A couple of quick nods to recent The Mechanic articles. Most recently I talked to Zach Barth about the excellent Exapunks, a puzzle game about coding viruses and using them to hack candy bar recipes and printshop accounts systems so you can publish zines.
What about a puzzle game about writing viruses like Stuxnet, which was designed to attack a very specific kind of industrial controller used in Iranian nuclear centrifuges in order to destroy them? A game about writing programs that unfold, multiply and deploy themselves to make changes to the physical world.
I find Zach Barth’s perspective on designing puzzle games and the way he charts their relationship with the real world absolutely fascinating. He also speaks about a billion words a minute. I thought transcribing our 69-minute interview would never end, but he was so interesting all the way through that I almost didn’t mind.
Also, he introduced to me the concept of Core War and other pure adversarial programming games, and they’re just whaaaaattt. I really want to research that whole field.
And I talked to Ben Esposito about how the tricks he pulls to make the hole in the mega-charming and funny Donut County work.
“The idea was originally that you’d just play as a hole and I thought there’s probably some interesting problems there,” creator Ben Esposito tells me. “I also thought it’d be pretty easy. But I was kind of wrong.” As he found out, making a game about being a hole gives rise to all kinds of trouble, including game physics hijinks, human nature, and the surprisingly complex philosophy of what holes are.
Throughout, Ben was just laughing at the ridiculousness of the hard problems he had to solve in order to get a hole to work in a game about selfish raccoons. I mean, that’s the ideal interview, really.
Tomorrow night is the private view of the V&A’s Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, an exhibition on which I was a curator back in 2013/14. I’m incredibly excited to see how it’s all come together.
I was only working on the exhibition in its earliest stages, involved in pitching to the V&A’s board the concept of what videogames might look like in a gallery, in the hopes of unlocking a good budget and a big space. But I found the process fascinating, proof of the rigour that goes into making exhibitions at internationally renowned museums like the V&A.
After some internal staff changes and as I found my role at Hello Games gaining weight, I kinda peeled off the project, but I’ve continued to advise and help out now and then. It’s been great to see it evolve and flower under its excellent curation team, Marie Foulston and Kristian Volsing. They’ve performed wonders to create it and make it all happen.
I have, however, contributed a chapter to its catalogue, which was beautifully designed by my friend Darren Wall, who founded the publisher Read-Only Memory. I looked at several major player-made projects in Minecraft, from a recreation of Game of Thrones’ Westeros to a redstone CPU, The Dropper to Survival Games.
I busted right through the wordcount I was given, partly because I felt that the spectrum of player creativity in Minecraft is such a good illustration of the spirit of design and craft that the V&A represents. And luckily they liked it enough that they expanded its space to fit it.
The screenshots are by Duncan ‘DeadEndThrills’ Harris, and they include a shot of the 16-bit ALU build which actually gets across how its structure works, as well as stunning images of other major Minecraft creations.
”StarCraft 2 modding as a source of income has not been financially viable for me,” [Daniel ‘Pirate’ Altman] says. “My attempts at marketing the game so far have been pretty unsuccessful. While I approached development like making a standalone indie game, I don’t think the community sees it like this. Lack of visibility is compounded by having to download a 28GB client to play the game, leaving ARK Star in a pretty tough spot.”
I talked to four modders who are making money from their work about how they run their practice, and what challenges they face.
But [Roshpit Champions maker Ryan Racioppo is] at the mercy of Dota 2’s popularity. While we talk, he checks its player count, noting that it’s down 12% since the same time last year. “If I was going to rely on this as my only income, you never know, Valve could just shut down modding, maybe, if it’s stopping them developing the engine or something. I’m completely dependent on their whims.”
JulioNIB’s Hulk mod
I was struck by how precarious their lives are, and also by the dedication they put in. When you start making money from your work, it doesn’t just become about what you make but also managing the community that springs up around it.
