Gaming’s future

What’s Valve Up To?

I love reading the news. I’ve been doing that lately, and, I’d like to make some predictions about what I’ve seen. And chief among them was Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder and managing director. In a recent interview he stated that Windows 8 was a “catastrophe” for developers who didn’t want to be beholden to Microsoft. See, Microsoft, ever the schizophrenic company, now wants to own a storefront, like Apple with iOS/iTunes, Google with Android/Play Store(/and, well, ads), and Valve with games.

Comments from Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell aren’t every day fare. He appeared at Sony’s 2010 E3 event where he stated that the PS3 version would be “THE best” console version. In an interview with the then-new Penny Arcade Report earlier this year in 2012 Newell famously said “Well, if we have to sell hardware we will” starting a flood of rumors about a possible Valve console (the “Steam Box”). The man is important in the industry, not only for the games he’s contributed, but the digital storefront his company has pioneered. When he appears, it’s important. Expect a rebuttal next week from Microsoft as Newell’s comment gains traction, as being too quick would lend it legitimacy, but I think there’s a bigger story than his slamming Win8. It’s his constant talk of fixing problems.

The Linux Success Story

I expect Valve to push a new Linux desktop. One of Steam’s freeform teams is spearheading Linux game development; their current project is Left 4 Dead 2, but I expect that to widen. Valve will push Linux for gamers by giving Linux copies of games when you purchase it, much how they currently give you both a Windows and Mac version of so many now. With more people familiar with smart phone interfaces, tablets, and even “smart TVs”, they’re just not as scared of new things as they once were. Families around the world will wake up with their Windows box gone, change by the IT guy of the family to something new. Linux will finally take the home. This will be the true “open source success“, not simply “no longer being taboo.”

But how to sell gamers on it? How about a free copy of Half-Life 3? Yup, I’m there. On top of that, they can make it easier for gamers by offering Linux copies of games you’ve already bought, like they’ve done with their push onto Mac. Gabe wants gamers to have an real choice. At least, he wants them to be able to install Steam. Doesn’t take a genius to see why. But if Macs go the way of iOS? If Windows does? Or if they both just have their store as the path of least resistance? Well, those “more closed” platforms hurt Steam’s ability to get their product in front of consumers, so, expect to see Valve push Linux. Hard. And to push into the living room on a console. And I don’t mean the “Steam Box”.

Kickstarting A Revolution

Speaking of consoles, I can think of one that’s got a lot of buzz these days, and it’s Linux-based…

I expect OUYA, developer of the self-titled Android console, has already gotten calls from Steam, just like they have OnLive, Square-Enix, and Vevo. If this product takes off, and I expect it to, then hardware design, manufacturing, marketing, and selling, is one less industry Valve has to do, and one more format to sell games on. Success for the OUYA can make Steam pivot back away from potential hardware seller and stick with what they know; selling software. Don’t expect any of the big 3 console manufacturers to do that.

“But the OUYA won’t install Left 4 Dead 2, even if it is for Linux!” you say? Sure. But expect buying Plants Versus Zombies to give you a Windows, Mac, Linux, AND Android version. (Well, bad example as EA bought PopCap, but you get the point.) Also, more importantly? In a long enough time span the truth is that it’s inevitable, you will be able to play L4D2 on OUYA. How? By streaming it.

The Steam Stream

I expect Valve already has a team on a streaming service for games owned through Steam. Like I said, it’s kind of inevitable. I genuinely expect customers to never have to install most games, just stream them from Valve’s servers, for a small monthly fee paid to Valve to account for server space, bandwidth, and related costs. They can go one of two ways with this. They can buy OnLive and fold it in, or go original.

Buying OnLive is probably easiest, but is probably bad for gamers, as owner-concentration usually is for any group. An interesting turn of events would see Steam doing their own thing, going against GameFly, and and OnLive partner with Good Old Games. (Not holding my breath, however. Everyone wants to sell or buy. No one wants to work together.) That’s the Nintendo v Sony v Microsoft (Ninty v Sega) of the future.

The First Step

Am I right? Who knows. Not I. I did email Gabe Newell a few peripherally related questions, but got no response. But it’s obvious Valve has something up their sleeve. Their recent blog lineup and the “leak” of their handbook? The best stealth recruitment campaign ever. For every top level developer in every field. Not against other game developers, or other digital storefronts… But against every other corporate giant out there.

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Spider-Man games should rock.

Today at Joystiq Justin McElroy wrote what I’ll dramatically describe as an unsurprising slap in the face of the latest Spider-Man game, Spider-Man: Edge of Time. Go read it. He gets it. He wore Spidey pajamas as a kid. (Note: I dig his writing, and always have. Even during the huge fiasco when he made threats against U2’s Bono.)

Games are their gameplay mechanics, the choices and actions of the player. For all the crap we give them, licensed games actually often have a rare opportunity: unique mechanics. Any other game that mimics webswinging is going to be seen as a knock-off, or at least compared to Spider-Man.

To be fair, Justin notes that they try to do something with his “Spider Sense”, but that’s certainly not what I think of first when I think “Spider-Man”. What he rates a 2.5/5 game sounds like a thoroughly mediocre beat’em-up, which is a disappointment, given my love of older Spider-Man games.

