This week has seen the release of several pre-rendered cinematic trailers. Exciting though they were, brows were raised, then furrowed, then frowned in the PCG office as we noted how precious little these dramatic scenes reflected the actual action of the game.
It need not be so. Even fully pre-rendered trailers can do a better job of encapsulating the games they promote - and probably do a better job of selling them too. We cast our minds back to our favourite trailers of yore, and picked out the five that we felt best captured the games within, while offering visuals that are every bit as thrilling, powerful and cool.
Save for a snippet of pre-rendered CGI at the beginning, this is pretty much just an expertly-edited grab from the game itself. Not only does this, succinctly explain the action and features of the game, but it creates an epic four-minute trajectory of awesome escalation. Then the camera pans back from what seemed surely to be its climax, to reveal yet another immense level of robotic carnage. Even now, six years after Supreme Commander’s release, the trailer still makes it look like the ultimate future of the RTS.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
A cinematic trailer done right, Human Revolution’s pre-rendered preamble introduces us to the world with expert scene-setting. It quickly sketches out the themes and setting, establishing Jensen as an embittered cyborg with super powerful robo-arms, a vengeful purpose and uncertain allegiance. And then its action sequences, while slightly more fluid and dramatic than possible in game, do describe powers at the player’s disposal: invisibility, x-ray vision, and retractable elbow chisels. It may have flash camera angles, bespoke mo-cap, and sumptuous subsurface scattering - but it’s an honest evocation of the glories of the game itself.
Team Fortress 2
The jaunty crime-caper music and freeze-frame introductions make it clear: TF2 doesn’t have classes so much as characters. The game’s team-shooter action takes a backseat here to showcasing the vibrant art-style and humour, as well as articulating the distinct roles and capabilities of each of TF2’s nine classes. A multiplayer shooter might normally offer scant cinematic thrills, or struggle to communicate what it’s about without a dry breakdown of its mechanics - TF2 elegantly dances round these problems without being disingenuous about the game’s contents.
There’s no in-game footage here, but BioShock’s trailer nonetheless captures a tremendous amount of the game within its short three-minute running time. Its opening panning shot establishes Rapture - its majesty, its dereliction and the ideals that created it. Then the trailer quickly and unexpectedly segues into a thrilling action scene, witnessed in firstperson. The ferocious combat seen here is more dynamic than that of the game, certainly, but the battle establishes the core relationship of the game: that between the little sisters and the big daddies. And, by putting you in the head of an child-stealing aggressor, also demonstrates the game’s ambiguous moralities.
There’s little in the way of explicit action in this trailer, even though it’s shot within the game engine itself. Action isn’t what the trailer is selling, however - it’s selling the city itself. As Niko struts through its succession of quick cuts, the sheer variety of Liberty City is elegantly illustrated, and Niko’s many guises suggests at the freedom the player will have to self-define within that space. Meanwhile, the exquisitely cool LCD Soundsystem track reaffirms Rockstar as gaming’s foremost tastemakers. It’s a brilliantly simple and boldly idiosyncratic trailer, intriguing and evocative in equal measure.
The sky churns with deadly energy. Looming above, the stricken Citadel claws into the heavens, its tip crackling with transdimensional discharges. The stage is set. Lights, camera—wait, hold everything. I almost forgot to switch on the Cinematic Mod which adds a bevy of high-quality textures, shadows, and a film-style lighting filter to the works. There we go. Now I'm Director Freeman.
The Cinematic Mod has been around since 2005, but updates continue rolling out regularly, with the most recent 12.1 patch releasing last month. Installing the meaty 30GB(!) mod results in a slew of immediately visible differences: high-resolution skins for everything (yes, everything, including character models for Alyx Vance, Barney, and others), dynamic shadows, and flared lighting seemingly ripped straight from a Mass Effect nightclub. The potpourri of post-production punch "gives the HL2 trilogy a more stressed, darker, and uncomfortable look," according to the mod's website.
It's essentially Half-Life 2's version of the popular ENBSeries add-ons, and the Cinematic Mod needs some hefty hardware. You'll want at least a quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM for the suite of color adjustments and shader smoothing. The upside? You'll get to find out what really lurks within the GMan's pockmarks. Head over to the mod's website for more info.
