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3:03 AM on 11.07.2013

Valve's Steam Offensive

In the wake of recent Steam news it became clear that Valve means serious business in their fight for dominance over the living room. There has been a lot of talk about Valve their plans, ever since the initial release of “Big Picture”, which gave Steam a console-like interface for living room TV’s and included controller support. The next step will be the launch of its own Steam oriented operating system, Steam machine and a Steam controller. It might very well be that the fight for the next generation will be won by Valve instead of Microsoft or Sony.
Steam has shown 30% growth since 2012 and currently has 65 million users. That’s more than Xbox Live (48 million) but less than the Playstation Network (110 million). It’s striking that PC gaming is up while PC sales have declined 11% since 2012. According to Newell this is because of the closed direction Microsoft and Apple are pushing for. Newell believes that systems which are innovation-friendly and embrace openness are going to have a greater competitive advantage to closed or tightly regulated systems. Let’s take a look at what they've planned and see if he might be right.

Valve will be using SteamOS as its crowbar to break open the PC market. It’s a Linux-based solution for bringing gaming to the living room and it’s an operating system build around Steam itself. We can expect a significant increase in performance since Windows or Mac OS are no longer required. There will be no overhead and the hardware can be used entirely for gaming. Best of all, it’s open and it will be free forever. This is a smart move. Hardware companies can build their own Steam machines and users can make changes as they see fit.
Steam’s huge library of games will be compatible with SteamOS and Valve has already announced that we will not see any SteamOS exclusive games from them. In fact, this same philosophy is applied when they talk to third-party partners. They encourage them to put their games in as many places as possible. By using in-home streaming, Valve is offering a solution for games that don’t support SteamOs natively.
Combined with Steam’s existing features and you no longer have an operating system but a collaborative entertainment platform. There’s a catch though. However open and great the Linux community is, driver support has always been an issue. Regardless of how much effort that went into improving this, it’s still no match to the superior driver support of Windows.  However, the Steam machine could be the solution to this problem.

Steam Machine:
According to Valve, entertainment isn't a one-size-fits-all world. Conventional consoles lock users into closed platforms. Doing something similar would go against Valve’s whole philosophy. They want you to have a choice. That’s why they are working with several partners to bring us a wide array of Steam machines in 2014. Recently Valve revealed its first prototype. It’s a nice streamlined box designed to be like a PC gaming rig in a size that’s more appropriate for the living room.
All of its parts can be swapped out and replaced and according to early testers, it’s a powerful and really quiet machine. Which we probably never get to buy due do to fact that it’s primarily used for soliciting feedback from hardware, developer and user communities. They don’t want to build it without costumer and manufacturer input. Something we normally don’t see with hardware development. Speaking of which, there’s no point pushing for living-room gaming without a proper input device that accommodates every different kind of input requirement for all the 3000 games on Steam.

Steam Controller:
The new Steam controller will offer a superior control scheme and will use high precision input with low latency performance. The most prominent feature is a set of circular trackpads instead of the usual analog sticks. These trackpads will offer haptic feedback which goes far beyond the simple rumble features we know today. By switching to trackpads, the controller can support games that were normally only playable with a mouse and a keyboard.
The controller also has a central, high resolution touchscreen which, when pressed, can be used as a button. This feature has been added to allow for an infinite number of actions without having the need for physical buttons. It can be used as scrolling menu, a circular interface or something else entirely. It all depends on how developers use it. There will be tools available so that the community can make its own configurations and share them. Those that tested the controller were mostly positive but keep in mind that Valve’s is still working on improving it.

Steaming into the future:

Having a Steam machine, with SteamOS and a Steam controller, that will allow you to play a wide array of games in the living room, sounds like a guaranteed hit. But there are some concerns. With consoles you don’t have to worry about meeting a game’s requirements. We don’t know how Valve is going to handle this with Steam machines and what about the driver support for hardware changes you make?

Another downside could be a possible fragmentation of the PC market. This would force developers to think about which platform they are going to support. In-home streaming only partly solves this problem. Talking about developers, will enough of them support SteamOS? Will the streaming quality be good enough? Will the price be right? Enough things to speculate about but you can already see how Valve is giving itself the space and flexibility to rapidly iterate and improve for when they’ll make mistakes.

Be that as it may. Steam is a huge and successful platform that isn't limited to hardware. Its community, the workshop, daily deals, sales and cheap games are all very appealing. With in-home streaming, every PC, Mac, TV, laptop, and even tablet could be a potential platform for Steam. Its loyal followers will undoubtedly applaud this next step. But will it convince the traditional console crowd or the ‘casual’ gamer? Time will tell.

