The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for being unexpectedly busy and therefore failing to round up the week’s best games writing. Sundays are for guiltily returning to make amends. Don’t call it a comeback.

  • This was last week’s best article, but it still hasn’t had enough attention: on the compelling, compulsive ‘game’ of Steam trading.
  • There’s a weird heaviness in my chest and a dull, throbbing ache throughout my body. I’ve been doing this almost a month, now. In most cases, only to buy nothing at all once I see the featured games of the day–but if I stay up a little bit later…

    Maybe a user will want the extra copy of Half-Life I have in my inventory.

    Maybe I can get BattleBlock Theater for a friend with a little salesmanship and a few Trading Cards.

    Maybe I can find a good deal before being drowned in a tidal wave of traders advertising their wares, and scammers wishing to take advantage of those new to this way of life.

  • Mark Johnson, developer of vastly ambitious 4X roguelike Ultima Ratio Regum, and a regular in the Sunday Papers, wrote on Kill Screen about the demonic properties of an ampersand.
  • Descending the staircase in the dark halls of Gehennom, I come face to face with Asmodeus, the “overlord of all hell.” He offers me a grim choice—give him a large portion of the gold I’ve so carefully hoarded away from the creatures that inhabit the rest of this dungeon, or refuse, and presumably fight this demonic prince. Alternatively, I know that if I draw Excalibur—which I was gifted earlier in the dungeon by dipping a longsword into one of the few fountains found in the upper floors—he will be blinded by its brilliant aura, anathema as its light is to all demons, and attack me anyway.

  • Over at Eurogamer, Simon Parkin interviewed Keiji Inafune. about his long career, at Capcom, making Mega Man, and now as founder of serial Kickstarter-user Comcept.
  • Today, in a plush-carpeted meeting room that smells of old coffee and new plastic, hidden inside Microsoft’s stand at the E3 conference in Los Angeles, Inafune’s un-Japanese outspokenness has not dulled. “The truth is this,” he says. “Had I been born in America, and had I sold 30 million copies of my game Mega Man, I’d be retired by now. But that’s not how it works in Japan, is it? Even if I’d have come up with Minecraft I would never have become Notch. That’s just how our society works.”

  • For the Guardian, Laura Kate Dale writes about whether Unity has an image problem stemming from the growing number of cheap, rubbo games made with it. Only among snobs, say I – but Dale speaks to Unity CEO John Riccitiello for more interesting thoughts than mine.
  • To Riccitiello, the sheer omnipresence of the platform is a mixed blessing. Its affordability and robustness has made it the first choice for small scale projects, but this also means it has become associated with amateur productions. “The truth is we have millions of developers using our software,” he says. “When you have that many customers, you are going to have lots of college and high school projects with your engine name attached. Occasionally you get somebody who has clearly got something, but for the most part, a couple of inexperienced developers making their first project won’t usually yield a great outcome. They get a much better standard of product than they would have without using Unity, but it’s still not up to the standards of a high-end commercial game.”

  • How is game making like poetry? Katriel Paige writes for Offworld about the connections been code, poems and an old Japanese practice called renga.
  • One of these games was called renga, which basically means “linked verse”. A group of people would gather in the evening when it was cooler; one person would start off the poem with the first three lines, in strict 5-7-5 syllable format, and another person would use those three lines to come up with another set (this time of two lines of 7 syllables each). They used syllable counts instead of rhyming as it was more challenging, because of the way the Japanese language works.

    In this way, linked chains of poems could be made, with the challenge coming out of “jumping” from one set of images to the next and making it all seem coherent in some way. This emphasis on strict format is a bit like computer programming, in which commands and their permutations can be arranged to make the computer calculate something you want. In the end, manipulating the form is what causes art to emerge from what would otherwise just be bunches of calculations.

  • Over at PCGamesN, Steve Hogarty writes about his trip to Russia to visit the offices of Wargaming.net and have a play of World of Warships. This go from funny to bad to funny again.
  • On my last evening in the city, while trying to find my way back to the hotel, I refused to get into a random man’s car. He insisted that his car was actually a taxi, and he produced a second, bigger man who corroborated this in a way that left me even less assured than when we began. The three of us discussed the matter of what is a taxi and what is not a taxi for a very brief moment before the second man grabbed me by the collar and demanded I pay him a taxi fare that coincidentally amounted to all of the money I currently had.

