PC Gamer

Halloween has come to mean two things: rotting childrens' teeth with autumnal-coloured sweets, and Team Fortress 2. Every year for the past six years, Valve has pulled out all or most of the steps to throw a spooky shindig for its now free-to-play multiplayer shooter.

Er, except this year. Valve explains here that it's rather busy working on the next major update, so in lieu of a proper Halloween event it's bringing back all of the previous ones at once. Not only that, but there will be a showcase of the best community content.

After revealing that the forthcoming update will feature "new maps, cosmetics, and a new campaign with contracts and weapon collections", Valve went on to explain the nature of this year's seasonally spooky box social.

"Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that there s something missing from that list: Halloween. The reality is, if we produce a holiday-specific event map this year, it means we'll have to stop working on everything else. So: We ve decided to turn Halloween mostly over to you. This year s Halloween Update will be a showcase of all the best Halloween-themed community content (items, maps, taunts and unusuals) you guys can come up with. We ll also be activating every one of our past six Halloween Updates, so there'll still be plenty of spooky holiday-themed game modes to play.

"Over the next month we ll be looking through the Workshop for anything tagged 'Halloween', so if you ve been working on an item you think would be perfect, make sure you get it submitted and tagged before October 18th, 2015."

You'll be pleased to hear that there are "no restrictions" on this year's Halloween items, meaning they can be viewed all year round. So if you're inclined to make TF2-themed stuff, and to put on Steam Workshop, go nuts.

PC Gamer

When I was a young lad, my bedroom walls were all a dull shade of sky blue. Then my parents painted, and I enjoyed a slightly fresher-looking shade of sky blue. I'm not bitter about it or anything. I'm just saying that I wish Randy Slavey was my dad. Because Randy Slavey has created what has to be the coolest, and perhaps only, Portal-themed bedroom ever—the kind of thing a grown-ass man (like yours truly) would be proud to sleep in.

Slavey details the process of creating the bedroom over on Geekdad, beginning with the demolition of his son's previous bedroom, which Slavey built 15 years ago. After that, the real work began: priming, taping, and painting, much of it by hand, including a line of 255 individual circles representing the lights for the door triggers. Thanks to some less-than-perfect advice from the guy at the paint store, painting the furniture, which you'd think would be a much simpler process, sounds like it was even worse.

Then came the detail work, including a hidden message—you know which one—plus turrets, a companion cube, and Wifi-controlled LED bulbs in the ceiling. But what ties the room together are obviously the portals: round mirrors, ringed with colored rope lights and strategically mounted for that "3D to infinity!" look.

It is, and yes I'm going to say it, a triumph, and based on his reaction, Slavey's son clearly loves it. I don't blame him. Catch the full collection of photos, and a breakdown of how it was all done, at Geekdad.

Thanks, Make:.

PC Gamer
Image courtesy of psyke

According to determined intenet sleuths, Team Fortress 2 is being invaded by UFOs. Datamining the Team Fortress 2 update that rolled out earlier today, a user on the Facepunch forums discovered a bunch of new assets listed in the code. Words like 'invasion' and 'saucer' feature prominently, as does references to posters that feature these.

Then there are other TF2 players who have actually spotted UFOs by, you know, playing the game. Another user on the Facepunch forums spotted one of the aforementioned posters in the 2fort map, and YouTube user waterandroid even made a video of a flying saucer appearing in the skies above Dustbowl, as below:

Someone on Reddit has collated all of the evidence so far, and it's pretty compelling. I'd go so far as to say it's conclusive. The UFO Invasion update has been rumoured for a while after all, with this very unsubtle video leaking back in July. Oh, and Halloween is coming next month, so I wouldn't be surprised if all these sightings culminate in something around then.

PC Gamer

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil sings the praises of KOTH_Harvest in TF2.

Team Fortress 2 has some great battlegrounds, and—unlike pre-Global Offensive era CounterStrike—its community never settled for just a handful of favourites. Some, such as ctf_2fort, cp_dustbowl or pl_goldrush, are more easily found than others. Its seemingly endless server list always contains a few packed-out servers for just about every map. Even Hydro.

