Marvel Strike Force, the mobile character-collection title from FoxNext, is coming up on its one-year anniversary. While the community has criticized various aspects of the game’s live-service approach, such as the implementation of the random nature of its supercharging Red Stars system, reception has been overall positive on the experience and the player base has spent more than $150 million on the game in its first 12 months.
I sat down with FoxNext vice president and general manager Amir Rahimi to talk about the first year of Marvel Strike Force, what the Disney acquisition means for the game, and what players can expect in Year Two and beyond. To learn more about the massive Alliance War update coming near the game’s first anniversary, head here.
GI: You’re celebrating a year of Marvel Strike Force with the new Alliance War mode. This has been in the menu as a placeholder since launch last year.
Rahimi: This is a feature that we actually came up with at the same time that we concepted the entire game. For games that are live services, you need them to evolve and grow, and you need an almost endless supply of cool, new features to entertain your fan base with. The first generation of games-as-service, you’d launch a game, see how it did, and then you would just start adding stuff. Often times, a lot of big systems you’d see added onto games would feel bolted on and not quite natural.
As live-service games mature – and certainly this is what we’re trying to do in this case – you kind of think about it the way you might concept a pilot for a TV show; you don’t just think about what will happen in the pilot, you think about what will happen over the entire course of the show, hopefully running many, many seasons. That was the approach here. We wanted to not launch with Alliance War because the game was going to be a big enough challenge to get out there, but really design the game for Alliance War and design them hand-in-hand. We started working on this feature literally the day we started working on the project, and we’ve, kind of in the background, been slowly working with it and noodling with it and thinking about it this entire time.
What took so long to implement Alliance War?
By the time we launched the game, the foundation for the feature had already been implemented. We prototyped it and we actually felt it, but the closer we got to launch, the more resources we needed to finish up the game. It was more about having every available person on the team to make sure the core game is great for launch. Then, post-launch, for the first couple of months, ‘Let’s make sure the game is stable, let’s make sure the systems are working well, and let’s plug any holes we see in terms of fun, new features.’ It was more a matter of focus right around a launch, then we turned our attention in a big way towards this.
Now, for the past several months, a huge number of people on the team have been working on this feature, and it’s been the focus. The reason it’s taken so long – distractions aside – is this really is a game within a game. The complexity here is enormous. The amount of agency that players have compared to other systems in these types of games is enormous. There are so many edge cases and so many ways to play this mode, it takes an incredibly long time not just to build, but then playtest. You’ve got to live with the mode. We need to play it as much as we can to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working an iterate on that.
With the game doing well and being healthy, and our fans sticking around and supporting us, we felt less pressure to just rush something out there. We wanted to make sure it was great. So we took a couple of months and we invited some of the Alliances in the game to come try it out and got their feedback.
You say you had this massive mode concepted before Marvel Strike Force was even close to launch. Does that mean you have the next big Alliance War-size mode thought up already?
We do, but it’s a little too early to talk about it because it might change. We also have just a ton of systems that we really, really like and are trying to prioritize at the moment. There are so many different ways we can extend this game that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches because there are so many things that we want to do, and only a limited number of people to do them. What we try to do is balance giant systems like [Alliance War] with smaller systems players will appreciate.
Another trap that teams that run live games like this one fall into is that it’s really easy to always do small systems that clutter up your pipe and your roadmap, so sometimes it’s hard to dedicate the time and resources to do big things. We have a commitment to prioritize big systems, which the downside of that is you slow down your general cadence. It’s a really tricky balance.
With so much new emphasis being put on Alliances with this mode, are there any plans to improve the invite system? Finding new members or even inviting specific players to your Alliance can be a nightmare.
What you’re talking about is one of the most underdeveloped parts of the game, and we’re acutely aware of that and we’re working on better tools for exactly that.
What has the team learned from the first year of Marvel Strike Force?
We’ve run live games before, but the running of a live game constantly evolves, and the touchpoint with players generally increases, as does the level of sophistication of our player base. When we launched Marvel Strike Force, our cadence of communication with our player base was poor; we weren’t doing a great job of communicating enough, and we heard that feedback and we responded. I think we’ve become better at that. That’s an area we want to continue to improve on.
More and more, we realized we’re all sort of in this together. We love having a good relationship with our player base. We love the feedback. We want the feedback. We want to build games in concert and hand in hand with our players. I think it’s a really difficult thing to do, because with a player base as big as the one in Strike Force, you have a lot of different opinions, and pretty extreme different ones. We’ve learned a lot about figuring out the true signal from our player base versus a lot of the noise that we hear. That’s an area we want to get better at.
With so much noise and yelling online, how do you take the feedback that you find online and turn it into something constructive and actionable?
We have a lot of very passionate employees in the company that are really listening. We have dedicated community managers and customer service who’s job 100 percent is to read all these things and filter out what we consider to be noise. It’s clear, right? You go on some of these channels and you see people ranting and raving, a lot of times it’s hard to take something meaningful away when there’s so much passion there.
With every game and every service, you have a lot of haters who just want to come and make snarky comments. We try to pay less attention to those people, but there are a lot of people on these channels who are just enormous fans of our game and deeply passionate about it. And very articulate! They give us incredible feedback! When people say something that rings true, even if it’s not something we want to hear, it’s great because it’s a new perspective that we take very seriously. It’s not just the customer service people and it’s not just the community managers; we have people on our dev team – really talented people who are actually building things – on these channels all the time, reading and listening.
Give me an overall assessment of Year One of Marvel Strike Force.
This team and studio has been together since 2002. In many ways, this is the most successful game we’ve ever launched. I think the assessment is that the game is doing incredibly well. We announced that the game has done about $150 million in its first year, but what’s more impressive than that is the retention numbers. We’re seeing players who installed the game the day that it came… we’re seeing the size of that cohort actually increasing in the past few months, which means people installed it the day the game came out, played it a bunch, and now a lot of the ones who stopped playing it are now coming back to the game. It’s a lot stickier than I anticipated it to be, and we thought it would be a very sticky game. We’re seeing engagement increase, and we’re seeing a game that has the potential to be around for a decade. And that’s, far more than the revenue numbers, the thing that makes us the most proud about what we built. That’s ultimately what we’re in it for: to keep a really great community of players happy and entertained for a very, very long time. I think the indications that we’re seeing is that Strike Force is one of those games that is going to last hopefully forever.
One of the biggest deterrents for a lot of people with free-to-play games is that they often either feel exploitative or unfairly tilted toward premium players or designed to push players into spending money. Obviously, there are systems in Marvel Strike Force meant to encourage players to spend money, but how do you balance microtransactions so that a free-to-play player doesn’t feel cheated when compared to premium players?
That’s a really difficult thing to do. The way that we look at it is we 100 percent, genuinely want to allow players to play this game for free forever and have a really great time. It’s not our mission to make every single player in the game spend money. We look at our Arenas, and there are a lot of players in the top 50, top 20, even the top 10, who have not spent any money at all. That’s something we’re incredibly proud of. Like any hobby, if a player wants to spend money in our game, we obviously want to empower that and have that be an incredible experience as well.
Last year, shortly after Marvel Strike Force launched, I wrote a piece calling the game “one of the most addictive game I’ve played all year.” However, one of my sole criticisms in that piece is that the game had some of the least appetizing microtransactions I’ve ever seen. How has the team tweaked those to make them more enticing for players?
What we try to optimize for is to not gouge players for as much money as possible. We’ve learned that, in a lot of cases, that’s a very negative thing. A lot of times if someone spends too much money up front, there’s things like buyer’s remorse, or the equivalent of eating too much or having too much candy at once and feeling sick. We don’t try to create systems that encourage that. We want players to play for a very, very long time. Obviously we want them to spend money – we’re a business and we need to make money – but we want that to be a very measured spend.
If you think about it, say Starbucks; a lot of people spend $15 or $20 a week on Starbucks on coffee and snacks and stuff and that’s a great value for them and they’ll do that forever. What I try to do is build a games business like that, where you can play it for free and you don’t have to spend any money, but if you do and decide to spend $15 or $20 a week or so, you’ll have a really satisfying experience with that spend.
One way you’ve made players feel good about playing Marvel Strike Force is by compensating them for mistakes or outages. We don’t often see that with other mobile games. What is the line of thinking in being so generous with these make-goods?
One of our core tenants is we do things that players thank us for. We want to provide the best possible experience, so if we mess up, we want to make good on that mess up. If you couldn’t get into a mode for a certain number of days, you just lost out on a certain amount of progress, and we take that very seriously. We take it on our shoulders for the players who experienced those, and for everyone else in the game, to benefit from that builds a lot more goodwill than the cost of what we’re giving out.
We’re not trying to hide the fact that we mess up. We make mistakes all the time. We launch bugs and we make bad decisions on our live operations sometimes. We want our players to know that we’re figuring this out as well, and we’re trying our best and we’re trying to provide the best experience possible. We’re going to mess up sometimes and hopefully we’re going to learn from it and get better.
An example of listening to players and fixing mistakes seems to be with the Dark Dimension tweaks you’ve announced. Can you talk about that a little?
We wanted that mode to be incredibly difficult. We like having big challenges that are sort of aspirations for players to overcome one day, like a long-term goal to have. What we found was players feel like the entry to that mode is beyond challenging. The first few missions are so incredibly difficult that the mode turns players off. We’re either adding missions or tweaking the existing missions, but we’re going to create a more gentle ramp into the experience, so you can get in and immediately make some progress and feel good about the mode.
With such a challenging mode giving players a hard time, do you know when the level-cap increase might come to give characters a small boost?
Soon! I don’t know exactly when, but it’s something that we’ve already been working on and we’re queuing it up to go out very soon. I know if we do it too quickly, players get upset, but if we take too long, players get upset. It’s hard to know what the sweet spot is. We got a lot of feedback that we went a little too fast up to 70, so we want to be respectful of the player base. Like I said before, you have so many varying opinions, so sometimes it’s hard to know what the right call is. But I do think there are a lot of players who have been at 70 for a while now who are probably looking forward to that cap increase.
Despite Dark Dimension being incredibly hard, some players have already beaten the hardest “Fear the Darkness” mode, which FoxNext set as a challenge to the community. What was your reaction when Widowmaker seemed to breeze right through that mode?
That surprised the hell out of us! We did not expect someone to get through it that quickly! We expected it to be at least a year, but we thought what he did was super cool and super classy. When he beat it, he had his entire roster at seven stars except for The Hulk, so we were sure that’s the character he was going to pick as the character we gave out 100 free shards for, but for him to do what he did and hook up the entire player base [with Captain Marvel] was really, really cool.
Was there any part of you that was disappointed he chose to give everyone Captain Marvel for free when you had just implemented all those milestones to unlock her?
