Half-Life

One of my favourite parts of PC gaming is seeing modders push old game engines to their limits, by creating maps and levels that likely wouldn’t have been possible back when the game in question originally released. A quick glance at Half Life: Echoes immediately shows it is one such mod.

Created by first-time modder James Cockburn, Half Life: Echoes retells the story of Black Mesa’s alien outbreak from what the developer cryptically refers to as a “new perspective”. Elsewhere, on the mod's ModDB page, this new perspective is identified “Candidate 12”, another drone in Black Mesa's gigantic hive, at least until the Resonance Cascade.

It’s a fitting theme for the mod, which basically aims to exaggerate all of the strongest elements of the original Half Life. Echoes comprises over thirty new maps, all designed solely by Cockburn. And they’re not small either. Take a look at the images below.

Even considering how long in the tooth GoldSrc is looking today, that’s some mighty impressive map design. They’re so big that Cockburn recommends playing it on a fairly up-to-date PC, because the detail is such that it’ll cause slowdown on older machines.

The mod has been in development for over four years, having been originally announced back in 2014. The response by users has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Echoes currently has a rating of 9.4 on ModDB, with one reviewer calling it a “modern-day masterpiece”.

Below is a launch trailer which shows off some of the mod’s scripted events, including an impressive flyover of the Black Mesa area by a host of military aircraft, and an admittedly less impressive scene of a zombie throwing a barrel at the player. That said, I do now want to see a Half Life mod that retells the Black Mesa disaster from the perspective of Donkey Kong.

Half Life: Echoes can be downloaded here, although be warned it’s designed specifically for the Steam version of the Half-Life, and isn’t compatible with either Half Life: Source or Half Life for Windows (if you somehow have the CD case from 1998 still hanging around).  

If you want to see more mods that do madly ambitious things with old game engines, you should check out the Forgotten Sepulcher, a ridiculously huge fan-made Quake level.

Dota 2

For a lot of PC gaming’s history, modders have played an instrumental role, collectively building the foundations for many of its cathedrals, such as Counter-Strike, PUBG and League of Legends, as well as the details, from hats to resolution fixes. Modding was the throbbing engine that gave PC gaming its vibrant and dynamic soul. 

But something’s changed. Modding isn’t the only way hobbyist game makers can express their ideas any more. Cheap and free game engines make it much more straightforward to build games from scratch, and the likes of itch.io and Steam give new developers a place to sell them. What’s more, big modern games are so much more complex and harder to mod than ever before, and they’re usually given constant updates, including new features which would once have been the province of mods.

And yet at the same time, today modders have greater support than ever. With the rise of Patreon and programmes that give official commercial support has come the opportunity to legitimately make a living through modding. But it remains a precarious business. We talked to four modders who are making money from their craft.

Julio NIB: Making a living in Grand Theft Auto

If you want to play GTA 5 as the Hulk, leaping to a flying helicopter and smashing it to the ground before grabbing a lamppost to wield as a baseball bat, Julio NIB is your modder. Or perhaps you want to play as Thanos, throwing meteors, creating black holes, and able to instantly kill half the local population. Julio NIB, real name Julio Schwab, makes scripts that open up new behaviours and add new characters to Rockstar’s urban playground, making it react to fan desires and hot memes. 

He’s added Dragon Ball’s Kamehameha and Genki Dama attacks, controllable drones from Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle Oblivion, Crysis suit powers, complete with the same control interface, and Ghost Rider. His body of mods is eclectic, and it’s his job. For eight to 10 hours, six or seven days a week, he works on his mods from his home in Maringá in southern Brazil, taking 3D models made by other modders like Quechus13, Rarefacer, MadBreaker, and breathing life into them.

And it comprises his entire income. Schwab runs his modding through Patreon, where he has 3,079 patrons. $2 buys you the access you need to be able to download his released mods, and $10 will give access to in-development ones.

He won’t say exactly how much he makes each month, but you can make a lowball guess if you assume each patron pays the minimum $2. That’s a tidy income, especially for someone living in Maringá, where living costs are two thirds cheaper than New York City. “If I earn US$1000 a month, I earn more than the Brazilian base salary.”

He’s not entirely happy that they’re locked behind Patreon’s VIP system, but without it he wouldn’t have a business. “Unfortunately this is how things work,” he says. “Because the mods were completely free before, I was earning mainly with ads in my blog, but lot of users use AdBlocker and lot of people re-upload my work.”

And using Patreon hasn’t gone down well with all his audience. “Even more after setting VIP content.” But he doesn’t care too much. “I don't have time to care.” He’s trying to build up his output from one mod per month to two in order to gain more patrons and live up to their expectations. It’s a cadence that’s putting great pressure on him, but with his income has come the chance to invest in better hardware and reason to work out better production methods.

And what about Rockstar? And Marvel, and all the other holders of the IP Schwab plays with? The VIP system puts him in danger of being accused of selling mods, which would lose any legal protections they might have from fair use. But he’s not worried, figuring his work is only encouraging GTA 5’s sales. 

“Some people say they’re only still playing GTA 5 because of my mods, others say they bought the game just to use my mods. Suing me because I’m creating my own scripts without stealing anything from the game, only bringing more into the game and more interest from users, wouldn't be an intelligent idea. But if they do, I will still mod while I can.”

ARK Star: Going legit in StarCraft 2

In April, Blizzard launched StarCraft 2’s Premium Arcade, a series of custom maps sold through Blizzard’s own storefront and from inside the game. Its first two games both cost $5: Direct Strike, an established two-player custom game, and ARK Star, which is quite a departure from the essentials of StarCraft. It’s a full singleplayer RPG featuring turn-based tactical combat. Polished to a sheen and boasting a full storyline, classes to upgrade and gear to equip, it feels like an entirely separate commercial game.

ARK Star is the culmination of an ambition that got its creator, Daniel ‘Pirate’ Altman, into serious modding. Way back in 2009 he caught a discussion during a panel at Blizzcon about the idea of a premium mod marketplace, and it stuck with him. “It planted the idea of how cool it would be to earn spare cash making small games,” he says. 

So, when he graduated from his degree in forensics, rather than enter the police force, he went into modding, working as a bartender, on and off, to keep himself solvent. He soon carved out a name for singleplayer custom games, first with Facility 17. “It ended up being one of the first really popular singleplayer arcade games, back in the day—for about a week. All in the game racked up several hundred thousands of hours played.”

