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Devolver Digital's "compact action-RPG" The Swords of Ditto, which as we noted last year stands out from the crowd by rejecting the retro-pixelated look in favor of a sharp, more detailed visual style, will be out tomorrow. To mark the coming of the big day, Devolver and developer onebitbeyond have whipped up a launch trailer that shows off the lovely look and teases its promise of "unique adventures linked together."
The game's description is a bit vague about how those heroic tales will come together, only saying that each adventure will become a legend "distinct from those that came before it and part of a heroic legacy that bind together. The deeds, successes, and failures of each hero's adventure have implications for those that follow including the ability to find weapons and recover loot from history’s fallen heroes."
Swords of Ditto writer Ed Fear revealed more about that aspect of the game on Twitter. He described it as actually having two stories tied together in a sort of before-and-after format, but added that if you don't care about such things and just want to bang around inside some pretty dungeons, that's fine too.
"The story has been designed to be unobtrusive, because this is a rogue-like, and not everyone cares about that stuff," he wrote. "But it is there! A dark underbelly, hiding just beneath the cute-as-pie surface."
Aside from the usual dungeon-splelunking gear like swords and bows, The Swords of Ditto will offer up more exotic items including vinyl albums (something by Dire Straits, I would assume), a magic golf club, and a colossal foot from the Heavens. You can also bring a friend along for some co-op play, if you don't want to go alone. The Swords of Ditto is available for pre-purchase for a 20 percent discount off its regular $20 price on Steam, GOG, and Humble.
"I wish everyone was just like you," I mutter to my steampunk automaton as it stiffly lurches toward my coal mining plant, leaving big, round footprints in the deep snow. I have grown weary of the humans inhabiting my city. They're frail. They're fickle. They get hungry and angry and sad, they fall ill from the cold and skip work, they lose limbs to frostbite and can't work. They suffer and die, and worse than that, they make me suffer because they have thoughts and opinions and most of all, fears. My steambot, though: it just works, only pausing occasionally to refuel. These humans need hope to survive, but my robot doesn't. It's an ideal citizen.
Frostpunk is a city-builder and a society simulator, but most of all a crisis management game where the crisis doesn't end until the game does. A few hours with Frostpunk and the tornadoes and tsunamis of Cities: Skylines seem like minor inconveniences. The traffic jams and noise pollution you used to fret over are now an utter fucking joke. In Frostpunk, if citizens are unhappy enough they'll banish you from your own city to die despised and alone. They might leave town if you fail them, but first they'll spend days trying to convince others to join them in mass exodus. Frostpunk is a tense, gripping, and often stressful survival strategy game filled with difficult, sometimes unthinkable choices. It's tough to play but even tougher to stop.
In Frostpunk's version of the 1800s, the entire world has become a sub-zero, arctic wasteland. After fleeing London, the only hope for the survival of your few dozen followers is a massive coal furnace standing in the center of a crater. You'll build small city that huddles around that towering furnace for warmth: a handful of tents, a hunting lodge, a mess hall. Resource gathering is initially limited to sending your citizens pushing through chest-high snow drifts to pick coal from the frost and bust up old crates and scrap piles for wood and steel. Build a lab and staff it with engineers to begin researching new tech: sawmills for cutting down frozen trees, mines to unearth resources from the floor and walls of the crater. Streets will eventually form spokes radiating out from the furnace and you'll line them with buildings and steam towers to keep the ice melted—at least until the temperature plummets even lower.
But that's later. In the early days your city is sparse and the situation is grim, with resources so scarce—and labor power to collect them scarce as well—that simply seeing the sun rise after a night without a casualty feels like major victory. Each new building and item on the tech tree needs to be carefully considered and weighed before spending resources on it. Constructing a pub will lift people's spirits, but that wood is also needed for a medical center to treat the ill. Assigning more hunters to gather food means pulling workers off coal gathering duty, solving one shortage by creating another. Saving up resources to build something important tomorrow when people are homeless or sick today feels cruel and heartless and completely necessary. When asking 'What do my people need most?' the answer is usually: everything.
In the hours before I grew to hate every last one of them, I was constantly torn between short term fixes and long-term solutions for my citizens, feeling guilty for extending work hours to mine a few more chunks of coal to keep the furnace running all night. Wonderfully difficult choices await at every turn in Frostpunk, with precious few being clearly right or wrong.
While my eyes flick restlessly over tiny meters at the top of the screen—how much wood and coal and food is left, and how long will it last—I spend more time staring at the bigger meters at the bottom: discontent and hope, the true gauges of my city's health. Call for a 24 hour work shift and discontent will rise sharply, even as the additional labor saves lives. Sending everyone to bed with full bellies will give them hope, even if they're sleeping in freezing cold tents. If discontent gets too high, or hope too low, you may be notified you only have a few days to reverse the trend by accomplishing a specific goal. Fail to deliver, and those meters will take a hit, creating a tricky balance. That lumber you used to construct a steel mill instead of new homes might make your city ultimately stronger, but you broke a promise to provide shelter for all, so people lose faith in you. It's a masterful expression of the burden of leadership.
You'll be alerted from time to time of some grim events in your city. A child was found nearly frozen sitting next to the grave of his parent. A citizen committed suicide by leaping into the furnace. Someone pulling a double-shift worked himself to death. Sometimes there's nothing to do about it: it's just a little moment the game offers up to make you feel like absolute shit. (To be fair, someone occasionally thanks you for something, but kind words are quickly forgotten when an automaton accidentally crushes someone underfoot.) Sometimes you can make a choice: between forcing an exhausted worker to continue or letting him rest, or choosing to believe (or not) a citizen asking for extra food who may not actually have a hungry child. You're told in advance how your choices may result in a small bump to discontent or hope in either direction, but the reality is that you'll often have to make everyone unhappy to keep them alive. And you'll make more meaningful choices, and more difficult ones, by passing laws.