We knew that players would still want to power her up, and stories like this one with Widowmaker do so much good for the community. Giving that many free shards of [Captain Marvel] to everyone. And we have so many characters in the game; we have a packed roadmap. We love doing things like this that just make players happy and do things that players will thank us for. Also, with this login calendar that’s going on now with those milestones to power her up, we’re seeing some of the best engagement in the game that we’ve ever seen. We just look at it as an opportunity to do things that players will thank us for. We know we’ve done things that weren’t great for the community in the past, and we’re learning from those things, but the intent is to create the most entertaining game possible.
Speaking of Captain Marvel, she was an obvious choice to add to the roster of collectable heroes since her movie just came out. Some choices are obvious, like when Venom came out and he was added or Infinity War brought Thanos to the game, but what is the overall process for determining which characters are added?
It’s largely driven by what you just said. We know that when Captain Marvel comes out, players are going to be so excited for that character that they’ll want to pull up the game and interact with that character; that’s the primary driver. I would say that the secondary driver is our design team taking a step back and thinking about what the game and what the meta needs. For example, when we were designing Nick Fury, we knew he was going to be one of the most powerful [characters] in the game. We want the game to always be balanced, so when he comes out and he’s as dominant as he is, we start thinking about, “What’s a team that can challenge that SHIELD team, but not in a way that obsoletes them, but in a way that creates some fun and healthy competition within the player base?” When we approach it from that way, plus doing right by the Marvel Universe, it puts the right types of constraints on us to figure out which characters to focus on.
How many new characters will we see in 2019?
I think the cadence at which we’ve been going is something we’ll probably continue. I don’t think we’ll dramatically increase or decrease our cadence of new heroes.
We’ve seen Doctor Doom appear as a non-playable character for special event raids. Are the Fantastic Four on the horizon? You told me last year that while you could get the X-Men, Marvel wasn’t giving the Fantastic Four to anyone.
That has changed. We managed to secure the Fantastic Four. We’re incredibly excited about that, so expect some really cool stuff to come out.
Did that have to do with the recent Disney acquisition of Fox?
Not at all, actually. It was completely separate from that.
How does the acquisition affect Marvel Strike Force and FoxNext?
It’s 100-percent business as usual. We just became a part of Disney, so before the deal is closed, there are some very strict legal reasons why the buyer can’t really interact much with the company they’re buying, so it’s been 100-percent business as usual since. Now that we’re a part of Disney, we’ve been assured that nothing is going to change with the way that we develop and operate Marvel Strike Force. Marvel Strike Force is incredibly important to Disney and it’s a very successful game. We don’t expect to change at all now that we’re a part of Disney.
I know it’s very recent, but has anyone at Disney assured you that things will continue as they’ve been to this point or indicated that they’re happy with the game’s performance?
Oh they totally have. We’ve talked to them and they’re very, very pleased with how it’s going. They’ve already assured us that there’s no plans to mess with a machine that is doing really well, and a game that is healthy and entertaining millions of people. They have no intentions in messing with that at all.
Can you give any teases for the roadmap ahead?
We love the Alliance War feature and we’re really excited about it. What I will tease and hint is that it in a way sort of scratches the surface with that feature, with how you can interact with the helicarrier, with how you can use that helicarrier to interact with other Alliances, how you can collaborate in building up a helicarrier. We’re just getting started with this release and I think you’ll see some really great improvements and even big, giant, new systems that will take Alliance War to another level.
Do you have any plans for an event celebrating Avengers: Endgame?
We try to do as many cool events related to what’s going on in the MCU as possible, so I would not be surprised if we did.
Has the team explored bringing Marvel Strike Force to other platforms like consoles or PC?
We haven’t because we’ve been so focused on creating the best possible experience on mobile. That said, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work really well on other platforms. It’s not really something we’ve contemplated, but now that you mention it, I could see it working on PC and console. What I will say is that if you think about the future of the industry, I think lines between PC, console, and mobile are just going to continue to get blurrier and blurrier and the screen that you play on is not really going to matter. You’re just going to be bringing your experience across every single different type of screen. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there for Strike Force, but I do know that’s where the industry is all headed.
For more on Marvel Strike Force, check out our in-depth preview of the upcoming new mode, Alliance War.
I turned 30 this year and am experiencing a sort of quiet realization that will be familiar to a lot of folks pondering their age: time is a super valuable resource. The scarcity of the time I have to myself is after all the reason I didn’t play Kingdom Hearts 3 when it released earlier this year, mostly because everyone kept saying you had to play through 100-plus hours of content before you even started the game to get the most out of it. I was happy that long-time series fans received the quality game they had been waiting so many years for, but the cost of investing myself in the series to get to that point just wasn’t worth it. That’s not a knock against Kingdom Hearts, but more of a reflection of where I’m at in my life and what I look for in gaming experiences.
Cue Devil May Cry 5.
Before I loaded up DMC5, I’d only played Ninja Theory’s reboot before, and had not touched any of the mainline series games. I was intrigued by the look of the fast-paced action gameplay in the trailers for 5 and what my colleagues had been saying about the game in their various write-ups. I asked our reviews editor, Joe Juba, who reviewed the game if it was the sort of game you could just dive into without playing any of the others. I promptly picked it up and started playing it when I got home.
After a brief video that explains the character relationships and the storyline for Devil May Cry up to this point, 5 loads you immediately into the action and it’s frantic as hell. There are gothy dudes who look like they just walked out of Hot Topic circa 2005 wielding big guns and bigger swords and fighting demons. One guy reads Shakespeare from a little notebook right before commanding his panther to rip the mandibles off of a giant demon mantis thing. Entire buildings are covered in slime and oozing blood and, well, it’s just a lot, my friends. A lot.
But not in a bad way. Devil May Cry 5 is so dedicated to its over-the-top antics and thrills that while it does pay respect to the narrative threads running throughout the series, focusing on Nero and Dante’s relationship of begrudging respect, it’s also essentially a standalone game in the ways that matter. I devoured the game in three sittings. As I launched foes into the air with sharp uppercuts and then blew them apart with a literal bazooka, a huge grin broke out across my face. Whatever concerns I had about being overwhelmed by DMC’s hefty amount of lore evaporated.
I think the best point of comparison here might be The Fast and The Furious film franchise – an epic saga about family and speeding that can also be divided into enjoyable standalone films. Do you need to watch the first four Fast and the Furious movies to get the most out of Fast Five and understand the characters’ relationships to one another? Technically, yeah, but Fast Five also functions by itself as a ridiculously enjoyable movie. You can load it up, watch it without context, and have a hell of a time. And it’s that sort of setup that I appreciate in video game sequels.
I love when it feels like a game has gone out of its way to ease me into its world and Devil May Cry 5 does just that with its intro video and focus on action over building a story that really mines the depths of who these characters are. I mean, let’s be real here: this is a game about bonking demons over the head with swords and then blasting their faces off in cool slow-mo. The barrier for entry should not be high and I’m glad that Capcom has made it so.
Another sequel I’ve enjoyed recently is The Division 2 (our review here). I did technically play a little bit of the first game before getting annoying by its lackluster shooting, but that amounted to an hour at the most. Alongside moving locales, The Division 2 wisely makes its story standalone. “A devastating biological terror has reduced Washington DC to a city of warring factions you need to bring to order” is a super simple premise to understand and a fantasy that the game does a great job of turning into a playground for you to inhabit. Other recent sequels that take their designation as a chance to bring in new players as well as enthralling fans of the previous games: Resident Evil 7, Red Dead Redemption 2, Yakuza Kiwami 2, and Valkyria Chronicles 4.
Of course, not every sequel needs to be accessible. Sometimes the very nature of where the series is at and what the entry is going for means that a game has to be pretty inaccessible. I think Kingdom Hearts III fits that bill pretty nicely. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, one of my favorite video games of all time, is also pretty inaccessible to someone who hasn’t played The New Order and I think a large part of the reason those games work well is because it’s a straight up continuation of the fascinating characters the first game introduced. To interfere with that by engaging people who didn’t play the previous entry would probably be to The New Colossus’ detriment. So please don’t think I’m saying that every sequel should be accessible.
However, I am pleased that the vast majority of sequels I’ve played over the past year or so, including sequels to games I’ve never touched, have been very newcomer friendly. It’s a wise move for developers and publishers too. After all, I’m already carving out precious time next month to go back and play through Devil May Cry 4 because of how much I enjoyed 5. Making games accessible on all fronts is a great, smart trend that helps build an audience for franchises and one that I hope the industry doesn’t stop embracing anytime soon.
Every year, many of the best and brightest minds in video games converge in San Francisco to attend the Game Developers Conference. Many of them bring along brand new games ready for their moment in the spotlight. From the large GDC Play area and the Indie Megabooth to specially curated showcases hosted by Nintendo and Microsoft, there is no shortage of exciting titles.
Here is an evolving list of the coolest and most interesting indie games the Game Informer crew saw at the conference. Come back each day, as we plan to continually update this list with more promising titles throughout the show.
Games are listed alphabetically.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Night School Studio
Night School Studio, the creators of Oxenfree, has a knack for creating unique premises and interesting dialogue. Afterparty is no exception, placing you right in hell. Your only way out? Outdrink satan himself. Apparently, hell is all about alcohol and what you drink impacts your personality, such as making you more aggressive or flirty. This gives you different dialogue options and opens up various paths to completing your objective.
Our demo had us trying to get into a VIP room. While there are a few different ways to do this, we chose to impress our way in with our beer pong skills. The intense match had us taunting our opponent to get them to fumble and trying our best to aim the ball to reach the cup. All the bars you visit have their own theme, one plays off the bustling Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya, while another puts you in a Nebraska wasteland. The game obviously takes a more comical tone, but also explores the nature of friendship by having your swap between BFFs Milo and Lola, who just graduated from college and end up in hell due to an accident. Thankfully, you’ll have your chance to drink with the devil and discover more soon enough as Afterparty launches later this year. –Kimberley Wallace
Developer: The Wandering Band
Take a city builder like SimCity and put it in the sky and you have a bit of an idea what Airborne Kingdom is like. In this creative sim from The Wandering Band, you manage and build a massive airship that slowly grows into a city. I started with a small town hall and only a dozen people, but as I built new houses, gathered food, and satisfied the needs of my population, I attracted more people to my utopia in the sky. However, you need to maintain balance; if you build too much on one side of the city, the whole thing can actually tip over. After building sky oars, I was able to move my city through the atmosphere, so I could meet other land-based nations. Some of these cities give you quests – like building specific districts or reaching new population limits – and when you complete these small tasks you earn new building blueprints and other technology. Airborne Kingdom is still in the early stages, but I’m already planning my own version of Columbia. –Ben Reeves
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Developer: FakeFish, Undertow Games
We’ve encountered hundreds of different types of games since Game Informer was formed in 1991, but we’ve never played a 2D cooperative online drowning simulator in space before. That’s the descriptor developers FakeFish and Undertow use to explain Barotrauma. In this game, a team of up to 16 players works together to navigate the treacherous waters under the frozen surface of Jupiter’s Europa moon. Each person takes assumes a particular role aboard the ship, from the captain and security officer to the electrical engineers and mechanics needed to keep the sub running. Along the journey, anything that can go wrong will. Monsters attack the ship, forcing players to man the turrets and repair hull breaches before the flooding disrupts vital operations. Crew members get sick, systems fail, fires break out, and when these hazards pop off simultaneously it makes for some frantic play sessions. –Matt Bertz
Dead End Job
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Developer: Ant Workshop
With a great sense humor, a cool Ren and Stimpy-inspired art style, and an engaging gameplay loop of working your way up the ranks, Dead End Job is a game to keep your eye on. You may be an “everyday Joe” who cleans up after others, but instead of clearing areas of trash you’re actually a ghostbuster, working at Ghoul-B-Gone. As the name implies, you eliminate various apparitions by blasting and vacuuming them up. You start at the bottom of the totem pole as an intern, but the better you get, the more glamorous your job title becomes. Your score rises with every baddie you defeat and citizen you rescue, allowing you to rack up the bill for your clients.
