Streaming, Game Instrumentation, and Better Experiences

Happy New Year!

I’ve been watching a bit of video game streaming of late, and one thing that’s struck me is that most games aren’t instrumented to accommodate stream integration. I couldn’t find much information on the subject, so I thought I’d scratch out a few thoughts.

Streamers may want to track in-game deaths. That should be trivial with an API (and it may already be possible with game mods). Games should absolutely provide some kind of event stream that can easily be integrated into streamers’ on-screen displays. There are a wide variety of possibilities this opens up, including better multi-stream races (where the programmatic reporting of milestones can be plotted on a simple race chart) to better and automated tagging of stream clips (e.g., automatically linking to significant in-game events).

The Steam platform has added some game-tracking for their social component, so that you can see what your friends are playing with a little more detail, but that’s only a baby step. Valve’s own games also feature statistics, and with the advent of GDPR customers can see more of that data than ever, but there’s a lack of tools to connect that sort of data into something that would improve game streaming.

What else? How about viewer experience? The visual environment of the player can and should diverge from the viewer in some ways (with the viewer still having the choice to watch the game footage or the enhanced version). For example, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has a spectator mode that shows all players, shows grenade ballistic arcs, etc.

At some point, it may even go the other direction, with viewers being able to influence the experience of the streamer by causing enemies to spawn or such. Watching a charity stream earlier in the year, they played some Jackbox Party Pack 5 which lets viewers interact through a website/per-game password combination (rather than directly from the stream chat) in order to avoid the streamers seeing the viewers’ answers. There are also a few games like “Marbles on Stream”, which let viewers “play” by assigning their name to marbles in a physics simulation/marble racing game and see whose marble wins.

The interaction model may have to change a little, such as having streamer-blind chats for the purpose of letting viewers have more control without “stream sniping” (when someone can gain advantage by watching a stream or chat).

Some work on stream-and-chat interactions have already been done with the famous Twitch Plays Pokemon and the like. This seems like very fertile soil, and it seems reasonable to expect that game makers will start to implement things to let it develop and mature.

Review of Pyro Changes in Team Fortress 2: Jungle Inferno

Ten years on, Team Fortress 2 continues to receive new content. The latest is a new campaign and new weapons for the Pyro. This review assumes you are familiar with the game.

Here be not Flyros

Prior to the update, but after the announcement of the new weapons, there was widespread memery about the Flyro, which was a flying Pyro that was speculated to be utter havoc. The reality of the Thermal Thruster isn’t quite what was pondered. It grants some mobility, to be sure, but the delay in switching off to a flamethrower is such that the threat is mostly limited to Pyro being in places that one does not normally expect.

This is still a solid addition to the Pyro toolbelt, even if it denies the prospect of airborne combustion-based death-swarms. You can get places you couldn’t, and that plays into the flanking-style of Pyro. You give up a secondary weapon, though, which is quite painful as the Pyro already lacks range of attack.

They have awoken a sleeping dragon

The Dragon’s Fury feels like a combination of short-range rocket launcher and flamethrower. It packs a punch, is difficult to reflect, and can even light up other Pyros. But it is still range limited, which means Pyro still relies a lot more on position than some other classes.

One of the keys to this weapon seems to be its overwhelming force. It feels like classes that were used to taking Pyro down have at least a touch of fear to them now.

Upload them to the cloud

The Gas Passer has downsides. You don’t start with it, it has a slow recharge, and while you can recharge it through damage, it feels weird to give a player no secondary to start. But it is also versatile. It is a weak smoke grenade, it is a team-support weapon, making enemies easier to kill, and (people seem to forget) it’s a finisher. You can hit afterburning players with the gas, and the afterburn damage will itself light them up some more.

Of these three, it’s my least liked because of the downside of not starting with it. That feels like a cop-out. Other than the Soldier horns, this is the only item you don’t get an immediate benefit for running (and even there, the Concheror gives healing). It feels like it should at least have a passive effect or something else to make up for the delay in use.