My favourite is Harvest, a community-made map taken on by Valve as an official part of the game. It s a King of the Hill map, a mode introduced two years into TF2 s now almost decade-long life. King of the Hill was based on the philosophy of small, compact environments, first introduced in Arena mode. It doesn t have Arena s restrictions, though, meaning there s no single life or limited player count. King of the Hill maps work just like any other TF2 map, only they re condensed around a single capture point. Your team s job is to capture that point and hold it for three minutes—with the time remaining for both teams ever present as part of the interface. 

Naturally, for this to work with TF2 s standard compliment of 24 players, the map design has to be really good. Largely, it is. King of the Hill maps are a patchwork of tight, balanced sections that naturally favour certain classes, but that always gives the player a possible counter to prevent any one class from dominating. Often these are heightened with the unpredictability of environmental elements. Sawmill has twin saw blades around its capture points, a sadistic boon for a Pyro or a Scout with a Force-A-Nature. Nucleus has a network of precarious catworks that hang over a deadly drop.

Harvest has no such gimmick—at least not in its regular variant, that is. It s a symmetrical map with a dilapidated shed housing its central control point, and two large farmhouses situated opposite each team s spawn. This is all it needs to house each of TF2 s nine classes. It s a beautifully intricate space, giving each class a location to shine and each opponent a way to counter or circumnavigate that threat. 

Snipers, for instance, can take residence at the back of the map—towards the side of either farmhouse, or even standing on either of the small side-sheds. As always, it s a perilous position. The sight lines are long, but narrow. Snipers are vulnerable to enemy players using cover for a sneak attack, or to long-range classes firing down the spawn trench. Pyros, meanwhile, can revel in the ambush potential afforded by the enclosed control point, but are at the mercy of Soldiers and Demomen who, with a simple rocket-jump, can fire through the exposed roof. 

Seemingly innocuous details provide potential windows of situational safety. Players might not think twice about the small section of fence that extends out next to the spawn point. For a seasoned Spy, though, it s the perfect decloaking point to rejoin your team in a natural looking way—at least until a Pyro gets wise to the tactic. Each farmhouse, too, is its own minibattleground, simultaneously used for alternate routes to the central area, a potential respite from danger, and a direct means of reaching the Soldier who s inevitably camped on its roof. 

In motion, the interplay between classes across these conflict hotspots paints a picture of beautiful carnage. The lack of space gives King of the Hill maps a sense of chaos and immediacy. After rounding the corner of Harvest s farmhouse, you re forced to make a series of snap decisions as to where you ll be the biggest credit to your team. It s guaranteed that at least three miniature battles will be occurring at once, and all could be potentially crucial in capturing—or holding—the objective. It s a great map to spectate, purely in terms of violence per square foot. 

How much do I love Harvest? I paid real money for a Map Stamp to reward its creator, Sean Heyo Cutino. I d barely be prepared to do that for most Valve-made maps. Especially Hydro.

PC Gamer

When I saw the release trailer for Half-Line Miami, I assumed it was a gag whipped up by somebody bored with the wait for Half-Life 3, or a set of skinned levels built in Hotline Miami's level editor. It is neither. Half-Line Miami is a free, fully playable mash-up of Hotline Miami and Half-Life 2, complete with the G-Man introduction, and it's really good.

The actual gameplay is straight out of Hotline Miami, but the maps, enemies, and sound effects are taken from Half-Life 2. And instead of the usual assortment of blunt objects and firearms, you're equipped with the gravity gun, which works exactly like it does in HL2: Pick something up—explosive barrels included—and then fire it at your enemies to turn them into pulp.

There are eight levels in all, one for each area in Half-Life 2. For players who are into the DIY thing, it comes with a level editor as well. The soundtrack by Sung is pretty fantastic too. And it's free!

