Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Valve tinkered with Counter Strike: Global Offensive's trading rules this week, and sections of the community are ticked off about it. Under the new rules, added in an update, any items you receive through trading will have a seven-day trading cool down, which stops you moving them on to another user quickly. 

The aim is to stop automated Steam accounts from trading items very frequently through third-party services, Valve said in a blog post. "Unfortunately, some of these third-party services have become a vector for fraud or scams. Unlike players, these services rely on the ability to trade each item very frequently. In contrast, a given item moves between actual players no more than once a week in the vast majority of cases," it said.

It acknowledged that the change would be "disruptive to some players", and the response of the community suggests it was right. A petition that says the rule change "destroys trading interactions as a whole", and that it should be scrapped, has amassed more than 90,000 signatures. The change has serious implications for CS:GO skin gambling, as well as for players that just want to do a lot of trading.

Prominent traders and pro players have also spoke out against the update, including Astralis AWPer Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz. He said on Twitter that the update would do nothing to stop scamming. "The only winner of this update is Valve and the money the market will generate from this."

What do you think of the change?

Hollow Knight

The Humble Store's week-long indie sale draws to a close on Monday, which means it's your last chance to grab Hollow Knight and Darkest Dungeon for $10 apiece (roughly £6.50). According to IsThereAnyDeal—a great tool for seeing just how good sale prices are—that's equal to the lowest-ever price for both of those excellent games, so if you've been eyeing them up for a while then it might be worth opening your wallet.

Atmospheric Metroidvania Hollow Knight was named our best platforming game of last year, and it's still receiving regular updates. Darkest Dungeon is a stressful party-based dungeon crawler, and one of the best indie games you can play right now.

If you're quick, you can also grab excellent adventure game Thimbleweed Park for $9.99, but that deal ends in a couple of hours (midday ET).

And yes, I know Andy mentioned the sale earlier this week, but seeing as its nearly over I thought I'd highlight a few of the best deals. Grab them while you can:

Total War: ATTILA

Total War: Rise of Mordor is a conversion mod for Total War: Attila that, in its final form, will let you play through a newly-crafted campaign featuring 19 factions from Middle Earth. You can take your first peek at it now thanks to a public alpha released this week that will hand you control over some of the factions and let you play around with custom units that are based on the ones you'll have seen in the films.

The background story of the campaign will be "accurate to the books", but could still be a while off yet. First, the team will finish off the factions and add custom settlements into the mod. 

The grand strategy and large-scale battles of the Total War series make it ripe for Lord of the Rings conversions, and Rise of Mordor isn't the first to attempt it. Third Age does something similar for Medieval 2: Total War, and it does it very well (making it onto Tom's list of essential Total War mods a while back). But that game is more than 10 years old now, so I'm curious to see if working on a newer title like Attila will help create something better.

You can download the alpha of Rise of Mordor from its ModDB page.

Hylics

'Can games be art' is a boring question. 'Can games be art galleries' is a much better one. The description seems to fit Hylics, which Mason Lindroth released in 2015. He called it "a recreational program with light RPG elements." It's really a pseudo-game made to be visited rather than played, with building blocks made of acid colors, scrambled words, clay, and an utter love for the absurd.

Over the years, Mason Lindroth has become one of the most interesting names in the indie scene thanks to his distinctive art style. His works mix digital art with claymation: a technique nowadays rarely employed in movies, and even more rarely in games (the only other recent experiments that come to mind are Dujanah and Armikrog).

Mason makes clay models and takes pictures while moving them against a green screen, obtaining beautiful, twisted animations, pixelated and yet deliciously tactile. You can see the results in his short games like Beachcombers, Weird Egg & Crushing Finger, and Journalière. Hylics (it means "matter") was his first commercial endeavor, and mixed all-new visual pieces with older assets from past projects. The result was like a best of compilation, a big visual museum of bouncy animations and clayful delight. 

Dedusmuln wrought an engrossing panorama!

Hylics has no real story, no sense, and no point, apart from its utter commitment to aesthetic. You are a moon-faced golem made by a kingly narrator, and you wander around and kill baddies because that's what protagonists do. Sometimes you fight monsters in turn-based battles; other times you navigate mazes or recruit new party members. But mostly you wander around, see things, poke clay sculptures, and smile.

Hylics may be plotless, but it is not short of words. NPCs ramble poetic, incoherent thoughts, half-beautiful and half-unnerving. The text is procedurally generated, but the result is more reminiscent of the collective art experiments called exquisite corpse than of the elegant, coherent narratives usually made with procedural text tools like Tracery. (Check Twitter bots like Unknown Peoples and A Strange Voyage for examples of what Tracery can do).  

