Your intrepid Seattle-based gaming correspondent Tim Ellis (that’s me) hit the road this weekend to visit Indianapolis, home of , the nation’s largest and oldest tabletop gaming convention. The main Expo Hall at Gen Con The convention spreads out across the entire Indiana Convention Center, Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts), and the ballroom space of several large nearby hotels. More than 60,000 attendees crowd the venues, seeking out classic games, tabletop role-playing, brand new releases, upcoming titles, and prototypes of games still being developed. The scene at the con is crowded, but super friendly. Even in the jam-packed hallways waiting for the main expo hall to open, the crowd is upbeat and joins together in a cheerful chant of “here we come!” Although people come from all over the country (and world) to attend Gen Con, the famous really comes through as you interact with your fellow attendees. Strangers will strike up a conversation with you in the elevators! I sat down to play a demo of one two-player game and the company rep running the demo had no problem at all getting a random passer-by to happily join me. As I played through another game demo, a stranger came up and started asking me questions about it! These are all experiences I don’t think I’ve ever had at the similar Seattle-based gaming convention West, where the Seattle freeze seems to extend into the convention center. A giant game of Catan takes place at Gen Con Speaking of PAX, the expo hall at Gen Con is focused on low-tech physical games made mostly of cardboard, wood, and plastic, and thus has a very different feel from the equivalent space at PAX (which includes tabletop gaming but is dominated by video games). The Gen Con expo hall is bright and relatively quiet. Rather than a cacophony of game demos blasting at your ears from every direction, there’s just the quiet murmur of the crows. It also lacks the giant displays, massive props, and enormous video screens that make up the bulk of the vendor booths in the PAX expo hall. There are a few traces of video gaming at Gen Con, including a classic arcade room and an appearance from the controversial arcade gaming legend Billy Mitchell, of “King of Kong” fame, the classic documentary that pitted him against Seattle-area teacher Steve Wiebe. Mitchell is here to make a live attempt at a “perfect game” on Pac-Man. Controversial arcade gaming legend Billy Mitchell, of “King of Kong” fame, attempts a “perfect game” on Pac-Man at Gen Con Many Seattle-based game companies also made the trip out to Indianapolis to show off their latest, including Funko Games, Ravensburger, , and many small indie game publishers and developers like and (run by former ). Even Penny Arcade (creators of PAX) have a small booth focused on . Here’s a look inside the show this weekend, for everyone who isn’t here in Indianapolis:
VR’s most hyped game is getting a price bump later this month as it expands the amount of headsets that it’s playable on. We did a big deep-dive last week on Beat Saber, the best seller from a tiny Prague VR studio that’s pulling in big revenues. The game is part Guitar Hero, part Fruit Ninja, and you’ve got some light sabers to guide you through EDM tunes. It’s sold over 1 million copies. This week, the company Beat Games shared some updates that are likely to increase those revenues further as the company grows more confident that they’ve ironed out most of the game’s bugs. On May 21, Beat Games is bumping the price from $20 to $30 on Valve’s Steam store and the Oculus Home platform, bringing the price in line with the PS VR version. This price bump comes as the company abandons the “Early Access” title, a classifier that has long signified that a game is in beta and hasn’t had all of the kinks ironed out. With this, the studio detailed in a , they feel the game has reached a “stable version,” and that it is now a “full game.” When the game exits early access, it will be picking up a long-promised level editor so that gamers can create custom levels for their own audio tracks. The price change on May 21 isn’t an arbitrary date, that’s when Oculus will be releasing both of its new headsets, the Rift S and Quest. Speaking of the Quest, Oculus had introduced a feature called cross-buy that would enable users who already owned a copy of a game on Rift to let users download that game for free on Quest. On , Beat Games noted today that they won’t be supporting this for the base game, so Quest users will still have to pay up, though the studio said they will enable the feature for add-ons like additional music packs. Beat Saber is going to be unified across all platforms moving forward, meaning you won’t see certain versions getting updates that the others won’t get for a while. This opens up the potential for cross-platform multiplayer as the studio continues to work on a mode for multiple concurrent users. The price jump comes next week, you’ll still be able to score the game at the Early Access price before May 21.