"I made this game as a declaration of my love for these 2 games, and as an experiment in game design," creator Thomas Kole explained.

Grab it—trust me, it's worth your time—at Itch.io.

PC Gamer

Team Fortress 2 has a new mode! It's called Pass Time, it's in beta, and you can see what it looks like above.

A little overwhelming, right?

It's an American Football/Football (delete as applicable) style mode, but also there are guns. Your team's job is to grab a ball from the centre of the map, and punt it into the glowing target deep in the enemy's base.

If you're carrying the ball, you can't use a weapon. You do, however, get a brief speed boost—and can see the location of all teammates and enemies highlighted around the map. You can also pass the ball—allowing for the possibility of it being intercepted. 

It's pretty exciting. At least, it was across the brief period I played. I went in to grab a screenshot, immediately scored a goal, declared myself King Of All Team Fortress 2, and left.

Interestingly, the mode was envisioned by Bad Robot and co-developed by Escalation Studios. "PASS Time marks Bad Robot's first foray into rapidly iterative content, and they're really excited to get feedback on their beta so they can work with the TF community to evolve the game," says the TF2 blog's announcement post. "This is a new way of doing things for them, and they're looking forward to working with you to see how it grows over time."

To recap, the production firm co-producing the new Star Wars film has teamed up with Valve to create a new sports-influenced capture-the-flag style mode for Team Fortress 2; a game about hats. Videogames are weird.

If you'd like to play Pass Time: open TF2 and, in the Play Multiplayer menu, select "Play Beta Maps". Alternatively, go to the server browser and search for "pass_warehouse".

PC Gamer

This free new level for I Am Bread, available as of 5pm today GMT, is all about Team Fortress 2. As a slice of bread determined to be part of a sandwich, you can climb all over the Heavy and even fire a minigun.

This update is part of Bossa's ongoing collaboration with Valve that saw Bossa release a Team Fortress 2 themed operation for Surgeon Simulator two years ago. It's not the first update for I am Bread, however; we also got "Starch Wars" on May the Fourth. If you haven't played I Am Bread and this update is tempting you, make sure you read my review first. Oh, and if you hurry you might be able to catch Bossa streaming the new update over on Twitch.

PC Gamer
Back to the drawing board. Image by Legoformer1000

We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, esports, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.

When Valve released the massive Gun Mettle update for Team Fortress 2 earlier this month, it was another tally mark in a 500-strong patch dynasty for the everlasting multiplayer FPS. The update s brought rebalances and tweaks to one of the PC s most popular games. Most critically, it reinforced Valve s dedication for making sure TF2 s meta doesn t languish into mediocrity, a necessary step with competitive matchmaking on the horizon.

Most significantly, the update changed the mechanics of Engineers, TF2 s guitar-twanging, sentry-slinging staple. As the subject of another major overhaul patch back in 2010, the Engie has already seen both subtle and overt adjustments to his gameplay. The addition of the Gunslinger and the ability to pick up and move buildings practically transformed the Engie from immobile turret-babysitter to maneuverable hardpoint, and the increased flexibility between adopting either strategy type to suit the team redefined the class entirely.

Gun Mettle took this a step further by shortening construction, setup, and redeploy times for an effective sentry operator that can now more easily keep up with a push, retreat, or pivot to defend a fresh attack angle. Below, I ve extracted and summarized some of the more impactful patch changes, but be sure to read the full log for far more minor adjustments and rebalances for other classes.

  • Buildings construct faster, teleporters/dispensers redeploy faster, and hauling buildings incurs a smaller movement penalty.

These changes are the unifying theme surrounding the Engie for the Gun Mettle update—a focus on minimizing downtime and thumb-twiddling during pre-round setup and redeployment. You only lose about 10 percent of your movement speed while carrying a building, so aggressive sentry spots are now a far more appealing tactic than before.

You ll also spot more Engies using their shotguns and pistols more often, as they ll be spending less time thwacking away at getting their gear up and more time delivering direct firepower to the team. Even better, swapping the wrench type—say, from a Southern Hospitality to the Gunslinger or vice versa—now only self-destructs the turret and not your entire nest, keeping vital teleporters and dispensers intact instead of having to completely rebuild once more.