You can pass a new law every 18 hours, and very few of them feel like triumphs of legislation. To make sure everyone has enough to eat, you can cut the food rations with sawdust. To keep production up, you can put children on work detail. Should the deathly ill be treated or just kept comfortable so you focus on the people you know you can save? Nearly every law has a downside: I mean, obviously, children shouldn't have to work, they're children. But try saying that when you've only got enough coal to last an hour and night is about to fall. It's harsh to send a kid out to gather resources from the snow, and even harsher to have him work in dangerous coal mine, but isn't that preferable to letting his parents freeze to death?
Eventually you'll have to choose how to keep your citizens motivated in the face of endless winter. Will it be with order and disciple, or faith and spirituality? Both paths of law can build hope in your population, mainly by exerting control, which can eventually turn you into a despot or false god. A neighborhood watch sounded like a fine idea to me since thieves had been plundering city supplies and rations. Guard towers felt like a natural choice to cut down on troublemakers. Patrols led to arrests, arrests led to prisons, and soon I found myself mulling over building a propaganda center to issue leaflets to reassure everyone I had our problems handled. They needed to believe everything was going to be OK, or at least I needed them to believe it. So I forced them to believe it, I made them be hopeful. It was that or risk losing everything.
The faith path, meanwhile, gives you shrines and temples to comfort citizens, but again, it's a small step from encouraging a little praying to stomping on competing faiths and declaring yourself an infallible leader. You may think you'd never consider rounding up anyone who speaks out against you or publically executing a troublemaker in the middle of town, but in desperate times, when you're on the brink of being cast out of your city or abandoned by the dozens, ruling with an iron fist doesn't feel like the worst option, just one bad option among several. These choices aren't pleasant ones, but Frostpunk is excellent at making you balance being a good leader against being an effective one. At times I felt like a villain for doing the right thing or a hero for doing the wrong one, something few games are bold enough to allow.
Frostpunk isn't contained to your chilly little city: there's a big frozen world out there, and once you've constructed a lookout station you can rise above the rim of your crater and have a look around, then send scouting parties out to investigate new areas of interest. It's a welcome change to widen your view from the sooty smokestacks and narrow streets and explore. Locate survivors in desperate need of help, find the frozen remains of another city, look for other pockets of life that might be fighting to survive. Like much in Frostpunk, the results of expeditions can be a glorious relief or a terrible burden. Sometimes your scouts will find resources and deliver them back to your city, additional coal or wood you need to complete a project or heat your generator for a few extra, crucial hours. You can even establish outposts to keep wood, food, or other resources arriving in your city on a regular basis.
But while finding new citizens means more workers and engineers, it also means more shelters need to be built and heated, more food hunted and cooked, and more sick filling your already crowded medical buildings. Every pair of hands that can solve a labor problem is attached to one mouth that can cause a food shortage. At one point, several big waves of refugees arrived, most of them terribly ill, which meant either a mad rush of new construction or the brutal choice of turning some or even all of them away. An earlier law I'd passed saying working children get double rations, an act of mercy to make up for an act of cruelty, meant the choice to rescue dozens of abandoned kids in the wild wasn't an automatic yes. Frostpunk is startlingly adept at making your doubt, and even regret, acts of decency.
Your scouts also gather information about what happened to the world, why it happened, and more disturbing: what is going to happen next. None of it is good news.
The first time my scouts delivered some really bad news, my city was humming along, if not perfectly then at least adequately. I was building storehouses for stockpiles of coal and wood. I'd replaced tents with real houses, kept warm by steam towers, which meant no one was getting sick. A supply line for extra lumber was in place. I had a factory in place to build robots that could work around the clock, and was even planning to build a robot that could run my robot factory. Discontent was low and hope was sky-high. The news, which I don't want to spoil, changed all of that in an instant, and my city's hope meter drained almost entirely, taking a lot of my own hope with it. I wanted to continue on with my efficient city planning, but now I had to cast those plans aside and focus only restoring hope or face complete failure.
It felt unfair at first. Deeply unfair. I'd worked hard to make my city safe, habitable, and functional, and my reward was that half my population abruptly deciding they'd be better off leaving. Structurally and strategically I'd done everything right, but people were still miserable, and it took me a while to accept that Frostpunk, as a game, could be allowed to betray me like that. But it's not just about building a city, it's about dealing with society, and real society can work like that sometimes, like when scientists develop life-saving vaccines only to see parents turn to Jenny McCarthy for pediatric advice. When you give society the tools to survive, they might just fling a wrench into the gears. Society sucks. Automatons would never do that.
Frostpunk isn't an endless city builder: the campaign lasts about 45 days (which took me roughly 12 hours), culminating in an event that will put your fragile city and citizenry to the test in unthinkable conditions. It does feel a bit strange when the game ends. I'm used to open-ended city builders that let me play as long as I want, and I certainly would have enjoyed to opportunity to continue to tinker with my city after the final curtain, so that's a bit disappointing. There's some replayability here: choosing different laws the next time, trying to avoid the mistakes of the last campaign, though the major events and discoveries will be the same each time. One full game is enough to unlock nearly everything in the tech trees, so a replay won't be a wholly different or surprising experience.
There are a couple other scenarios to try, however (with more planned, according to the menu text): in one you're challenged to build a city that can support hundreds of refugees and deal with major social unrest as a result. In the other your task is to keep several seed storage vaults warm enough to protect their contents with very few human workers, relying instead on building an army of automations. I've played a bit of both scenarios and the challenges are significantly different from the main campaign.
