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Earlier this week, we asked you to tell us the last physical copy of a PC game you bought, while sharing our own choices. Today, as a kind of sequel to that question, we ask, what was the first downloadable game you bought on PC?
In the PC Gamer Q&A, we ask the global PC Gamer team for their thoughts on a particular subject, then invite you to add your thoughts in the comments below. We'll also feature a few answers from the PC Gamer Club Discord, accessible to anyone who's a part of our membership program.
You'll find our answers below, and we'd love to hear what your first paid downloadable game was too.
I'll take the easy route on this one, because it's also true: Half-Life 2 was the first downloadable game I bought. I also played Counter-Strike 1.6 on the platform (including using the Steam beta), but that was a mod for Half-Life so I didn't pay for it. Anyway, HL2 required Steam, so what else was I going to do? I'm old enough that having a credit card and high-speed internet back in 2004 wasn't a problem, and I was luckier than some, in that Steam worked basically without a hitch for me. Sure, there were a few outages, but I don't recall them ever really affecting me.
I played (and benchmarked) Half-Life 2 all the way to the end in the first week or so after its release, and I thought the convenience of downloading a game was pretty awesome. Others hated the idea, but I don't think any of us could have guessed how huge Steam would become over the next decade. It went from a place where you bought Valve games and maybe a few others, to eventually becoming the virtual storefront for 95 percent of all the games I own. No wonder EA, Ubisoft, and Activision want a piece of that pie.
I kept buying boxed copies of games for ages because slow Australian internet made downloading them a hassle, until I got into small indie games that wouldn't bust my data limit. The first was Uplink, which let me live out the fantasy of being an elite computer hacker and also the fantasy of having really fast internet.
It's designed to make you feel like you're in the movie Sneakers, and for a while it did. Like every other hacking game I've tried—games like Hack 'n' Slash, and else.Heart.Break()—it eventually started to feel like work instead of fun. Now when I want to pretend I'm a hacker I just go to hackertyper.net. What it did get me into was playing more small, personal projects and I found plenty of those to love. The next two were Atom Zombie Smasher and Audiosurf, both of which became favorites.
Right when rhythm action games were blowing up on console, but tended to focus on guitar music that I didn't really like and plastic controllers that took up way too much space in a single person's bedroom, a friend explained how there was a rhythm action game where you could play your own songs. The novelty of this was huge to me. I was 20 at the time, working on a PlayStation magazine, and I didn't really have the cash for a good PC, having wasted hundreds of pounds on a PS3 I needed for work—which broke a year later. Sigh. At least I got to play Uncharted, I suppose. Eventually, my parents bought me an okayish laptop, and one of the first things I did was download Audiosurf on Steam.
It was pretty amazing, to upload my favourite tracks into the game and to have so many cool and challenging ways to play them, along with leaderboards. This was one of the first PC games of the modern era that really showed me why playing on PC was better—both in terms of the variety of games available, and the experiences that only PC could give you. If I wanted to play the theme tune from Max Payne 2 in a rhythm action game, I could do it, damn it!
Now I own close to 1000 games across Steam, GOG, uPlay, Battle.net and Origin, and I don't know why I've done that to myself.
Remember the short-lived SiN Episodes reboot? I can't remember why I chose to make that my first digital purchase rather than, say, Half-Life 2, but it was. It was this whole ordeal. I didn't have a credit card and Steam bucks weren't really a thing back then, so I went to a friend's house (hey, Anton, I'll find that copy of Kingdom Hearts and return it as soon as I can) just to ask their older sister to let me use hers. Digital game marketplaces were a new concept back then, and she didn't play many games anyway, so it 100-percent came off as a con.
