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The Orange Box
Jun 12, 2013
The press conferences that precede E3 set the tone for the event, they determine the conversations and questions that follow. With no single unifying organisation to set up such an event, it's one of those rare occasions when the open nature of the PC can prove a detriment. The consoles have had their say, now we can't help but wonder what a similar a show for the PC would look like. Who would take the stage? What would they show? What song-and-dance numbers would we get?
Take your seat, make yourself comfortable and put those Doritos away as we welcome you to this year's purely hypothetical show, the E3 2013 conference that PC gamers deserve.
Introducing - our host! A lone spotlight picks out a trundling figure on a wide, dark stage. It grinds noisily to a halt to rapturous applause and spreads its tiny plastic arms wide. "GREETINGS. I am Medianbot," it drones, bionic monotone dripping with the collective charisma of a platoon of Microsoft presenters. "I have been selected by a vast conglomerate of PC developers as a completely impartial neutral representative for this event. My collective masters to remind you that not one of them owns the platform. We are multitude. We make things we think you might like, and we'd like to show some of those to you this evening. Enjoy."
The auditorium goes dark. A Roman appears on a huge main screen, charging up a beach as flaming rocks soar overhead. XBox One conference attendees sigh, for a moment they think it's the new Roman hack-'em-up, Ryse.
It isn't. The camera's pulling out. There are dozens of Romans. Hundreds. Thousands charging battlements under a a storm of arrows. A mouse cursor appears and it's controlling every last one of them. It's Rome 2. The Creative Assembly are on stage. They talk about diplomacy, subterfuge, politics and war on a huge scale. They talk about players crafting their own stories on the stage of history. They explain that there's no grunting and quick time events. This is a game for grown-ups.
It's Blizzard's turn. Dustin Browder takes to the stage and introduces a trailer for Legacy for the Void, but when the lights come back up, two booths have appeared on stage. In one, Flash, in the other, Life - veteran StarCraft and StarCraft 2 esports players. Browder explains talks about the PC not just as a platform for space adventure, but as a field for sport. He introduces top shoutcasters Tasteless and Artosis as our commentators, and the contestants go to war. There's no awkward, staged banter, only two athletes, laser focused on their screens.
In the coming ten minutes both players demonstrate the agility and quick-thinking that makes them masters of their game. The retiring "GG" is met by a resounding cheer.
A tough act to follow? Perhaps not, when you have a huge open world RPG to show off. CD Projekt RED take the mic. They talk about Geralt's final adventure, they show us the cities and forests we'll be able to explore in The Witcher 3. We've had competition, we've had huge strategy, now we're getting a huge explorable RPG. The showing of their debut trailer sends a ripple of excitement through the crowd.
But CD Projekt RED change tack. New zones, monsters and characters start appearing on the conference screens. They're not officially part of The Witcher 2, or The Witcher 3, it's a modding showcase. It's not about picking out individual examples, it's a catalogue of creations only possible on PC - whole new free campaigns, weapons and options, and the power to reshape entire worlds. Another video plays. Geralt walks into the swampy town of Flotsam - familiar to players of The Witcher 2 - only instead the tyranny of a malicious local thug, the Witcher finds that the town is under attack from a twenty foot tall fire-breathing horse. Modding at its finest.
Medianbot rolls back onstage to thunderous applause. "Greetings and thank you revellers. The soundwaves generated by your slapping meat-paws sustains me. I hope you enjoyed the pictures of the angry man with two swords doing things, but not less or much more than any prior or following presentation, for this is about mathematically identical representation for all aspects of the platform. Farewell."
ANGRY MACHINE NOISE. STROBE LIGHTING. It's DICE. It's Battlefield 4. It's running on PC live. It's big. It's loud. It's full of guns. Now, a while tundra - the THUMP of an AT-AT's boot crunching into the snow. It's Star Wars: Battlefront. Then it's Respawn's mech-blasty game, Titanfall. It's loud and angry, polished and beautiful, because the PC can do all of that too, but faster, and prettier.
Another changeover. A video. A montage, devoted to the low-budget, innovative games that wouldn't normally get their time in the limelight. We see interactive fiction games, Dwarf Fortress, Princess Maker, Kentucky Route Zero, Receiver. As if in a frenzied music video, bouncing between everything from Transistor to Minecraft to Project Zomboid to Frozen Synapse in quick but stunningly done style and backed by anything except bloody dubstep. Anything but that.