We don't get too many kart racers on PC, and for that I'm entirely thankful. However, the word on the streets of Green Hill Zone is that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a good 'un - and it's power-sliding its way to PC on January 31st. Not only that, but this new version of the game features three additional characters, based on iconic PC series Total War, Team Fortress 2 and, um, Football Manager.
From Total War: Shogun comes a Samurai Guy, riding a samurai-themed vehicle that transforms into a plane, a boat, or a kart depending on the track's current surface. (It's not so special - all the vehicles do that.) He's joined by Football Manager's The Tactician, a genero-guy in a suit in a car/boat/plane that does a footbally effect when it transforms. So far, so terrible - BUT. They're saved by the appearance of not one but (sort of) three characters from Team Fortress 2: The Pyro, the Spy and the Heavy, who are swapped out depending on whether you're in the water, in the sky, or on terra firma. If you've always wanted to pit the cast of TF2 against a quite-fast hedgehog with an attitude problem, then your insane wish has come true at long last.
Here is a video of the entire gang in action. I have my fingers crossed for TF2 Tennis next:
Query your cortical data node and you'll recall NeoTokyo was chosen along with 20 other titles for Steam Greenlight's second round of approvals back in October. The mod itself has been around for much longer, originally appearing in simple deathmatch form for Unreal Tournament 2004. Four years later it transitioned to the Source engine, where it languished without updates--until today, when developer Studio Radi-8 released a fresh version out of nowhere (which is apparently becoming a thing now), adding eight new maps and higher-quality weapon models.
The modes: deathmatch and Capture the Ghost (the latter, in a tip of the hat to NeoTokyo's inspiration from dystopian sci-fi anime classics such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira, replaces the flag with an android torso). The classes: Recon, Assault, and Support. Each brings special vision modes such as motion-tracking and infrared, and with the exception of the Support role, everyone can cloak for a short duration. Before each round, you select your primary weapon from an armory that grows as you gain rank from kills and victories. Think cyberpunk Counter-Strike.
It's quite the fun setup. The maps stick to the cyberpunk theme of dense city blocks, military installations, and industrial decay, with plenty of near-future gadgetry and set pieces of glowing computer interfaces and multi-legged tanks with scary-sounding Japanese names. Server selection is rather sparse at the moment, but it should hopefully jump up as word of the update spreads. You and your fellow operatives can get in the action by downloading NeoTokyo from its official website.
Someday, Valve will eventually run out of wonderful features to pack into its mega-gaming-hub Steam. Let's hope it's a long way off, because we'll all be busy poring over the user-written manuals, walkthroughs, and tips for our various games in the newly launched Steam Guides section of Steam's Community area.
Anyone can create and submit a guide for the game of their choice by clicking the new Guide tab on a game's Community Hub page. You can pretty up your words with images and embedded YouTube videos as well, and the guides also appear upon Steam's overlay whenever you're running a program. Neat. I can finally whip up my "How to avoid tigers" guide I've been planning for Far Cry 3 quickly and easily.
Head over to the Steam Guides page to take a look at the over 1,000 guides already created.
God bless those brave pioneers willing to embark on an awesome/thoroughly silly project simply because... well, what else are you going to waste your time doing? They truly make life better for all of us. Here's a rendition of Portal's Still Alive, performed entirely by YouTuber Marflas1's Asura using Guild Wars 2's Wintersday Bell and Pipe Organ. It's strangely appropriate, given that the Asura are all about the science.
The song uses the in-game sounds, with some slight pitch editing in Audacity. According to Marflas1, "Somewhere around 40 bells were used in the creation of this video, mostly due to recording at tonnes of locations before picking the clips I liked best. Recording all the parts probably took about 3-4 hours in total, spread over a period of several days. Sound + Video editing to pull everything together took...a long time. A long, long time."
Valve will be delivering two talks at the next Game Developers Conference in March. No, you can stop swinging your replica Gordon Freeman crowbar with joy - both sessions will focus on the developer's work in the field of VR and wearable computing. One of them, titled "What We Learned Porting Team Fortress 2 to Virtual Reality," suggests that Valve have been attempting to port Team Fortress 2 to Virtual Reality. Granted, it's a subtle hint.
