Why Make Games When We Can Make Installations?

The participant signs the disclaimer and announces their safe word. They dress in the boiler suit required.

They're led into a dark room with a single metallic reclining chair in the centre under spot illumination.

As they sit down, the light above them starts to dim and their limbs are strapped down.

[Pressure sensors in the chair detect their resting weight distribution and tension monitors on each strap activate to record the strain. Mics pick up any noise from the strap buckles.]

As the light approaches nothing, a VR headset is positioned over the participant's eyes and ears.

The *vinc* of the light being switched back on is heard by the participant with the resumption of illumination, making them look up to the sound and then turn away from the bright light.

The participant looks down at their new body, not quite perfect but it seems to be responding correctly. They quickly accept it.

[Leap Motions hidden below the end of the arm rests record the precise hand movements. This will be the key point of freedom the participant can use to bond with their virtual self at the start of this simulation. A fast-track camera records the body motions and merges that skeletal track with the pressure sensor data.]

Slowly things start emerging from the darkness and into the light, floating above and around the participant. A semi-transparent fish floats through the air and brushes the participant's arm. They violently react to the light touch they feel.

[A performer has walked up to the participant with a soft foam stick and used their mobile device to indicate to the simulation where to interact, viewing the scene from a virtual camera above the chair and using the timer they set in motion by selection an interaction point to match the virtual scene.]

From here, it's up to the simulation designers and performers to define the entertainment. We can shape your vision to anything our imagination can conceive. For the next hour, we will control all that you see and hear.

"But is it a Video Game?"

VR is going to be interesting for gaming. I don't think any of the existing stereoscopic (main brand: nVidia 3D Vision) & head-tracking (main brand: NaturalPoint TrackIR) communities are in any doubt about the experiential and ludic possibilities this extra input (the tracking of the VR unit is a major new source of input, discounting any ludic changes from this new input is crazy) and immersion (finally reaching a presence effect that isn't fleeting is very cool, maybe not AR presence cool but that's a problem for a future decade once we nail down VR and where we can go with it).

VR is going to be interesting for people with game development skills who want to do other things. We've already seen this sort of thing emerging in the last decade and finding a spare in the indie scene. Games that use non-traditional output devices to manage the players and track the rules. Games that require specialist equipment to experience and are found in art installations.

Computer and video games are interactive experiences watched over by machines. The question in the title answers itself. We've already accepted video games that are installations; VR is, by the interactive requirements, primarily a game technology. The next decade of VR is going to let a lot more designers play with the boundaries of the previous four decades of games designed for fixed screens.

We're finally at the point where all this might actually work. I'll see you all in 11ms when we've got to finish the render for the pre-warping and scan-out.

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Copyright & Limited Run Works

Further to the discussion last year and the year before, here are two (potentially complementary) ideas for changing how copyright and trademarks work. This should, at least, provide direction in which there are solutions to orphaned works, hostaged works, and providing access to lore/'IP' without forcing very short terms on all works.

The Right to Refuse to Sell More

I think there's a pretty big line between: abandonware as sort of unofficial copyleft system of distribution for items that have no commercial availability or value and are hard to access for the millions of people who do have ownership rights to one copy due to advancing technology; and people who sell ROMs and so on for profit without correctly paying the fees to the copyright holders and those who are due royalties.

"The copyright term will never expire"

When I did a big "complying with copyright" thing in ~2010 (partially to explore things like Spotify as the potential future of managing to process consumption of media and distribution of fees to creators without a barrier to discoverability issue - other systems like try before you buy / free streaming of music / etc seemed to have the issue that when you move to this online, rental model they you can kinda subvert discoverability access to be free consumption so I wanted to do a deep dive into the all you can eat model of rental), I wiped all my ROMs (along with all my mp3s, etc). So since then I've been trying to keep it 100% legit. Stuff like GOG make that a lot easier than it would have been a decade ago but my nostalgia burns brightest for PC games/ports so the lack of available non-DOS stuff is less of an issue for me.

For copyright black hole content then I do think laws need to be tweaked (like defined limits on profitability before work enters the public domain, considered paid for in full by society, and changes to the copyright limits; here's what I plan to limit my work with as a personal experiment and not what I would consider guidance for legal limits) and thanks to Mickey Corp we have the legal standard that copyright changes are applied retroactively (despite this making no sense to the arguments given for creating a better incentive for current works by making them more profitable, previous works have already been created so that argument would not demand retroactive extensions to limits) so we can free a lot of content with changes that put the public interest before profits from long delivered commercial works.

There is a case for adding new elements to the balance of copyright (because, ultimately, a government can simply refuse to grant any copyrights to creators, the hard-ball deal is "we currently give you all this and you've been asking for more at every turn, we could give you no protection; there is no inherent right, only a government granted license of exclusive duplication to the creator to inspire the creation of works") like a restriction on the creation of limited works as a pre-defined special work. So before something went on sale, you could register it as a limited work with up to, say, 5000 copies (all numbered) and that would be the total run for this work and any sold derivatives. Those units could be sold and restricted with normal copyright. This would be how bespoke art would be managed, one off paintings with some reprints but a market that requires limits on the right of duplication of the original creator/copyright owner to ensure value. Rather than a contract from the creator it would be a legal structure that created a limited run work.

"If you don't already own me, you can't"

What this would allow was for mass duplicated works to not have to worry about this specific ecosystem of limited copies creating a vibrant second-hand value market with speculation and appreciation. You could then say anything not registered as such before it went on sale would be a mass market work. Mass market works could not be withdrawn from the market. If someone wanted to buy then they would be allowed to (at reasonable cost, based on the sale price of the previous copies and judgement on the increasing costs of materials to generate another duplicate) unless a work was forced from sale by legal issues (say it turns out the creator was only a "creator" as the work was copyright infringement itself). This would prevent the creation of limited time contracts that strip works from sale currently and also make it impossible for someone to sit on a copyrighted work, it they refused to make a duplicate then someone else would be paid the material costs of duplication and the difference handed to the owner by the state. The fair value of sale would be taken from their hands and put into that of a judge so it would be in the interest of the copyright holder to declare a value at the upper end of reasonable and contract the duplication themselves to maximise their profits from the sale.

As long as there was one duplicate in existence that had been analysed and the skills to make another duplicate then a mass produced item would remain on sale to any potential buyer. This would provide a strong protection to a cultural heritage without mandating very short copyright terms that could limit the scope of commercial works which required long tails or reward creators who are some years ahead of their time or slow to find widescale commercial exploitation of their work (although we generally don't see such a thing outside of a few exceptional cases which a sane copyright term would already prevent - the Lord of the Rings should be public domain about now and my earlier suggestions to a profitability and term cap would make sure that was true).

A Work vs the 'IP'/Lore & are Games Special?

"Myyyy precioussss..."

There has been recent discussion of copyright in games being special and the evolution of the medium requiring radically shorter terms than other types of works. I don't see why games are a special case so an argument like that seems very weird. Are we to propose a way of determining the maturity of a medium and build copyright terms based on a curve that slowly grants more longevity based on the progress the medium is making? "Games had three revolutionary new techniques discovered according to the judges so keeps the 20 year copyright terms but cinema hasn't had one in 5 years so that 50 year copyright is extended to 55 years now." I just can't see it working and I also don't see the need from a place of providing access to the shared culture to the next generation to remix without concern of transformativeness. I don't see games entering into the public awareness and integrated into culture at a different rate, so why would it need different terms?