The lights come up again, and the stage is full of figures playing games on big screens. It looks like the indie showcase that the PS4 put on, but it's vast. Dozens and dozens of developers are playing their games on tiers and tiers of screens. Look - three tiers up on the left - Koakim "Konjak" Sandberg is playing the latest build of Iconoclasts. Hey, down there on the right - Introversion are quelling a riot in Prison Architect. Over there, Mitu Khandaker is climbing a starship's social ladder in Redshirt. Here, in the front row, the Fullbright developers are showing Gone Home. The message here is simple. Yes, you can play some fun games on console. On PC though, you get a whole world of gaming that no one company controls. And it's brimming with honest-to-god new ideas.
But it's not just about the games. The Oculus Rift developers take to the stage arm and arm with the Omni Treadmill creators. They talk about how hardware is advancing all the time, how static systems will inevitably fade in the face of new hardware from the big PC manufacturers. They mention that the consoles are still talking in familiar terms, about streaming via Twitch, about a camera that watches and listens to you, as though such concepts haven't existed on the PC for years already. The PC is a tool, they say, not a living room lifestyle choice. It does what you tell it, and it can show you the future.
Then up on stage, we get the Oculus Rift team to show off their latest prototype, along with the Omni Treadmill and the Epoc mind-reading headset. In front of a gasping audience, we see - live - someone step into Skyrim and kill a mud crab with his mind.
A cheerful Belarusian fellow walks out now. Who is he? It's hard to tell, but it's clear before he's even said anything that he loves tanks, because he's wearing a T-shirt that says "I <3 TANKS." Aha! it's Wargamng CEO Victor Kislyi, and he's here to talk about World of Tanks, kicking off a section about all the games you can play on the PC right now for no money. Quality games like League of Legends, Tribes Ascend, Team Fortress 2. Games that demonstrate that, while the initial cost of the PC may be expensive, a single buy opens up a world of free entertainment. Oh, and it does Netflix. AND you don't need to pay a monthly subscription to go online and try your free games out.
It's been a few hours. But who walks out now, at the end of it all? Is it Newell, talking about Dota 2, Team Fortress 2, how Valve think player-created content that adds value to their games should be rewarded monetarily? Is it CCP CEO Hilmar, talking about player run economies, betrayal and intrigue in Eve Online? Is it Bioware, talking about how they plan to tell stories on the PC we've never seen before? Is it SOE, talking about how they managed to get hundreds of players to fight a galactic war on a single battlefield in Planetside 2? Is it Arenanet, talking about dynamic MMO battlegrounds in Guild Wars 2? The question is posed to Medianbot. Its chrome head explodes.
It should be all of them. Perhaps PC gaming is just too big for one conference. Too varied, too niche, too wonderfully weird to play the same PR game as the platform holders.
Oh, what the hell. Let's go with Gabe.
Microsoft has demoed the Xbox One. Sony has shown off the Playstation 4. Then, in an equally big hall, the lights go down, Gabe Newell steps onto the stage. He says nothing. He just coughs. He points at the screen. A Half-Life 3 logo appears. The crowd goes wild. He walks off, still silent.
Then a minute later, he casually pokes his head back round the curtain. "Wait, did I forget to mention it's free and available on Steam right now?" he asks. "Sorry it took so long. Also, you can trade Steam games now. Don't mind that noise, it's just a pig taking off. Ah, one second. Someone needs to Heimlich Steve Ballmer's tongue out of his throat."
But before he can leave, a single voice cries from the audience. "Why, oh Gaben? Why?"
And the man pauses, the sound of choking from somewhere off stage echoing slightly. Slowly, he pulls on a pair of sunglasses. Half-turns. Smiles. Replies, quite simply, "Because we can."
For the latest from E3, check out our complete coverage and our pick of the best games of E3 2013 so far.
Remember Team Fortress 2's Robotic Boogaloo? You have a terrible memory - it was less than a month ago. Well, it was a pretty memorable update nonetheless, comprising 57 entirely new items created by the community, accessible from locked RoboCrates. Now, Valve bring word that the pack has raised nearly $250,000 for the sixty-odd creators responsible - but that's just a fraction of the overall amount. The TF2 Workshop's 400-plus contributors and 'partners' have collectively raised over $10 million since the thing opened in 2011, which I'm told by my robot butler is a lot of money.
