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It's an odd feeling when playing games weighs on you like an obligation. While the discussion over the unsavory ways that developers manipulate players is entirely dominated by loot boxes and microtransactions these days, that's not the only tool to entice players to come back again and again. If you're a fan of Hearthstone, Destiny 2, World of Warcraft, or even Rainbow Six Siege, you're already acutely aware of the draw these games have to log a little time in each day—even if you don't want to. It can feel overwhelming. And it's all thanks to the daily quest system that many of these games employ.
On the surface, daily quests are a smart way to entice players to come back each and every day. The idea is simple: set up a few meta-objectives that reset every 24 hours. In Hearthstone, for example, daily quests can range from slinging 20 spells over the course of several games to winning a few rounds as a specific class.
From a developer's perspective, daily quests can keep players coming back again and again—that's crucially important if your game is funded through microtransactions and paid DLC like Hearthstone or Siege. In subscription-based MMOs, daily quests keep players coming back between major updates, giving them an infinite series of tasks to complete when all others have long since been completed. It's a system that, at best, gives you a little extra reward for things you're already doing in-game. But in execution, daily quests can turn the joy of playing into a monotonous chore—especially when you're juggling multiple games that have them.
While daily quests can be found in games dating back to everyone's favorite social-media-meets-Pokémon website Neopets, their most known implementation was in World of Warcraft's first expansion, The Burning Crusade. At the time, daily quests (or 'dailies') seemed like an elegant solution to the age-old problem of MMOs never having enough content for players to complete. Blizzard's solution? Add a system of mundane repeatable quests that players could grind through each day to work towards long term goals like earning gold or gaining reputation with certain factions.
If the decades of forum posts are anything to go by, daily quests weren't a hit with players. Instead of capitalizing on Warcraft's most exciting group content, like dungeons and raids, they forced players into neverending loops of killing 'X' of 'Y.' Azeroth's greatest heroes became its ultimate labor force. But, somehow, the system has survived and spread to nearly every game Blizzard makes and well beyond. It's become such a staple in digital card games that I can't think of one that doesn't have daily quests. Even competitive shooters are starting to see the appeal.
But what is that appeal?
While daily quests aren't likely to ruffle the feathers of gamers in the same way that loot boxes have, they still try to manipulate us. Like arcade games designed to extract quarters from pockets, daily quests are another small (but not necessarily insidious) facet in the complicated relationship games have with our need to feel rewarded. Daily quests offer a tangible goal to meet each day and the feeling that, even if I only have a few minutes to spare, I can earn a little extra if I use them right. But too often, I find myself resenting the fact that they exist at all.
In competitive multiplayer games like Hearthstone, daily quests go deeper than giving you a little extra gold. They are intrinsically tied to your worth as a player. The problem with competitive free-to-play games that use daily quests is that if you ignore them, there's a palpable sense of missing out. It's no longer just about how good you are, but how many hours (or dollars) you can invest. Because these quests reward gold used to pay for new card packs which, in turn, have a chance to reward more powerful cards, daily quests feel necessary instead of optional. It's not a little "thank you" for playing each day, it's clocking in for work so that you can have fun later.
Unless I'm willing to cough up money to buy these packs and skip that grind altogether, I need to optimise how much gold I can earn. My objective subtly shifts from having fun to completing these quests as quickly as possible. If one of my daily quests asks that I win three rounds as class I don't have a competitive deck for, I'm frustrated as I'm stuck playing matches hoping for an easy win or just ignoring the quest altogether and feeling like I'm missing out on valuable gold. Instead of playing a class that I've invested in and care about, I'm forced into playstyles that I may not find fun or satisfying.
In MMOs, daily quests create a more abstract sense of frustration. Daily quests aren't a meta-objective, but a wholly separate activity you have to make time for. Final Fantasy 14, for example, has various Beast Tribes that each have a set number of daily quests that offer currency that can be spent on powerful gear in addition to reputation with a faction that unlocks items and cosmetic gear like mounts. These quests are never fun, but MMOs continually leverage their weakest elements, like fetch quests, for use in daily quests. It doesn't matter how cool that mount may seem, every time I've done the math and realized I would need to login every day for the next 24 days to complete these quests to unlock it, I immediately resent the grind and abandon it altogether.