Your little brother's good friend rolls in with wearing the edgiest Linkin Park t-shirt he could find at Goodwill, then asks, under his breath, to borrow your credit card to purchase something from "Steam" called "Sin". My ma had just started preaching at the local Presbyterian church and everyone knew it, so the look Anton's sister threw my way had me worried her eyes might pop out. Not sure why she agreed in the end, but thanks, Roxie. Only had dial-up internet at the time, so my parents paid for it next with a phone line that wouldn't put a call through for a day or two. And when I finally played Episode 1, the only episode ever released, I remember feeling like all the trouble was worth it. The novelty of a game floating somewhere in the ether that I could call mine and play from any computer was incredibly empowering. Bit of a shit game, but SiN Episode 1 got me hooked on Steam, and set me right in the path of innumerable indie games I would have missed otherwise.
I spent most of my 2000s dealing with a laptop that became too hot to handle after just 20 minutes of Command & Conquer: Generals. As such, the advent of Steam passed me by—if it wasn't a sedate isometric strategy game or RPG, I wasn't prepared to suffer the third-degree burns required to play it. In 2008, though, I got a real job and saved enough money to buy a desktop PC. I downloaded Steam, fully intending to finally play Half-Life 2. Instead, I ran face first into a Steam sale. Prey was on offer for about £3. I didn't know what it was, or if it was any good, but at that price how could I not immediately buy it?
It was good. Prey is far from amazing, but if you don't know any better—for instance if you hadn't played an FPS since Quake because your last decade had been spent ordering many sprites to gib many orcs in the various Infinity Engine RPGs—it looked spectacular. I also bought Audiosurf on the same day, because everyone bought Audiosurf in 2008.
My Steam purchase history only goes back to 2007 for some reason, but I have to assume it was Half-Life 2. I remember staying up late to unlock it. It launched fine, and I remember seeing those Combine metrocops walking around on the menu screen. Instead of playing, though, I decided to change a couple graphics options, and then had to restart. And that's when Steam completely tanked. I couldn't get back in. I missed my window to play a game I'd been waiting years for, and after about three hours of not being able to connect, I just had to give up and go to sleep because I had work in the morning. I'm sure glad that 15 years later games no longer have launch day issues, huh? Huh?
We got a few answers from the Club Discord, so thanks all who responded. "I'm pretty sure my first digital game was Mass Effect 1 &2 in 2010 because I'm old and until that point I always got games from a store," says user IronGnomee. "A podcast I listened to at the time was always saying how amazing Commander Shepard was so I finally tried it out."
"As far as I can remember, it would be The Orange Box," says user Buttface Jones in Discord. "I had played PC games before TOB, like Quake, Command and Conquer, and WoW but always from a disc. I bought TOB on Xbox and fell in love with TF2, despite how bad and limited the Xbox version was. I eventually got fed up and downloaded Steam specifically to play 'the real TF2'."
User Buttz says Garry's Mod on Steam. Imbaer adds, "Orange box in 2008 for me." Fellow user erdelf adds "Stargate Resistance honestly, before that I bought games in the store or played f2p online games."
Let us know the first downloadable game you bought below!
A telling difference between today's indie games scene and that of 10 years ago is how excited Dylan Fitterer was to hear his game was going to be on Steam.
Audiosurf had just been nominated for three IGF awards in the categories of Technical Excellence, Excellence in Audio, and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize. As Dylan tells it, "Then I got a call from Jason Holtman at Valve who said, 'Hey, you want to sell this on Steam?' That blew me away. That was crazy to get an offer like that."
Audiosurf went on to win the audio category as well as the audience vote, but the bigger prize was that it became February 2008's top seller on Steam, both by number of copies sold and revenue, despite being an indie rhythm game that cost 10 bucks. It eventually sold over a million copies. Of course since this was 2008, it was one of only five games released on Steam that month.
Getting to that point was a road as bumpy as any of the rollercoaster levels Audiosurf makes out of the music you feed it. Like a lot of designers, Dylan's first game ideas were way beyond his capabilities. "I was trying to build the biggest videogame possible, that incorporated everything," he says. "My first game I was working on was like Magic: The Gathering meets first-person shooter meets something else. Had everything in it, the one game that was all games. That was what I figured I'd just build, by myself."