The first money he earned through StarCraft 2 modding was in 2012, when he answered an ad to make a custom map that’d serve as a wedding proposal. “It was actually kind of cute. The game started in this roller derby arena made out of SCII props, representing where they had their first date, and then it gets attacked by Zerg, and there’s a chase sequence, and an Ultralisk drops a ring. I remember him being very happy with the end product, but you know, I’m not sure I ever heard how the proposal went over.”

More contracts came in from gamers who wanted their own modes and game studios who wanted to rapidly prototype ideas, as well as projects for Blizzard. “These kinds of jobs tend to pay a fair rate, but they tend to come few and far between.” The most recent contract Altman did was to make Axiom Mod for TotalBiscuit.

In 2015 Altman won Blizzard’s Rock the Cabinet mod contest with DWARVEN COMBAT, earning $10,000. Its success set his sights more firmly on making his own stuff, compounded when Blizzard got in touch to see if he’d be interested in making one of the first games for Premium Arcade. And so he kicked off ARK Star, going as far as hiring a composer, 2D artist and level artist.

Over its development, modding became his life. He quit his bartending job and worked 50-60 hours a week for the final year. “I felt like it was my big chance to prove myself as a game designer, and could either use the opportunity to either start a small series of games, or finally break into the games industry. If ARK Star really takes off I’d love to rent an office in a coworking space and try to maintain a bit of a better work-life balance.“

But, so far, ARK Star hasn’t really taken off in that way, and Altman’s contract work earned better. ”StarCraft 2 modding as a source of income has not been financially viable for me,” he says. “My attempts at marketing the game so far have been pretty unsuccessful. While I approached development like making a standalone indie game, I don’t think the community sees it like this. Lack of visibility is compounded by having to download a 28GB client to play the game, leaving ARK Star in a pretty tough spot.”

Roshpit Champions: Jungling in Dota 2

One of the biggest and most ambitious custom games for Dota 2 is Roshpit Champions, a multiplayer action RPG that features Dota 2’s heroes raiding dungeons and claiming hot loot drops. It’s a big game, and made by one person, a Toronto-based programmer called Ryan Racioppo.

It’s a huge project, quite enough to keep him busy working on it full-time for two years. Roshpit Champions is in Dota 2’s Custom Game Pass programme, through which players can pay $1 a month to unlock stash and save slots and raise item drop chances by 50%. But that’s not its bottom line. 

Most income comes from roshpit.ca, a website which features an auction house which allows players to buy and sell virtual Roshpit items and gives the opportunity to buy a Web Premium pass, which gives additional site features and makes members’ in-game icons glow to show they’re supporting the game. That’s the only connection between roshpit.ca and the game itself. “Customers are totally okay with it, they appreciate the value it gives and that it supports the game,” says Racioppo.

Things started out well. “The first month, wow, it was insane. I was thinking I could do it full-time. There was a ton of attention and so many players were buying passes. Then the second month was all right, and then it dropped off and it hit a trough. Then I started steadily increasing it.” 

But when Racioppo started streaming for donations to buy food, that was the point he realised that things weren’t really working out. He got a job as a programmer at a local eSports company, and immediately saw players noticing that content wasn’t being added any more. It was frustrating, knowing he couldn’t satisfy the demand for the game he’d made. 

So he arranged a part-time contract with his remarkably understanding boss (who also tolerates him being active on the game’s Discord all day), and since April he’s been working Monday to Wednesdays at his job, and then the rest of the time on Roshpit Champions. “I just released a big content patch, and revenue went up immediately, so I know how to keep people engaged. It’s just that I’m the only developer.”

Racioppo first got into modding Warcraft 3 during his teens, but he never saw it as a vocation. He went to university to study accounting, and found it so boring that he decided to learn how to program. And what better way to explore his new skillset than by realising a dream he had for a Diablo-like set in Dota 2, his favourite game? 

But he’s at the mercy of Dota 2’s popularity. While we talk, he checks its player count, noting that it’s down 12% since the same time last year. “If I was going to rely on this as my only income, you never know, Valve could just shut down modding, maybe, if it’s stopping them developing the engine or something. I’m completely dependent on their whims.” When he was full-time on Roshpit Champions, he simply figured that if the game was good, Valve would have no reason to pull the plug.

For now, then, Roshpit Champions is a fulfilling and large-scale side project. “I see the money as more of a justification. I would love to be full-time, but obviously there’s not enough money in it.” But he’s still trying to grow it. “We’ll see where it’s at in the next couple of years.”

Team Radious: Openness in Total War

Team Radious is a community of modders for the Total War series, creating translation patches, custom units, tweaked effects and complete overhauls for Rome 2, Attila, Thrones of Britannia and the Warhammer games. Like all modding, it started as a hobby 12 years ago for its lead, Jan, who by day works at the Czech Social Security Administration. But as Total War has become more complex, so too has the job of modding it.

”Overhauls are massive modifications which require hundreds or thousands of hours, and more for updates and support once they are released,” he says. That means bringing in outside expertise, hence the whole ‘Team’ Radious thing. “Video makers, picture makers, unit cards, UI modding, graphics and textures, database and scripting. I can maybe handle a lot, but definitely can’t handle all.”

With the work steadily rising in scope, in early 2017 he turned to Patreon, where 286 patrons now give the team $1,470 a month. Unlike most Patreon modders, like Julio NIB, Team Radious doesn’t restrict mod access to patrons. “Our mods and everything we do always been, is and always will be entirely free for everyone,” Jan says. “We are not selling anything. Patreon is just a platform where people if they wish can support our work.” 

Of course, Patreon has introduced overhead of its own. It needed promoting, so Team Radious opened up social media accounts, which all need to be updated and maintained, and its tiers of support, which range from $1 to $70, open up insights into the team’s roadmaps and give chances to vote on future decisions. Jan estimates he now spends 40% of his time managing community matters, which also include organising events and quizzes, game nights and community votes, taking in feedback and giving support. “All this of course takes additional amount of time which we already do not have to waste.”

One of the ways he manages community expectations is being transparent and open. “So everyone can see how much we get, what are our goals are.” And that extends to the team itself, with the Patreon money—as well as other donations that come in via PayPal—divided up according to who did what. “It’s clearly visible for every member so there are no troubles or hidden things.”