Lord of the Rings is in just as much need of handing over to the Public Domain as anything games have to offer (LotR being ~60 years old seems like it should be public domain by now, it has captured any due remuneration associated with the period of creativity during WWII and become part of broad culture - in fact it lives there often by people sidestepping and making derivative works that are transformative; by now it seems like others should get access to the core, the copyrightable block in the middle to mess with as more expression of culture that does not need to avoid treading around transformativeness) - even our icons like Mario are barely 30 years old. There may be some more time where the creator's right to sell Donkey Kong comes before the needs of the people to be unconstrained in riffing on their shared culture created when Jumpman debuted.

Each game in the Mario series would clearly create new copyright for that as a work but the character is born with the first game, which may follow on to a need to de-link the right to the IP of character created from the copyright of the actual work. Maybe our demand for Aragorn to be a PD character in a PD Mordor puts pressure on limited copyright terms that should not also drag the work, the LotR books, into the public domain with it. The words as written keep their copyright but if you want to use characters, locations, events then as long as you're not stripping vast chunks of original text (clear copyright infringement), you're golden. But how much quotation from the common lore of Aragorn's history is fair use and how much is simple infringement on the copyright of the book as written? That discussion would be critical to splitting culture's absorption of lore from the first work in which that lore was crafted.

More complicated would be how that lore developed. Say we put a 50-60 year copyright term on our mass duplicated media but the lore (definition required but roughly anything that isn't the work, any trademarks or copyright that relates to the trademark protection rather than the actual work; lowering of the bar for derivative works to be transformative) enters the public domain in 30 years, your children will be able to use your characters for their own work but you will still probably be able to sell the copyrighted works you create without competition for your entire life. Jumpman is not Mario, but he is. But you couldn't use to release of Jumpman lore into the public domain to get at Bowser Jr. or Birdo but in that lore they exist. Would this lead to the universe that characters inhabit slowly entering into public use as it was expanded in later titles? Mario starts out and then two years later the PD Mario gains a brother and two more years later Bowser turns up. After 7 years PD Mario can talk to Birdo but not a day sooner? There seems to be a conflicting demand to have access to the lore, all of it, and the way this will discourage connected universes if it collapses the (what we're mainly talking about is) trademark (and some copyright) protection of a new work by setting it in a universe that is about to expire from protected term. Maybe we can live with franchises that are 30+ years old having an incentive to be left behind by their original creator. That does not sound like the worst of worlds. But there's a discussion to be had about what we consider fair to the creators and fair to the future creators who want to riff on the shared culture they were raised with, without worrying about transformative tests or protected names.

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Difficulty Isn't the Point & Often is a Problem

This was linked in this week's Worth Reading.

Here's something about what games are. Only weeks ago I was also riffing on the idea of how we all experience games differently, but I believe this piece is taking us down a path we should not travel. It's a very narrow definition of difficulty that tries to strip it from other mediums; the traditional narrowing of the definition of computer game to exclude things like Dear Esther, Proteus, Sim City, Gone Home. To try and point to competitive games as the origin and then rob the computer of player status if it does not participate enough and reject the notion that solitaire games have always existed, where there is no other player with agency in the system.

Computers are interactive, computer games can thusly be made to react to the player, to reform the words and images in such a way as to allow the continued consumption and understanding of the message despite the issues of the consumer. This, not their offering of roadblocks, elevates them beyond a book or a film, which must be repetitively consumed in the hope of being able to understand it for anything which wishes to have a message beyond the surface or being fully read by audiences of a range of abilities. Difficulty is not the enemy, but saying one size fits all and difficulty should not be complained about (as a wall that should not move to meet the height the player needs) is holding the medium back. Also, just immersing the playing in a virtual space has no traditional difficulty, it's still a game. There is nothing special about being blocked from continuing, which is the very specific form of difficulty being expressed in that piece, and nothing core about games that ties them to that design choice.

Here is Jeff Vogel talking about the repeated consumption of something to grok it, to endlessly mine it for more meaning, as being a sign of great art. You may not like his assertion that games have not reached that point but he does point at both the opening fallacy of the first piece (that a book is read by merely looking at every page or a movie is completely consumed by sitting in the room as it plays) and that games have the potential to really be incredible as adaptive systems that can work on many levels and tune what comes out for which level you want to read at, one size does not need to fit all. And it's got nothing to do with difficulty as blocking progress, of giving a path to some mastery or repetitive task.

That difficulty is certainly not THE POINT of games. Failing to understand the variable skills of the many players that will engage with the system, hiding anything beyond mechanical mastery of a system as the proposed pinnacle of gaming, is part of the problem. We can do so much more, we can make reactive systems that guide the player to different readings and provide alternatives to repeat consumption to see a piece on a different level, we can adapt. We must adapt. That's what makes games able to do things books and movies cannot, but we're still maturing and we've got plenty of work to do to get to a place of strength, to our truly great works. If we (not to say we will) start to get there in virtual spaces, using the power of VR to put the player somewhere as a jump from immersion to presence then I'm not going to be there complaining that there are no roadblocks in this interactive virtual space and it isn't a game and misses the point of games to be difficult. Computer games can be so many things, difficulty is a tool in many dimensions and the single dimension talked about in the original piece is something that must be tuned to the player as we move forward.

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Goitees 2013

There has been plenty of disagreement on which games are great or poor this year, which is a great space for an interactive medium to be in; people are walking away with very different experiences and not just collectively classifying games 'buggy or boring' or 'brilliant' into two piles. Not only can mechanics elicit very different reactions from people (Go is not a game for everyone) but also the narrative we play can be radically different and a few of the games below are noted for my experience of them, which it not necessarily the same thing someone else will experience when they pick up the game. In a couple of cases, exploring that is the theme of the game. A full exploration of any one game to feel out every limit of the systems and narrative and their interaction would be exhausting and you can only experience it for the first time once and are going to be influenced by that first taste. If you completely disagree with my selection then that's totally fine, but it is my selection of particularly noteworthy titles I've played this year.

If you're sensitive to spoilers then scan over the bold titles and avoid reading the text about each entry. I'm not aiming to ruin the games but if you want to play any of these games completely clean then (shockingly) I will be talking about what they contain.

The Swapper

Not enough people have been talking about The Swapper. That game looks unique (and cohesively competent); has great music; a decent story that doesn't try and make up an answer to the philosophical questions it asks to fit the future time period; and great puzzles that are rarely trivial but also not frustrating. The entire game was less than 5 hours long for me without looking up any of the solutions, showing respect for playtime with several fast-travel systems and some slack in the gating that allows you to progress and come back to incomplete puzzles if you don't want to sit and think about them. The bounds of the puzzles create the landscape of the puzzle rooms so by looking for things like raised steps you can read the language of potential solutions. This language is something you'll slowly get more adept at reading while the difficulty curve and new language is slowly added to as you progress, although you get all the tools you need to complete all the puzzles within the first few minutes of play.