The game has procedurally generated areas that take place in offices, restaurants, parks, and more. Each stage has power-ups and health items that pop up as you defeat baddies and complete simple objectives, like find and rescue a certain amount of people. Ant Workshop wanted to find humor in the mundane, and I enjoyed what I played, giggling at every promotion title and ridiculous-looking enemy. Dead End Job will also have couch drop in/drop out co-op, so you can bring a friend along for this crazy journey. –Kimberley Wallace
Platform: Switch, PC
Release: April 18
Imagine the perfect run through any one screen in a game: not a single wasted movement, kicking open doors to knock one enemy into another, hitting enemy bullets back at them, generally laying waste to whatever stands in your way in seconds. That is the idea behind Katana Zero, a fantastic 2D action game coming soon to Switch and PC. Players make their way room-by-room through hordes of enemies in a Hotline Miami-style single run. The rooms get longer and longer as you proceed and one mistake means starting the whole room over. Katana Zero also has an interesting dialogue choice system where jumping the gun can save your life or ruin your mission, so you have to think carefully before acting. –Imran Khan
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Developer: Ovid Works
Polish studio Ovid Works is using the absurdist classic Franz Kafka short story as inspiration for a brand new puzzle platformer. You take the role of salesman Gregor Samsa, who awakens surprised to find himself transformed into a bug. You must traverse through both mundane and fantastical settings while Samsa wrestles with his existential crisis. The game focuses deliberately on the humor and absurdity of the situation, and the gorgeous, hand-drawn textures make it a treat to explore this microcosmos. Should you get stuck, you can pull up a handy overview camera that changes your perspective and reveals new paths. This five-to-six hour experience drops later this year. –Matt Bertz
Platform: Switch, PC
Developer: Chance Agency
A narrative-driven game set in the near future, you play as the last human driver for a rideshare service in a world that revolves around automation. As Lina, you must pick up customers, keep your emotions in check, and do whatever you can to keep your five-star rating. Challenges also include making sure you have enough money coming in to keep your gas tank full and cover the occasional mishap, such as a parking ticket.
Balancing your own needs is just as difficult. Do you sleep to improve your physical state, or take on more rides for extra cash? Do you compromise your own feelings and opinions for the sake of pleasing a customer? These are just some of the choices in your hands and your emotional state can change the options before you. For instance, if you’re depressed, you won’t be able to choose the flirty option for customer conversations.
Besides making cash and pleasing your clientele, Lina also is new in town, learning more about the corrupt technologically advanced world around her, but things take a worse turn when her friend and only lifeline mysteriously disappears. Releasing at some point this year, Neo Cab explores the issues that may arise in an A.I.-controlled world and the importance of our humanity. –Kimberley Wallace
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
From the creators of Canabalt comes this new squad-based strategy game that challenges players to survive a journey across a post-apocalyptic United States. Each level is procedurally generated, so every journey is completely new. Unlike a lot of turn-based strategy games, combat in Overland is generally the last resort. Instead, you try to avoid enemy movement as you scavenge for supplies. The early levels I played featured a big focus on siphoning gas out of cars so I could fuel my car and reach my next destination. Along the way, you meet other survivors who can join your party. At night, you use flares to light your way or power generators to light up larger areas. However, generators make a lot of noise and will attract unwanted attention from flesh-hungry monsters. I was intrigued by my first hands-on with Overland and I’m eager to play more as we get closer to its launch later this year. –Ben Reeves
The Siege and the Sandfox
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Cardboard Sword
These days, there is no shortage of games inspired by Metroid and Castlevania, but Cardboard Sword’s The Siege and the Sandfox puts a unique spin on the genre by adding stealth mechanics. You are a notorious assassin who has been falsely accused of murdering a king and then thrown into a labyrinthine network of dungeons beneath the city. You must escape your prison and find a way to clear your name, but you are clearly outmatched and need to sneak through these lushly-detailed pixel environments. As you parkour through the environment and avoid traps, you make noise, which can attract a variety of dangerous guards. This level of noise is represented by visually onscreen, so you know how much chaos you’re creating. But, if you manage to sneak through dangerous areas, you can knock out guards from behind. Cardboard Sword hasn’t announced a projected release (the team was originally hoping for 2018), but The Siege and the Sandfox looks like it should appeal to fans of games like Mark of the Ninja. –Ben Reeves
Platform: PC, Mac, iOS
Developer: Playful Systems
Fans of Drawful and Draw Something have a new party game to look forward to in Sloppy Forgeries. This two-player competitive local multiplayer pits wannabe artists against one another to try and recreate famous paintings like the Mona Lisa, Starry Night, The Scream, La Danse, and The Whistler’s Mother using a mouse or touchpad. Their forgeries are made all the more hilarious considering they must work under the constraints of a timer to replicate the masterpieces. Watching players rush to mimic these works of art is hilarious, and the game uses a pixel comparison to see who gets closest. –Matt Bertz
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Steam
Developer: Shifting Tides
Described by its developers as a cross between games like Portal and Journey, The Sojourn is a first-person puzzler that puts players in a series of instanced puzzle rooms that play with time and space to bend your mind in ways that only magic can. In puzzle rooms, a dark magic portal gives you abilities like reassembling broken bridges or exchanging places with a statue, but the magic runs out as you take steps. So to cross a bridge, you have to take the most efficient path. To put a statue in the correct place, you have to do a lot of clever warping and inching to the correct place. The art in The Sojourn is absolutely lovely and seeing the ruins assemble from strewn about bricks in the environment is a wonder to behold. It will be interesting to see if the game keeps up its creativity throughout the entire game when it releases later this year. –Imran Khan
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Developer: Massive Damage, Inc.
Pixel games are almost ubiquitous with indie gaming, so it takes a lot for one 16-bit inspired game to stand out these days. Star Renegades is one of those gems. Not only does Massive Damage’s stunning pixel work stand out on a crowded floor, the tactical rogue-lite RPG looks to offer a rewarding challenge. You lead a ragtag squad of rebels on a quest to push back against an imperious empire. Combat plays out in a series of turn-based RPG battles. At the bottom of the screen, you always have a clear view of the enemy’s next attack and how much damage they will deliver, so you can better plan your teams counter attacks and combos and know when to defend yourself. Each run is procedurally generated, but players unlock dozens of new characters during their playthroughs, which will better augment your team’s survival strategy. The developer says that they were inspired by games like Dead Cells and Into The Breach, so we’ll see if Star Renegades lives up to that high-quality bar when it releases early next year. –Ben Reeves
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer: Billy Goat Entertainment Ltd
After a hapless shopper runs into a goat on a shopping cart, the odd duo is thrust into a series of oddball races and obstacle challenges. Navigating these challenges is easier said than done, however. If it wasn’t obvious, Supermarket Shriek is a goofy game; your shopping cart is actually propelled by the screams of the goat and the man inside it. This odd propulsion system is also a little unwieldy because Supermarket Shriek features traditional tank controls, so when players hold down the right bumper they will turn right and when they hold down the left bumper they turn left. Naturally, holding down both buttons pushes you forward. Billy Goat Entertainment intentionally designed Supermarket Shriek’s controls to be a little loose, which is where the game’s challenge comes from. Obstacles within each supermarket include fire pits, swinging axes, and giant towers of baked beans. Supermarket Shriek can be played single player, but it plays better as a party game where two players each control either the right or left side of the cart. An alternative mode allows players to scream into microphones in order to control the direction of the cart, but either way you play you’ll probably be screaming at your friends. –Ben Reeves
The Wild At Heart
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Moonlight Kids
The Wild At Heart immediately catches your eye due to its beautiful, vibrant art style that is reminiscent of Studio Ghibli and Saloon films (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells). The game has you playing as a boy named Wake, who has a troubled home life and ends up discovering a fantastical place with magical creatures when exploring the woods. It’s up to you to discover the truth of this forgotten world and its inhabitants. To help the critters and survive, Wake has his trusty Gutbuster to vacuum up objects for crafting, which lets you create everything from costumes to new tools. Similar to Pikmin, the magical beings also help him through the journey. You can chuck them at enemies, send them to collect resources, or have them break down barriers to get further into the forest. There’s a childlike wonder to discovering this world and befriending its strange creatures, and we can’t wait to step in it when it launches next year. –Kimberley Wallace
Wintermoor Tactics Club
Inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics and Steven Universe, Wintermoor Tactics Club is a lighthearted turn-based tactics game set in an elite boarding school during the 1980s. Players control a group of friends who form a tabletop gaming club at the Wintermoor Academy. However, the survival of their group is threatened when every association at the school is challenged to a giant snowball tournament. These nerdy nobodies are transformed into magical heroes in a series of grid-based snowball battles. EVC is looking to deliver an experience that is very approachable bit still offers some depth for strategy fans. Each hero has only two attacks, but many of their skills combo well with others, which encourages teamwork. For example, Alicia is a warrior mage who unleashes area attack spells and can set the ground on fire, and this works really well with her teammates who can push and pull enemies into the blaze. The snowball tournament kicks off later this year when Wintermoor Tactics Club releases on PC. –Ben Reeves
Lara Croft has tromped, pillaged, and plundered dozens of ancient temples and dusty crypts in her 20-year history. They’re often stunning places: palaces perched atop steep mountains or sunken beneath icy glaciers, inhabited by exotic birds and sneaky monkeys (and sometimes dinosaurs). Standing in one place to gawk at these lovingly crafted worlds can be deadly, though. As developers have pushed graphical performance further and further with each new entry, so too have they iterated on the traps and mechanisms that put Lara in her grave.