Still, despite these pressures, Jan remains as engaged as ever, working to raise the quality of Team Radious’ output higher while avoiding letting it affect the rest of his life. “Even after 12 years there are always new things to learn and to try,” he says. “The moment I don’t like it anymore I will stop, because without passion and love for this work you can’t create really good content which hundreds or thousands of players will play.”

Dota 2

Last weekend, five very good Dota 2 players gathered in San Francisco to play a competitive match—against a computer. Their opponent was OpenAI Five, five neural networks which have been training a bit harder than the average Dota player to learn how to be a competitive team: "OpenAI Five plays 180 years worth of games against itself every day, learning via self-play," says the OpenAI blog. I had no idea who would win, but I wanted to be there in person to find out.

If you try to beat it mechanically, it s not possible. You d have to use the fog and items and skillsets in a way it won t expect.

MoonMeander

Some people at the event thought OpenAI would have some clear weak points that could be exploited by its human opponents. Others worried the humans would stand no chance against the quicker mind of the machine. Most people I talked to just said “I really don’t know what to expect,” with that excited and anxious feeling that comes with a good mystery.

This benchmark event was a big deal for OpenAI, a non-profit company co-founded by Elon Musk. It was the first time their Dota 2 AI would be stepping into the spotlight since The International 2017, where it was able to defeat legendary pro player Dendi in a 1v1 showdown. That was impressive, fans agreed, but it wasn’t “real” Dota. Now, a year later, the AI has advanced enough to take on high-level players in a more realistic 5v5 format with some tweaked rules and a limited hero pool of 18.

Before the match, the players comprising Team Humans (Blitz, Cap, Merlini, MoonMeander, and Fogged) were excited about going up against an AI. Most of them are former pro players who have since moved to professional casting, but their overall MMR still places them in the 99.95th percentile of Dota 2 players. If OpenAI could beat them, it’d be significant.

“If you try to beat it mechanically, it’s not possible. You’d have to use the fog and items and skillsets in a way it won’t expect,” said MoonMeander. The team agreed that the laning phase would be the hardest challenge in the match. “If [the AI] is as good as it was in the 1v1 with perfect denies, then we need to make sure it doesn’t snowball out of control,” he added.

When asked what they think their chances were, the group was unsure. “Not zero,” said Merlini with a laugh. Fogged chimed in lightheartedly with “20 percent, come on!” MoonMeander didn’t want to say for sure, but said, “I do think that we stand a chance. I feel like there are some aspects of the game that the bot can’t achieve, but we have to outplay them big time to win this.”

OpenAI staff were also hesitant to call the match for sure, but they were feeling good about the progress the AI had made. “We’re feeling strong, but to be honest, it could go either way,” said OpenAI technical staff Filip Wolski. “The value of this match is seeing how the bot plays against really good humans.”

As the first match began, all eyes were on the AI. It wasn’t long before the humans’ fears were confirmed. The AI had a knack for instigating fights with precision and speed. By ten minutes in, the AI was leading in kills 13 to 4 with a consistently higher net worth. The humans put up a good fight with some smart takedowns here and there, but were consistently unable to deal with the AI when coordinating as a group. In the clip below, you can see the level of precise action the humans had to deal with as OpenAI turns a fight initiated by Fogged into a team wipe in its favor.

After the team wipe, the writing was on the wall. Following another big failed defense at their base, Team Humans called “GG” at the 21-minute mark.

Going into game 2, we got to take a look behind the curtain of the AI’s decision-making process during the team draft, including which heroes it thought the humans would choose, with a percentage chance attached to each. By the time the rosters were decided, the AI predicted a 76 percent chance for victory. But after a strong start in the opening minutes, it shot up to 92 percent.

Match 2 was mostly more of the same, with the humans trying to keep up and learn the quirks of their artificial opponent. They were able to put up a much better fight in the laning phase this time around, better utilizing the areas of play the AI wasn’t great at reacting to. This worked especially well in the clip below, in which a well-timed fissure blocked the path of the AI. Instead of trying to escape, the AI stood there, perhaps confused about what just happened but nonetheless aware of its imminent demise.

The AI also showed a lack of intuition when it came to invisibility and warding. On several occasions the humans were able to disengage with invisibility with little resistance and the AI would often place wards in awkward spots that weren’t useful in the situation. This is a weakness that OpenAI is more than aware of and is working to improve with future iterations. 

Tricking the AI only got the human team so far. After 20 minutes, the AI’s heroes had snowballed into powerhouses with more than double the kill count. Victory came after 24 minutes, but this time, the crowd was less enthused. It was a good showing, sure, but at this point the whole thing was starting to feel a little unfair.

With a lot of teams, they ll walk up and think wait, are we stronger, are we better than them? It would just instantly start attacking.

Fogged

The festivities concluded after a lighthearted third match that allowed the Twitch chat to draft the AI team this time around. After choosing an awful composition, the AI put its chances at about 2.9 percent. And it was right on the money as the humans were able to secure a pretty easy victory. To the crowd, which had gone from cheering for the “little AI that could” to a complete “down with the robots” demeanor, the third match was somewhat cathartic. It was a heavily qualified victory, sure, but an appreciated morale boost against our future AI overlords.

Sitting down to chat after the day was done, Fogged, MoonMeander, and Merlini had a lot to unpack. “With a lot of teams, they’ll walk up and think ‘wait, are we stronger, are we better than them?’ No, [the AI] would just instantly know,” Fogged said. “It would just instantly start attacking, pushing in, and wrap around behind you and kill you.”

After three matches, they had begun to see some patterns in how the AI prioritized certain targets. But in their eyes, a lot of it came down the AI having no hesitation—no fear. Merlini recounted, “We didn’t expect them to dive so much. I got dove right as the first creep wave hit—that doesn’t happen so often in normal play. It kinda takes a while to get used to.”

MoonMeander brought up an especially poignant moment during the second match that indicated just how far beyond human the AI was playing. “There was one time when I was about to fissure kill a Lion and the courier came at the frame-perfect moment, delivered a salve, and it instantly used it. No way a human could have done that. No way.” You can watch this moment below. Fogged was quickly able to pick up the kill afterwards.