My biggest criticism is that the achievements are for 10 hidden rooms that it never gives a hint about existing. There are no others, no completion ding to indicate how many people finished the thing or gave up after finding the final gate requires them to go back and complete the puzzles they missed. The biggest negative I can think of is in the metagame of surrounding features: you should definitely play this game.

Gone Home

That bit where the entire game turns out to be the character remembering her fears and discoveries when entering the house as she reads the diary of her sister, found at the end of the journey. That's such a perfect way to explain audio logs and let them trigger without putting them in the world as recordings or just arm-waving it as a narrated experience. Clean decisions like that are what makes up Gone Home.

Two hours of exploring a location and unlocking the several intertwined stories that took place there. That's the advertised content here and anyone who grew up in the '90s is probably going to enjoy just being immersed in that virtual space they half-remember from two decades ago. The stories hold together as you explore and you should absolutely play this game but I do hope this is a step towards something better. The leaning on horror game tropes to link the experience to and subvert the expectations of long time gamers works but I don't think this style of game needs to pander to those already very familiar with gaming conventions. I think there are interesting things to be done with evolving experiences that react, that change the story told and rebuild the world not yet seen based on play. As a first stab from a small, self-funded team, this is what it needed to be and maybe a signpost to much more to come later.

GTA V

Speaking of immersing yourself in a virtual space and exploring the stories there, this is both as far as you can get from Gone Home and the same thing done with a completely different budget and scope, with added games of skill that often involve shooting. A dazzling indication of what can be dragged out of 2005 silicon if you've got the resources to dedicate to faking everything to get the light to feel just right out into the distance. I really hope the next gen allows people to create these spaces and let the silicon illuminate it via some configuration to their tastes rather than the hard work on display here.

This was a game where I spent 60 hours doing almost everything that world had to offer and with only a few guiding indicators pointing me towards places I did not want to go. Maybe it was deciding what not to do, as I'd done previously in GTA games (never one for a random rampage, or to use the respawn mechanics of a wasted or busted screen to appear in a hospital or police station), that allowed me to avoid the disappointment others felt. Some of the game does fall flat, some of the content is immature and problematic, many of the missions are just an excuse to point you into this world and let you do a quick activity. But almost all of those 60 hours were ones I really enjoyed. The ability to switch characters, the improved movement and shooting, the heists, the writing: because there is so much of everything it's easy to focus on the few things it screws up but there is so much great stuff in GTA V that I couldn't not include it on this list, even if a few choices were pretty undesirable in my eyes.

Unfortunately there is a renewed call for all immorality to be punished in our media (it now hides under the banner of "satire is dead"). "This content does not explicitly condemn the actions or show the ruination of the actors it depicts and so I will take it as glorifying said actions, for satire is dead."

Maybe it is just the exhaustion of those tired of playing the hero role while performing the actions of a villain in so many games. But satire is very much alive, and writing about the inability to see it by completely failing to listen to any of the dialogue around a scene is disingenuous. But also this is where what I did and what that author experienced diverges. I didn't get a graphic torture scene, Trevor played it straight to the actual horror of the very real situation it pokes at; he repeatedly waterboarded the poor cooperative innocent who then, in desperation to say anything, led to another potential innocent being executed. The visuals of the torture was very tame but the underlying events were the horrific part. Events as has probably happened several times in recent history, orchestrated by people who claim to protect our freedom.

GTA V is not about good people. Beyond Maude I really can't think of anyone trying particularly hard to be anything other than the background level of self-obsessed, terrible to each other in that world. When you bring in a new protagonist by showing him brutally killing the previous game's sympathetic protagonist then the tone is set. There are bad people and people trying to keep their head above the water as the world sinks around them. There are so few good people that I can only name that one off the top of my head, after 60 hours of meeting and getting to know them. Everyone you meet and play as is a warning to the player, not a shining light. And just like the real world, many of them do rather well. Perpetuating the just world fallacy in our media is not the way to a better real world and claiming satire is dead will not lead you to any worthwhile interpretations of a world of caricature.

The Stanley Parable (and demo)

A game for gamers about games with excellent voice work and writing; made of 100% spoilers to the point where the demo is a completely unrelated product about what it means to make a demo of a holistic, non-linear interactive experience.

If you're interested in diverging experiences, the hard bounds of what a completely authored game experience can be, and some of the best laughs you'll have in a game then this is for you. I've already done a bit of a review recently (which got broken by Steam community's automatic expiry of spoiler tags) but avoid unless you're prepared for spoilers. This is a game you should go into blind. Grab the demo and see if it elicits a chuckle at any point, if so then grab the full game and enjoy.

Papers Please

There's never enough money if you play it honest and time is your constant enemy. Are you even doing the right thing for the future of your family by following the rules? Why does this random event come now, I just can't afford this expense, we already can't have heat and food every day! "Your niece has disappeared". Oh, for just a few more dollars or a bit more time to do my job and earn it.

Mixing story with mechanics for a sublime interactive experience that lets the player get a hint of the stress and uncertainty that it wishes to convey. This is a great game along the same lines as Cart Life or a sweatshop tycoon game.

The Last of Us

What an example of interactive experiences making something personal. This is a linear progression with pre-rendered scenes showing much of the narrative and dialogue and yet it was completely my own. Some reviewers didn't find their play mixed in, didn't derive major character development via play. Yet others did, but developed completely different characters who just walked the same road and had some moments the same as the story I experienced. This is why games are something to be treasured. Potentially fragile but so precious and we must be allowed to develop the craft further to manage that fragility.

The Last of Us is a series of stories about two characters as they develop a bond which perfectly plays to the episodic TV strength of narrative form to fit a 8-16 hour story that you play into the game rather than just taking a 3 hour movie plot, padding, and then dumping in enough disconnected gameplay to hit a 6 to 15 hour completion time.

I get the feeling that Joel is meant to be a gun person, at least somewhat. My Joel didn't enjoy guns unless absolutely required due to the noise issue and aim he had. So I played a stealth game in which a lot of necks were broken. A lot of waves of enemies all died without anyone getting alerted and this somewhat broke a few scripted things it would seem (spawning enemies need to be done better; seriously guys, I've had enough of your wave based combat arenas in my Tomb Raider games and spawning in the waves badly is not on when I've got magic see-through-walls so I can see you doing it!) The weirdness seemed to emerge from my slow methodical approach to the stealth game and then suddenly wave two has spawned sat on top of the corpses of wave one and their walking AI isn't switched on so they're lambs to the slaughter. But outside of a couple of arenas that seemed to break, my Joel was definitely alive in my head and muttering back to the enemies shouting out about hunting him that they were the hunted ones, they were trapped in this arena with him and he didn't need bullets for what he had planned. This peaked during the final section, where my play seemed to be least connected to the majority or reviewers, in which an unhinged and well stocked Joel walked through the hospital with effectively unlimited flamer ammo and the screaming of the soldiers made that descent into madness drive to the game close. That section where I took full control and exhausted that stockpiled ammo (I had previously not touched) as I hit the peak of the story played perfectly into the ending as Ellie as she decided that trust is forever dead but you take alliances where you can find them and they were both broken enough to survive.

