PC Gaming on a budget (Part 2/2)

This is the second half of my blog on how to play more games for less money, or completely for free! My first 8 tips were in last week’s blog here.

Before I begin I want to alert you to some current offers. Last week I mentioned demos and a great one just went up on Steam during the week. Free-running zombie-smashing game Dying Light just put out a free demo on Steam. Go here and look for the ‘Download Demo’ button on the right.

You can skip below to “9” if you’re reading after 31 August 2015.

Last week I also mentioned the Steam Free Weekends. This weekend (28-31 August 2015) Mount & Blade Warband is free to play on Steam and discounted at 66% for the duration. This is one of my favourite games in recent years and I’m not even that big an RPG guy. It’s a combination of medieval strategy game, open world trading, RPG, and first person combat. You can do things like raise an army and join a faction or conquer lands and create your own Kingdom, fighting all battles in first or third person (or auto-resolve) as an archer or horse-mounted lancer, all while manipulating nobles and markets. And that’s just the single player! The multiplayer scene is amazing! It’s incredible, and the biggest sell for me is that it has the best sword/melee combat I’ve ever seen in a game! Check it out! The discounted price is €6.79 and you can play for free until Monday to see if you like it.

I also mentioned totally free games to look out for. Humble (who I’ll mention today) are giving away Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones: Humble Deluxe Edition totally free until Monday (Aug 31st 2015). They’re also in their Summer Sale with up to 90% discounts and you can make your own Codemasters or Telltale Games Bundles! That’s big!

9. Origin ‘Game Time’

 Click to go to the Game Time page in your browser (new Window)
Click to go to the Game Time page in your browser (new Window)

Back to Origin once more (note, this is EA’s store, and will be changing their name in the coming months away from Origin). Under their Free Games tab (pictured above) you can see “Game Time”. If they haven’t flashed this at you as soon as you launched the Origin client (then you’re probably on the web) then this is where to find it.

Again, Origin isn’t great on the amount of games on offer, and there’s only four there now, but these include Battlefield 4 and Titanfall. Definitely AAA games, by any definition. Hey, they may even work by now, it’s been long enough since their release dates (snark snark)!

Game Time is a bit like a Steam Free Weekend that you can start for yourself once, whenever you want. Once the game is installed, the first time you launch it will start a 48 hour countdown (148 hrs for Battlefield 4) in real-world time (not game time) before the game is locked again.

I haven’t done it myself yet, but if you ever find yourself with a guaranteed empty weekend, you could probably get some good mileage out of Battlefield 4, Titanfall, Plants vs Zombies, or whatever the other one is..  Unfortunately, as far as I know, there’s no discount during this period. It’s still the normal store price.

10. Betas

This is something you have to look out for, really. Multiplayer games that will require some balance testing and server stress-testing tend to run Betas before the game launches. These might be open or closed, and that defines your ability to get in.

The conditions vary wildly. They may only be open to you if you’ve already pre-ordered the game, or pre-ordered one of the company’s other games, or it might be free to everybody who signs up via email, or signing up may only enter you into a draw for a beta key. It kind of depends on the size of the multiplayer aspect and the response they’ve gotten so far. Closed betas sometimes become open in order to further stress test the servers.

If you do get into a beta bear in mind that the game isn’t technically in a finished state, but you’ll likely see enough of the game to know if it’s for you or not, all while giving the developers valuable statistics just by being there. I used to be a huge fan of the Battlefield games, but I got on the Battlefield 4 Beta (which was after Planetside 2 came out, which was way better if you ask me) and while I had planned to get it, the Beta showed me that it wasn’t for me, thus saving me €60 + DLC costs.

Call of Duty Black Ops 3 is currently in Beta but it’s been there for a while and may be ending soon and it’s only open to you if you have pre-ordered.

In the coming year I imagine we’ll see multiplayer betas for Battleborn, Overwatch, possibly Rainbow Six Siege again, and maybe the new Unreal Tournament a bit later on. You never know, so just keep an eye out. The big ones are usually well advertised.

(EDIT: Star Wars Battlefront had a Beta earlier this year so I didn’t mention it, but they’re having another in early October before release. Here’s PC Gamer’s report.)

11. Pre-Order Bonuses

 Getting a free and known game is one of the better pre-order deals you can find, but you're still trusting that the new game will be good. In the Phantom Pain's case, the reviews have already gone out and are generally 10/10, so rest easy here.
Getting a free and known game is one of the better pre-order deals you can find, but you’re still trusting that the new game will be good. In the Phantom Pain’s case, the reviews have already gone out and are generally 10/10, so rest easy here.

Pre-order culture is controversial. It requires the consumer to pay up front for a game that isn’t yet finished and hasn’t been reviewed by the media. In other words, it could be crap, and you’re being asked to trust that it won’t be. In recent years that trust has been eroded with terrible buggy products coming out, and developers have been getting away with it. 

On the other hand, developers, particularly smaller ones, sometimes need that cash flow to finish or market the game, so it’s not greed driving the pre-order culture. It’s practical business: cash flow! There’s nearly always a reward for the consumer for their trust and early cash. Some of the time these are just insulting, or they’re a part of the game you should have been given anyway but are only being given if you buy in advance or pay more after. This adds to the bad name of pre-orders, but there’s plenty of good out there too.

Often, you’ll get a Season Pass for free with a pre-order, which means you’ll get more content and/or missions over time as they become available. Your mileage may vary here. 

My favourite pre-order bonus I’ve gotten so far was ALL of the X-Com games. I think it was the pre-order bonus for X-Com Enemy Unknown, which was excellent, or it might have been for The Bureau: X-Com Declassified, which was less good, but still alright by me. 

Make your own choices here. If the bonus is worth it to you, and you “just know” you’ll love the game no matter what, and you trust the developer, don’t leave money on the table, so to speak. Get that bonus!

12. Mods

Mods are modifications to existing games that, in the past, have nearly always been free additions to a game made by the community. They could be as little as a new hat, or as big as a whole new game built around the core engine. Counterstrike started life as just a multiplayer mod for Half Life and now it’s one of the biggest games in the world! If you find a good mod you can really breathe new life into a game you already own, for free! Some are very easy to install. Some can be quite tricky, and so make sure you follow the instructions very closely.

Skyrim is a hugely modded game. So are all the Grand Theft Auto games and Minecraft. Cities Skylines is getting some great mods too! You should be aware that in certain multiplayer or online games you can get your account banned if you have mods installed, as it detects that the game has been modified and thinks you’re cheating. Other games are designed around allowing mods and this isn’t a problem.

My all-time favourite mod is the excellent Brutal Doom for Doom (video above). It’s ranked #5 (at time of writing) on Mod DB’s top 100 mods (do check out that list. Very interesting). Note also that the top 3 mods on the list are currently for Mount & Blade Warband. As I said at the start of this blog, you should try that game!! Also the Long War Mod for X-Com is fantastic if you like the game.

As a rule of thumb, the older the game, the better the mods. This is because the modders are people working in their spare time to change the game, and to make big changes can take years.

There’s a lot of talk around charging for mods right now, and Steam tried unsuccessfully to kick it off earlier this year, but the backlash stopped it in its tracks. That’s a topic for another day, but since modders are game fans, not companies, you can be relatively sure that there will always be free mods available for some games, even if the better ones go paid. Still, it might be wise to get the most out of it now.

13. Let’s Plays

This may be cheating a little, but I’ve found some value in it of late. I used to think listening to Audiobooks was cheating as you’re not reading a book, but you’re still getting a story in at a time when you couldn’t be reading (like when walking or cooking dinner). Let’s Plays are a little like that for games.

YouTube Let’s Plays, and their counterpart live streams on Twitch TV (which often get uploaded to YouTube once they’re recorded anyway) are when you watch somebody else play a game. Sometimes they’re just trying it out for the first time. Sometimes they’re replaying a classic, and sometimes they’ve got an angle, like playing hard games drunk or currently, Danny O’Dwyer (Gamespot’s famous personality and Waterford-man) playing Fallout 3 ‘Naked and Gunless’.

