In 2013 Valve told us that it s making a controller, an operating system, and is sanctioning PC manufacturers to create Steam Machines. The three-pronged campaign to put Steam in your living room, deliberately revealed ahead of the launch of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, was the biggest PC gaming news of the year. It s a move that establishes Valve as something that resembles a platform holder, something it s been hesitant to do despite being the PC s biggest online retailer.
We re glad that Valve is removing some of the obstacles to playing Civilization V on our couch. It gets us imagining PC gaming as a more social experience for friends, family members, and whatever other human beings you let into your house. That picture will come into focus at CES next week, when we expect a second wave of information from Valve on its initiative.
We ll also hopefully leave Vegas with a better understanding of how versatile the Steam Controller is, which we ve been investigating. But even if Valve s controller exceeds our expectations and plays a very wide set of games comfortably, there s an serious need for a keyboard and mouse platform that can be used effortlessly on a couch. I m challenging accessory makers like Razer and Logitech to make one. Control issues Just 290 of Steam s 2,459 games feature full controller support, and 502 feature partial support a cumulative third of the library. Even if we give generous consideration to Valve s claim that the Steam Controller older games into thinking they re being played with a keyboard and mouse, I m still going to need to edit command lines, to chat with my Steam friends, to Alt + Tab, and no amount of virtual keyboards, haptic feedback, and autocomplete will ameliorate that. In particular, I don t have high hopes for how well hotbar-heavy games like Dota 2, Starbound, Path of Exile, RTSes and MMORPGs will handle on the Steam Controller.
The Phantom Lapboard. "Do you like typing on a keyboard that s locked at a significant angle to the natural plane of your hands? Of course you don t," Maximum PC wrote in 2010.
The peripheral, though, isn t actually the problem it s the absence of a stable surface in the living room that rests above your legs. Our friends at Tested put it this way in an article from last July: If you just put your mouse and keyboard on the coffee table and perch on the edge of your couch, you're gonna hurt your neck and back, craning your neck to see the TV. Conventional mice and keyboards can work in the living room, but not without a desklike platform to rest them on.
Infinium Labs yes, that Infinium Labs now known as Phantom Entertainment, produced one of the only commercial solutions to this problem, the Phantom Lapboard: a $110, wireless, cantered keyboard and mouse combo. It s bad. The bottom line is that this thing is bad, our sister site Maximum PC said in its 2010 review. The keyboard only tilts at a single angle, the mouse only features two buttons and a scroll wheel, and there s no lip on the surface to contain it. The second you take your hand off the mouse to type something, that sucker s clattering to the floor, MaxPC wrote.
The Couchmaster is the weirder and even more expensive alternative, a hulking, 24 -wide, upholstered thigh prison that at least provides a stable, ergonomic surface. But it s a frown-inducing $180, and its cumbersome shape doesn t seem conducive to easy storage or use in any living room that doesn t feature a wide couch.
Apart from Ikeaing something wooden and rigid together, the two options PC gamers have are pricey and strange. If anything, they show us two designs that any future lapboards should avoid, or at least iterate on aggressively. With Valve s initiative, third-party manufacturers should be scrambling to produce a lapboard that accommodates gaming mice and keyboards, if only because it s an item that will help them sell more mice and keyboards. Razer has a small history of experiments like the Artemis prototype and the Razer Hydra, but more practically, they already make left-handed keypads like the Orbweaver and Nostromo, devices that would be the perfect starting points for a compact lapboard. Logitech would be another good candidate; they make plenty of mainstream wireless peripherals, and on the gaming side they have an ambidextrous keypad we like, the G13.
Valve should want such a peripheral to be available as an alternative to its controller. After all, a sturdy, inexpensive, versatile gaming lapboard would absolutely increase the adoption of living room PCs and SteamOS. Valve s goal isn t to sell controllers, it s to get you playing PC games on your couch, and we should all want that proposition to be as effortless as possible.
An innovative controller can t and won t replace the decades-long relationship PC gamers have with WASD because PC gamers don t like compromise we expect high framerate, high resolution, low cost, and total freedom to modify our devices and games. And while we re grateful for a controller that s built with PC gamers and PC games in mind, it s essential that we get a compromise-free way of bringing the core implements of our hobby, the mouse and keyboard, into the living room.
It was supposed to be a short break. I told myself Civilization V wouldn't suck me in when I began playing on the big screen. The game will be too tedious. The text will be too small. I was wrong.
I've spent the past couple days going through every game I thought would be interesting to play, and Civilization V on a couch, staring at a big screen TV is among most engaging, relaxing gaming experiences I've ever had with a game.