Speaking of Ellie, she, on the other hand, was a gun person. I suppose this is required due to where she starts being played (with an infinite ammo machine NPC) and the rifle ammo that seems to be a lot more available to her from drops and placements. It was kinda shocking to play her when she takes over as she basically took aim at tiny dots and then later walked past scenes of popped heads. She knew a kill zone when she saw one and used them liberally. So she was already established as more than capable of dealing with a cult and the knife cutscene that ended it seemed a bit more 'unwinding joy of the sociopath' rather than 'driven to near insanity by fear' that I suspect the scene was intended to elicit. Joel was there to calm her down when it was over, not to comfort Ellie and bring her back to some shadow of childhood. As I said, my game was not the only way this plays out, but it was how it played out for me and fixed cut-scenes did not prevent divergence.

The links to Enslaved (AI-companion and stealth focus mutation to the sub-genre), with ancestor Tomb Raider, goes beyond an engine originally designed for Uncharted but with the traversal restricted to avoid the climbing walls that has been a staple of that sub-genre (fighting, traversal, & puzzles with plenty of cinematics for every moment to contextualise those levels). I was weeping for the great assets on display in the Last of Us and a renderer that couldn't do them justice. Other than the terrible snow light flicker and some low res assets that stood out against the high detail others, that game looked (just like Enslaved, taking a similar visual theme) like it would look real nice on something that wasn't a PS3. That they rendered out the cut-scenes is going to kill that kind of conversion to PS4 though. I have no idea why they didn't use a better offline renderer for the scenes for that (there is so much aliasing, but much less than the real-time rendered stuff so it does clearly mark the video from the real-time but not in a way as to make it so it'll look better than if the game was redone with a 1080p+AA real-time renderer - then the cutscenes will show more aliasing than the game would and it'd be messed up that way). It's like the video is trying to pretend it was real-time rendered. For a bit there I though they'd managed to get the game to actually render some of it (remove the overhead of doing the physics, gameplay etc and just render out scenes with a higher quality than the gameplay stuff) but then realised it was all video. I wonder how that works with the unlockable clothing for a new game plus. I assume they didn't render video for every combination so you get characters changing clothes.

I can't end on a negative for the Last of Us and the art design is incredible. That's why I'm disappointed, I wouldn't care about the rendering if it wasn't for what could be with current art and code unchained from 2005 silicon. As with all immersive experiences, you'll notice the rendering errors (eg aliasing) less and less as you progress and that's when the art will really feel amazing. But I couldn't end without mentioning the soundtrack, which does an impressive job of providing the backing and enhancing the emotions of the game without ever feeling like it crowds out the other audio.

But not everything can be a Game of the Year. Here are a couple of moments that I really didn't get along with:

Bioshock Infinite

Never the best of combat arena titles, despite trying to mix things up with magic + guns to get away from the prevailing design of FPSs, this is probably the least fun I've had with the shooting in a Bioshock game and they sure do like putting a lot of it in there for Infinite. The Luteces' story kept me going but I really didn't like the coming of age progression for Elizabeth (especially with how the blood was first let and so completed the gestation of a second enemy force to be generic antagonists) which felt heavy-handed, unrefined, and very much a surface level only arc. Maybe it stood out so much because Elizabeth felt like a plot device engine rather than a person, something for others to manipulate and derive power from rather than someone with agency or even desires. Come to think of it, the themes were many but felt almost all surface level. Care and time went into the stylistic rendering of this place but there wasn't much in there and throwing slavery (and everything else they could find to both ground the story and boost the theme) into a story about fatherhood seemed out of place and ultimately maladroit.

Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons

The 'woman as temptation of evil/destroyer of family' trope really ruined this game for me. As that is the inciting event for the entire of the emotional payload of the game's peak and diminuendo to the close, I was ripped away from the story just as the game wanted me to lean in to it. Great looking game, lovely use of mechanics and story uniting for the end chapter, really wish they'd used a different plot device there so I might have been invested in it rather than disappointed by the hand of the author.

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Counting PC Gamers

There has never been a better time to work out how many PC gamers are out there buying new hardware each year.

Coming up for a decade ago we knew that around 90% of motherboards shipped with integrated graphics, back before CPUs gave up an area of their die for an iGPU. But they were also quite crappy a lot of the time and lacked the ports and performance, even for 2D sometimes, to be useful. Just as motherboard audio was often looked down on as no good, even if you didn't play games then a discrete GPU wasn't the worst of ideas.

But something changed. Just as with motherboard audio, combined in that case with the Vista driver changes that killed hardware audio acceleration, the floor kept rising and soon there was not a lot of reason to buy your own discrete AIB (add-in board). We are now at a point where the integrated graphics, now on the CPU rather than the motherboard chipset, are everywhere and good enough. Intel and AMD are even starting to push the claim that if you enjoy some 3D games then you'll still be able to just buy a single clip from them so before their claims hold too much water we are given an interesting opportunity to get some rough idea of how many new or refurbished gaming PCs are being purchased every year.

Luckily Intel and AMD have helped us out, because if you're not gaming then you don't need an AIB (discrete card GPU) or a laptop with an nVidia chip in (AMD also bundle their CPUs in the numbers so I'm ignoring them - nVidia numbers come with a percentage of discrete laptop GPU market indicator from which you can extract the real AMD numbers). There isn't even really a super-low end, not for discrete GPUs, because the rising performance of iGPUs that come with every CPU you buy has killed the market. There are not 115m AIB sales like there were in 1999 (seems to be the peak, also about the time more chipsets started integrating a graphics option on some motherboards) but almost all the ones that are left are for gaming systems.

What counts as a lot?

We should have a rough idea of where the other major market is. Consoles, both home and portable. The market leading console can sometimes sell ~20m a years, which is how we get one or two consoles that break well over 100m global sales over their (previously somewhat limited for time in the Sun as the primary device) lifetime. Everyone else (at least in recent times, where there has been no clear loser) is getting closer to 10m sales a year (but you give sales from 2005-2013 and you get your 75-80m units that press releases from Sony and MS point to).

How does the PC platform stack up against that, in what we think is the last couple of years of some pretty good pickings for extracting only the 'gaming was a feature request' sales? You see about 35-40m nVidia desktop GPUs sold each year. AMD is more like 25m. That's still getting on for as many dedicated gaming cards in a year as there have been 360s sold since sometime in 2006. But if you consider the 50 million nVidia mobile GPUs and 20m AMD discrete units then we're not even playing in the same ballpark. There are almost certainly more gaming PCs sold every year (consistent for at least a while, much harder to get an impression of sales when I can't be assured people didn't need to buy a GPU to make a complete PC and so it becomes real murky to estimate gaming PCs more than a few years ago) than there have been console devices of a single platform in play at any one time. Only the lifetime PS2 and DS sales even poke their head above the ~100m ceiling to possibly eclipse PC dedicated GPU sales for a single year and with the hardware revisions, and expected lifetime, and known element failure rates (which don't really count for GPUs that are all within year 1 of the warranty) then how many of those were actually in any state to be used to play games by the end when the sales total reaches that high?