Some personalities are silent, some are loud and really annoying, some are funny, and some only think they are (see ‘annoying’). The video and audio quality can vary as much as the personalities but there are enough streamers doing Lets Plays as their day job (yes, you can do that! We live in the future!) and enough aiming to, that you can usually find good quality videos of whatever you’re looking for, particularly if the game is newer.

The value I get out of these varies. If there’s an older game that simply isn’t available any more, or that I own but won’t run on the new Windows, I could watch somebody else play it. It’s not the same as playing yourself, but it depends what you’re after. In a linear game that’s more about the story, you may not mind letting somebody else have the controls as long as they don’t talk over the important bits. In a strategy game, you probably want the streamer to discuss what they’re thinking, as there may be a lot of information on the screen and they’re clicking too quickly for you to see what’s going on because they’re familiar with the controls and you’re not.

Recently I was interested in playing Until Dawn but it’s only on the PS4 and I don’t have one. This is a narrative-heavy horror game but one where your choices play a big part in the game. I watched Mary Kish (again of Gamespot) play the whole game in one video (I paused and came back a lot) and I got the gist of the game. I’d like to play myself and make some different choices, but I got a great experience for free either way.

In another case I didn’t want to take the time to play the Xcom Long War mod (which is free) so I watched BeagleRush do it on a second screen while I worked, and I only paid real attention when interesting things happened. Over the course of a couple of months, this saved me like 120 hours of playing it myself!

It’s also a great way of getting past a level you’re stuck on in a game you have, or of seeing what a game is like for real before you decide buy it for yourself.

In related news, YouTube launched YouTube Gaming this week. It’s a branch of YouTube totally focussed on gaming and hosts the same game videos you can get on the normal YouTube but it’s also competing with Twitch by offering live streaming services.

14. Humble Bundles

The Humble Store is another online store like Steam and GOG and Origin, but this one sells Steam Keys (so you’ll play the game in Steam ultimately) but some of your purchase goes to charity. The Store has its own occasional sales (like right now) but the remarkable aspect is the Humble Bundles.

This is a pay what you want type of sale with different tiers of games, and if you pay more than a certain amount you get all games in the next tier. You might get 4 games for anything up to $5, or 8 games if you go beyond $5. Or even less!

The games offered are generally fixed (bundled, though in special promotions like the Summer Sale you can build your own bundles to a degree) and the costs vary. Typically you won’t have heard of most of the games in the weekly bundle but occasionally there’ll be a very good deal. Again, charity is the main winner with these offers but you can get like $150 worth of games for $3! Whether you like any of them is up to you. I’ve never actually bought a bundle as I don’t want a lot of games I’ve never heard of that I feel I have to play, but that’s just me.

15. Browser Games

Part of saving money is knowing when not to spend, and recognising your moods. I know that sometimes I really want some distraction. I want to play something new, and I’ve a bad habit of just opening up Steam and looking around for something to buy, when really I just want to spend a few minutes doing something else. I could as easily go on YouTube or Reddit here but since this is about games I should also mention some of the sites that host browser games.

On sites like Kongregate, Itch.io, IndieDB, Newgrounds, Gamejolt, Y8.com, Addicting Games, AGame.com, and more you can find more free games than you could ever play! The quality will vary wildly, but without a shadow of a doubt, the best stuff on these sites is better than half the paid stuff on Steam. For your convenience, most of the sites have user ratings for the games and they’re arranged by genre, so you can quickly see if they have something you’re looking for.

These games tend to be smaller in scope than paid games, but not always. A game could last anywhere from under 1 minute up to an hour or more. You should be able to find something to interest you without digging into your wallet when the mood takes you to these sites.

Also, on sites like Itch.io and IndieDB (and some of the others) you’re probably playing early builds of games that will become full releases later on in their lives. Look for Floaty Ball on Itch.io. It’s an extremely fun party game for 1-4 players made by Irish devs GoodManLads. Its early life was on Itch.io and it’s currently looking for your vote on Steam Greenlight on its way to becoming an all-growed-up game.

Remember that some of these sites may be using the Unity Web Player which no longer works in Chrome. If the game won’t run, paste the link into Firefox or another browser and play away.

16. Your Own Games

 Okay maybe I'll just replay one of you guys tonight.. PS Congratulations to the Onikira team who launched during the week!
Okay maybe I’ll just replay one of you guys tonight.. PS Congratulations to the Onikira team who launched during the week!

I can almost guarantee you that you’ve bought or been given/awarded some games that you’ve never taken a look at. Or ones that you started but didn’t give fair time to and moved on before you got the most out of them. Bioshock is a big one for me. I’ve started it I think 3 times before, liked it but not loved it and then started playing something else like a newer release and not come back to it for a long time. I know the game is great (according to critical acclaim) and I like shooters so there’s no reason I shouldn’t play this game when I want something new. It’s already paid for and I shouldn’t spend more money to get a new experience when I’ve yet to experience one of the top rated games of the last ten years!

I’m sure you’ve a few in your own library that you could go to.

The same goes for replaying games. If you just want to kill some time, don’t feel you have to buy a new game. Look back at games you used to love and try them out again for the evening, or try to go for 100% completion in some open world game where you stopped exploring after beating the main quest.

17. <Removed> (26 Sep, 2015)

I formerly recommended key reselling vendors here. I had explained that I looked into the legality of their business and found that it wasn’t illegal. At the time of this edit, that is still technically true, but I’ve learned that it’s a legally ambiguous area that has yet to have a clear-cut result in course that would give us a final answer. Also these case results may vary from territory to territory.

I’m no longer comfortable recommending something that, while beneficial for the consumer, may be illegal and does seem to harm developers. In some cases the keys being resold are unused review keys which developers were never expecting to be paid for. However, in the spirit of things, they expected each key given away to generate more sales through review, not for a third party to turn a profit from a consumer at the developer’s expense.

It might take a long time, but until there’s a clear legal stance on the issue of digital reselling (as there is with reselling physical console games), I can’t recommend this method of discounting. It appears that the consumer takes on legal risk and can have their keys deactivated at a later date (when the source of the code has been tracked down), even if it worked in the first place. I can’t recommend anything that currently leaves the purchaser at risk like this. Even if you’re willing to take that risk, know that I’ve seen discounts misquoted at times (misleading and illegal in most countries) and known of keys that didn’t work (though the vendor refunded or replaced these).

Piracy is illegal. Key reselling may be illegal. Both DO put the consumer at risk and DO harm developers, which ultimately means less great games get made, harming the consumer again.

There’s a great article on the topic here.

In Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, as well as reading last week’s blog, thank you, and I sincerely hope it was worth it for you. I tried to throw in practical general knowledge as well as psychological and habitual tricks so that there should be something there for everybody. I even learned a few things myself in researching for it.

Gaming can be a very expensive hobby if you want it to be, but you can also play games every day for the rest of your life for free if you want to, and that’s without turning to piracy, which you shouldn’t do. It hurts the industry you’re such a fan of and damages you back ultimately. Gaming is a great hobby with something in it for everyone and hopefully I’ll have helped you get a bit more out of it.

If you’ve any tips that I missed or any games you want to recommend for being worth the investment, do please share in the comments.

Stay tuned as I blog every weekend and will be continuing my series “Player Too” as well as soon doing a piece on sword fighting in games.

Until next time..


PC Gaming on a budget (Part 1/2)

Some of my blogs have been running a little long and this one was going the same way so I’ve decided to make this a two-parter. Read on for my tips on how to save money, or even spend no money at all, in your PC gaming life.

While top end gaming PCs to match the XB1 or PS4 can be quite expensive up-front (but totally worth it if you ask me), you can run the majority of games on laptops that are cheaper than these consoles themselves. Chances are you already have one. Another advantage is that the PC is an open platform with competition. Nobody (so far) is charging us a monthly fee to play multiplayer games. On Playstation or Xbox you’ve to pay to be on Playstation Network or Xbox Live in order to play multiplayer. Admittedly they do now give you a free older game occasionally for being a member, but it’s still a “free” game in exchange for your paid subscription, and you don’t get much choice as to what that game is.  On the PC we can just play away. 