The talk will focus on the problems Valve have faced in the development of the port. According to the session description, "Several people at Valve spent the past year exploring various forms of wearable computing. The wearable effort included porting Team Fortress 2 to run in virtual reality goggles. This session will describe lessons learned from Valve's porting experience."
"Topics covered include an overview of what stereo support entails, rendering 2D user interface in a 90 degree field of view display, dealing with view models and other rendering shortcuts, and how mouselook can interact with head tracking in a first person shooter."
Valve's wearable computing genius Michael Abrash will also be hosting a talk, called 'Why Virtual Reality is Hard (And Where it Might be Going).' That both events focus on the challenges of VR gaming suggests the dream of the 1980s isn't as easy to obtain as they may have hoped, but Valve seem peculiarly dedicated to making it a reality.
Of course, this is no guarantee that a VR version of TF2 will be commercially available any time soon. But who knows, one day that Killer Exclusive on your head might seem close enough to touch.
The hurricane of savings that's swirled over PC gaming in the past few years has been tremendous. Deep discounts seem to pop up weekly on digital stores like Amazon, GOG.com, and Steam. But should the ubiquity of sales fundamentally change our buying habits?
In this Face Off debate, Logan argues that waiting for a sales gets you get a more refined product at a cheaper price. But Evan thinks that waiting too long denies you the best-possible experience, especially in multiplayer games.
Jump over to the next page for more opinions from the PC Gamer community, and make your own arguments in the comments. Debate team captains: it’s your time to shine.
Logan: Nope. Hanging on to your cash for a while—a few months, a year, or whenever you’ve caught up with that backlog that’s been building up—buys you a game that’s had its bugs squashed, costs far less on sale, and probably even runs better on your machine. Remind me what the downside is again?
Evan: We play games to have great experiences, right? In most cases those experiences diminish in value over time. Technology ages. Stories are spoiled. Sequels outdo their predecessors. I’m not advocating against the ridiculous sales we’ve seen in recent years, but looking back, being needlessly frugal would've denied me some of my most precious gaming experiences. Playing Left 4 Dead every night after work in October ‘08 with my friends was so special because we were mutually discovering the game together. I can’t put a price tag on that.
Logan: OK, let’s be clear here: I don’t think buying games at launch is a bad thing. You can bet your pet headcrab that I won’t be waiting for Half-Life 3 to hit the discount bin. What I’m saying is that with a little patience (and, sure, some deft spoiler-dodging), you get a better experience at a far lower price. Sure, you miss out on being a part of the conversation when a game launches. Like how pissed off people were about the save-corrupting bugs in The Walking Dead series, which to the best of my knowledge were fixed by the time you could buy the entire season during the Steam Winter Sale for half-price at $12.50!
Evan: Oh, whatever. If you wait until a game is bugless, you’ll be waiting forever. The Walking Dead was more than playable at launch—we gave it a 90. The conversations I had with friends about that game (and Mass Effect, and Far Cry 3, and XCOM) are worth so much more to me than $12—it’s a lesser game without that.
I think you’re overstating the impact that launch issues actually have. Other than Diablo III and, I don’t know, Sword of the Stars II last year, when were games unacceptably broken at launch? If I was picking up Diablo III now—assuming I could actually twist a friend’s arm to reroll a new character—that pristine experience of grinding our first dungeons together and feeling caught up in something new together would be gone.
Beyond that, I think we should be mindful that our purchases have a real and actual impact on developers. Last year, Rockstar Vancouver, Big Huge, Black Hole, 38 Studios and Paragon Studios closed. Great games don’t exist unless we support them.
Logan: You’re being hysterical. It’s not just about bugs and launch issues. It’s about enjoying a smoother ride overall, and getting stuff like new features and levels to boot!
Evan: Listen, all I’m asking you to consider is this: How many indie developers’ malnourished babies are you personally responsible for?
Logan: I am not a baby malnourisher. I don’t want to deprive developers of handsome profits. In fact, I wish I had a leaf blower that blew cash into their windows. It’s just that I—like most gamers—have a limited budget. Buying games at a discount means that I can buy more games. And feed more babies.
Look, developers who don’t want to discount their games simply won’t do so. But most do put their games on sale because, ultimately, it makes them more money.