“Some people say they’re only still playing GTA 5 because of my mods, others say they bought the game just to use my mods,” [says GTA modder Julio Schwab]. “Suing me because I’m creating my own scripts without stealing anything from the game, only bringing more into the game and more interest from users, wouldn’t be an intelligent idea. But if they do, I will still mod while I can.”
Release day for an indie developer sounds like it’d be a celebration. Years of work have finally reached a successful conclusion. They can sit back, relax, and wait for the adulation and money to roll in. But it’s not really like that. “I heard a lot of people speculate what this would feel like and I was never really sure what would happen when we finally hit launch,” says Simon Stafsnes Andersen, head of Owlboy maker D-Pad Studio. “The reality was … conflicting.”
The truth is that launch is not an end. It’s the start of something else, and with that fresh start come many struggles that are born in the intensity of game development. This is true for almost all modern game developers, but it’s especially dramatic for indies who have spent half a decade or more quietly working on their dream project. After you’ve put all of yourself into a game, what comes next?
For PC Gamer I talked to Simon Stafsnes Andersen, who led development of Owlboy for nine years, Eric Barone, who made Stardew Valley for four and a half years, Ben Porter (Moonquest, six years), Joakim ‘Konjak’ Sandberg about Iconoclasts (eight years) and Jens Andersson about Yoku’s Island Express (five years). I was honoured to get some tender and candid insights into what it meant for these developers to let their games go out into the world.
It seemed to strike a nerve among developers, which was good (albeit maybe a bit bittersweet) to see, but my main concern was actually to send a message to gamer readers about how releasing games is hard, and that developers are people. There was some criticism that I’d focused on these successful games, and while I agree that it’s not good (but maybe unavoidable) that we tend only to hear the stories of the winners, the point here was that success doesn’t dull these experiences.
Anyway, I was pretty pleased with it, and you can read it here.
I have completely rebuilt my website. This is it, here. The idea is that it looks much like my old one, with the same colours and fonts so you probably haven’t noticed, but under the hood it’s completely different.
I think I’ve used Wordpress for the past 15 years or so. I started with it because it was the only way to self-host one of them new-fangled blogs, when comments were exciting and good and the world was innocent. I always kinda liked it, even during periods when hackers got in and I had to completely rebuild the database and every file. I even liked it while smashing my ignorance of CSS and php into making my own themes.
So here’s to you, Old Website. I still love the way you look.
But it’s time to change. I stopped using comments years ago and I don’t post much, so all of Wordpress’ high-use-frequency conveniences are kind of useless to me. It just sits on my server, liable to go wrong and requiring updating and backing up and under the constant threat of more hacks. My security plugin recorded 38 hack attempts last week and has automatically blocked 151 IPs.
So hello, New Website. Here’s to the next few years.
I guess a couple of things have been niggling me for a while with The Last Mech, but they hadn’t been coming into focus. But after last night’s playtest with Tom, they kinda did. The big change I’m making - or at least testing for - is a simple one, but it could be huge and mess everything up. Or it could make for a more dynamic game.
The first niggle has been that many players just aren’t using their Shields. They instead put most of their energy into attacking. I completely understand because I do this too! It feels better to be attacking than passively soaking up damage because it helps you reach your goal. But the Shield should be useful and should be providing more interesting decisions than it appears to be at present.
The second niggle is that players usually spend all their Energy cards each turn. And usually on Weapons and moving. But I want them to be making some plans, stockpiling, feeling they can put cards into their Shield. There are also a few weapons that trade on having a hand filled with cards, from Fist’s extra damage to Taser doing extra damage to a defender who’s carrying a lot of cards. But at the moment they’re not proving very useful.
So. Here’s the plan: I’m putting the number of energy cards you pick up per turn from two to three.
My hope is that the extra Energy players will have will make using the Shield more attractive, while also helping them to have more cards in their hand when they want to.
I want to maintain the current speed at which HP is lost, and I think it largely will stay the same because you can only fire Weapons once per turn and they’re managed by range restrictions. Plus, if players have more Energy, they’ll be putting it into Shield to mitigate more damage, right? Let’s see!