By the way, forgive me for rarely mentioning Nintendo. I consider it its own thing really, as with many many games you can choose to play them either the PC, Xbox or Playstation. But if you want to play  what Nintendo’s got, you need to buy a Nintendo, so comparisons can be less relevant, depending on what you’re talking about.

Lastly, in Ireland you have to pay a TV license just to own a TV in the house, which you need for console gaming. Many countries probably have their equivalent licenses too. We recently got our letter that we hadn’t paid. We wrote back that we don’t have a TV (which is true; just the PC monitor and a laptop) and that was accepted. Happy days!

Of course, console owners of hard-copy games can go down to Game Stop or equivalent and trade in their old games for money off new ones, or even cash. This does reduce the ‘real’ price of each game for console owners, but considering that a new current-gen game can cost €80 even without the so-common Season Pass they try to squeeze you for, I think that’s small compensation when the same games on PC likely cost €60.

The laws for ownership of digital products has a long way to come to catch up with the physical world, but it is happening, and wheels are turning to allow us to “trade in” our own digital copies of games in a similar way. This may never actually happen, though, and if it does it could still be a long way off.

I should get on with the advice, but just to give you some context let me describe my habits and spending. I keep a budget (because I’m that kind of person). I don’t keep TO a budget per se, but I find it useful to know what I’m spending on things and to remember if I’ve paid bills, etc. In keeping my budget I observe that I spend an average of about €45 per month on games. You might guess that that’s 1 new AAA game every other month (meaning big expensive releases from big companies that sit on the Top 10 list for months). It isn’t. In fact, while I do play plenty of AAA games, I’ve only paid full price (meaning €60) for one game in the last two years, and that’s the PC release of GTA V, which was something I simply couldn’t wait any longer for (I hadn’t played it on consoles in the 18 months it had been out). I also play at least a few minutes of a game every day, if not a couple of hours. It has become my primary hobby in recent years and I’ve learned a few money-saving tricks that I’d like to share. Some may be obvious, some may just serve as reminders, and some things will hopefully be new to you.

1. Don’t Buy What You Won’t Play

This may be obvious, but thinking that you’re saving money by buying something in a sale is still wasting money if you never use it. This applies to any products or services, and whether they’re on sale or not. Don’t buy anything at any price ever if you know you’re not likely to use it. 

A staggering 37% of games sold on Steam remain unplayed. Of my own library I think I install and at least play a few minutes of everything I get, so it’s probably technically 0% of my own library, though I’ll admit I’ve bought things cheap and then only played a few minutes.

If you’re in the middle of an epic RPG like the Witcher 3 or you’re about to start The Phantom Pain next week, don’t bother picking up anything else until you’re sick of them or finished them. You know you’re not going to get to play it for weeks, or months! At that stage you’ll have forgotten about it or have bought something newer.

2. Take Advantage of Sales, namely, Steam ones

Okay, obvious again, but pair this with  #1 and only buy what you actually wanted in the first place. Don’t let fear of missing out rule you. I did a blog a few weeks ago about the damage sales could do to the games industry and the damage they do to our own perceptions of what a game is worth to us. I argued against sales a bit there, but let me be a total hypocrite… no wait, devil’s advocate. That sounds way more objective and professional. Let me play devil’s advocate now and argue for sales.

While sales may be doing negative things to the industry, they are there to be taken advantage of if you so desire. Steam are the best/worst for sales. If you ever want to buy a game that isn’t a new release, and you’re prepared to wait a few weeks, then just put the game on your Wishlist in the Steam browser, and check back every few days to see if anything you wanted to get is on sale. Steam have two several-week-long mega sales in the year (Summer and Winter) that, when added together, mean Steam is massively discounting games roughly 10% of the year, and only six months apart. Six months is the longest you need to wait to get something cheap on Steam.

That’s ignoring their “Midweek Madness” sale and their “Weekend Deals”. Midweek is about Tuesday – Thursday, and Steam’s “weekend”, I’ve noticed, starts on Thursday and runs until Monday night (Irish time). So on Thursday you’ve simultaneously got a mid-week and weekend sale happening. It’s ludicrous! There’s far less on sale at these times than at seasonal sale time, but if what you’re after comes along here then it might be  a good time to pick it up. Again, make use of the wishlist to build a list of games you’d like but can wait for, then check it every now and again, as it shows at a glance whether the price is currently discounted or not. I think it’s also meant to email you if your wishlisted game goes on sale, but I rarely get that email, personally.

 Found this when I Googled for images of Steam Summer Sale. It'll do!
Found this when I Googled for images of Steam Summer Sale. It’ll do!

EA’s store (currently named Origin but soon re-branding to something else) also do the occasional sale but given that they pretty much only sell €60+ games to start with, they’re probably worth avoiding unless you want something very specific. We’ll get back to Origin later, though.

Good Old Games (GOG.com) are a fast-growing alternative to Steam who do plenty of their own sales in order to compete. They have an optional shopping/gaming platform (GOG Galaxy), whereas Steam is required in order to play, though both stores can be viewed in an ordinary browser. GOG also has a wishlist function so make use of that similarly to how I recommended with Steam.

3. The Little Differences

GOG also offer, on some titles, a small amount of store credit back just for buying a game. This isn’t unique to GOG but Steam aren’t doing it.

What Steam do is tend to give you trading cards for playing their games or buying on Steam. These go into your ‘inventory’ (it’ll flash green to notify you if you get something new in there). Supposedly you use the trading cards to trade and craft badges and increase your Steam user level (as if Steam itself were a game). It’s total bullshit, and I say that with the only caveat being that since they don’t seem to know what they’re doing with it and are always changing the rules, they may some day become worth doing, but for now, just get into your inventory, and put the trading cards up for auction on the Steam store. You can speculate here, as with stocks, but for this level of pennies it’s not worth your time. Just look at what the most recent selling price was (usually 8-12 cent) and set your desired price to that or a cent lower, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to sell in a few minutes. Do this consistently and you can easily find enough credit it your Steam “wallet” (store credit) to afford one of the cheaper on-sale games without having to drop any cash at all. Free game for the win! I admit, though, it’s more hassle than GOG’s version of just giving you the store credit.

4. Use Refunds

Steam Refunds are a new development, with you able to return any purchase for any reason within two weeks of purchase, if you’ve played less than two hours of the game. Outside of these parameters, Steam will consider the refund request also. Info here.

If you do get taken for a sucker during a sale period and know you’re not going to play the games, then take advantage of the refund. There’s no shame in it! I’ll admit I bought a couple of games in the Summer Sale because they were cheap and I’d heard of them, even though I thought they weren’t the genres I’d be interested in. Sure enough, after a few minutes of playing them, I realised I didn’t like this kind of game, and didn’t want to play more. I’d only bought because it was cheap. I returned the games and no more was said. You do only get store credit, and it doesn’t appear for a few days, but that’s fine by me.

EA (Origin), GOG, and Ubisoft all have returns policies, I believe, though the terms are all different, and Steam’s is now the most consumer-friendly. Check them out if you’re interested.

 Steam don't need your reason, though they ask. Just be within the terms and you're good.
Steam don’t need your reason, though they ask. Just be within the terms and you’re good.

5. Demos

Okay, so this one is a bit of a shocker to me sometimes. We used to get PC magazines with CDs or DVDs and several free demos to play every month. They used to be common but hardly anybody does demos any more, and it’s not just just a death-of-print thing. Demos can be distributed digitally, of course. They’re just far less common than they used to be. That said, they do still exist, and some stores categories just for them. They’re a great way to try before you buy, or to just play something new and free for a half an hour with no intention of getting the game.

 Where to find Steam's Demos. Did you ever see that before? It's been there the whole time! There's enough demos in there to play for months without paying a penny!
Where to find Steam’s Demos. Did you ever see that before? It’s been there the whole time! There’s enough demos in there to play for months without paying a penny!

Granted, most of the demos are ones you’ll never have heard of, but there could be some good stuff in there. I have to alert you to The Stanley Parable and The Talos Principle demos, though. Both are major games with free demos, and the content is unique to the demo. You won’t find those levels in the real game (Okay I could be wrong about Talos, not having beaten it yet, but I’m pretty sure the demo levels aren’t in the main game).