Frostpunk also has extraordinary style and and art design. I love the way notifications and menus spread across your screen with the sound of cracking ice, the way steam rises when the sun hits your city after a long cold spell, beads of condensation forming on your screen as you sigh in relief at having survived another day, and the way your tiny citizens wade through waist high snowbanks leaving trails of black tundra behind them, only for those grooves to fill back in as more snow falls. It's beautiful and engrossing in its grim depiction of a world gone cold.
I only wish I could zoom in closer. Frostpunk keeps your view several stories above the frosty misery of the city, so you can never really connect with your citizens. Sometimes instead of looking at labeled meters to tell my how my people feel, I wish I could just peer into their faces and read their expressions, to see their hope or misery for myself. Then again, who has time to take the temperature of the masses? I've got coal to mine. Get to it, my dear automaton. You might break down from time to time, but you'll never lose hope.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia recently teased the uglier side of battle, but today showcases the prettiest. Named 'Land of Hope', the war series spin-off's latest cinematic looks at pre-invasion England—moments before Viking longboats breech its shores.
On St. George's Day, Thrones "pays homage to its English heritage", so reads a statement. Twitter also reliably informs me Kate Middleton has given birth to another sprog. Topical celebrations all round.
"It was under Alfred the Great and his immediate successors that a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom was first forged," says game director Jack Lusted. "As the only major kingdom left standing after the Viking Invasion, it was under the banner of Wessex that the lands the Great Viking Army had conquered, known as the Danelaw, were retaken. The name of this kingdom changed from Wessex to England."
Creative Assembly teased the King of Wessex in action earlier this year. Lusted adds that the reconquest of Danelaw "led to an adoption of many elements of Viking culture," some of which are still prevalent today.
Lusted adds: "A number of towns across Northern England bear Viking names for instance, and there are well over a hundred common English terms that can be traced back to Nordic origins. This new English kingdom would go on to be seized by William the Conqueror in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings."
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia is due May 3, 2018. Before then, check out its system requirements—and read Tom's tragic but humorous tale of betrayal and collapsing kingdoms.
A telling difference between today's indie games scene and that of 10 years ago is how excited Dylan Fitterer was to hear his game was going to be on Steam.
Audiosurf had just been nominated for three IGF awards in the categories of Technical Excellence, Excellence in Audio, and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. As Dylan tells it, "Then I got a call from Jason Holtman at Valve who said, 'Hey, you want to sell this on Steam?' That blew me away. That was crazy to get an offer like that."
Audiosurf went on to win the audio category as well as the audience vote, but the bigger prize was that it became February 2008's top seller on Steam, both by number of copies sold and revenue, despite being an indie rhythm game that cost 10 bucks. It eventually sold over a million copies. Of course since this was 2008, it was one of only five games released on Steam that month.
Getting to that point was a road as bumpy as any of the rollercoaster levels Audiosurf makes out of the music you feed it. Like a lot of designers, Dylan's first game ideas were way beyond his capabilities. "I was trying to build the biggest videogame possible, that incorporated everything," he says. "My first game I was working on was like Magic: The Gathering meets first-person shooter meets something else. Had everything in it, the one game that was all games. That was what I figured I'd just build, by myself."
After a couple of years hitting his head against that wall he changed tack and went as far in the other direction as possible. From then on he only worked on games that could be finished in a week. "What I did is I launched this website called bestgameever.com and put up this promise that I'm gonna release a new game every Friday just to see if I could actually finish some things. And one of the things that I finished on there was called Tune Racer."
Tune Racer auto-detected whichever CD was in your drive at the time—this was 14 years ago, so of course you had CDs near at hand—and then matched the tempo of that music to a simple game about a car racing along a tube, overtaking other cars. Two sequels followed, tweaking the idea so that cars had to be dodged around instead of just overtaken (an idea that would return as Audiosurf 2's Dusk skin).
There was clearly something to the idea, something that kept drawing Dylan back. When he eventually decided it was time to invest more than a week in one of his concepts, to monetize one of those bestgameever.com prototypes, it was Tune Racer he turned to. He figured he could turn around a deluxe version in "like a month."
Spoiler: it took longer than a month.
Dylan wasn't alone. His wife Elizabeth, who had a day job at Microsoft, helped him over the course of what turned out to be several years of work. The two encountered plenty of dead ends along the way. They even tried to give Audiosurf a plot for a while, though he doesn't recall the details. "My wife and I worked on a story, and I don't remember if the motivation was like as an extended tutorial, or if it was just this lack of confidence that a game with no story would be compelling for people," he recalls. "I'm not sure. It didn't come together. It wasn't a good idea."
What was a good idea was letting people use their own mp3s. Rhythm games with original scores have a hurdle to get over because players need to get used to the music before they can tap along with it, and even something like Rock Band can fall flat with players who don't listen to the bands it favors. Audiosurf's algorithm matches the curves of the track, the speed of your craft, and the placement of blocks to elements of the songs you choose, songs you already love. It transforms your mp3 collection into an explorable space.
"My absolute favorite thing was to play this track from OCRemix in the game's Mono mode. The simplicity of Mono mode and the intensity of the track made for a great flow experience."—Ben Prunty, composer of FTL and Into the Breach
But for most of Audiosurf's development, the placement of blocks wasn't in sync with the beat. "Those were basically random," Dylan admits. "I had convinced myself that didn't really matter. The track was shaped to the music and you just had these random patterns and you could maybe see the music in the patterns if you look hard enough or something. It made sense to me but Elizabeth, my wife, finally convinced me that was not a good idea."