Merlini also pointed to the lack of illusions and something that helped the AI. “[The AI] never had to guess whether or not somebody is real. ‘Should we waste our spells on them?’ No, it would just know ‘this is a player, we’re killing them’ every single time.” The players initially thought that illusions weren’t allowed because the AI would have a tough time telling real players apart, but they later learned that OpenAI thought it would be too hard on the humans. There were concerns that the AI would be able to perfectly control multiple units at a time in a way that a human never could.

Team Humans wasn’t convinced that they would ever be able to best the AI under the same conditions. “I’d say if they draft, we’d have probably a five percent chance,” Fogged said. “I think if somehow we got the chances to fifty-fifty, that would be the coolest game ever.” When asked how OpenAI Five could ultimately be used in the future, MoonMeander sees it as a training tool more than anything else. “If they manage to get it to play with all the heroes and all the items in the game, as a pro player, I would like my team to scrim against it. Not a whole game, but a scrim for the first ten minutes to see how strong our lineup is for the laning phase. To see what it takes to counter our heroes.”

For OpenAI, the Dota project has always been about challenging the AI to self-learn using one of the most complicated games in the world. Overall, they’re aiming to build the best AGI (artificial general intelligence) they can. “On the road there, we try to pick problems that will bring us closer to that general intelligence. In this particular case, with Dota 2, it’s a very complex environment where nobody before was able to get AI [to this point] before,” said Wolski after the match.

Even if the Dota AI goes on to beat the very best players in the world, technical staff member Jie Tang thinks that won’t be the end. “I think the algorithms and ideas behind it we’ll continue working on for a while. It’s going to be about picking the next challenge that may be impossible, but not too impossible and trying to see how much traction we can make on it,” he said. “There’s a whole wide world of human capabilities that we can start to tackle one by one.”

When asked if the AI has a chance against pros in The International 2018, Fogged confidently said: “The bots will win.” MoonMeander believes the humans will have trouble at first, and maybe lose a few matches, but will eventually figure out their draft and strategies to bring it closer to a fifty-fifty shot. Either way, it should be a spectacle for the MOBA ages.

Team Fortress 2

If you have the time and hard drive space, you can squeeze a huge amount of free entertainment out of your Steam client. With that in mind we've organised the best free and free-to-play games together into one list. The free games section consists of games that contain no microtransactions. You might be able to buy extra episodes or DLC packs, but you'll get the full core experience for your download in this category.

The free-to-play section contains games that are supported by in-game microtransactions. We've considered the fairness of the in-game stores when selecting these games, and believe you can get a lot of fun out of them before you put in credit card details. We'll update the list over time as we discover more gems hidden away in the Steam store.

FREE GAMES

Alien Swarm

Link: Steam

Up to four players fight through space stations overrun with hordes of alien bugs. Beating missions earns you weapons and equipment that let you specialise your marine. Expect almost Starship Troopers scale hordes at points, as the AI director tries to push your team to the brink of death.

Alien Swarm is a forgotten Valve experiment, but it's perfectly good fun in co-op. The complete game code and mod tools are available, but the community never produced enough to sustain the game beyond its opening months. It's still worth downloading the game with some friends and enjoying what's there though.

A Raven Monologue

Link: Steam

A beautifully drawn experimental short story about a mute raven trying to interact with his townsfolk. The project is described as an attempt "to tell stories or to communicate an experience using a constrained work of interactive art." It's quick, simple to play, and full of room for interpretation.

Cry of Fear

Link: Steam

A quality Half-Life total conversion that's full of scares. The game twists the old GoldSrc engine to give you an inventory system and a big, dark city to explore. Prepare yourself for relentless tension across eight hours of exploration and combat with 24 different weapons. The download also includes a bunch of custom campaigns and an unlockable extra campaign once you beat the main story. That's good value for a free download.

House of Abandon

Steam: Link

This experiment eventually became the excellent short story compilation Stories Untold. You can still download it to your library by heading to the page linked above and clicking 'Download PC Demo'. The first part follows someone playing a text adventure as things start to get strange, and quite scary.

Doki Doki Literature Club!

Link: Steam

It may look like a cheerful classroom drama but don't be fooled, Doki Doki Literature Club! plays with that facade. Sedate chats with classmates create a languid impression for the first act or so, but dark twists await—there's a reason the game opens with a content warning. If you end up enjoying it then you might also like Pony Island and Undertale. 

Off-Peak

Link: Steam

It's the future, you're stuck in a train station, and everything is weird. Chat with the station's odd inhabitants and explore its twisted side passages to discover surreal little anecdotes and piece together meaning from the assembled scraps. It only takes about half an hour to complete and the music is sweet, so give it a download.

FREE-TO-PLAY GAMES

Dota 2

Link: Steam

Dota 2 is one of the biggest games on Steam. Described simply, two teams of five wizards battle to knock over towers and flatten the enemy base in battles that tend to last between 30 minutes and an hour. In practice it's one of the deepest and most complicated competitive games in the world. Every year the huge International tournament draws millions of viewers, and with 110+ heroes and a consistently shifting meta, this could be the only game you ever need in your Steam library.

The free-to-play implementation is mostly good. Most microtransactions are tied to cosmetics. In addition to individual item purchases you can also buy battle passes that grant access to modes, quests that you complete by playing games, and more cosmetic items.

Warframe

Link: Steam

This third person action RPG about futuristic ninjas can be completely baffling for new players, but if you persist with it you'll find a deep and rewarding game on the verge of some of its most ambitious updates to date. At launch it was a game about repeating short missions—and that's still part of it—but there are also open world zones and plans to add co-op space combat. Warframe has been getting better and better in the last few years, and now we reckon it's one of the best free to play games on PC

You can spend real money to speed up crafting time, and to buy items and frames outright. Everything is perfectly craftable using in-game currency however, and players seem more interested in using the real-money Platinum currency to unlock new colour schemes.

Card Hunter

Link: Steam

Card Hunter is a cute squad RPG based around digital collectible cards. You battle through dungeons under the guidance of a dungeon master, levelling up your squad of heroes, building your deck and enjoying some affectionate tongue in cheek digs at D&D along the way. There's loads to play before you ever see a payment screen and there are also co-op and competitive modes. If only more free-to-play games were like this.