Lost, broken, sitting on the shelf at a used store, in the cupboard. That doesn't sound like the fate of many GPUs purchased in that year but a 6+ year old console (one of many iterations and colours) may have a significant hit to how many are really in the wild. I'd be pretty confident that annual gaming PC sales is significantly larger than the combined console market and that probably has been true for a long time. And unlike mobile sales, where you don't really know how many people want a phone and how many want a gaming platform with benefits, the current market segmentation means you're throwing money away for an identical product for your needs if you don't buy that discrete GPU because you at least know you'll want the option of gaming. Maybe you don't realise your 10 year old games will run just fine on the CPU's iGPU today but I'm still going to count that as a gamer worth counting. They're buying the gaming hardware. Just like a cinephile might have purchased a PS3 for the cheap access to a good HD movie player, or in today's market maybe a crazy person purchased a console as a mainly Netflix box rather than buying a $50 Android or similar device for the same purpose.

At least roughly correct

I hadn't seen it actually laid out, with a reasonably coherent argument for how the current market actually makes it pretty easy to count likely PC gamers. The numbers are more analyst report averages (GPU makers don't seem to publish chip volumes, only financials) but do roughly tie into where I was expecting and a vague idea of revenues (and the comparative volumes sold at each price tier). I don't think they're going to be off by enough for it to matter (even if you halve the GPU numbers you're still looking at quite a gap to the next nearest platform adding new units). When we talk about how well PC gaming does (is it dead, is it reborn, can it never truly die, is it going mobile tomorrow?), the only real question is how many gamers we can convert to the insatiable console appetite for a high attach ratio (several games per year habit, and paying for them at retail for the tracking to work) to make the software side explode into being more important than consoles. In terms of hardware then the consoles are the amusing iOS minnow to the Android shark, lots of noise and software sales but very few units out there globally when you look at the competition. And when I started writing this post I had no idea I was going to end on that apt comparison to another closed platform that can make far more PR and software sales via the mandated single store but not nearly the hardware sales volume of the open platform it competes with.

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Logitech Gaming Software, meet nVidia GeForce hardware

This may also affect AMD and even Intel users (if this affects integrated graphics which is sharing a power budget with your CPU then it'll be making your desktop less responsive rather than just wasting power making your PC louder and hotter than it needs to be) but I'm describing it as it happens on my system. My Google-fu didn't throw up someone complaining about it so hopefully this'll get search engine tagged for other to find (as the chances of bug reports sent to the companies involved ever getting acted upon is ~0%); if you use Logitech Gaming Software (currently version 8.46.27) with a modern nVidia GeForce GPU (current drivers are 320.49) then your computer may be running too hot when at the desktop and so wasting power and generating unwanted heat.

Default: on, seems broken.

With modern GPUs the dynamic clock speed and power use of the card can vary quite dramatically. The GTX760 I have here clocks down to 135MHz core and 650MHz RAM when idle at the desktop. The base GPU clock (before it uses boost bins to get to 1.2GHz when extra power and thermals allow) is 1072MHz and the RAM clocks to 7GHz when called to offer fast 3D performance. As you can imagine, that extra power comes with extra energy use and that means the fans crank up to make the system louder, the electricity bills go up ever so slightly, and everything runs warmer than it maybe needs to be in desktop mode.

The problem with using the Logitech mouse drivers (to set fast updates down the USB cable, sensor DPI, and assign extra buttons to what you want if a game can't see the buttons with their default assignment) is the default setting to the right (which starts out selected) to hardware accelerate the interface. At least with my more recent nVidia GPU and the current GeForce drivers then this option to use hardware acceleration seems to always bind and request resources to render the UI, even when the window is closed and only the notification icon remains. To render the picture of a mouse, the Logitech software seems to hook into the nVidia driver (possibly asking for an OpenGL accelerated surface, maybe it is Direct3D) and this fools the driver into thinking it is being asked to render something for a game. That nice low idle rate (more than enough grunt to render the Aero Windows interface with the limited GPU acceleration Windows asks of a card for this mainly 2D work) is disabled as the card clocks up to full RAM speed and full base clock on the GPU, North of 1GHz. Possibly the Logitech software is failing to put a framerate cap on the surface it calls so is actually thrashing the card to redraw the mouse over and over or maybe the nVidia setting for idling at low power only gets maintained when the only work it is being asked to do is things it knows Windows asks for. Either way, this is not software, drivers, and hardware working together as intended.

Disabling this option seems to fix everything. The Logitech driver falls back on drawing a few textures to the window with standard Windows UI API calls and the nVidia driver goes back to thinking it is just sitting at the desktop and no games are asking for an accelerated surface that means it need to clock up and render as many frames as possible. The GPU and RAM are clocked down at almost 10% frequency and the fan goes back to the lowest speed (an almost inaudible 30%).

If you're running a graphics card from the last few years (even a 4 year old card will clock down somewhat but in recent years AMD and nVidia have really pushed to get lower idling speeds which use very little power on the desktop) and have some Logitech peripherals that mean you run their Logitech Gaming Software then I strongly recommend you disable this hardware acceleration setting for peace of mind.

This post was cross-posted from my blog, where you can find more 'gaming adjacent' posts not normally syndicated to this GiantBomb blog.

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First-Sale Doctrine Drives Bad Game Design?

As the Xbox One policies have flipped around, the backlash to the backlash has emerged that says the path to the future has been set back by retaining a classic model of physical goods. Here's the argument. You'll want to read Adrian's piece before continuing with this article.

Used Games Caused Bad Things

So because games have to compete with their used stock (as the designers of copyright intended, fair use and first-sale doctrine being the safety valves built into the exclusive right to duplication given to creators at a time when reasonable copyright terms were a decade or thereabouts) this is what has forced everyone to use DLC, filler content, micro-transactions, etc etc.

It isn't that DLC/micro-transactions were only made possible by internet connectivity and that started during the 6th generation of consoles (DC/PS2/xbox/GC) but was only there on the ground floor (with significant population coverage) for the 7th gen (PS3/360/Wii) so that is where it came to power? Filler content is a result of a move to combat used? If so then why is it something that has existed since the beginning of time (where it was first linked to the quarter slot and need to get more money to see the ending, an alternative design choice to hard and arbitrary death mechanics) with 'grinding' (especially in RPGs) being far more extreme well before used was a 'debilitating' thing (ie before there were significant retail presence for games at all, let alone used)?

Racing to the Bottom Without Lowering the Price

Case study analogy: The automotive industry is 'losing sales' to used cars. They can combat this with the application of repairs at authorised dealers and sale of spare parts for those repairs. There is therefore tremendous pressure on car manufacturers to get their engineers to build less and less reliable cars to reinforce the value of buying new and extract the maximum value from those used cars for which they don't directly get a cut of the sale. If we look at vehicles over the previous few decades we can see that this pressure has done nothing to reliability. A competitive marketplace where the ability to increase reliability within a cost envelope increases your perceived value and so ability to stand out against peers has driven up the reliability of all types of vehicles at all price points.