The extra effort was worth it, although even then it wasn't a game that clicked with everybody. Some people sat down to play and don't feel the connection between the game and the song, no matter what music they choose. There just seems to be something in the way people are wired that determines whether it works for them or not. "We noticed that early on at trade shows. I think most people would see how it worked right away once they played, but some people get in and play and say, 'I don't see how it's synchronized to the music.' We'd be in there clapping and stamping our feet."
Another worthwhile idea was thorough playtesting, and not just at conventions. The value of seeing how new players react to a game repeatedly over the course of its development is impossible to overstate. "My wife did a lot on it before anyone else," Dylan says. "Toward the tail end she was working at Microsoft as a usability engineer in the Xbox group and so one night she comes home and says, 'You should probably usability-test your game.' 'Oh, yeah. That's a good idea.' We just hired friends and different people to play it and watch them play, and [we would] not talk. See where they get hung up. That is so hard. Watching people play your game that you think is almost there and you discover that you're not even close."
"I'll always connect Audiosurf to the voluptuous hillsides produced by Wuthering Heights, specifically the swell into the orgasmic walls of red. A decade on, I still shiver."—Kieron Gillen, former PC Gamer editor and Audiosurf leaderboard champ
One of the ways Audiosurf began to differ from Tune Racer was that it wasn't just about avoiding obstacles. It stopped being a game about weaving between blocks and became a game about collecting them, matching three of a kind into the grid at the bottom of the screen. "Through that usability testing that my wife and I did, we discovered that that was really hard to teach," Dylan says. "It was hard enough explaining to people that you use your own music, that was foreign, then this other thing where you're playing a match-3 game on this racetrack to music, it was too much to teach."
The optional mono mode was the solution. It simplified things by reducing the blocks to two varieties, one to collect and one to dodge. "I thought that would just be a stepping stone or maybe just a tutorial mode and then that ended up being super popular." Players wanted it to be more than just an introductory way of playing, so Dylan created 'ninja mono' as the hardcore variant, and it became the way most players experienced Audiosurf.
The Fitterers were helped across the finish line by several contractors, including artist Goran Delic who drew characters like the ninja for the select screen, and Paladin Studios, who built various 3D assets. "They did the vehicles and the geometry that's alongside the track and the squid that's at the end," Dylan says. "That was a week or two weeks of work, right before launch. That was a lot of fun. Our timezones were so different that we'd have a call at midnight and tell them what we thought about the last batch of stuff and what we wanted the next day and we'd get up in the morning and check it out and put new stuff in the game."
And finally, there was Valve. Their involvement went beyond just putting Audiosurf on Steam—it was the first third-party game given access to Steamworks, the full suite of tools Valve's games use for everything from leaderboards to achievements. It also shipped with the soundtracks to The Orange Box games packaged in, and selecting certain songs from Portal triggered a "secret level" where you have a portal gun and some of the blocks are companion cubes.
On Audiosurf's release those songs immediately became the most popular on its leaderboards, but competition broke out wherever players found songs that made particularly fun levels. So did arguments about which genres suited it best. "I don't think there is an objective best or anything," Dylan says, although he notes that his preference is for bands like Tool and Nine Inch Nails. "One of the things I like about industrial, Nine Inch Nails kind of stuff is it tends to have very big changes very rapidly, so a slow part, a very intense part, and that creates very cool moments."
Those moments of drama and intensity when everything lights up and the track swoops around at speed are key to the appeal of Audiosurf, and when you find out a song you love hits one of those it's even better. But as well as connecting you with music you're already into, Audiosurf has helped players discover new music. Dylan himself learned a lot about what was popular in 2008. "I was a little behind the times I think. Like Dragonforce, that was huge. 'What is this song everybody's playing?' Podcasts were funny, there were people playing podcasts. I hadn't thought to try that."
The Fitterers followed Audiosurf with a sequel and a VR spin-off called Audioshield. But some day, Dylan says he'd like to go back to bestgameever.com and see what other forgotten treasures it holds. "I still have the domain, I just have this lame little placeholder on there right now. I have that site backed up I keep meaning to get it back online. That'd be fun."
This article is part of the Class of 2008, a series of retrospectives about indie games that were released 10 years ago.
Stellaris, which we chose as one of the best strategy games on PC earlier this month, will overhaul the way that anomalies work in an upcoming update and introduce multi-star systems for the first time, developer Paradox Interactive has announced. The 2.1 update, called Niven, will remove the chance of failure when researching anomalies, which are points of interests on planets that can grant bonuses when investigated.
At the moment, researching anomalies has a chance to fail based on the skill level of your scientists, but Paradox says that the system adds "little to the game in terms of interesting choices", and simply encourages players to put off researching anomalies until later. After the Niven update, researching anomalies will always be successful, but the time it takes to investigate them will be heavily dependent on the level of your scientist relative to the anomaly level.
"Researching a level 2 anomaly with a level 2 scientist will be a comparatively quick affair, while attempting a level 10 anomaly with the same scientist can take a very, very long time, and might mean that it is better to return to it later with a more skilled scientist, so not to hold up your early exploration," the developer said in a forum post.
The update will also change the way the game generates the Hyperlane, the network that connects stars and systems. Rather than simply connect places together, the reworked Hyperlane will concentrate around "clusters" of stars that will be heavily interconnected by thinner space highways, which will act as natural chokepoints. "These chokepoints are also registered as such by the game, allowing us to find actual chokepoint systems and avoid placing Leviathans and other powerful space monsters there, as well as improving the AI's ability to detect suitable spots for defensive starbases."