It's worth noting that not every daily quest system is a bad one, but many of them are designed poorly. Ironically, World of Warcraft: Legion's world quests, a complete overhaul of the old dailies, is actually pretty great. Not only does it offer a ton of choice and variety over which quests you want to complete, you are also given tangible rewards that can be immediately satisfying, like a new piece of gear. If you complete four quests for a specific faction each day, you'll also unlock even more rewards.
What's more, world quests act like a Greatest Hits of Legion's leveling process, letting you revisit wacky and fun quests all over again. And, while they're still dedicated activities, you can bang out four of these quests in about 12 minutes. It's a quick and inoffensive system with multiple layers of rewards that helps hide the monotony and necessity of doing them—a start difference from Final Fantasy 14's monotonous routine.
But daily quests still represent a symptom of a wider issue many MMOs and multiplayer games with a progression system struggle with: the feeling that you have to constantly play in order to stay relevant. Whether they're a necessary part of grinding in-game currency or an abstract way of gaining power, daily quests almost always leverage the most boring and frustrating parts of a game in exchange for a reward. Put up with this crap, they say, and eventually you'll get something good.
Earlier this year, I wrote about how I'd finally given up the grind in World of Warcraft, embracing my status as a "casual" to just enjoy the game at my own pace. It was a liberating experience. But it's frustrating to see that grind seep into other games, to have my precious few hours of gaming become a list of chores I need to knock out in each game before the real fun begins. I must constantly be skeptical of games, their developers' intentions, and my motivations for why I keep playing.
Like towers unlocking sections of the map in open world games and loot boxes, daily quests will continue spreading to other games. Game design is often seen as an art but there's a science to it as well, and developers are always experimenting with new ways to keep us playing. Daily quests are rather innocuous on the surface, but understanding how they factor into your desire to play is important. And, like me, you might have to ask yourself the tough question. Is a little bit of extra gold a day really worth it?
I'm noticing a trend, readers: dinosaur park sims. Frontier has been drip-feeding us Jurassic World Evolution details for months, and just last month Parkasaurus was announced. Prehistoric Kingdom is the latest game to pick up this suddenly popular torch. It's currently on Kickstarter, with developer Shadow Raven Studios asking for $55,000. At the time of writing, its campaign has raised $24,000 and will run for another 22 days.
Shadow Raven says Prehistoric Kingdom features intricate habitat and structure building inspired by previous sims like Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis and Zoo Tycoon 2, as well as brush-based terraforming. Mod and Steam Workshop support is also planned, with unofficial mod support already available. Players can also micro-manage guest and dinosaur stats and experiment with (voila) dino DNA.
Three game modes are planned: a campaign; challenge-based scenarios; and a no-holds-barred sandbox mode. The through-line is ranger mode, which "will allow you to walk through your park as one of the park's wardens" in any of the main modes. At first blush, ranger mode reminds me quite a lot of Pokémon Snap, which sounds pretty neat considering 50 dinosaurs are planned for launch.
That said, Prehistoric Kingdom's biggest distinguishing quality is that you can play it for free right now. It already has a demo on Steam, which includes four dinosaurs and a few dozen decorations and buildings.
Judging from its Kickstarter reward dates, Prehistoric Kingdom is expected to release in late 2018.
Samuel spoke fondly of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus in his review, but was less taken by its The Freedom Chronicles: Episode 0. While acknowledging the latter serves to tease the base game's three-part DLC, he reckoned it'd have benefited from showing more.
Part one—The Adventures of Gunslinger Joe—is however out now. Here's a trailer:
"In our first DLC installment, you'll play as a former professional quarterback named Joseph Stallion, who will smash through Nazi hordes from the ruins of Chicago to the vastness of space," explains Bethesda in this Steam Community post, before informing us the game's next chapters will follow in January and March next year.
Sam's impressions of prelude chapter zero can be read in full here, however here's an excerpt that speaks to Joe's moves, as well as those of his forthcoming comrades:
Those three playable characters are former football player Joseph Stallion, formerly retired spy Agent Jessica Valiant and US army captain Gerald Wilkins. This prelude offers a short introductory scenario for each protagonist, who each embody one of BJ Blazkowicz's contraptions: Stallion can charge through doors and enemies, Valiant can sneak through tiny spaces, and Wilkins can become a large, awkward stilt man to reach higher places. I expect each episode to be built around that one ability, then, rather than all three like in the main game's later stages.
