Sunday, January 22, 2006

Blowing Off Some Steam - Guestbloggers

A couple of my favorite game blogs
touched on Valve and its distribution software Steam recently. So, in the interest of padding out my posts, I asked for assessments and analyses.

Corvus from Man Bytes Blog:

Steamed About the Growing Pains

There's a lot of hate for Valve and their electronic game portal, Steam. Complaints that you have to be online in order to play, as Steam phones home to Valve and confirms that you're the legitimate owner of the game you're about to play. Many felt they were paying the price for piracy, when it ought to be a Valve issue. No small part of the issue centered around the flakiness of the original Steam service. Even when a user was broadband enabled, the servers responsible for authentication often were too overloaded to give the client software the thumbs up and a user, eager to jump on and connect to another user's machine to play a little Counter Strike, found themselves having to wait... and wait... and wait.

If I recall correctly, the Steam client software itself has also gone through some growing pains. I seem to remember reports that it didn't play so nicely with the rest of the software on the user's computer, resulting in crashes and such.

As far as I'm concerned, none of those concerns are terribly valid. If we want to see developers succeed and bypass the need for Draconian deals with the "evil" publishers, then we have to expect them to take steps to protect their product. With broadband ever more prevalent (the US is now up to 49.7% broadband penetration, according to reports), and the Valve servers sufficiently robust, needing to be online in order to authenticate your right to play, doesn't seem like such a big deal.

As for the Steam client, I've run it under Windows XP Pro and Cegeda under Linux and I've not had any issues with it. My only real complaint (based on my casual use of it thus far) is that neither Steam, nor any of the Half Life games run natively under Linux... but I recognize that as my own issue. Linux support is not, at this time, financially feasible for most developers.

My summation of these issues? Transition is hard and growing pains suck. I'm personally glad that Valve had the resource to forge that ground for us. A smaller, or less known, developer might not have stayed afloat under the pressure of community disapproval that Valve has faced.

Even better, they didn't just forge this new ground for themselves, but they've opened the platform to independent designers. I can imagine that Darwinia developers, Introversion, were thrilled with the exposure and Mark Healy must be thrilled to have Rag Doll Kung Fu in front of so many consumer eyeballs. True, Introversion had to put a hold on selling Darwinia when it had its debut on Steam. But as you can once again buy it off their site, I think we can forgive Valve for trying to make some money for offering the game across their service.

I'm pleased that Valve was as upset about the in-game advertising that appeared on counter Strike servers. I hope it isn't because they plan on finding a way to do it themselves. If they do start streaming ads to third party Counter Strike servers, you can reverse all the generous statements I've made thus far.

Josh, at Cathode Tan, has raised another concern about Valve and their support of mods. He seems to say that Valve's absolute support of the mod community has raised the mod bar and made it all but impossible for the lone modder to create a mod and get it noticed. Given that Valve's real money maker, Counter Strike, was originally a fan mod that Valve bought pretty early one, is indicative of the sort of behavior Josh refers to.

I'm a little torn about this. Quality mods keep Half Life alive and, presumably, will perform the same function for Half Life 2 and the Source engine. Crappy mods, as far as I'm concerned, are noise in the channel. When I go to log onto a server, the last things I want is to find dozens, or even hundreds, of custom mods, hacks, and maps, I need to download before I can find a server with decent ping to play on.

Is it tough to get noticed when you're a dwarf among giants? Sure it is. Is it fair? No. It does mean, however, you have to think faster, worker harder, shout louder, jump higher, and self promote your accomplishments like a carnie barker on meth (potentially redundant, I know). But here's a shocking opinion: there's not anything wrong with that situation. Not one damn thing.

You want to shine? Shine. It doesn't matter what the people around you are doing. If you're any good, someone will notice. For years, modders have asked for better tools, easier tools, more power, more access to the guts of the game. By all accounts, Hammer does just that. Puts the power of the Source engine, physics code and all, right into the modders hands. Of course it takes dedicated, hard working teams, to produce a mod worth mentioning. But you know what? It always did.

Josh from Cathode Tan:

Actually, it seems to me that mods have changed drastically since when I downloaded a mod just to destroy Barney with a BFG. Back then, virtually any little experiment was a novelty and could be guaranteed some air time just for tinkering around with the code. People would start up servers of completely unfinished projects just to playtest new tweaks to gameplay or the occasional weapon mod.

