It Lurks Below

Diablo creator David Brevik announced his new passion project, a 2D sandbox RPG called It Lurks Below, earlier this year, citing games like Terraria, Minecraft and, yes, Diablo as major influences. Today, he—and by he, I mean Graybeard Games, the indie studio Brevik founded—announced It Lurks Below's Steam Early Access launch: it's now available on Steam for $20. 

It Lurks Below will remain in Early Access for a few months, but Brevik reckons it will fully release later this year. The current build is "full featured," he says, so he'll be working on fleshing out the end-game content during Early Access. And for those wondering, yes, the price will increase post-Early Access, though we don't know by how much. 

As previously reported, It Lurks Below was born from both Brevik's love of games like Terraria and also his desire for more direction in them. "I wanted to make an RPG, with classes and leveling up, random items, where you get more and more powerful as you go down into the core of the world and fight baddies," he said. It sounds like he's made just that. Here's the Steam blurb: 

"It Lurks Below is a retro-styled, 2D, action-oriented, survival RPG by David Brevik. Create a custom character and choose from several different classes to delve deep into the mysteries of what evil lurks below. Dig down and explore the randomly generated levels, find random items, and combat deadly monsters to get the answers." 

Fighting and building in It Lurks Below look a lot like Terraria, but the best comparison is probably Starbound given its more structured tutorial and storyline. That said, Brevik says the RPG elements bring it closer to Diablo, Hellgate: London and even Marvel Heroes. In any case, it's an intriguing mishmash of tried-and-true ideas, and the early Steam reviews are all positive. Here's my favorite, from user HeapNudal:

"There's chickens 11/10" 

And here are some new screenshots: 


There's a new GeForce driver release available, version 397.31, which delivers optimized graphics support for BattleTech and Frostpunk. Both of those games landed on PC yesterday, and we have reviews up for each one (BattleTech here and Frostpunk here).

Beyond the game optimizations, the release notes (PDF) also mention developer support for Nvidia's RTX ray tracing technology for DirectX 12. Unfortunately this doesn't mean you can enable ray tracing in games, but it does allow developers to start messing around with DirectX ray tracing applications accelerated by RTX, provided they're running a Volta GPU. It also requires Windows 10 Redstone 4, otherwise known (unofficially) as the Spring Creators Update or April Update, which is only available to Windows Insiders at the moment.

Beyond those bits, there are a handful of fixed issues to note. They include:

  • [GeForce GTX 1080 Ti][Doom]: The game crashes due to the driver reverting to OpenGL 1.1 when HDR is enabled.
  • [GeForce GTX 1060][Far Cry 5]: The game crashes after a few minutes of game play.
  • NvfbcPluginWindow temporarily prevents Windows from shutting down after launching a Steam game.
  • [Firefox]: Driver TDR error may occur when using Firefox.
  • [GeForce GTX 1060][Rise of Tomb Raider]: Flickering/corruption occurs when opening the in-game options UI.
  • [NVIDIA Control Panel][SLI][Diablo III]: With V-Sync on and SLI enabled, the game freezes after switching windows (ALT+TAB) a few times. 

You can install the new driver through GeForce Experience, or download and install it manually here.

Grand Theft Auto V

As part of its ongoing Southern San Andreas Super Sport Series (try saying that after a few pints), GTA Online introduced The Vespucci Job last week—an Italian Job-inspired police chase 'em up, complete with knock-off Minis. For the second week running, the new mode is subject to double GTA$ and RP. 

I loved 1999's Grand Theft Auto: London, therefore the idea of touring an old school Mini Cooper-like brief around San An appealed to me—even if I wasn't immediately sold on The Vespucci Job mode itself. After jumping in last weekend, though, I really enjoyed careering around downtown Los Santos, both as the boys in blue and behind the wheel of a nimble Weeny Issi Classic. 

As the Mini in each 3v1 scenario, you must evade the law while collecting 15 checkpoints inside five minutes. As the cops, you must stop the Mini. I found the latter to be trickier—and thus more fun—as, despite outnumbering the getaway car three-to-one, maps are filled with narrow lanes and sharp bends that squad cars struggle to navigate. Like, say, Motor Wars, The Vespucci Job boasts multiple missions, each of which is set within a different corner of the map.