At the time of writing, a handful of Steam reviews appear to criticise this chapter for its modest runtime—two hours, according to some players. Bear that in mind before forking over £7.99/$9.99 or committing to a Season Pass.
The PC Gamer Game of the Year Awards are selected by our global team. We all throw in our six nominations for candidates, then get together on a long call to figure out our shortlist. We then pick award titles that suit each game—so you'll see a different set of awards this year compared to previous years. Here are all of the games that came up during the shortlisting process.
We'll be updating this list with a new award and personal pick from a PCG staff member every day until the end of December.
Game of the Year 2017: Divinity: Original Sin 2
These games didn't make the cut for the main awards, but they're still worth highlighting in their own right. Each of our staff has picked one favorite game and produced a longer piece about why they felt it was significant in 2017. We'll be posting new picks throughout the rest of December along with the primary awards above.
Andy Kelly: Resident Evil 7
I'd lost faith in Resident Evil. Everything after Resident Evil 4, Shinji Mikami's bold reinvention, was a disappointment. I was sure that game would herald a new golden age for the series, but then I played Resident Evil 6. So I was delighted to discover that the seventh main entry is a return to form, inspired by the first trilogy of games. It focuses on slow, creeping horror, a thick atmosphere, arcane puzzles, and self-preservation over melodrama and dumb slow-motion action. And that's why it's the best Resident Evil in years, even if it's not quite the dramatic change in direction the shift to first-person suggested it might be.
The first hour, however, is very different, more in line with contemporary horror games like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation. It's a perfectly paced, terrifying introduction to the dilapidated Baker household, whittling away at your nerves, never pushing things too far. But when you start finding weapons and green herbs, and puzzles start getting in your way, it's like playing one of the PlayStation-era games again: albeit with vastly better visuals and a new, more intimate perspective.
The Baker house is a disgusting, eerie, and oppressive space, reminiscent of the original game's Spencer mansion, if not quite as opulent. There are no marble statues or lavish rugs here: just creaky, dust-covered floorboards and fridges stuffed with rotting meat. It's one of the grimiest games on PC, and you can almost smell the stench as you creep through its dimly-lit corridors and damp underground passages. And when Baker family patriarch Jack shows up, things get really scary—more so than the regular enemies, which are an admittedly uninspiring collection of slimy blobs.
But what I really love about Resident Evil 7 is how lean it is. It takes a series that had become hopelessly bogged down in absurd mythology and outdated ideas and confidently hits the refresh button. There's still the odd tedious boss battle, but for the most part it feels like a new, almost standalone game. It's a reboot done right, retaining the spirit of the source material but making it feel fresh by ruthlessly excising the bits that don't work. And the subtle connections to the other games in the series are more special as a result of Capcom distancing itself from its own legacy.
There are a few things wrong with Resident Evil 7. It loses its way in the final act, for instance, giving you too much ammo and throwing too many identical slime monsters at you. But overall, I love it, and I'm glad Capcom took a chance on something so different. The days of Leon S. Kennedy back-flipping over zombies and Wesker dodging bullets like a character in The Matrix are, hopefully, over. I'm eager to see where Resident Evil goes next, and whether it'll continue to shake up the formula. And I love the idea, based on clues in the ending, that this is set in another timeline. There's a lot of backstory I think it's best Capcom just writes off.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 is PC Gamer's overall Game of the Year for 2017, as voted for by our global editorial team. The following commentary comes from the game's biggest supporters on staff. Look out for the rest of our awards and staff personal picks at our GOTY hub as we head towards the end of December.
Phil Savage: Was there ever any doubt? Divinity: Original Sin 2 was the obvious Game of the Year choice. It's a massive, sprawling RPG for one thing. But more than that, it embraces the chaotic, player-driven nature of all of PC Gamer's GOTY picks for the last few years. Original Sin 2's element-focused combat system is a revelation, giving you scope for wildly inventive, unpredictable solutions. Its fights are a test of wit, and often result in bewildering chain reactions. Whether you're electrifying someone's blood, or combining spells to kill a boss by doing an absurd amount of damage to yourself, experimentation is not only allowed, but rewarded.