There were a few hurdles to jump before I began. I chose to decrease the resolution to 1360x768, giving me a 16:9 resolution that looks fine on the big screen while giving me slightly larger text than 1920x1080.
There are two comfortable configurations for the trackpads. First, you can set the left trackpad to control moving the map while the right trackpad controls the mouse. Alternatively, you may choose to use both trackpads to control the mouse (as shown in Valve s Steam Controller demonstration of Paper's Please).
My preferred setup has the left trackpad move the camera while the right controls the mouse. Left and right triggers correspond to right and left clicks respectively. The flipped mouse buttons feel intuitive while playing, though causes a bit of cognitive dissonance whenever a game directs me to click with the left mouse button and I use my right hand. I'll report back in a few months if I've completely lost my sense of direction.
Using the dual mouse method feels quick, but the trackpad allows me to move fast enough through the screen that I only need to lift my thumb once to get from the top left corner to the bottom right. While that 10th of a second speed increase is nice, it's outweighed by the speed gained through quick control over the map.
Moving through Civ V's menu screens is effortless. The Advisor Counsel, Overview Screens, Social Policies, and Era Map are all bound to keys, and there are a few left over to handle zooming in and out, and Next Turn. With these bound, I found myself more quickly navigating the Civilization user interface than I had in my previous couple hundred hours with a mouse and keyboard.
It's also surprisingly easy to move the cursor quickly with precision. While I don't expect to be effectively splitting my Marines in StarCraft any time soon, I can certainly play a turn-based game without frustration.
Sitting 17 feet away from a 50-inch television, the relatively small text is easily parsed. With responsive controls, a comfortable seat, and a large television, I found myself able to quickly enter the flow state that Civ V does so dangerously well.
Along with Civilization V, I've spent a bit of time trying out FTL, which was similarly simple and easy to enjoy. While you won't be able to bind every hotkey available in the game, the overall experience of boxing and moving your crew feels natural and quick. The ability to pause the game while playing also enables players to slowly familiarize themselves with the controls.
I also decided to try my hand at StarCraft II. After taking some time to think through any reasonable hotkey layout and determining there was none, I proceeded by playing with the controller's default keybindings when plugged into a PC: the mouse controlled by the right trackpad, map with the left trackpad, and mouse buttons mapped to the triggers. The games were difficult. I eventually mapped the attack-move command to the right bumper, and S and D to the left and right half of the trackpad. With these commands, I was slightly more able to macro while playing. The game was still tedious. I considered investing another hour into coming up with a way of mapping a couple control groups and re-working StarCraft s grid system to use fewer keys, but I thought better of it.
While the steam controller has the ability to control most games, the effort required to enjoy real time strategy games is great. First you have to spend time finding a comfortable mapping of controls. Next, the effort required to relearn a new control scheme, a process made more difficult by the lack of onscreen button prompts and reminders. Only then can you forget about the controller and just enjoy the game. Increasingly I'm finding myself more and more interested in playing games that quickly move over those first two steps. Platformers are easy to map to a controller, and have generally felt great while playing. Slow paced games like Civ V, FTL, or Hearthstone are relatively easy to map and their slow pace allows for the time needed to come to grips with a new control scheme.
Chris' Steam Controller tests continue, what would you like us to take a look at next? Let us know in the comments.
Sid Meier is a game design legend. He co-founded MicroProse in 1982 and created Civilization, one of the longest-running and most loved series in gaming. Now the creative director at Firaxis and overseer for both the Civ and XCOM franchises, Meier can be choosy about what he works on. His choice: Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies, a WWI-era turn-based strategy game that's small in price but big on strategy, and even influenced by tabletop games.
PC Gamer spoke to Meier about his interest in smaller game design, and how it let his team take some risks. He also shared his view of the changing strategy game market, and how he thinks all gamers are strategy gamers at heart.
PC Gamer: What drew you to Ace Patrol?
Sid Meier: It was the opportunity to make a game in a shorter time frame, with a smaller team. I guess the last game that I actually finished was Civ Revolutions. We ve done a bunch of big games, Civ and XCOM, and they were awesome. During that time, I got the urge to do a game with a smaller team that we could do in a quicker period of time. With a lower budget you can take more chances and do things that are a little more risky. Doing something on the iPad was an interesting new challenge a new type of interface, a new device. I d had this idea for a World War I flying game, doing it turn-based. Originally I designed it with cards in mind. When we put it on the iPad, we had virtual cards and things like that. It was a game design idea I d had floating around for a while.