Eastshade feels like somebody made an entire game out of a launch trailer. About five minutes after you start a new game, it turns into an endless series of interactive landscape paintings, as a colorful guided tour through someone’s imaginary island. There are a lot of incidental scenes in Eastshade — weird buildings, distant cities, a picturesque eclipse every day at noon that turns the sky red — that look like other games’ concept art, or which they’d use as big, triumphant moments. It’s ridiculously pretty. It’s the result of five years of work by , an indie developer founded in Bellevue, Wash. by Danny Weinbaum, who left a job as an environment artist at Sucker Punch to start the project. , Eastshade didn’t begin with a planned story or game mechanic, but instead, is an attempt to create a world that had a real sense of place. Everything else came after that, including its central gameplay loop. The game is set on an island of the same name, with you playing the part of a traveling painter who arrives one night by ship. (You never leave a first-person perspective or see your character, so in all the ways that matter, your character in Eastshade is you, reimagined.) Your character’s mother has recently passed away, and you’re here to fulfill her last request: travel to Eastshade, a place that she loved, and paint four specific landscapes that were important to her. Your ship sinks right before it was supposed to dock, which initially strands you in the one-horse village of Lyndow. Broke and alone in a strange town, you’re forced to rely on your wits to figure out how to reach the far side of the island and complete your mother’s request. Notably, you’re an artist, not an adventurer, and Eastshade is not the kind of fantasy world that has an apocalypse breathing down its neck. There are no evils brewing on the horizon; no bandits are randomly harassing people in the countryside; there aren’t a lot of suspiciously hostile wild animals out in the forest; and so far, the most violent encounter I’ve found is when an angry villager punched me out. (Frankly, I had it coming.) There are problems on Eastshade, but they aren’t the kind of problems that have to be solved with murder, and even if they were, you’re not the kind of protagonist who’s equipped to do so. Instead, you get around obstacles and complete quests by solving puzzles, gathering information, collecting resources from the wilderness, and exploring the area. Your central goal is to paint your mother’s four memorial paintings, which requires you to get all the way across Eastshade, into its capital, and up into the mountains. That turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds, thanks to short funds, local bureaucracy, and your lack of supplies. You end up having to do odd jobs, befriend the locals, and intervene in a couple of local disputes, but the stakes stay low and nobody ever tries to start a fight. It’s actually sort of weird. Eastshade is set in a big, open world, played from a first-person perspective, with a lot of animal-people around, so I kept thinking it’s an Elder Scrolls game. In Elder Scrolls games, you have to fight half a dozen monsters and cutpurses every time you leave a town. Being able to just walk outside a village in Eastshade and meander around for hours without being repeatedly attacked by skeletons or something makes me feel like I’m cheating somehow. Your character’s skill at painting comes in handy occasionally to make money and finish quests, usually by bribing people with a portrait or landscape piece. You’re limited in how many paintings you can make, however, by your supply of canvas and a stat called Inspiration. The latter is generated by completing tasks, finding new places, and reading new books; the former has to be built on the cheap by scavenging scrap wood and discarded rags from anywhere you can find them. You may never get into a fight in Eastshade, but you will walk into every house you can find to steal all their candles, laundry, and spare boards. There are some fantasy-game tropes that you simply cannot escape. Eventually, you open up repeatable ways to generate Inspiration, as well as a merchant who’ll just sell you spare canvases, but neither are located anywhere convenient. You’re encouraged to be careful and precise about what you paint and when, as well as to constantly explore, read, and scavenge for fresh materials. The whole game is thus built around making you check every stray corner of the map for whatever might be hiding there, whether it’s a new place, a few materials, or maybe an obscure solution to a puzzle that’s been bothering you for the last hour. Eastshade actually reminds me of old adventure games from the 1980s. The user interface is deliberately stripped down to the quick, without a lot of the typical hand-holding features you find in a lot of modern games. It’s about an hour in before you find a map, for example, and while you get a quest log, its instructions are typically vague. This is the kind of game where you’ll get a quest from someone, and in order to finish it, you have to go halfway across the map to an unrelated area, solve two strange puzzles, and get an item that doesn’t seem immediately relevant. You’re just supposed to check everywhere and do everything until you figure out what works. Sometimes, that’s relaxing, especially since there’s no time limit or real urgency. You can calm down, unwind, and go do something else for a while, like fishing. Other times, though, Eastshade’s deliberately languorous pace gets on my nerves, especially when it hits me with a particularly obnoxious quest or two. Sometimes, you just want to play a game where you get something done, and at that point, you’d do better to play something else entirely. I’d also be a little happier if it was easier to make money. There are a lot of quests that can’t be finished without equipment you can buy in the capital city, all of which is surprisingly expensive. There are ways to come up with the cash, like working in the local farmers’ fields, but it’s a bit of a grind, which feels at odds with the easygoing nature of the rest of the game. (There’s actually a whole feedback loop the fans have worked out here, which feels like it’s got to be an unintended exploit. You can turn Inspiration into money working in the fields, then go below the city to the local hippie hangout and repeatedly drink cups of hallucinogenic tea to regain all that Inspiration.) Those amount to nitpicks, though. Eastshade is 100 percent worth your time, if only for its visuals. I’m legitimately impressed that a small team was able to pull a game like this off, to produce landscapes like this that you can explore from every angle, and I’ll be really surprised if Eastshade doesn’t pick up a handful of art-direction awards nominations at the end of the year. It’s a beautiful sort of fantasy world to spend some time in, and while I have to be in the right mood to enjoy Eastshade’s slow-going atmosphere, it’s a great game to fire up just to walk around and see what it’s got to show you.
