A Summer To Remember: Steam’s Summer Sale

The Steam Summer Sale has become more than just a period of epic low prices on quality games from quality developers. The Steam Summer Sale has become a bit of a summer sensation, the epitome of Christmas in July. Adding to the marketing hype this year was the later than expected launch date of the sale. The PC gaming community was already prepared to sink its teeth into the summer sales’ digital juices, the delayed start (compared to summers past) only made gamers salivate even more. My mouth runneth over, sadly my wallet doesn’t but I am thankful for the dishes Valve is catering.

Each year the sales get better. More games become available (with the addition of new developers and the games they bring with them), and the variances in the way the games go on sale increases. This year the Steam community has multiple sales scenarios pawing at their bank accounts. The usual daily deals continue to impress, as do the Pack Deals (discounts on a developers library of games). What really keeps a potential buyer coming back is the chance that the perfect game will have the perfect price, this is done through the Flash Sales. Flash Sales on the Steam page are short term sales on games with steep discounts (i.e. Fallout: New Vegas for under $5). In the words of Ron Popeil, “Wait there’s more.” This year Steam added the Community Choice pitch, where Steam users get to vote on the sale it wants to see next. Three games are listed with a corresponding discount, and based on the vote totals the next Community Choice sale is decided-it’s democracy and capitalism surprisingly getting along with each other.

What do all these discount variances amount to? Community engagement. Keeping your community interested in potential sales keeps them coming back, it’s page views with a bigger upside. It keeps your potential purchaser asking, “What’s next?” It’s working too. Sales figures are not made available but the impact of the sale has caused some angst with EA, who have complained about it cheapening the value of intellectual property, which means they can’t compete, and Steam is having another summer to remember. What EA? Your digital distribution application (Origin, still in beta) can’t compete with a distributor that puts PC gamers first (and has since its release to the public in 2002)? That shouldn’t come as a surprise. I think Valve’s Director of Business Management, Jason Holtman, put EA in its place with his tactful reply.

Valve was out front when it came to digital distribution and to stay there (as is the case for any tech company), they have to continue to lead the pack. More importantly they have to continue to put their communities’ interest inline with the interest of Valve/Steam. If they continue to cater to their community then the money will continue to roll in. With that being said, where’s Half Life 2: Episode 3?

Almost Heroes: Exploring Open Worlds

Jean Luc got exploration right.

Unfortunately Janeway did not.

This large world, please let me get lost in it. Open world environments in video games are becoming a must for any successful Role Playing Game [RPG]. Open worlds provide us gamers with explore-how-you-want and go-where-you-want video game settings (also the same marketing slogans used on open world RPG box art). They are far beyond the constraining atmospheres presented in early side scrollers like Super Mario Brothers and Contra and even the more recent first person shooter [FPS] with invisible constraining walls. Open worlds enable us to tap into one of our species biggest desires,  “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”.

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Sadly Star Trek Online didn't get the open world right but patches and updates have made it more fun to explore.

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Fett (my Fallout: New Vegas character) is my virtual version of Magellan and Shepard (of Mass Effect fame) is our gaming pixel equivalent of Buzz Aldrin. Virtual exploration is the poor mans version of globe trotting. It allows us gamers to feel the freedom and excitement of exploration without the deep hit to our pocket books or deep cuts to our fleshy bodies. Open worlds give us a sandbox to play in (another phrase used to describe open worlds = sandbox) and lets us explore, kill and/or save lives within it.

Within the wood panels containing the sand of our video game virtual worlds are narrative influences (quests) that the gamer can either decide to interact with or not – so the freedoms in an open world do not just reside in choices of exploration. These narrative influences, rather they be a Dragon (as will be the focus of upcoming open world game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim) or a lost traveler looking for assistance or partnership, can help shape the sandbox or can be ignored so the gamer may shape it on his own. This freedom to choose is at the core of our desire to explore and exploration – freedom in choosing ones own path. It is these facets of open worlds that make getting lost and having a game that is built large enough to get lost in, exciting to us gamers.

Skyrim's explorable area will be 3-4 times larger than Fallout 3's.