Lastly, Paradox is adding lots of new star and system types to the game, including multi-star systems. Some systems will have two or three stars, and will often contain more resources and planets than single-star systems. After the update, some systems will generate multiple asteroid belts, and the game will have "new unique systems to find with large amounts of resources in them, guarded by powerful space creatures".
Update 2.1 currently has no release date.
Assault rifles rule the roost in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and developer Bluehole wants to change that. In a Steam post, it said that an upcoming weapons balance patch will ensure that weapon choice is down to personal preference and the situation at hand, rather than just which gun is strongest. In other words, certain assault rifles will be nerfed, or the other weapons will receive buffs.
"According to our research, only a few specific types of weapons (ARs) are used in most situations," Bluehole said. "We believe the choice about which gun to use should be based on personal preference and its effectiveness in any given situation, rather than simply 'which gun is strongest'. Our goal is to make it so no one gun will feel objectively better than the others."
There's no details on how that will happen, but perhaps SMGs could do more damage at close range, and sniper rifles could have less bullet drop-off? Or maybe assault rifles could do less damage at long range? We won't know for sure until the patch is out on the test servers, which will happen "very soon".
Weapon attachments are in for a similar change. "The goal here is to provide you with a wider array of attachment options so you can choose one that best fits your combat situation (rather than any one 'best” attachment)," Bluehole said.
Lastly, the all-powerful level three helmet is going to be removed from the regular loot pool, and you'll only be able to find it in care packages. That makes sense to me—as Bluehole says, it basically gives the wearer "an extra life".
What changes would you like to see?
A free, PC-only Assassin's Creed: Origin update has added the Animus Control Panel, designed to let you "hack" the game by fiddling with 70 different sliders. You can now run four times the normal speed, hit twice as hard, and tame more animals at any one time, creating an army of hippos to destroy anyone in your path.
I like that you can use it both for shenanigans—reducing enemy speed to 25% while you zip around them like an annoying fly—or to tweak the game slightly so that it suits your playstyle. If you enjoy a more arcade-y feel, you could up attack speed to 150% and reduce stun time. Or if you want slow, meaningful combat, you can slow down swing speed, increase damage and limit health points.
Ubisoft says it might be "overwhelming" for some players, so it's created a few presets to get you started. Hardcore Stealth, for example, will increase enemy senses so that they'll detect you at the slightest sound, but you'll be able to assassinate them in one hit.
If you enjoyed the game but got all you could out of it, then it could be fun to jump back in and twiddle with the sliders for half an hour. Players are sharing their presets on the Ubisoft forums, in case you're looking for inspiration.
Tim Schafer, the designer of all-time PC Gamer favourites like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle received the BAFTA Fellowship last week in recognition of his creative contribution to games. Along with much of the staff at Double Fine, Schafer is currently working on a sequel to cult classic Psychonauts 2, which was successfully crowdfunded in January 2016.
We never seem to pass up an opportunity to talk to Schafer, and at EGX Rezzed last Friday I sat down with him to ask how Psychonauts 2 is coming along and whether he'd be interested in remastering more of Lucasarts' treasure trove of adventure games—even if they weren't games he worked on.
How does receiving the BAFTA Fellowship make you feel?
Besides old? It's really nice. It's coming from an organisation that values creativity and tries to encourage that in a generation of young talent, and that's something I feel like we've always tried to do as a company, so it feels very relevant and important to recognition—and a very heavy trophy.
It was an interesting spread of winners this year—particular Edith Finch winning Best Game. That sends a strong message.
Those are great games. It was nice to see Night In The Woods and Gorogoa win awards, as well as Hellblade winning so many.
Double Fine is at an interesting mid-point between developer and publisher. How has your role changed in the last decade or so?
Well, some things are new, and some things are the same. I still try to hold on to the parts of the job that I love, like writing. I'm still writing on Psychonauts 2, I'm hard at work getting all those cutscenes and levels writing done. But we've added a lot more things with an eye on the industry at large—trying to be a good heart of the indie games community, doing things like Day of the Devs and Double Fine Presents. There are so many games out there that disappear, and we want to help showcase the ones we think are the best. So I've added that kind of stuff, but I've left the parts of the job I'm not good at or don't enjoy like biz dev, money raising and work schedule. Team management I've sometimes left to other people smarter and better people than me so I can focus on still being creative, but still reaching out to the industry at large, trying to be a good citizen.
You've talked a few times about the amount of games out there, and the struggle to stand out. Do you feel like you've found the right way of getting games to a larger audience?
Yeah. There are actually a lot of indie developers doing this now, like Finji, who are helping out other indie developers. We're picking games that really stand out to us, or speak to us, and need what we have to offer. We're not sitting on a huge pile of money, though we are investing more and more in the publishing side. We've been around a long time. We know how to do everything from crowdfunding to relating to platform holders to how to get featured, how to outsource—all those things a developer might not know on their first game out. A lot of that is the hard work and curation of Greg Rice, our VP of business development, who runs Double Fine Presents. He's spending time at the show checking out all the games, seeing what stands out and meeting developers we might want to work with. We talk about it too, as a team, we play the games. At lunchtime we invite the whole company at Double Fine to come play some of these new games and see which ones we think are special.
You've gotten pretty good at the crowdfunding process. Are you less reliant on work-for-hire than you used to be?
To make a game as large as Psychonauts, we needed help from a publisher and that's when we really put together a flexible source of revenue. We have our own back catalogue now from games that we've self-published, like Brütal Legend on the PC, and all of our games that we've published we build to generate revenue from them, and every time we have a big Steam sale or a Humble Bundle we'll generate more money we can invest back into Psychonauts 2. But we also have Starbreeze publishing. So I think crowdfunding is still a great way to serve underserved markets like adventure games and things, where publishers might not be able to risk money on [them], but it's also a great way to connect with your strongest advocates out there in the community who really want to be backers, not just financially but emotionally and spiritually.