There s a prevalent board game influence. What were some of the games you were looking at as you were thinking about mechanics?
There was a game a while back called Wings of War. Basically each player had a book, and you d be on a certain page. Based on what maneuver you chose, you would both go to a different page. That was a fun mechanic. Not one that we borrowed necessarily, but it was a turn-based way of looking at air combat, which I thought was interesting. Board games are just so clear in their representations and in their mechanics. That was what we were going for, a look that you could look at and say, I get it, these plays are flying in that direction, and they re so far off the ground There s a clarity and an accessibility to a board game style of approach that I think we wanted to build upon with Ace Patrol.
That s always our goal, to give you something that you can start to play fairly quickly and easily, but has that depth and that replayability. That s something we always strive for, going back to the original Civilization. A game that s easy to start playing, but has this depth and replayability. I think everyone, at heart, is a strategy game player. They just don t know it yet. We have to get them started playing, and all of sudden they realize that this is interesting, to get these new maneuvers or try these new skills.
The hex map is an accessibility thing, too. It s pretty clear once you see those hexes That kind of regulates the game and makes things very clear, the orientation of the planes and their relative directions and the distance you can move. The hex map, which we embraced with Civ V, has a lot of accessibility features to it, and we take advantage of that as well.
You mentioned that Ace Patrol was developed with a smaller team and a smaller scope. How big was the original team?
We had seven or eight people working on it for a little less than a year. I guess that came out in May, so it s been about five or six months working on Pacific Skies. Compared to Civ or XCOM, that s a very small team.
But it seems like you re definitely experimenting with different pricing models for what s really the same game. You were allowing a little bit of content in the original iOS game and then charging for the extra campaigns. How do you feel like that strategy has worked out so far?
The model that we really were most comfortable with was the classic PC: a free demo, and then basically a game that you pay for. When we did Ace Patrol, the closest thing to that in the iOS market looked like this idea of free-to-play, and then purchasing different parts of the game. That felt to us like, you get to kind of demo it for free, get to a certain point, and then if you like it you buy it and if you don t like it you don t buy it.
What we discovered was that free-to-play brings a lot of baggage with it, because of players previous experience. It really isn t perceived as a demo followed by a purchase. It s perceived almost like a game within a game. How much can I play without paying? What tricks are they going to use to get me to pay? It becomes almost a distraction from the game itself. So with the Steam release of Ace Patrol, we went to just a premium model here s the price of the game, if you want it buy it.
Serious players have had some negative experiences with free-to-play games. Where we are now is, we re looking at this as a premium game, a game that you buy. If you want to figure out what the system is like, you can play the iOS version of Ace Patrol for free and get a feel for the mechanics. If you like it, you might want to buy Pacific Skies or whatever. We feel that the premium model just buying the game fits more with what our players want. They want to buy the game and play it, and not have to worry about if it s all there, or if we re going to ask them for more money.
What are some of the things that you think have worked in recent editions of Civilization and some things that haven t worked?
It s been interesting that each Civ has been led by a different designer: Soren Johnson with Civ IV and then Jon Shafer with Civ V. They ve each brought a little bit of a different perspective to the game. They re all building on the core mechanics and the core gameplay flow that is fundamental to Civ. Civ V specifically has supported a couple of really good expansions as well. Even though a new Civ only comes out every couple of years, there s still energy and new stuff happening all the time with that franchise. In terms of what didn t work I cannot think of anything.
I think what maybe didn t work on Civ V is that it s a PC-only kind of game. I think that s fine: most of our players are on PC. But the world is moving. In our dreams we d love to have it on more platforms. There s no reason why it couldn t be on iOS and other places. That s really kind of a resource and strategy question. We d like to have it on more platforms. But the PC supports what we re trying to do the best right now, so that s where we start.
Strategy games are going through a renaissance, where a lot of people lay a lot of arguably complex games, such as Crusader Kings II. Do you still see strategy gamers as this small hardcore niche market, or is that growing and becoming a more substantial part of the market?
Well, we d certainly like to believe that it s growing. We re seeing that kind of growth, certainly, in the reception to things like Civ and XCOM. There s certainly a very avid and active strategy game audience out there. They re our bread and butter fans. We get a lot of encouragement and ideas and support from them. I think the growth is modest, but continual.