  • The International Computational Creativity Conference was last week and all the videos are online. They’re huge, single videos for each day, but there’s a wealth of interesting stuff in there. This link should take you to the timestamp for the beginning of Michael Cook’s talk about the Procedural Game Jam.
  • Jon Blyth has fixed Her Story for you, in case you were worried. Spoilers inside.
  • Everyone’s talking about Her Story, aren’t they? And I don’t know about you, but when everyone else is talking about something, it’s essential that I wade in there, my jaw rotating in all three axes. And when I’ve built a hot orb of opinion plasma about the size of an R-Type charge shot, it’s time to jam my freshly minted tuppence into the spinning doors of public discourse. And you can take that metaphor to the bank.

  • Hannah Nicklin is doing a series of talks at VideoBrains on psychogeography and games, the first video of which is now online. Hannah is also writing the series up as articles for us, the first of which went online last Friday.
  • Our own Pip Warr was also a speaker at the event and gave an excellent talk on women and esports.
  • This is old but new to me: Ian Hardingham of Mode 7 on how the AI functions in turn-based future sport Frozen Cortex.
  • Matt Lees’ series of E3 2015 Abridged videos are now complete.

Music this week is third EP from Carpenter Brut. It’s the soundtrack to a robot horror movie, and all three EPs are on Spotify and as a single album here.

46 Comments

  1. pullthewires says:

    There’s something about Unity that makes games feel cheap. I’m trying to work out if it’s something innate to the engine or my bias.

    • kwyjibo says:

      There’s a Unity asset store, where you can buy prebuilt textures and models, and so you’re probably seeing a lot of similar looking generic assets across multiple unrelated games, especially in early previews. This makes them look like prefab games instead of games.

    • CobraLad says:

      Those russian kids just dont have unity pro to enable normal shaders.
      I saw some cryengine games with same amateurish modeling errors but they could look better because of shaders available

      • yhancik says:

        Unity 5 gives you all the formerly pro-only engine features for free now :)

        • CobraLad says:

          yeah, but its came recently, at the time steam was already lost to a flood of unity shooter z from greenlight

    • Wulfram says:

      The best games tend to be good at establishing their own identity, and thus don’t really register as Unity.

      Like Hearthstone, for example.

      • thedosbox says:

        While it’s a mobile game (boo hiss), Hitman Go is another example of a highly polished game made using Unity.

      • onodera says:

        Or Pillars of Eternity, or Shadowrun. Hell, Invisible, Inc is a MOAI game.

      • Zenicetus says:

        Kerbal Space Program too.

      • HiFiHair says:

        Some other lovely (and varied) Unity games to add to the pot: Ori & The Blind Forest. Night in the Woods. The Forest. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. GNOG. Cities: Skylines. Gang Beasts. Endless Legend. Satellite Reign. Monument Valley. Republique.

      • Scurra says:

        One of my favourite lines from the interview was the comment that perhaps they made a mistake in having the Unity splash screen appear on “free” versions, and one of the perks of the full version was that it could be removed – if it had been the other way around, then the crappy games wouldn’t be associated with it, but the projects that were probably going to be good would have it and thus people would be surprised at what it could actually do when used properly.
        An amusing counter-intuitive argument that might have some merit. It’s no good him saying that now, of course…

    • faelnor says:

      In my eyes it’s not so much about the quality of the games that use it but rather, being related to the internet usually makes a technology inherently look cheap. Javascript, Unity, WebGL, Flash, Java applets, all may be interesting functionality-wise but they form a jumbled mass of code that I automatically associate with epithets such as ‘slow’,’unresponsive’, ‘inefficient’, ‘unreliable’ and ‘oh god why didn’t they make this a native executable-y’.

      • LionsPhil says:

        And native Unity games seem basically fine, tech-wise. I only know Rochard was Unity because a point was made of it.

    • GWOP says:

      An engine isn’t going to automatically make your game look good if it doesn’t have it’s own sense of aesthetics.

      Just consider the range of Unity games – Beseige, Cities Skyline, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun, Her Story, else{Heart.Break()}, The Long Dark, Cuphead, Enemy Starfighter, Grow Home, Gone Home, Invisible Inc, Firewatch, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, Satellite Reign… I honestly doubt anyone ever complained about these games feeling cheap.

      • blind_boy_grunt says:

        yeah, i mean engine basically says it all, it’s the thing that drives your game, the car body you have to make yourself. Unity just allowes for a lot of lazyness. Or it allowes to make a game without much knowledge. But i wouldn’t call that a problem. I think it’s great, some games are good despite a lack of polish, some games are forgettable, some are atrocious. But i bet everybody who finished making a game learned enough to make their next game better.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Here’s a list for comparison: link to unity3d.com

      My guess is that yeah, it’s just the effect that teams with less of an art budget are using it, and you don’t notice when great art teams use it because it doesn’t feel like a “Unity” game.