I'd love to see more of this cat and mouse-style approach fed into GTA Online's heists, or even its story-lite supply missions. Speaking to the latter, Smuggler's Run Sell Missions are also subject to double RP and GTA$ from now through April 30, as are Hotring Circuit races and Stockpile bouts. A selection of aircraft are on sale this week too—not least the Nagasaki Ultralight and its Havok counterpart. 

Of GTA Online's upcoming updates, Rockstar says: "On Tuesday, May 1, swerve around underwater mines, glide through sunny mountain ranges and boost through air gates as you compete in the latest addition to the Southern San Andreas Super Sport Series that feature fan-favorite vehicles from The Doomsday Heist: the Imponte Deluxo, Ocelot Stromberg and Mammoth Thruster."

More details on that and all of the above can be found on Rockstar's Newswire

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

Ninja Theory's Hellblade was arguably a surprise success last year, selling over half a million copies on both PC and PS4 and getting positive notices from the likes of us. This Viking age-set hack-and-slash adventure found an interesting middle ground between big $60 game and indie game, helped by the fact that it looked and sounded amazing, and had a price point that made sense for the scope of experience on offer. 

Earlier this month, Ninja Theory won a staggering five BAFTAs for the game, and to chief creative director Tameem Antoniades, that level of acclaim obviously means a lot. "It's sort of a validation of the model we chose, which was to do something outside of the publisher model, taking all the risk ourselves, putting our own money into it. And then relying on our team. All of us had no real reason to believe that this would be successful, but everyone put everything into it."

When I visited Ninja Theory in Cambridge in late 2014 to see Hellblade in a really early state, most of the staff were working on the now-defunct Disney Infinity. Antoniades was realistic in our conversations about the difficulty of working with big publishers as a mid-sized independent studio, and how that led to Hellblade, a game funded, published and owned by Ninja Theory itself. "Back when we started, the big publishers started to move away from consoles," says Antoniades when I speak to him at Rezzed. "They were abandoning consoles for mobile and free-to-play, and the publishers were investing in their own internal teams and not coming to studios like us. So we couldn't get signed, despite our history and track record. 

"We couldn't get signed, and when we did get signed, various projects quickly collapsed. So it felt like there was no place for us, and people would say to us, you can either do big triple-A or you can be small indie—there's nothing in between. We did have our backs against the wall, and things were looking dark, which is why we had to do something about it. Take a different path. I'm glad we did. I'm glad we were in the situation where we had to take a big chance."

Ninja Theory has previously worked on great games like Enslaved and DmC, in collaboration with publishers.

Cashflow is no longer an immediate concern for the studio, which is encouraging to hear. "For the first time in 18 years, we feel like we're now in the driving seat. That doesn't mean that we won't do work for hire and work with other publishers, because I think having a healthy mix of work-for-hire, publisher work and original work is better than going back to how we were, which was being a one-team studio. Things got very precarious after you'd finish a project."

I ask Antoniades why he thinks Hellblade stood out at a time when it's hard for independent developers to get eyes on their games. "I think there are a few keys to that. One is your game has to be creatively different to what's out there. If you're doing a smaller version of a bigger game, no one will be interested. So you have to take a different path, which in our case was exploring mental health and psychosis. So you have to have something that's worth talking about.

"But the second thing we did was we built up a following through our 30 development diaries, and just before release, we asked our supporters, the people who were following, to pre-order the game to help us. We were quite open about it—'we need your help, please pre-order the game'. And we used money from the pre-orders to launch a marketing campaign, so at least we had a chance. That's a good lesson to take forward. And those followers were our PR army. They were out there, spreading the word, and this is a game, if it's successful, it's because of the word-of-mouth power."

The future of Ninja Theory

"This year, I think we'll start showing some new stuff," Antoniades tells me. "We have 100 people...working on a mix of projects on different sizes and different themes. Some in VR, some in traditional. It's quite a good mix actually." I ask if the success of Hellblade means Antoniades feels any pressure to explore serious subjects in Ninja Theory's next game. "I think that's more down to my own personal interest. We've got other projects on the go, led by different team members who have their own personal slant on what they want to do, and they're not serious subjects, they are much more fun, traditional games if you like. 

"You can see it back from Heavenly Sword: I've been interested in the idea of the medium being used in a way that games like Ico and Another World on the Amiga and Prince of Persia. I like that kind of experience, the personal hero journey. And I'd like to explore more interesting subjects like that."