GOG don’t seem to offer demos. Origin do but with an extremely narrow selection. There’s 8 games at present and 4 of them are football. There’s some fun to be had there though.

 Click to see all 8 demos!!
Click to see all 8 demos!!

6. Totally Free Games

This one’s special. Occasionally you can find entire games, for keeps, for free! They’re nearly always old, but there are fantastic older games out there so don’t discount this option. Origin typically have one on the go at a time, and it’s the same one for a few months. See the picture above. It’s the “On The House” option.

I don’t believe GOG or Ubisoft (Uplay) have this offer.

Steam’s free games are, sadly, lumped into the Free To Play category, which is a different thing that I’ll talk about next. To find it, go here:

 After clicking
After clicking “Free To Play”, you’ll have four new tabs. Choose the “Most Popular” tab to display all 267 results in order of popularity. The other tabs will only give you a few games.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to really know what you’re looking at here in order to get a truly free game. Look at release dates, or even graphics for a clue. Currently, 90s shoot-em-up Shadow Warrior (Classic) can be gotten for free. In this case, there was a remaster done to make the game more palatable which is on sale, but they made the original version free. There are probably a few properly free full games to be found amongst the 267, but I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole yet.

(EDIT: I found a great list of the free games here. At a glance, it does include some that are in fact Free To Play (you can spend money) games and not “free games” (full game for free) but it’s still narrowed down from 267. Alien Swarm was fun (and includes local/online coop) and Fistful Of Frags has good review scores.)

(EDIT: GOG has also very occasionally offered a free game for a short period of time, but there’s no section for it. Just keep an eye out.)

7. Free To Play

Love it or hate it, the free to play model is here to stay. And who do we have to thank? Well you could either say “mobile” or “shareware”. I tend to avoid F2P because they tend to be designed a bit like slot machines, and suck you into an endless gameplay loop that will bleed you of time at least, if not time and money. They’re never truly free. They’re often multiplayer games that don’t end. You just keep fighting/competing/warring so that you can stay in the game and keep spending money on optional extras. At least with a single player game you usually pay once, play a story, then put it down. You’re not at risk of having your time and money bled away.

You can start the game and make your character for free, and even play a few rounds to see if it’s for you. Most of these games though will hold a significant amount of gameplay, or a significant advantage, behind a pay wall. The latter are accused of being “Pay To Win”. Avoid these.

That said, these games can be designed very fairly too, and be truly great experiences. One of my all-time favourite games is Planetside 2. You can play all parts of the game for free and paying won’t give you any major advantage.

Heroes & Generals I like, concept and gameplay-wise, but everything is very expensive and realistically, unless you have literally thousands of hours, you HAVE to spend money to be able to play as a pilot or tank driver or sniper. You can only play as infantry for free. This can be fun, but it’s quite an expensive game if you’re going to get into it for real. Even as a pilot, you can rarely use the pilot because many matches won’t have had an air force brought into them, so despite my paying €20, I can rarely even play what I paid for. Be wary of this kind of free to play.

Approach with caution, basically. If you’ve an addictive personality, or are undisciplined with your credit card, then Free To Play is not for you!!

8. Steam Free Weekends

These are great! They don’t happen every weekend, but often enough to make it worth logging on on a Thursday night or Friday to see if anything is happening. For example, this weekend (21-24 August 2015) Payday 2 and Zombie Army Trilogy were free to play. That’s the full games (multiplayer shooters, one about ultra-shootey bank heists and the other about Nazi Zombies, because we need more zombie games) available to play for about 72 hours (or longer).

Take advantage of these! Payday 2 has been featured on this multiple times. Civilization: Beyond Earth has been on once or twice also. With a game like that, you could actually complete a full campaign in the weekend and feel you’ve done the game, without having to drop €40+ on it. No matter what’s on offer, you might have a lot of fun for free and feel like you’re done with it by Monday. Good deal!

If you didn’t like it, no great loss, but if you did and want more, the game tends to be discounted at 50-75% off!!

The absolute best-case though is this: An increasingly common promotional tactic for (usually) Early-Access multiplayer games, is to increase their user base by doing a free weekend, but to be more sure of retaining it, they let you keep the full game, just for having installed it on that weekend!

My first post to this blog was on Fractured Space who were doing such a promotion back in May. I now have that game, just because I played it on that weekend. It’s still in Early Access (meaning it’s not “finished” but you can play it) but when it’s officially released, I’ve got me a full and polished game, and I can still play it whenever I want anyway, I just tend to minimise my exposure to Early Access, lest it spoil me for the real game.

 Definitely one of my favourite things on this list!
Definitely one of my favourite things on this list!

I’m going to leave it here for this week, but come back next week for Origin’s equivalent of Steam’s Free Weekend and much more. I’ve saved some of the best stuff for last!

Player Too: Episode 2 – Gone Home & Race The Sun (and more)

Click for Episode 1..

Welcome to the second instalment of Player Too, where I try to turn my girlfriend Claire into a gamer by exploring games with low barriers to entry. After all, you can’t expect to play a shooter without having learned movement controls at some point, or a 4x strategy game without playing something simpler like Command & Conquer or a tower defence.

In the time since the first episode, we’ve played Race The Sun and Gone Home, as well as Irish games Darkside Detective (demo) and Curtain.

Gone Home

A few people recommended that we play Gone Home if we liked the mystery of Her Story and needed something with a low skill level. Again, I thought it was important for Claire to play herself, and not just watch. You’ll never consider yourself a gamer if you don’t actually get ‘hands on’.

I know this game is referred to by many as a “walking simulator”. I know it’s intended as a derogatory term, but that doesn’t mean a game is without merit, and in fact, since Claire has never ever controlled a first person character with a keyboard and mouse, a walking simulator actually sounded perfect. She could get used to movement in an environment where you can’t die and don’t have a time limit. I figure if she could get used to first person movement, then she might eventually be able for the extremely enjoyable Portal games, maybe by way of the Stanley Parable or Talos Principle first. If she liked Gone Home for what it was, then maybe we could stop off at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or something like that.

howlongtobeat.com said that Gone Home takes about two hours to beat. We figured we’d beat the game in a single evening, even with the need to learn how to move first. I positioned Claire’s fingers on the WASD keys. She asked why she couldn’t use the up/down/left/right arrows. I said that she could technically but that she’d just have to treat this like a driving lesson and take my word that it’s better to have more keys in range of your fingers (like tab, q, e, f, etc) for when a game requires more controls. Plus on her laptop the arrow keys would just be horrible to try and use. Look at this!

 Ewww.. Okay we're definitely going with the WASD keys, then.
Ewww.. Okay we’re definitely going with the WASD keys, then.

So the next ninety minutes for me were kind of painful. Like sitting alongside a new driver as they grind the clutch, cut out the engine, slam on the brakes, and over steer. But that’s just me. I wanted to see the story but it was really being held up by learning how to move. Claire did really well, though. She remembered to keep her fingers in place, and before long didn’t have to keep looking down for the crouch button. Using the mouse to look around was natural, and I think for a first go she did as well as could be expected. First person games aren’t ruled out, then, but it might be a while before she’s circle strafing and rocket jumping. All the same, I got exhausted watching. Claire finished the second half of the game without me and I played it myself the day after that so we could talk about it.

Because it’s such a short game, heavily based on plot, it’s hard not to discuss it without spoiling a large percentage, so I won’t. I think that’s probably a telling criticism of Gone Home. You nearly need to come at it knowing literally nothing to get the full experience (a bit like the movie Signs). If you know what does or doesn’t happen then the occasional red herring won’t add to the experience. Wondering what’s happened in the house is all you’ve got. Gameplay-wise, you wander around a fairly large family home, wondering why your family aren’t there, and examining notes, phone messages, and newspaper clippings to develop the story. Every few clues your sister will “speak” to you in your head and continue narrating the story. You don’t really need to work anything out for yourself, solve puzzles, or test theories. It’s all given to you in a logical sequence. You can choose which of the unlocked rooms to explore yourself and how deeply to explore them, so the experience isn’t ‘on the rails’, but it still feels like there’s nothing to DO! There’s very little you even have to remember or backtrack for.