  • Mini sentries are now repairable, but they construct slower and have a smaller initial health pool while constructing.

Mini sentries—the cute, ankle-biting turrets used by Gunslinger Engies—were traditionally set-and-forget annoyances tucked into unexpected corners or sat brazenly in the open for a small burst of crossfire. With Gun Mettle, minis bulk up in durability by being repairable, but they need slightly more minding from their creator while building up—instead of starting at 100 health during construction, they re now halved at a fragile 50. Gunslingers will need to be a little more choosy as to where their little friend goes; a few pistol shots or a couple scattergun blasts will do in the poor thing before it even finishes coming out of the box. If you haven t already, consider pre-building your mini in a safe spot or while near teammates before hauling it to your designated perch.

  • While a sentry is shielded by the Wrangler, repair and ammo given by wrench hits is reduced.

The Wrangler, a pistol replacement that allows Engies direct control over their sentries while equipped, is a fantastic choice for direct pressure or long-range chip damage at the expense of vulnerability while keeping an eye on the target. A deadly combo often seen in final Payload point defenses entailed one Engie Wrangling his sentry while another constantly repaired and resupplied it, as the Wrangler effect provided a protective shield for the turret which cut down incoming damage by around 66 percent.

Post-update, repairing a shielded sentry returns health and ammo at the same percentage as the shield provides—66 percent. This tips the odds of a direct attack on the sentry back into whoever s firing on it, as Engies will need to let the shield expire after a few seconds of switching away from the Gunslinger—lose its added armor, in other words—to repair at full efficiency.

  • The Jag wrench swings faster but repairs a smaller chunk of building health per swing.

If you want to experience the Gun Mettle Engie changes in the most direct and fun way, equip the Jag and try constructing a building or two. The Jag s baseline bonus—a faster swing speed and construction speed boost—is additive to the universal build speed increases noted above. That means an incredibly fast setup and upgrade time for a full nest. (Check out the gif; it takes less than a minute to get everything built.)

The downside: you ll need more metal to repair your stuff, as the Jag now fixes up to 80 health per swing instead of the stock 100. An emerging popular loadout (and one of my favorites at the moment) involves pairing the Jag with the Rescue Ranger shotgun for additional ranged repair power and metal retention.

PC Gamer
PC Gamer
The more the merrier? Image by CrudeCuttlefish

Since the time Valve began publicly tracking hours-played in July 2009, I ve launched 341 different games from Steam. Today, Steam adds at least that many games each month and a half—55 each week, on average, or almost eight per day. There s no question that Steam is saturated. Steam grew by 561 games in 2013, but added 1,814 in 2014. Seven months into 2015, there s already 1,592 new games on Steam. But is that truly a problem?

Steam s library is growing at the fastest rate in its 12-year history, and those of us who play and write about PC games full-time will never dig more than a spoon into Steam s mountain range of more than 5,600 games. It s certainly tempting, even natural, to label that as a problem. Last year, there was a wave of concern following a Gamasutra post that visualized the volume of new games hitting Steam. Kotaku wrote that the trend was hurting developers and gamers. Spiderweb Software s Jeff Vogel told of the imminent burst of the indie bubble, and others jumped up from their chairs to agree: there are too many games on Steam.

Seven months into 2015, there s already 1,592 new games on Steam.

Those who point at the perpetual logjam of new releases feel that Valve has abandoned any semblance of quality control. They fear that Steam will become like the App Store, known more for what it rejects than what it showcases. And they have a point: who wants lazy mobile game ports, halfheartedly erotic pinball, soccer-fighting games, something called SpaceCorn, or Gynophobia, a horror shooter about abnormal fear of women, on Steam? How can deserving, independent gems to stand out in an ecosystem filled with junk? And when games do break through, how can developers retain interest long enough to build a healthy community?