Here are some of the Tomb Raider series’ deadliest tombs – the levels that challenged our platforming prowess or had our palms sweating as we walked carefully through blood-tinged spikes and battled quickly dwindling breath meters.
40 Fathoms – Tomb Raider II
The level starts underwater. The mini-sub Lara hijacked has crashed into the sea floor, her breath meter is draining, and sharks circle around her. The player’s goal is to reach a sunken cruise ship, but thanks to some poor, late-‘90s draw distance, it’s unclear which direction players should swim into the surrounding blackness, save for an obscure trail of ship debris on the seabed dotting a subtle path toward the boat. It’s a far cry from typical Tomb Raider level intros that typically open with a stunning view before forcing Lara through a gauntlet of traps and puzzles.
The level doesn’t get easier. If players can avoid being shark bait and find the easy-to-miss ship entrance, they’ll have to sink some ammo into the shotgun-wielding cultists roaming the corridors, hunt barracudas slithering in shallow pools, and avoid catching fire from faulty ship tech. (How this vessel still has functional tech in the first place is beyond us.)
St. Francis Folly – Tomb Raider/Tomb Raider: Anniversary
This level has it all: grand spectacle, trap-laden puzzles, bloodthirsty exotic animals – even an Indiana Jones-inspired boulder trap! Lara travels to St. Francis Folly in Greece looking for a piece of an ancient artifact but gets a lot more than she bargained for.
The brunt of this level involves leaping and dangling from a series of platforms pillaring up the center of a multi-storied chamber. To explore deeper, Lara needs to survive a sequence of combat and platforming challenges across four rooms connected to the central hub – each themed after certain gods. Navigating to each room is a challenge in and of itself, but the true difficulty resides in each room’s traps. The Thor-themed chamber requires Lara to stand under a massive, falling hammer, dodging out of the way at the last second. The Damocles chamber requires Lara to avoid swords that fall from the ceiling as she passes under them. The level is Tomb Raider at its best and most challenging: an evocative tomb as deadly as it is beautiful (especially the version remade for Tomb Raider: Anniversary.)
The Hall of Seasons – Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness
In Lara’s PlayStation 2 debut, she’s on the run, framed for her mentor’s murder. Her quest to unravel the conspiracy and clear her name takes her to an archaeological dig underneath the Louvre, and deeper within, an ancient tomb called the Hall of Seasons.
The level evokes the design of St. Francis Folly in the way its central chamber branches off into four mini-levels that players need to conquer to continue down the main path. Deciding whether to bunny hop or perform medium or long-range jumps across swaying pillars in the Breath of Hades area is one of the series’ most difficult platforming challenges. Similarly, the area called Wrath of the Beast requires players to hurry across collapsing platforms before the floor gives out completely. It might not sound more difficult or challenging than other platformers you’ve probably played, but Lara’s controls were not as user-friendly in 2003 as they have been in recent years.
Jungle – Tomb Raider III
Tomb Raider III’s opening level pulled out all the stops to prove to players that after two games, the series could still kick your butt. Jungle, set in monkey-infested ruins in India, starts with Lara sliding down a muddy ramp riddled with spikes and a boulder that will smoosh you if you stand in the wrong spot. Players encounter traps like these numerous times throughout the level, making every step and jump feel weighty and tense.
The real threat here isn’t the boulder traps or the spiky pitfalls, though: it’s the quicksand. A misplaced jump will send Lara into the mud, forcing players to watch as her body slowly sinks below the surface and her breath meter runs empty. Jungle remains one of the series’ biggest slaps in the face. Hey, look at our cool, new environments! And hey, everything wants to kill you!
Howl of the Monkey Gods – Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics’ second reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise gave us a version of Lara Croft that was more action hero than ever before, but the series was criticized for how its tombs and puzzles took a backseat to combat. Shadow of the Tomb Raider righted that, giving us a game front-loaded with some of the best puzzles and exploration in the series.
Howl of the Monkey Gods is one of these tombs, released post-launch as DLC. Traversing the ravine leading up to the tomb is perilous on its own, requiring Lara to make some tricky, timed jumps, but this is just a warm-up for the platforming to come. Inside the tomb, Lara needs to re-tune an ancient, massive musical device in order to cross its instruments and reach the treasure at the end of the room. Activating each part of the instrument requires players to find and press levers that are positioned over spike traps. It’s easy to tell when the spikes will pop up, but having to stand on them still elicits a feeling of dread.
Once the levers are all pressed, there’s still the matter of crossing the active instruments to snag the treasure on the other side, avoiding falling drum sticks and platforms that give way underneath you if you cross them at the wrong moment. Howl of the Monkey Gods is Tomb Raider puzzle design in its purest form: a cross section between evocative atmosphere, tricky platforming, lever-pulling, and near-death scenarios.
Ask anyone who’s played a Tomb Raider game, and they can probably tell you what traps killed them before they could tell you what artifact they were hunting, or why. In that regard, Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a return to form for the series, giving us tombs and traps that felt deadly again. With the game out and its post-launch DLC wrapping up, we can only hope that Lara’s next adventure dishes out just as much danger.
For many gamers, the allure of an ongoing story and setting is hard to overstate. By returning to a game again and again, with new elements of both story and gameplay introduced over time, we become invested in the world, enmeshed with its characters and events, and intrigued by the ways things are changing over time. This week, we’re looking at some of the excellent projects of recent years which offer deep campaigns that are best experienced when played from beginning to end, with each session offering new twists.
Unlike a traditional role-playing game, these are tabletop releases that are complete and functional in their own right, without the need for a game master or other guiding hand. Several of these offer cooperative experiences, even as others present a competitive affair with your ongoing story. Regardless, these games are all best experienced by the same group of players returning to the table for one session after the next, building on what they know. If you’ve got a consistent squad of players that meet up on a regular basis, you owe it to the group to try one of these ongoing campaign games at some point, as the sense of deepening investment is especially exciting.
Publisher: Catalyst Game Labs
You and your friends love Dungeons & Dragons, but no one wants to step up and be a DM? It’s a common refrain among tabletop enthusiasts. If that’s a familiar problem for your gaming group, the officially licensed Dragonfire offers a deep gameplay system and long-term campaign that might be the right fit.
The artwork, creatures, and overall setting vibe of Dragonfire do a remarkable job of emulating the D&D aesthetic, even if this is decidedly a deckbuilding game rather than an RPG. Nonetheless, like in a game of D&D, you’ll be selecting a character, venturing out on quests, leveling up with new abilities, acquiring magic items, and other trappings of the genre.
Dragonfire’s core game offers several fun adventures to get your party into the action, but it’s the game’s expansions that have the potential to keep you returning for dozens of game nights. From Dragonspear Castle to the Moonshae Isles, the different additional boxed sets take you across iconic locations in the Forgotten Realms, which should satisfy an itch for longtime fans of the property.
In terms of gameplay, Dragonfire is a challenging cooperative puzzle of a game. Its detailed rule system provides a lot of depth, but it’s unlikely to be a good fit for a casual night of gaming. Instead, look to Dragonfire when you want a strategic challenge to solve, and because you enjoy the way a gradual deckbuilding process helps you feel stronger with passing turns, and even over passing game sessions. The game offers a clever approach to assisting other players at the table, and over time, players will become attached to their uniquely customized hero – just like in a true game of D&D.
Scythe: The Rise of Fenris
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Scythe deserves the many accolades that have come its way since its original release in 2016. This nuanced strategy game launches players into an alternate history of the early 20th century, where giant mechs helped to define a war across the scope of the continent of Europa. In the core game, players slowly build an engine of production and military might in order to control the board and win the day. The project has been repeatedly praised for its strategic flexibility and depth, including in my earlier review.
The Rise of Fenris expansion takes the challenging competitive spirit of Scythe and layers in a new campaign element that is rewarding, surprising, and great fun. While the individual included modules can be played as standalone additions to the game, the best way to experience them is part of an eight game story and interconnected adventure. New elements are hidden away inside tuckboxes within the Rise of Fenris package, so you never know what new elements are coming as the narrative (and new gameplay) rolls out. While I’m hesitant to spoil many particulars of those new elements, it’s enough to know that new minis are inside, paths to victory, and even ways to work together (selectively) with other factions. The included storytelling also dramatically deepens an understanding of the world of Scythe, a marvelous fictional setting that was due for increased fleshing out.
The other games on this list are core games that can be enjoyed as a campaign without additional purchases. The Rise of Fenris first requires that you own the base Scythe game. But that’s no sacrifice! Scythe is one of the most innovative board games of the last several years, and you won’t be disappointed to own a copy, particularly if you have a group of dedicated players eager to stretch their strategic muscles. The Fenris release dramatically expands the fun of the experience, offering a deeper insight into the setting, and a wealth of new twists that lend replayability and depth, but without actually making the game incredibly more complicated. My only caution? The Rise of Fenris is best enjoyed after you’ve already thoroughly wrapped your head around the ins and outs of the base game. With that said, if you already have an ongoing romance with Scythe, this expansion will only help you fall deeper in love.
Near and Far
Publisher: Red Raven Games
This charming and colorful game of competitive exploration and questing gets lots of points for originality and narrative engagement. Players take on the role of explorers ranging out across a map filled with secrets, opportunities for encounters, and fiction-rich quests. Moving back and forth between a town location and a large wilderness map, you gather points as you set up camps, explore new trade routes, investigate lost ruins, and fight dangerous creatures.
Near and Far’s campaign is especially engaging because of its approach to individual session locations. The game includes an atlas of maps that your characters range across, and each map and its secrets is unique from the last, so every session feels like you’re expanding your knowledge of this fantasy world’s geography. Each of the boards has read-out-loud story snippets to enjoy, even as you’re simultaneously building up a party of allies, trading in town, and even dueling other players. And even with the varied choices through which you direct the story, turns still move quickly and keep the pace of play brisk.
As the stories unfold, I think you’ll be surprised at the well-written and thoughtfully crafted narrative writing. The fun competitive mechanics are engaging in their own right, and the addition of the deep narrative elements should attract those who love a deep injection of storytelling in their board game nights.
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Looking for a little horror mixed in with your ongoing campaign adventures? Check out Betrayal Legacy. The original Betrayal at House on the Hill features a group of characters exploring a dilapidated mansion in one of a number of different unique “haunts,” in which one of the characters inevitably betrays the other, leading to a desperate struggle for victory.
The legacy version maintains the fun premise, but sees players return to the same haunted house over multiple generations of the same families. As more people die in its bloody halls, the mansion grows ever more dangerous, even as a broader narrative continues its slow-drip toward climax.
One of the best things about Betrayal Legacy is the how easy it is to sit down and play for the first time; the rules are quite simple as the game begins, and you don’t even know how to win that first session. Almost everything you need to know unfolds through the course of gameplay, and the designers do an amazing job of crafting some awesome surprises over the course of the campaign, even down to secrets hidden away within the physical box of the game.
