Monday, February 20, 2017

On cs_ppc, "school maps", and the politics of remediating / re-mapping real-life places


The excellent @dot_bsp Twitter account randomly tweets screenshots from different levels in various Goldsrc (Half-Life 1 engine) games and this February 18th tweet about "cs_ppc" by "Walnut<+>Warrior" really caught my eye and got me thinking.

cs_ppc is really clean and well-built with good height variation and composition. The shapes flow into each other very well, and the scale seems very realistic. On a technical level, there's also clever use of masked transparency textures to complicate silhouettes with fewer wpolys, centering around a pretty huge atrium with a lot of open sight-lines everywhere -- this kind of craft means it was built relatively late in the Goldsrc cycle, when high polycounts and heavy use of custom textures were the norm.

This level has relatively little cover and probably plays strangely for Counter-Strike, but the author clearly prioritized real-life resemblance over gameplay. It made me wonder about the level's relation to the real world. Fortunately, when I loaded cs_ppc.bsp into the engine, I discovered that the author embedded a commemorative plaque at the very front of the level. It is definitely intended as a recreation of Peter-Paul-Cahensly (PPC) vocational school in Limburg, Germany.

So what?...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Apply to STUGAN, a bucolic game design residency in Sweden


Stugan is a residency program for indie game designers to hang out together in a beautiful cabin in the Swedish countryside and work on their stuff.

They call it an "accelerator", but don't that word dissuade you. If you consider yourself more of an artist than a businessperson, it's OK, they have hosted plenty of artsy experimental designer types too.

There's been some understandable criticism of Stugan's arrangements: Like many artist residencies and opportunities, there are certain barriers to access -- you're basically foregoing paid work for a few months as a sort of working holiday, and you'll need existing funds to travel to Sweden somehow.

However, I think it's worth noting that many art residencies often have hefty application fees and/or require attendees to pay for their own room and board. Compared to that inaccessible norm in the (messed-up) art world, Stugan is a somewhat reasonable deal that's firmly in the middle of the pack for art, and extremely rare in video games funding.

Of course that doesn't mean it's "accessible" -- so if you're interested in Stugan but don't necessarily have the resources, you might want to do some research into funding sources for artists, you might be surprised. Also, if you're a student, talk to your school -- many institutions offer travel grants for programs like this.

Or just cross that bridge when you come to it? You can apply to Stugan for free. Good luck.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Thoughts on Steam Direct

There's news today that Valve wants to transition away from Steam Greenlight, which is a crowd-source voting system where you pay $100 *once, forever* to let users vote for your games on Steam, and after a certain vote threshold you can put each game on Steam.

The new system planned for roll-out in Spring 2017 is something they call Steam Direct, where you pay a "recoupable" (whatever that means, here? Valve doesn't say) $100-$5000 fee *per game* (they haven't decided the actual rate yet) instead of going through the vote process. They want their storefront to seem more open, but they are also cautious about public perception of "shitty games diluting" the Steam store.

A lot of my thoughts are basically a repeat of past criticism of the Steam Greenlight fee, years ago, except this could be much more expensive and much worse? Here are my reactions:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Press Forwards" and the pleasing death of agency



Trackmania games have very robust track editors that let the community build and share custom tracks very easily. This ease of use and immediacy allows new track genres to emerge organically from "grassroots" player communities, a practice that I've characterized before as "local level design" -- it is not just new ways of using the game's building blocks, but it also suggests entirely new ways of thinking about the game itself.

The "press forward" genre (or "PFs") is one of my favorite examples of emergent level genres. Instead of challenging players to hone reflexes and maneuvers on a track, a PF beckons the player to simply hold down "forward" as a mindbogglingly complex track swirls around them. Through no skill of their own, a player ends up executing amazing stunts -- spinning 1080 degrees in the air before barely grazing a ramp in just-the-right-way to land perfectly on the track below. If the player makes any kind of choice, like letting go of the "forward" key, or (god forbid) turning left by 0.1 degrees, the consequences are often fatal.

There's a famous saying that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." PFs are maybe the closest thing to actually dancing about architecture. Sometimes it feels like the track architect wanted to impress you, sometimes they are making a joke, sometimes they want to scare you. The PF frees us, to be more open and receptive to the ways that architecture speaks to us as we traverse it.

Notably, this is a track type that resists the dominant mode of playing Trackmania. It is a video game world that basically punishes you for even trying to wield any agency or control. When virtuosity is guaranteed, how many humans can resist the urge to fuck it up?