Can you talk about how Psychonauts 2 is coming along?
Yeah, we have about five level teams cranking away on the mental world. In Psychonauts you go into the minds of people and see their inner demons and fight the nightmares. We have multiple teams working on new levels for that, and we just did an update about the level teams and how they work. I'm almost done writing the cutscenes for the game, and we're just starting to look at casting for the voices.
When you make move the release date of a game, like you did with Psychonauts 2 in December, do you feel more pressure making those decisions when it's a crowdfunded game?
No, not unless you're asking for more money from them, because we're not. With Broken Age we doubled the length of time we'd take to make the game, but we also put in a bunch of our own money to match what the backers gave it. I feel like we're saying, thanks for waiting, we do apologise it's taking a while—so don't apologise. because that decision is to make a better game. You see announcements in the news about, 'oh, this game slipped' and everyone's all mad. The real bad news is the game's getting shipped when it's not ready. That's the opposite of that news release, right? And no one ever sees that announcement, because they don't make that announcement, but that's where the players really suffer—not from having to wait for a good game.
You've got former 2K Marin design director Zak McClendon as your lead designer on Psychonauts 2. What's that collaboration like?
Zak is an experienced leader of design. He worked on BioShock 2, a really great version of BioShock, and he brings a lot of expertise to the mechanics and the tuning and the physical side of level design and a lot of things we wanted to improve on in the second game. We felt like we can still do story and creativity and art really well, but we wanted to improve the platforming and level design on a mechanical level. I think he has a lot to offer there.
How is your studio divided across different projects right now?
We've got two games [going ahead]. After Brütal Legend, we split into four 15-person teams instead of one 60-person team. Three of those together is Psychonauts, and another team that's working on a secret unannounced game. So I always want to have multiple games going on because it gives you some perspective, flexibility and variety in the company which is important.
That moment where you split into those four teams felt like the start of an important new phase for Double Fine.
Definitely. And it was a great growth moment where we got to have people like Lee Petty, Tasha [Harris], Nathan [Martz] and Brad [Muir] run their own projects. Everyone got to try something new and everyone got to move up. We got a whole bunch of new genres nobody had ever done before. It helps us be nimble, trying to do something like Iron Brigade which was a mechanics-first type game rather than a story or narrative game. It lets us try to do things Once Upon A Monster or an RPG with Costume Quest and not bet the whole farm on it every time.
What was it like to revisit your old games for the recent remasters?
It was the kind of thing I had to give my permission to do. I've always had an instinct to stay away from the past, make a game, move on and make the next game. Don't rest on your laurels. You should always be trying to pull out new ideas. But then, 20 years go by for some of these games. It's been enough time that there's some value in going back and looking at them.
Also, they were falling apart. They weren't available anymore, they didn't run so you'd have to pirate them if you wanted to buy some of them. We thought it was time. Also, the source material was ageing. A lot of it was on tape drives that are crumbling. Some of the team had passed away. While everyone's still around, let's make a definitive version of this game. We can get the team back together to comment on it, and gather that art, go to the archives and find what we can find. So we made versions of the game that are really phenomenal, and they gather a lot of that source material so you can see who we were at the time we made that game, who the team was. We can also do things like remix the audio, have it cleaner and not compressed.
Between that and Psychonauts 2, then, you have opened yourself up to the idea of looking back.
Yeah. Although Psychonauts 2 is a sequel, and we don't usually do that, but the story is a whole new chapter and it's something I wanted to do back when I made the first game. I had these ideas for how that story would continue, and being able to wrap up some of those loose ends that we started in the first game has been really satisfying.
With the Lucasarts remasters, you've now worked on your major projects there. Would you be open to taking on Lucasarts adventure games that could do with similar treatment, even if they're not games you worked on?
We'd love to, and in some ways it's up to Disney, if they want to do that, obviously, and if the original creators want to be involved, you know. That's what makes those remasters special, that the original creators came back and were able to say what to improve on, what to leave alone.
If Disney expressed interest in doing sequels to your older games, would you be interested in doing that, or are you all about owning your own games now?
The reason I started the company was to own what we make, so it is important to me to own them, and I had to be talked into doing those remasters on the business side. Our biz dev person at the time, Justin, was like 'you should do this'. [And I was like], 'we don't own them, what's the point?' and I'm really glad we did decide to do them, even though we don't own them. First of all we made money off of them, which is something I couldn't do in the past. We made money off Full Throttle, but we sold more copies of Grim Fandango this time around than the first time around, and so that was exciting to be a part of.
And also, I got to make sure they were done right, and still be associated with the new versions of the game and not let someone else do that. That was really important to me. So I'm glad we did that. I would like to own them some day, mostly just to make sure I can preserve them. We lucked out, we made those remasters [with people] that were fans of the old games at Disney and at Lucasarts, and people still wanted to see those kept alive.
What do you think the state of comedy in games is now?
I feel like it's getting better. There are a lot of indie games that are really funny and light-hearted. The games industry dwells too much in the over serious, the grim hero of action games and hyper-macho things. The film industry is not known for being super inventive all the time, but even they have comedies every year and romance. Those things are not well-treated in mainstream games very often, but indie games I think have shown the way, by being games about anything. Making games that are funny, making games that are serious.
Jazzpunk and West of Loathing come to mind as great comedy games of recent years. Jazzpunk is particularly great at allowing the player to play a role in creating jokes.