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
Surreal imagery and interpretive psychology take center stage in this clever campaign narrative game. Players take on the role of the titular comanauts, as they dive into the subconscious mind of a scientist who has the key to saving the world.
Like the kid-targeted game that is its predecessor, Stuffed Fables, Comanauts is a game played through an adventure book. Each page-spread of the book offers new art, spaces to explore, and ideas to uncover, even as the campaign’s story slowly reveals itself. You chase clues and hunt down malevolent idea entities that represent the traumas of the coma victim’s previous life and history.
The biggest draw here is the innovative and creative storytelling, which has a Christopher Nolan-esque quality likely to remind many players of Inception. It’s exciting to see how an individual’s history might shape their life and personality. Great art and unusual characters to control help Comanauts feel refreshingly different from other games on the market, and it’s a stellar choice for players looking for something off the beaten path from more familiar fantasy and sci/fi themes.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Shortly before finalizing the selections for this list, I had the opportunity to check out a near-final version of this latest Lord of the Rings release from Fantasy Flight. While I’ve yet to fully explore the reach of its campaign, I played enough to be confident in a recommendation, even ahead of its full release in the coming weeks.
Fantasy Flight Games has a strong track record with these sort of miniature-based cooperative campaign adventures. If they are a better fit for your tastes, I wholeheartedly recommend both Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd edition) and Star Wars: Imperial Assault; both are great, and each have a wealth of expansions already available.
The latest in this line of similar products is Journeys In Middle-earth, which sees players adopt the personas of heroes in Tolkien’s world, including recognizable faces like Legolas and FFG-created individuals like Beravor, and head out into adventure. A free digital app can be downloaded onto the device of your choosing, which runs individual scenarios, dramatically reducing the need for additional fiddly components, and instead shining a spotlight on great minis, gradually revealed modular maps, and cool bespoke encounters.
Journeys in Middle-earth uses a neat action mechanic, where you reveal cards from an existing hand that allow you to complete various skill tests, but those same cards can alternately be played onto the table ahead of time, letting you employ interesting abilities at the cost of having those options available for tests.
Action flips back and forth between a larger journey map depicting your trek across Middle-earth, and more micro-view battle tiles for strategic encounters. It’s a smart system that relays a genuine sense of epic adventure, and with a lot of potential for the campaign to continue its expansions over subsequent releases.
More Awesome Choices
In the interest of providing the most comprehensive recommendations, there are several other top-notch campaign games I want to point you toward. But in several cases, I already have completed extensive write-ups that describe them in detail. With that in mind, here are three other top recommendations, very brief descriptions, and links to more robust explanations.
Gloomhaven is one of the phenomenon releases of the last several years in the board gaming world. A physically massive (and expensive) box offers literally hundreds of hours of exploration, character progression, and battles across a vast dark fantasy land. Highly recommended, but only if you’re ready to really, really dive deep. Learn more here.
Pandemic Legacy encompasses two complete games, each a campaign in their own right, but it’s best experienced by playing through Season One, and following up with Season Two. In this thrilling legacy adaptation of the popular board game, players work together as researchers, doctors, and other health professionals to hold back the tide of a worldwide civilization-ending series of diseases. By the second season, the world has completely changed, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Easy to learn, and incredibly rewarding, both of these cooperative adventures rank among my favorite board games. Here’s more detail.
The 7th Continent draws inspiration from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, pulp fiction of the early 20th century, and even video games, through its extremely clever “save game” system to hold your place in between sessions. Players cross the ocean to explore a mysterious new 7th continent in order to conquer a curse that threatens their characters’ very existence. If weird and secretive tales are your thing, this one is a winner. I don’t spoil anything important in my more detailed write-up.
Role-playing gamers know the joy of seeing an ongoing campaign slowly unfold the story of a group of player-controlled characters. But recent years have opened up that experience in the tabletop world beyond traditional role-playing releases. If you’ve always wanted to give that kind of thing a shot, any of the above will offer an engrossing series of game nights.
If you’re looking for something decidedly more contained for a single evening of entertainment, our Top of the Table hub has no shortage of great options, which you can explore by clicking on the banner below. If you need more personalized guidance to find the right game, feel free to drop me an email, and I’ll help you find what you’re looking for!
Announced two days ago at the keynote address, the Google Stadia streaming platform is the talk of the 2019 Game Developer’s Conference. Both optimists and pessimists have hot takes on the viability of a service that ditches the need to buy a physical piece of hardware and instead jacks gamers directly into a cloud server. To learn more about how Google plans to address potential roadblocks like latency, data cap overage rates, and building a strong first-party library of video games, we spoke with VP Phil Harrison.
Let’s talk about the name and the logo. What made you decide Stadia was the right name? And what was the meaning behind that name choice?
I think it’s a perfect name. It was the culmination of a huge amount of creative work by various teams. Naming things is unbelievably hard, because you come up with a name. Then somebody else has it. Or you come up with the name, and it means something weird and a different country. There’s a lot of impediments to landing on a great name.
But “Stadia” is the plural of stadium. The way that it resonated with me was this idea of a stadium – and you saw this in our film that we debuted yesterday – this idea of entertainment being either about sports, but it’s also a stadium as a place where you could go and see a rock band. It doesn’t have to be about seeing a football team or basketball team.
Also, you can either be on the pitch as a player or you can be in the audience as a viewer. So, this idea of watching and playing, being merged into one platform, which is the product truth of what Stadia is about. And this notion of a stadium meaning, you and I could be sat on the couch playing a game and have the greatest combative rivalry or shared exhilaration moment. For that moment in time, this couch is the best stadium in the world. I thought that was great, this idea that we could take that name and really run with it.
Then the logo, the meaning of the movement of the logo. Obviously, there’s an S in there, but then there’s this, almost graffiti mark. But then there’s also the idea of a banner. If you look at it carefully, you can see it’s like a flag being waived. So, there was a lot of double meaning in there. And I thought it came together really well.
You have an interesting background for a project like this because you worked in the platform wars, in the old console days, you’ve been on both sides of that. You were an investor and advisor to Gaikai. You understand the fierce sense of loyalty certain consumers have towards brands, and over the years as these programs have gotten more intense with PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, their friends are all on these places, their back catalogs are on these places. What do you see as the best way to chink away at that armor and get people over into something that’s new?
I think it’s very simple. We have to deliver great games, great experiences, in a great way, and completely respect that the social graphs are sticky, but we’re not asking anybody to buy any hardware. We’re not requiring people to buy any hardware. Of course, we’re asking them to [points to the Stadia controller] so, I think those allegiances that you talk of are historically around a very significant capital investment that gamers had to make.
The frequency of those capital investments is going up. They’re having to be made more often. Stadia’s core value proposition is to eliminate the box. Eliminate the barrier to entry. Allow you to get the same highest quality game experience irrespective of the kind of screen that you’re on. I hope that that was clear in our presentation, that that’s not a future promise, that’s a today.
If we can bring games that are familiar in a very good way on Stadia and bring games that are new that really deliver on the promise of, your platform is a data center, then gamers, we hope over time, will see that this is what a true new generation platform looks like.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had a major GDC announcement centered on streaming. Ten years ago, OnLive had a press conference revealing its streaming technology, and Steve Perlman talked about the chief challenge to streaming – solving the problem of the speed of light to get latency down. What do you think has changed in the years since those early attempts at streaming?
I think I was in the audience at that presentation. What has changed? First of all, this is real. Stadia would not exist if we weren’t able to stand on the shoulders of giants with what Google’s been doing for the last 20 years. Google’s fundamental investments in the fabric of the data center, the networking that connects the data centers together on our own private backbone using our own fiber optic cables. The breadth and penetration of our infrastructure to the furthest edge of the network, not just in the massive data centers that people think of when they think of a data center. The seven and a half thousand locations around the world that shorten the touch point between gamer and game.
Although the speed of light is the one thing we don’t control, we can cheat the physics of it to a certain degree by getting as close to the gamer as possible. That’s why having a studio of the pedigree of id Software on stage saying, “We were skeptical, we tried it, we developed for it, and we’re now convinced,” I think is the best message that you could hear. It doesn’t have to come from us. It comes from a very respected creator.
You touted some impressive modern benchmarks in terms of performance with 4K, HDR, 60 frames per second, but that obviously to some degree is dependent upon bandwidth and the speeds of the internet service provider that people have. If you’re going to be invested in Stadia, what baseline ISP speed should you be looking at?
We proved with Project Stream that we could get 1080p, 60 fps for around 20 Mbps. We will get 4K, 60 fps for around 30 Mbps. Obviously, if you don’t have a 4K TV, you can stream at 1080p, and you will use less bandwidth. We think that gives us access to hundreds of millions of potential audience.
What has been the technological leap that’s allowed you to do that other than the footprint of the network? Have compression techniques changed dramatically in recent years?
Very much so. It’s partly the algorithms for compression, Google has been a leading contributor and collaborator on some of the advanced open source video codex that are being propagated around the industry, and also some fundamental investments that we make at the hardware level to make it possible.
Obviously, the United States is a unique challenge because broadband providers have so much land to cover in this country as opposed to countries like the United Kingdom or Japan. There are usually dead zones where devices don’t work as well as in city centers. What do you see as solutions for people that maybe live in more rural areas where they’re not getting that larger pipeline?
The way that we think about it is, if you have a really good YouTube experience today, you will have a great Stadia experience. We acknowledge and respect that that doesn’t reach every corner of the world, but there’s a rising tide and hopefully, internet infrastructure would continue to grow out further and further into more rural areas, and then there’s some really useful enabling technologies, potentially around 5G that could even accelerate that further.
It’s unfortunate that we won’t capture everybody day one, but our commitment is to get as close to everyone as we can.
Let’s talk about 5G, because the theoretical speeds that they tout are certainly eye-popping, but there are so many X-factors of where that speed is going to be in practice as opposed to theory. Whether it’s how many nodes there are, the quality of a person’s router, how much of the infrastructure an ISP like Verizon or somebody else has built out. How much faith do you have in that to really be a game changer?
On paper, it does look like it’s going to be a significant factor, but until we’ve had a chance to really test infrastructure that is outside of laboratory conditions, it’s impossible for me to comment.
How much are you worried about data caps and throttling? We ran into a problem when the Xbox One X launched where editors redownloading a bunch of games in 4K were suddenly getting notices from Comcast that they were already over their allotted data cap for the month. Is that something that gamers are going to have to be aware of if they sign up to a game streaming service?
I think ISPs have been really proactive and somewhat responsive as well to the reality of the market. When music went to streaming, bandwidth caps lifted. When video TV went to streaming, caps lifted, and I think we’ll continue to see that evolution. Plus, as we just talked about, with 5G potentially adding some competitive value into the marketplace, I think this will get better over time for everyone.