Please note that I wrote this for Mapcore (Design Community).   read

3:14 AM on 10.27.2013

Wolfenstein: Diamond in the Rough

In the summer of 2009 I was looking forward towards playing the new Wolfenstein. But enthusiasm was quickly replaced by disappointment due to the horrible AI and the constant backtracking. A hard disk crash eventually ended my campaign prematurely and I didn’t feel like starting over. Until news surfaced about a possible return of the franchise. I dug up my old copy and this time I finished it. My old complaints still stand but to my surprise, I had a blast playing through it. So in retrospect, what went right and what went wrong?

Bad Timing:

Marketing on the game was rather limited. Id Software’s relationship with publisher Activison had already deteriorated. The fact that Id Software was sold to Zenimax 2 months prior to Wolfenstein its release probably didn’t help either. John Carmack expressed these worries in an interview with

"Obviously, we hope that Wolfenstein gets a good push coming out," Carmack, pausing, "but the reality of the situation here is that Activision is not going to be as thrilled about Wolfenstein to the maximum now as they would have been previously, but we still hope that doesn't wind up botching the release of it one way or another."

According to, Wolfenstein received an average score of 74.90 % based on 24 reviews. Sales of the game however, did not meet the expectations and as a result Activision laid off employees of Raven software. Endrant Studios, responsible for the multiplayer part of the game, suffered the same fate.


Wolfenstein, which was released in august 2009, was a direct sequel to Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The motions comics released as part of the marketing campaign suggest that all the games are in same continuity, but this isn’t correct. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was in fact a reboot of the franchise.

While destroying a German battleship, B.J. Blazkowicz comes across a mysterious medallion which is able to shield him from incoming bullets. The Office of Secret Actions [OSA] learns that the medallion needs crystals called Nachtsonne, which can only be found in the fictional city of Isenstadt. The Nazis have taken complete control of the city in order to mine the rare Nachtsonne crystals which not only power the medallion but are also needed to access the “Black Sun” Dimension. B.J. is sent in to investigate.


Raven Software did a lot to try and modernize the Wolfenstein formula. One of which is adding Isenstadt to function like a hub town. You will be able to select your missions from there, come in contact with various factions and upgrade your weapons at the black market. This is obviously done to try and make the game less linear and to add some more depth. You will still be able to find secrets and treasures, only this time you can put that money to use at the black market. You can also collect Intel which provides you with more background information. For the first time in the series, Wolfenstein uses the COD way of regenerating health, since it seems to be mandatory for a ‘modern’ shooter.

The biggest change however comes from the medallion. It allows the player to enter a mysterious alternate dimension called “The Veil”. With the medallion you can equip specific abilities such as using a shield or slowing time. You will unlock more abilities as you progress through the game. You even have the chance to upgrade your ‘Veil’ powers at the black market.


Wolfenstein runs on Id Tech 4 which we first saw in Doom 3. Five years have passed between both games and the engine certainly shows it’s age. But even with these limitations Raven still knows how to create some stunning visuals. This is mainly because there are some very impressive levels in the game. It sets the right mood and combined with the game’s music creates a sort of Indiana Jones feeling which is always a compliment. Switching between dimensions is a nice touch and adds a bit of diversity to the game. The same can be said about the town hub but the backtracking and dealing with the respawning enemies quickly becomes a chore. It’s also far from realistic. Different groups have huge symbols painted on their doors. Apparently, the Germans see that as graffiti. You’ll also visit a bar where people are relaxing even though there is a war raging outside. Combine this with a lot of identical npc’s, bad voice acting and a forgettable story and there’s not much immersion left.

The game makes up for this with old school action. Enemies take cover or run at you. There not particular smart and sometimes even stupid but there’s a lot of them for you to kill. The lack of proper A.I. takes away the challenge but it does provide excellent run and gun gameplay. You got lots of weapons but to be honest, you only need the submachine gun and the sniper. Some parts of the map can be destroyed. You've got explosives barrels everywhere and you also have Veil barrels that reduce gravity when they explode sending everything floating mid air. This creates hilarious scenes and everything combined makes for some very fun gameplay. So when everything falls into place, the game really outshines its flaws.


The impressive maps, the alternate dimension, the Indiana Jones vibe and the run and gun gameplay are definitely the game’s strong points. It makes you come back for more and because of it, the mistakes are easier to forgive.