China’s new rules on video games, , are having an effect on the country’s gamers. Today, Tencent replaced hugely popular battle royale shooter game PUBG with a more government-friendly alternative that seems primed to pull in significant revenue. The company introduced ‘Game for Peace’ in at the same time as PUBG — which stands for Player Unknown Battlegrounds — was delisted from China. The title had been in wide testing but without revenue, and now it seems Tencent gave up on securing a license to monetize the title. In its place, Game for Peace is very much the type of game that will pass the demands of China’s game censorship body. Last month, the country’s State Administration of Press and Publication released a series of demands for new titles, including bans on corpses and blood, references of imperial history and gambling. The new Tencent title bears a striking resemblance to PUBG but there are no dead bodies, while it plays up to a nationalist theme with a focus on China’s air force — or, per the message, “the blue sky warriors that guard our country’s airspace” — and their battle against terrorists. Game for Peace was developed by Krafton, the Korea-based publisher formerly known as BlueHole which made PUBG. Beyond visual similarities, that the games are twinned since some player found that their progress and achievements on PUBG had transferred over to the new game. Tencent representatives declined to comment on the new game or the end of PUBG’s ‘beta testing’ period in China when contacted by TechCrunch. But a company rep apparently told Reuters that “they are very different genres of games.” Tencent’s new ‘Game for Peace’ title is almost exactly the same as its popular PUBG game, which it is replacing [Image via Weibo]Fortnite may have grabbed the attention for its explosive growth — last year — but PUBG has more quietly become a fixture among mobile gamers, particularly in Asia. At the end of last year, that it was past 200 million registered gamers, with 30 million players each day. , PUBG grossed more than $65 million from mobile players in March thanks to 83 percent growth which saw it even beat Fortnite. There is also a desktop version. PUBG made more money than Fortnite on mobile in March 2019, according to data from Sensor Tower That is really the point of Tencent’s switcheroo: to make money. The company suffered at the hands of last year, and a regulatory-compliant title like Game for Peace has a good shot at getting the green light for monetization — through the sale of virtual items and seasonal memberships. Indeed, analysts at China Renaissance believe the new title could rake in as much as $1.5 billion in annual revenue, according to the Reuters report. That’s a lot to get excited about and resuscitating gaming will be an important part of Tencent’s strategy this year — which has already seen to focus emerging units like cloud computing, and
(Screenshot Via Microsoft) A new augmented reality, mobile version of the popular Minecraft game looks to be on the way. Microsoft ended the opening keynote of its Build developer conference with a teaser video showing what appeared to be an AR adaptation of Minecraft, the world-building game that came under its umbrella with the $2.5 billion in 2014. The video ended with the date May 17 and directed viewers to the Minecraft website. What’s up to? Tune in to on May 17 to find out. — Microsoft (@Microsoft) The game is expected to use Azure Spatial Anchors, a program for building “mixed reality apps that map, designate, and recall precise points of interest that are accessible across HoloLens, iOS, and Android devices.” This suggests the game could come to HoloLens as well. The video shows Minecraft Creative Director Saxs Persson sitting on a bench outside the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, where Build is taking place. He leaves his phone on the bench, and it’s picked up by a bystander who sees the Minecraft AR game running on the device. There were few details about the new game, but it did have a similar look to the ever-popular Pokémon Go, the smash hit title that has been downloaded more than 500 million times. Pokémon Go maps its world on top of the real world, using actual points of interest as gathering points in the game. It will be interesting to see if the new Minecraft game adopts a similar philosophy or if Microsoft will take things in a different direction.