You have to convince people they like strategy. It seems a little daunting at first, when you hear about Civ. It takes 20 hours to play, and then you want to play again? Not everybody says that s what they re looking for. But once you get them to try it, they see how it works and what kind of fun it is. So I think we re gradually accumulating more and more strategy players. But when you look at the market as a whole, it s not the same kind of hit-driven or fad-driven market that you see with other things. The strategy market is pretty solid and steady. Facebook games kind of grew, and then they didn t grow. Certain styles and genres appear, and they re innovative and new and they catch on, but they might not have the depth that a strategy game has, and so they have a limited amount of appeal. Then they re exhausted.
There s good news and bad news with strategy gaming. It s pretty reliable. The audience is there for the long term. But you don t get these flashes of popularity that some of these other genres might experience.
What s the next big thing for strategy games? Is it something like getting lots of people together playing a strategy game at once? Is it more about accessibility, like getting on other platforms? Is it creating the biggest, most epic grand strategy game in the world? We actually have a philosophy in terms of Civ that with every new feature we put in, we need to take something else out. We think it s reached the appropriate level of epicness and grandness, and going beyond that is going too far, in terms of complexity or length of play.
Back when I was young, we used to make flight simulators. They kept getting more and more complicated. The cockpit started taking over more and more of the screen, and what you saw outside got less and less. With every generation There were some great games, like the Falcon series. But with every generation, some people said, this is getting to be too much for me, I won t buy it anymore. Eventually it just out-complexified itself.
What we want to do is avoid that with Civ. We think we ve found a good balance of playability, depth and complexity. With Civ, we re actually deliberately keeping the complexity at the current level, because that seems to be what people enjoy. So I don t think the future is a super grand awesomely complex game. That s not something that we think makes sense for our players.
I think your idea of a multiplayer strategy game is really intriguing. If anything has changed over the last couple of years, it s the accessibility and the almost 24/7-ness of connectedness. We take it for granted these days, that our internet access is always there. Translating that into a game concept is probably one of the possible next big steps in gaming. Five years ago we had to go somewhere and sit down and push a button to turn off our normal life and go to a place to game. Today we have the tools to game with us every waking and sleeping moment. You ve got your phone or your tablet or something right there with you. So integrating that into a game idea is maybe something that s around the corner.
I think the other possibility for the future is this migration of casual gamers into more dedicated gamers and eventually into strategy gamers. We re seeing people move in that direction. We ve always seen that over time, but now there s probably a larger audience of casual gamers with iOS and things like that. It may be inevitable that they evolve to become more serious gamers.
If you filled a sock with Dungeons & Dragons dice and knocked Sid Meier unconscious with it, what do you think he'd dream of? Possibly something like Faerun, a mod that brings Forgotten Realms to life inside Civilization V: Gods & Kings. Lead civilizations of elves, dwarves, and orcs, recruit druids and wizards, battle dragons and ogres, and learn powerful spells. (Also, please don't knock Sid Meier unconscious with a sock full of dice. Or with anything else.)
There's a ton of civilizations to choose from in the Faerun mod, all straight out of the Forgotten Realms universe. Play as Cormyr, Land of the Purple Dragon, led by Princess Alusair Nacacia Obarskyr. Or choose the dwarf Bruenor Battlehammer of Mithral Hall. Sarevok Anchev of Baldur's Gate fame? Hells yeah. And about two dozen more, representing most of the major nations you've encountered in Forgotten Realms D&D or video games.
Naturally, when forced to choose from a list of civilizations, I went with the least civilized civilization I could imagine: the orcs. The Hordes of the North, lead by King Obould Many-Arrows. I founded my city, started clearing forests and creating mines (seems more orc-y than building farms), and began churning out warriors, raiders, and archers while looking around for human civilizations to go to war with.
Look, it's Neverwinter in Civ V! Weird but cool.
One of the cooler changes in the mod is that instead of adopting policies, you now adopt schools of magic. Choose from Conjuration, Illusion, Enchantment, Transmutation, Necromancy, and others, and unlock D&D spells like Clairvoyance, Fireball, Silence, Unseen Servant, Color Spray, Raise Dead, Disintegrate, and even Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion. As an orc civilization, magic doesn't really feel like a natural choice, but I went with offensive spells like Fireball, defensive spells like Stoneskin, and anything that seemed like it would help in combat.
As an orc civilization, I prefer sabers to spells. But I'll take a fireball or two. I discover some nearby City-States ripe for raiding and pillaging, but before I've fully built up my armies, something happens: a dragon is spotted to the south. A flippin’ dragon!
Could use a hobbit with a ring right about now.