Unprompted, Claire said things like “it’s not really a game” or “there’s nothing to do”. Without her being aware of the “not a game” debate that circles experiential games like this, it was interesting to hear her get there on her own. She felt like she had no input into the experience. There’s nothing to ‘beat’. There’s no element of competition. No win or lose state. It was just like watching a movie but where she had to move the plot on herself, and that that’s not really what she would call a game.

 You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!
You can pick up and rotate objects to examine them, but rarely need to. A properly-opening cassette box was the best though!

Legendary game designer Sid Meier said that “a game is a series of interesting choices”. That’s a great definition, but excludes interactive fiction as games. Claire and I think that’s fine. Saying something “isn’t a game” shouldn’t be offensive. Not every piece of recreational software has to be a game. Interactive fiction is probably a better way to describe ‘games’ like these. But I digress..whatever that means..

In terms of it being a worthwhile experience though, she said it was, and I think it is too. I do think games should be about more than just shooting and platforming. “Experiential games” can be a great way of telling a story. Gone home would have been a decent short story if done in print, and using technology to bring you into the story is definitely worth doing, but the word ‘game’ has definitions and expectations. Broadly speaking, there’s a player or players, an objective, and a set of rules. Gone Home, or Telltale’s games could meet this at a stretch, but they’re far better described as ‘interactive fiction’. Telltale themselves said in a panel at GDC when asked if what they made were games, that they didn’t really care! They are what they are.

Claire’s Score: 6/10. Worthwhile as an experience, but not worth the €20 asking price as it’s too short with not enough going on. Get it on sale for €10 or less.

Player Too Result: Claire and I reached a common consensus pretty easily with Gone Home. We felt that it was useful as a walking simulator to train Claire in movement in a consequence-free environment. We felt that it wasn’t really a game (how dare we use such profanity) under certain definitions. We felt that it was a worthwhile experience, and that more interactive fiction like this would be a good thing. But we felt that the story wasn’t particularly great. It was nice, different, and worthwhile, but if there were more similar games to compare alongside, Gone Home probably wouldn’t stand up all that well as, insofar as twists, red herrings, and mystery go, it could have done better. We think people only recommend it because it’s different and there isn’t yet anything better. The developers, Fullbright, are releasing another game called Takoma next year. We’re definitely interested in checking it out.

Claire is interested in a similar experience but with the ability to make decisions and affect the story. Sounds to me like it might be time to introduce an RPG on Player Too, though we still have to keep the controls simple. Any recommendations?

Bonus Mini-Review: Curtain

As I wrote this blog, I got Claire to try “Curtain”, by Dreamfeeel, winner of the Grand Prize for the Most Amazing Game at Amaze, Berlin 2015. It’s a 20-30 minute experiential game that focuses on abusive relationships. It has a very distinct art style that looks off-putting at first, but stick with it if you try the game. It uses that imagery, as well as sound and level design in great narrative ways that experiential games should take note of.

I asked Claire what she thought when she finished and she said “that was awesome! So simple, so clever” (note that after ten seconds of playing the game she said “I don’t like this, I want to quit” so do stick with it if you try it).

 Click to see Curtain's page on Itch.io
Click to see Curtain’s page on Itch.io

You can name your own price  (including €0) to get the game on Itch. Click the GIF above. We downloaded for free just to see (I thought Claire may have hated it) but she liked it enough to go back and pay the asking price. You can’t say fairer than that!

Second Bonus Mini-Review: The Darkside Detective

At the end of the last Player Too I said we might try point-and-click game The Darkside Detective which, though not out yet, has a downloadable demo (scroll to bottom of that page) covering a single complete chapter.

It’s a comedy point-and-click adventure game with an X-files vibe and is divided into ‘cases’ like monster-of-the-week episodes, with a larger ‘seasonal’ plot running through them. In reference to our above “not a game” debate, I’m conscious that a point and click linear story is not that far removed from interactive fiction, but they’ve always been called games no-question. I suppose the fact that you have to think about how to advance the scene counts as input and challenge enough to use the word ‘game’. Anyway, I think I’m really making two blog posts out of one thing today so I’ll digress once more.

As I said in Episode 1, Claire has always liked puzzles, crosswords, etc and so I thought this genre might suit her. She did take things a little too literally, though. Because you’re exploring a mansion and the kitchen isn’t important, it’s not included in the game. A policeman character makes a fourth-wall-joke about it being odd that these rich folks don’t have a kitchen and so Claire started to focus her efforts on finding the hidden kitchen, so she could use a phone to ring the number on the box of matches she’d been given and verify the father’s alibi. I thought this was funny. We don’t think about certain things as gamers too much. In a point-and-click game we tend to just use the items we’ve been given on the scene to try and advance the plot, whereas Claire was approaching the given situation as a real detective and fully role playing.

She was disappointed to find that the experience was narrower than she thought, but when she had the right frame of mind she found the fun that this genre had to offer, particularly the comedic aspects. Everyone enjoys having a guess at the solution or the plot and being proven right, then rewarded with more story. It’s a great core game loop that made the genre huge in the 90s and is likely why the genre is seeing a comeback now.

Claire said she’d definitely buy the full game when it comes out so, again, I think we’re doing well at turning Claire into a gamer. 

Race The Sun

Four games in three weeks, across three genres. I’d say project Player Too is working pretty well so far. Race the Sun is an endless runner, meaning there is constant movement and your only input is to avoid obstacles. You can’t get off the rails that the game proceeds on. More can be build around that core but that’s an endless runner.

In Race The Sun you control a solar powered spaceship racing towards the setting sun. You collect time-warping powerups to make the sun climb a little in the sky, but if you stray into the long shadows cast by tall obstacles, you lose sped, and the sun sets faster, bringing you closer to death. When I played, I never saw death by sunset, I always smashed into a wall way before that.

As you can see from the images, the art style is as simple as it needs to be. It does everything you need, and the game runs at a high number of frames per second, essential to giving this game is smooth feel.

The reason I came to try this game with Claire is that it was on a Steam promotion. For one day the game was free to install, and if you installed it you could keep it. This coincided with the release of some DLC so they were quick to offer you to buy the expansion if you did get the game for free. I knew of the game before but thought it a bit simplistic for me. I’ll try anything once though (for free) so I downloaded it and found that I liked it. It’s a great little way to spend a few minutes.

This prompted me to create a Steam account for Claire and download it on her laptop. I thought that the fact that you need only steer left or right, and that there’s a fast reset time after death meant that Claire might get into it. I’d seen her enjoy Angry Birds because of its fast reset time, and even an early build of my game Sons of Sol when I had all hits cause instant death, but a quick tap of the R key reset the level. Difficulty didn’t matter if the consequences to death were minimal and you could get back into the action quickly.

Claire was soon riveted! She was jumping around in her chair (“full body steering”) as she’d swerve to avoid a large column, then wail in frustration, arms up in the air as she hit the one behind it. After one second she’d be back at the controls, eyes inches from the screen, tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth, concentrating and vowing to get further this time. “One more go” was never one more go.

She’d be intimidated and put off by the amount of controls you have to think about with a racing game, but with left or right being her only decisions, she had ‘mastered’ the controls in a minute and was all about beating the challenge. Race the Sun challenges you very well. When you’re about to pass your record distance you can see a big banner text with your old distance float up from the horizon in front of you, egging you on. There’s also several achievements that let you feel like you’re progressing even if you still can’t get past level 2 (things like “beat the first level without bumping anything”, etc). 


I played it just on the first day, but Claire has returned to it several times without me being around. She’s taken it upon herself that she wanted to play this game more. That’s encouraging. We’ve found that she can be drawn in by a game experience and look forward to playing it again. She’s said that she spent all day in work wanted to come back and try and beat that damn level.

This is extra interesting because the levels change daily. The feel of the zones and the types of obstacles encountered are consistent, but the specific layout changes daily, meaning you can never really learn the course  and improve that way. Every day it’s about your reactions versus the game, with no cheating.

Of particular interest to me was that you can get a powerup that allows you to jump once with the spacebar. This adds a button to think about while your mind is already constantly racing. It wasn’t long before Claire added this jump move to her repertoire and added finding the powerup to her mental list of objectives in a turn. Further on, there’s some sort of teleport on the shift button that she’s also mastered. She’s now much further into and better at the game than I am.