And teams flourished largely because of their creativity. Mods like Action Quake gained noteriety by how much they had altered the gameplay far more than how attractive their models were or the complexity of their maps.

Valve changed all that with Counter-Strike. By essentially purchasing and selling CS, Valve shifted the landscape of modding from purely hobbyist to fairly commercial. And by relying on mod content for many years after that, Valve made it clear that mod work was on the selling block. Mods like Day of Defeat and Natural Selection kept Valve's software as much, if not more, than their original Half-Life. Their close association with the mod teams changed the playing field. Ask anyone who wasn't in Valve's good graces about the code changes they would make just to fix bugs in Counter-Strike...

After that, two things changed. One, people expected mods to be more like commercial products .... because now mods were commercial products. It quickly became necessary for mods to have near pro quality assets. Two, mod teams became far more likely to try and appease market demands. Now instead of doing strange and innovative work, most mod teams were trying to find a "popular" genre to work with.

So in short, when mods were first around ... you got things like Capture The Flag. Now you have a hundred realism clones.

And it's only getting worse. Companies are way more interested in using mod teams to find new talent than gameplay ideas, although they occasionally still steal the latter. Mod teams have exploded in size to keep up with production demands, which adds to the normal industry complications on their projects.

There is still a spectrum. Id hasn't so much abandoned the mod scene as have always maintained a strict distance. They still make fairly robust tools for mod making and release a decent, although somewhat lacking, set of docs and help. What they don't do is endorse projects. Epic has endorsement in the form of things like the Make Something Unreal Contest and an extremely robust toolset. Valve is openly in the market of selling mods. Epic isn't quite there yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if they adopt it more in the future.

And you see more gameplay style mods with Id's and more "commercial game" style mods with Valve.

Of course, there is pro and con here. I've worked with a lot of very young, very talented people and some of them probably wouldn't have jobs in the industry were it not for the kinds of mods people do these days. Course, the big problem is that I haven't seen anything like the Action series or CTF, which fundamentally evolved how shooters play, in many years.


Corvus said...

Josh, as always, makes some excellent points.

Corvus said...

Still, I think judging the situation to be negative is rather like complaining about the seasons turning. It's inevitable that mods' complexity will increase over time. After all, the engines that are being modded are more and more complex. Modders asked for the tools they're now being provided with. The strategy of making a profit off the tools and support you provide, essentially for free, only makes it possible to release quality end user editing tools.

id has a hand off approach to the mod community, because they generate enough revenue off licensing their engine to 3rd part developers. No need to sink resources into community support on the same level Valve and Epic have.

I agree that realism clone mods are overdone, but mods like Alien Swarm show that you can do so much more, if you only have the idea (yes, I know that Black Cat is an actual studio at this point).

Anyway, I cede that point that modding has dramatically changed, I just don't know that I'd call it bad, per se. From your perspective, Josh, it's pretty clear that the mod community is suffering from the same woes as the industry itself.

Josh said...

And if there is anything I bemoan, it's the fact that mods are now pressured in much the same way as the rest of the industry and are no longer serious creative tangents.

Definately, there was conversion of more professional tools and support to how much profit a company would expect back in return ... but I would have hoped that it could have been calculated in up front sales of the original title rather than slowly turning mods into a cottage industry of their own.

Certainly, there is good. People like getting commercial quality stuff for free. Who wouldn't? The quality of mod teams has skyrocketed. So in one way, the consumer should be happy because titles like Half-Life 2 and Unreal Tournament will pay them back tenfold for their original purchase. The ECE version of UT2004 was quite possibly the best deal gamers have gotten in a decade.

It's just that nobody looks to mods for innovation anymore. There's still a little overlap, sure. UT2003's Bombing Run was definatetly influenced by previous mods and there is some indication that the latter Invasion gametype was as well.

Teams that want to be really innovative, though, have a much harder road to travel now. Take Air Buccaneers, one of the more unique mods in recent history. Hard as hell to get a game going though, because the team could never "sell" the idea well enough.

I personally released two mods that got tons of great feedback, but never caught on ... largely because they didn't sport any new models.

So for what it is, modern mod projects are still a good thing - because they're still producing quality products. Better quality than ever before. But for what mods used to be? Just doesn't exist much now.