Team Fortress 2

Link: Steam

This team shooter has been around since 2007, but the character designs are timeless and the class design is still magnificent. Few shooters can point to a class as innovative as The Spy, who can disguise himself as an opposing team to sabotage their gadgets and stab their heavies in the back. If you prefer long-range engagements, the sniper has you covered, or you can ambush enemies up close with the Pyro. Whatever your play style, there's a class to match, and with enough play you will be switching between classes frequently to help your team push the cart or take a tricky point.

Path of Exile

Link: Steam

Path of Exile is one of the deepest action RPGs on the market, and one of the most generous for being free-to-play. The basic structure ought to be familiar: pick a class and embark on Diablo-style killing sprees to earn loot and level up. There's a huge amount of class and item customisation to dig into as you start to move past the tutorial stages. Slot different patterns of gems into your armour sets to min-max your character and take them into even tougher dungeons. You only need to pay money for cosmetics that reskin your weapons and armour

EVE Online

Link: EVE Online

This space MMO is famous for producing incredible stories of war and betrayal. Its player-driven corporations are fraught political entities that can be very inaccessible to new players. Even if you don't persist long enough to break into the grand PvP game it's still a gorgeous universe full of beautiful spaceships and nebulae. Some ships and skills are locked off in the free-to-play version, but you can spend a huge amount of time in the game before you need to look at paying for premium access.

Star Trek Online

Link: Steam

Fly ships, gather a crew, and beam down to planets with an away team in this massive free-to-play MMO. It has aged quite a bit since launch and it's riddled with microtransactions, but you can still play through the story and see every side of the game without paying. If you do get drawn in to collecting high end ships and decking out your crew with signature Star Trek livery then expect to pay for it. You can grind for items using in-game currency, but for advance items that will take longer than seems reasonable. If you're looking for a free Star Trek experience, however, it's surprisingly fun.

Realm Royale

Link: Realm Royale

If you like the idea of Fortnite but can't stand building, then Realm Royale might be your next battle royale game. It's still in Early Access, but there are enough features to separate it from Fortnite (which isn't on Steam), and paid-for battle royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. Realm Royale has a fantasy element with five classes and different spells and abilities for each. Hunters can leave proximity mines, while mages can heal themselves with ice magic. It's perfectly playable at this stage in Early Access, but expect it to evolve a lot in the coming months.

Battlerite

Link: Steam

An arena-based top-down brawler with shooting, spells and a colourful art style. As we've observed before, it's basically a smartly designed clutch teamfight generator. If you're tired of the long lanes of Dota 2 or League of Legends then you might enjoy Battlerite's punchy, fast-paced encounters, and while it's competitive, it has a cleaner learning curve than the major lane-pushing games. A separate paid-for Battlerite Royale mode is heading to Early Access in September, which has annoyed the community, but you can still find a battle in the original 2v2 and 3v3 modes.

Dota 2

Valve opened the gates on the 2018 Dota 2 short film contest at the end of May, and fans of the MOBA wasted no time submitting their videos. Passion aside, it's not hard to see why: the top submissions will be featured in The International 2018 Battle Pass, and the winners will be shown on-stage at The International itself. There's also some sizable prize money up for grabs: $25,000 to first place, $10,000 to second place, $5,000 to third place, and $500 to the rest of the top 10. 

There are only a few simple rules on submissions, which you can read in full here. The key points are that entries must be 90 seconds or less, they must be original films created for the contest, and they must pertain to Dota 2. Notably, they "can use any form or combination of animation or live-action," so using Valve's popular Source Filmmaker is not a requirement. This year's entries hit the whole spectrum of techniques, but the past few days in particular have seen some stunning animated films, presumably because animation is hard and these things needed every second in the oven that they could get (the contest entry period closed yesterday morning). Here are four of the best: 

Ursa Minor, by Alexander Frey and his team. 

On The Cliff, by Keller Max and his team. 

 Kobold Blues, by Erick Wright and his team. 

The Final 88 Seconds of an 8-Hour Game, also by Erick Wright and his team (multiple submissions are allowed).  

A useful roundup of this year's entries is available on the Dota 2 subreddit, and you can find more on the contest's Steam Community page, which is also where you can vote for your favorites.  

Dota 2

Update: And that's game, with the AI victorious in two rounds out of three. However, the show's still going on Twitch with OpenAI explaining more about how they built and tested their team, and what's next for them.

Original story: Research institute OpenAI, which Elon Musk co-founded in 2015, is set to send its super-smart self-taught Dota 2 bots to The International 2018 later this month to take on a team of experienced pros. Today, those bots are playing a benchmark match against five top players, including former pros, casters and analysts. The action will stream live on Twitch from 12:30pm PT/3:30pm ET/8:30pm BST. Click here to watch.

The human team is made up of Blitz, Cap, Fogged, Merlini and Moonmeander, with commentary from Purge and ODPixel.

The bot team, called OpenAI Five, has certainly had enough practice to hold its own: it has been playing 180 years' worth of games against itself every day, picking up the intricacies of the MOBA along the way. 

OpenAI's 1v1 bot beat pro player Danil "Dendi" Ishutin at last year's The International, and the institute says the learning process for OpenAI Five is much more complex, requiring 256 GPUs and 128,000 CPU cores.

If you're interested, it's worth reading OpenAI's blog post on the challenges its Five team faces, including the complex rules of Dota 2, and the fact that, at any given time, a hero could have more than 100,000 possible actions open to them.

Dota 2

We all know that playing online with other random humans can be a pain, and apparently Ubisoft got plenty sick of watching players spew racist language in Rainbow Six: Siege. The developer instituted a system that automatically bans players who enter racial slurs into the game chat, which has resulted in plenty of outrage. 

If Ubisoft can make life tough for these people, what are the other major multiplayer games doing to combat racism in their games? We checked in with Blizzard, Valve, and other developers to see how they deal with racial slurs, and what they do to the players who use them.

League of Legends

How does Riot police harassment?

Of all the games on this list, League of Legends might have the most extensive code of conduct, known formally as the “Summoner’s Code.” League’s “Instant Feedback System” has seen some reforms, but it basically scours through the game’s chat logs after someone submits a player report, then doles out a verdict in 15 minutes or less, or your pizza is free. The first offense gets you a 10-game chat restriction, then a 25-game chat restriction, then a two week ban, and finally a permanent ban. Offending players even get a pleasant little in-game message about why they’re getting the hammer.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Players can submit a report against someone at the end of a game, and the Instant Feedback System should get a verdict within 15 minutes. Sometimes, but not always, players will be notified if their report resulted in the punishment of another player, but Riot says that even if you don't get a message, that doesn’t necessarily mean the other player got off scot free.