Are you hopeful that net neutrality gets restored? Congress is entertaining a new bill right now.
I’m not going to get drawn into that conversation.
During the presentation, we were introduced to a handful of developers working on Stadia projects, but you showed a bunch of icons of games like, “There’s an arrow to the knee. That’s clearly Skyrim. That looks like a Red Dead emblem.” Why didn’t you show more of the lineup?
Our code name for the event was PBA, which was Platform, Vision, Announce. We wanted to announce our vision for the platform. We wanted to communicate some new and in some cases quite complex features about how games and game watching are going to interrelate in the future. And we chose to amplify or illustrate those features with certain games. So, we had NBA 2K showing how you can come in from a YouTube streamer, creators subscriber list, into playing alongside them. But don’t read too much into which games we chose or which games we didn’t show. In the summer, we will be focused very much on the games. The lineup you’ll be able to play at launch, and shortly thereafter.
When you say summer, are you planning to be a participant at E3?
We’ll be back in the summer.
Every time a new platform appears, the predominant thing that seems to sway people toward it the thing you alluded to in your first statement – content. What is the edict for the first-party studio that Jade Raymond is leading? Is their job to maximize the full potential of this technology with quadruple-A experiences, or are you looking for more of a shotgun blast approach where you want a lot of new content that comes really at a faster clip more like how a Netflix pushes content?
Initially, it is to bring the best of Google to game development. So, that a game cannot tick every box, of all the features that we talked about yesterday, but thoughtfully and selectively act as a beacon and as a lighthouse for those technologies. So that a gamer can see, “Oh, that what’s meant by the data center is the platform.” And that means that game developers will be inspired by what we do. As Jade correctly shared yesterday, we in turn will share that technology back out to the game development community. Everyone then lifts faster. That’s the reason for doing it. We don’t have to cover every genre. We don’t have to be the premium or predominant supplier of games on our platform. But if we can have those amazing experiences, that really lifts everyone, the Gran Turismo of driving that is the preeminent high-quality experience that everyone goes “Okay, that’s better than I could have done elsewhere.” Those are the kind of things we want to do.
Jade obviously came on very recently. Are these early days for that studio?
She was on stage on her seventh day.
Pretty busy first week.
Has that division been running without an appointed leader for a while, or is this the very beginning for that group?
We’ve had producers and related talent working inside of Stadia, inside my organization, for quite a long time. We’re working initially with external developers on a commercial arrangement. And now we’re building our own studios, where we will be putting our own talent into a Google Stadia Games and Entertainment. Which is so exciting to be able to just get that off the ground now.
During one of the montages during the presentation, you showed some esports events. The biggest games on the planet right now are competitive games like Fortnite, League of Legends, and Apex Legends. Do you feel like your latency is at a place where competitive gamers are going to look at this as a viable platform to play on?
Absolutely. I think the pinnacle of esports is guys in logo t-shirts sitting in custom chairs on a stage, and I’m well aware that they often buy the kind of mouse which will give them a tiny edge and they will have an active mousepad because that gives them a tiny edge. Those are an amazing aspirational place to be. But for now, I think we have the 99.9999% of everybody else that we can focus on.
Everyone is curious about Stadia pricing. Are we going to be buying individual games? Is it going to be a subscription service? Is it going to offer both?
I’m not going to go into the details on that today. We’ll definitely be sharing that in the summer, but we’ve spent a lot of time partnering with our publishers and developers to come up with the right model for them. And we’ve done a huge amount of research with gamers as well.
What sort of incentives are you using to lure third parties to be a part of this opening debut of Stadia?
We’ve been able to share our vision with developers for quite some time. All the folks you’d expect. Some that you wouldn’t expect have been disclosed on what we’re doing with Stadia. I’m pretty thrilled with what we’ve got coming. Tell me what you think when we share it in the summer, but I think the commitment, the lineup, and the long-term promises is phenomenal.
You’ve been a part of product launches before where it seems like there’s usually a ballpark of 30 games or so that come out in that launch window. Are you doing things differently this time?
I don’t know that there is a scorecard of you have to have this many games to launch, but it’s having the quality, the breadth, the brands and games that are maybe familiar from a previous generation now being re-imagined for a new generation. Having the right balance between those, I think, is going to be the trick.
Are you aiming to have game experiences for every demographic at launch, whether it be games targeted towards kids, game geared toward competitive markets, or single-player experiences? What kind of mix are you looking for?
Let’s talk about that in the summer. You will see that we are more focused toward the higher end, enthusiast, core gamer. We’re not going to be covering all bases day one. I think it’s fair to say our lineup is going to be focused on slightly older or more committed gamers. But it’s important that we land there well. Then we can scale from that point.
When did you start designing the Stadia controller?
That predates me. It’s been underway for at least two years. It’s entirely in-house built and designed. I think the team has done an amazing job with the ergonomics. Inside there’s some very clever technology, as I’ve talked about, that connects via Wi-Fi to the data center. But the ergonomics of it are fantastic.
Are you talking to the high-end, third-party manufacturers like Scuf, who deliver those extra features people want out of their, say, first-person shooter controllers?
Over time, I think we will see some third-party controllers. Our platform supports HID USB controllers from day one.
Coming from a person who has like 42 different devices because I’m a technophile and knowing there are multiple devices that the controller can pair with, how does it know which screen you’re intending to play on?
It’s very clever. There’s some technology that will know which screen you want to play on. You can obviously expressly say which screen you want to play on, but there’s also some technology that just enables that to happen seamlessly. There are maybe scenarios where you might have a primary game screen that you want to use all the time, but you then want to move quickly to a laptop or to another screen elsewhere in the house. Our platform supports that.
You’re supporting all kinds of controllers, but some of the devices you support are touchscreen devices. Will there be touchscreen interface with some Stadia games?
But the opening salvo, you’re focusing on more controller experience?
One of the things you mentioned was being able to migrate save files from other platforms. How are you doing that? Is there a handshake that needs to happen where, say, Uplay needs to allow me to migrate my Division 2 save?
I wanted to be clear from the get-go that, what were the principles that we were going to be approaching multi-layer. As a 21st century platform, frankly as a Google platform, being open is really important to how we approach this. It wasn’t a dig at any of the incumbent first-parties but it was more a “let’s be clear about what our philosophy, which is we want to be open, we want you to bring your progress from another game state into Stadia.” Then the example you just gave, for example, your Uplay account is the point of arbitration between the other platforms is exactly how it would work in practice.
But saying you’re open to it is different from saying you’ve spoken to the Steams, Uplays, and the Xboxes of the world. Do those conversations still need to happen?
That would happen at a publisher and developer level. Now you kind of get into the politics of it, which I really don’t think we have a voice in really. It’s down to the relationships between the developers and the platforms. Clearly, that change is happening. We’re seeing some games that have already bridged successfully, other games that haven’t. It’s a trend we just wanted to be really clear about what our point of view was, then hopefully within months this all gets resolved for the benefit of the gamer.
When you’re talking about the possibilities for the developers to harness this technology and do something new and different and foreign looking, what are those opportunities you see that seem to be the most promising?
I think most platforms historically, certainly I’ve been in this position in the past, have focused on graphics as the point of difference. This platform is better because it does X more polygons or more wizzy graphics. I think with Stadia what we have focused on is what can make gameplay better? What can make gameplay different? This idea of the data center as your platform, what does that mean for bringing ML and AI into the experience using amazing Google technologies that have historically been a bit out of reach for game developers. We can bring that to play, literally to play here. We have a microphone in our controller that you can use at your choice to have a conversational understanding with an NPC in a game. That’s a fabulous promise of what that could mean for the future of games. So those are the areas that I’m really excited about.
Then at a more macro level, this idea of how games are being designed today to be both played and watched and how we can bring that together. Even sitting down with really smart and forward-thinking designers and developers, they’re already starting to think about, “okay I’ve got a game producer and I’ve got a broadcast producer” and they start to think about bringing those two skills to bear at the fundamental design of the game. I think that’s where we’re going to see some dramatic innovation.
When you launch later this year, what kind of infrastructure do you have in place? I know you mentioned parental controls are already a part of the equation. What about friends lists? What kind of solutions do you have in place for that stuff?
We’ll go into the details in the summer, but just at high level, rest assured, yes, we have what you would call a platform for gamers. That will allow you to have the social features that you would expect.
This week Google announced Stadia, a cloud-based streaming service that allows you to play the latest triple-A video games at the highest quality on almost any device you have – be it your phone or a relatively old computer. Being able to stream video games like we do movies and television shows seems like the logical next step for video games. Stadia does away with the need to download software, update it, and all you have to do is click “play.” It’s convenient and appears to be hassle free. I love the idea of Stadia, but will it actually work?
Google’s vision isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. We got our first real glimpse of a streaming future over a decade ago through OnLive (which Sony purchased), and then Gaikai (which Sony also purchased), and we can actually experience it today through PlayStation Now, GeForce Now, and a handful of other services that likely have “Now” in the name.
The one thing that has held all of these services back is performance. Video games are all about player input. When you hit a button, you expect something to happen instantly. Whether you are firing a gun or kicking someone in the face, timing is crucial, right down to milliseconds determining success or failure. That precision, which is basically a requirement in a number of twitch-based games, has yet to be achieved consistently by all streaming services. Latency is a huge issue that can make streamed games a nightmare. Just imagine inputting the commands to move and shoot, yet your character performs those actions a split second after you wanted him or her to. That can spell disaster and is the one thing that makes this streaming future so damn terrifying. On top of input, visual quality can be reduced if latency is an issue. Trying to find someone hidden behind a barrier becomes far more difficult when the barrier and everything around it artifacts and lowers in resolution.
Part of the problem of streaming is players are at the mercy of their internet provider and the speeds they are getting. I have a decent internet connection at home, but there are times where it seems like an unruly beast that bounces up and down in the speeds I’m getting. For Stadia to deliver 4K visuals and gameplay at 60 frames per second (and even 8K and 120 frames per second in the future) the internet connections need to be roaring. That isn’t the case for a lot of us. The internet infrastructure in the United States is a mess. For people living in rural areas, the idea of getting a fiber connection is about as real as spotting a Sasquatch in the woods.
But what about people that have great connections? At this week’s GDC show in San Francisco, CA, Game Informer’s Imran Khan took a test drive of Stadia by playing id Software’s 2016 Doom reboot on what we assumed was an excellent internet connection. When I heard Google was using this lightning-paced shooter as a test for Stadia’s proof of concept, I grew excited since it probably meant Google figured out a solution to minimize latency to the point that players wouldn’t notice it.
If that problem wasn’t solved, why on earth would Google debut a new streaming platform with Doom? They also could have lit their booth on fire to deliver the same takeaway, right? Here’s what Khan had to say about playing that game on Stadia.