Freedom of choice in exploration, interaction with in-game groups or individuals and the awareness of the unknown make open world gaming as attractive as the New World was to Columbus. For RPGs, open worlds are a key component to being able to actually role play your avatar as demanded by your human desires. Open worlds provide marketing ability and legitimacy amongst the RPG gaming faithful.  It keeps the gamer guessing, exploring and wondering, what is over the next hill or toxic dump site.

I Robot? No. Ahhh! Robot!

Cold, non-blooded, killer.

Ahhh! Robot. Cold and heartless, metal beasts, carrying with them no emotion. I think back to the X-Men cartoons of the 90s and the only scary things from that series, the Sentinels. Sentinels were emotionless metal hunters bent on the apprehension and then termination of all mutants. Compared to the never dying and emotionally fragile mutants who made up the series, Sentinels were the only characters who showed no humor, no care – that’s what made them scary. Sentinels were towering walking buildings with monotone voices. They did not have human bodies with robot parts, enabling the audience to better relate to them. No, Sentinels could not be related to. They were were giant metal aliens to the human world, they were frightening.

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He could fetch and befriend but I was hoping for a Dog antithesis Cat.

Robots of today’s graphical adventures, generated by processors and not pencils, are too relatable. They are at times like the other ‘buddy’ of a buddy cop movie. They are, often, an ally and not a feared steel encased executioner. They are not Arnold…at least in the first Terminator.  Sometimes they are so docile they are even called a dog.

Half-Life 2’s robotic, fetching, four legged friend Dog was a pet. He was a helping hand/paw. His presence was fun but again, his presence was comforting to the player. He made the trying journey of Half Life 2 less daunting. He coddled the player through to the end. Dog wasn’t an oily geared gadget of grotesque.

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Robots have constantly been used as companions. Many of times they have been used as short-in-stature comedians (see R2D2). Borderlands’ claptraps encompass the midget stand up comic role in its entirety. It is not a poor representation of robots in games but it does further distance the fear factor we no longer see with robots in video games. I do give credit to developer Gearbox Software and publisher 2K Games for seeing the claptrap as a potential enemy.  The entertaining Borderlands’ DLC, Claptrap’s Robot Revolution, was fun but I never did fear the joke cracking miniature robots with rockets…but that was never their intention in design, but I kind of wish it was.

The glitch bitch himself, ED-E.

There is some hope for the future, a future that involves meat bags being battered to blood pools, in the video game world. With Fallout: New Vegas we saw a glimpse of a robot that was cool, calculated and at times a touch scary. The floating companion ED-E was a robotic companion that, through its miss-wired programing, laser beamed foes to ashes with what could be seen, at surface level, joy.

ED-E is a glimpse into what could be a resurgence of  of the Terminator-esque robots of old. Robots that were feared and had no moral blocker keeping them from their programed need to kill. Robots, lacking human emotion, seemed alien. Robots had character without having to have dialogue. Bring on the video card empowered Sentinels!

Words From A Wing Nut: Interview with Lee Montgomery

Last post we explored the Full Motion Video [FMV] game bubble and the flops, and few gems, that made up this moment in gaming/development history. This week, I bring the nerd herd insight from an individual who was intimately involved in development during that age and had hands on with Rocket Science Games’ Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Lee Montgomery is the focus of this weeks post and GamingNerdHerder’s first interviewee (below).

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Lee Montgomery

Lee Montgomery is an Asst. Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico (Electronic Arts Area) with a B.A. in Film from Bard College and a MFA (New Genres) from the San Francisco Art Institute. In his own words: “I am an artist who works in as many areas of the ‘electronic arts’ as I am able.  My interests range from circuit building and bending, radio and TV transmission, computer programmed interactivity, and social engineering.”

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GamingNerdHerder [GNH]: What was your title and roll with Rocket Science Games?

I started as a production assistant, started working as a video editor, and eventually wound up as Asst. Game Designer for the Reactor levels of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and Game Designer for Wing Nuts.

GNH: There were a lot of subpar FMV games released in the 90s but Wing Nuts was solid. What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games did wrong? What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games didn’t do at all?