After a couple of years hitting his head against that wall he changed tack and went as far in the other direction as possible. From then on he only worked on games that could be finished in a week. "What I did is I launched this website called bestgameever.com and put up this promise that I'm gonna release a new game every Friday just to see if I could actually finish some things. And one of the things that I finished on there was called Tune Racer."
Tune Racer auto-detected whichever CD was in your drive at the time—this was 14 years ago, so of course you had CDs near at hand—and then matched the tempo of that music to a simple game about a car racing along a tube, overtaking other cars. Two sequels followed, tweaking the idea so that cars had to be dodged around instead of just overtaken (an idea that would return as Audiosurf 2's Dusk skin).
There was clearly something to the idea, something that kept drawing Dylan back. When he eventually decided it was time to invest more than a week in one of his concepts, to monetize one of those bestgameever.com prototypes, it was Tune Racer he turned to. He figured he could turn around a deluxe version in "like a month."
Spoiler: it took longer than a month.
Dylan wasn't alone. His wife Elizabeth, who had a day job at Microsoft, helped him over the course of what turned out to be several years of work. The two encountered plenty of dead ends along the way. They even tried to give Audiosurf a plot for a while, though he doesn't recall the details. "My wife and I worked on a story, and I don't remember if the motivation was like as an extended tutorial, or if it was just this lack of confidence that a game with no story would be compelling for people," he recalls. "I'm not sure. It didn't come together. It wasn't a good idea."
What was a good idea was letting people use their own mp3s. Rhythm games with original scores have a hurdle to get over because players need to get used to the music before they can tap along with it, and even something like Rock Band can fall flat with players who don't listen to the bands it favors. Audiosurf's algorithm matches the curves of the track, the speed of your craft, and the placement of blocks to elements of the songs you choose, songs you already love. It transforms your mp3 collection into an explorable space.
"My absolute favorite thing was to play this track from OCRemix in the game's Mono mode. The simplicity of Mono mode and the intensity of the track made for a great flow experience."—Ben Prunty, composer of FTL and Into the Breach
But for most of Audiosurf's development, the placement of blocks wasn't in sync with the beat. "Those were basically random," Dylan admits. "I had convinced myself that didn't really matter. The track was shaped to the music and you just had these random patterns and you could maybe see the music in the patterns if you look hard enough or something. It made sense to me but Elizabeth, my wife, finally convinced me that was not a good idea."
The extra effort was worth it, although even then it wasn't a game that clicked with everybody. Some people sat down to play and don't feel the connection between the game and the song, no matter what music they choose. There just seems to be something in the way people are wired that determines whether it works for them or not. "We noticed that early on at trade shows. I think most people would see how it worked right away once they played, but some people get in and play and say, 'I don't see how it's synchronized to the music.' We'd be in there clapping and stamping our feet."
Another worthwhile idea was thorough playtesting, and not just at conventions. The value of seeing how new players react to a game repeatedly over the course of its development is impossible to overstate. "My wife did a lot on it before anyone else," Dylan says. "Toward the tail end she was working at Microsoft as a usability engineer in the Xbox group and so one night she comes home and says, 'You should probably usability-test your game.' 'Oh, yeah. That's a good idea.' We just hired friends and different people to play it and watch them play, and [we would] not talk. See where they get hung up. That is so hard. Watching people play your game that you think is almost there and you discover that you're not even close."
"I'll always connect Audiosurf to the voluptuous hillsides produced by Wuthering Heights, specifically the swell into the orgasmic walls of red. A decade on, I still shiver."—Kieron Gillen, former PC Gamer editor and Audiosurf leaderboard champ
One of the ways Audiosurf began to differ from Tune Racer was that it wasn't just about avoiding obstacles. It stopped being a game about weaving between blocks and became a game about collecting them, matching three of a kind into the grid at the bottom of the screen. "Through that usability testing that my wife and I did, we discovered that that was really hard to teach," Dylan says. "It was hard enough explaining to people that you use your own music, that was foreign, then this other thing where you're playing a match-3 game on this racetrack to music, it was too much to teach."