Claire’s Score: 7/10. Loads of fun!

Player Too Result: We’ve found another genre that Claire can get into.  Endless runner! We’ve proven that skill based games are totally within her grasp as long as they’re not too punishing, and indeed that they can be more fun for being difficult but with a shallow learning curve and little encouraging objectives.

Claire’s skills are increasing, but still need work if we’re to take on Portal. She’s finding that she enjoys more and more genres of games and types of games that she didn’t know existed, but that she enjoys them in small doses. Her willingness to try new suggestions is increasing because of the good games we’ve found so far, and she’s starting to think she’d like try try games with more input in to the narrative, or more games with a simple skill challenge.

I think we’re a long way from getting into an epic 20+ hour RPG, but that Telltale games are definitely where we should be heading next for a positive narrative experience.

As far as building her first person skills, the Talos Principle has a free demo and is discounted on Steam this weekend. I’m not sure if the puzzles are skill based at all, but we can learn from the demo and buy it if she think’s she could handle it. The Stanley Parable demo would also make a good low-consequence ‘walking simulator’/training game.

Next Time On Player Too: All of those possibilities aside, on the strength of her enjoyment of the detective game Her Story, we’re next trying out Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, which is the newest and best rated of the Holmes games. Claire and I have read and both really enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes books, as well as the Benedict Cumberbatch TV show and Robert Downey Jr. movies, so this will hopefully not disappoint.

Have you any suggestions for what else we should try next? Or which is the best Telltale game to go for (she think zombies are stupid, so not Walking Dead)? Have you had a similar experience with a friend or loved one and want to suggest any games you tried together? Please comment!

Until next time..

Interview with Guild of Dungeoneering’s Colm Larkin

 Click to see the game's Steam page

For this week’s blog, I’m happy to be conducting my very first interview! Hopefully it will be the first of many. Colm Larkin of Gambrinous, the team behind the recently released Guild of Dungeoneering, was kind enough to give up some of his precious time to answer some of my questions.

For those of you who don’t know, Guild of Dungeoneering is an extremely charming card-based dungeon crawling game with a twist! You don’t control your hero, but you lay out the dungeon before him or her, placing rooms and monsters and trying to steer your Dungeoneer towards victory. Not for their own sakes, mind you, but for the glory of the Guild, which you ultimately control. The Dungeoneers’ lives are of only a minor importance to you, though a (rapidly growing, in my case) graveyard does serve as a shrine to their efforts. 

The game has undoubtedly got a sense of humour, the gameplay stands apart from a lot of what’s out there, and if you add to that the musical odes to your heroes’ victories and inevitable deaths then you’ve got the recipe for a game that is capturing hearts and imaginations all across the digital world. Many notable YouTubers and Twitch streamers, including Total Biscuit, Felicia Day and Dodger, have even featured the game on their shows. 

I asked Colm about the game’s development process, and about what’s next for our dear dungeon diving friends.

When people think of the development cycle for an indie game, they might reasonably guess that Kickstarter and an Early Access program were part the process. Guild of Dungeoneering didn’t take this approach and remained unavailable to the general public until release. Would you like to comment on that decision and any advantages or disadvantages to the approach that you discovered during development?

I’d have almost certainly tried Kickstarter if it had been available in Ireland at the right time. Early in GoD’s development you could only run a Kickstarter if you were based in the US or the UK and while people did work around that by setting up shell companies and the like that’s a LOT of hassle. In October 2014 KS was made available in Ireland but at that stage I was quite far along and was already talking to publishers. In the end I went with a publisher and am very happy I did. I will probably look into Kickstarter for future projects though!

Early Access comes with a lot of player negativity, I think, and also really dilutes your launch hype by spreading it out across several months. It can definitely work for the right kind of game, but I didn’t think it was right for GoD.

The game will have add-on Adventure Packs with the first one being Pirate’s Cove. Aside from a pirate themed makeover for our Dungeoneers, dungeons and enemies, can we expect to see other new features like new dialogue or shanties?

We hope to invent a few new mechanics in the expansion (which we’re designing right now), but nothing really game changing. It’s really ‘a bit more of everything’ expansion for folks who enjoyed the game and want more. There’ll definitely be piratey dialogue (how could we not!?) and we’re looking into some piratey music too!

Are the adventure packs standalone or do they link back to your existing Guild in some way?

They aren’t standalone – they expand the basic game instead. So in the campaign there will be a new zone (for Pirate’s Cove we’re looking at it being an extension to the Jungle zone) with new quests and classes to unlock there. But for the new loot we’re looking at including it throughout the game; so simply by having this expansion you have more toys to play with at all stages of the game. To me this type of expansion expands the game horizontally (adding variety to the base game), and we’ll also be looking into bigger expansions that expand the game vertically (adding more game).

How many Adventure Packs might we expect to see in the future, how much will they cost, and what themes have you in mind?

Creating this first one will give us a good idea of how difficult they are to make and if people think they are worth buying. We’re pricing Adventure Packs at $4.99 with the base game costing $14.99. If people like Pirate’s Cove I could see us doing 2-3 more of this size over the next year or so before focusing on a bigger expansion. Thanks to our extremely silly world themes will NOT be a problem, I feel. I think we could make almost any theme fit in the game!

There’s been a number of articles in mainstream Irish (and international) media recently about how the Irish games industry is not yet the contender it could be worldwide, but how we’re primed to explode and really just need one big breakout hit to put us on the map. Do you agree with this appraisal of the industry? Modesty aside, could Guild of Dungeoneering be that hit? Or will it take more than one big release, do you think?

I really agree with that sentiment. We have a superb game dev community in Ireland, are starting to set up some fantastic events here, and we are creating very interesting games. A breakout hit doesn’t change any of that, but perhaps it helps to inspire people to go a little further with their ideas & prototypes, and perhaps it helps with stuff like government funding for creative game projects. Guild of Dungeoneering could be that hit, or it could be one of a few moderately successful games that result in a similar effect. I think we’ll see over the next year or so.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think The Witcher III recently became the first game to sell more copies of itself on GOG.com than on Steam. Where do people seem to be going for their Guild of Dungeoneering copies?

Lets not forget that the company behind the Witcher series is the same company that created GOG, so it makes sense that their fans supported them on their own platform. It’s very unusual for a PC game to see a large proportion of its sales outside Steam. We released on Steam, GOG, Humble and a number of other smaller storefronts at once and Steam is our number one spot by a massive proportion. Still, it’s good to support more than one platform. What would we do if EA or Microsoft bought Valve?

In the game, as we expand our Guild we gain access to new characters with different strengths and weaknesses, but also ones on more expensive tiers. Once you unlock a Tier 2 character are you basically done with all of your Tier 1 Dungeoneers?

Unfortunately yes, but I’m not that happy about it. The idea with classes is that at each tier they offer different strengths and weaknesses. You might be having a hard time in a particular quest with one class, but find it possible with a different one. And the classes are very unique and interesting, I think. We’re going to make it so your lower-tier classes are still somewhat viable in harder levels by buffing their health as you reach the harder zones. This way you can still use them, but the upgraded classes are still better.

Who is your favourite class of Dungeoneer, and why?

I like a lot of them. The Barbarian is interesting because he changes how you play. Instead of avoiding higher level monsters he rushes straight at them (but has a big bonus when fighting harder monsters). Using this ability means playing very differently than with other classes, and that’s fun. At the starting tier I like how the Apprentice’s very simple bonus to the Fire skill means you can stack equipment with Fire bonuses to get to the super-strong Fire III and Fire IV cards quicker than usual.

There are so many games nowadays, did you ever find yourself coming up with an original mechanic all by yourself, and later somebody says “ah, just like [x-game]” that you’ve never actually heard of?

Of course! I don’t think there are that many original mechanics, though you can still create something that is original as a whole. People even do that when they are wrong. Recently I read a review that claimed we were simply piling onto the popularity of, and poorly copying Darkest Dungeon’s ideas. Never mind the fact that GoD had public gameplay before DD was even announced, that they haven’t fully released their game yet, or that there was only a few months between their hitting Early Access and our release. As a creator you have to learn to shrug off this kind of thing or you won’t be able to continue.