Funny thing is.. Wing Nuts was originally envisioned as a plug and play purchase from the studio that shot the material for Tomcat Alley on Sega CD.  That’s where all the video came from.  RSG, I think, originally saw itself as bringing Holywood to the Sega CD and so the idea was that we would build an updated “Dragon’s Lair” style engine like the Tomcat Alley engine, but with better compression (because we had engineers from the Quicktime team at Apple writing the video compression).  By the time the games were developed SegaCD had proven to be a short lived phenomenon, and the great sales of Tomcat Alley were revealed to have more to do with Tomcat Alley being one of the only things going for SegaCD.

So we had these assets for what was starting to look like a real dog of a game. So we had to figure out two things:

a) what was it about Tomcat (and thus Wing Nuts) that made it a dog?

b) how do we address those issues.

The Hollywood side of the equation determined that the amateurish acting and cheese-ball plot needed to be very clearly turned into comedy.  So a laugh track and sound effects were added…as well as a series of easter eggs with comedic value.

The game play side of the equation determined that as games like Doom and Virtua Fighter and Mortal Combat were our approximate competition, we needed to ramp up the interactivity… a lot!

Working with the engineer for the game (at the time I could barely get “hello world” compiled) we developed a full HUD and a points based system for taking down enemies.  We basically wrote a game which you played over the movie that coincidentally interacted with the footage.

There was definitely a misguided assumption that getting FMV to play on your machine at home would somehow be the essence of VR.  What many failed to pay attention to was the fact that the layers of compression that distorted the original video did much to remove the viewer from the experience.  Without a sufficient level of interactivity to keep viewers invested you didn’t really have a game.  I am sure there are a bunch of FMV developers from those days that are wondering how on earth the crudely rendered figures of DOOM registered as more appealing than their flat chunky blobs of video.

GNH: From your time spent directly involved in FMV game development there have been many changes. What do you see as the most relevant/significant change in video games from the days of FMV games compared to games being released now and why?

It’s interesting to look at a game like Fallout: New Vegas or Red Dead Redemption [RDR] now (or Grand Theft Auto, where some of the narrative techniques from failed FMV games are being used in a more fluid and engaging manner) within a fully realized 3D world where scenes can be somewhat rendered on the fly, instead of having to load video at 2MB per frame just for the visual appeal.

We no longer have laggy pauses for cut scenes, data loading happens more strategically, but really video always is limited to a linear constructed perspective, you always feel like you are riding a train and you can only tell the train where you want to change trains.  Greater processing power dedicated to rendering 3D worlds allows more of a sense of a world being constructed with nuanced rules you can follow.  A much more rewarding experience.   With Wing Nuts I think we succeeded (to the degree that we did) because the game play over the video had enough rules that one felt like they had some control over the results.  That complexity has just grown over time resulting in interactive narratives that are engaging and truly interactive.

GNH: How did your time spent in game development influence your current and past career choices and your current and past projects/shows?

I certainly would not be doing the kind of art work I do now had I not been exposed to the process of developing interactive content on a professional level.  It was interesting to quickly evolve from someone trained as an editor to someone considering interactivity as part of narrative content.  The work expanded my notions of what a game is and encouraged me to incorporate the game into how I thought about art.

GNH: What games are you currently playing?

I went through a long period of very occasional game playing over the past decade or so, this involved a little Warcraft, Tony Hawk, and Halo…

But recently I got a PS3 and was pretty impressed with RDR, I just finished one time through Fallout: New Vegas, and really enjoyed the depth of the experience, even if the game play sometimes felt a bit random….

GNH: What shows/projects are on the horizon for Lee Montgomery and were can we find more information about them?

I do a project called Neighborhood Public Radio which is currently engaged in a 3 part interactive program at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  You can see more about it at http://www.moca.org/party/npr/.

I also do some video work and generative art using a program called Processing.  I’m very into open source at the moment and am moving to a Linux based system that uses Processing and pd to develop interactive installations.

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I again want to give my sincere thanks to Lee for his time and efforts, the nerd herd appreciates it. Join the conversation in the comments and thanks for the visit.