Last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” was a wild ride and inarguably one of an epic show’s more epic moments — if you could see it through the dark and the blotchy video. It turns out even one of the most expensive and meticulously produced shows in history can fall prey to the scourge of low quality streaming and bad TV settings. The good news is this episode is going to look amazing on Blu-ray or potentially in future, better streams and downloads. The bad news is that millions of people already had to see it in a way its creators surely lament. You deserve to know why this was the case. I’ll be simplifying a bit here because this topic is immensely complex, but here’s what you should know. (By the way, I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, but I’ll try to stay away from anything significant in words or images.) It was clear from the opening shots in last night’s episode, “The Longest Night,” that this was going to be a dark one. The army of the dead faces off against the allied living forces in the darkness, made darker by a bespoke storm brought in by, shall we say, a Mr. N.K., to further demoralize the good guys. If you squint you can just make out the largest army ever assembled Thematically and cinematographically, setting this chaotic, sprawling battle at night is a powerful creative choice and a valid one, and I don’t question the showrunners, director, and so on for it. But technically speaking, setting this battle at night, and in fog, is just about the absolute worst case scenario for the medium this show is native to: streaming home video. Here’s why. Compression factor Video has to be compressed in order to be sent efficiently over the internet, and although we’ve made enormous strides in video compression and the bandwidth available to most homes, there are still fundamental limits. The master video that HBO put together from the actual footage, FX, and color work that goes into making a piece of modern media would be huge: hundreds of gigabytes if not terabytes. That’s because the master has to include all the information on every pixel in every frame, no exceptions. Imagine if you tried to “stream” a terabyte-sized TV episode. You’d have to be able to download upwards of 200 megabytes per second for the full 80 minutes of this one. Few people in the world have that kind of connection — it would basically never stop buffering. Even 20 megabytes per second is asking too much by a long shot. 2 is doable — slightly under the 25 megabit speed (that’s bits… divide by 8 to get bytes) we use to define broadband download speeds. So how do you turn a large file into a small one? Compression — we’ve been doing it for a long time, and video, though different from other types of data in some ways, is still just a bunch of zeroes and ones. In fact it’s especially susceptible to strong compression because of how one video frame is usually very similar to the last and the next one. There are all kinds of shortcuts you can take that reduce the file size immensely without noticeably impacting the quality of the video. These compression and decompression techniques fit into a system called a “codec.” But there are exceptions to that, and one of them has to do with how compression handles color and brightness. Basically, when the image is very dark, it can’t display color very well. The color of winter Think about it like this: There are only so many ways to describe colors in a few words. If you have one word you can say red, or maybe ochre or vermilion depending on your interlocutor’s vocabulary. But if you have two words you can say dark red, darker red, reddish black, and so on. The codec has a limited vocabulary as well, though its “words” are the numbers of bits it can use to describe a pixel. This lets it succinctly describe a huge array of colors with very little data by saying, this pixel has this bit value of color, this much brightness, and so on. (I didn’t originally want to get into this, but this is what people are talking about when they say bit depth, or even “highest quality pixels.) But this also means that there are only so many gradations of color and brightness it can show. Going from a very dark grey to a slightly lighter grey, it might be able to pick 5 intermediate shades. That’s perfectly fine if it’s just on the hem of a dress in the corner of the image. But what if the whole image is limited to that small selection of shades? Then you get what we see last night. See how Jon (I think) is made up almost entirely of only a handful of different colors (brightnesses of a similar color, really) in with big obvious borders between them? This issue is called “banding,” and it’s hard not to notice once you see how it works. Images on video can be incredibly detailed, but places where there are subtle changes in color — often a clear sky or some other large but mild gradient — will exhibit large stripes as the codec goes from “darkest dark blue” to “darker dark blue” to “dark blue,” with no “darker darker dark blue” in between. Check out this image. Above is a smooth gradient encoded with high color depth. Below that is the same gradient encoded with lossy JPEG encoding — different from what HBO used, obviously, but you get the idea. Banding has plagued streaming video forever, and it’s hard to avoid even in major productions — it’s just a side effect of representing color digitally. It’s especially distracting because obviously our eyes don’t have that limitation. A high-definition screen may actually show more detail than your eyes can discern from couch distance, but color issues? Our visual systems flag them like crazy. You can minimize it, but it’s always going to be there, until the point when we have as many shades of grey as we have pixels on the screen. So back to last night’s episode. Practically the entire show took place at night, which removes about 3/4 of the codec’s brightness-color combos right there. It also wasn’t a particularly colorful episode, a directorial or photographic choice that highlighted things like flames and blood, but further