The optional mono mode was the solution. It simplified things by reducing the blocks to two varieties, one to collect and one to dodge. "I thought that would just be a stepping stone or maybe just a tutorial mode and then that ended up being super popular." Players wanted it to be more than just an introductory way of playing, so Dylan created 'ninja mono' as the hardcore variant, and it became the way most players experienced Audiosurf.
The Fitterers were helped across the finish line by several contractors, including artist Goran Delic who drew characters like the ninja for the select screen, and Paladin Studios, who built various 3D assets. "They did the vehicles and the geometry that's alongside the track and the squid that's at the end," Dylan says. "That was a week or two weeks of work, right before launch. That was a lot of fun. Our timezones were so different that we'd have a call at midnight and tell them what we thought about the last batch of stuff and what we wanted the next day and we'd get up in the morning and check it out and put new stuff in the game."
And finally, there was Valve. Their involvement went beyond just putting Audiosurf on Steam—it was the first third-party game given access to Steamworks, the full suite of tools Valve's games use for everything from leaderboards to achievements. It also shipped with the soundtracks to The Orange Box games packaged in, and selecting certain songs from Portal triggered a "secret level" where you have a portal gun and some of the blocks are companion cubes.
On Audiosurf's release those songs immediately became the most popular on its leaderboards, but competition broke out wherever players found songs that made particularly fun levels. So did arguments about which genres suited it best. "I don't think there is an objective best or anything," Dylan says, although he notes that his preference is for bands like Tool and Nine Inch Nails. "One of the things I like about industrial, Nine Inch Nails kind of stuff is it tends to have very big changes very rapidly, so a slow part, a very intense part, and that creates very cool moments."
Those moments of drama and intensity when everything lights up and the track swoops around at speed are key to the appeal of Audiosurf, and when you find out a song you love hits one of those it's even better. But as well as connecting you with music you're already into, Audiosurf has helped players discover new music. Dylan himself learned a lot about what was popular in 2008. "I was a little behind the times I think. Like Dragonforce, that was huge. 'What is this song everybody's playing?' Podcasts were funny, there were people playing podcasts. I hadn't thought to try that."
The Fitterers followed Audiosurf with a sequel and a VR spin-off called Audioshield. But some day, Dylan says he'd like to go back to bestgameever.com and see what other forgotten treasures it holds. "I still have the domain, I just have this lame little placeholder on there right now. I have that site backed up I keep meaning to get it back online. That'd be fun."
This article is part of the Class of 2008, a series of retrospectives about indie games that were released 10 years ago.
Maybe you've always wondered what Half Man Half Biscuit's National Shite Day (or, theoretically, another song) looked like as a PC game level. Specifically, a PC game level that looks slightly better and has slightly more options than the original Audiosurf.
Well! Lucky for you, Audiosurf 2 is out of Early Access. Which is a slightly less clunky way of saying it's now more released than the amount of released that it was when it was first released into Early Access.
Anyway, here's the important bit: there's a demo.
While the concept is the same as Audiosurf: Origins—riding tracks generated from your music, all while collecting, avoiding or matching coloured blocks—the sequel features a number of improvements. For one thing, Steam Workshop support offers a number of skins and mods. You can also search for music online, via Sound Cloud.
The demo allows you to play four songs. You can find it, and the full game, at Audiosurf 2's Steam page. If you're looking for a song to try, here's one that I recommend.
In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil explains why Audiosurf works so well with faux-Chinese opera.
This might seem a bit esoteric, even for this column. Bear with me. This is also a recommendation. Not only is playing the song 'Monkey Bee' in Audiosurf a thing that I love; it's a thing that will actively make your life better. At least, the part of your life that involves playing Audiosurf.