If this change is a bit of a sledgehammer to the game’s delicate sensibilities, I’m going to see if allowing players to fit an extra Augment works. Perhaps let them be stacked on Components, too. But first things first.
One other very minor change: I’m making the Sniper’s Charge cost one extra Energy (five), cos getting two free Energy cards for spending one extra Energy was far too cheap.
These changes mark the point where I’m almost comfortable with making The Last Mech semi-public. So I am. I think there’s enough richness in the systems to make a game of push-and-pull with reasons to fight and to run, with a new system adding extra strategy. And I think that feels good.
Here are the tweaks that have led to here!
- Added ability to change weapons If you pick up a fourth Weapon, you can switch out an installed Weapon for it. This led to quite a big question, and to a big change: if you can swap Weapons, does damage apply to the Weapon or to the slot on the Mech it was attached to? I thought, hey, maybe damage is applied to Weapons? This can lead to a system whereby Mechs can be repaired by switching in fresh Weapons - something that’d further emphasise Scanning, which playtesters have said is FUN, and also help players experience more Weapons and generally not get locked into a build they don’t like. But I added the proviso that once a Weapon is completely destroyed, the slot can no longer be used. Big change! Also, it means that now damage hitting unoccupied Components no longer applies. This will slow down damage accrual at the start of the game and on Mechs which aren’t armed to the teeth.
- Shield may longer be Augmented I thought I’d come up with a nice way of Augmenting the Shield: providing +1, but only when the Shield was powered. However, it didn’t really work. It made the priority with which damage was applied to Shield complex and unintuitive, and it messed up the tactical value of ordering cards in it. It also messed up Shield Reflect, because the Augment would usually take the hit and allow a Reflect. So it’s nixed for now, but I’d like to revisit the topic, because because it feels a bit artificial that Shield is the only thing you can’t Augment.
- Revised Aegis For the same reason as the Augment, since it performed much the same job. It now drops a temporary Obstruction in an adjacent hex.
- Clarified rules for effects of Charge attacks on shielded targets Because I basically hadn’t thought about any of it until now.
- Minor Reworded Harpoon Charge attack text and indicated that when the Energy cards are exhausted the discard pile is shuffled and turned over.
I’ve written another book about Minecraft! It’s called Minecraft Mobestiary, and it’s a natural history of all the mobs in the game. And it’s out TODAY!
I was inspired by medieval bestiaries and Victorian journals, and I wrote it from the perspective of a fusty old academic called The Naturalist who has decided to impart all their knowledge about the world. It was a lot of fun to write, painting a picture of this creepy crawly-hating old grouch through the descriptions of the mobs.
But the best things about it, I reckon, are the illustrations by Anton Stenvall. They’re so perfect, tying together the weird blocky gaminess of the mobs with the naturalistic way I’ve written about them as if they’re real creatures in a real world.
It was tough to write, because I didn’t want it to be a dry book which simply lists all the mobs’ characteristics. You can get all that in places like the Minecraft Wiki. Instead, I wanted the mobs to feel strange and exciting, and for readers to start to imagine their places in the world. My kids are forever dreaming up the reasons why creepers explode or why witches are evil; I wanted to work with that imagination and even help to fuel it with a little mystery and by posing questions. Why do evokers turn blue sheep red?
But I also wanted the book to be bursting with practical information, and never to leave anything unclear. It was a tight balancing act, but I’m really pleased with the result.
Oh, and I also recommend taking off the dust jacket in order to caress the blocky texture on the front cover. Thanks to everyone who helped work on this book and make it happen!
I wrote this for Edge’s website back in maybe 2013, before it was swept away in some Future Publishing web strategy tsunami. I’ve always been quite pleased with it, so I delved into the Internet Archive to mount a rescue.