Does the video game industry have something to hide? Should they be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to work out if this is some anti-competitive cabal where all the players have agreed not to compete on value with each other in order to stifle the marketplace competition that should be driving up quality or driving down price? My thoughts are no, the entire argument doesn't hold water that links used and these practices. The industry looked for additional revenue streams as soon as they were technologically viable and this was independent of used games and that perceived issue. Expansion packs have been a traditional form of expansion content and those actually moved the other way, to enabling more sales by selling as standalone (so not requiring the original game disc/installed content) before DLC and piecemeal expansion content was considered to be cheaper to produce/generating better revenue for manpower expended at a time when traditional expansion content build on the same engine and gameplay mechanics was now being used as annualised sequel fodder at $60 per disc.

A Potential Future without Used

The Future?

Here is the end-game of the current digital revolution: subscription services. The global music industry can entirely replace their annual income from wholesale music sales with 90m premium Spotify subscribers*, assuming the cost of streaming is below that of physical disc production they currently pay on those revenues. Done. That's how you monetise a zero duplication cost/IP item. You form an evil cabal, call it an artists collective, and collect such a wealth of content (and new content production) that anyone would be culturally excluded if they didn't sign up. Use the volume of people to make the per-person price very affordable. Be aggressive in picking up new talent that is potentially initially incubated outside of the collective (where they live on direct sales or free distribution of their content and donations).

Here's what goes wrong with trying to walk down that road by first removing first-sale doctrine (while retaining your demand that copyright be enforced using harsher and harsher legal penalties for non-compliance and cooperation with data connectivity services and providers to remove potentially fair use and non-infringing content at the mere accusation of copyright infringement) to tighten up the traditional sales mechanic to bleed as much money as possible from each individual: You're going the wrong way stupid! We're aiming to bring down the per user cost and bring up the numbers and make sure our collective products are culturally essential at a great value. Stop driving people away by trying to increase how much you extract from each individual by any means necessary. Here's how you sell a premium product: delight the consumer. Get them to eulogise the value anyone should obtain from making the transaction they did. Apple can make an almost 50% profit on their products (ie they are priced about twice as high as they could be and still be viable) and they don't do it by making people feel ripped off when they've purchased something. This is a perception war, stop fighting to make people feel like their $60 doesn't buy the entire product and demonise people who increase the value of your new product (by offering people who do purchase it cash to sell it at a later date).

In the current climate then digital marketplaces should look at how they can better serve the consumers (and creators) by enabling their traditional rights (and in doing so protect creators from potential issues with challenges to their copyright under grounds of failure to comply with the conditions of fair use and first-sale) and any move to justify the import of current digital license rules into the physical product world should be noted as highly suspect and probably unable to hold water. This is a companion piece to my article last month about how the technical limitation of DRM on a closed platform stands opposed to the viewpoint that the medium has and will continue to increase in cultural significance and provide a good value purchase for more and more consumers.

* Twelve monthly payments of $15 x 90m = source for total revenue figure. There are over 7 billion potential pairs of ears out there, the music industry only needs the current subscription value from less than 1.3% of them.

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Rental & Game Purchases and Why it Matters

I am not going to touch the approach Microsoft (MS) used for this reveal. I believe others have quickly gotten to the core of the issues that this presentation had compared to the focus Sony decided to take a few months ago. This is just about the details, as they have been confirmed via interview, of how DRM is handed on this new device for physical software purchases.

The Problem Isn't Used

I don't buy used (unless I need to get my hands on Shadow Hearts: Covenant because at some point I lost a box of PS2 titles during a move - this does not appear to be for sale new anywhere from old stock, digitally or not, and so I cannot give either the developers or whoever owns the rights to the stuff they created any money; also see System Stock 2 until a month ago) and this goes as far as looking for new stock for PS2 titles (as in I just paid for a new copy of Persona 3 FES a few weeks ago). That said, there are no more demos and the TV/movie/music world has moved to a subscription model so I do rent games and consider this a normal part of consuming mainstream media. I often buy them once I've played them but only the ones I want to own so one day I will play them again without the need to worry about the previously discussed used game hunting where you pay some 'collector' rather than anyone related to actually creating the thing (seriously, if you have a mass produced PS2 title on ebay for £100 go jump into a fire and if you own the rights to it then PSN is a solution to my desire to give you money, even if I'm going to also need you to not track illicit downloads as I grab the ISO to actually play on a better device called my PC).

That said, my major issue here is not that rental services won't stock Xbox One games (for all we know MS have got a plan for rentals just like they have a plan for used that no one is allowed to know because it is anti-consumer and so not telling us is better than confirming our worst fears). My issue here is that it is a step beyond signed code and signed code was already the limit of my acceptance of 'purchasing' this product rather than getting it as part of a £10/month or less, all you can eat subscription which is clearly labelled as a rental agreement where I own nothing and when it ends I have nothing but my memories.

How Things Change

Right now I buy a console game for my closed platform console (which cost me less than it cost them to build it and ship it to me + pay staff along that chain to help move it) and the signed code on the disc and any anti-piracy techniques they use to press it allow the box to recognise the disc and play the game. This will work as long as I can get a box to run and the discs haven't degraded - at which point, where the 30 year old silicon / foil coated plastic is probably no good, we hope that a preservation effort has been in place to collect archives of the data, that I retain my right to hold private copies of, and an emulation device that reads and executes it in a close approximation of the original device. This is what a console game purchase means and is how they can maintain the same unit price despite dropping replication costs (memory chips on a cart anyone? manuals?) and a widening customer base that more than makes up for their extravagant R&D and (more critically) advertising budget. Inflation makes me feel like the deal I am getting is pretty good still.

Whatever policies MS put in place for used and rental services for the Xbox One in the future, the games are not auth'd by having signed code and security features on the disc you buy. The console sounds like it will still require signed code (and maybe the discs have some security features to stop them reading in other bluray drives and stop BD-Rs reading as normal discs in the Xbox One) but the auth is a cd key that uses an online check to refresh the auth status and so far sounds like it expires after 24 hours.

If you cannot get online in 24 hours then it doesn't matter if you have a disc with the game on, your games will not launch. If MS cannot get their servers online for the window when you need then then you cannot play any of your games. If MS retire their servers or allow EA to run their own auth boxes and EA retire those servers then you will no longer be able to launch your games. They will simply not work. This is a rental service without the corresponding price change. With their throw away comments about b/c MS have said they do not care for the cultural artefacts being generated on their platform. There is no retro gaming to MS. There is no generation of objects with ongoing value to society. "Games do not matter" is the message

There is merely product to be consumed before it goes bad, rotten. I do not feel the need to consume from the trough being offered to survive, there are alternative channels where I can avoid contributing to people who have this disregard for the value of the product, who only focus on the cost/price and pumping swill. I play to relax, to express action in a safe virtual space, to communicate or spend time alone, to look at a space and rule system developed by someone whose perspective may be foreign to me. But this is not the only place I can pay people for their games, DRM free is a thing and so are open platforms and there are a lot of good games out there vying for my time and money.

Online Digital Stores

Literally decades of content.