Steven Messner: It’s hard to overstate just how robust the combat is in Original Sin 2 and how beautifully it weaves into your personal power fantasy. By act two, my melee tank healed himself by standing in the blood of his enemies, a tactic so ruthless that I was cackling with each drop of blood that was spilled. That’s just one of the dastardly tactics I use to my advantage. My rogue uses a spell that inflicts bleeding damage with each step an enemy takes and then turns them into literal chickens that flee combat. With dozens and dozens of combinations like these just waiting to be discovered, Original Sin 2 is like a theory crafter's dream come true.
Joe Donnelly: It took me a full ten hours to leave Divinity: Original Sin 2's opening area. In that time I murdered a man, lied to his grieving daughter to obtain a key item, learned how to teleport, got double crossed, and pissed everyone else off I spoke to. It's so big and so much fun.
Jody Macgregor: I'll scrub cheekbone sliders back and forth for fun but my favorite character creation system is actually just "choose one of these cool characters." Original Sin 2 gives you both options, but its origin characters are so great I can't imagine not picking one. (Other games should steal the way they explain their own backstories out loud so you hear which voice actors sound best.)
After a solid 30 minutes of deliberation I chose to play as Beast, a dwarf who is the former leader of a failed rebellion, who is also a pirate captain with an emotional attachment to his bicorne hat, who is named Fran. Every one of the origin characters is just as layered, and thank god you can take three of them with you as companions so that I didn't have to leave behind the bard possessed by a demon, or the exiled prince who is also a big red lizard, or Fane.
It's a long game that's hard to finish even once, and yet during every conversation with a ghost chicken or fight where I caught fire again, I was wondering how my next character would handle it.
Tyler Wilde: Jody's right. I somewhat regret my custom character, but the good news is that outside of inner-party chatter, you can play Original Sin 2 'as' one of the origin characters, simply by initiating dialogue with them instead of with your character. I love Fane, an ancient undead fellow who's trying to figure out what happened to his kind, and who regards the fleshy inhabitants of the world as mundane and mostly useless, interesting only in the way they resemble his skeleton race (except with a bunch of unnecessary organs and gross skin).
My favorite thing about Original Sin 2, though, is that it shipped with extensive mod tools. The whole engine is available. You can create levels, script NPCs, add items and spells. You could build Original Sin 3 if you wanted to. They're kind of buggy (as of right now, I have a really hard time rotating the camera) but hopefully future updates will help.
Wes Fenlon: Straight up: there's never been an RPG with a story or characters this interesting that you can play co-op with four players. Divinity executes on this promise so flawlessly it just feels natural. Of course you can listen in to conversations your friends are having to follow the story. Of course you can all wander around a massive map, seamlessly looting and questing and shopping and fighting. Of course combat becomes a glorious mess of saving each other with cool abilities and accidentally nuking each other in equal measure. Divinity just wouldn't be the best co-op RPG ever made if you couldn't.
I played my entire run of D:OS2 with a pair of friends, and it really changed how we perceived the adventure, and especially our characters. Solo, I'd be controlling an entire party, following their stories and weighing the experience of the group above all. But we're all invested in our own stories. Lohse is my character, and I care about the resolution of her battle with an inner demon more than I care about Beast's vendetta against the dwarven crown. I also like that I don't see and do everything my friends do when we're apart. There's so much mystery left in the world, and I know that next time I play, whether I'm controlling a whole party or simply a different character, it'll practically be a whole new journey.
As if the cruel Martian atmosphere wasn't enough, you will also have to deal with disillusioned renegades in your quest to colonise the red planet in colony-building sim Surviving Mars. At least you'll be able to build wonder domes to calm those nasty elements down. We asked lead designer Boian Spasov how it all works.
PC Gamer: Can you talk about the different types of colonists you have in Surviving Mars?
Boian Spasov: Colonists are differentiated from one another by their traits. Your little "Martians" can have several traits, ranging from useful, through detrimental to just plain weird. For example, a rugged colonist will take no penalties when eating unprepared rations or having no residence, while a melancholic will suffer increased penalties when his morale is low. There are some exceptional traits like genius or celebrity - these denote truly special people that often grant benefits to the whole colony. PC Gamer: As the game goes on, how will you see your colonists change?
Spasov: They will settle on Mars, gain and lose traits, have children if your colony is nice enough, live their lives, grow old and eventually die. Ideally of old age, but alas, too often from unfortunate circumstances such as suffocation, starvation or hypothermia. Nobody said that conquering Mars would be an easy task.
