The Game Critics Awards are a big deal. They're the Metacriticization of E3: after the show, more than 30 publications vote on 20 categories of awards, their ballots swimming together like a school of trophy-shaped fish. (PC Gamer is a few of those fish, too.)
This year’s awards were announced on Tuesday. And among those 20 categories this year, zero PC-exclusive games won. That happened in 2011, too. I’m confused and livid about that. We’re in the middle of a PC gaming renaissance—as a body of critics, shouldn’t our awards reflect that?
The awards have a mixed, embarrassing history when it comes to the PC. Let’s revisit the last decade of Best PC Game winners:
Were we really that overwhelmed by Doom III and SWG? But yeah: Spore. How did we get it wrong—so Price Is Right Fail Horningly-wrong—thrice? Spore is exactly the sort of game that woos multiplatform gaming critics that aren’t looking closely—it’s an amusing toy, an easily-explained curiosity from The Faraway Eccentric Continent of PC Gaming. On a ballot, Spore was an incredibly safe bet for someone who didn't see everything the PC had to offer at the show—like Dawn of War II in '08, or F.E.A.R. in '05. That this fooled us three times is evidence that collectively, gaming media hasn’t examined seriously what happens on the PC at E3.
A PC-exclusive game hasn’t won Best Original Game since 2006 or Best of Show since 2005. Both winners were Spore. But hey, let’s not dwell on that bleak and multi-appendaged past. 2012 was a decent year for PC exclusives at E3. There were plenty to pick from, and absolutely none were officially recognized: Neverwinter, SimCity, The Elder Scrolls Online, Hawken, Otherland, End of Nations, Shootmania Storm, MechWarrior Online, Natural Selection 2, World of Warplanes, Arma 3, Company of Heroes 2. The stand-out omission from the awards list, though, is PlanetSide 2. It should’ve won Best Online Multiplayer. It should’ve won Best PC, and it could’ve won Commendation for Innovation.
PlanetSide 2 isn't some exotic animal. It’s sci-fi Battlefield, but better, bigger, more beautiful, and it never sleeps. It also wasn’t sequestered in some obscure corner of the show—it was the first thing you saw when you walked through the doors of West Hall. You couldn’t miss it. Anyone could prance up and play it without an appointment. IGN, Polygon, GameSpy, and Game Informer did give it significant nods. I wrote in our personal E3 picks post: “Occupying someone else’s base means something beyond an icon changing colors on your HUD—just by contending for an outpost, you’re earning a tiny trickle of resources. Own it, and that earned-over-time allowance extends to your whole empire (while being denied to the enemy). The magic of that mechanic is apparent even in an hour-long play session with a character I’ll never use again in a crowded, loud convention center. Whether you like it or not, you’re a part of something.”
Sure, The Last of Us—the game that won everything—looks nice. It’s genetically-engineered for critical attention: Uncharted and zombies and movielike and full of those meaningful moral choices we can't get enough of. It'll probably enjoy plenty of high review scores and plenty of eye-level shelf space at GameStop. My peers were wooed enough by it to award it Best of Show, Best Original Game, Best Console Game, Best Action/Adventure Game, and give it a Special Commendation For Sound.
Maybe everyone played PlanetSide 2 and just wasn’t moved by its unprecedented scale and ambition, staggering balance of tactical complexity and accessibility, or original engine technology that makes Unreal 3 look like calculator firmware. I think that’s the sort of next-generational newness we should be drawing attention to. I don’t own a tablet, so I hope that’s an indication for how underwhelmed I am by tie-in apps, but did you see PlanetSide's jaw-dropping tablet/browser/mobile-driven infrastructure that lets you see dynamic strategic maps and join voice chat without being in-game? Egad.
Call it what you want
What's most upsetting are the names of the awards themselves. They're undeniably skewed to reward the companies that put on press conferences and that spend thousands of dollars making the show an expensive spectacle: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. The PC doesn’t have a press conference, of course (although we've daydreamed plenty about what it'd be like). And like a very-talented cousin that Sony doesn't want overshadowing itself at its own talent show, PlanetSide 2 creators Sony Online Entertainment don’t get a second of stage time at Sony’s conference. Coincidentally, critics don’t have many categories that invite celebration of the PC.
Since 2010, game writers have picked a Best Motion Simulation Game, a relatively recent trend, but inexplicably we can’t nominate a Best MMO. 13 dungeon-raiding, gold-farming years after EverQuest, and MMO isn’t a comparable genre to racing, strategy, or “social/casual,” which each have their own award? In "Best Hardware/Peripheral" components compete with controllers and consoles in the same incongruous, Frankenstein-category.