    • Baines says:

      After playing a few Unity games, you can get to where you recognize the physics engine Unity uses. And since the main thing you recognize is where the engine feels off, that is a somewhat negative feeling.

      Many Unity games don’t bother with decent options menus, either relying on the loader or just not bothering at all. That certainly can contribute a negative feeling towards Unity games. Further, the games that enable quality settings tend to just use Unity’s default options.

      With many cheaper Unity games, the people making them don’t really understand the quirks and requirements of the Unity engine. This can affect games in various ways, from generic bad lighting to inexplicably poor performance.

  2. kwyjibo says:

    My favourite piece this week was PC Gamer’s Chris Thursten trying to rationalise his gambling addiction.

    “We talk about exploitative business models, pay to win, and so on, but rarely about the simple satisfaction transmitted by paid participation.”

    link to pcgamer.com

    • Sam says:

      Wow, that’s kind of terrifying.

      I’m not sure it’s that the writer is secretly into gambling, but he’s certainly into consumerism. Expressing himself by what he chooses to spend money on. All wrapped up in self-aware post-irony or whatever, but at the end of the day he’s (literally) bought into the acquisition of property as a way to create meaning and happiness. At least the negative impact of manufacturing wizard hats is pretty minimal on the environment and the people of the world.

      • pepperfez says:

        That sort of expressive consumerism is really baked into capital-G Gamer Culture. See the console wars, AMD vs Nvidia threads, “I don’t even like that game but I’ll buy it to spite the [people I disagree with who also don’t like that game],” and so forth. I guess it’s a good thing to have it sort of made explicit by someone who likes it rather than by a critic?

        Also, “I am horrified by the possibility, however vastly unlikely it is, that I will one day be matched into a Dota 2 game with Slavoj Žižek,” conjures delightful images.

  3. LionsPhil says:

    Hmm. That Frozen Cortex AI video was less interesting than hoped. For ten minutes I was hoping for a clever twist beyond “we brute force possible plans every turn”.

    • AshEnke says:

      I understand why it takes so long for the AI to play !

    • Kitsunin says:

      As someone with virtually no knowledge of AI, I was pretty rapt. If anything, it was interesting how very simple their solution is.

  4. Kollega says:

    Just as a side note about St. Petersburg, it earned the nickname of “Bandit Petersburg” in the 1990s. There’s even a television series by that name. So it is massively hostile even if you are as Russian as a traditional izba and as straight as a cannon of the T-72 main battle tank. I’ve never actually been to the place, I admit, but it has a reputation. There are other nasty places in Russia too – the Ural and Far North industrial cities, for example. But if you want non-hostile, by Russian standards at least, the medium-latitude agricultural, manufacturing, and historical cities of European Russia are far more tolerable. You can still be mugged or beaten up, but compared to St. Petersburg’s infamy as a hotbed of organized crime, those are considered the nicer places to visit. Plus, the Golden Ring cities in particular are considered an important tourist attraction, so people there may be friendlier (keyword: may).

    Wherever you go, though, don’t expect many friendly smiles, since it’s a cultural norm to smile only to close friends. And in the current political climate, it may be dangerous to visit in general, considering the quote-unquote “patriotic” anti-Western sentiment. But what I want to say is, just like any country, Russia has parts that are more terrible, and ones that are less so. You just have to know where to look.

    • thedosbox says:

      Oh shush you, such nuance is apparently too much for some of the commenters on that article – i.e. “I live there and have never been mugged, therefore this writer is lying”.

      • Kollega says:

        Unfortunately. It’s like saying “I live in New York and have never been mugged, therefore it doesn’t happen”. But I’m actually pretty sure that the commenters are just Russians swept up in the “all of the West has a hate-on for us!” hysteria. Which obviously isn’t realistic – sure, politicians and the mass-media advancing their causes are quick to throw insults and accusations back and forth across the border, but the question is, when haven’t they?

        Now obviously, I don’t like the national attitude(s) of Russia and the CIS countries in general, especially as of late. But I try to keep a cool head, and I think I can say with good authority: if, in terms of chances that you’ll get asssaulted or mugged, St. Petersburg is equivalent to New York, then Rostov-on-Don or Voronezh is equivalent to Toledo, Ohio. It’s just a matter of finding places that are not million-strong cities overrun by mob families :P

        • TillEulenspiegel says:

          It’s funny how many people, even people who were not yet born in the 1980s, still think of New York like it was in the 1980s. It’s one of the safer American cities now. Popular ideas die a long, slow death.