The Doom demo is essentially the PC version of the game set into arcade mode, with options of a Razer Keyboard and Mouse or a Razer controller. Upon researching, I could not find any real evidence or reports that these items are particularly infamous for built-in input lag and all three input devices were seemingly wired. It’s not an exact measurement, but swinging your aiming reticle around the screen is not instantaneous, and anyone that has played Doom before can instantly feel the difference.
More to the point, I was missing shots, and it was initially difficult to time melee hits against enemies. It’s not that the input lag makes Doom unplayable, but it makes it harder, and it makes you worse at the game. It’s the kind of thing that would make you reboot your console and check your TV settings.
The thing is, after a few minutes of playing, I was still conscious of the difference, but it felt like it mattered less. It was like controlling that big gun in some shooters with the swimmy reticle that dragged behind the input. I knew what was happening and eventually my brain and my hands compensated for that difference. Was it ideal? Definitely not. Was it a way to play Doom in a stream without a console or expensive GPU? Approximately. And that will probably be enough for a lot of people.
My colleague is correct in saying that an approximation of Doom and the convenience Stadia offers will be enough to win a number of people over. Google has the resources to promote Stadia in a big way and get it in front of more people than any other console provider to date. Think about that for a second. They have the reach. Will it win over someone like me? Unless latency is reduced to a point that I don’t feel like my character is sliding on ice, absolutely not.
Why on earth would I move from games performing the way the developer intends to a slightly worse version? That makes no sense to me. Sure, I may use a service like Stadia for games that don’t require precise input. Being able to continue experiences like turn-based RPGs on the go sounds great. That’s why we like Switch, right? With Switch, we at least know our inputs are going to be logged correctly.
Until our world delivers great high-speed internet for everyone, and streaming companies figure out a way to reduce input lag, this cloud-based future is, well, cloudy. Convenience should not be a replacement for quality. Game developers work their asses off making games as fun and competitive as they possibly can and for a service to alter how that is delivered just isn’t right.
Perhaps Google will prove me wrong and deliver the best gaming experience to date when Stadia launches later this year, but each new streaming service that comes along always ends the same way with legacy latency issues ruining the experience. I look forward to seeing what Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo do next after Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Switch run their respective courses. I have a feeling all three of these companies are eying a streaming future, but perhaps not as the backbone of whatever comes next. I still think we have another generation of discs and downloads ahead, but with more emphasis applied to playing games over the cloud. Offering a system that does all of these things just makes sense. Why offer just one uncertain solution that will surely fracture the market when you can deliver all of them – and continue the legacy people have come to rely on to get the best from gaming.
Google isn’t the first company to attempt streaming games to eager players, but it could give us our first legitimate contender. Our first hands-on impressions have left us skeptical, however, as does the industry’s previous attempts. Even after purchasing multiple streaming companies, Sony eventually reworked PlayStation Now to let subscribers download the service’s games and play them locally off of their own systems. That’s a damning statement on the current viability of cloud-based game streaming. I’m still excited to check out Stadia myself, and I hope the final vision Google deploys fairs better than what was offered at GDC, but I have my doubts.
Today, Apex Legends launches its first season and battle pass, as well as its first new playable Legend. Octane is an adrenaline-pumped athlete with mechanical legs and mad speed whose agility can be beneficial to your squad for more than a few reasons. He’ll cost you 12,000 Legends Tokens or 750 Apex Coins to unlock.
Powers And Abilities
Swift Mend (Passive)
While not taking damage, Octane restores health over time.
Move 30% faster for 6 seconds. Costs health to use. Reduction to speed as the seconds go on.
Launch Pad (Ultimate)
Deployable jump pad that catapults users through the air.
Tips And Tricks
So how do you use him? Well, Octane’s passive is probably the glue that holds his build together. You need to figure out ways to use his speed to your teammates’ advantage as well as to your own during combat, constantly using your stim shot and letting the passive heal you between fights.
Here are some tips to help figure out how to play him.
His Passive Makes Temporary Retreat A Wise Option
While it may not be noble, getting into a kerfuffle with foes as Octane and then running away for a bit to let your passive do its thing is a clever maneuver. Pick away at your foes’ health, run away, and then circle back in after your health has restored a bit to deal more damage.
Use Your Tactical Ability To Play Reviver
For three seconds during his tactical, Octane moves FAST. The speed drops down as the seconds tick along but the recharge on your stim shot is basically dependent on how much health you have. If things get bad enough during a firefight, running around as a speedy reviver, pulling your teammates back on their feet, is a pretty solid 11th-hour move.
The Launch Pad Is Surprisingly Useful
Octane’s ultimate might look dumb at first glance, but it has a surprising number of applications. In the middle of a firefight as the circle looms? Get you and your teammates out of there with a bounce. Need to scale a building quickly to get some goods? Presto. Also, vaulting over your foes and raining down fire on them is hilarious.
Slam That Stim In The Opening
Use Octane’s tactical as soon as you land so you can get the speed advantage over your foes (and friends too – sorry pals!) as you comb the area in search of weapons and invaluable gear.
Think About Your Squad
One of the keys to victory in Apex Legends is thinking about how your character’s abilities will mix with everyone in the squad. Try and use Octane’s abilities to complement who you have with you. If Bangalore is about to lay down her smoke bomb, turn up the speed and dance around your enemies as they stumble in the smog. If Bloodhound just spotted some folks in the horizon and marked them, zip toward them to draw their fire while your teammates blast them from afar.
For more on Apex Legends, check out our review here.
This feature was originally published online in December 2015.
Otherside Entertainment, currently developing the Kickstarted Underworld Ascendant, has revealed that they’re developing a new entry in the System Shock series, the last of which was released in the tail end of 1999. Here’s why that’s a big deal.
How System Shock Came To Be
Back in 1994 gaming was in a very different place. Game demos were passed around on floppy disks. Doom and Civilization ruled the world. Windows 95 wasn’t even a thing yet. Looking Glass Technologies, which housed innovators like Warren Spector (Deux Ex), Doug Church (Thief) and Harvey Smith (Dishonored), was known for the revolutionary role-playing series Ultima and wanted to create an immersive simulation that wasn’t fantasy-based. They opted for science fiction, and System Shock, a first-person adventure game that cast players as a hacker going up against an artificial intelligence known as SHODAN hell-bent on destroying Earth, was born.
At first glance, the original System Shock looks like a Doom clone. There are pixelated corridors where all sorts of nightmares lumber and roll about, such as reprogrammed droids or humans who have mutated into zombies thanks to corrupted cybernetic implants, all of them looking to turn you into red paste. However, the similarities end there, as the game reveals its role-playing tendencies by requiring you to use an inventory system to store items and to loot the bodies of destroyed enemies. Player movement is a bit clumsy and so is using the cursor to interact with the inventory or objects in the environment. As a result, System Shock is a game where you have to exercise caution to survive since you can’t rely on twitchy reflexes to save the day. You have to plan your battles carefully while lurking in the shadows, learning which weapons work best against which enemies.
However, what was truly special about the original System Shock is how it delivered its story. Not wanting to develop any dialogue trees for the game, Looking Glass set about creating an interactive narrative that didn’t require the player to talk to non-playable characters, opting instead to let exploration serve as the story itself. After a brief intro cinematic that sets up the game’s premise, the player is dumped into a space station and tasked with recovering e-mails that act as signposts telling them where to go and what to do.
In recent years this technique of turning collectibles into guidance systems has become one of the primary methods of interactive storytelling because it’s a simple, sometimes elegant way to have the player be an active participant in an interactive experience. Picked up a note containing the combination to a safe filled with riches or details that reveal who your target is in Dishonored? Searched a house high and low for clues for the whereabouts of your sister in Gone Home? Listened to the recorded final testaments of dying crew members in Soma? All of those moments are descendants of System Shock’s narrative design.
While it was once a hassle to track down a copy of System Shock, Night Dive’s recently released enhanced edition solved that problem. Unfortunately, for all the game’s innovations, it’s still a pain to play thanks to an archaic control scheme that makes the experience feel more like a history lesson than an engaging time.
Luckily, there’s System Shock 2.
How System Shock 2 Changed Everything
It would take nearly five years for the sequel to System Shock to arrive. By 1999, Looking Glass Technologies had become Looking Glass Studios and released Thief: The Dark Project. System Shock 2 is a different and far more vicious animal than its predecessor. The first game had elements of horror but was basically a cerebral action-adventure game. The sequel is outright horror, with the player constantly placed in a position of paranoia and powerlessness, fighting gruesome monsters and even encountering (digital) ghosts.
SHODAN returns in the second game but in a larger, more diabolical role, initially pretending to be a human and using the player as a tool to fight her enemies before revealing her true identity in one of gaming’s best plot twists. Talking about the twist to Gamespot in 2007, game director Ken Levine explained: “If I had a single goal in making Shock 2, it was to corrupt the relationship of the player with the game. Games tend to be very trustworthy-good guys are good, bad guys are bad. What you see and perceive is real. Sometimes characters are betrayed, but the player never is. I wanted to violate that trust and make the player feel that they, and not [only] the character, were led on and deceived.”
The game has aged better than its predecessor thanks to a new engine and a user interface that isn’t so sluggish, making System Shock 2 play more like a first-person shooter than a menu juggler, as well as its innovative skill trees. The skill system forced you to make choices about what kind of character you were going to be, like a bruiser who could mow down enemies with advanced weapons or a brainy type who’s better off sticking to the shadows and hacking turrets to use them against enemies. While this sort of RPG convention wasn’t new in itself, System Shock 2’s progression system was exciting because it worked well with the tense atmosphere, letting players determine how they would weather this nightmare scenario.
Where the first game set up situations that had you thinking tactically to try and figure out how to overcome obstacles, System Shock 2 raises the tension, forcing you to do the same thing but this time you’re often cowering in a storage closet, listening closely for the monster standing outside the door to finally wander away. The ship you’re stranded on, The Von Braun, is as effective a setting in a horror game as there has ever been. You’ll find bodies hanging from ceiling pipes, rooms torn asunder, robotics gone haywire and the corpses of people who have shot themselves rather than be turned into SHODAN’s slaves while you scurry through hallways, hoping to remain undetected for as long as possible. System Shock 2 was the first game to take the premise of being trapped on a spacecraft with deadly lifeforms and make it terrifying while also developing the effective, excerpted storytelling method from the original System Shock.
The collectible audio logs go beyond being a trail of bread crumbs to lead the player around. They also help reinforce the terror of The Von Braun, revealing the ship to be a place rife with paranoia and betrayal, crew members at each other’s throats before the mutants started taking over the ship. These recordings give the place a sense of history so you’re not just wandering a random starship. It’s a place where people have lived, where they’ve loved and hated one another, and now you’re standing in their mass grave. There’s more than horror there: there’s somberness and tragedy as well.