For Antoniades' team and their next game, he plans to restrict the scale of the operation once again. "I think it was the severe lack of money and people that made this game innovate, that made the team innovate." I ask if the solutions they found in compensating for Hellblade's limits in team size and budget puts them in a good position for their next project. "Yes. So we can build on that, but we can find new challenges. The magic of games for me as I was growing up, or in this industry, is that certain developers—John Carmack, Peter Molyneux—certain teams and certain developers just seemed to create magic out of nowhere. 

"They were creating such amazing things. I'd like to be part of that culture."

The meaning of permadeath

At launch, Hellblade generated a lot of discussion around permadeath. The markings on Senua's arm creep up the more she dies in the story, and the game suggests that 'all progress will be lost' once the markings reach her head. The game never deletes your save, though, but just the idea of it provoked a lot of conversation—some interesting, some frustrating as you might expect. Either way, I'm pretty certain it was good for the game's profile.

"Looking back, it probably was," Antoniades says. "It did blow up a little on Twitter. We watched with some amusement at the conversations that went around it. The outrage, the debate. But what I'd like to say about that, is it wasn't a gimmick. It was in service of the story, which is why we did it. Some people say we lied—if you look at that statement we put out about the game, about the permadeath, it's not a lie. It's actually true. But our interpretation of it is what counts, is what causes anxiety. And that was a very deliberate move, because the whole game is about our interpretation of reality and how we undermine our own belief systems and how we suffer by believing things that we are absolutely certain works in one way, and it turns out it's another thing."

Antoniades tells me that he was inspired by the movie Fargo for this idea, which famously opens with the message 'This is a true story' despite being an entirely fictional tale.

Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire is an excellent roguelike deck building game, but don't just take my word for it. Even in Early Access the game has a 10,000-strong 'overwhelmingly positive' rating on Steam, and has inspired an active subreddit and speed running community. 

Soon the third Early Access character will join the Ironclad and the Silent, introducing a whole new deck for the community to tear into. I called up lead designer Anthony Giovannetti—who conceptualised and built Slay the Spire with Casey Yano—to get a sense of where Slay the Spire came from, and where it's going. The two computer science majors dabbled in Flash and phone games as hobbyists before leaving their jobs to take a gamble on on this game, which is their first full-time game development project.

PC Gamer: You teased a robot in one of your recent updates.

Anthony Giovannetti: Sure. The new character is going to be a robot, it's going to play very differently to both the Ironclad and the Silent. It channels these orbs that it uses—these magic orbs—to power itself up and use them to great effect [you can see the orbs in the latest dev update—Tom]. It has a very different play style.

Is that why you've kept this guy as the third character? It seems like there's a difficulty curve as you move through the characters.

Yeah, so the Ironclad is definitely—not for everyone—but the Ironclad is I would consider the easier character. The mechanics are a bit simpler so it's easy to learn. With the Silent we increased the complexity and then with this third character there's another increase in complexity, especially because a lot of the people that are going to be playing this character, they've already played the game for lots and lots of hours. They're ready to handle something more complex.

Is this the last piece of the puzzle for Slay the Spire?

It is not the last piece of the puzzle. So we actually will be having more than three characters but at least for what we consider our 1.0 launch—launching out of Early Access—it will probably be the last character. After that we'll put out more characters but they won't be in the Early Access frame.

Will those be paid-for updates, or free updates?

We're not quite sure how we're going to handle it yet. It depends on factors like how well the game's still doing and stuff like that. Yeah, we'll see.

In terms of broader design inspirations, where did you start with Slay the Spire?

We started working on it about two-and-a-half years ago. I've always been a big card game player. I've played a lot of Magic growing up, a lot of Netrunner, and I've enjoyed almost all of the deckbuilding games like Dominion, Puzzle Strike, Ascension, games like that. I had this big card game background and I thought that roguelikes would pair really well with deck building games. In a roguelike you're always restarting from ground zero and in a deck building game you're always starting from ground zero again and building a new deck every time. You have a reason to be trying new things, trying out new deck combinations.

Casey he's played a lot of roguelike games. He doesn't have so much of a card game past but he's played a lot of action and roguelike games. We come at it from two different perspectives and that's been a big help for Slay the Spire.

It's an interesting combination because the randomisation pushes you into new directions with your deck, you're forced to adapt to what you're given.

That's one of the things we really wanted. I didn't want it where you play the game and every time you build the same deck because I think it's actually pretty boring. We really wanted to push people into having to adapt on the fly. I think the relics really help with that. You might get a relic that totally changes the nature of the run. If you get Dead Branch, all of a sudden your run is likely all about exhausting now. It's going to play totally different than a run without dead branch.