limited the ability to digitally represent what was on screen. It wouldn’t be too bad if the background was black and people were lit well so they popped out, though. The last straw was the introduction of the cloud, fog, or blizzard, whatever you want to call it. This kept the brightness of the background just high enough that the codec had to represent it with one of its handful of dark greys, and the subtle movements of fog and smoke came out as blotchy messes (often called “compression artifacts” as well) as the compression desperately tried to pick what shade was best for a group of pixels. Just brightening it doesn’t fix things, either — because the detail is already crushed into a narrow range of values, you just get a bandy image that never gets completely black, making it look washed out, as you see here: (Anyway, the darkness is a stylistic choice. You may not agree with it, but that’s how it’s supposed to look and messing with it beyond making the darkest details visible could be counterproductive.) Now, it should be said that compression doesn’t have to be this bad. For one thing, the more data it is allowed to use, the more gradations it can describe, and the less severe the banding. It’s also possible (though I’m not sure where it’s actually done) to repurpose the rest of the codec’s “vocabulary” to describe a scene where its other color options are limited. That way the full bandwidth can be used to describe a nearly monochromatic scene even though strictly speaking it should be only using a fraction of it. But neither of these are likely an option for HBO: Increasing the bandwidth of the stream is costly, since this is being sent out to tens of millions of people — a bitrate increase big enough to change the quality would also massively swell their data costs. When you’re distributing to that many people, that also introduces the risk of hated buffering or errors in playback, which are obviously a big no-no. It’s even possible that HBO lowered the bitrate because of network limitations — “Game of Thrones” really is on the frontier of digital distribution. And using an exotic codec might not be possible because only commonly used commercial ones are really capable of being applied at scale. Kind of like how we try to use standard parts for cars and computers. This episode almost certainly looked fantastic in the mastering room and FX studios, where they not only had carefully calibrated monitors with which to view it but also were working with brighter footage (it would be darkened to taste by the colorist) and less or no compression. They might not even have seen the “final” version that fans “enjoyed.” We’ll see the better copy eventually, but in the meantime the choice of darkness, fog, and furious action meant the episode was going to be a muddy, glitchy mess on home TVs. And while we’re on the topic… You mean it’s not my TV? Well… to be honest, it might be that too. What I can tell you is that simply having a “better” TV by specs, such as 4K or a higher refresh rate or whatever, would make almost no difference in this case. Even built-in de-noising and de-banding algorithms would be hard pressed to make sense of “The Long Night.” And one of the best new display technologies, OLED, might even make it look worse! Its “true blacks” are much darker than an LCD’s backlit blacks, so the jump to the darkest grey could be way more jarring. That said, it’s certainly possible that your TV is also set up poorly. Those of us sensitive to this kind of thing spend forever fiddling with settings and getting everything just right for exactly this kind of situation. There are dozens of us! Now who’s “wasting his time” calibrating his TV? — John Siracusa (@siracusa) Usually “calibration” is actually a pretty simple process of making sure your TV isn’t on the absolute worst settings, which unfortunately many are out of the box. Here’s a very basic three-point guide to “calibrating” your TV: Go through the “picture” or “video” menu and turn off anything with a special name, like “TrueMotion,” “Dynamic motion,” “Cinema mode,” or anything like that. Most of these make things look worse, especially anything that “smooths” motion. Turn those off first and never ever turn them on again. Don’t mess with brightness, gamma, color space, anything you have to turn up or down from 50 or whatever. Figure out lighting by putting on a good, well-shot movie in the situation you usually watch stuff — at night maybe, with the hall light on or whatever. While the movie is playing, click through any color presets your TV has. These are often things like “natural,” “game,” “cinema,” “calibrated,” and so on and take effect right away. Some may make the image look too green, or too dark, or whatever. Play around with it and whichever makes it look best, use that one. You can always switch later – I myself switch between a lighter and darker scheme depending on time of day and content. Don’t worry about HDR, dynamic lighting, and all that stuff for now. There’s a lot of hype about these technologies and they are still in their infancy. Few will work out of the box and the gains may or may not be worth it. The truth is a well shot movie from the ’60s or ’70s can look just as good today as a “high dynamic range” show shot on the latest 8K digital cinema rig. Just focus on making sure the image isn’t being actively interfered with by your TV and you’ll be fine. Unfortunately none of these things will make “The Long Night” look any better until HBO releases a new version of it. Those ugly bands and artifacts are baked right in. But if you have to blame anyone, blame the streaming infrastructure that wasn’t prepared for a show taking risks in its presentation, risks I would characterize as bold and well executed, unlike the writing in the show lately. Oops, sorry, couldn’t help myself. If you really want to experience this show the way it was intended, the fanciest TV in the world wouldn’t have helped last night, though when the Blu-ray comes out you’ll be in for a treat. But here’s hoping the next big battle takes place in broad daylight.