As incredible as the second game was, it wasn’t a commercial hit for Looking Glass and less than a year after release, the developer shut down. Irrational Games, the company that co-developed the game, carried on the series’ trademark focus on environmental storytelling and emergent gameplay with BioShock, a spiritual successor that takes place in an underwater utopia inspired by Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. The game replicated the major plot points from System Shock 2, casting you as a stranger in a strange land who’s eventually betrayed by a companion, while having a stronger focus on gunplay than its cyberpunk counterpart. BioShock, a game that had the benefit of launching on consoles after being hyped for several years, is more popular than PC-exclusive System Shock ever was. However, both a new System Shock game and the remake of the original game could bring the series back into the public eye in a big way, revitalizing two cult classics and turning them into a powerhouse franchise by drawing in both fans of the original games and people who adore BioShock.
The announcement for System Shock 3 raises a number of questions, even more than your typical teaser reveal for a game. How can Otherside Entertainment afford to develop both System Shock 3 and Underworld Ascendant without being stretched too thin? In what capacity are they working with Night Dive Studios, who owns the rights to the IP, to help make this game happen? Otherside Entertainment was founded by Paul Nerauth, one of the founders of Looking Glass, so who else from the development teams for either System Shock game is coming back? And what about the game itself? System Shock 2 had a rare, quality cliffhanger. Will 3 pick up from there or be its own story?
The teaser site, which went live today, answers none of these questions and instead offers up a snippet of audio from SHODAN saying hello in her classic, murdery way as well as a survey asking users their age, console preference and gauging their interest in virtual reality gaming. Though it exists in the public eye only as an announcement at this point, it’s not hard to understand why many gamers are ready to see what creeping horror awaits around the bend. The first two System Shock games were transformative classics, changing the adventure genre forever with their innovations. And while it’s impossible to know what the third game will be like, or if it will have anywhere near the same impact as its predecessors, this is still shocking and exciting news for a series that most have considered dead for more than 15 years.
You can read System Shock 2 director Ken Levine’s thoughts on the third game’s announcement here.
Otherside Entertainment just revealed a new look at System Shock 3 at this year’s GDC. However, it’s actually another company called Nightdive that’s responsible for bringing the franchise back from the grave. Here’s how they did it. This feature originally appeared in issue 281 of Game Informer.
In 1994, a Cambridge-based developer named Looking Glass Technologies released System Shock, perhaps one of the most influential games of its time. The game combined first-person shooter with role-playing systems, encouraging the player to proceed with caution through a space station’s dangerous corridors and think carefully about their every move. In 1999, Looking Glass released a sequel shortly before closing its doors; Irrational Games, which worked on System Shock 2, carried on the design of the series with the critically acclaimed BioShock. Now nearly 13 years later, a Kickstarter for a remake of the original System Shock has raked in over a million dollars, and a third game in the series is being developed by a team made up largely of developers who worked on the original.
The roads behind the series’ sudden resurgence lead back to Nightdive Studios, a small and dedicated team that has, up until this point, dealt solely with acquiring older games, like Turok and The 7th Guest, and making them playable on modern PCs.
Four years ago, Stephen Kick and Alix Banegas were on a trip of self-discovery in Mexico and close to broke. Now not only do they have the keys to the System Shock franchise, but they’re remaking the original from the ground up. How they got there is quite the story.
In Search Of Something New
Both Kick and Banegas had been working as character artists for Sony Online Entertainment for a few years before deciding to head off in a new direction. “Alix quit and started her own plushie business,” says CEO Stephen Kick. “She did like video game plushies and ended up doing stuff for DOTA 2. During that time I was kind of like a higher up for the character design on Planetside 2 and we just had so many ambitions and wanted to make our own games, and just didn’t want to be in a corporate environment anymore because it just sucks it out of you after a while.”
The pair quit their jobs and packed up the car before heading down to Mexico with no concrete plan except to just wander for a bit. “We crossed the border into Tijuana and just kept on going, all the way across Mexico,” recalls CFO Alix Banegas. The two were in Guatemala when Kick tried to play System Shock 2 on a notebook laptop he had brought along to revisit some of his favorite games, but quickly encountered obstacles.
“I was carrying the CDs and installing the game, and I’m getting all these errors right off the bat,” he says. “So immediately I go on the internet and start looking for fanmade patches, just anything I can get to get the game running again. I go on GOG.com, it’s gotta be there, and it’s not. There’s no legal way to purchase this game. There’s no way to play it on anything newer than Windows XP. And the whole experience just opened up this sort of mystery trail: This is one of the best games ever made. How is there no way to play it?”
That question eventually led Kick and Bane gas to form their own business dedicated to letting customers play games thought to be lost to the ravages of time.
Taking The Plunge
Kick spent some time researching why System Shock 2 was unplayable on modern systems. He discovered both a growing demand for a playable version of the game as well as the identity of the company that owned the rights to the series. Star Insurance Company had obtained Looking Glass Studios’ assets after the company closed its doors in 2000. Curious about the status of the series’ rights and whether Star had any plans for them, Kick sent them a cold email. Surprisingly, he received a reply the next day. “They wrote me back asking what I wanted to do, if I wanted to make a third game,” he says. “I’m in the middle of the jungle at the time [with] no money, and Star Insurance had me on a phone call with their head council.”
According to Kick, Star was wary about doing anything with the rights due to how expensive it would be to create a sequel. Kick went another route, pitching them on re-releasing System Shock 2 in a playable state on Steam and GoodOldGames.com (GOG). He showed them the sizable wishlist for the game on GOG as evidence that there was a demand for such a re-release. He eventually persuaded Star with the potential profit and borrowed money from friends and family to pay for the licensing fee.
Around the same time, Kick discovered an anonymous modder had created a patch that made System Shock 2 playable on modern systems. “I had already been in contact with friends and programmers to create a team to make this work, and this person in France had basically released this file so that all you had to do was stick it in the system directory of System Shock 2,” Kick says.
Controversy struck when Kick and Bane gas launched their version on Valentine’s Day, 2013. “It was kind of strange when we released because the System Shock 2 community was like ‘How dare this company come out of nowhere and take the work from modders and claim ownership of this stuff?’ It was a big mess,’” Kick says. “I didn’t intend for any of that to happen, and we did not claim that we did the work. We tried to reach out to this person, but they wished to remain anonymous.”
According to Banegas, the first sales report revealed good news in spite of the controversy. “At the end of the month, it was abundantly clear from our first sales report that this was a viable business, a sort of niche that we could hit the ground running with and that’s what we did,” she says. “So here we are.”
After System Shock 2’s success, the venture quickly became a business, one that Kick and Banegas named after one of their shared passions. “During our trip we did a lot of diving, particularly night dives, going down to the bottom of the ocean where it’s completely dark and only having this cone of light from your torch and there’s just so much to see down there, so much treasure and you just never know what you’re going to find,” Kick explains. “So we kind of made that analogy. We go out and look for places where people haven’t been in a long time to bring back these forgotten classics to polish them and clean them up and make them playable again, available for everybody. So it all kind of fell into place. We reached out to other people through various sources who might have connections and we just started accumulating these licenses.”
Moving Forward By Going Backward
The newly formed Nightdive started focusing on acquiring adventure staples and cult classics from the ‘90s. Four years later, the studio has touched up and released nearly 100 titles including Turok, The 7th Guest, and Sword of the Samurai. Kick says they ended up using the studio’s profits to purchase the rights to Sys tem Shock from Star Insurance in August 2015, fully intending to remake the original game.
“We had such a wide network of artists, programmers, developers that we could light the Flame of Gondor and everyone would come,” Kick says. “It was just a matter of these pieces falling into place so we could get started.” It turns out he wasn’t wrong. The Kickstarter campaign boasts recognizable talent from across the industry, including Chris Avellone, a designer who worked on Baldur’s Gate and Fallout: New Vegas, as well as the concept artist for the original System Shock, Robb Waters. The majority of the development team is remote, with members working from San Francisco and New Zealand, while Banegas and Kick continue to run Nightdive out of their home in East Vancouver.
“This is basically the entirety of Nightdive Studios,” Kick says, introducing a small office, filled to the brim with artwork from H. R. Giger, comic books, and model lightsabers. He opens a closet to reveal shelves upon shelves of boxed copies of PC games from the ’90s; several of them have signatures from developers like Tim Schafer scribbled across them in sharpie. “I like to get a boxed copy of every game we try to acquire, even the ones that don’t work out,” he says, flashing a copy of Bad Day on the Midway, a game that Nightdive was close to closing the deal on before the original programmer revealed that he had accidently thrown away the source code. “Now this game just might never come back, might never be playable again,” Kick says, sliding the box back onto the shelf. “Unless you just happen to have a Windows 95-era PC. That was really…that was heartbreaking, you know? We were so close.”
Bad Day on the Midway isn’t the only game lost to time, as Nightdive has also been unable to acquire the rights to other classics, though Kick refuses to say that these are lost causes. “Part of my whole mission is to just not be indiscriminate with which games we bring back, to give everything a fair chance,” he says. “But if it’s too cost prohibitive, we kind of have to put it on the back burner for -a -while.” Though Kick and Banegas plan to keep on touching up and re-releasing games, right now the company’s priorities lie with making the System Shock remake a reality. A great deal of anticipation and expectation both fuels the project and creates unique obstacles, but the duo are excited and ready for the challenge of bringing series back to the spotlight – in more ways than one.
In December 2015, Otherside Entertainment (formed by Paul Neurath, the creative director of Looking Glass Studios) revealed it was developing System Shock 3. This sent ripples of confusion throughout the community, since it was well known that Nightdive had purchased the rights to the series. The answer’s pretty simple: Nightdive gave Otherside Entertainment permission to make the game. “Our relationship with Otherside is amicable,” Kick says. “We licensed them the rights to do the third game. That was just a conscious choice, like it had to be done, right? It’s the majority of the original team. Who better than them to make the next one? “I think ultimately when I look back on it, there was a seed that had been planted in my head from the beginning that we would get this license and eventually be responsible for doing System Shock 3. We’re going to work with the original creators, all this sort of stuff that was pipe dream at the time, and now that it’s all happening and all these pieces are in place, more than anything I’m thrilled to see that Shock is coming back. It deserves it.”
Nightdive Studios has carved out a strange, unique path for itself, one that could have only happened with the opportunities offered by the era of digital distribution. While the developer has proven itself as an outfit capable of preserving games thought to be lost, whether or not it can create a quality game from the ground up is still a question yet to be answered. However, the studio’s passion for revitalizing the past for a new generation to enjoy is unmistakable and a necessary foundation for pulling off the Herculean task of not just restoring a masterpiece but making it as shockingly good as it was all those years ago.
For more on System Shock, be sure to read my primer on the series here.