Categories
entertainment

Random Thoughts on VR and Game Streaming

With some new modes of gaming, it’s useful to write down some thoughts.

VR

The main hurdle to adoption is the need to purchase hardware. In general I don’t buy much hardware for specific uses, and VR is therefore a harder sale as it isn’t a general tool for computing.

It’s possible VR does become more generally useful, in terms of non-gaming content coming out, but even then it’s not like having a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, it seems. The best case is that the HMDs can become thinner in their built-in technologies, relying more on their host system for any computational needs. In that, their costs can drop to where they are mostly the cost of the built-in displays.

The immersion of VR is very important and a useful artistic tool. There are other aspects of VR gaming that are very attractive, including having two hands where every traditional first-person game only lets you have one hand. The trailer for HL: Alyx shows at least one event where they intentionally occupy one hand to remove that advantage, which is a good indication that the creators think that feeling of limitation is an interesting interaction—that the player in VR, used to having two hands, will find only having one available is challenging and heightens the excitement of the combat there.

I will probably get into VR gaming in a few years, when the hardware is further developed and hopefully more stable.

Streaming

There are a lot of upsides and downsides to the streaming games platforms like Google Stadia. One upside is that it makes cheating much harder to do without full-on machine learning. Another is the lack of install and update needs.

But there are obvious downsides, including the sensitivity to latency and the general reliance on the network to game at all.

Another big problem is the inability to modify gameplay. Mods for computer games have always been part of their charm and appeal. Many of the games I have played over the years began as modifications of other games. It is unclear how or if a streaming platform would allow for players to create and install modifications beyond a very superficial set of cosmetics.

I doubt I would play streaming games any time soon. The variety of games already available and the lack of any big draw to streaming makes it well outside of my personal appeal in gaming. But for the larger gaming market, particularly casual gamers, the choices and tradeoffs do show some appeal. That’s especially true for introducing gaming to players who might later decide to buy hardware for gaming or other purposes.

Indeed, the lack of ability to modify console games never deterred those players (though there have been some ways at times to modify even console games, for those who wanted to).


Hope all have had a happy Thanksgiving holiday.

Categories
design

Thoughts on the Steam Client Library Update

First, what is the update and what is it not? The update covers the Steam library, listing the user’s games and the display of individual games themselves. It’s not a revamp of all the web pages and application views that form parts of the library, like achievement pages or the downloads view. Those will likely be updated in look and feel to match the new styles over time.

The biggest change is the addition of the new home section, which is a jumping-off point to other parts of the library. It adds a new events/news serial at the top, where you can see game news including media and updates to games.

The primary art for games is now in portrait format (600×900). This, alongside the addition of a large banner image at the top of each game page, are the biggest visual changes. The portrait format affords space for text and art with some separation where the old banner style (what Valve calls capsule) really require putting the two together. But the capsule format is still used in at least a few places, including for the most-recently played game and on the downloads view.

The collections system, formerly more like tags, now allows for dynamic grouping. I tend to track several properties of games, like whether I played them yet and what their style of game is, besides noting of they require a EULA or have broken features on Linux (a few games I’ve played required using Proton in order for achievements to unlock).

One downside of the collection system is that if you navigate to a game from the home screen, it will be opened from the first collection alphabetically. It might be useful to let users designate a primary collection that a game belongs to, so that it will be shown as selected from the most sensible category and not one that happens to be first in some old song that lists letters.


On the whole this is a nice update. The most notable thing is that it matches design changes that are happening across the larger digital space. While books developed a fairly consistent design schema a long time ago, the digital sphere is still trying to do so. It still has a way to go, as seen in the choice to maintain website icons as squares (which, far as I can tell, was a change driven by Apple and their iOS choices) while something like the Steam library uses portraits.

In terms of the future of Steam, a lot of this will depend on developers using the new events system and updating their artwork. As of writing, roughly 2/3 of my games have updated art for the beta, with the rest using the capsule-style art with a blur effect to fill the extra space.