Are there any specific elements from the card games you grew up with you wanted to emulate or borrow?

I knew that I wanted to have a constant feeling of updating your deck. I always enjoyed things like drafting in Magic. I think the most fun part of it is the actual building of your deck. But in terms of the mechanics within the combat I was for sure that we wanted a cost system for cards. In a lot of deck building games you'll just draw your hand and you'll play out your whole hand and you'll get all your resources and do stuff with them. I much more enjoy games where you have to think about how you play your hand, and there's a lot of skill in how you utilise that. That's why we have an energy system that's like mana. That's really important for allowing us to balance the game and make individual decisions in combat more interesting.


How do you go about balancing the game? The community seems to be a big part of it.

Balancing is very interesting. One of the tools that we use is that almost everyone that plays, they upload their game data to our servers, and then we can analyse how their game went, what cards they picked, their win rates. We get lots and lots of data on how everyone is doing—what the best cards are, what enemies are doing the most damage. We use that data as a lens to try and tweak and improve the balance of the game.

Almost everyone that plays, they upload their game data to our servers, and then we can analyse how their game went, what cards they picked, their win rates.

It's a big part of it because we try to make evidence-based decisions. I'm really big on data-driven analysis, but at the same time it can't show you the whole story because there's a lot of things that are maybe conflated with something else, and so you're being driven to a misleading conclusion, or the data can't show you how fun a given part is, so we also still play the game a lot and try to get a raw feel for it.

In addition to that we try to pay attention to the community to see what they're actually saying. I read our subreddit pretty much every day, make sure I go over most of the posts. We have an official Discord and people talk in that and we have a bot setup so if anyone has a bug or they have feedback they can just say it and the bot will collect it.

We use all of that to holistically help us figure out what we think, and then find out what's the data to balance it. It's by no means perfect at all. Part of why we did this data-driven approach is because I have this big experience with card games in the past. I told Casey early on that we're going to have hundreds of cards, plus we have all these relics interacting with everything. There's no way that just the two of us can possibly balance this all correctly. We're going to need to develop a system that allows us to get closer to a good state of balance. A big part of that was before we even launched in Early Access we had set up these systems and our internal playtesters were playing a lot, and they were giving us that initial data to seed things and help us balance it.

Do your regular players almost always beat the game?

No. Definitely not. The win percentage for an average player fluctuates based on character and the current state of the balance but it's not that high, but that's intentional. We want it to be pretty skill-based. If you jump in on your first time and you're like 'this is the easiest game ever' that wouldn't be very satisfying. We want you to feel like you learn and get better and make progress.

But we also track how long you've been playing for and stuff like that. We can see that as people play more they do get better over time, and the win rates do go up a lot. However the average win rate is still pretty low but when you get the super good players they can have win rates that are incredibly high.

I've been enjoying watching speed runs on Twitch. There’s a pretty active community there.

I've always enjoyed speed running, I've never been any good at it, but I've enjoyed watching it. I remember back in high school watching some early speed runners, so I was really excited when that community started up round our game. Both Casey and I really like speed runs, and we've actually tried to foster and help them grow. We have a channel in our Discord for the speed runners, anyone can come in and give input there.

Even though I can win 100% of the games I play I cannot go even close to that fast so it's just good to see people doing these things that I cannot even come close to.

An example of this is that at one point we were making an event called The Secret Portal. Basically it can show up in Act 3 and it's an event that can immediately send you to the boss. It was in our beta branch and the speed runners were saying 'well, we don't really like this event because if you're speed running the difference between getting this event and not is astronomical. It can skip a huge portion of the act. We made it so that event will only show up if you've been playing it for at least 15 minutes. If you're a speed runner it's not affecting you because they're way under 15 minutes, but if you're a regular player it's also not going to affect you because you're probably not in Act 3 at the 15-minute mark. We ran that solution by them, they really liked it, we implemented it, and it's been popular.

I've been happy watching the speed runners get faster and faster. It's pretty crazy, I've been playing this game a lot, and when we push out an update or something I've played that at least a couple of times to make sure that nothing's broken, and even though I can win 100% of the games I play I cannot go even close to that fast so it's just good to see people doing these things that I cannot even come close to.

I'm addicted to the daily challenges at the moment, particularly the way they unbalance the game in entertaining ways.