You've probably just quit your job after reading that last sentence, so you'll be pleased to hear that Valve have done some work to make the submission process easier. As that blog post explains, "the tool now automatically tests new creations against a set of standards, meaning anything you create is now significantly more likely to be game-ready." Pass these tests, and you'll even get a gold star for your trouble. Valve's next TF2 content update will consist entirely of gold star items, by the way, and there will be "no limit on how many we'll include".
In related news, a recent TF2 update allowed players to trade the extremely rare Unusual hats. As you might imagine, they're going for silly money.
Team Fortress 2 has long been the bastion for collectors of unusual headgear, triumphing even the panda-hat-obsessed population of Ragnarok Online. Lately, though, TF2's headgear has gotten really weird, with fancy effects taking flight to hover above players' heads like hat spirits having some kind of out-of-brim experience. It even weirded out Valve enough to make them put a stop to it in their latest update.
In the latest TF2 blog post, the newest update will reign in unusual particle effects; no longer will you see sparks being randomly emitted every which way in spectator mode, nor will clouds of flies collect curiously mid-air above player corpses. (Though that last one would certainly add a special kind of realism to TF2.)
Some other mild fixes have been applied, too—a server crash caused by out-of-range animation sequence numbers should no longer occur, and crates have been rearranged in the community market. But what's important, obviously, is the hats. When you next restart TF2 the update will be applied automatically, expediting your reunion with beautiful, non-glitchy hats.
May 21, 2013
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Invision for XBOX/AP Images
Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal this morning didn’t present any immediate or obvious implications for Our Dear Hobby. Conspicuously few games were shown during the debut of a new video game console, and no games were demonstrated live. Microsoft mostly spoke about the new utilities (Skype!), partnerships (NFL!), and living room takeover (Kinect!) we’ll expect from the Xbox One when it releases this year. From a technical perspective, 8 GB of RAM is the only concrete hardware spec Microsoft dropped.
Our response around the office to the presentation was an uncynical but collective shrug. The modest amount of information Microsoft let out gives us little to react to as PC gamers, as Microsoft spent so little of the precious hour that it held the attention of the internet showing us what kinds of gaming experiences we could expect to have on its new system. Those will be revealed next month at what should be a memorable E3.
Still, we’re interested in thinking about how Microsoft’s decisions could have a direct or indirect impact on PC gaming, something that has happened before. Microsoft used the talents of Age of Empires creator Ensemble Studios to produce a console-exclusive RTS (Halo Wars) and a cancelled Halo MMO. The MechWarrior license lingered in limbo until recently, in our opinion, because Microsoft wasn't sure if it could make a profitable mech game on Xbox. Microsoft’s attempt at extending Xbox to the Windows platform birthed the disastrous Games For Windows LIVE, a service so frustrating that it was newsworthy when developers told us they weren't using it.
Based on what we know and a little bit of crystal ball-gazing, here’s three possible ways PC gaming could be affected by the release of the Xbox One.
Microsoft announced that the Xbox One will get 15 exclusive games in its first year, including eight new franchises. One of those exclusives may be a new Remedy game, Quantum Break, which appears to cross-over with a live-action show.
There’s hope, however, that some of these exclusives will sneak onto PC. Over the past console generation, marketers have made the term “exclusive” synonymous with “timed exclusive,” acknowledging the distinction only at the last possible moment. Remedy's Alan Wake, for instance, was eventually ported to PC.
A majority of Xbox 360 games announced as exclusives, however, remain firmly stuck on the platform. We’ve never seen a Forza game or a Gears of War after the first, and Microsoft Game Studios seems to have given up entirely on Halo ports.
The good news is that many of the Xbox 360 exclusives were Kinect titles best suited for the living room anyway, and others, such as Rare’s Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, weren’t games we ever expected to be developed for PC in the first place. Let’s hope it stays that way.
The best-known developers owned by Microsoft are 343 Industries (Halo), Turn 10 (Forza), Lionhead (Fable), and Rare (Banjo-Kazooie). Expect exclusives from them—we already know a new Forza is coming—and a few from its third-party developers, such as Crackdown creators Ruffian Games. Ideally, the games we expect to be multiplatform, such as the first game from Respawn, will stay that way. We'll have a much better picture come E3 next month.