The oddest and least platform-agnostic award is "Best Downloadable Game.” Commenting on this makes me feel like a student who takes the awkward duty of telling his teacher that his chalkboard math is wrong. “...Excuse me? Every game on PC is downloadable.” The award was added in 2009, so it was absolutely a response to the healthy niche that $5-20 games have carved for themselves on XBLA and PSN. But if the goal is to highlight smaller-budget games, why not, y’know, make a Best Indie Game award? The Game Critics Awards have never had such an accolade in their history.
Sure, indie games don’t have the largest footprint at E3 (a separate issue that I’d be delighted to yell about), but they do have IndieCade, a small hub of games hosted off the show floor. Especially with Kickstarter’s emergence, it’s a complete failure to reflect the industry we work, buy, and game in that there’s no official opportunity for critics to praise indie games.
I know we’re usually encouraged to shrug off mainstream game awards, like the ones that appear on television. But this isn’t one of them, actually. This is the closest gaming media comes to having a collective voice about something. It’s the one instance where we’re communicating as a single organization. It’s an opportunity to get it right. And on the PC, we totally aren’t. If we’re not prepared to have a set of awards that at least fundamentally reflect the kinds of experiences millions of people are involved in—MMOs and indie games among them—what are we doing?
GLaDOS is recruiting new test subjects, and they might be your kids. Valve has invited educators to sign up for its "Steam for Schools" beta program, which offers a special edition of Steam featuring only Portal 2 and the puzzle maker. The idea is to use Portal 2's mechanics to teach basic physics and spatial reasoning.
The FAQ explains Portal in educational terms: "The interaction tends to be free-form and experimental and as students encounter new tools and challenges they may develop an intuitive understanding of physical principles such as mass and weight, acceleration, momentum, gravity, and energy. The games also put a premium on critical thinking, spatial reasoning, problem solving, iteration and collaboration skills, and encourage overall inquiry into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) learning."
Current lesson plans include "Introduction to Parabolas with the Puzzle Maker," "Spatial Visualization and Perspectives," and "Building a Simple Harmonic Oscillator." Well, when you put it that way, I no longer feel clever enough to play Portal 2.
More information on Aperture Science's educational efforts be found on the official site.
Graham, Chris and Tom Francis gather to discuss the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative, Diablo 3, Torchlight 2, upcoming MMO The Secret World and Deus Ex: Human Revolution's problematic cutscenes. We also talk about Graham and Rich's ongoing FIFA 12 rivalry and (try to) answer your questions from Twitter. Also, we decide that capitalism doesn't work. See below for show notes.
Download the MP3, subscribe, or find our older podcasts here.
Chris' Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative hands on video and the final map. Tom's Torchlight 2 video series. Chris and Tom Senior's first look at The Secret World.
Valve have announced that the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative puzzle maker has seen more than 35,000 levels published to the Steam Workshop since its release on Tuesday - and they've been downloaded over 1.3 million times.
In order to celebrate these really very large numbers, Valve have decided to make some other numbers much smaller: namely, the prices of Portal 2, Skyrim and TF2 Workshop Items on Steam. The 'Weekend Workshop Sale' will run until Monday and you can pick up Portal 2 for £5.09 and Skyrim for £23.44.
You can check out our first hands-on with the puzzle maker here, and if you're picking up Skyrim this weekend be sure to browse the PC Gamer mod collections for the best additions to the game.
The Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative DLC is now live, and as promised you can download the first PC Gamer-themed test chamber from the Steam Workshop.
It's a little bit more complicated than the puzzle I built in fifteen minutes for our hands-on video, but that's not saying much. At least you can't beat this one with only two portals. Thanks for pointing that out, though, everyone.
The new level editor is a great tool and we're excited to see what the community manages to achieve with it. Getting started on your own test chambers? Share your efforts, tips and recommendations in the comments thread below.
As Valve themselves once said, making games is hard. Over the course of a weekend with the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative DLC, I've established my own version of that rule: making games is harder when you're an idiot.
I recorded my first baby steps with the new test chamber editor, and in doing so have created a permanent record of my failures as a human being. Marvel as I crush myself with a lift! Yell at your monitor as I fail to consider an array of incredibly trivial solutions to my own puzzle!
By way of compensation, I spent another couple of hours working on my test chamber and eventually hammered it into something resembling an actual level. You'll be able to download the final result - the PCG Reflection Challenge - from the Portal 2 Workshop when the DLC launches later today. 'Reflection' means two things, in this context. One: what you do with a laser. Two: that I need to have a bit of a think about my life.
Valve announced today that Portal 2's in-game puzzle maker will be called "Perpetual Testing Initiative," and will be available free on May 8 for PC and Mac. The DLC will be capable of publishing puzzles directly to Steam Workshop, where users can browse, install, and vote on the community's creations.