How is this different to Valve/Steam? Other than the many games that don't use Steam DRM and so are just using it as a pipe through which I can access the data, even Steam DRM is built on top of an open platform (as in Windows is open, not FOSS 'open'). Owning the CPU means I can subvert this system, it means that there can not be a perfect offline DRM system as I can get between the hardware and the game/ecosystem and lie to it. If you give me an auth ticket that lasts for 12 hours then I can make sure the auth system never thinks it is more than 12 hours later by lying when it asks the time. Even if you try to tie the in-game systems into the clock (so I can't lie while playing), this only means I can't play for more than 12 hours at a time (then I quit and reset the clock to the start of the 12 hours) and even this is a hack away from defeating. Steam currently gives out auth tokens that last for 2 weeks (and simultaneously unlock all games that use Steam DRM) and is so popular I probably won't even need to use my expertise to defeat it if the servers ever go down.

Open systems mean we have a much better chance of exerting the rights we are paying for. The console system only works because they had physical tokens so they lasted effectively forever (until it was so historical that Moore's law and accumulated knowledge could be used to break down anything that was locked) and a razor/razorblade model to give out subsidised hardware to make cash back on a cut of every sale (so us hardcore gamers who paid for a lot of titles were ideal customers for software and hardware groups).

You can't just try to import the anti-consumer side of the Steam digital store DRM system onto your closed platform and expect it to be fine without changing your pricing strategy. Especially when you're also telling consumers their existing digital purchases will not play on the new xbox without so much as a mea culpa. Especially as a mandatory DRM system rather than an optional service for the developers on your system to utilise if they want to.

This proposed system, from the outlines they have currently explained, is too defective by design for me to sign up. I want to give someone money for new Forza, Halo, any Remedy titles, and more. But not at those buy prices for a rental. I want to own these potentially classic games to play when I want, just like I can with the decades of accumulated history of gaming I have on my shelves and (open platform) digital stores.

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User Intent & Skill

I am not a great player of games. My loop from eye to brain to body (specifically fingers for gaming) is particularly slow and susceptible to stalls (rabbit in headlights). When I play a shooter online then chances are I will be in the 50% of the population who don't quite hit a 1:1 KD ratio, rather than the 50% who are somewhere above that magic line (which 90% of people claim to be above - don't you love statistics). My ability to accurately point a crosshair at your upper torso and click, then react to the potential movements of bits of the system to maintain that position and throttle my clicking rate to best provide an accurate stream of virtual bullets to pierce your virtual head is not good and is only partially compensated for by my ability to pick sensible places to engage. But give me a support class or an objective and I'll make a good addition to your team. Hell, even in something like Counter-Strike standard maps I'll work out non-traditional disruptive play to prevent the other team from playing in their comfort zone, at least in a casual skill environment (no doubt high skill players can shut down my shenanigans). This is something I am completely happy with, by definition half of the group have to be below the median and if we're looking at a skewed distribution (assume a normal population distribution of reaction times, most very low players give up, everyone else sticks around) then most of us are below the mean. I have no proof to support the idea that most game populations are skewed that way so feel free to reject the second idea, that most of you play at a sub-average reaction level.

So what has brought about this claim that not only am I not very good at the see, analyse, react chain but most of you are (comparatively) down in the mud with me? Does it matter? Should game designers care?

Super Hold Left or Right to Continue

When I first saw Super Hexagon I thought it was a game about analysing the scene, deciding on a rotation needed for the pointer, and hoping that you'd made a decision about that rotation with enough time for the rotation to complete and get through the gap. The skill coming from that reaction speed and correctly choosing left or right rotation and chaining those decisions together into the sequence that matches the ever contracting and moving world around your pointer. The rejection of the music game memorisation by adding randomisation and constant speed of the pointer's movement (baring stationary) seemed to clinch my reading of the game.

And then I purchased a copy and played it. Or I should say I repeatedly played the first second to 9 seconds of the game. I was not expecting to have to express my intent for rotation as a press on the left or right side of the screen for a certain number of ticks (with error margin for the width of the hole narrowed by future positional needs / rotation change lag in your input reactions), I was expecting the touch to provide rotational intent despite the lack of an analogue stick. This leads to my reading of the game as both a call against and demonstration of players' willingness to work around needlessly bad reading of user intent. I do not think this interpretation was the author's goal but I don't think that should be a relevant factor.

When someone complains about the pointless tank controls in earlier Resident Evil games when played on a device with analogue sticks, that it is harder than it should be to express their intent via their avatar, then this is exactly what Super Hexagon is demonstrating. A game where the avatar cannot react in zero time to rotate perfectly to a new angle should express that limitation in the animation system, not in the controls. When people express the difference between their failure and a failure of the game it is usually described as "I made the wrong decision" vs "the game didn't do what I wanted" or unfairly/arbitrarily killed them as they had no way of knowing what the right decision was. Dark Souls is lauded for the canned animation system (you cannot break from an animation once you initiate it so decisions cannot be aborted) and interactions that are challenging but feel fair and push players to be very methodical and make the right choices. Hard does not mean lightning reflexes, it means making the right choices and fair means the game gave you the information you needed to make the right choice.

At 5:40 seconds into the game the cursor snagged the end of a wall, the wall I had time to get past but had mistakenly released the right side of the screen early to avoid overshooting the hole. The hole I had the intent to get through and the reaction times to initiate movement to complete in the right direction. But I didn't hold down my finger for exactly the right length of time and so the pointer hit the wall. Stupid game, let me move my avatar to where I want it to go!

User Intent and Skill

While discussing that game with Paul from Mode 7 Games, I was being my usual contrarian self and making no headway expressing how I see the game as tank control analogous, narrative against bad controls by using bad controls and this eventually pushed him to posit, "I don't know how you categorise a disconnect in user-intent vs. making something skill based - don't you need a disconnect for micro". Now there is an interesting question, is skill (specifically as expressed in micro) just the player having to overcome problematic controls to express their intent efficiently?

It's certainly a sane viewpoint, my counter would be that perfect reading of user intent is hard to impossible depending on the range of things the user is able to express in the game but being as good as possible at reading them is a requirement for an honest game. For something like Starcraft then there is clearly an issue with users expressing the exact movements and actions of every unit in the game as soon as they think of what they should be doing. We simply can't work out how to use our current input methods to achieve that and so we build the tools as best we can and consequently the ability to better express intent using fast reactions is part of micro. But knowing what you want your units to do is also massively important. The APM to pull back units and prevent them being destroyed is key to being most effective in an engagement, knowing that you want to fight with an army of half-health units by pulling some out of range of attack rather than half an army at full health and half corpses is the skill. Starcraft even uses that time being locked up at the controls for micro as a balance mechanism, with players who are weaker at micro knowing this and so devoting their APM budget to other things. Micro is much more than reactions and good play is informed by understanding of your own reactions and application of it to the limitations of the controls; giving the players the best chance to express their intent is critical, while accepting the limitations of input will provide some with ability to do more, faster, up to the constraints of the input system.