I feel like interactive comedy is all about giving the comedy tools to the player. Giving them the wacky ability to squirt ink on everybody, or act and behave bad. It's like you're staging a play and there's this drunk improv character in the middle of it being rude to everybody, and that's the player. You've got to react to that, and as long as you give the player good props and good costumes to wear, and good actions they can do, they'll have a lot of fun, and be able to be funny.
What's it like working with a Psychonauts 2 team made up of both fans of the original game and people who were fans of it?
I think it's an important mix to have, because you want people who remember the special ways you made the first game stand out, how did you achieve that, and to remind you that we had some of the same problems with the first game that we had in the second game, insofar as there's periods where the level has to be rebooted. We rebooted one of the worlds five times, I think, and it's good to have that kind of perspective on it. Then it's also good to have people who don't have that history, who just started with some new ideas and new ways of doing things that can make the game better.
How has your writing process changed over the years, and how is that conveyed through your work?
When I do the remasters and I read my old writing, I remember how I was feeling when I wrote that. I feel like my process is still really similar. I do a lot of free writing, I do a lot of brainstorming, and I do a lot of writing locked in my office. I try to absorb the characters completely in my brain, and then treat it like improv acting where I act every part out as I'm writing, and I think that is basically the same. I feel like I've been through more as a human being, and that I've lived more, and that that's made me more empathetic towards human beings, and so maybe that comes through in the writing a little more. I worked really hard to become a better writer, and that's harder to do when you get more established—to find more ways to improve your craft, but I think it's really important. Even after you feel like you've arrived or succeeded, you don't stop learning how to do better, because I think that's the only way to have a long career—to always be getting better.
This week, a rumour about Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 being the first in series to ship without a traditional singleplayer campaign did the rounds. We've talked a lot about the prospects of singleplayer games in recent months, but if this turns out to be true—and we'll likely find out on the game's 17 May reveal—it will feel like a sign of the times to some.
We asked the PC Gamer writers this question: do FPS games still need a singleplayer campaign? As you might expect, there was a wide range of responses, and it's worth saying that all of us love good singleplayer games no matter what. We encourage you to join in via the comments below.
In this soulless, transient age of 'games as a service', big mainstream shooters definitely don't need singleplayer campaigns. They're lavish, over-produced wastes of money, frankly, offering nothing in the way of innovation or imagination. The campaigns in these games almost feel apologetic, like an item on a checklist that has to be ticked. And I think developers are realising that all people are actually interested in is having the same mind-numbing multiplayer experience over and over again.I would love the singleplayer FPS campaign to be relevant and interesting again. I remember playing the Modern Warfare one and being blown away by how bold and cinematic and provocative it was. But that was a million years ago, and all the genuinely new, forward-thinking stuff in games is happening in the indie space, or in smart blockbuster games like Dishonored. So let the FPS campaign die, because it outlived its use a long time ago.
Without doing the boring "well, it depends on the game" I'm going to say that, no, FPS games in 2018 do not still need a singleplayer campaign. Of course I love the idea of playing through more exquisitely designed levels like the ones found in Titanfall 2 (and who doesn't love killing nazis in Wolfenstein?) but when I also glance over at my Steam library and see the shooters I played the most in 2017, they were ones that didn't just have great multiplayer—they had no singleplayer whatsoever. Rainbow Six Siege, PUBG, Rising Storm 2—the list goes on. These games prove that you have incredible success and be enjoyed for hundreds of hours without a proper campaign. And it makes sense, right? As good as a campaign can be, it's typically pretty linear and doesn't last all that long. It only makes sense that developers would go for the mode that provides the most value to them (through DLC and microtransactions) and the players (who can effectively plunk hundreds of hours of fun into one game).
But what I think is really cool about this is that these games are now, more than ever, free to focus on what they're good at. As much as some FPSes are dropping singleplayer, others are dropping multiplayer. Gone are those awkward years when a good singleplayer FPS had to tack on awkward multiplayer just for the sake of it (Condemned 2: Bloodshot, I'm looking at you) and vice versa. Instead, both types of FPS can focus on doing what they're best at: We can have our Preys and our Wolfensteins, and also have our PUBGs and our Rainbow Six Sieges. It's actually kind of an amazing time to enjoy FPS games, and I love that I haven't played a shooter with an identity crisis in a long time (I haven't yet installed Radical Heights, zing!).So do I think shooters need a singleplayer campaign? Absolutely not. Do I think Black Ops 4 is going to be good if it doesn't have a singleplayer campaign...well, it's actually the same answer. But that's a whole other tangent.
Yes. There will always be exceptions like Overwatch and PUBG that can thrive without singleplayer, but those are enormously successful and rare games. In 2018, the gaming landscape is incredibly crowded, and a strong singleplayer campaign offers something distinct and memorable that can potentially sell for years to come. It doesn't have to be a massive success at launch. Nu-Doom, for example, was one of Steam's top 100 bestselling games in 2017, even though it released in May 2016 (and I doubt most people were buying it for the multiplayer).Meanwhile, any multiplayer-only shooter is launching into an incredibly competitive space. What's going to convince players to leave CS:GO, or Rainbow Six Siege, or Overwatch, to play your new game? If it's free-to-play, building an audience is definitely easier, but it's rough out there for games trying to build a sustainable community and charging up-front. Part of the problem is the perception that comes from looking at the player statistics for those top games, and having the same stats available for every game on Steam: "Oh, there are 300,000 people currently playing PUBG, but only 75 people playing Battalion 1944? That community is dead. I'm not buying that game!" The same stink of death was applied to Lawbreakers shortly after launch, and that perception definitely turned some players away.Singleplayer is the most reliable counter to the overcrowded market. Or a focus on co-op, which I consider a bit different than full-on multiplayer—a game like Killing Floor 2 doesn't have a narrative campaign, but could still be enjoyed with a couple friends if the online community wasted away.