Evan: My imaginary leaf blower also shoots money. Waiting months to buy something isn’t universally the best budget decision if you’re passionate about a game. It’s actually becoming more prevalent for pre-orders to provide incentives or actual savings over the retail price. In the case of free-to-play games like MechWarrior Online and Tribes: Ascend, putting money down before release got me extra in-game currency, extra content, and immediate access. Multi-copy packs are also usually a great deal—in Borderlands 2’s case, you could get four copies for the price of three at launch, something that’s much harder to do after release.
Logan: Oh, yeah, pre-order bonuses can be great deals too, and the Borderlands 2 promotion was a pretty smart way to get cheapskates like me to pony up before launch. But these are exceptions to a general rule of thumb that’s indisputable: if you can wait it out, you’ll almost always get a better product for less money. Any way that you legitimately purchase a game is supporting the developer. If you insist that supporting a developer means paying more than you have to, then I think that what you’re talking about is a contribution, or charity.
Evan: Waiting for patches might give you a less buggy game, but I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a better experience, which is what you’re paying for. Sure, EA made Battlefield 1942 free last year, but replaying it years removed from its popularity wasn’t fun for me at all. Moreso than film or books, games age. Hopping into Battlefield 3 now—just 14 months after release—and you’d miss out on the volcano of enthusiasm, shared discovery, and level playing field in the metagame that existed at launch.
There’s always going to be several games a year where I’m going to want to be there on day one. If you wait four or five months—about as long as it typically takes to shed 25% off something on Steam—or longer, you’ll have missed out on that.
Logan: But remember, games acquire new fans when they’re discounted or go free-to-play. Solution: make new friends.
Evan: Or we could get everyone we know to wait six months to buy a game.
For more opinions on PC gaming, follow Logan, Evan, and PC Gamer on Twitter. On the next page: more opinions from the community.
For more perspectives, we've poured out some of your thoughts from the bucket of opinion known as Twitter below.
@pcgamer It depends on if they're $60 triple A titles for me. $60 is too much for most games, especially after last year's disappointments.— Coalton Ross (@Coalton) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer If you're a fan of the game, the series, the studio, etc...then yes, it's your job as a fan to positively reinforce great work.— Kevin Robertson (@krobulous) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer To anyone who has any sort of budgeting they should never buy on release date. Waiting for a sale is the only way.— Ryan Melanson (@RyePunk) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer established franchises or series yes (elder scrolls), New and unproven games wait for more info and reviews.— Now Hiring Henchmen (@HiringHenchmen) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer It's definitely difficult to see the game you paid $60 for be repackaged with extras for the same or lower price < 12 months later.— James Schumacher (@JamesInDigital) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer On the other hand, being swept up in the ARG and playing the heck out of Portal 2 was a delightful experience.— S Wilkins (@ElAcordeonachi) January 14, 2013
@pcgamer Multiplatform/console port multiplayer games are better at launch however. They're most fun when the playing field is very equal.— Jason (@TeslasButler) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer depends if I trust the developer enough to deliver a good product. I rarely buy into the hype anymore. Burned too badly in the past— Wim (@Quercuas) January 15, 2013
@pcgamer overpriced on release, wait a week, don't follow the hype— TFB (@tf_blackjack) January 15, 2013
"Kiss these items goodbye!" exclaims the title of a new post on the Team Fortress 2 blog, spotted by PCGamesN. A note fron Saxton Hale declares that The Batter's Helmet, The Soldier's Stash, The Pyro's Beanie The Demoman's Fro, The Football Helmet, Mining Light, Prussian Pickelhaube, Trophy Belt and Fancy Fedora will soon be consigned to a giant bin, and never sold again.
Valve say that "these items will no longer be sold in the store, randomly dropped, unboxed as unusuals, or acquired through crafting." Existing instances of these items will still be tradeable, so expect their value to soar. Sales will probably shoot up as players try and get their hands on the soon-to-be rare goods while they're still about.
I have an image in my mind. It's Valve's economist, Yanis Varoufakis, on a swivel chair in a meeting spinning round and round shouting "think of the data! THINK OF THE DATA!" as lines shoot endlessly upwards on a series of glowing graphs on the wall behind him. Hopefully we'll hear how this particular experiment with TF2's hat economy goes down on Varoufakis' blog at some point in the future.