Plans for the puzzle creator were announced last year, and we confirmed that it was in beta at GDC earlier this year. According to Chet Faliszek, Left 4 Dead 2 is next in line for the Steam Workshop treatment.
“You’ll see the Steam Workshop coming from there, then to Left 4 Dead and then we’re going to keep using it,” said Faliszek. “It’s not just for the modders, it’s for the players. It’s a super easy way to consume the creations of other people that are just really hard to do otherwise.”
Any plans to flex your physics muscles by making and playing custom Portal 2 puzzles next month?
The Portal 2 puzzle creator will let players make their own test chambers without having to dive into Valve's complex level creation tools. We got a chance to catch up with Chet Faliszeck and Erik Johnson at GDC for a chat about Valve's plans for the user friendly level editor. "I believe they’re beta testing it right now," said Erik Johnson. "When the puzzle maker comes out, you will have a lot of content, that’s for sure."
Valve announced their plans for the Puzzle Creator on the Portal 2 site last year, where they released the first couple of screenshots. It looks very similar to the animated diagrams of the first Portal trailers, released way back in 2007. Much, much friendlier than Valve's Hammer editor.
Valve are expecting a rush of new maps when the new tools are released. October's Portal 2 post mentioned that Valve were also planning "a community site to host all of these player-created puzzles." The recently released Steam Workshop can do just that, presumably players will be able to use the Workshop to show off their levels and vote on their favourites.
"Correct," said Erik. We can expect to see Steam Workshop support appearing in other Valve games, too. "You’ll see the Steam Workshop coming from there, then to Left 4 Dead and then we’re going to keep using it," Chet Faliszeck added. "It’s not just for the modders, it’s for the players. It’s a super easy way to consume the creations of other people that are just really hard to do otherwise."
There's no release date for the new tools yet, but if it's in beta testing, it can't be too far off.
Not all of Valve's discarded ideas are great, the binned competitive multiplayer mode for Portal 2 is one such example, but some of them are. The video above is from a Valve talk at GDC in which they discussed many of the ideas that never made it into the full game. This scene was originally Portal 2's opening.
There were many more great ideas left on the drawing board. In fact, the whole game was set to pan out very differently. Eurogamer sat in on the conference, and describe out Wheatley was originally supposed to stay dead when Glados crushes him near the beginning. Rather than being a persistent companion, he was merely the first in a series of personality spheres you'd meet as you travelled through Aperture's labs. Other spheres included a paranoid AI and one that Valve's Eric Wolpaw calls "The Morgan Freeman sphere."
Players were originally supposed to find the Morgan Freeman sphere sat on a lonely stand in the middle of an empty room. "He'd been sitting on that little pedestal for a few centuries, and he was just incredibly, incredibly wise" said Wolpaw. "But only about the 20 by 20 space that he was in."
"As soon as you dragged him 22 feet out of the room, his mind was blown and he was pretty much useless. Although as the game progressed, he eventually got his feet under him and started delivering some homespun wisdom that all related back to this 20 by 20 space." Valve discarded the extra orbs when they found that players didn't bond to them as well as Wheatley, the first sphere went on to become an integral part of Portal 2's plot.
Valve were also planning to have several endings scattered throughout the campaign. "We had these parts throughout the game where Chell would die and that would be the end and we'd play a song, and if you wanted to you could just quit there." Wolpaw told the audience. "We had one that was like two minutes into the game, and if you died there, there was a song that was just about reviewing those first two minutes."
They also had a few other ideas. The next bit contains spoilers for the end of Portal 2, in case you haven't played it yet.
Initially, there was a scene part way through the game in which you'd catch a glimpse of the moon. To trigger an early death you could portal up there to "asphyxiate while listening to a sad song about the moon." Valve eventually dropped the multiple endings because they felt as though they didn't have enough good ideas, but the moon went on to become Portal 2's memorable finale. According to Wolpaw, it was the "perfect mix of being totally awesome and completely stupid." It's hard to disagree.
Valve's Chet Faliszek and Eric Wolpaw conducted a Portal 2 postmortem at GDC last night. The writers talked candidly about alternate endings and the difficulties of following up on their critically acclaimed first game. Chet also mentioned that, at some point in development, the team experimented with competitive Portal 2 multiplayer modes.
Chet also mentioned that they sucked. "We also tried a competitive multiplayer mode which we put together over the space of a month or two," he revealed. "It was a mix of the old Amiga game Speedball and Portal, except with none of the good parts of either of those two. The game was super chaotic and no fun, so the only good news about this part was that we cut it pretty quickly."
Speedball 2 was a competitive, violent, and featured an incredible soundtrack, and I love the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device as much as the next man. That said, I can imagine this combo resulting in a confusing mess of nonsense. Valve made attempts to satisfy more competitive gamers by including leaderboards and a challenge mode in some later DLC.