(Sony Screenshots) The best moments in are also its most intense. The game’s not-zombies, “Freakers,” aren’t much of a threat at all if you can fight them one at a time. By pairs, they’re a little more dangerous. If three or four show up, it’s time to get clever or maybe throw a bomb. When Freakers show up in groups of 50, screaming and running headlong at you in a weirdly fluid human wave, your heart jumps into your throat and you immediately have to start improvising. That’s when you can appreciate the game’s craftsmanship. Every environment in Days Gone is a quiet maze of hiding places, back doors, crawlspaces, blind corners, and potential escape routes. The first time I explored a town, it was weird when I saw how many buildings had seemingly random open windows, broken fences, and rooftop exits. Then I had to revisit the same town a couple of hours later with 100 Freakers in hot pursuit, and it all made sense. Days Gone is an exclusive for the PlayStation 4, made by Sony’s SIE Bend Studio in Bend, Ore. known for its Syphon Filter series. The game has been in development since 2015. Playing it feels like a deliberate distillation of a lot of zombie games, shows, and movies from back then, all thrown together into a deliberately grimy post-apocalyptic version of the studio’s backyard. Whenever you’re on the run from a horde, everything you can do to slow them down or split them up becomes crucial, no matter how simple it is. Even if you just buy a second, that’s one extra second in which to slap together a bomb, reload a gun, or throw a distraction. You end up leading several hundred screeching monsters on this “Tom & Jerry” chase scene through half a zip code, diving through windows, setting up traps, ducking through gaps in fences, and whittling them down however you can with whatever you can find. There’s nothing else quite like it in current video games, which makes it a shame that it takes such a low proportion of Days Gone’s running time. For most of it, you play the part of a motorcycle-riding bounty hunter, moving between isolated settlements of survivors in search of odd jobs, supplies, and a frankly insane number of collectibles. The standard 2019 sandbox-game formula is in full effect here, where you spend most of your free time cleaning out enemy camps and capturing bunkers, in order to take over the world map piece by piece. Every time it started feeling a little too routine, though, I ended up running for my life from another hundreds-strong zombie lynch mob, and it got my attention all over again. It also feels like one of those games where they didn’t finish it so much as they finally had to stop developing it. Days Gone is decidedly rough around the edges, especially when compared to a lot of Sony’s recent first-party exclusives. I never ran into any serious crashes, but did have to deal with the occasional worrying framerate drop, the audio cutting out without warning, and rock-stupid enemy AI. Some of the missions end abruptly, or feel as if they’re not quite done, and every so often, the physics engine glitches out and some zombie’s body goes flying into low orbit. Days Gone does have solid fundamentals, though. It’s poised on the same borderline between stealth, action, and survival horror as something like The Last of Us, but successfully transplants those systems into a small, detailed open world. You’ve got a solid toolkit for shooting, driving, and stealth, along with one of the better-feeling motorcycles I’ve ever driven in a sandbox game. It’s decidedly unpolished in some areas, but what it does well, it does very well. The game is set in backwoods Oregon, in a small area of tiny towns, rest stops, and tourist traps, a little over two years since the fall of civilization. A disease broke out that turned most of the human population into cannibalistic, violent Freakers, which drove the survivors out of the cities and into the countryside. Now, the survivors have mostly banded together into a handful of reinforced encampments, built out of vacation homes and roadside attractions, where they try to survive off of what resources and supplies are left in the area. You play as Deacon St. John, an Army veteran and biker who lost his wife in the initial outbreak. These days, he’s a drifter, doing odd jobs for the local camps alongside his buddy Boozer. The game begins when, over the course of a surprisingly short period of time, Deacon’s bike gets stolen, Boozer gets badly injured, and Deacon learns that there was more to the story of his wife’s death than he initially realized. That sends Deacon off on a series of new jobs, in order to save Boozer and finally come to terms with his loss. One of the things I like here is that Days Gone is mostly a story about humans caught in a bad situation, who are dealing with it as best they can. Everyone in it is half-nuts from PTSD, but this isn’t about how humans are the real monsters. It’s just about people, messy and broken and trying to put their lives back together. It’s especially obvious when you run into one of the flashback levels, where the whole game’s color palette instantly expands into a Romantic landscape painting. The main game is so heavily tinged by survivors’ guilt that it’s downshifting the color spectrum. The actual gameplay is fairly standard stuff, albeit executed well. You use stealth and distraction tactics to set up ambushes or avoid conflict, while you scrounge up materials from the environment to turn into gadgets and weapons. You can learn new crafting recipes by knocking over bases and cleaning out ambush camps, which also unlocks new fast-travel points on your map. If a fight does go loud, you can get an early update which activates “Focus Mode,” giving you the ability to slow down time for short periods, allowing you to line up an easy headshot or two. This is utterly crucial early in the game, when you’re stuck with whatever broken-down weapons you can scrounge up, and is just a nice quality-of-life increase later on. What’s impressive is that Days Gone, as noted above, does do both action and stealth reasonably well, if not remarkably. This is actually a rare thing; usually, a game that tries to thread this particular needle ends up favoring one or the other approach. In something like Watch Dogs 2, which is ostensibly trying for the same balance, the stealth is so blatantly the “right” way to play the game that getting into a gunfight feels like it’s a failure condition. Days Gone actually makes both approaches worthwhile and useful. As noted above, though, it does play like it’s a distillation of several previously successful games, and there’s a lot here that’s strictly formula. I groaned out loud the first time the game asked me to take out an enemy stronghold, particularly since you can mark enemies from a distance with Deacon’s binoculars. It felt like I was right back in one of the recent Far Cry games, right down to the chance that random animals will wander into the ambush camp and do most of my work for me. Side note: I’m not even sure why Days Gone has bandit camps at all, since the wilderness outside the settlements is supposed to be so dangerous that Deacon is one of the only people dumb enough to go out there. Who are these people robbing? The big gimmick here, though, which sets it apart, is the Freakers, and the chance that if you aren’t careful, you’ll end up drawing a couple of hundred of them down on your location. In its best, most memorable moments, Days Gone is always one random explosion away from turning into Zombie Mardi Gras, and that constant element of risk is what makes it worth the price of admission. To be fair, I’m an easy mark for zombie games, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt. I’d be happier with Days Gone if it focused more on the Freakers, rather than time-killing map activities like fighting bandits, and it’s decidedly unpolished. I still had a lot of fun with it, and I stayed interested all the way through because I wanted to know what would happen to Deacon. It’s well worth your time. Editor’s note: Sony provided an early digital copy of Days Gone for the purpose of this review.