Spider-Man 2 (Xbox, PS2) is actually one of my favorite games. I was one of the people blown away by the webswinging. It was a perfect example of both “appropriate difficulty” (being slightly difficult, but very fulfilling to pull off well) and the “ludic displacement” that occurs when a game makes you feel like you really are doing what’s happening in the game.

Nevermind the player’s stumbles… Spidey would never trip!

Despite Spider-Man 2 being third person, and despite how bad the blur looks in this pixelated video, you really got that feeling you imagined as a kid, of being Spider-Man, dipping from the rooftops into the streets of New York city, swinging back up, flying forward as fast as a normal person would fall. (Ultimate Spider-Man was still great, less so Spider-Man 3… Both the victim of over-refinement, imo, but still.)

Super heroes are typically defined by having unique abilities. In that very nature, they’re begging to be put into games, giving players unique actions and choices. Older Spidey games got him right. The Hulk: Ultimate Destruction game did a decent job of making you feel like you were wrecking shit, though it could’ve been better aside from that. From what I hear both Wolverine and Batman games had great combat, making you feel like the characters were “right”. Marvel Ultimate Alliance was a fun beat’em-up, not because it was particularly deep, but because it rallied together almost 30 loved characters. Why do a game featuring a singular beloved character, or even two, without trying to do well what that character is known for?

Here’s a few free suggestions for Activision’s next Spider-Man game.

  • New York City – I’m serious. Forget corridor fighters. Don’t be silly.
  • Make swinging a matter of skill – Anyone player should be able to do it, but being good at the mechanics should pay off well.
  • Spider-Man has a history – Not saying you shouldn’t do “origin stories” or work them in, but, Spidey has a very deep gallery of well-known, well-defined, fun, friends and enemies. Utilize them.
  • Peter Parker exists – Spider-Man has a personal life. Don’t be afraid to use that in more than a reference.
  • Peter Parker is a photographer – Some games did it recently, but then cameras have only become MORE popular in society, as well as other games. Some even do it well. You could, too.
  • A random encounter should blow my mind – Sure, Spidey fights generic thugs all the time. That happens. But sometimes? Sometimes? Sometimes that bank robbery you stumble across should be Rhino.
  • Subscriptions – Learn from comics. Everyone who owns the game gets a free few missions each week. They culminate each month in an arc. Do this for a month, free. Then charge a fee, $1 a week, $3 for a month, or sell subscriptions $10 for three months.

C’mon. Activision can’t say no to that last one. And face it, you’d buy them. I would, and I don’t even have a job.

Also, hi Activision. So, maybe you need someone to help with your next Spider-Man game? I mean, I don’t know if you heard, but I’m on the market. I’ve even got five years experience in producing. (Another medium…)

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Awesome soundtracks for all games, for no cost.

How can you give every game (indie or not) a blockbuster (and meaningful) soundtrack? It’s easier than you think. All it takes is a little work, and a little cost (Okay, it’s not “no cost,” but, considering the payoff…)

All you need is an online database, users to populate it, and API for developers to use it.

The database notes each user’s library (just taking the track titles, paths, and metadata, not actually uploading the music,) and asking users to tag the tracks by context, for use in interactive media when the appropriate context arises. Bam. Free million dollar soundtracks for anyone who wants to implement the system. The only cost being the user buying the music. It’s like playing music over games on consoles, only smarter.

(Sidenote: I don’t think any cloud services offer APIs for other developers, but it may be possible in the future to ask users for that data too, if you feel like streaming their music.)

Of course, users won’t be required to tag ALL of their data, but some should be required to lighten the load (and better personalize things.)

So after users’ data is pinged, the tags are of the veins “fast-paced, thrilling, scary, romantic, sexy, slow, energetic, sad, etc” to fit mood. But also consider an extra layer of “8bit, by instrument, etc.,”. To make it pitch perfect, ask users to rate each tag’s value. Especially if you want to do this after a game. (For instance, play the music, and ask “Do you feel this music was appropriate suspenseful during the standoff with ?” Let users pick if they want to use yes/no, a five point, or a ten point scale.)

It will take time for an entire library to populate. New users should be required to tag at least ten tracks, but power users (anyone logging in and investing the time) can categorize to their heart’s content. Maybe a deal could be struck with Pandora to import their categorization metadata? Power users should also be able to specify portions of songs instead of the entire track. (“Start this track :10 in, bypassing spoken words.”)

The idea is to give any game that wants to use the system a soundtrack custom-built by context needed in the game, with music already knowingly enjoyed by the user, at zero dollar cost to the developer at point of purchase. The only investment needed is the time investment required to learn the API to use it in your game.

Now, am I over- thinking the problem? Probably. But I’m okay with that. This is a blog post, not a plan to actually do this. Now, how does this get done? Get Microsoft to do it. Or Valve. Someone with a large interest in PC gaming. (Of course, Microsoft doesn’t REALLY have that, but, they like to claim they do with “Games for Windows Live.”)

But, it has to include a large, open music selection as well, like populated by tracks available for public use and distribution, so developers can pack that music in, giving the install base something to begin with, to make sure bases are covered.

Okay. Done. Just had to get that out of my brain. It was bugging me. Thanks.

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