The most irrationally paranoid thought is that we re inching toward the PC gaming equivalent of the video game crash of 83, when the level of saturation of games and platforms gutted the industry, forcing many hardware-makers and publishers to collapse or withdraw forever. Consider this prescient quote from 1986 by Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo s president: Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers and the market was swamped with rubbish games.

How small studios feel about Steam

Whatever your reaction to this trend, the people whose lives are most braided to it are independent developers and publishers. And when I reached out to them to talk about Steam, I was surprised that the majority of them are unfazed by how crowded Valve s platform has become.

To Swen Vincke, CEO at Larian Studios, today s Steam is simply a return to the way things were before digital distribution, but not in a bad way. Access to retail used to determine which games we got to play, something that hampered the evolution of videogames, says Vincke, who believes digital distribution has created a true renaissance in the industry. However, the quantity of games being released now means that the new barrier to entry has become discoverability, and as a developer you need to plan from day one how your target audience will find out about your game, and ensure that your game has more reasons to be played by players than a similar game your competitor may be making. Which, if you think about it, is exactly how it s always been. There are just more competitors now, so there s no room for slacking. That s a good thing, too, in my opinion.

Paradox Interactive has grown in parallel with Steam over the past several years. They ve become a more diverse publisher in that time, having a hand in Pillars of Eternity this year as well as Cities: Skylines and stuff like Magicka. Despite this, you d expect Paradox to be exactly the sort of entity that s sensitive to a crowded market. Games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis—heritage franchises for Paradox—rely on word of mouth, on player anecdotes, to spread their reputations, capture attention, and grow.

Rocket League and ARK: Survival Evolved are recent hits on Steam.

But Susana Meza Graham, COO at Paradox, mostly shrugs off Steam s open-doors policy. Yes, on any given day, there are a lot of games being released. And of course visibility is a challenge for developers, just like navigating the content is a challenge for consumers, says Meza Graham. But the challenge of visibility has always been there for us in one way or another. During the years of retail the survival of your business depended on your ability to get shelf space. And shelf space was dictated based on pedigree and previous releases, your marketing budgets and your ability to commit to a release date six months to one year in advance.

Like Vincke, Meza Graham sees Steam as more of a blessing than a burden to discoverability. Digital distribution, she says, has completely changed how games are developed and brought to market overall, mainly because the people playing the games are much closer to the process from start to finish, and games are developed and supported over a longer period of time after release. That, more than the volume of games releasing, has impacted the way we work with our projects.

Room for everyone

The smaller studios I spoke to mostly echoed these sentiments: sure, Steam is crowded, but that doesn t mean PC gaming will become a zero-sum, winner-take-all marketplace. We definitely feel a lot of pressure but we also fundamentally trust the PC audience, says Paul Kilduff-Taylor from Mode 7, who released Frozen Cortex in February. There's a big group of gamers who want novel-but-intelligent games with a lot of depth and that's what we aspire to make; we'll continue trying to do that at whatever scale is viable in the future because it's what we love doing.

I also spoke with Greg Kasavin, a veteran of the industry who made the transition to game development after working at GameSpot for 10 years. I'm happy that we live in a time when games are more accessible than at any point in the past, both for audiences and for creators, says Kasavin. For creators this state brings some new challenges of having to gain visibility in an increasingly crowded market, but that set of problems I think is far, far preferable to the alternative where only a handful of people in the world are able to develop and publish games. Kasavin says that Supergiant Games approach to making games hasn t changed. I think we've seen similar growth and challenges in other media industries, and in the end I think it's what's best for the medium, even if it's inconvenient for some individual content creators who might personally benefit more if they didn't have as much competition.

We have to differentiate ourselves in a way that hopefully doesn't derail our process but still makes us visible and provides value to fans.