Growth of streaming, new Steam features
A casual survey of the web pretty clearly pegs PC gamers as the leading producers of gameplay videos and livestreams, but console gamers may soon catch up. Both Sony and Microsoft now promise that their new consoles will make it easy to capture and share gameplay video, a task which formerly required capture hardware. If streaming is a part of that plan, it could be good news for services like Twitch.tv, which we'd expect to be flooded with new members as the console crowd joins the show.
If that happens, we can also assume that more players will start watching streams, possibly growing eSports awareness and viewership and acting as a catalyst for overall improvements to streaming. That's our loose, foggy prediction, but we do expect some concrete effects—Steam will likely start responding to the features of the Xbox One and PS4, especially with Steam box on its way to directly compete for living rooms. At the very least, integrated video capture and sharing seem very likely. At the most, Steam becomes the same kind of media center Microsoft showed off today, offering much more than games.
Valve has already dabbled in film by offering Indie Game: The Movie for sale on Steam, and recently added non-game software to its catalog. Its most recent major updates have been about expanding community features and giving us more to do in Steam, both in and out of our games. What's next? Our gut feeling is that it'll be significant.
More free-to-play PC games, and they won’t be MOBAs
Microsoft didn’t drop the phrase “free-to-play” once during its reveal of Xbox One, but we’d be baffled if free-to-play games don't become a prominent new category on the system. And we’d be more surprised if some of those hypothetical, F2P Xbox One games didn't make their way to PC.
We expect the success of free-to-play as a business model on PC and mobile (in 2011, free-to-play earned more revenue than paid games in the App Store) to create a gold rush within the industry. Plenty of developers have to be eager to become the Riot Games of the console world, to gain a foothold through early adoption rather than reacting to the potential success of the business model on Xbox One.
On the safe assumption that mouse and keyboard won’t be native to the Xbox One, the free-to-play games that propagate on Microsoft’s system will probably be multiplayer action games and low-budget, indie experiments that can be played with a controller: shooters, platformers, puzzle games, action-RPGs, and MMOs. Most of those are portable to PC. Microsoft has already dabbled with F2P a bit with Ascend: New Gods, an unreleased action-RPG, as well as with advertising-supported free games. Our pals at OXM speculated that a free-to-play Fable MMO could be in the works.
This feels like an incredibly safe prediction to us. One or more free-to-play games being part of the Xbox One launch lineup would be a feather in Microsoft’s cap—it’d be a way for early adopters to justify their (probably fairly) expensive purchase, and a novelty to console owners who’ve never played something like League of Legends or PlanetSide 2.
Upcoming free-to-play multiplayer shooter Loadout released a launch trailer last week to celebrate its arrival on Steam’s Early Access beta testing service. At first, to be honest, I just rolled my eyes. The heavy metal. The dick jokes. The guy dancing Gangnam style. Oy.
But then it started to win me over. Loadout actually looks like it could be a hell of a lot of fun. It’s stupid, but it’s stupid on purpose, and that frees us up to enjoy some great explosions and a very cool gun crafting system.
Loadout joins the pantheon of cartoonishly violent multiplayer shooters already populated by games like Super Monday Night Combat and Team Fortress 2. Where TF2 relies on its hats and cutting humor, though, Loadout’s gameplay hinges on its absurdly customizable weapons, with available combinations numbering in the “billions.”
The comparison to Borderlands’ randomized weapon system are inevitable, so there it is. It’s a lot like Borderlands, right down to the little damage numbers that, in the testing arena at least, fly off of your opponents while they are burning/bleeding/being electrocuted.
Unlike the Borderlands system, you don’t have to rely on the kindness of the game gods for a really great weapon. Just hop into the weapon builder and customize or roll the dice until you come up with something incredible. Here’s a high-capacity flaming shotgun shell sniper rifle with a collapsible stock. There’s a bolt-action heat-seeking rocket launcher that shoots explosions of health, so you can give your entire team first aid from across the map.
The results of the randomized arsenal look fantastic. Fireballs, lightning, and rockets fly across the map causing horrific explosions of cartoon gore. This sheer chaos needs to be experienced, at least just to try it out. It'll be free-to-play at launch, so why not?
Image by R0B0CITRUS - http://steamcommunity.com/id/RetroCitrus/
Because sometimes you just need more rivets and scrap metal to get the job done. Team Fortress 2's latest content patch Robotic Boogaloo went live today, the first update forged entirely by the Valve shooter's own community. The update includes 57 new items, all of which we're told are totally new and completely non-derivative. The new item set includes some strange and wonderful mechanical hats, at least one of which is a delicious metal hot dog.