I think the game would have been better if they didn’t add the hub town, skipped the weapon upgrade system and put some more time and effort into the A.I. and the story. The things I missed most were the health packs and eating food to restore health. I really didn’t like the health regeneration in this game. Finding secrets should have been matched with achievements. Something similar as to how Uncharted did it.

Plus, the Veil powers were a missed change. The alternative dimension was a nice touch, but the ‘puzzles’ and gimmicks to get you to use the powers were very cheap. Besides you didn’t even really need them in combat until the end of the game and that’s playing on the highest difficulty level.

Since this is my own retrospect, I now think that the overall score of 74,90% is fair. The game is good enough but with the comments above in mind, it could have been truly great.   read

4:41 AM on 10.21.2013

Xbox One: Identity Crisis

A new generation of consoles is almost among us. Now is a perfect time to look back at the events leading up towards this generation’s release. Years from now people will probably only remember Microsoft disastrous marketing campaign. Regardless of which platform you prefer, there’s simply no denying Microsoft’s failure in providing a clear and compelling portrayal of the system. After an enormous amount of criticism, the company has been revising previously announced features and changed basically everything besides the machine’s dimensions. Hence, it’s mocked online as the Xbox 180 instead of the Xbox One.
It’s a console Jim, but not as we know it:
By now, at least for most people, the entire marketing campaign is deemed a failure. But if you look back, Microsoft initially accomplished what it set out to do. The last generation is won by Nintendo because they positioned their console for casual and family gaming while both Microsoft and Sony focused more on the so called core gamers. The Wii’s enormous success didn't go unnoticed and both companies tried to play catch-up with the Kinect and the Move. When the Xbox One was revealed for the first time it became immediately clear that they went after the casual market in full force. The Xbox One is supposed to be an all-in-one entertainment center, hence the name. Lots of focus on entertainment, almost nothing about games. They were successful in bringing their message across while at the same time making a hard marketing shift from core gamers to casual ones. But it backfired. Console launches appeal to core gamers and not the masses. Microsoft was barking up the wrong tree. They used a gaming console to push their entertainment device to a core gamer audience without reaching the targeted mainstream consumer. In the future, this campaign might very well be used as a lesson in marketing courses.

Houston, we have  a communication problem:
After the unveiling the core gamer felt alienated but Microsoft still had the E3 to set things right. The company confirmed that the E3 would be all about the games. In the mean time a lot of confusing statements we’re made regarding the console’s digital rights management, always-online requirement and used game fees. The biggest controversy however, especially in light of the NSA spying revelations, was the forced use of Kinect. Which was all-seeing, all-hearing and always online. It didn’t take long before the Internet adopted the name “The eye of Sauron”. Outrage grew and Microsoft’s contradicting statements didn't help. The always online requirement was clearly an attempt to stop piracy, something the Xbox 360 has a lot of problems with. This could have worked if they had been honest and more clear about it. For years developers and publisher suffer from second hand market sales.  Big companies like Gamestop push second hand games so that they earn the profits while the developers/publishers are still required to support the game. The music and movie industry have more ways to profit from the same product (theater release, on demand services, DVD/BR sales, concerts, merchandising, etc). The game industry however has to make do on the initial sale.  If Microsoft did it right, this could have been a platform similar to Steam. Cheaper games, more money the developers/publishers and lot easier to sell to all audiences. Hell, we might have even accepted Kinect if it wasn't for its unlucky timing.

Well, that escalated quickly:
Just before the E3 Microsoft finally made an attempt to at least extinguish the rumors but instead it set the internet ablaze with its answers. Most rumors were confirmed and every feature came with a catch. You can lend a game to a friend for free, but only if they've been on your friends list for at least 30 days. It doesn't require a persistent internet connect but it does have to be online at least once every 24 hours. This list goes on and again, Microsoft failed to explain why it implemented these features. At the E3 Microsoft presented an impressive lineup of games. Even though the new free to play, one character, Killer Instinct was a smack in the face for a lot of fans of the franchise. The bomb however, fell when they told the audience the 500 dollar price tag. An uncomfortable silence ensued followed by meager applause. The Playstation 4 is 100 dollar cheaper and doesn't have a lot of these controversial features. All Sony had to do was ride the wave and it did so splendidly. Especially the ads and commercials aimed at Xbox One criticism. The internet chose the Playstation 4 as the winner and the Xbox One fell victim to a amount of mockery the Internet hasn't seen in a while.

