Uninformed Opinion: the Steam Machine

It was rumored that Valve would reveal their plans for the Steam Machine at this year’s CES, and, lo and behold, those rumors were correct.  Polygon has a full run-down of the third party manufacturers, and their respective Machines, right here.

As I look over that rundown, I find it increasingly difficult to know what to think about all this, because the difference between what I thought a Steam Machine would be, and what it apparently is, is so vast that I fear that I might have had the wrong idea from the very beginning.

What I thought we were getting was something meant to compete – not necessarily in ideology, but at least for literal, physical entertainment-center space – with the PS4 and the XB1; a console-sized box for the living room, competitively priced, that would allow me to hold on to my vast Steam library and play new titles with good, shiny tech.

You know what – while I was writing this out, Polygon’s Ben Kuchera basically took the words right out of my mouth.  I’m glad I’m not the only one having this problem:

It’s easy to describe the platonic ideal of what a Steam Machine should be. It should be shaped like a console and offer the same ease of setup and use. It should be able to offer roughly the same amount of power as a PlayStation 4, while costing around $500.

I don’t just want to play Battlefield 4 at the fidelity the PlayStation 4 offers, I also want to be able to try early access PC hits like Starbound, as well as something as niche as the latest Twine game on a fully-functional browser. These systems should play every game available on Steam, with no exceptions, and do everything a standard computer can do in a form factor and price that puts pressure on consoles.

What we have instead are 13 vastly different machines, ranging in price from $400 to $6000, with tech specs that are pretty much all over the place.  Furthermore, it’s now very unclear to me what the advantage of this machine is.   Again, as Ben says:

SteamOS itself, and this fact was somewhat glossed over during the press conference, is based on Linux, and only a percentage of the current Steam library is currently compatible. Why would you buy an able gaming PC only to take away a good chunk of your game selection and functionality by installing a gaming-specific OS?

It’s not a rhetorical question.[…] Newell may brag about the 65 million users Steam enjoys, but many of the games that brought those players to the platform won’t run on SteamOS unless Linux compatibility is added by the developer. Which won’t happen until the market is bigger. Which won’t happen until more games are added. You see the issue.

Jessica Conditt, in her Joystiq editorial, further addresses the sudden overcrowding of the Steam Machine market, without a clear “ideal” with which to base anything on:

“The consumer’s going to look at this landscape and ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ and, ‘Why? Why should I even buy a Steam Box?'” Nguyen said.

He offered an answer, suggesting Valve pick or make one box to be the ultimate Steam Machine, the epitome of what a Steam Machine should be, and market it as such. Give the customer an easy, obvious choice. It’s exactly what Google did with the Nexus phone to clarify the overcrowded Android market.

“They just totally disagreed with that,” Nguyen said. “They very much disagreed.”

Valve envisions a future of openness – open living rooms and open PCs and open code – and that’s a beautiful idea. Or it’s a junk pile. I’m sure Valve believes in what the Steam Machines can be, but the fact that it hasn’t thrown its own hardware into the ring to me demonstrates a lack of confidence in the idea, or at the least a lack of clarity.  (emphasis added)

That last bit is key, for me.  The fact that Valve itself is holding back – at least for the time being – sends an incredibly vague message, and it certainly doesn’t do the concept of the Steam Machine any favors.

At this point, the Steam Machine makes no compelling argument for me to wait.  Indeed, if anything it’s given me more of an incentive to get a better graphics card and leave it at that, and get a PS4 when they finally come back in stock.

 

E3 2013: a wishlist of impossible things

I’m hopped up on allergy medication and Ativan and a large coffee, so I’m all sorts of weird right now.  This is as good a time as any, then, to get excited about things that I’d like to see at E3, none of which will probably turn out to be true, which will make it that much easier for me to be disappointed like everybody else when it’s all over.

A caveat:  since I obviously can’t predict new IP to get excited about, this is mostly a list of stuff based on existing IP.  Which is perhaps not as inherently exciting as new IP, but – again – I’m in a brain fog.

1.  Red Dead Redemption 2 for PS4/XBO.   Surely this is in the works, right?  I mean, come on.  (Rockstar typically doesn’t attend E3, and Take Two is only holding private meetings.)