Did any games in particular influence Guild of Dungeoneering or cause you to change design decisions during development?

Well there’s this game called Darkest Dungeon that.. haha just kidding! I think I was most influenced by board games. The very first prototype was trying to play with the idea seen in DungeonQuest where you put down a random tile in front of your hero and then deal with how it changed the map (though I hadn’t played the game in about 25 years!). I had also been playing Carcasonne more recently which is all about building a map from random square tiles. I play a lot of games and try and learn from them, so I hope they all help influence what I make.

If you had to pick one thing, what is your favourite aspect or feature of Guild of Dungeoneering?

I think the classes are really superb, they feel so different to play and have such scope to build on them in different ways. For example for almost every class I’ve heard people say it’s both unplayably bad and brokenly overpowered. As a designer I think this is the holy grail, when you cause such differing opinions about balance. Particularly in this kind of game with layered systems and mechanics.

Do you have a hefty list of new games you’ve wanted to play but didn’t have the time for during development? What’s at the top of that list for once you catch your breath?

Probably Pillars of Eternity and The Witcher III. Both clearly games that will take a lot of time to play through!

Many people, myself included, have thought that this would make a great mobile game or that a controller might be preferable to the mouse. Are there any plans to tackle new platforms or input devices? Rift support, maybe? (jk)

Hey I announced Oculus support back on April 1st 😉

We’re definitely going to start on touch platforms next (tablets + mobiles) as it will be such a natural fit there. We’re also looking into consoles but we’re not sure yet how or when.

So what’s next for Gambrinous?

I think we’ll be doing more content and platforms for GoD for at least the next year. That should also give us enough time to work out what’s actually next! I’d love to do a series of internal game jams where we work up a few prototypes before choosing which one to make into a ‘real’ game. Then maybe take that prototype to Kickstarter?

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just my usual advice for anyone wanting to get into making games. Start with some game jams! Get used to finishing small prototypes, then try something bigger.

I’d like to thank Colm very much once again for some great insights into the game and for some great advice for any aspiring developers. I also strongly encourage you to pick up Guild of Dungeoneering if you haven’t already!

It’s available now on Steam, GOG, and Humble.

Follow Colm on Twitter @gambrinous or the game directly @dungeoneering.
The Guild of Dungeoneering website is here.
Publisher ‘Versus Evil’ are here.
An extensive development log of the game was kept here if you’re interested.

The Gambrinous website is here.

Until next time, folks..

 Colm engaging in a bit of cosplay at the Dungeoneering launch party in Dublin, July 2015, twig and cooking pot at the ready!
Colm engaging in a bit of cosplay at the Dungeoneering launch party in Dublin, July 2015, twig and cooking pot at the ready!

Never Played DOOM Multiplayer against John Romero!

 The enticing event poster
The enticing event poster

So an event matching the characteristics (exactly) described in the above poster occurred in Galway. I was at it. It was very entertaining so let’s talk about that.

Three weeks ago I’d never played the game Doom, and two weeks ago I wrote this blog post on the topic. It was after that that this charity deathmatch was announced in Galway, so it’s entirely a coincidence that I have a very suitable follow up to that blog so soon, but it’s a happy coincidence.

I live in Co.Wicklow, just south of Dublin on Ireland’s East Coat. Galway is Ireland’s cultural Mecca and is to be found on the West coast so going to the event would mean driving clear across the country. In Ireland that amounts to roughly a two hour drive, though. When I learned that I would be able to show my game Sons of Sol in the indie demo room next door to the tournament, I was sold. Dan (from the team making Onikira, who lives close to me) and I packed up the car and drove over on Saturday morning to Pulse College in Galway, who were kindly hosting the event and providing equipment. On the way we discussed how boned we were, in my case because I’d never played multiplayer in Doom, and in Dan’s because he hadn’t played in years. 

 Indie gamers show their wares, with Onikira on the big screen, and Goblin's Grotto, Darkside Detective and Trench visible in the background.
Indie gamers show their wares, with Onikira on the big screen, and Goblin’s Grotto, Darkside Detective and Trench visible in the background.

We arrived to Pulse early to set up our own games and spent the hours before the tournament playing the games from the other developers, as organised by the Galway Game Dev group. There were also Street Fighter and Hearthstone tournaments on, as organised by Galway Gaming Tribes, but the big draw was definitely the Doom tournament, which offered a chance to take on John “The Surgeon” Romero, the game’s creator, whose deathmatch skills are legendary.

John and Brenda Romero arrived to the college in the early afternoon and while the machines were being set up, had an interview with Hit Start Now. At time of writing the interview isn’t up yet, but it will be available at that link. They also have one with the Romeros from 2014 while you’re waiting.

The excitement really started to rise as the seeds were drawn up for the tournament. It would be a 1 vs 1 deathmatch, first to 20 kills, played on Doom 2 maps, with the games running through Zandornum. To my horror, this happened..

 First game of the tournament: me vs John Romero. I tweeted this photo with the caption
First game of the tournament: me vs John Romero. I tweeted this photo with the caption “I’m DOOMed”. 😛

So I’d be knocked out in the first game. Ah well. At least I’d get to play vs John. I realised I was quite lucky, really, since in a knock out tournament, not everybody would. I’d also be playing him in his first game of the day, so maybe I’d even get a couple of kills while he warmed up, I thought. That said, this game would also be the first time I had ever (EVER) played a multiplayer Doom game, and I don’t know where the secrets and weapons are on any levels, so I didn’t have much chance even of that. I haven’t even played an arena-style shooter since Unreal Tournament 1 as far as I can remember. Not even so much as Call of Duty’s multiplayer. Battlefield or Planetside 2 were more my thing for multiplayer, and if you’re a shooter fan, you’ll know that’s of no help. The only thing I had going for me was that I had at least played Doom 1 and 2 to completion in the two weeks prior, and so had a slight idea of the level layouts, even if I couldn’t find the weapons I wanted on them.

I thought some intimidation might boost my chances. Some smack talk, and false-confidence. I tweeted this after the picture of those seeds (not believing my own caption for a second).

“He looks nervous” 😛
 The first map,
The first map, “Entryway” is very small, flat, easy to learn quickly, and with very few secrets or ambush points. This was to my advantage.. a bit.

We sat at our computers, John’s one hooked up to a projector so that the gathered spectators could watch the pro in action. The servers were set up, loading the first level of Doom 2, “Entryway”. While observing the setup, John made a comment “Oh, no monsters”. Seeing an opportunity to intimidate my opponent I said “Just wait John. One’s coming”. Ask me if it worked… It didn’t. But it got a couple of laughs.

We both spawned into the level and just ran around to make sure all the settings were working and that we were comfortable with how our controls were set up. The first time I ever saw John Romero in-game, so, we simply ran past each other in the corridor, almost waving genially. While he was just testing, I was frantically searching every corner, trying to mentally mark out where I’d find the best weapons and armour. In such a small level, I actually learned this fairly quickly and so wouldn’t be at as big a disadvantage when we would start the map proper. John fired the first shot in the practice run, and so I fired back. The crowd gathered, most of them unable to see my screen but watching the action through John’s eyes on the projector screen. We traded a bit of damage, and even a kill or two, before all was ready to go and it was announced that the tournament would start when we reset the level. 

The whistle was blown (edit: there was no whistle) and we both spawned into the level. I spawned right next to the BFG 9000, the best gun in the game, and smiled. Leaving the first room and heading down the corridor towards the armour I spotted John heading into the armour room too and opened fire. I believe I missed. I won’t exaggerate and pretend to remember every detail of the match, but I believe that in this first encounter, John ran and allowed me to waste my shots, then returned with a rocket launcher. We were stuck in the tight corridors where any fired rocket would, if it didn’t hit you directly, be sure to hit a wall and deal you a heavy amount of damage regardless. My tactic was, if I only had the pistol, I’d run, and if I’d anything better I’d move in close so John would risk hurting himself if he fired the rocket at me, while I chipped away with his health with a pulse rifle or shotgun.

“Romero wins”. We got used to seeing that.