Early on we were thinking 'okay well what are various things that we want in place that other roguelikes have. Several other roguelikes have dailies, like Spelunky, so we thought 'okay we should probably have some kind of a daily system and see how that goes.' The initial implementation of it, we thought 'oh we'll add some modifiers, try to mix things up, but we want this to be a mostly hard experience.’ We put that out to have our community test it and we got feedback and they said 'ugh this is just not that fun, it's too hard, we like some of these modifiers they're interesting, but then a lot of these other ones are not fun to play with.’

I went back to the drawing board and I was like 'why don't we, instead of making this just an extra hard mode which we already have ascension for, why don't we focus more on these interesting modifiers that bring new experiences to the game, really focus on that, ramp those up, see how that goes.’ I went back, changed the modifiers, changed some of the underlying systems and almost instantaneously people were loving it, saying how much better it was. We've kept it that way ever since. We're slowly adding more mods. I have more planned, but yeah I think it's been a big hit. It's a good example of the Early Access process being very useful for improving the game. If we were just releasing and saying 'this is how dailies are, here's the whole game' that wouldn't have been improved. Instead I was able to listen to the feedback and iterate upon it really quickly and improve it to what it's currently at.

Are there any particular cards or strats that you particularly like?

I would say that the deck I enjoy the most is still the exhaust-heavy deck, with corruption in particular, because of how much it completely forces you to reevaluate cards. It's a card that changed a lot over the internal data process. Corruption is a 3-cost power that make all your skills free but they exhaust when they're played. It used to actually be much better than that, which is crazy, because it's a strong card as-is. Early on, we weren't quite sure about things, was forcing your cards to exhaust a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe it's a bad thing, so we gave it some additional upsides as well and quickly found out that it was completely degenerate and needed completely changing. I really like it in its current state.

Slay the Spire is currently in Early Access. The third robot character is heading to beta branch this week.

PC Gamer

Looking down Frankfort Avenue towards the heart of Algonquin

This Sunday, Grand Theft Auto 4 turns ten years old (it came out later on PC, of course, something we've gotten used to from Rockstar). I remember the excitement of that first trailer, a stylish riff on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, featuring timelapse shots of Liberty City set to Pruit Igoe by Philip Glass. And it’s these images that come to mind when I think about the game, more than Niko Bellic, Three Leaf Clover, or any of that. I see those great canyons of concrete and glass teeming with yellow cabs, the sun casting a hazy glow over the skyline, and that unmistakable palette of autumnal oranges and cool blues.

Liberty City had appeared twice before in the main GTA series, in top-down form in the original and in primitive 3D in Grand Theft Auto 3. The latter is a memorable setting in its own right, but never really felt like the city it was supposed to be an analogue of. With 4, however, Rockstar not only made a city that looked like New York, but one that captured its distinctive atmosphere and culture. It’s arguably one of the most impressive imaginary cities ever built, but I wondered how it would stand up to scrutiny a decade later, through cruel, modern eyes. So I decided to pay it a visit.

After spending 100+ hours surrounded by the sandy beaches, hillside mansions, and quiet mountains of Los Santos and Blaine County, the grey, claustrophobic urban sprawl of Liberty City feels wildly different. The most striking thing is how much bigger it seems, despite being a third of the size. It’s the way the camera’s field of view widens when you swing it up, making those skyscrapers look impossibly tall. This is a sensation I get when I visit New York: a kind of reverse vertigo as my brain tries to process how far those buildings stretch.

The garish advertising billboards of Star Junction

The Statue of Happiness holds a cup of coffee instead of a torch

Los Santos almost always looks bright and vivid, but Liberty City is much more muted and desaturated in comparison. The colours shift from pale blues in the afternoon, to balmy sepia tones in the evening, with scattered clouds of grey occasionally drifting in. It gives the whole game a very different, more pessimistic feel, which does reflect the downbeat story. 4 can be a little too grim and self-serious at times, especially compared to 5, but like it or not, it’s the kind of hard-boiled story that makes sense in an atmosphere like this.

Liberty City is split into four boroughs—Algonquin, Broker, Dukes, and Bohan—each of which has its own unique personality. Algonquin is Rockstar’s take on Manhattan: a bustling sprawl of skyscrapers featuring landmarks such as the Rotterdam Tower and Middle Park, which are based on the Empire State and Central Park respectively. The skyline taunts you from afar while the game keeps you restricted to Broker for its first few hours, making the moment you finally get to explore it a real thrill. Star Junction is still really impressive at night, and it’s here where the sheer, dizzying verticality of the city hits you hardest.