          • jrodman says:

            Are you sure? American cities have been becoming safer in general from 1980 to 2015. Did New York really get to be one of the safer ones?

            Certainly it’s safer now by a country mile than when I lived there in the early 90s, though San Francisco, Seattle, where I’ve spent much more time lately feel safer to me personally. (Most American cities lack enough urbanity for me to really know them well.)

          • Kollega says:

            I was originally going to say “Brooklyn at 3 AM”, which I’m preeeeeeeetty sure is still very damn unsafe :P But in the current climate, a more apt comparison would be Detroit or some other Rust Belt city… which, on reflection, probably means that Toledo, Ohio IS less safe than New York. Way to undercut your own dumbass point there, Kollega.

      • werbliben says:

        Just signing in – for the first time ever – to say that rumours about St. Petersburg being the criminal capital of Russia are more than exaggerated. In fact, as a bit of research revealed, the nickname “Bandit Petersburg” stems from the TV series title and not vice versa (or rather from the title of a newspaper article by a writer later to co-author the TV show. He was looking for a catchy phrase and simply made a reference to the “Tavern Moscow” cycle by an early 20th century Russian poet. I’m just burying my whole point under a load of unnecessary details, aren’t I?). I’d even argue that the name should be interpreted as “The criminal side of St. Petersburg” (which, of course, every major city has) and not as “St. Petersburg – a city overrun by mob”. Moreover, in my whole life I’ve only heard someone referring to the city as “Bandit Petersburg” a couple of times, and in each case it was ironic.

        That being said, collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos that you would expect to follow a social cataclysm of such magnitude did allow some of the weirdest, meanest and most disgusting human beings to crawl out of their holes and into the daylight, but it was happening all over the country and by no means to a (significantly) greater degree in St. Petersburg than in any other city. Today St. Pete is approx. in the 85th percentile of the safest cities in Russia. Moscow is somewhere in the middle of the list and the bottom is mostly filled with Siberian cities with a standard of living much lower than in the European part of Russia.

        I also thought I’d look at how St. Petersburg compares to NY in terms of crime rates and here’s wot I found (hope the word isn’t trademarked by RPS yet =) ). In 2014, according to the official records, the most common crimes in both cities are the ones that fall under the category of petit larceny (I don’t have a legal education, mind you, but I did compare the corresponding articles of criminal code and they seem to describe one and the same kind of unlawful behaviour in St. Petersburg and New York). So yeah, petit larceny rates are roughly on par in both cities (4.88 cases per 1000 citizens per year in NY vs. 4.66 in St. Petersburg). Next item on the list – robberies. 1.97 in NY vs 0.49 in St. Pete. That’s a big gap, but let’s assume that at least some of it can be explained by differences in legislation too subtle for me to notice. Finally, murder is slightly more common in St. Pete (0.05 vs. 0.04), while rape is far more often committed in NY (0.16 in NY vs. 0.01 in St. Pete). Murder should arguably be a suitable proxy, as there aren’t many other ways you could classify killing a person and the report rate of this kind of crime should be near 100 per cent. I then tried to access London Metropolitan Police website, but I have a shitty Internet connection at the moment and it won’t load properly. Still, I managed to extract a few key figures (sum total for the last 12 months instead of the proper 2014 data); and they indicate that you will hardly get killed there (0.01, the lowest result among the three cities), but you have a higher risk of being either robbed or raped (or both) – 2.37/0.51 in London vs. 1.97/0.16 in NY vs. 0.49/0.01 in St. Pete.

        While I enjoyed the article overall, I feel like its light tone relies, to an extent, on repeating and stressing common (wrongful) stereotypes, which is a cheap, Cards-Against-Humanity kind of fun.

        tl;dr: Official crime records indicate that not only is St. Petersburg a safer place to live than most of the Russian cities, including Moscow, but its crime rates are roughly equal to the ones in NY and London, and some crimes (among them – the one Steve claims to have fallen victim to) are in fact less common in St. Petersburg than in either NY or London.