Battles are equally delirious, with enemies spouting nonsensical attacks in pure Earthbound fashion. ("Dedusmuln wrought an engrossing panorama!") The stats remain unexplained, their names cryptic and mysterious. Hylics actively discourages you from spending too much time on menu screens, as if ashamed of being an RPG. It would be wrong to call the combat light, though—the system is actually fairly polished, with a good variety of items and skills. Every piece of equipment has a definite effect, rather than being just an additional layer of hit points. 

The physicality of the world extends to the consequences of battle. Defeat sees our protagonist melted, compressed and thrown in limbo, where he can then get stronger by throwing the clay flesh dropped by enemies in a meat grinder. There is no level-up system: only the cycle of matter being reshaped into new forms.

The best moments of Hylics are when it reminds you that it's not truly a videogame, but more of a toy—when you're playing a song with friends, picking vegetables, building sandcastles on a beach. Small Interactions that make the environment melt and crumble under your touch. It's a small world, yet it feels more lively than bigger RPGs full of static, untouchable elements.

Hylics may be considered part of the "weird RPG Maker games" trend, like Gingiva and Space Funeral, but is spiritually more akin to Magic Wand. Both are games that don't truly want to be RPGs, but use elements of the RPG formula. They're there to evoke a mood, not to be played with.

Hylics' greatest merit and its greatest limitation is its devotion to not being a typical RPG in any way. It could have had a plot, but didn't try to. It could have a more strategic battle system, but it didn't want to. It's a game that doesn't want to become more than the sum of its excellent parts, content with its absurdism and its aesthetic. 

It will be interesting to see how the recently announced Hylics 2 will shape up. The trailer shows jumping and shooting, and seems to promise a more gamey approach. The original's lack of these things is why some might see Hylics as a wasted opportunity, while others appreciate its purity and integrity. Either way, it's a fascinating clay museum completely worth the admittance ticket.

Hylics is available on itch.io and Steam.

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS

UPDATE: All keys have been distributed. Thanks for entering!

We got a quick look at PUBG's new 4x4km map, codenamed 'Savage,' during GDC. At one-quarter the size of the two existing maps, Savage should produce brutal and fast rounds of battle royale—and you might not have to wait long to try it for yourself.

On Monday, April 2, PUBG will begin the first round of closed experimental testing for its 4x4km map. You can take part in the test even if you don't own PUBG, and we have a bunch of keys to give away so you can do just that.

We're giving away these keys in a raffle, and entering does not guarantee a code. Click the link below and enter your email to put your name into the hat, and before the test starts tonight, we'll trigger the raffle and codes will be emailed to up to 2,000 randomly-selected entrants. Good luck!

(Note: Godankey won't keep your email address after sending your code, and we won't see it.)

The map will become available for testers on Monday, April 2, at 7 pm PDT, and the testing will end on April 5 at 4 am PDT.

PC Gamer Club Legendary Tier members are being emailed their keys today, and most should have one in their inbox already. New members who join today are not guaranteed codes. 

The Bard's Tale IV: Barrows Deep

Here's what I love about the short alpha demo of The Bard's Tale 4, which I've now played through three times: there's no basic attack button, no block button, no scrolling through a long menu of spells to decide what to cast. Before The Bard's Tale 4, this is an accurate representation of what I'd do if you asked me what I thought about dungeon crawlers: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I adore NetHack and Darkest Dungeon and loads of other RPGs, but the combat-over-story approach of first person dungeon crawlers has always bored me.

I expect all this to get vastly more complex in the full game, when you'll be able to have a party of up to six adventurers.

The Bard's Tale 4 plays like no other dungeon crawler I've ever touched, blending bits of classic Bard's Tale and Japanese tactics RPGs into something new. It's not full of ideas that will shock you, but its approach to a genre that's now nearly 40 years old still feels mildly heretical. Most classic RPGs either don't care where your party is standing in combat or are best played with fairly codified formations (brawlers in the front, softies in the back). But constantly repositioning is the most crucial element of any encounter in Bard's Tale 4, and moving costs an action point just like an attack.

When I started planning out a whole turn in advance—who attacks then moves, who should end the turn on the front line, how a charged-up magic attack can trigger another ability—I knew developer inXile was working on something exciting, here. 

Also, bards get more powerful when they drink, and will hurl an empty tankard at an enemy to deal one damage when they get angry drunk. Move over, drunken boxing.

When I visited inXile in the summer of 2017, we talked about how The Bard's Tale 4 would approach exploration and puzzles and dungeons and characters. None of those larger elements of the game are really present in the alpha build that is now available to Kickstarter backers—it's a short demo snippet with a couple easily solved puzzles and only a few rooms to explore. It's all about the fighting.