2.  Steam Box with specs comparable to PS4/XBO for under $500.  And which I could hook up to my PC monitor, if need be.  Sometimes I forget that I can use Big Picture Mode; man, what a great UI.   (Valve will not be exhibiting at E3 this year, either.)

3.  Speaking of Valve (and ignoring, again, that Valve won’t be at E3), I’ve given up hoping for Half Life 3 news, but I’d love to see something Portal related.  I don’t even know what I’d want it to be, just that it’s continuing to exist.

4.  Criterion Games backtracking and saying, nah, just kidding, we’re totally making a new, next-gen Burnout.

5.  Grim Fandango HD.  And while we’re at it, how about all of those classic LucasArts adventure games getting HD remakes for iOS?  Get on it, Disney.   I’d even take a LucasArts kart racer at this point.

6.  Someone (maybe Bioware’s post-Mass Effect team?) to turn Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, or even just the universe, into a game.  Special Circumstances is basically SCREAMING for some sort of third-person action adaptation.  I’d do it myself if I knew anything about anything.

7.  I’d like to hear a lot more concrete info about those Oddworld HD remakes.

8.  Fallout 4 with iD Tech 5 graphics.  (That’s what Rage was sorta going for, but it can be done so much better.)

9.  Rock Band: U2.  (I know, I know.  I’d just like one more reason to use my plastic instruments before the kid makes us run out of storage space.)

10.  Finally, I would lose my goddamned mind if Skies of Arcadia came back for a next-gen sequel.  The original SoA was my very first JRPG experience, and it set the bar ridiculously high in doing so.

a few words on Mark of the Ninja and Big Picture Mode

Goddammit.

I was around 600 words into a post yesterday afternoon about the excellent Mark of the Ninja, and about stealth games in general and why they seem to scratch a particularly satisfying itch, but work got in the way and I never had a chance to sit down and polish it and make my point.  And then, by the time I got home, I saw that Kotaku had already beaten me to the punch.  Very stealthy and ninja-like, in fact.

Their article more or less says exactly what I was trying to say, so much so that trying to polish up my own piece feels futile and empty.  Anyway, if you haven’t read it already, go check it out.  And then, when you’re done, download and play the hell out of Mark of the Ninja, because it is excellent.  Top 10 in GOTY for sure, even though I’m near the end and have hit a massive difficulty spike – which is just as well, because instead of beating my head against the wall, I’m going back and playing all the earlier levels better than I did the first time, which is just as satisfying.

In other news,  I tried Steam’s Big Picture Mode last night, although only on my widescreen monitor – but even in my brief time with it, I can confidently say that it’s the best console interface I’ve ever seen.  Beats the living shit out of the 360 and PS3 dashboards.  Fast and responsive, elegantly designed, super-easy to find the things you’re looking for.   I am very much wanting to figure out an easy way of moving my PC tower into the living room to try it out on my HDTV.   I kinda can’t believe I’m saying this, but if Valve were to actually make a living room console, I very well might forgo the next Xbox and Playstation altogether.

 

more Portal 2 ramblings

My official Examiner review of Portal 2 can be found here.  I literally just received an email from them saying that “it does not meet [their] criteria for local coverage.”  I’m not entirely sure what that means, or if it’s been removed from the site.  I’m not entirely sure that I care, either, but whatever.

I spent the weekend wrapped up in Portal 2.   I hunted down pretty much every single-player Achievement I could get (besides one), and I played co-op with a bunch of different people.  I ultimately finished the co-op campaign with my wife last night, which was a wonderful experience on a variety of levels but mostly because it’s fun playing games with my wife, and she legitimately appeared to have a good time.  I didn’t get the 360 achievement for it, though, and I guess that’s because I’d been playing it on both PC and 360 and lost track of which system I’d finished a given level on.*

The co-op campaign is brilliant.  The puzzles in the single-player are pretty complex already, but the co-op campaign takes that complexity and quadruples it.  But the euphoria of figuring out one of these puzzles is all the more intoxicating, because it really does require teamwork and cooperation and execution, and it’s absolutely thrilling to get it right.

I’ve been obsessing with post-release interviews with Erik Wolpaw and Chet and the rest of the team.  You can tell that Erik really likes talking about the Stephen Merchant recording sessions; Erik is one of the funniest guys on the planet and it sounds to me like it must have been tremendously gratifying for him to have someone with Stephen Merchant’s comedic skill translating those words into a one-of-a-kind performance.