The new items are only available from RoboCrates, which can be accessed with the appropriately named, $2.49 tradable RoboCrate key. The RoboCrates themselves become rare drops in the free-to-play game starting June 3, according to the official TF2 website. Also, in what the website reports is a first for game's expansive economy, all content creators who contributed to Robotic Boogaloo will share in the revenue from the sale of RoboCrate keys.
Since we may be halfway to becoming robots ourselves, this new patch seems apropos. For a taste of the new content's eclectic robot style, check out the community-made trailer below or the update's included comic, DEATH OF A SALESBOT.
If you don't have beta participation turned on in your Steam settings, go do that so you can start collecting trading cards, earning XP, and leveling up. Yup, Steam just got gamified.
The games participating in the Trading Cards beta are Don't Starve, Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Half-Life 2, and "up to half the card set" for each can be earned by playing them. The other half of each set is "earned through your collecting prowess," which presumably means trading with Steam users who got different drops.
Once you collect a complete set, you'll be able to craft a game badge which will appear on your profile and unlock "marketable items like emoticons, profile backgrounds, and coupons." Badges can be leveled up by collecting the required trading cards again, and all badges—including any you already have—now give you XP which contributes to your "Steam Level." Leveling up has its own benefits, awarding you "non-tradable items like profile showcases, extra friends list slots, and more."
Now that playing games on Steam is a game, are you bothered that someone out there is already beating you? If so, the PC Gamer Steam group may be a good place to start looking for trades.
May 12, 2013
We reported last week that Half-Life 2 now has official, Valve-implemented Oculus Rift support, but let's face it: do you have Oculus Rift? The odds are against it (and if you do have one, invite me around?). In an effort to convey some sense of how the classic works in full VR mode, YouTube user Vaecon has offered up a 15 minute walkthrough. As with most Oculus Rift "footage", it's riddled with amazed gasps and lots of childish moaning.
Of course, the very nature of Oculus Rift makes it impossible to exhibit via video alone, so the astonished barks of its users are actually pretty illustrative. For more info on the support, Valve's VR guy Joe Ludwig dropped a bunch of info here, including how to get it to work.
May 10, 2013
If you're looking for an excuse to take another trek through City 17 and points beyond, and you've got an Oculus Rift developer kit handy, you can now opt in to a beta build of Half-Life 2 with support for the VR peripheral. It's as simple as adding "-vr" (without quotes) to the Set Launch Options line in the game properties, and making sure you've opted into the beta for SteamPipe.
"This port is a bit more raw than TF2 was when it shipped, so we would appreciate hearing about any bugs you find," Valve's Oculus port master, Joe Ludwig, wrote on the Oculus Dev forums. "Just like in TF2 this mode is experimental, so we really want to hear what you think."
Ludwig also cautioned about a couple of known issues, such as the overall HUD not always being bright enough to be easily readable, and UI elements appearing mis-positioned when zooming in. Gordon Freeman will be joining the likes of Minecraft Steve and pilots in CCP's dogfighting prototype in Rift space.
There may come a day when preparing for the next chapter of a Left 4 Dead game will include wiping down your sweaty palms and taking a deep, deep breath. If you don’t, the zombies will get faster.
In remarks during the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo (via VentureBeat), Valve’s in-house experimental psychologist—Wait, hold on. Did you know that Valve employs an experimental psychologist? I wonder if he has lunch sometimes with the economist.
Anyway, Valve’s in-house mad scientist, Mike Ambinder, discussed experiments where players’ overall nervousness and agitation were measured, in part by recording sweatiness. If players began to show signs of nervousness or fear, the game would speed up. This new control scheme—mouse, keyboard, sweat-measuring skin pads—added another way for the player to interact with the game. Shoot zombie, reload pistols, keep calm. Signal for rescue, throw molotov, keep calm.
Ambinder also described other experiments in game design and biofeedback—which Valve has been talking about for a few years—including a version of Portal 2 that was played via eye tracking. Exploring the next generation of possible gaming inputs shows once again that Valve continues to operate, and plan, on a whole different level.
So good for you, Mike Ambinder. Just stay away from the mega-baboon hearts and everything will work out just fine.