Intense and graphic violence is something we’ve come to simply expect from games, but sexual and other adult themes are still largely taboo — including, as publisher is learning, drugs. Even if the game in question is a relatively serious tycoon-type look at the current (and legal!) business of selling weed. Devolver is no stranger to controversy; it has published and helped develop dozens of games and many of them have featured the kind of graphic violence that sets off those who still see the medium as a corruptive, fundamentally debased one. And to be fair, the likes of Hotline Miami aren’t going to change any minds. But for the company’s first original commissioned IP, it had the idea of assembling a game in the popular “tycoon” genre, but focused on the emerging and popular sector of growing marijuana. Obviously this is somewhat controversial, but the plant is legal in many states and countries already and on its way in plenty of others. This isn’t the time or place for a full evaluation of the scheduling system and the war on drugs, but it suffices to say that it is a complex and interesting business ecosystem that’s teetering on the edge of widespread acceptance. That makes it a bit edgy, but also fresh and relevant — perfect, Devolver thought, to build a game around. . Unfortunately, the company’s co-founder Mike Wilson told me the other day, they underestimated how square the gaming industry is. “This is definitely the hardest game I’ve had to market, and that’s saying something,” Wilson told me. “It has been a fucking nightmare. The fact that we’re still so afraid of a topic like weed instead of the murder simulators you can market any time, anywhere, it’s shocking.” Console game stores were reluctant to even carry it, and warned Devolver that it would never be featured, which is a death sentence for a game’s discoverability. They couldn’t get ads approved on Facebook or Instagram, and the person who submitted them even had his account suspended. And just this week, streamers trying out the game on YouTube had their videos demonetized. The only stores that didn’t buck were Steam, which is largely content-agnostic, and GOG, a popular DRM-free storefront. Why, though? This isn’t a game about smoking blunts or cutting dime bags with oregano to sell to middle school kids. Well, it is a little pro-legalization. “This isn’t a pro-legalization game. This is a tycoon game. You don’t do drugs in the game!” said Wilson. “You can play as a totally legal, scrupulous businessperson. We did all this research with like, dispensaries, geneticists, lawyers, we were worried about cultural sensitivity with the subject matter, things like how much more black people get jailed for it. We wanted it to be representative of all the social issues involved. It’s kind of like doing a game about booze in the prohibition era — like, what an interesting industry to study, right?” It’s not that the companies involved here — Microsoft, Sony, YouTube and so on — are applying some invisible rules. The rules are there; when I contacted YouTube for comment, they pointed me to the list of And plain as day there’s the one about drugs: “Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not suitable for advertising.” It’s just a bit weird to me still that we have this backwards, puritan approach to this stuff. Think of how much vile garbage is on YouTube and how the most popular games in the world glorify guns and death. But a recreational drug legal in many places and generally well thought of, not to mention a massive and growing business — that’s beyond the pale. I understand YouTube doesn’t want people doing bong-clearing competitions, and console makers want to appear family-friendly so they don’t lose that teen and tween market. But surely we can be adults about this. Gaming is maturing to be an interactive storytelling medium that encompasses serious issues, but the industry is holding itself back by its squeamishness about adult themes. And that feeds into the puritanical objections from misguided commentators, who go nuts over romancing an alien in Mass Effect or the ridiculous “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA, but don’t acknowledge the sophisticated storytelling of Return of the Obra Dinn, or subversive commentary of Papers, Please, or the impressive period recreation of an Assassin’s Creed. Drugs are a complex and controversial topic. I get that some people want to stay hands-off. But when that hands-off stance doesn’t apply to graphic violence, sexism, and other sore spots, it comes off as prudish and hypocritical.