“We want a future where League is wholly free of slurs and hate speech, but penalties alone won’t get us there," said Riot senior technical designer Kimberly Voll in a statement to PC Gamer. "In recent years, we’ve been focusing more on the establishment of norms. We believe if there aren’t clear, understood, and shared rules on what’s OK in gaming, like there are in sports, then we’ll just be enforcing the same nasty things forever. Like Jeff Kaplan mentioned on behalf of Overwatch last year, enforcement alone stretches budgets. We agree, and believe it limits our imagination and audience as well.”

Fortnite

How does Epic Games police harassment?

It’s unclear how extensive punishments for abusive players are in Fortnite. Search online and you’ll find far more forum posts about temporary or permanent bans for players who break the rules by teaming up in solo mode than for harassment. There’s no text chat, just a voice chat system that’s push-to-talk by default for communication with your squadmates. Epic’s primary focus seems to be on cheaters, going so far as to file a lawsuit against two more prominent players. Fortnite’s code of conduct page does warn players to “be graceful in victory and defeat." 

"Discriminatory language, hate speech, threats, spam, and other forms of harassment or illegal behavior will not be tolerated,” it reads. PC Gamer has reached out to Epic for a more thorough explanation of how their system works, but has yet to receive a reply.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Fortnite has a typical system wherein you can report the player who killed you in the post-death menu. If you need to report another player or your own teammates, the report function is squirreled away in the “feedback” menu option, and you need to be able to supply that player’s username. Epic has also invited players to use their support center for bigger issues. 

Dota 2

How does Valve police harassment?

Valve operates on a typical system where more reports get you banned for longer periods of time. The lower rung of bans can be as short as 10 minutes to an hour. You’ll get a day-long ban if things get a bit more serious. And if you’re a real jerk, you’ll get a week, then a month or two, and finally a six month or permanent ban. Valve deliberately keeps this process vague, but it does warn abusive players ahead of time that continued bad behavior will result in longer bans.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Valve has a pretty typical report system in place, but it’s basically only available at the end of a match. Players can pick from three categories (communication abuse, intentional ability abuse, and intentional feeding) and can leave a brief comment. You can leave up to three reports per week, and you’ll be notified if any action is taken against another player you reported.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

How does PUBG Corporation police harassment?

If a PUBG player is caught harassing another player with racist or sexist language, they will first receive a three-day ban. A second incident will net a full week, and a third incident will net a full month. Any repeat offenses beyond that will earn a player a permanent ban. You can look at the comprehensive chart for a better idea of how other issues are tackled.

“It is unacceptable to disrespect or use offensive words towards others based on their race, gender, nationality, etc,” the code of conduct reads.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

There’s currently no way for someone to report another player who didn’t kill them, which makes reporting racist behavior a pain. PUBG representatives have said that players must submit a report on the PUBG forums that includes the reporting player’s username, the name of the player you’re reporting, the time and date of the incident, and a description of the incident. I wouldn’t want to be the guy sifting through all that footage.

PUBG allows you to directly report auser after they’ve killed you, although the closest category available for racial discrimination would be “improper nickname.” This feedback system is clearly not designed for combating harassment.

CS:GO

How does Valve police harassment?

Although CS:GO uses one of the most effective automated systems for shutting down cheaters, VACnet, it does not currently automatically ban or silence players who use racist language. VACnet and its accompanying "Overwatch" system are primarily focused on catching hackers and griefers. The Overwatch system recruits experienced players with good records, then gives them the tools to review footage of reported matches, and it’s up to them to give a collective verdict. If a player is caught being awful, they receive either a “minorly disruptive” or “majorly disruptive” designation. The first results in a ban of “at least 30 days,” but a second offense gets a lifetime ban.

A “majorly disruptive” designation automatically gets you a permanent ban, but Valve’s description only mentions cheating, not abusive behavior. There’s no mention of racism, sexism, or general verbal abuse in Valve’s descriptions of Overwatch or VACnet, so it’s unclear if the company has any major initiative against harassment other than the mute and report buttons.

We reached out to Valve for clarification on how its process works, but did not receive a reply by publishing time.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Players can select another player during a match, which opens up an option to report or commend them. Abusive text and voice chat sit comfortably at the top of the list of options. You can also mute the player by checking the “block communications” box.

Rocket League

How does Psyonix police harassment?

Rocket League might be the closest to Rainbow Six: Siege in terms of automating bans for racial slurs. Back in 2017, Psyonix instituted a secret list of 20 words and variants that can trigger bans. Psyonix says each word has a certain threshold, and once that’s met, multiplayer bans will start at 24 hours, then 72 hours, a week, and finally a permanent ban.

Psyonix also has a chat ban system in place that, well, bans jerks from using the text chat window. It’s a little more lenient than the general language ban system, but players have to report the abuse (rather than the game auto-scanning), then the system scans the game that was just played for abusive language. If a reported player is found guilty, they're banned from chatting for 24 hours to one month. It’s not instant like Rainbow Six Siege’s. If a player insists on using abusive language after their initial chat ban is up, they “may” get a permanent overall game ban. Players who get chat bans are notified whenever it happens.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Rocket League's reporting mechanism is straightforward. You just click on the offending player’s profile, select “mute/report,” and then select from the available categories. Verbal harassment sits at the top. If Psyonix takes action against a player, they’re notified later in the main menu.

Overwatch

How does Blizzard police harassment?

Blizzard is one of the most outspoken studios on toxicity and related issues. However, that outspokenness more often translates to support tools for well-behaved players than any sort of explanation for how bad players are punished.

Blizzard used to punish repeatedly abusive chat users in Overwatch by simply muting them, but still allowing them to play. That’s now changed, with those players receiving lengthier and lengthier bans for each successive offense. Blizzard is unclear on the rubric it uses, and unclear on how that’s balanced between automated systems and real humans banging the gavel, but it does say that a player with enough reports and punishments on their record will receive a permanent ban. Negative players are given warnings prior to an actual punishment, something director Jeff Kaplan has said has helped stop players from causing further trouble.

How do well-behaved players fight back?