Here's an example of an encounter from the beginning of the demo, when I interrupt some weird cultists mid-ritual with a preset party: a bard, a fighter, and a magic practitioner:

There are so many small but significant twists on combat that I like. Enemies and your units line up on a 4x8 grid, and most attacks hit specific spots on the grid. That usually means one or two spaces in a line in front—a head-on strike—which makes exceptions important. After this fight I got a new sword for my fighter, which let him perform a sweeping strike against the three squares in front of him, a crucial way to hit multiple enemies or attack without moving, because moving costs an action point.

Some abilities use mana instead of action points, which adds another layer. The bard and practitioner can each spend an action point to chug alcohol or meditate, charging up to use a magical attack instead. Coupled with a taunt from a fighter, this is a great way to play defensively one turn and then drop a big attack the next turn. 

There's more to movement than just lining up an attack. If you or an enemy are inflicted with bleeding, moving causes two damage. So you can make an enemy bleed, then use taunt to draw them forward. Two damage. Then hit them with an ability that causes knock-back. Two more damage. Of course, the same can happen to you, and even taking that extra damage to get in place for an attack makes you think it through. Turns aren't questions of "what should this character do?" but rather "how should I divvy up this pool of actions?"

Loot! And weapons with unique abilities.

I expect all this to get vastly more complex in the full game, when you'll be able to have a party of up to six adventurers, all relying on the same pool of four action points per turn. There's already a hint of how much interplay between movement and action the designers plan to add: one pair of boots I discovered lowered the cost of magic spells by one mana after moving. Weapons and other equipment have abilities attached to them, but use that ability enough and you'll master it and be able to keep it equipped when you upgrade to new gear. It's not a new idea, but I love seeing it in a dungeon crawler as a way to make equipment more significant than stats you throw onto a character.

Using weapons to master skills also imbues them with a bit of personality, and that's especially true of The Bard's Tale 4's puzzle weapons, which grow in power as you fiddle with them and solve little mysteries. Here's one from the alpha, which I found too simple to power up—I hope these are genuinely intricate and challenging puzzles in the final game—but the idea is just great. 

I've only played a small slice of The Bard's Tale 4 so far, but it feels like a dungeon crawler made for me, which I didn't know was possible. With a combat system this fun, the rest of the game has a lot to live up to. inXile still plans to have The Bard's Tale 4 out by the end of 2018.

Prey

The story of Prey 2 is long and ugly, ending with a complete cancellation followed by the release of Arkane's totally different game, Prey, in 2017. Arkane's Prey is extremely good, but curiosity about Prey 2 as it was originally envisioned—a spin-off game of outer-space bounty hunting, developed by Human Head—has persisted, because the bits and pieces we've seen of it look really damn cool. Last weekend, Andrew Borman, digital games curator at museumofplay.org, shared a 51-second clip of prototype Prey 2 gameplay he'd been given—and it looks really damn cool. 

A minute of gameplay does not make a game, but I love the visual style of the world, and the suggestion of plentiful verticality—something we also saw mentioned in our 2011 preview. Obviously Bethesda had reasons for canceling it that we can't see the breadth of, but between this and the plot twist we learned about last year—which as it turns out bears an interesting resemblance to a [spoiler alert!] twist in Arkane's Prey—I really do wish this one had made it to the finish line, too.

For those of you who missed the splash Prey 2 made at E3 2011, enjoy.

The Walking Dead

Telltale said last year that the final season of its Walking Dead adventure series would be out in 2018, and so it will be: The studio tweeted the first tease of the last season earlier today with an image that very deliberately hearkens back to the game's first season. 

It's a haunting callback, with a grown-up Clementine filling the shoes of man-with-an-axe Lee Everett, who bravely fought to keep her alive through the first season. Season four will also see the return of Gary Whitta, the former PC Gamer EIC who for some reason left all this fame and fortune behind to go do something else. He wrote the fourth episode of season one, and will serve as a story consultant for the final season. 

Telltale said that the first proper look at the final season will be reveal at 12:30 pm ET on April 6 at its PAX East panel, which will also be viewable on Twitch

Gone Home

 Where The Water Tastes Like Wine 

Story adventure game Where The Water Tastes Like Wine struggled critically and flopped commercially, lead developer Johnnemann Nordhagen said today in a post-mortem of the game, in which he argues that its difficulties don't bode well for experimental indie games. 

"Commercially, it’s a disaster," Nordhagen said. "I can’t discuss exact numbers, but in the first few weeks fewer people bought the game than I have Twitter followers, and I don’t have a lot of Twitter followers." (At the time of writing, Nordhagen has 4,272 followers.) 

