Categories
entertainment

How I Track Games to Buy

One year I made a spreadsheet, but it was a pain to update/maintain. Before (and after) it was just a text file listing. But for a few years now, I use bookmarks in Firefox. The URL of a game’s store page is the closest thing to a key value, and having the minimal data associated with it in the title is quicker than trying to manipulate it in a spreadsheet and flip between that and the browser.

When I see a game I might be interested in, I bookmark it into one of the following folders:

  1. Buy it.
  2. Conditional on price or possibly whether ProtonDB gives enough reports it works (for non-Linux games). I distill that information into something like: “p? (<$20; w+) TITLE” where p? means “does it run okay on Proton?” If a game does run okay on proton it gets p+ instead. This also now includes games that had exclusivity on another store (w+ means wait a year, explained more below).
  3. Unreleased games that look promising. I’ve never really done preorders. (This is for truly unreleased games, not ones in early access; I don’t have a problem with early access games, if there’s enough content and stability to them to buy them in their current state.)
  4. (Rare, but there) VR-exclusive games that maybe I’ll buy and play someday. For now I lack the necessary reality hardware.
  5. (For those that graduate through the system) Bought games, which are nested inside of a dated folder to track when they were bought.

For the ones I do buy, I add the price I paid (though it happens when I’m deciding to buy them, as I use it to figure out how much I’m spending before purchase). After I’ve played them, I also add a prefix of up to three exclamation points for titles I thought were really good buys.

About 30% of the games I bought last winter got at least one exclamation point. More of those came from the conditional set than the definite-buy group (though the conditional group was slightly under twice the size). On average, for conditional games, the sale prices were slightly below my cutoff price (within a few dollars).

The conditional price is based on several signals, including reviews, particularly negative reviews. If a game is noted to be shorter or lacking in some specific way that makes me wary of buying it, but it seems salable at a lower price (often, reviews note that: “wait for a sale”), that becomes the condition.

The Proton condition is generally less relevant: by the time I play a game it probably works in Proton/WINE. But some games have notes from players for how to avoid crashes or increase framerates, so ProtonDB is usually worth checking for non-Linux games.

The wait condition is because of the store exclusivity some games have now. I disagree with that practice, so I make a point not to buy a game that was exclusive for a full year after its exclusivity expires. There are a ton of games to buy and play, and while many great games get exclusivity, a far greater number do not play such games with their customers. If you want to play games with your company’s reputation by making exclusivity deals, expect to be judged for it. Maybe the money is worth it, but that doesn’t mean gamers have to respect the decision.

Why not use Steam’s wishlist feature? While there is some convenience to that feature, it doesn’t allow for annotations as my bookmarks system does. There are also some privacy implications to wishlisting, but I’m not sure what call I’d make if the wishlist system were more comprehensive.

A few statistics: I currently only have one unconditional game in my list (likely more reflective of not having reviewed my conditional list and promoted some out of it). There are 41 conditional games, and about a third are holdovers. Some didn’t meet my price last time, and others I might decide against getting. There are also 19 unreleased games I’m looking at.

In terms of satisfaction, some combination of luck and effectiveness I didn’t really feel like I had any duds in the latest set of games I bought and played. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily remember all of them from their titles. I remember most, though, and the ones I don’t couldn’t have been particularly bad, because I definitely remember the games I’ve bought and felt like they were a waste—some because they’re just bad, but others because they’re not for me.

That last grouping is particularly interesting to me. Even for games I don’t buy or even consider, some sound like they’d be cool if I enjoyed that type of game. Others feel like if they had a different concept or changed the gameplay (akin to what I discussed recently about Cortex Command), they would be really awesome. There are some games that really nail an aesthetic, but the gameplay just isn’t there.


(You can stop reading now unless you want to hear some brief thoughts on Firefox’s bookmarks system.)

The biggest problem with the system is the lack of polish for Firefox’s bookmarks system. They still don’t have a tab-based bookmark browser, for example. They’ve tried to get that done (getting so far as to even have a version hiding behind a preference at one point, if I recall correctly), with some good work put into it, only to have it skim off the atmosphere before it could land, and now it is bitrotting as it drifts through space. Oy.

To try to look up a game quickly, the easiest way (if I recall its name) is to prefix my lookup with an asterisk in the awesomebar (which restricts it to bookmarks). E.g., “* Amnesia” would show Amnesia: Rebirth, a currently-unreleased game I’ll look at once it’s released (I enjoyed SOMA by the same folks, but while I have played at least a half-dozen horror-style games, I still have mixed feelings about the genre in terms of the gameplay mechanics involved and the lack of player agency beyond run-and-hide).

But if I don’t remember a title, or just want to browse, the bookmarks menu is cumbersome when you’re trying to get into folders inside folders inside folders in a cascading menu. A basic iconized file browser would feel much nicer.

Categories
math

Playing: The Devil’s Calculator

Cinq-Mars Media: The Devil’s Calculator

The Devil’s Calculator is a game with a simple concept. You have a calculator with unknown operators replacing the normal calculator options of plus, minus, x, and dot line dot or whatever those are. You have to play around to figure out what the mystery operators do, and then use them to get the calculator to output 666 in some way.

The game has 68 base levels (there are post-game ones, and you can create your own, too) in a few distinct phases:

  1. Unary operators (or single-argument functions)
  2. Binary operators (or two-argument functions)
  3. Unary and binary together
  4. Number sequences (or mapping functions)
  5. Number sequences and one unary or binary
  6. All three types together

Number sequences are patterns, such as the Fibonacci sequence, where inputting a number n refers to the nth number in that sequence.

Within each phase, the first levels are easier, and they get harder as you go, following a rollercoaster-type pattern. After each of the first segments there are short montages that show you what the new operator type is (unary, binary, and sequence).

The input of numbers and functions can be complex or simple, with recursion and order of operations coming into play.

For example, with a unary operator &, - (unary negation), and the number 3, you can do:

  • &3
  • &-3
  • -&3
  • -&-3
  • Multiple uses of & on top of those above.

So, if & is f(x) = -x + 1, the outputs would be:

  • -2
  • 4
  • 2
  • -4

Approaching the Game

Each level has two parts:

  1. Figuring out the operators and sequences involved.
  2. Figuring out how to use those to create the number 666.

I often found part two of the levels, getting that number out, to be harder than figuring out the level’s tools. Both parts are made harder at times by numbers and the decimal and plus/minus keys being possessed so that you cannot use them. On the other hand, that possession also gives a clue that having those keys might make things too easy.

Players should use all the tools at their disposal. The game itself includes references and links to Wolfram Alpha (Wolfram|Alpha) and the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS). I used the latter for several of the sequence levels, but instead of Wolfram Alpha I tended to use Python scripting when I needed a leg up on some of the calculating.

Players should also keep a list of their answers, including what they understood the operators and sequences to be, as some of them are reused, and even looking at what you’ve done before can help to inform your approach to the next levels.

Difficulty

I consider it moderately difficult (I’m on level 64 after about ten hours of play), but it’s harder to handicap as the difficulty will vary by how familiar and experienced the player is with math. For students without much mathematical background, it would be more difficult, and they would be best off by tackling the levels over a longer period of time. For more experienced math persons, it would probably be a crack.

There are hints available, and you can skip levels if stuck (though the next level may also be sticky).


As I work on the final levels of the game, I’ve enjoyed my time with it. With each level beaten, there is a feeling that you are outsmarting that devil that has taken over the calculator. If you have a decent math or programming background or want to improve your math, it’s definitely worth a look.

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.