Amazon-owned game-streaming site is today publicly launching its first game. But it’s not a traditional video game — like those the site’s creators stream for their fans. Instead, the new game is called “Twitch Sings” and is a free karaoke-style experience designed for live streaming. The game, which was , includes thousands of karaoke classics that players can sing either alone or in a duet with another person. In addition, streamers can choose to sing as themselves in a live camera feed, or they can create a personalized avatar that will appear in their place. (The songs are licensed from karaoke content providers, not the major labels.) But unlike other karaoke-style apps — like TikTok or its — Twitch Sings is designed to be both live-streamed and interactive. That is, viewers are also a part of the experience as they can request songs, cheer with emotes to activate light shows and virtual ovations and send in “singing challenges” to the streamer during the performance. For example, they could challenge them to sing without the lyrics or “sing like a cat,” and other goofy stuff. “Twitch Sings unites the fun and energy of being at a live show with the boundless creativity of streamers to make an amazing shared interactive performance,” said Joel Wade, executive producer of Twitch Sings, in a statement. “Many games are made better on Twitch, but we believe there is a huge opportunity for those that are designed with streaming and audience participation at their core.” The game is designed to not only capitalize on Twitch’s live-streaming capabilities, but to also engage Twitch viewers who tune in to watch, but don’t stream themselves. More notably, it’s a means of expanding Twitch beyond gaming. This is something Twitch has attempted to do for years — back in 2015. It has , and has partnered with various media companies in order to stream marathons of fan favorites — like painting series or cooking show, for example. Its own studio has produced non-gaming shows like . Last year, Twitch with Disney Digital Network to bring some of its larger personalities over to Twitch, as well. Those efforts haven’t really helped Twitch break out with the non-gamer crowd. Karaoke may not do the trick either. In reality, this “game” is more of a test to see if Twitch can turn some of its platform features — like its chat system and custom interactive video overlays — into tools to help increase engagement among existing users and attract new ones. It still remains to be seen if and how the game actually takes off. The game was unveiled today at TwitchCon Berlin, where the company announced it had added more than 127,000 Affiliates and 3,600 new Partners in Europe since the beginning of 2018. The company also detailed a few other updates for Twitch creators, including those across payments, streaming and discovery tools. Starting Monday, April 15, Twitch will pay out in just 15 days after the close of the month, instead of 45, eligible creators that reached the $100 threshold. In May, it will make the (paid sponsorship opps) available to Partners and Affiliates in Germany, France and the U.K., and will partner Borderlands 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 and Unilever, in Europe. In June, Twitch is also rolling out faster search, automated highlight reels (recaps) and the ability to sort through channels in a directory by a range of new options — including lowest to highest viewers, most recently started or suggested channels based on their viewing history. TwitchCon Europe 2019 is streaming live this weekend at
For the last few years, , maker of the 2013 episodic adventure game , has been quietly working on a top secret project in its Bellevue, Wash. studio. Last week, it that the project in question was Iron Man VR, an exclusive virtual reality game for the PlayStation 4 that places the player directly into the role of Tony Stark. Now we have details about the actual gameplay — and initial reviews are positive thus far: (Stephen Totilo, Kotaku) (Andrew Tarantola, Engadget) (Brian Crecente, Variety) (Caty McCarthy, US Gamer) This is the second major project from Camouflaj, an independent 50-person games studio. Its first release, Republique, was initially released in 2013 after a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012, and was ported to VR platforms in May of 2018. The studio was founded in 2011 by Ryan Payton, a University of Puget Sound graduate and games writer who eventually went on to work on Metal Gear Solid 4 at Konami. Payton then worked at Microsoft and 343 Industries, where he was one of the narrative designers on Halo 4. Fun day at today :) — Ryan Payton (@ryanpayton) In Iron Man VR, Tony Stark faces off against a new enemy, an unknown woman using the guise of his old enemy the . (According to , the decision to make the game’s Ghost a woman predates the appearance of in last year’s Ant-Man & The Wasp.) Iron Man VR is strictly meant for virtual reality, played with Sony’s headset and a PlayStation Move controller in either hand. In-game, when Tony puts on the Iron Man suit, the positioning of your hands is used to determine how Tony flies with his repulsors. At the same time, however, the repulsors are your primary means of self defense, and you can blast enemies by pointing your Move controllers at them and firing. If you lock onto a distant target, Tony will fly at it to deliver a powerful punch. The armor in Iron Man VR is called the Impulse Suit, and is a unique design for the game created by British artist . Granov lived in Seattle for several years, providing illustration work for Wizards of the Coast, and eventually came to work for Marvel Comics. While there, he illustrated the Extremis storyline for Iron Man, written by Warren Ellis, which is one of the better Iron Man comics in recent years, and began the process of rehabilitation for the character that ended with Tony Stark becoming one of the linchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Extremis went on to become of the first and third Iron Man movies, which employed Granov as a consultant. (Granov also contributed the design for the to last year’s similarly PlayStation-exclusive Spider-Man.) Other characters confirmed to appear in Iron Man VR include Friday, Tony’s AI assistant, and Pepper Potts. The initial releases mention that the game involves coming “face-to-face with iconic allies and super villains as they jet around the globe on a heroic mission to save not only Stark Industries, but the world itself.”