microtransactions?
Riot has stated that they intend to build the trust of the fanbase back over the coming months, and making prize pool improvement a priority was a smart way to do so. Now that they ve won some good will, they re going to need to follow through. There s a lot going on behind the scenes, and we can expect to see more details of the coming sponsorship and merchandise plans in the coming days. Whether it s from an honest realization, or the teams arriving on their doorstep and demanding a difference, Riot are overhauling their own policies and admitting their mistakes.
Part of Riot s effort in days to come is going to have to be focused on not just making changes, but re-establishing their image with the community. Riot has always yearned to be a company made up of your friends: they want the community s trust, the ability to reach out to fans, and a positive image among their players. Tryndamere s comment did a lot to harm that, as well as other decisions they ve made in the last few weeks, such as declining to invite veteran OGN caster Christopher MonteCristo Mykles to Worlds.
It doesn t matter whether you think these decisions were warranted or not; what matters is that players are looking at Riot as a corporate monolith, uncaring and sometimes incompetent. Riot, on the other hand, seems to recognize the importance that the fans have to their future: after all, it s listed as the first point on their three step plan. If they want to secure their fanbase and keep their image alive, they ll need to keep the initiative going. One big gesture may not be enough to regain all of that lost trust, not even one as grand as saving the LCS.