Daniel Jacobsen, studio director of Gaslamp Games (Clockwork Empires, Dungeons of Dredmor) mostly agrees with his peers, but believes that business awareness has greater value today than it did in the past. There s more emphasis on PR and advertising across most non-AAA studios, says Jacobsen. The major change for us is that now we can't just have a game that people want to play. For the best chance at success we have to be a game company that people want to support which is making games that people want to play. We have to differentiate ourselves in a way that hopefully doesn't derail our process but still makes us visible and provides value to fans.

Of the feedback I received from developers, Dave Marsh, co-founder of Zojoi, expressed the most concern. As an indie studio, we re big fans of giving any developer the chance to publish their games in the largest marketplace on the web, says Marsh. While we have received solid support from our publisher and Valve, the sheer number of titles (and sales) available drives down the price players are willing to pay, hurting our ability to make the kind of games our fans love for the PC market. Thus we are forced to consistently offer Shadowgate at significant discounts, putting us in a precarious position: change our development model, find additional funding, look at other platforms, or leave the market altogether. Marsh s comments recall a debate in 2012, when concern was raised that the high frequency of Steam sales would diminish the value of PC games overall.

The approach for us is the same

I also spoke to two major indie PR representatives, the people working every day to rise above the surface of Steam s churning, ever-rising sea of games. Like Jacobsen, both of them underline the need to stand out, but neither mark Steam itself as the problem. So many games launching weekly dramatically increases the need for a well thought-out communication strategy—getting lost in the noise is more of threat than ever, says Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam of Tinsley-PR, who over the years has worked with Stardock Entertainment, Devolver Digital, Piranha Games, Deep Silver, and others.

Evolve PR, like Tinsley-PR, represents a spectrum of independent game makers. The company s founder, Tom Ohle, doesn t seem to flinch at the volume of new stuff hitting Steam each day. There is definitely a lot more noise out there, but fundamentally the approach for us is the same: figure out the appropriate audience for a game and then try to reach that audience, says Ohle. This all just puts even greater pressure on developers to really stand out, to make games that offer something unique. Whether it's visual style, game mechanics or narrative themes, developers have to make their games different in some way from competitive offerings. Even then it's no guarantee that the game will succeed or get attention. You're still relying on media and content creators—already overloaded by the number of requests they're getting—to actually open emails or read a tweet or whatever... and considering we get about 25 to 40 percent open rates on our emails, you're always fighting a bit of an uphill battle.

Steam isn't an obstacle

Most of us, less than a decade ago, were buying our PC games in boxes. And independent developers, in order to get their games on those physical shelves, had to deal with a number of middlemen: distributors, publishers, disc manufacturers and printers, and the retailers who would ultimately decide how many copies of a game deserved to be on display.

Steam leveled the playing field on PC. And getting in early was a boon to games like Garry s Mod, Killing Floor, Peggle, and Audiosurf, when the ratio of tens of millions of users to only hundreds of games assured a disproportionate amount of promotion. But Steam stopped being a platform that guarantees some level of success and exposure years ago. Today Steam is, for the most part, the playing field—a massive shelf of 5,600 titles where everyone gets, for the most part, equal prominence.

But when we say that Steam now has a discoverability problem, the laziest possible criticism that I myself have been guilty of parroting, we fail to examine how the entire landscape of digital communication has shifted to promote discovery, more than compensating for whatever comparatively trivial changes in policy Valve has made in the past couple years.

Millions of people now operate massive engines that promote discovery: YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, Twitch, websites like ours—all resources that didn t exist in anywhere near the same form even three or four years ago. Livestreaming was universally a hassle as recently as 2011; now it s a one-button proposition through utilities like ShadowPlay and OBS.

This is the new normal. Valve s policies have made Steam something of an open port—the digital equivalent of Ellis Island. But Steam itself isn t a problem, it s merely a reflection of the larger, exciting state of PC gaming, the intersection of game development tools being more accessible than ever, engine licensing in particular becoming cheaper (or free), and the greatest level of evangelism and grassroots promotion of PC gaming since 1999. Steam isn t where developers compete—they compete in the much larger ecosystem of communities and systems of sharing that constitutes PC gaming.


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