And to the west is Alderney, which is 4’s version of New Jersey. Although technically its own state, it still feels like part of the city and is home to a large industrial district and the clubhouse of The Lost M.C. The variations in mood and architecture in each district create the illusion that Liberty City is much bigger than it actually is, which is something Rockstar does particularly well. A similar effect was achieved in Red Dead Redemption, which still hasn't made its way to PC sadly. Flying above the city and realising it's surrounded by an endless ocean, rather than connected to a landmass, is a little jarring, though.

One of the many housing projects found in the city

A shopfront on Galveston Avenue in Algonquin

Episodes From Liberty City is a standalone spin-off, featuring expansions The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, which gives you two very different perspectives on the city. It’s amazing how these expansions make the setting feel brand new, even if you’ve already sunk 50 hours into Niko’s story. And by letting you dip into these sharply different subcultures—the club scene in Gay Tony, motorcycle gangs in Lost and Damned—the city feels all the richer for it. It’s a shame we didn’t see Rockstar develop something similar for 5, because Los Santos and the surrounding country are crying out for more stories to be told there. You can thank the crazy success of GTA Online for that.

Liberty City sounds amazing too, and I don't think Rockstar North's audio designers get enough credit for that. Sure, it's hard to appreciate the ambience when you're cruising around listening to Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks or blasting fools with a micro SMG, but it's worth taking a moment to just stop and listen. The low roar of traffic, chirping mobile phones, and police sirens wailing in the distance make for a wonderfully immersive city soundscape.

Los Santos and Blaine County have LC easily beat when it comes to detail and fidelity, of course. The streets of LC feel a little sparse and lifeless, and there isn’t much in the way of unique NPC behaviour. But 5 is the result of an extra decade of advances in videogame technology, so that’s to be expected. The important thing is that, in an artistic sense, Liberty City hasn’t aged at all. It’s still a brilliantly evocative, atmospheric space, deftly capturing the spirit of the city it’s based on. I don’t know where GTA will take us next—a contemporary Vice City recovering from the hangover of its ‘80s excess is my own personal dream—but I can’t wait to explore another one of these incredible virtual cities.

Traffic on Jade Street, heading towards Star Junction

The Algonquin Bridge, based on the real-life Manhattan Bridge


Reading from this post's headline alone, Steam's 'Games From Denmark' sale discounts some pretty impressive games. Reading from the full list of special offers running now through Friday at 10am PST/6pm BST unearths even more gems worth your time. 

Because besides IO Interactive's Hitman Game of the Year Edition (£22.48/$31.30), and Playdead's Limbo (£1.39/$1.99) and Inside (£7.49/$9.99)—which we scored 84, 92 and 74 respectively at launch—the likes of Bedtime Digital Games' Figment (£8.99/$11.99), Gears for Breakfast's A Hat in Time (£16.09/$20.99), and House on Fire's The Silent Age (£0.69/$0.99) are all subjects of the sale. 

Likewise, Ultra Ultra's wonderful Echo is worth a gander at £12.72/$16.74, as is Carlson Games' 140 for £1.35/$1.69. If you fancy (re)discovering the Bald Butcher's murderous past, know that Hitman 2 and Absolution also have 75 percent discounts, coming in at £1.24/$1.74 and £3.74/$4.99. 

Check out Steam's Games From Denmark sale in full over here—which again runs now through Friday, April 27. 

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

After launching Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice in August last year, developer Ninja Theory reported "better than expected" sales by October. Six months after that, the dark fantasy action adventure triumphed in five categories at the British Academy Games Awards. 

In conversation with Samuel at Rezzed, chief creative director Tameem Antoniades said that while he and his team expected Hellblade's sales to excel on console—the overall split was closer than anticipated.    

"We did see this as primarily a PlayStation 4 title, and we thought that platform would be the bulk of our sales, and in fact it was pretty evenly split," explains Antoniades. "So going forward, we will make sure that we get our interface and everything right for the PC audience as well."

Following his warm review, Leif Johnson explained why games like Hellblade are eroding the border between indie and triple-A. Hellblade has since earned a place on our coveted best stories in PC gaming list—all of which underscores its place on this platform.  

Antoniades adds: "We were so surprised that so many people played the game with mouse and keyboard, and we dropped the ball a little bit at the start. We patched it afterwards, but we dropped the ball with our mouse and keyboard support." 