As a result of this criticism Microsoft abandoned their ‘anti consumer’ policies in hope to win back customers. Except they went too far by backtracking on features they used to justify the machine’s original functionality. For example, the claim that the Xbox One and Kinect are the same thing. Turns out it wasn’t. How’s that for a policy of honesty? We’ve seen nothing but contradicting statements, so what’s the truth now? The Xbox One is probably more expensive due to Kinect. It’s a clever way of forcing it on people. But since you don’t really need it, why should we have to buy it? Too late to backtrack on that though. Instead Microsoft should put in an effort to convince us of Kinect. Show us good games and innovate features that justify its major cost factor. It’s also a peripheral that would set it apart from the Playstation 4. Especially since the Xbox One is going to be the only console without an on-controller touch pad/screen. Sony has clearly learned from the Playstation 3. Not only is the Playstation 4 cheaper, it’s more like an PC (easier to program or port), it features a heavily updated PSN with more social features and the smartest move, it’s going after the indies. Independent developers strived on Xbox Live but Microsoft’s strict conditions and ridiculous update policies turned a lot of Indies of. Sony will handle this differently and again Microsoft changed its policies. If this whole ordeal has taught us that Microsoft is clearly out of touch with its customers and market.

Innovation, where is it?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s definitively progress in this new generation. Better hardware is a given and both systems are more PC oriented in architecture which means porting games will be easier and development will be more (cost) efficient. The fight for independent developers isn't over so we can expect more innovative and cheaper games. Both systems will feature a range of social options to bring us closer together. But overall, exclusives aside, both systems are rather similar. I for one, I’m not convinced by Kinect but I was hoping Microsoft would use it explore new territories.  I’m disappointed the shift from disc to digital didn’t happen yet due to the poor communication by Microsoft. I would have loved to see a Steam like system on the consoles. Cliff Bleszinski said it best: “Here’s the thing about Steam. It doesn't FORCE you to be online. The ecosystem of Steam is so brilliant, from the community, to the summer sales, to the indie games, that you WANT to get online”. But most of all, I would have loved to see that the developers and publishers actually got some revenue back. Needless to say, I’ll still get both. But the Playstation 4 will be there at launch. I’ll wait for a price drop before getting the Xbox One. I guess we have to wait for Valve to see if they are going to innovate the market with their Steam box. The unveiling of the controller and SteamOS are promising starts.   read

6:51 AM on 08.08.2013

The Call of Duty Effect

I decided to write about the current state of the first-person shooter genre's single player campaigns and where it seems to be heading, highlighting developers' current fixation on following Call of Duty's highly-scripted formula rather than creating the sense of exploration and experimentation that characterized early FPS games.

Last winter, with the latest releases of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor I hit my final straw and basically stopped playing new single-player shooters. Which is really saying something for a guy that grew up with games like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Unreal, and Half-Life. Shooters were always the dominant genre on my playlist. But nowadays I play more RPG, strategy, and action games.

I don’t like what most shooters have become and it all has to do with something I like to name 'The Call of Duty Effect'. Hold on fan boys, put away those torches. I’m not saying that Call of Duty is bad. There are some great Call of Duty games out there. But you can’t deny the enormous impact the franchise has had on shooters, both positive and negative. Let’s have a look shall we?

The Golden Age

It all began with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Scripting wasn't new in games, but the way 2015 Inc did it to create great action set pieces was. Who doesn't remember the Omaha beach landing? When most of the studio left to form Infinity Ward and to create Call of Duty they outdid themselves again. Especially the Russian campaign featured some very intense moments. As the years progressed so did the graphics, sound and set pieces. Other shooters played catch up but most of them were blown away when the first Modern Warfare was released.

For me personally, this was the highest peak in the franchise and it’s a level they haven’t achieved since. The idea of playing a Hollywood blockbuster was appealing to fans and companies alike. Shooters became more and more mainstream and the Call of Duty franchise kept breaking sales records. But somewhere along the line, the industry went overboard with this concept and it started to show in several areas.

Regenerating Health

Regenerating health has been around since the 1980s in which it was primarily used by action role-playing games. It was later adopted in the 1990s by some action games on the SNES and the Megadrive. But the recent trend is generally credited to Halo: Combat Evolved. Which is strange, since the game only had regenerating shields. You were still dependent on health packs to survive. Halo 2 however, did feature a form of regenerating health but it was Call of Duty 2 that really started the regenerating health system as we see so frequently today. Meaning the wounded player can simple take cover to avoid taking damage and wait until his or her character recovers.