On the one hand, first-person shooters need to have singleplayer campaigns if they're going to continue appealing to the market of misanthropic hermits like me who only play multiplayer games so we can complain they don't have bots, or if they do they're definitely not good enough bots. On the other hand, I haven't played a Call of Duty since the original Black Ops back in 2010 and now just play retro indie craft beer shooters like Ion Maiden and Amid Evil instead, so it's not like they were going to win me over no matter how much they spent on hiring one big-name actor for the single-player campaign anyway.
What I'm saying is I don't have a horse in this race, which never stopped anybody from sharing their opinion on the internet as the comments below will bear out. You should definitely check out Ion Maiden though, which is like Duke Nukem 3D only you can blow somebody up with a bowling ball bomb and then kick their head around.
Good shooter campaigns are hard to make, so when a great one comes along I treasure it and replay it over and over again. I've gone through Titanfall 2's campaign several times because the movement systems feel so damn good in that game, and the campaign's levels are built to get as much out of those systems as possible.
That's the exception to the norm. I think we might be forgetting how bad poorly made singleplayer campaigns are. I was playing Duke Nukem Forever recently to satisfy my morbid curiosity, and quickly remembered how tedious it can be to blast rubbish enemies with crap guns.
Steven might be right. Maybe it's better for games to specialise in one or the other rather than trying to ace two quite different disciplines. Doom didn't really need its multiplayer mode to be great. I don't crave multiplayer from the new Wolfenstein games. I'm just happy that studios are still making exciting full-length campaigns at all.
What it comes down to for me is: Don't waste my time.
There are so many game out there doing interesting things and I only have a limited amount of money and an even more limited amount of time. If a dev is prioritising multiplayer for whatever reason, that's fine. But don't then also commit to a singleplayer campaign that doesn't get the right support or resources during production and ends up dreary and dull.
Same with the reverse: definitely DO make your dream singleplayer project but don't then tack on a lacklustre multiplayer thing assuming that'll appease everyone who might wander through your door.
Obviously this is from a punter's point of view. If companies are still doing it I'll assume there's a solid business case for it. But good lord, big games so often feel like jealous friends who don't want you hanging out with other people. Just be okay with me getting my singleplayer fun elsewhere instead of trying to be my everything! We can go for a milkshake and a gossip another evening.
I hate to say it because I have zero interest in FPSes without campaigns, but no. Overwatch and Rainbow Six Siege demonstrate quite clearly that games can be wildly successful solely on the strength of their multiplayer capabilities. And honestly, I'd rather skip a game because I know it doesn't have what I want, than dive in and discover that its campaign is half-assed garbage tacked on to meet an outmoded obligation. (I recently played through the Battlefield 3 story, and it was brutally bad.)
Obviously that's not the same as saying that campaigns should go away entirely. Destiny 2 habit aside, it's games like Wolfenstein, Prey, and BioShock that keep me playing shooters. I played the CoD: Modern Warfare games for the campaign. On a personal level, singleplayer is completely my thing. But the business is big enough now that the pressing need for individual games to cover both bases just isn't there anymore.
I love a good FPS campaign, and I do feel like singleplayer games generally are under threat—those that don't require tens of hours of play time and have loads of sidequests, anyway. But I stopped playing Call of Duty's campaigns after Modern Warfare 3, and if Activision and Treyarch don't put a singleplayer option in the game as it's been rumoured, there might be some logic to that. I would speculate that a decision like that would be based on what the completion stats are for Call of Duty campaigns these days.
And PC Gamer collectively hasn't enjoyed a COD campaign in years. Wes's example of Battalion is interesting, because Call of Duty doesn't need to worry nearly as much about a similar slide in player base. I won't complain about them taking it out, but then I wouldn't pay full price to play a new Call of Duty game either way.
But I do think trying to do something interesting with a campaign is better than walking away altogether. Battlefield 1's War Stories are slight but exciting and novel. Titanfall 2 shows how you can reverse engineer multiplayer systems into something thrilling and varied. Maybe that's not what the vast majority of people find compelling about modern games, but I don't care, I like singleplayer when it's done well and will still pay for it.
When it comes to the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of The Witcher (the books, not the games, but close enough), our tubs remain very much half full in terms of excitement. This week, show creator Lauren S. Hissrich shared some details about the series from a showcase event in Rome. The big news is that it now has a possible 2020 release date, and the plan is for an eight episode season.
"I know, I know, it may not seem like enough for you, but creatively, it's the right call," wrote Hissrich about the relatively short run. "The episodes can be tight, action-packed, rich in character and story, without lagging in the middle of the season. Sounds good to me, sound good to you?"
That does sound good to me, as I think Marvel's Netflix shows are all too dang long, running drawn out side plots to fill up 13 hour-long episodes. As far as when we'll be watching them, Hissrich pointed to 2020, but qualified that with a 'when it's done' sentiment.
"Who knows?!" she wrote. "We're moving quickly ahead with everything—like, my head is spinning around Exorcist-style, except with enthusiasm, not evil possession—but one thing is certain: quality comes before speed. You'll get it as soon as humanly possible, and it'll be good."
So far, only the pilot episode is written, the other seven episodes existing only in Hissrich's head. More writers are being hired, and it still hasn't been cast. Hissrich did say that The Witcher will be shot in Eastern Europe. "This show couldn't exist anyplace else," she added.