That melee weapon

The melee category is all over the place, with some items giving great help and others just leaving you scratching your head. Most melee weapons are situational to begin with. So the Hot Hand isn’t really a big departure or disappointment. The main difficulty I found is that the speed burst is very short-lived, making it difficult to capitalize on. By the time you realize you landed a hit and got a speed boost, it’s already wasted.

Pyro is improved, both with these weapons and the other changes to flamethrowers. The sticking point for my own play remains sentry guns, and Pyro remains unchanged on that front. You can try to move around them, possibly with the Thermal Thruster, or you can search for a spot to flame them from cover, but you don’t have the sentry-busting capacity of Demoman or Soldier, and so ultimately you have to change classes to deal with sentries.

My choice for how to balance Pyro vs. Sentries would be to reduce the sentry’s range against Pyro. Lore-wise, the argument that the flame-retardant suit makes Pyro harder to track is plausible, and the change can be made in a way that Pyro has an easier time moving past sentries while not making them much easier to destroy.

The Valve Mod Marketplace Fiasco ARG

So I’d written a piece that painted the paid mod controversy as a new alternate-reality game by Valve. But since the whole thing is on hiatus, I guess it won’t work.

What can be said, instead?

I think Valve is right about the inevitability of paid mods and having a more fluid system for moving works online from free to paid. They just didn’t have a very successful rollout. Part of that was the 75% rake between Valve (30%) and Bethesda (45%), leaving the mod maker with the smallest share (25%). Sure, the money spends for a mod maker that would otherwise get none, but it rubs the buyer the wrong way.

There’s a lesson in that. If other semi-predatory industries like the music industry had a more prominent display of how little the artists get out of your $15 album purchase, it could shake things up a lot. And that goes for other industries like farming, clothing manufacturing, and so on. If people know that workers are getting screwed, they’ll at least make a stink. If they can just ignore it, because it’s not in their face, they’ll tend to ignore it.

There were issues with misappropriation of others’ mods. Valve will have a hard time working out a perfect model for derivatives and dependencies on the legal side of the issue. But they can at least push for better technological integration of mod dependencies in games.

And Valve is right to glimpse a future where games themselves might be seen as a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts assemblage of mods. Something like a patchwork quilt that you play on a computer. That future will come to pass in time. It won’t be exclusive, other non-mod-based games will exist. But it will live alongside those games, both feeding off them and feeding into them.

In the meantime, it appears that the factions I’d described in the hypothetical ARG seem to be here to stay. We will probably see mods that will license themselves only for use with free mods, for example. While others will say they’re happy to be used by paid mods.

But paid mods do give modders an incentive to work and a mechanism to buy work from others to make their own mods better. If you’re doing free mods exclusively, you might want to get some better textures or models, but have to take what’s free. If you sell the mod, however, you can afford to hire professionals to augment your abilities (e.g., if you’re writing code, you can pay other professionals can do the art) make that mod a bit better for customers.

The other thing this whole incident reminds us of is that we will undoubtedly see other monetizations come forward. You might earn gametime or rewards in future games by helping new players out (as a guide would through a dangerous environment in the real world), for example. Or you might earn real money for doing so, as some already do by streaming their gameplay.

The nature of gaming is so digital that it provides a key ground to try things that might not fly in other industries, and although Valve didn’t get it right the first time, I hope they keep working on it.

Half-Life 3 Speculation

Gabe Newell, head of Valve, recently gave an interview (SoundCloud: GameSlice: “#1: Gabe Newell and Erik Johnson from Valve”) where he spoke briefly about the possibility (or lack thereof) of Half-Life 3. This isn’t the first time he’s said things along the lines of, ‘we want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it with what we know now.’

Valve started out in the single-player world of games. The first Half-Life had multiplayer, but it was deathmatch only. Where the multiplayer code shined was in mods like Counter-Strike. Since then Valve has gone on to do more and more multiplayer and a lot of different market strategies with that.

It’s like seeing what you can do with the tools in a buddy’s woodshop with fancy powertools and then going back to a pocket knife and a stick. They don’t want to make another single-player linear game like Half-Life was, and they don’t know how to build into that universe in a multiplayer way (or if they do, they’ve not said so).