The current disposition of each colonist is measured by four parameters - Health, Sanity, Comfort and Morale. All of them have tangible gameplay effects. The Morale value directly affects any individual Work performance. A colonist with no remaining Health will perish. A colonist with no Sanity will go insane and may even commit suicide. PC Gamer: What kinds of jobs can your colonists do?
Spasov: We already talked about traits, but colonists also differ by their specializations, which allow them to perform better at certain workplaces. While it is still possible to employ untrained colonists, you will need specialists to science the shit out of stuff and gain maximal benefits.
Some jobs are perfectly fine for unskilled labourers—a bartender or a cook doesn't need any special education. Geologists perform better in mines, botanists love growing potatoes in your farms, engineers increase the production of factories, while officers can be useful for keeping any renegade elements in your society under check.
PC Gamer: You have colonists who can revolt, right? How do you maintain order when the renegades turn against you?
Spasov: We are not talking organized rebellions here, like the ones we had in Tropico. The renegades are disillusioned individuals that no longer believe in the ideals and vision of the mission. They are basically out for themselves. Renegades perform badly on their jobs and also can steal valuable resources or even sabotage some buildings in extreme cases.
You can counter them with additional security measures, but ideally you would want to improve the conditions in the colony and convert them back to your cause. I am sure the players will find more creative ways to deal with them, though, like stranding them in a Dome without food or water.
PC Gamer: How do wonders work in the game, and what effect do they apply to your dome?
Spasov: Wonders are grand projects that are researched with technology available very late in the game and require tons of resources. Each of them can be constructed only once and grants a major benefit not only to a single Dome, but to the entire colony. They can solve major problems for you like late-game resource depletion and generally look quite impressive.
Coincidentally, there are seven of them, but I will tell you about my favorite—the Artificial Sun. This is our pet name for a fantastic Fusion generator that provides colossal amounts of electrical power. The reaction glows so bright that it illuminates the surrounding area and powers your Solar Panels even during the Martian night, hence the name. You have to be careful to never shut the Artificial Sun down—it requires quite a lot of water to be restarted and since the colony is probably dependent on its Power it is best to ensure that you have the redundancies in place to keep it running at all times.
In the wake of PUBG's ever-growing success, a number of established games have spun their own interpretations of the battle royale formula. Several clones have since surfaced too, which has caused Brendan Greene—aka PlayerUnknown himself—to speak out against the lack of copyright protection in the games industry.
Speaking to BBC Radio 1's Gaming Show (via Newsbeat/gamesindustry.biz), Greene stressed that while he's keen to see the battle royale genre continue to grow, more needs to be done to prevent rip offs.
"I want other developers to put their own spin on the genre... not just lift things from our game," says Greene. "For that to happen you need new and interesting spins on the game mode. If it's just copycats down the line, then the genre doesn't grow and people get bored."
To this end, one particular clone that comes to mind is this Chinese Terminator 2-inspired mobile game that appears to mirror PUBG in both style and appearance. The following footage of that popped up on Reddit earlier this year:
Greene continues: "There's no intellectual property protection in games. In movies and music there is IP protection and you can really look after your work. In gaming that doesn't exist yet, and it's something that should be looked into.
"Some amazing games pass under the radar. Then someone else takes the idea, has a marketing budget, and suddenly has a popular game because they ripped off someone else's idea. I think it's something the industry needs to look into. You're protecting the work of artists basically. Games are art for a large part, and so I think it's important they're protected."
Greene's chat with Radio 1's Gaming Show will feature in full on the BBC iPlayer in January.
D&D and other tabletop games are best played sprawled across a dining room table, but I wondered how close we could get to that in-person roleplaying experience without spending 10 grand flying PC Gamer's remote staff to my house. I didn't want to just find the most efficient way to play D&D online (see our guide to services like Roll20.net and Fantasy Grounds for that), but to really emulate a tabletop session. So I gathered a few PC Gamer editors from around the US, Canada, and Australia for a little experiment: D&D 5e in Tabletop Simulator. And it worked! Surprisingly well, even.