I’ll say this:  I’m no longer obsessing with Portal 3 speculation.  I am well sated at the moment, to be honest; I’ve put in over 20 hours in both campaigns on all 3 systems I own it for, and I will eat up the DLC (which sounds like it’s coming very soon, actually) and will enjoy it and savor it, and I would eventually like to get all the Achievements on at least one system.  But thinking about P3 feels like wasted energy.  Valve is already saying some strange things about the future of single-player campaigns, so who knows if they’ll even go there.  The one thing I’ve come away with from my time with Portal 2 is that Valve is made up of a bunch of people that are 1000 times smarter than I’ll ever be, and it is highly unlikely that I’ll come up with something on my own that will be more impressive than what they’ll come up with.

* I know that sentence is grammatically fucked, and I’m too tired to figure out the right way to say it.

some ramblings about Portal 2

(I’m kinda working on a Portal 2 review, but in the meantime I’m just rambling.  There will be spoilers at the bottom, mostly consisting of guesses about Portal 3.  You’ll be warned.)

Portal 2 is a big deal.  That it has become a big deal is kind of awesome, when you think about it; Portal began as a student project (Narbacular Drop), and now it is the first full-length, single-player first-person game Valve has released since Half Life 2.  It also features no blood, (almost) no violence, and no other living characters.  You don’t have an inventory – indeed, you don’t even have a voice.  You have a gun, but you don’t kill anything with it – at least not directly, and the things you indirectly kill are robotic turrets.  Indeed, for the most part you aren’t killing anything – you’re solving puzzles.

Even more fascinating – at least to me – is that while it’s true that you can only really “solve” the puzzles once (and thus only generate that genuine, exhilarating “a-ha!” moment once as well), the game never stops being entertaining upon multiple playthroughs.  I’ve played the original Portal maybe a dozen times, and I’ve already beaten Portal 2 twice after only owning the game for 3 days.  Some of the puzzle solutions are just awesome.  They are fulfilling to solve, absolutely, but they’re also incredibly fulfilling just in the pure act of execution, and as you get better at the game you find more efficient ways of solving each puzzle, which is also fulfilling.

For example, there’s a puzzle in Portal 2 (I believe it’s the first puzzle in Chapter 3, the one that begins with repeated aerial faith plate malfunctions) that I solved without much difficultly on my first run, although I’d found it somewhat tedious to keep walking back and forth between portal openings.  On my second playthrough, I suddenly realized that I could simply jump into one of the portals I’d just created, thus making everything move a lot quicker.  So it’s not just the thrill of the initial solution to a problem; it’s the subsequent discovery of more efficient solutions that’s just as thrilling.

I think for me, though, the main reasons why I keep coming back to Portal and Portal 2 are:

      • The world.  Every game that’s out these days is either set in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or some variation on the standard platformer themes – forest, desert, lava, ice.  The original Portal had a very simple and very distinctive look to it, and it was all the more thrilling when the curtain was pulled back in the final act.  Portal 2’s environments are even more varied and diverse, as well as still being incredibly unique, and the fact that so much of it takes place “behind the scenes” makes it all the more special.  Portal already has somewhat of a “meta” vibe in the first place but this notion of being off the beaten path is thrilling, especially when the settings are so epic in scope.
    • The attention to detail.  It’s easy to fly past a lot of the little things in Portal 2, and for the most part it’s not at all necessary to stop and inspect every single piece of litter you come across.  And yet there’s actual writing on each coffee can and fuse box; it goes an incredibly long way towards making the world believable, even while you’re doing unbelievable things.  Everything is in its right place, even when it’s out of place.  The best games generally get this – Bioshock, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption certainly get it.
    • The quality of the storytelling.   They’re paced incredibly well, and Portal 2’s pace is among the best of all time.  Puzzle concepts are introduced gradually, and eventually you’ll be doing some completely insane things in order to solve them, and as a reward there’ll be an exhilarating chase sequence or an extended, slow exploration sequence when you get to a new area.  And it’s not just the Portal games are hilarious – it’s also that they’re smart enough to both tell you what’s happening, and also let you infer what’s happening indirectly.  (And there’s quite a lot happening, and we’ll get to that in a bit. )
  • The love.  I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say.  But you can tell when a development team genuinely cares about the game they make, and it’s very, very clear that Valve cares.  The original Portal is a game that people adore, and as such the expectations for a sequel were astronomically high – even though it would be impossible to guess just what, if anything, the sequel would look like.  There’s not a single bum note in either of the two games, and that’s not because of luck – that’s because an enormous amount of time went into polishing everything, from the graphics to the dialogue to the puzzles themselves.  In a recent interview with Gamespot, writer Erik Wolpaw (one of my personal heroes) said that it doesn’t matter to him whether games can exist as art – games need to be entertaining, first and foremost, or else what’s the point?