Additional reporting by Samuel Roberts. 

DG2: Defense Grid 2

Even turrets dress up for their graduation photos. Art by Michael Fitzhywel.

"We wanted to make a beer game," says Michael Austin, creative director and co-founder of Hidden Path Entertainment. "That's a game you can play with one hand while holding a beer." 

Though Austin and his fellow veterans at Hidden Path had previously worked on several games, Defense Grid: The Awakening was their first self-published title. They released it in 2008, when the tower defense genre was still mostly mods for games like Warcraft 3 and a few smartphone and browser games. Austin saw a fellow employee playing Desktop Tower Defense, and became inspired. "I wanted to make a AAA tower defense game, since the genre had only been in mods and flash games so far. I wanted to make Defense Grid because that's a game I wanted to play."

Defense Grid: The Awakening was originally set to release on Xbox Live Arcade, through a publishing deal with Microsoft. "Two months before we were going to launch on Xbox Live Arcade, they delayed us a by a year, because they had a similar game launching at the time," says Austin. (That other game was South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play.) "But we needed the funding, so we went to Steam. It was a new platform, maybe it'll be big some day?"

Defense Grid: The Awakening was one of the early third-party games released on Steam—Austin boasts that it has a five-digit Steam ID—and proved hugely successful. The campaign featured 20 levels with multiple medals to earn and challenge modes to unlock, making for a large variety of replay with minimal design work. 

When you're playing this game you feel like you are the last bastion defending earth against the invaders. Having someone cheering you on and appreciating what you're doing was really important.

Michael Austin

"The design challenge is making a game that everyone can pass, but that still has a ton of depth," says Austin. Defense Grid achieved that with its cores—each map featured a number of glowing orbs that needed to be protected from the onslaught of invading aliens. If enemies reached a core they would pick it up and begin the long trek back, giving players a second chance at redemption. It gave them a unique sliding scale of victory. 

"That presented a huge amount of difficulty range," Austin continues. "The expert players wouldn't let the aliens touch a single core, while beginners could be proud that they survived with a single core left. It gave a wide range of challenge within a single map, without having to select a difficulty."

Another of Defense Grid's memorable qualities is the minimalist story, told through the solitary AI character, Fletcher. "We originally wanted cutscenes but didn't have the budget," says Austin. "We wanted to do interactive dialogue between the player and the computer AI. It was frustrating because people didn't care about the story. I went to our writer and told her we needed to get rid of one of our characters. We only had two characters!"

The story was further hacked up and refined, until a succinct, poignant tale of a lonely AI defending the world was left. "I look it at as this great loss of a fantastic story and cutscenes," says Austin. "But now when you play the game people praise the story and the talking AI. When you're playing this game you feel like you are the last bastion defending earth against the invaders. Having someone cheering you on and appreciating what you're doing was really important."

Though GLaDOS is a lot less friendly, comparisons between the story and that of Portal are not lost on Austin. "I think Portal was definitely an influence," he says. Valve didn't seem to mind—they were so impressed by Defense Grid they licensed GLaDOS for a special DLC level pack. The partnership didn't end there. "We got a lot of opportunities from Defense Grid, a lot of reputation," says Austin. "We did a little game called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive purely because Valve loved Defense Grid and wanted to work with us."

In the decade since, Hidden Path has returned to tower defense several times, including a series of DLC level packs and a Kickstarted sequel. Or was it an expansion? "We wanted to make Defense Grid 2 for a while, but we didn't have the budget for it. We went to Kickstarter and learned a valuable lesson," says Austin. "We wanted to Kickstart a Defense Grid expansion, and if it funded enough we could do Defense Grid 2. Turns out that's a really complicated message to explain."

The campaign technically funded, but only enough for an expansion to the original game, leaving lots of backers and fans confused and disappointed. The expansion, Containment, released in 2013, five years after the base game's initial launch. 

Defense Grid 2 was eventually funded thanks to an angel investor. Hidden Path added two major features they weren’t able to fit into the original: multiplayer and a level editor. But during development they may have forgotten the reason people loved the original story. "We went big on the story, which we probably shouldn’t have," Austin explains. Defense Grid 2 sold well, but not well enough to produce a third game, and the map editor had replaced the need for DLC.