GTA isn’t just humping dogs and UFOs, strip bars, BAWSAQ and a mouse pointer with an erected middle finger. It’s not just lowball humour, nihilistic violence, misogyny and a seething pool of crass satire that seems to sneer at everything and everyone.
That’s all there in GTAV, of course, but we’re talking about a game with the scale of a state here. For all of the ugliness there’s beauty, too.
I’ve always loved GTA for its details – its ability to capture the sense of a place and animate it into somewhere that almost feels alive. I remember driving over the uneven and kinked roads of GTA III’s Liberty City and realising it was striving to capture a form of reality, not just live up to the standards games had tried to reach so far.
I don’t think any developer other than Rockstar North makes open worlds as rich and fully observed. It can be through some sort of modelling of the way things behave in the real world or it can be through a little art flourish; either way, I find these acknowledgements of reality exhibit a kind of beauty. They speak to the thoughtfulness with which Rockstar North’s developers have looked at reality and considered how to represent it.
The thing is, this stuff is often so well realised that it tends to get completely overlooked, while GTA’s big, bad, lurid side gets all the attention. But if you care to look it’s far more important. For me, it’s in how GTAV’s cars have slightly differently coloured headlights, the way you can light petrol trails with the backfire flames from your exhaust, and how each of the three protagonists have different smartphones (it’s so delicious that Trevor should have what looks like a Windows Phone).
And so I took out my camera, sporadically functional as it can be, and tried to record some of these details through the medium of the selfie. Because, well, why not.
Stuff like this:
Rain falls only where there’s a clear line through to the sky, and the road is wetter there, too. Every game should have this in it, because they help a downpour feel like a downpour, with shelter actually feeling like respite.
This isn’t meant to be some sort of exhaustive haul. These photos are simply some of the things I’ve seen that tickle my verisimilitude gland and there is so very much more I’ve yet to notice. Yeah, verisimilitude. I went there. But there really is no better word. Let’s celebrate it.
This must be one of the best-rendered road surfaces in the history of videogames. Cracked, pitted and shining against an evening sky, it’s up in the Vinewood Hills. I love that a manhole cover has helped cause the tarmac around it to have worn away down to its bedding layer. This is a road with history.
This is so wonderfully incidental – a drainage channel running down the side of the Great Ocean Highway still bears the stumps of trees that were cut down as it was being dug.
The characterisation of Trevor’s Los Santos safehouse is pin-sharp, sporting a nautical theme and cute phrases – the shit that’s soon smeared all over its walls are almost an improvement. In plan it’s actually based on Melanie’s apartment in Jackie Brown, though in effect it’s a very different place.
Michael’s house is filled with aspirational details, the most cutting for me being a copy of a thick book called Millennium on his living room shelves. It’s a clear nod to Century, an excellent 1,224-page book of photography covering the 20th century that’s found in any upwardly mobile household worth its salt (and probably idly thumbed through no more than twice).
GTA V’s dynamic car damage modelling is fantastic. Ever since Destruction Derby I’ve loved smashing up videogame cars, and GTA V’s auto sadism has raised standards higher than ever. I have spent ten minutes punching and kicking a car into crumpled submission, only stopping because some ped decided to punch me to death.
San Andreas Gallery of Modern Art (SAGMA) is really well observed, with its banners’ use of the art-stalwart typeface Gill Sans and situated in a building with precisely no architectural interest whatsoever, a nod, I like to think, to Los Angeles’ dearth of great public architecture, considering its significance as a metropolis. That said, it’s curious Rockstar North hasn’t attempted a crazy Frank Gehry-like edifice in Los Santos.
Franklin’s Vinewood Hills apartment is brilliantly empty and contemporary, deserving of an entry on the excellent Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table blog. Around his dining table sit Charles and Ray Eames’ Eiffel Base Shell chairs, a fine design cliche, sitting on what looks like a Madeline Weinrib Zig Zag Tibetan Carpet ($4,500).