Although Nordhagen received support from publisher Good Shepherd to complete and market the game, Where The Water Tastes Like Wine has yet to break even. "So far, I have made $0 from the game," he said. "That may look like a high number, but consider that it took four years to make — that works out to approximately $0/year … And then once you factor in the ~$140,000 I spent paying my contractors and collaborators for the game, you begin to see that maybe it wasn’t, financially speaking, worth it."

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine

"Joking aside — that’s dismal. And terrifying," Nordhagen said. "At the end of the day it’s astounding that a game that got this much attention from the press, that won awards, that had an all-star cast of writers and performers, that had a bizarre celebrity guest appearance(!) failed this hard. It scares me." 

I m not sure that games like this one can continue to be made in the current market.

Johnnemann Nordhagen

To Nordhagen, it's evidence of a growing trend for indie games: quality, acclaim, and attention aren't guarantees of success. "That last part should be worrying for anyone in the indie games industry," Nordhagen said. "[Where The Water Tastes Like Wine] could have been a non-commercial game, but it would have had to be very different. It would be far less polished, it wouldn’t have had the collaborators that it did, I could not have paid people who couldn’t afford to work for revenue share or for the love of the game (thus, I fear, cutting out some of the most valuable voices that this game was a platform for). I could have developed it as a side project, but it took me four years as is. Basically, I’m not sure that games like this one can continue to be made in the current market." 

Nordhagen also discussed the development factors he believes contributed to Where The Water Tastes Like Wine's uphill battle. For example, it received relatively little playtesting, especially close to launch, and it abruptly lost both of its main artists mid-development. "I didn’t originally have the knowledge I needed to tackle many of the issues I encountered during development," he said, adding that the game itself "was too much to take on as a solo dev, and especially too much to take on as a commercial product." 

Gone Home

Nordhagen previously worked as lead programmer on Gone Home, which was well-received when it released in 2014. Encouraged by Gone Home's success, Nordhagen was optimistic about Where The Water Tastes Like Wine. However, in 2018, he's unsure if creating games like these is even feasible.  

"In 2014, starting a similar project seemed like a good creative and financial risk," he said. "Four years later, making any commercial game at all seems like a bad idea, and taking on the risk of an experimental, ambitious game like Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sounds terrifying."  

2013 I think was a very different time for smaller indie games

Steve Gaynor

Writer and designer Steve Gaynor, who also worked on Gone Home, made a similar point about experimental games when we spoke to him following the release of Fullbright's Tacoma, a delightful narrative-driven game whose sales paled in comparison to Gone Home's at launch.

"I think there were a lot of things about Gone Home’s launch that were kind of 'lightning in a bottle,'" Gaynor said. "2013 I think was a very different time for smaller indie games coming out that were kind of reaching into the triple-A fidelity space. Also I think that we were lucky to be responding to what I think was a real desire for more games that were less violent or more focused on story or whatever. And so yeah, Tacoma’s release I think has been a much more realistic version of what launching a game is usually like."

Tacoma

Nordhagen's post-mortem focuses on the game's development and reception, but he's not the only member of the team to look back on Where The Water Tastes Like Wine. Lead editor Laura Michet wrote a lengthy analysis of the herculean task of coordinating the game's many writers, and several writers, like Emily Short, have explored how they wrote their individual characters. You can find more analyses in Nordhagen's post. 

Call of Duty®: WWII

The latest Superdata report says the worldwide digital videogames market grew six percent year-over-year in February 2018, hitting $9.1 billion in total. Interestingly, social, pay-to-play (subscription-based), and free-to-play markets on PC are actually all down slightly, but the premium PC market—that is, games that you actually have to buy if you want to play them—is up by 33 percent.   

Overall digital spending in the US is actually up by 21 percent overall, according to the report, thanks to major games (Call of Duty: WWII was the top-earning console game for the month) and—surprise—the power of Fortnite: Battle Royale. PC free-to-play slipped by four percent, but Superdata said the free-to-play console market increased by 359 percent (that's not a typo, that's 359 percent) year-over-year, due to the popularity of Fortnite. 

"Epic’s Battle Royale title showed no signs of losing steam," Superdata said. "Fortnite earned more additional content revenue on console than any game other than Call of Duty: WWII and now has more monthly active users than Grand Theft Auto V." 

PUBG continues to be a major player, selling more than 2.5 million units on the month; PC sales are actually declining, but Xbox One sales are helping to compensate. Overwatch is also holding up well despite the pressure from the battle royale genre, thanks in large part to ongoing support through cosmetic updates and special events like the Lunar New Year celebration in February. 

The top-ten earning games for the month, worldwide: 

  • League of Legends
  • Dungeon Fighter Online
  • Fantasy Westward Journey Online 2
  • Crossfire
  • Playerunknown's Battlegrounds
  • Fortnite: Battle Royale
  • World of Warcraft
  • World of Tanks
  • Hearthstone
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
...

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