But they have a lot of data:

Team Fortress 2’s Mann versus Machine mode

They have some idea of how cooperative gameplay against an AI opponent can work. That’s not to say a potential multiplayer HL3 would look anything like MvM, but it is data they’d consider in building it.

Dota 2

They have some idea how cooperative and competitive go together, including AI friends and foes. All of these are present in Dota 2. It’s not clear if people would want to play as the Combine in a new HL3 game, but the possibility exists they would and could.

Others’ games

Valve also learns a lot from other games. Games like Borderlands 2 that feature cooperative play might give one possibility for a HL3 that isn’t all player characters, but where the core of heroes are people. Whether Valve would attempt a mission-driven game with maps like Borderlands 2 is an open question.

Valve also has content that never saw the light of day. Things like the commander class for earlier iterations of Team Fortress 2, which would have made it a partial RTS game might be something they look at and revamp for HL3 or it might not.

Ultimately, what HL3 will be isn’t as important as what it will contain:

  1. Freeman
  2. Scientists and allies
  3. Hostile aliens (headcrabs and zombies, plus others) and hostile humanoids (Combine or military)
  4. Gman

That’s the essence of Half-Life. The main challenge for multiplayer HL3 is that everyone wants to be Freeman. That was part of the appeal of the series, that you’re this lowly scientist that’s saving the world (and yourself). To suddenly break away from that and say “We’re all Robert Paulson” is a little cheap, but probably a necessity of a multiplayer Half-Life game.

It can be done, and done successfully. The message of mass movements is that everyone can carry part of the load, and that’s a very powerful message. But you still have the hanging string of Freeman to deal with. Is he dead? Moved up to management? Missing? Selling vacuums door-to-door?

Rise and shine, Mister Freeman. Your vacuum route awaits.

Why Valve is Doing SteamOS

Lots of people question why Valve wants to make SteamOS, Steam Machines, Steam Link, Steam Controllers. But Valve has been pretty open about their reasons. They are in several businesses:

  1. Making games
  2. Making game engines
  3. Selling games

They probably make the most off the third, but they still do the first two. But the third is a driver of decisions for them. They surely ask, as any business, “how do we expand?” To sell more games requires more people buying games. And as the PC declines a bit, that means other platforms.

Mobile, although increasing in power and certainly ubiquitous, is not currently a prime target. The living room is. The living room is a proven gaming environment. The living room has the big screen and the comfy couch. It makes a lot of sense for a gaming company to want to be there.

This same logic is driving decisions about engine design, not just for Valve but across the industry. Making content easier to create means a larger market with more lottery tickets to win consumer dollars. It makes the platform broader and expands what gaming means. So does game streaming, which is becoming more popular.

Other businesses could learn a lot from Valve and the gaming industry in this regard. Building out transport and lowering the friction to relocate to new opportunities would do wonders for the economy. Valve is doing both of those, in their own way, in their own market, with SteamOS.

By making a living room PC platform, they’re bridging a divide between two long-isolated groups: console gamers and PC gamers. With SteamOS in the living room, people will actually be able to play against mouse-and-keyboard gamers (either with a Steam Controller or with a mouse and keyboard).

At the same time, the console makers are pushing their own initiatives to do the same. But at present it’s not clear if you will be able to buy a game for a console and play it on a PC. And even if you can, how widespread will that option be?

Valve has some challenges. They have to make sure the SteamOS platform has feature parity with consoles. That means video streaming and music. It means actively courting games to be on Linux and making sure drivers are up to the job. It even means working on better APIs like Vulkan to ensure a cleaner development-to-market process.

But they have advantages as well. The Steam Machine market is a market, not a single offering from one company. Consumers can decide when to upgrade, how much to spend, and so on. They’re delivering competition and choice to consumers and betting the consumers will make the right choices for them.

At the end of the day, Valve is working to expand their market. They are doing that to make more money, but they seem to be doing it in a way that is smart enough to mean more money for others too. And that’s what good capitalism should focus on.