        P.S. Did anyone look at the photo of the alien Jenga-wafers? See that thingy right next to the bowl? What do you think it is? A pepper pot (as Steve seems to assume)? Wrong! A pack of toothpicks? Correct! However, through this mistake Steve might have delved deep into the mystery of the Russian soul, as I indeed remember peppering a wafer at one occasion. In my defence, I was desperate for new ways to express myself through simple, yet impressive cold dishes (and quite drunk, too).

    • onodera says:

      That was in the 90’s, nowadays you have to really go out of your way to get mugged in central St. Pete. I doubt that Ivanovo is safer.

      • Kollega says:

        Mugged? In Ivanovo? By whom, middle-aged seamstresses? /stereotype

        Seriously though, I do get your point that these days, getting mugged in the center of St. Petersburg would be like getting mugged in the center of Manhattan, to keep up my above comparison. But on re-reading the article, there’s nothing saying he got mugged in the center, on some well-populated street, so what I’m guessing is that he was in some less-populated and less-secure district. And while I have no hard data, I think that the crime rates in, say, Velikiy Ustyug are lower than in the bad neighborhoods of St. Petersburg, and not just because the city itself is smaller.

    • bunionbell says:

      Good lord that writer reads like a shit tourist, seen plenty and not so surprised he was (maybe) mugged during his short stay, glad he had fun tying knots.

  5. Gibster says:

    Very good article on the game of Steam Trading. I’m sure theres a fair few of us who are guilty of dipping in and out of the market now and then. I’ve played it before, but often I’ve felt remorse, thinking of better deals I could have got, etc. Still its a funky thing the Steam Market, the fact that Valve basically have a working economy right under their thumbs where thousands of transactions are made per day, of which they take a 5% cut each time. Its impressive to say the least, and a license to print money on Valve’s part one would think.

    Also good website as well, its nice to see a Christian gaming site in an industry that sometimes feels hostile to the notion of God. Plus it reminds me that I’m not the only Christian gamer (although we are very small, if not then quite minority it seems).

    • malkav11 says:

      I think you’re still probably in the majority, or if not then you would be if we add in believers of the other Abrahamic religions. It’s just that geek/internet culture has a particularly strong (and vocal) strain of atheism. If I recall correctly there’s at least one Christian RPS writer, for example (I want to say it was John Walker, who was arguing theology with a fundamentalist in the comments for a claymation adventure game article, of all things, but I might be wrong).

  6. malkav11 says:

    People dump on Unity now, they dumped on Unreal 3 then, there was probably some whipping boy engine before that. It’s not actually a problem for the engine or the developers making it. And it remains possible to make games with both that are visually distinct and creative. You’ve just got to have those skills and that aesthetic sensibility, which not every developer does. So, I mean, that’s the beauty of Unity. Even if you aren’t an artist or don’t have the budget to hire one, you can still piece something together from the Unity store. It’s not going to look amazing, but it’ll be a game.

    • qrter says:

      I have to admit, this Unity-hate is completely new to me. To me, Unity always seems like Unreal’s more affordable, chipper, more indie-minded little brother.

      The Unreal engines I do associate with a typical kind of game (GURNS!), and there’s plenty of tawdry shit to be found there too.

  7. TillEulenspiegel says:

    The whole idea that there’s an “image problem” with Unity is some serious game journalist navel-gazing bullshit. They propagate it because they haven’t the slightest clue how anything works, and apparently have nothing better to talk about.

    I like Laura generally, but she was talking about this interview on the Jimquisition podcast, insisting that Unity needs to “do something” about all the garbage being made with their engine. What should they do? Uh…no answer. I don’t enjoy agreeing with Riccitiello, but sometimes there’s an argument so completely empty and poorly thought out that even he can demolish it.

    • Geebs says:

      Blaming the renderer for the poor quality of a game is a weird inversion of the “graphics don’t matter” trope, isn’t it? Next up: we demand that Bjarne Stroustrup apologise to gamers for Call of Duty.

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      Wisq says:

      Hm, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they don’t have an image problem. It really is true, and they’ve acknowledged it themselves: The fact that cheaper licenses require you to announce you use Unity, and more expensive licenses don’t, is naturally going to colour public perception.

      Do they need to “do anything” about cheap Unity games? Hell no. Do they need to do anything about the image problem? Probably not. But if they wanted to, asking (not demanding) that more polished products include a Unity splash screen would undoubtedly help a lot.

  8. BurningPet says:

    Not sure why being gay prevents that dude from remembering women faces…

  9. Frings says:

    Oh, I’m really, *really* interested in seeing Pip’s talk, but my focus is everywhere lately. I’d kill for a transcript so I could read in-between work tasks.