As mentioned, other parts of the client experience still use the old capsules. While it takes work to create the separate representations, having the visual differentiation is useful as far as it goes. One wonders whether a compositing system wouldn’t work better, with separate images for graphical logos and backgrounds being able to be adjusted to aspect ratio requirements at display time, with some caching for frequently composited elements. Ah well.

Categories
entertainment

The Steam Trade-off as a Linux User

With the excitement around Epic launching their own store and the advent of fresh competition for Valve’s Steam, here are some thoughts from a Linux gamer perspective.

First, what is the meaning of Steam or any storefront? They are a middleman, providing a marketplace for games to be bought and sold. But they are also a steward of that market, providing a common tissue for the delivery of the games, for the discussion and discovery, and all these other features. Some have more popular off-platform competitors. Others are too ingrained in the platform to be competed on without an alternative platform.

But one of the thing that Valve is doing with Steam, which it seems unlikely that Epic or any of the newcomers will do, is to spend resources in the interest of Linux-based gaming. They have supported Linux for several years now, including for their own games. They are doubling-down on this support with the SteamPlay/Proton integration that allows for Windows games to be run on Linux through an implementation of the Windows APIs.

Part of what you pay for when you pay the “Steam tax” (or the “Epic tax” or any other share of a sale that goes to an intermediary) is for the other activities a platform or marketplace delivers. Whether that’s Linux support or community forums or ARGs, the business decides what to deliver and thereby justify their fee.

The option of going to Epic’s store, or to other stores, is weaker for Linux due to lack of support. Steam deciding to make Proton such a first-class offering only makes that proposition weaker. For Linux gaming at the moment, Steam is the most attractive option, and there are no signs of that changing soon.

Steam currently supports gaming for Linux, but if they didn’t, Linux gamers would keep using WINE directly, as we did before 2013. As long as Valve is investing in Linux, though, their tax seems like a fair deal for Linux users, when the alternative is Epic’s lower tax but nothing for Linux.

Categories
linux

With WINE, Buying Unsupported (?) Games on Steam

Interesting news that Valve has developed and integrated a WINE fork called Proton into the Linux version of their game launcher. The consideration now becomes whether to buy games that work through this compatibility layer but don’t otherwise support Linux.

There are always a lot of people on forums that speak of dual-booting, and that class will mostly buy games regardless of Linux support. For them, lack of Linux support was never a deal breaker, even if they would have liked to have support. Game access comes first, and they’ll be happy to keep buying the games they want, playing them in a Linux environment when they can.

There are people that have used WINE or similar layers all along from Linux, and they would buy whatever games they liked that they could verify would work via the WINE database (plus natively supported games). For this group, access via Linux, by any means, comes first. But they’ll still happily keep doing their thing.

There are also plenty who will want first-class Linux support, and that group is harder to judge now. If a game’s support is via WINE/Proton, does that count as first class? Especially if they are willing to fix bugs that arise, either by contributing to Proton or by changing their own game. One issue there is that updating games for Windows to fix bugs for Linux seems weird. It’ll be up to Valve and developers to decide whether having a “Windows-WINE” flavored repository makes sense for developers that use that approach.

But I digress. Some of the purist camp will not want to play games via compatibility, but if the developers signal they support Linux through WINE/Proton, others will consider support support.

The main long-term benefit of adding a compatibility layer may actually be bigger than Linux gaming. Due to WINE’s potential for portability, there may be places that Windows games end up working in the distant future that nobody planned on.


I installed and tried the old Katamari Damacy clone, The Wonderful End of the World (Dejoban Games). It worked just fine. There were only one or two models without rendered textures (black instead), and only one occasion where mouse-capture was partially lost (alt-tabbing out and in fixed that).

When I get a chance, I’ll try some other games I haven’t played in the years since I left Windows. I suspect most of them will mostly work.

Whether I’ll buy games that work through “Steam Play,” I haven’t decided just yet. I’ll certainly consider it, though.

Categories
entertainment

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.