Tabletop Simulator is just what it sounds like, a virtual table where game boards, playing cards, dice, figurines, and other objects can be picked up, dealt, rolled, and chucked around. There are built-in rulesets for common games, but everything down to the lighting and individual object physics can be customized. It's powerful—and frustratingly janky, which is why I worried the whole thing might be a bust. If you instinctively hit Ctrl-Z to undo a line you drew, for example, the whole table reloads, and dropping items near boxes sucks them in nearly instantaneously, making all containers dangerous black holes. My players also had atrocious pings, especially our poor indie editor, Jody, who was connecting to me from Australia.
Yet despite a couple disconnects, the session went at about the pace of any in-person D&D session I've played. Tabletop Simulator has some advantages over a real table, too. Players will never have to go searching for a D12, because you can copy and paste 50 of them into a pile if you want. You can quickly upload prepared battle maps, and cover the table with character sheets, DM cheat sheets (which can be hidden from players), and even 'tablets' open to Google Docs or D&D Beyond if you need to look up a spell or monster stats or pass notes to the players.
Our biggest issue didn't have much to do with Tabletop Simulator itself: it was getting over the awkwardness of roleplaying over voice chat. As our heroes began their journey—each of them out of gold, stranded on a dirt road near a remote inn with a storm approaching—they hesitated to speak first to introduce themselves and make a plan. I quickly moved on to a few perception checks followed by a surprise attack to get everyone rolling and making decisions, and after that, the party met a mysterious dwarf and started to loosen up. If we'd gone for a couple more hours, I think the issue may have resolved itself.
Much of the fault for our hesitant start rests on my inexperience as a DM, but the weirdness of the players being disembodied didn't help. In a typical D&D session, they'd be able to make eye contact with the DM before asking questions, or with each other to indicate they're about to speak. We also jumped right into the game without the socializing and feet dragging that typically precedes an in-person game. Next time, I may mix in video chat—it doesn't totally solve the problem, but could help—and make time for chit-chat as I set up the table, so that the players can discuss their characters and get into the right mindset. And rather than the cold open I attempted, I'd have them metagame a little and introduce their characters to each other as players, so that they can more comfortably assume their roles.
Roll20.net is the cheaper, more practical solution for remote D&D: a clean mapping interface, easy access to official reference material, built-in video chat, and quick dice rolls. More serious players will probably prefer it, and Tabletop Simulator leaves much to be desired despite its frequent patches. Though the Steam Workshop provides a bounty, I'm surprised by how few high-quality fantasy figurines, backgrounds, and table styles are included by default. Clicking links in the tablets sometimes stops working, and the browser is just about featureless: no tabs, no history, no bookmarks. It's also terrible at handling editable text.
So why use Tabletop Simulator? Primarily, to approximate the feeling of being around a real table, with all the goofing off that goes with it: players ignoring the DM and stacking dice, flicking downed monsters off the table, arguing about whether a dice roll was really a roll. And secondarily, because you love spending hours creatively setting up your play space, which I do.
The best thing about Tabletop Simulator is that only the host has to have any Workshop or custom assets used in the game—it's all uploaded to the Steam Cloud and shared with the other players. At the moment, I'm building a multi-layered battle map using hovering boards and a 3D ladder model I imported, and recently, I had some players take on a trio of half-orcs in a game of 'harky,' making them roll d20s to pass and shoot a 'puck' I made by resizing a checkers piece. I'm arguably making it harder for myself by using 3D models and not just a digital pencil, a 2D grid, and a bit of imagination, but the 'physical' space of Tabletop Simulator has only encouraged my creativity, not hampered it. I'm not always going to use maps, but they're useful for keeping track of my more complicated ideas.
As part of the experiment, I also wanted to have as much of my reference material as possible in the game (you can't alt-tab out of a dining room table, and that was the experience I was trying to replicate). So rather than having a physical DM screen cheat sheet awkwardly balanced behind my monitor, or the Monster Manual open in my lap, I put everything I thought I'd need into my Tabletop Simulator setup, including a tablet open to my campaign notes. If you use high-res PNGs as the custom art on in-game 'tiles,' and hold Alt to view them as flat images, or zoom way in, they're perfectly legible. I recently bought the D&D 5e Humble RPG Book Bundle, for instance, created PNGs out of four pages pages of the Kobold Press Book of Lairs, and then created custom tiles in Tabletop Simulator for myself to reference.
It worked just fine, though I wouldn't do it exactly the same way again, as it's much easier to just have a browser window open with my notes. A second monitor (or lots of notes on real paper) is definitely the best friend a Tabletop Simulator DM can have, as running it in a small window or alt-tabbing constantly starts to defeat the purpose, barely differentiating it from easier-to-use browser-based solutions.