I'm sure most people who have played Super Hexagon and read my interpretation of the game didn't agree, I've expressed the view to responses of o_O enough times to expect it. But what if my Super Hexagon and your game aren't the same game? Maybe on my Nexus the lag on the digitiser or on the renderer's output / screen means I have a couple less frames to make my reaction, that the feedback loop of when to lift off my finger has to be done by precise mental calculation rather than via screen feedback. My laggy brain may make for some disadvantage in twitchy multiplayer shooters but what about laggy hardware, especially in the wide ecosystems of PC gaming, Android/iOS (when grouped collectively), or consoles (mainly what TV you hooked them up to). Is this skill or just a randomised impediment that the game design should accept and try to minimise?

Consider a shooter with a handicap system for health. When you buy the game you get a health value between 50 and 150 and every time you spawn that's your health, your given handicap was randomly chosen. Only you play on a nice large IPS TV as your screen, when you spawn your health is now half of what it was. You own that brand of GPU and those drivers with default settings? Take 30 health off. Didn't configure your $60 mouse correctly for 1ms updates? Drop off another 10. This is what lag to the input and output are doing, on top of the random lag of the user's own processing abilities we have massive, uncertain lag from the variable hardware and settings. By not trying to optimise reading of user intent we exacerbate the ability for luck rather than skill to rule the systems because we can't know from user to user if what they can actually see and react to on their hardware is 100ms behind a different user.

What Have We Learnt Today?

This line of thought can be taken to extremes, the simplest straw-man is to declare that I am saying no timing checks are allowed and so all games much become turn-based. Reactions are part of micro and that's a key element of gaming, especially competitive gaming, and even our experience of reality in general; time moves forward and we go along with it. But we can't equate skill with enforced disconnects in reading user intent. Obviously the user doesn't intend to generate a game over screen or lose so our game, to have challenge or provide player rankings, must offer paths to failure that the user should not take but has the option to. I think games are most worthwhile when that is offering a choice that the user takes and then leads to failure, even if they only took that option due to being rushed and needing to make some reaction (one of which can be no input at all). We need to be aware of the variable reaction times of the devices making a mockery of any intent to be aggressive with dividing players by speed of reaction as a skill or a skill check for expressing precise intent that can be recorded by other means.

An input system that is harder to interact with than is necessary, making correctly expressing intent the skill, is missing the mark; a throw back to before we had the processing power, input bandwidth, and know-how to do better. We will always have a problem with correctly reading user intent until people have brain interfaces but minimising those disconnects does not prevent games of reaction, even if the fair balancing of such a game seems impossible due to the range of hardware people use to play games.

That is the hole I see when I look at using hardening expression of user intent as a skill mechanism, with real-time games already at the mercy of input and output lag those games that walk that path are just doubling down on giving luck as skill, luck of the hardware and luck of the nervous system. Games are about offering choices but in Super Hexagon my best choice it to stop playing.

This post was originally posted to the previous site early on Sunday but the deadline for database migration came down too early for it to survive to the new site. A few comments were lost along the way and webcache.googleusercontent did not preserve them.

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Goitees 2012

Here are a few thoughts on games from 2012 which I completed and have seen doing the rounds on many a Game of the Year list.

Best AAA classic money-bags creation 2012: Halo 4.

Halo, but with outstanding graphics (Reach was the first 360 Halo that didn't insult the hardware; the games were all great but even will all the effort they only got Reach up to the pack) and a new aesthetic and character designs to make it look a bit new while still looking (and far more importantly playing) like a Halo.

It wasn't the perfect story but I was reasonably happy with the broad strokes and wonder if they're going to make an interesting launching off point for the next game (shame about the Legendary ending). The online was great (but the Spartan Ops needs to really jump up to be more than rather middling co-op with a great video series) and the solo was just right. I felt my interest in Halo had been dropping off this gen since the white hot love of the original xbox releases but Halo 4 grabbed me right back, even if I'll never really care about multiplayer console FPSs.

Best small budget release that kept eating my time 2012: FTL.

Take a light roguelike-like story generation engine into space and add an active time battle combat system with a focus on managing the people who run the ship and you've got gold. I spent many an hour doing this while another screen contained something to occupy the other half of my brain; that isn't a bad thing, games like Forza and puzzle titles are also in this awesome area where the bit of my brain I want to apply to the game can be split off from a podcast or film appreciation section.

After tens of hours it wears thin, the things I have not seen are hidden from me by an RNG and I have explored all the viable strategies that occur to me can be constructed by the combat systems in place. But you should totally play this game until you hit that point or naturally drift off.

Best thing that others may tell you isn't a game: Dear Esther.

Great place to go, great story to craft yourself as you walk about and get a selection of narration with the wonderful touches of narrative from the locations and beautiful landmarks. Bit of choice that comes from the randomisation of the spoken voice and optional sights that make it more than a corridor title where you can choose what to look at but otherwise are in a movie.

I really got along with the few hours that it takes to walk through Dear Esther. That old Source engine is great at stereoscopic 3D for some reason and it really sucked me in to be able to look out of a broken window and have the proper depth perception of focussing on the frame or the background. Something about 3D in FPS can work really well to drag you into the frame and make the rest of the world simply not exist. That possibly made the game what it was for me, but obviously the stuff inside the virtual environment had to be worthwhile to keep me in and make it more than just another stereoscopic experience.

(of the games I completed) Not on this list but on everyone else's 2012: Journey & Forza Horizon.

Journey really didn't do it for me. I guess this is rather cool as I could appreciate both what it was doing and the quality of the technical work. I did not care for the co-op at all and I wasn't in lock-step with the game's emotional trip as it moved about and so felt the music and events disconnecting. Add this in to Thirty Flights Of Loving (which I guess was also this year so should be on this list non-entries, but I haven't seen a lot of GotYs with Thirty Flights Of Loving on either so maybe it didn't really do the rounds of the enthusiast press to be on everyone's mind at the end of the year) for games I was fine with playing but didn't much care for and didn't feel like I had missed what it was they were trying to say. Why is that cool? I generally consider this to be my personal idea of 'art' and taste. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy playing them (for ludic, technical, or aesthetic reasons) or failed to find their message; I just didn't find it resonated with me. Their point was to sell me on that connection and I was not sold. It's cool that I can see someone else's GotY list and see games I would never put up there but not think they're crazy.

Forza is a harder one. I really liked it (I completed it like everything on this list and for a driving game that's often harder due to how they typically stretch the game progression) but I found it lacking compared to the numbered titles (notably 4). I want to think of Horizon as one of the best games of the year, but I also don't want to get another Horizon style game next in the Forza series and am glad it didn't explode and outsell Forza 4. It was a great game about racing cars with that lovely 'made for in-car view' physics/handling, upgrades that mean any car is reasonably viable selection for the class race, and plenty of stuff to do on the vibrant open world they created. But it crystallized what I loved about Forza, the driving and not the racing. The start is fun with a race but the best part of Forza 4 is the enforced clean laps, the assists notes by each time, and showing my friend's scores for a hot lap at the end of every race. So I do a lap or two getting the course in my mind while I overtake the pack and am racing and once I'm done I then drive for the rest of the race with the leaderboards in my mind. Assists off, no cutting onto the grass or decelerating using some useful wall; clean, smooth, driving. And Forza Horizon is a racing game, that means it can't hold the same position of reverence in my memory as a numbered Forza. Great game, but no GotY.

Syndicated from my blog.

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