Since launch, Blizzard has allowed PC players to report individual players via the report function, and added the function to consoles in mid-2017. Besides picking a category of bad behavior, players also have the ability to include a brief description of their experience with each individual report. Blizzard has also stated that it searches out recordings of toxic behavior on YouTube, Twitch, or other sites to find negative players and address them.

After/during each match, Overwatch players can also select up to two players to block with the “avoid as teammate” option. Players can deselect or replace one person with another, but Blizzard has stated that that number may rise if the program doesn’t cause any issues. There’s also the new “find team” function that lets players avoid the pitfalls of solo queuing into a match with nothing but Hanzo mains.

PC Gamer reached out to Blizzard to clarify how these punishments are determined, but has yet to receive a response.

Team Fortress 2

Deep down, I think we've all wanted to burn down a house.

Not out of vengeance, or a half-baked insurance scam, or to send a message to a crosstown mob boss. To me, pyromania is simply the most relatable form of gleeful mass destruction. Who isn't a little bit entranced by a towering inferno? Of course, in real life you can't work out your emotional baggage through incendiary therapy without getting the cops called on you, but videogames fill the void.

If we're being honest, games have only recently really helped us get in touch with our latent pyromaniac instincts. It was difficult to program inspiring flames on a Commodore 64, and the less said about Doom's pepperoni pizza take on lava the better. But that started to change in 2008, with the release of Far Cry 2 and its unprecedented wildfire mechanics.

"To me [Ubisoft] really nailed how fire should feel and I loved how it would burn the grass and environment, such a wonderful touch," says Bill Munk, creative director of Killing Floor 2, which itself is a game with an incredibly satisfying flamethrower. He's right. Open world sandboxes weren't exactly a rarity in the late-aughties, but Far Cry 2 was one of the first times our machines packed the processing power to handle the physics estimations necessary to set those open-worlds on fire. We haven't looked back since.

"I really think flame weapons are so fun because of the extreme destruction they cause to NPCs and to the environment," continues Munk, when I ask him why he thinks players enjoy a healthy bit of incineration every now and then. "It's such a fun power trip, not to mention fire-based weapons are generally more forgiving on how accurate you need to be with your aim." 

Today, we're seeing games that play with fire on a more granular, mechanical level, rather than the engine-porn stagecraft it's been used for in the past. The best example I can think of is probably Larian Studios' Divinity series, which has persistently injected an immersive suite of environmental effects into the relative solemnity of a turn-based RPG.

I've always found this screenshot, where a rustic wooden platform is scorched to the depths of hell, to be an effective shorthand for why people who don't necessarily play a ton of strategy games still fall in love with the absurdity of Original Sin's magic systems.

"We tried to tweak duration, area and availability of fire skills so that the player is frequently put into position where their battle plan is spinning out of control and they need to improvise and take risks," says Nick Pechenin, systems designer of Divinity Original Sin 2, when I ask him how fire has been a useful tool in Larian's game design. "It was also important to us that although the ways in which surfaces are created and interact with each other have almost no randomness, smallest deviations in how the player targets their skills and positions their characters lead to wildly divergent outcomes, essentially generating fresh combat experiences every time."

It was fun to hear someone speak so intelligently about the mechanical theories behind cauterizing your enemies. For me, fire effects in videogames aren't about all clever design. Fire taps into my baseline, brain-bypassing id—the caveman wants and needs of my idiot gamer brain. But I suppose that's how it should be. A good blaze should be emotionally and aesthetically resonant, and when done right, it serves a distinct gameplay functionality buried deep below our perception. To borrow a J-school aphorism; it is showing, not telling, to the highest degree. With that, here are some PC games that excel in the art of pyromania. 

Return to Castle Wolfenstein

The urtext of video game flamethrowers; a lot of people's first quintessential next-gen experience back in 2001 was torching bunkers in that gorgeous, liquid-orange id Tech 3 goodness. I remember this thing being a little bit overpowered, mostly because of its ridiculous range, but frankly any good flamethrower should be. The only good Nazis are the ones conflagerating to death at your feet. 

For bonus Nazis-on-fire action, check out this trailer for the 2009 Wolfenstein's Flammenwerfer.

Far Cry (series)

We talked about Far Cry 2 above, which will always and forever be the crown prince of video game fire effects. But we also must give a nod to the other games in the series, specifically Far Cry 3, which had its finger on the pulse of the nation when it included a level where your shit-for-brains protagonist burns down a marijuana growing operation while a Skrillex/Damian Marley collaboration blasts off in the background. (It was 2012, what did you expect?) Truly a magnificent moment in the history of gaming that will only continue to get more hilarious as time goes on. 

Terraria

Terraria does such a great job with its physics for a 2D platformer, and one of my favorite ways that manifests is when you're digging through the sediment and throwing down an endless bread crumb of torches to guide your way back to the surface. It can be a pain to farm gel and wood to make sure you never run out light, but there's something kinda dramatic about zooming out and seeing the vast network of dimly-lit mineshafts you've inadvertently created. Especially for someone like me, who's always been bad at the aesthetic parts of crafting games. 

Alien Isolation

Alien Isolation is a game about being completely screwed, but one of the very, very few times you feel like you have a chance in that awful, no-good, godforsaken spaceship is when you've got the flamethrower on your side. One big angry ball of flame is all it takes to put the xenomorph on its bony heels, and that respite can be downright euphoric. The flamethrower as the odds-evener, as it should be. 

Diablo (series)

Blizzard prefers a heavy touch when it comes to their aesthetic design, so it's no surprise that their darkest franchise lays it on pretty darn thick whenever we make a journey to the underworld. Diablo's hell is absolutely unreasonable; a giddy orgy of blood, lava, blackened gothic chapels, and belching geysers of flame. Personally, I'm partial to Azmodan Lord of Sin, best known for lobbing infernal orbs of molten rock at your hapless barbarian (a mechanic that was later beautifully integrated into Heroes of the Storm). Good on you, Blizzard. We can only hope that Diablo 4 brings an even heavier dose of hellishness. 