In the following years Hidden Path has successfully pivoted to producing VR games, applying many of their design choices and philosophies to their new best-sellers. "We've pulled the degrees of success—that you can succeed, and there's a harder success bar to cross—into a lot of our games," says Austin. Their latest VR game, Brass Tactics, is an RTS that creates the feeling of miniatures in a tabletop wargame. Even with their experience on the Defense Grid games it took them six months to nail the interface, and trying to drink a beer while playing VR is probably not recommended.

A decade later Defense Grid: The Awakening remains one of the most beloved tower defense games ever made. Many tower defense games hybridize the genre with varying degrees of success (Austin is particularly fond of Sanctum and the many ways it plays homage), but Defense Grid maintains its position as one of the best vanilla tower defense games there is, and is uniquely enjoyable by both newcomers and hardcore veterans alike.

"As somebody in entertainment the best feeling ever is having someone tell you about their story with your game and their experience," says Austin. "Defense Grid has brought me many stories, like their eyes lighting up when they tell me about a juggernaut about to make off with the last core, only to get gunned down at the final second, giving them the victory. That's why I'm in games."

This article is part of the Class of 2008, a series of retrospectives about indie games that were released 10 years ago.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege

During an AMA today on the game’s subreddit with members of the balancing team, Rainbow Six Siege developers hinted at changes to the speed and armor dynamic of the game coming soon. Currently the mobility and durability of Siege's 36 operators are rated between one and three. Bulkier operators like Rook move more slowly and have larger hitboxes, but in theory make up for their slowness with greater damage resistance. However, in practice, fast-movers with smaller hitboxes tend to win gunfights if they make small, quick peeks.

User PhD_Bagel asked a question on behalf of the Doc and Rook mains of the world: “[Are] there any plans to balance/change speed and armor? Currently, it seems that 3 speed is far superior to 3 armor.”

It’s not a question that most of the community would have expected such a candid answer to, as it’s a topic that the studio has mostly avoided for years. But user research project manager Julien Huguenin chimed in with a very clear response. “Yes. We agree. We are looking for ways to make both 3 speeds less dominant and 1 speeds more viable.”

Game designer Jean-Baptiste Hallé went even further, saying to “Keep an eye on the next Test Server. ;)”

In response to one comment, Ubisoft data scientist Geoffroy Mouret teased the possibility of new attachments or secondary gadgets coming to the game. “Check the Test Server patch notes tomorrow,” adding his own winking emoticon for emphasis. A new secondary gadget or attachment would be big: we haven't seen a new addition of this type since Operation Skull Rain in August 2016, which introduced the impact grenade.

The developers also took time to address the elephant in the room: Lion. It’s been clear since Operation Chimera’s release that the new attacking operator is extremely useful, boasting a near 100-percent pick rate in the Rainbow Six Siege Pro League. Before release, pro players warned Ubi that he felt dominant. And while nerfs are coming by way of decreasing the scan’s effectiveness and increasing the cooldown, Huguenin admits that this should have been addressed before release.

“One thing I would like to add is that we cannot always take the Pro feedback at face value. We always gather their feedback, and must make a decision on whether or not to act on it. That being said, for Lion, we made a mistake, and should have reduced the amount of charges and increased the cooldown before release.”

Hallé also addressed this issue, saying that by the time the team had gotten feedback from pro players, it was too close to release. “We did not have time to modify that system before the release of the Operator. This shows that we have room for improvement in our iteration pipeline.” He added that they are working on ways to improve their feedback and iteration loops so that this can be avoided in the future. 

We haven't seen a new secondary gadget since Operation Skull Rain in August 2016, which introduced the impact grenade.

Later, Hallé further reflected on Lion, explaining that “When Lion was in conception, many of us genuinely believed that not moving was an easy adaptation. Being wrong about that is not our biggest mistake. Our biggest mistake was the outline itself. It does not leave any room for counter play. This is a more general learning for us, and we will be extremely careful if we ever use this type of mechanic again.”

Players always love to hear about operator reworks, as they can breathe new life into a stagnant and low-picked character. In response to a commenter, Hallé said that three operators are being prototyped for reworks, and we should expect the next one soon. “We have 3 reworks in the prototype phase for some of our least used Operators (Not Tachanka). We have another coming on the next Test Server.” Sorry, Tachanka mains. 

One operator came up several times as a candidate for a rework: Echo. This hints that he's under the microscope, and that he's one of the reworks coming soon. There also seems to be a consensus between Hallé and Huguenin as to who the most frustrating operator to balance is.


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