Sure, it’s a little weird, sending a bunch of orcs after a dragon. Fighting dragons is more a job for heroes, or at least humans. I can’t resist checking out the dragon, though, so I send two squads of archers down to find him. The dragon’s name is Thauglorimorglorus, and he's actually there, in the game, flapping his wings and everything. Cool! It’s not particularly easy killing Thaug. It takes ages to whittle down his health and I have to send an additional two squads to finish the job. Worth it, though, as destroying the dragon nets me more than 3,000 gold from the big pile of treasure he's been hoarding.
Even for an ogre, he's big for an ogre.
Another awesome event: an ogre is spotted near my city! And he’s massive. He fills almost a whole hex by himself. This doesn't particularly fit my memory of D&D ogres, which were definitely big, but not giant-sized. But hey, I’m fine with ogres being giant, because I’m currently producing my own ogres in my own city. And they should be done right about... now.
My ogres are big, but they're not big-big. I feel cheated.
My ogres are ogre-sized, and the barbarian ogres are giant-sized? That seems unfair. My three ogres would have to stand on each other’s shoulders wearing a giant trench coat to pass themselves off as one of the wild ogres. Ah, well, who cares. The important thing is, I've got orcs and giant ogres and regular ogres on my screen and they’re fighting each other, in Civ V. Can't really complain.
Not long after the ogre is dispensed with, another event pops up: a necromancer has appeared to the north of Many-Arrows, and trailing him is a horde of zombie soldiers. My orges get their butts kicked by the necromancer, but my orc archers don’t have much trouble, and defeating the sorcerer gives us a buttload of weave points to spend unlocking new magic spells.
Now I'm starting to feel a bit more orc-y.
Fighting dragons, ogres, and necromancers is cool, but I’m not really gonna feel like I’m running an orc civilization until I start sacking and pillaging some human cities. I dispatch my archery units to the port City-State of Luskan, and soon the port and surrounding countryside are engulfed in black smoke and I'm feeling more like a huge band of marauding orcs. Luskan is mine without much trouble.
Next, I turn my eyes on the city of Surkh, but as soon as I begin the siege, about eight different things all go wrong at once. A giant ogre appears right between my Many-Arrows and Surkh, which is a problem because I’m moving another bunch of archers through that pass to bolster my siege. Another necromancer appears, preventing my group of ogres from joining the siege. I try bringing up some pikesman I have to the south, but they run into some barbarians. And my party of orc raiders who have been auto-exploring suddenly finds itself facing off with a bunch of Chultan knights on horseback.
Most of these fights go quite poorly. The giant ogre easily hacks through my wimpy archers, cutting two entire squads down. The raiders fighting the knights hang on for a bit, but the knights are assisted by Chultan pikemen, who make short work of them. The Necromancer destroys all but one of my ogre-sized ogres, and though another band of archers manage to kill him, they’re cut off by the four squads of zombie soldiers that the necromancer brought with him. And Surkh repels the rest of my attackers, forcing me to limp away with hardly any units left.
Fun, though! This is a really neat mod. The modder, framedarchitecture, clearly knows his Forgotten Realms lore and history. You can check out the rest of his Civ mods in the workshop here, and definitely try Faerun if you're a fan of D&D or Forgotten Realms material.
Installation: The mod is in the Steam workshop, so you can just subscribe. There's also a handy guide for anyone having installation issues here. And, for Mac users, this thread will get you started.
Is geography destiny? Why repeat history when you could forge a new geography each time you begin a game? The Scrambled Nations map pack includes maps for the geographic regions of Canada, Australia, Japan, Scandinavia, Great Britain, France, Turkey, Italy, Russia and China. The geographic outlines of each nation are exact; however, special scripts produce randomized interiors each time a new game begins, allowing for endless replayability.
2K and Firaxis have decided that they like their civilizations like they like their eggs: scrambled. Civilization 5 is getting two new map packs with that theme for $4.99 apiece. The Scrambled Continents pack is available now, and the Scrambled Nations pack will come on November 5.
Mmm, scrambled continents. Perfect with a bit of black pepper and toast and - oh. I seem to have hilariously gotten the wrong end of the stick. Scrambled Continents is a new map pack for Civ 5, announced and released right now, which randomises the contents of continents each time you start a new game to ensure "endless replayability on countless plausible worlds". They've even gone and thawed Antarctica, giving us an early look at life in the post Global Warming-era.
Firaxis will follow up Scrambled Continents on November 5th with the similarly mashed-up Scrambled Nations, which is the same deal but for nation states rather than chunks of land. As you may have guessed, both bits of DLC are inspired by the Civ 5 scenario Scrambled Africa, and they'll set you back $4.99/£3.99 a piece. Scrambled eggs, meanwhile, shouldn't cost any more than a couple of quid, even in That London.