OK: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Portal 3 speculation:

    • We now know about Aperture’s origins, and somewhat about how GlaDOS came to be.  But what of Chell?  Where did she come from?  Was she someone’s daughter in “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day?  [EDIT:  Yes, she is.] Was she Cave Johnson’s illegitimate daughter with Caroline?  (Would that even make sense, time-line wise?  Is it ever specified when the first game take place?  Considering that Aperture was already messing around with pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s, the original Portal could conceivably take place in the 60s, right?  They do have some old computers and rotary phones in the original Portal.)  (Also – I never looked at the “Lab Rat” comic, and it’s possible this was explained there.  I should probably look at it first before speculating any more.)
    • OK, I’ve read the Lab Rat comic.  Notes:  Page 8 – Chell’s last name is redacted.  Page 9 – Chell refuses to answer if “anyone would file a police report if [she] went missing.”  Beyond that… the comic is somewhat vague.
    • At the end of the game, when Chell is standing in the field – does she have the Portal gun with her?  I don’t think so – you see both of her hands grabbing on to Wheatley after your final portal hits home.  By the same token, Chell didn’t have the Portal gun at the end  of the first one, either.  In any event – the Lab Rat comic’s final panel says that Chell has remarkable tenacity and stubbornness.  We don’t know why, though.  The point is:  at the end of P2, she is free.  The question remains:  would she go back?  And if so, why?
    • Wheatley has to return, doesn’t he?  You can’t make a character that wonderful and have it be lost forever, right?

>Guessing At Future Games: Valve

>I can’t help but feel that Valve is up to something big.

I’m going to come right out and argue that Portal and Left 4 Dead are experiments and tech demos for something bigger, as much as they are self-contained gaming experiences. The technology that makes the Portal gun work and the “Director” AI program that governs the L4D pacing and spawning are both somewhat radical and yet also totally seamless; you’re never “aware” of the complicated math that makes it possible, you’re simply swept up in the experience.

More to that last point – the storytelling method and the notion of narrative in both Portal and L4D is incredibly unique for modern FPSs… it’s never explicit, but rather subtle and environmental. Rather than throwing in a long opening cutscene full of exposition that means nothing to you and giving your player character a backstory, they simply drop you into a strange world and you learn about the world (and yourself) as you progress, and they manage to do this without succumbing to the worn-out “amnesia” cliche. The gameplay is incredibly tight and the pacing is perfect, so even if you’re not paying attention to the story you’re still having a good time; but if you take the time to explore, you are rewarded with all these clever little details that fill out the world without beating you over the head. Seeing “The cake is a lie” scrawled on the walls of a hidden room reveals far more about the Apeture Testing Facility than any voice recording or cutscene could ever accomplish.

I would expect to see some of this stuff used in HL2 Episode 3 – the last level of Portal certainly posits a link between the Portal universe and the Half-Life universe, so it seems pretty likely that Gordon Freeman will get his hands on a Portal gun at some point – but it wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL to see Valve working on a totally new IP that uses all these technologies and methods (as well as other stuff we don’t know about, and I’m sure they’re going to beef up the rapidly-aging Source engine) to some other, grander purpose. Let’s face it – Half-Life 1 had an unconventional narrative method but as the sequels have borne themselves out, the overall story arc isn’t terribly absorbing, and they certainly couldn’t start using these new techniques in a sequel without messing up Half-Life’s DNA.

It also needs to be said that having Erik Wolpaw on Valve’s payroll ensures that future Valve games will have, at the very least, a very twisted sense of humor.

I couldn’t possibly begin to guess where Valve is going, but Valve keeps very close tabs on what people do in (and with) their games, and I suspect that they’ll be very curious indeed to see how the public responds.