If the simpler route sounds more appealing to you, do try out Roll20.net, as accounts there are free, while Tabletop Simulator is $20 on Steam. But if you've made your decision and you've got a DM and some willing but geographically-restricted players, below is a quick guide to getting started playing remote D&D in Tabletop Simulator, as well as links to some of the tools I've used.
1. Have your players make characters with D&D Beyond's step-by-step character creator. If they don't own the digital Player's Handbook, their options will be restricted as they level up, but it's a good way for newcomers to get started. If they're experienced, they can make their characters manually and send you the details.
2. Both the DM and the players will need to reference the character sheets while playing, and there's lots of ways to make this possible. You can upload a PDF of the sheet to Google Drive, share it publicly for anyone with the link, and then open it in an in-game tablet. You can convert the PDFs to PNGs and create custom 'tiles,' then use Tabletop Simulator's counter tools to keep track of gold pieces, HP, and spell slots. You can transfer the information to these editable character sheets from the Steam Workshop. Or you can just print them out, or open them in another window or monitor.
3. Customize your board in a singleplayer session, making sure to check the option to upload any custom images to the Steam Cloud so that all players will see them (unless they're only for you, the DM). I recommend trying out some the pre-made D&D 5e tables from the Steam Workshop and starting there (I used ffrogman's), as the default tables are too small, and many mods already have a hidden DM area set up with tools like a calculator, dice trays, initiative tracker, and note cards. Note that if you click the vertical '...' in the upper right corner of a Workshop mod, you can 'Expand' it to pull the elements you want into your game rather than loading the whole thing.
4. Save your custom table as a 'game' and load it up when you start your multiplayer session. Make sure to password protect your server, as there's apparently been a wave of DDOSing going around. (On that note, I don't recommend trying to play D&D with strangers in a public server. I tried and it went very poorly.) Be sure to save the board state when you're done, so that everything is preserved for the next session. Make lots of backups and save often while you work, too—it is painfully easy to accidentally load a mod instead of expanding it, losing whatever progress you made.
5. Tips for starting your session:
Dungeon Painter: Not the best interface, but useful for quickly designing maps that you can export as PNGs and import into Tabletop Simulator. I used the Steam version, plus Photoshop, to make some of my maps.
Inkarnate: A fantastic, free way to quickly create a world map—just sign up for the beta. I imported my world map onto a tile, locked it, and then used the Gizmo tool to prop it up in a corner. Drop a token labled 'You Are Here' on it if you want.
Donjon's fantasy generators: Part of being a DM is thinking on your feet, but when your players really catch you off guard, a little creative assistance can be needed. Donjon offers a great selection of random fantasy and D&D generators. I'll probably get a lot of use out of its random inn generator especially.
RPG Tinker's NPC generator: Need to quickly create an NPC for your players to meet, or generate stats for one you didn't think they were going to fight? RPG Tinker can instantly generate stats and attack abilities for an opponent or ally of any challenge rating.
We got our first look at Trailmakers, a sandbox construction game that looks like Besiege but with cars and planes, at PAX West earlier this year. Today, developer Flashbulb Games announced Trailmakers will hit Steam Early Access on January 31, 2018, with a free open beta weekend planned for January 11 - 14. It will cost $20 at launch, and its Steam page says the price "will be reviewed" when the Early Access period ends.
Flashbulb says the Early Access build will feature three game modes. Creative mode is singleplayer and gives you infinite resources to build the car-plane-thing of your dreams. There are over 40 vehicles parts in total, including a "transformer part" that lets you switch forms mid-drive. Expedition mode is also singleplayer, but comes with a specific goal: reach the other end of an obstacle-laden island. So, you have to design a vehicle capable of scaling cliffs and clearing gaps, and then drive it yourself.
The third mode is Dethroned, a multiplayer mode described as a "fusion of capture the flag and king of the hill." Up to four players can queue into a match to built battle vehicles and crash them into each other in the noble name of science. Flashbulb reckons their "physics-over-network" tech will keep matches "synchronized perfectly between players," which is a bold claim for an Early Access game.
You can learn more about Trailmakers in our interview with creative director Mikkel Thorsted, and on its official site.