I love rhythm games, and Audiosurf is one of the best. (Not the best, but then Gitaroo Man was never released on PC.) It's an odd genre for music fans, because its traditional set-up positions music as an obstacle to overcome. It's an adversarial relationship—at least until you conquer the patterns of the level. Audiosurf works in much the same way. It's a puzzle game; a high-speed match-three challenge. Pick any song, and the algorithm will analyse it—laying out blocks, and adding twists, turns and elevation to a procedurally generated track.
My favourite mode is Mono. It's the simplest, purest form of the game. Rather than multiple colours to match, the track is littered with coloured and grey blocks. Pick up the colour ones; avoid the greys. It's still adversarial, but it gives an obvious throughline to follow. It's the rhythm game equivalent of perfectly performing the Macarena at your school disco, in the hope that the other kids would recognise you as a slightly less worthless human being.
Monkey Bee is a song by Damon Albarn, from the album Monkey: Journey to the West. It is the soundtrack to a Chinese-style pop-rock opera—a retelling of the classic Journey to the West, but with Jamie Hewlett and electro. It is possibly the most Damon Albarn thing that has ever happened, and you would be forgiven for not wanting anything to do with it. But, and here's the thing, Monkey Bee is Audiosurf's greatest level. Or it's up there with the very best at least, and that's because it syncs perfectly with the structure of the game.
This is what a song usually looks like in Audiosurf:
This is what Monkey Bee looks like:
Through sheer chance, Audiosurf's algorithm creates a sublime layout. There are three clear, easily defined sections. Each provides a distinct and interesting challenge, and they all fit together to create a naturally escalating challenge.
BIE NA MUO XIAO QI MA
The first section is a slow climb to the second act. It's the least interesting of the three parts, and plays out much like any Mono level. Yes, there is a challenge in collecting all the coloured blocks—with some sandwiched between two greys. The problem is the distribution, which is spread out in such a way that you'll never earn a match greater than three or four blocks.
It's not a great start, but it builds the anticipation. In Audiosurf, the graph showing the altitude of the track is a permanent fixture of the top-left corner. Here, you are moving inexorably towards something different—a feeling that's heightened if you already know how good the second part is.
WU KONG GONG XI
On the graph, this section looks level. It isn't. It undulates to the rhythm of the two-step percussive sting at the end of each line. Each bump contains a coloured block, and they're perfectly spaced to be chained across the 60-second act.
This feels great. Get it right, and you can fill your hopper with colour—even reaching a full match-21 if the positioning falls in your favour. It's a big, joyous reward; even as the building, urgent guitar riff warns that everything is about to go south.
WEI HE PO HOU JING SHAN BU ZOU
Act three. Fast. Reactive. Panicked.
In Audiosurf, colour represents intensity. The first section is cool—filled with blues and purples. The second is green and yellow. The third, entirely orange and red. Of all the songs I've tried in the game, this is extremely rare. Usually, you'll dip into short, infrequent bursts of red. Here, it's a smooth, long fall.
It's amazing, entirely accidental level design. It's the perfect escalation; easing you in, lulling you into false security before pulling the rug and sending you fighting for your life. Plunging down into the red zone is thrilling. If you don't "get" music, this level is an excellent visual analogy of how it can feel for the people who do.
Another of Audiosurf's tricks is to email you when someone beats your high score. As a Mono mode player, this was a rarity. All of the game's modes co-exist on each song's leaderboard, and the other modes were inevitably more suited to point chasing. But for a brief moment, about five years ago, there was a fearsome battle for Monkey Bee's top spot—one fought between a community aware that Ironman Ninja Mono was the way to play the game.
That was until some jerk came along and set the top score on Eraser Elite, thus ruining all of our fun.
Even though the score battle has long since ended, it's still a remarkable, unexpected level. I recommend tracking down the song, just to give it a go. Alternatively, here's a video of the level that mysteriously appeared on the internet today. No-one tell Damon Albarn.