The problem I have with this system is that it removes challenge, strategy and tension from shooters. You always have full health going into battle, making you an unstoppable force that doesn't care if he/she gets shot. There’s no real penalty for getting hit and with each battle you can simply go in guns blazing. Old shooters forced you to think about your situation and plan your tactics accordingly. If you were low on health, you had to be really careful. If you were low on ammo, you had to switch weapons and try different things. Often you would backtrack and explore your surroundings even more in the hope of finding health, ammo or even better, a secret area filled with both. Now you can often use the same weapons, with seemingly infinite ammo and gun down entire armies of respawning enemies.

Level design

The worlds in which you do this have become increasingly linear and dictated. However visually appealing they may look, exploration, with the exception of a few titles, is a thing of the past. It’s not that old shooters had huge worlds in which you could get lost. But at least they rewarded your inner explorer with hidden items and secret areas. Sometimes you could even find entire secrets levels to play through. At the very least, they gave you some room to move around in. Because good design guides you through the world without breaking immersion.

Bad design, like we see so often today, breaks immersion by using poorly placed invisible walls to block your way. Invisible walls should be used to keep games scenic and create the illusion of open space and not to demonstrate how little space we actually have. Most modern shooters seem to have forgotten this. Not being able to jump over something knee high is a prime example of a poorly placed invisible wall. That’s not bad design. That’s lazy design and clearly demonstrates the lack of control we have in shooters today.

Let me play the damn game!

Control, where has it gone? Everything had to be bigger and better. More action! More set pieces! This finally resulted in one scripted event after another cut scene continued with some on-rails shooting and another scripted event. Somewhere in between there’s a bit of game play hidden in which I can follow clearly marked objectives and hints towards my next cut scene or scripted event. I'm exaggerating a bit of course. But combine this with the current level design and there really isn't that much control left. Or trust for that matter.

Because modern shooters have a tendency to keep giving me hints on what to and where to go. If I choose not to listen, the environment will dictate me where to go and if I finally push on an cut scene or scripted event will eventually take over. When playing the latest Medal of Honor on the PC I could literally play with one hand even though it was on the hard difficulty setting. I was eating and just switched my left hand from keyboard to mouse and actually played quite a bit that way. How’s that for a challenge? Of course it helped that there was a ‘breach’ moment every couple of minutes in which you could only use the mouse in the first place.

The Downward Spiral

It looks like we're slowly moving towards on-rail shooters. Which is not exaggerating considering there's regenerating health, no exploration, and a cut scene/scripted event every 5 minutes or so. There is no challenge in that. With games becoming more and more mainstream, everything is dumbed down and aimed towards the casual player. I have nothing against casual players and this surely isn't their fault. It’s the target audience for companies because that’s where the money is. Tailoring games to people with little to no skill or knowledge might be smart business, but it’s bad for the fans.

A franchise like Halo, regardless whether you like it or not, clearly shows you can have a great shooter in rather open environments, with diverse game play and good AI that actually presents a challenge to the players, while still doing well in sales. Activision has enough capital to do the same but it seems to choose to milk every last drop of the current concept until we’re presented with an on-rail shooter in which you can only move the crosshair and push the trigger. The sad part is that a lot of companies are following that trend and gamers keep buying it.

Brighter Future

Luckily, things are changing. Far Cry 3 already demonstrated that you can have open-world game play while still maintaining a linear and cinematic experience . Something the Stalker series did years before, although far less cinematic of course. Combining RPG elements with a shooter has proven to be very successful and enjoyable. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution offer a completely different experience than what a hardcore shooter used to be. Different experiences are exactly what the nearby future is going to bring us. The next generation of consoles is around the corner and we are seeing some interesting developments.

The biggest change is the fading line between single-player and multi player. Titanfall, by injecting a plot, character chatter and non-player characters into its matches, is already a rather unique experience. Bungie even tops that with Destiny, the first shared world shooter. Plus, great developers like DICE are listening to the critique on Battlefields 3's campaign and are also looking to bring multi player elements into Battlefield’s 4 campaign. They want to give players the freedom to choose and that’s exactly what most modern shooters are sorely lacking and what we need.

Let’s hope we’ll see this trend continue and perhaps people will eventually speak with their wallet to command and further power this change. What do you think about where single player first-person shooters are going? Leave your thoughts below!   read

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