Shovel Knight

This is PC Gamer, which means we can't mention Super Mario 64, or Banjo Kazooie, or Sonic The Hedgehog on this list. That's a shame, because the mascot platformer is forever betrothed to lava levels—nothing quite ups the ante like the chance to singe the overalls right off of Mario's nubile body. Thankfully Yacht Club, who has dedicated its existence to bringing picture perfect 8-bit-esque adventures to Steam, picked up the slack. Of course Shovel Knight has a lava level, and of course it learns from the masters by bringing a candyflipped Bowser's Castle that's challenging, dramatic, and thoroughly retro. If we could bottle and administer the feeling you get when you use that indestructible shovel to traverse the lakes of Hell, everyone on earth would realize that videogames are a force for good. 

World of Warcraft

It's been a long, long time since I played a Fire Mage in World of Warcraft, but one of the most satisfying feelings that MMO ever produced was the Presence of Mind/Pyroblast combo back in vanilla. I'll break it down for you: Pyroblast was this ridiculous, deep talent-tree spell that let you hurl a massive fireball at an enemy after a six second casting time. That made it kinda useless, because the downtime was so heavy. That is, unless, you also specced into Arcane to pick up Presence of Mind, which, when activated, would make your next spell cast instantly. You see where I'm going now, right?

Presence of Mind/Pyro quickly became my favorite thing to do to people in Warsong Gulch. I'd reckon to guess that it led to more Alt-F4s than anything else in Warcraft's early years. Well, that's not true. Remember when Rogues could stunlock you for, like, half a minute? Man, maybe World of Warcraft Classic is a bad idea.

Team Fortress 2

It's pretty hard to balance a flamethrower in a multiplayer game. Usually they're either totally weak and watered-down, or an ultra-scarce pickup that you see once every 20 games. So hats off to Valve for not only building out the Pyro as a crucial part of the Team Fortress fabric, but also making him fun to play! Torching a crowded control point feels great, but every good Pyro knows the value of the secondary shotgun when you get locked down in a dual with a Scout or a Soldier or something. The variation between the loadout makes you feel useful and multi-dimensional, rather than the kid hogging the cool weapons and sandbagging the team.

BioShock (series)

I love the way Jack's hand looks when he's got the Incinerate plasmid equipped. All of the biological upgrades in Rapture are horrifying in their own visceral ways—I never ever need to see that Insect Swarm cutscene ever again—but something about walking around BioShock's dead corridors with a left hand that's smoldering from the inside out is awesome, and troubling, and could probably serve as a tentpole for some half-baked fan theory. In this Randian dystopia, the Left is on fire! I also think BioShock does perhaps the best job of letting us live our deepest, truest arson fantasies. Just snap your fingers and set anything on fire. Easy as that. Great for clearing out crazy people in a fallen kingdom, and also probably great for party tricks. 

Dark Souls

You have to think that From Software knew their take on pyromancy was awesome, considering how it's, by far, the easiest school of magic to use in a game that's famous for its abstruseness. No degenerate attunement system, no gatekeeping stat requirements, just throw on your fire glove and start roasting skeletons. Everyone who's spent some time in Lordran knows exactly where they were the first time you were invaded by some refined griefer who rained ungodly hellfire on your poor, PvE-tuned knight. We all rushed back, retrieved our souls, and vowed to get our revenge in New Game Plus. And probably started learning pyromancy.

Dota 2

An awful-looking game called Climber recently vanished from Steam after several Dota 2 players reported they'd been scammed by Climber users pawning lookalike items.

The scam revolved around a Dota 2 item called the Dragonclaw Hook. The genuine Dragonclaw Hook is an immortal-rarity item for the hero Pudge. It was briefly available in early 2013 and can no longer be obtained outside of the Steam Community Market, where it can fetch upwards of $800

However, the Dragonclaw Hook these players were offered was a carefully crafted fake. According to a screenshot posted on Reddit by angelof1991, Climber's counterfeit hook used the same image and description as the genuine article: 

According to a screenshot from mage203, Climber even used Dota 2's logo in the Steam Community Market: 

Climber's Steam Database entry corroborates these screenshots. The game's recent activity shows it was scrubbed from the storefront less than 24 hours after the Dota 2 logo was added to its page, and the fake Dragonclaw Hook is buried in its item definitions. 

A cached version of Climber's Steam page shows it launched in Early Access on May 18, 2018 for $1. Its Steam description calls it "a game in which you need to go as far as possible," and it looks like a Max Dirt Bike-style game made in Microsoft Paint. 

Climber's developer and publisher, respectively KIRILL_KILLER34 and The Team A, have one other game on Steam. It's called Space Vomit, and it looks just as atrocious as Climber. According to its Steam reviews, it's a shoddy $1 game that instantly gets you thousands of Steam achievements. Interestingly, Space Vomit also uses the same Early Access blurb as Climber, with a scant few words changed. Here's a side-by-side comparison: 

Climber and all of its items have vanished from Steam, but at the time of writing, Space Vomit is still available, though it isn't on the Community Market. It's unclear whether the scammers merely skipped town after getting caught or if Valve intervened. Earlier today, Valve removed a game from Steam after its developer, Okalo Union, was accused of creating fake Team Fortress 2 items. However, like KIRILL_KILLER34 and The Team A, Okalo Union's Steam account is still live at the time of writing. 

Notably, this whole mess comes weeks after Valve announced that it will no longer police what's on Steam unless it's illegal or "straight-up trolling." And with no moderation apparently in place to weed out games like Climbers, it is likely that more scams like this will crop up in the foreseeable future, so check your trades carefully.

Portal 2

After writing about the 20-map, 30-puzzle-boasting Destroyed Aperture earlier this month, I've had a hankering for Portal 2 mods. After a wee fumble around ModDB, the latest to catch my eye is Portal: After Hours—a " one man passion project" that plans to launch its first episode on August 15, 2018. 

Designed to recapture the story-lite "simplicity" of the original Portal, After Hours aims to give players "much harder puzzles that cater to long-term Portal fans first," so says creator ABNTGeneric. 

They add: "New and improved testing elements will be present throughout the game, including, but not limited to, modified versions of existing community made fizzlers. There will be multiple original characters, voice acting, and a cohesive story line that fits snugly into the existing Portal universe."

ABNTGeneric explains the project will be split into two parts—the first, as noted above, is due next month; the second is due at some point "this winter"—before the full mod is released for free on Steam in early 2019.  

Here's a trailer:

And some screens:

After Hours' Twitter page houses some cool work-in-progress stuff too, such as single puzzles and in-development designs. Here are some of those:

Again, Portal: After Hours' first episode is due on August 15. More information lives on its ModDB page.  

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