On Michael’s bedside table lies a copy of the Kama Sutra. It’s maybe not the subtlest detail, but his expression here, caught just after the mission in which his family ups and leaves him, is so plaintive it just had to go in.
GTA V is a game about hundreds – thousands – of details like these, each crafted by Rockstar’s artists. And every single one is worth it, allowing every player to notice something relevant to themselves and helping to pop San Andreas into widescreen focus just for them. They make somewhere so awesomely and gloriously sprawling ours.
Last month was … busy. And exciting! I wrote a lot of words, and I’m actually quite pleased with a lot of them. I thought I’d present a quick chronological rundown, cos I’ve done a terrible job of cataloguing them anywhere else.
I kicked off the year with two weeks’ writing for Minecraft’s website. I wrote about many different things, like the amazing WesterosCraft, which celebrated its fifth anniversary of building the Seven Kingdoms in blocks. I also looked at how a mini-computer built in redstone, and explained the nature of obsidian, along with some other pieces that haven’t gone up yet. I really like Minecraft.net’s redesign and how it celebrates what Minecraft players are making with a mature voice that takes them seriously. Good work, Owen and Marsh.
A big complicated thing I wrote was for PC Gamer about how human sight works and what that means for the maximum framerate we can perceive. It was fascinating to research and write and it pretty much busted my brain.
The answer is complex and rather untidy. You might not agree with parts of it; some may even make you angry. Eye and visual cognition experts, even those who play games themselves, may well have a very different perspective than you about what’s important about the flowing imagery computers and monitors display. But human sight and perception is a strange and complicated thing, and it doesn’t quite work like it feels.
I wrote a couple of Mechanic features, one on Darkest Dungeon’s 2D combat:
“We knew we wanted to get down and close to the characters and show them off a little bit,” says Bourassa, who led Darkest Dungeon’s art. And he certainly capitalised on that. Darkest Dungeon’s heroes and enemies are large, detailed and extremely characterful, all the better for showcasing his striking thick-lined art style. They stick in the mind; you get attached to their all too commonly short lives and share some of their dread of their monstrous foes, since up close they seem so vulnerable.
And the other on how Astroneer found the fun in crafting systems:
Astroneer does things very differently. In fact, I haven’t played with a crafting system that’s as deeply implanted in its game world. “This sounds a little too intentional, as if I had a masterplan, which I totally didn’t,” Jacob Liechty admits to me. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Here’s the full list of my The Mechanic column, which comes out fortnightly. Next one? I DON’T KNOW YET aaghhh.
For Glixel I talked to the great Iranian indie developer Mahdi Bahrami about how Trump’s travel ban affects him and fellow Iranian developers, and what that means for videogames in general.
“It breaks my heart,” he explains on a Skype call. “I feel like everything we were trying so hard for… And things were getting better. Iran having a nuclear deal with the US. For the first time in 40 years the foreign ministers of the US and Iran were directly solving a problem. And now, even if you’re a PhD student in the US, just because of this new order, you can’t go there. It’s like all the hopes we had for the past few years are just gone.”
And for Eurogamer I talked to programmers and designers who’ve spent the past 20-odd years porting Doom to new platforms, charting an extraordinarily long-lived, creative and vibrant modding and mapping community.
Doom runs anywhere, and that’s down to the labours of a community of programmers that have been working on DOOM for nearly 20 years, ever since John Carmack released Doom’s Linux source code for non-profit use on 23rd December, 1997. “Port it to your favourite operating system,” he wrote in its readme.txt. “Add some rendering features - transparency, look up/down, slopes, etc. Add some game features - weapons, jumping, ducking, flying, etc.” Along with some other suggestions, he went over a few of his code’s shortcomings and his regrets, explained Doom’s fundamental workings, and expressed hope that a community would collaborate on an improved version of the game, signing off with, “Have fun”. And people really did. That source code is the progenitor of a vast body of mods, games, maps and years-long friendships. And in January, one of its longest-serving members suddenly quit.
February: MANY MORE WORDS INCOMING.
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