We'll have to wait and see if any of these nine items gain the legendary status of Bill's Hat, long used as a standard unit of currency in the mercantile underworld that is the Team Fortress 2 hat market. More items may be culled in future, but "advance notice will be given if any other items will be retired."
Following my look at the Steam Workshop’s biggest sellers earlier this week, I got a chance to put some questions to Valve's Robin Walker. He was one of the original developers of Team Fortress, back in 1996, and joined Valve soon after. His work as a modder informed his work at Valve, leading, in a roundabout way, to Team Fortress 2's current use as a platform to pay modders for their in-game work. In this pretty wide-ranging interview, I talk to him about the big numbers the modding scene generates, what makes a good item, virtual ownership, the future of free-to-play and Valve’s evolving relationship with its community.
I know Valve aren't open with numbers, but is there a way we can talk about how much you've taken in revenue since going F2P?
The Mann Co store has now earned more than TF2 did via direct sales, if that helps put a scale on it.
How many items are submitted a day, and how many have you accepted?
TF2's receiving an average of 24-26 submissions a day. There's a ton of variability in how many we ship, because they're tied to the large TF2 updates. So in some months we ship 10, and in others we ship 30. But those numbers right there should show you what our biggest problem is right now: we're not shipping anyway near enough submissions. That makes the workshop too much of a gamble right now - there is high quality work being submitted that we're just not able to ship because there's too much of it. There are two main reasons for our slow pace.
The first is that the process for taking a submission and putting it into the game takes too long. It generally takes us a couple of days to take a submission, clean it up, validate it, set up the back-end database definitions for it, and so on. This is a problem we've solved in Dota's new importing tool (a single Dota artist managed to get 170 items from workshop to ready-to-ship in just 2 days), so the TF2 team is pulling that tool back into TF2 now.
The second is that TF2's items are a mix of weapons and cosmetics, and we've tried to stick to the rule that a weapon that looks different behaves different. So all those custom weapons need game design, and that adds much more time than the amount required just to ship the asset, because we need to playtest the design for a variable amount before we have enough confidence in the design to ship it. There's also the cost on players for the addition of a new gameplay affecting weapon in the game - even if we were able to ship the assets and playtested design for 100 new weapons in TF2 in a single update, the resulting chaos would be something to behold.
So, once the importing tool is up and running in TF2, we hope that the rate at which we release cosmetic only items will dramatically increase. It's less clear that we'll significantly increase the rate at which we ship new gameplay affecting items.
Rozzy's The Gold Digger
And how many have you taken on board for the game?
Right now we're paying contributors for about 264 items in TF2. Depending on exactly what you decide constitutes an item, TF2 contains about 178 weapons and 550 cosmetics, so about a third of the items have been community built. That doesn't quite tell the whole story though, because many of those items were built by us before the Workshop existed. If you look at just this past year, for instance, we've shipped 59 community items versus 28 made by us (and another 36 promotional items where creation is shared across multiple developers).
It's been said the bigger creators are taking in "six figures". How many are now earning that level of income?
The top ten creators are all in that bucket. We're pretty happy with how there's a bunch of people making a good living off it. Compared to the monetary distribution of other places, like mobile applications, the workshop appears to be much less winner-take-all.
The game started out as a mod, and now modders can earn money from it. How cool is that?
Unbelievably cool, and personally rewarding to a level that defies logic. We get much more excited on the team looking at how much money contributors make than we do about how TF2 itself is performing. Many of us come from modding backgrounds, so we often find ourselves having conversations about how we're building systems we wish we'd had access to when we started out. The idea that the system is also allowing professionals in less rewarding jobs to leave and fund their own indie games is pretty exciting too.
Can you tell us how you split the revenue?
Yep, we offer contributors 25% of the sales of their items.
Rain*'s The Maklai Myth
What's your favourite story from the community making money in this way?
It's hard to decide between two of my favourites. The first is the 14 year old kid who got to present a $40,000 check to his parents. The second is a fellow who wanted to make models at a games company, but ended up having to do QA instead. So at nights he contributed models to TF2, and ended up earning more doing that than he did at his "official" games industry job.
What makes a good item? What are you looking for?
Defining what people should submit to the Workshop is a bit of a dance. On the one hand, we want to provide them with a solid foundation for what kinds of things we're willing to ship, but on the other hand, we genuinely want them to surprise us. Part of the value of large communities attacking a problem is that they can search the creative space much faster than we can, because there's simply a lot more creators involved. Some creators focus on building high quality versions of item types that already exist, others focus on trying to find the next kind of thing that players will want.
What's your favourite contribution? This is mine.
Gah, too many to choose from. I still have a soft spot for LaroLaro's original Soldier Tank Buster set. It was one of the first item sets that we sold in the Mann Co store, and when I saw it I thought it was clear this whole Workshop thing was going to work. I thought they looked great, fit the style, but were still distinct from our existing items.
Do players craft more or buy more?
Like all F2P games, the bulk of our players are playing for free, and crafting's one of the primary ways we satisfy their desire to get specific items. So it's still a huge source of new items entering the economy. But we don't think of it as competing with purchasing, it's simply satisfying other customers, many of whom couldn't spend money even if they wanted to. If you play a bunch and craft your item drops into things you want, then you're a happier customer for it, and we think your happiness will pay off for us in the long run. We don't have a zero sum approach where we think if you crafted something, that means we lost the money you would have paid for it, so we don't hold discussions like, "How can we get all these crafters to stop crafting and start buying?"
MultiTrip's Radical Rider
Regarding in-game items, where does ownership sit? People are buying things in-game, very specifically.
It's a lot like a game on Steam. With a game, the developer or publisher owns the intellectual property, and Steam users get a license to use the game. With in-game items, the creator (whether that's Valve, or a Workshop contributor) retains ownership of the IP, and people who buy an item get a license via Steam to use it in the game.
It seems like if they've invested money in items then they should be protected. Have you thought about that?
Sure. Items have become increasingly important to people's enjoyment of the game. We've worked to increase the value of items to users by expanding the things people can do with them, like crafting, and enabling exchange through trading. We try to avoid doing anything that might make them not trust us in the future with their items.
What if TF2 needed to go away for some reason, how would Valve consider their investment people have made in their item-sets?
We tend to think of them as fun features of the game, and not as an "investment”. The items are really only useful within the game, and we don't have plans for TF2 to go anywhere.
People are no longer surprised at how much F2P can earn, and they're no longer surprised at the quality of the games you can get. What *is* surprising you about F2P?
I'm surprised by the degree of confidence game developers seem to have in the current F2P design approaches, both in game design and monetization design. Given that it's something that's so new to the industry, it seems unlikely that the most optimal design approaches have already been found, and yet we're already seeing games lifting each other's monetization designs wholesale. At Valve we've spent the past 2 years exploring this design space, and constantly feel like we're only just starting to understand it.
Merczy's The Pocket Gnome
Is the future of Valve games now tied to a level of community involvement? And if so, what's needed to help people get more involved?
I'm always nervous about making blanket statements, because the nature of game development is that everything has to make sense for the specific game you're building. The right way to involve the community in TF2 won't be exactly the same as it is in Dota 2, and it's likely significantly different to the right way for Half-Life or Portal. But perhaps the core philosophy that we've come to believe, after supporting TF2's for the past four years, will remain true across all these products: that the right way to approach community involvement is not in a developer -> customer relationship, but more as a collaborative approach, where there are some parts of the product that we'll build, and other parts that the community will build, and that the lines between those parts will continually shift.
To help more people get involved, we need to address the two biggest problems we currently have. The first is the one I talked about above, that we're just not able to keep up with the amount of content the community is creating. The second is that there are types of value the community is creating that we haven't built systems to handle. Without a system, the distribution of the value they're creating isn't there, and that means it's hard for other players to find their creation and enjoy it. Even once players do find and enjoy it, there's no way to for them to pay back the community creator. Without that loop in place, creators aren't getting the feedback they need to improve, nor are they getting the financial reward they might need to be able to spend as much time creating as they'd like. You can see this in things like TF2's maps, where there's no good system for players to find new maps, or pay for the ones they feel deserve it, and there's no great way for mapmakers to receive the feedback they need to get better.