I believe John got the first kill, but to my great surprise, I managed to claw back a kill or two for every few he’d get on me and the crowd would cheer (in my head they would anyway). This semblance of parity was largely thanks to the level, I think. In a corridor there’s nowhere to run from a pulse rifle, rocket, or BFG, which all deal the heaviest damage but are difficult to use well at range or in the open. This basically meant that I could deal as much damage as John could, and do it as accurately. Both of us knew where each weapon was, and if you see the other player on this map, you know he can’t get behind you as it’s so linear. I was unlucky a few times as I would die and spawn back in the very same room with only my pistol and John’s pulse rifle for company. I believe I got a bit predictable as well as I went for the pulse rifle a lot, and John’s skill allowed him to shoot a rocket into my path to deflect my jump and so I’d miss the rifle and land with an inferior weapon again. The real difference was in experience, though. Many times I’d chase John around a corner just to run into a perfectly timed rocket coming back at me. These cunning traps and near-omniscient predictions are what separate champions from the lay men. I endeavoured to be less predictable. To let him escape when he ran, or to just close the distance and keep firing when he might have expected me to run. It wasn’t enough, but I was more than happy with my performance. Final score on my first even multiplayer game of Doom: John Romero 20 – 8 Kevin. Maybe my intimidation tactics actually had an effect.

I now believed myself to have been knocked out, but we were actually playing Double Elimination Tournament as it turned out. This meant that I went into a loser’s group and would still get to play until I lost again. In the mean time, others paired off and played their first rounds. Dan (who I came with, remember?) won his first and continued in the winner’s group. This meant we wouldn’t play each other. After the first round, some people had disappeared, including my opponent for round 2. Losing their first match I think they’d thought (like me) that they were out and went home. In fairness to the organisers, they did explain the rules clearly at the start, I just didn’t quite follow because I’m a big thicko, apparently. I advanced by default. Dan won his 2nd and 3rd matches fair and square, on the other hand.

The time between my first match and my second (in the third round) was actually about three hours. I spent a lot of this time watching the projector and seeing how John played. No matter how complex for labyrinthine the level (each round had a different level) John knew exactly where to go to find the super-armour, health packs, BFG or night vision goggles. I watched. I memorised the locations as best I could. After all, I’d be playing on one of these maps next, with no idea whether my opponent would be a first timer, or a hardcore Doom guy.

 The tournament proceeded
The tournament proceeded

When setting up for my second match, neither I nor my opponent could get our sound working, so we agreed to just fight deaf, in a very dark and confusing level. This game lasted a long long time since we couldn’t follow the sounds of opening and closing doors that hint at your enemy’s position. This level (the Waste Tunnels) featured a pitch-black sewer area where the rocket launcher could be found. I had memorised the route John Romero took to find the IR goggles to see in the dark, and so every time I engaged my opponent in the unlit parts of the map, I had a real advantage. Even elsewhere, I still usually had a rocket launcher and he didn’t. I didn’t know that he didn’t have the IR goggles until after the match. Because we played for so long, I also got used to where to go to find the BFG and its replacement ammo; before my opponent did it, seemed. These two things gave me the clear advantage and I won the match by a wide margin. It was hilarious though when we’d engage in long gun duels in total silence. It reminded me of interpretive dance.

If I have this right, Dan then won his 4th round and advanced to the semi-final. John Romero was, of course, winning every match, though a few guys clearly knew the maps very well and fared a lot better against him than I would have. My fourth round opponent had also left early it seemed, and so I advanced by default to the semi-final with only one actual win under my belt.

John and Dan then met in the semi-final. No offence at all to Dan, but it was a slaughter. 20-0. The map was a nightmare. “‘O’ of Destruction”. It featured a huge acid pit in the middle, and many many side rooms, dark sections, hidden areas, a lot of teleporters, a lot of long sight lines, and a LOT of verticality. This means your opponent can be above or below you, but Doom is odd in that everything is technically on the same level as far as the engine is concerned. If you shoot in front of you and your target is in front of you (no matter how high or low they are) you’ll hit them if there’s no wall in the way. Add to this the fact that the BFG can damage you through walls. Add to this the fact that John Romero knows where the BFG is and Dan didn’t (I think, anyway). Dan got a hold of the pulse rifle quite often, but its shots move slowly and in the open, John had plenty of room to run away, teleport around to flank Dan, then shoot a BFG shot at the most unlikely-looking of targets, then hit Dan twenty metres above and behind a wall. That’s hard to watch. That’s knowing a game inside out. That’s pro level gaming. This kind of level shows that you can’t play Doom like a modern shooter and expect to beat a pro, or even stand a chance. You have to know all the tricks. I was lucky in that the first level I played John in didn’t really have any of those tricks. “O’ of Destruction” has them all.

At around the same time, my semi-final was played against another guy on that same map. Having watched people play earlier, I knew where to find the BFG and pulse rifle, and while I played I also learned where to find the normal and super-heavy armours. Again, I was lucky in that my opponent didn’t. He knew where to find the pulse rifle and kept going there. This allowed me to ambush him here many times. If he’d hurt me, I knew where to find the nearby armour and he didn’t. If there’s one secret to success at Doom, it’s knowing the levels. I’ve always been competitive, and as I started the day at, in my estimation, a knowledge disadvantage, I was sure to watch the games on the projector as much as possible and study up. This paid off! Stay in school, kids! Each of us actually made the mistake of pressing the ‘use’ key on the big skull in the level. In single player this advances you to the next level. In multiplayer it kills you and gives you -1 point. This match ended 20 to -1. I actually did feel bad as without the other guy knowing what I then knew about the level, I felt unsportsmanlike, but the whole room was waiting for the match to finish to see who’d play in the final. The match lasted probably twenty five minutes and that’s with me trying my hardest so I powered through mercilessly, though still bantering and trying to explain where the BFG could be found.

 Romero's screen broadcasting for all to see. This photo might have been him killing me, actually.
Romero’s screen broadcasting for all to see. This photo might have been him killing me, actually.

So, I was through to the final. It had been a long day. I’d only played three matches but I’d been standing for hours and was wrecked. John had played all his games plus a number of friendlies. I joked that maybe he was tired and that I had a chance. Since he’d already beaten me on the easiest level, and just beaten Dan 20-0 (Dan had been killing it against normal folk, by the way) everyone knew I didn’t. I decided I’d be happy with a few kills though.

I’ve explained how having a flat level with nowhere to hide levels the playing field and gives the newcomer a better chance against the pro who knows every map. John had selected “Dead Simple” for the final level, which is, once again, a flat and simple level. The choice was possibly because it was getting late and nobody wanted to watch another 30 minute game of hide and seek. Everyone had gathered to watch some fast action in the final. It’s also just a very fair and symmetrical map, though, and so this also makes it a good choice for a final match.

We shook hands, we took our seats, and the game began.

 The map for the final.
The map for the final. “Dead Simple”

About three seconds in, I caught a BFG to the face and died. I then respawned next to the BFG and attempted to return the favour. John declined my generosity however but offered in return a barrage of rockets. The score quickly climbed against me. The map features a central courtyard and an outer wall section. If you’re in the back corner of the map (like where the BFG is, at the top left corner) you can see your opponent coming from a distance. This makes the pulse rifle, rockets, or BFG easier to avoid here, and favours your use of bullet weapons like the shotgun or minigun. I shied away from the central area both because you’re easier to spot, and because I knew that it wasn’t where to find the BFG. I never did find armour on the map though, and so in every engagement I dropped quickly.

When it came to banter, we were both on top form, though. I remember John said “bye bye” and fired a hail of rockets. I dodged them and closed in with a shotgun saying “don’t say goodbye if you don’t mean it”. I was going to lose, but I was going to give the best fight I could first, smack talk and all. I said that if I could get enough sick burns I might claim the moral victory. I didn’t dare cast my eyes up to the projector that the crowd were watching but several times I heard the crowd yelling for me to “chase him down”, and realised that I’d almost killed John but he was running for more health and/or armour. I’d follow but he’d have disappeared. Fearing an ambush I’d retreat back the way I came. If John fired a BFG I’d run out around the walls. He’d fire ahead of me, hoping to damage me through the wall, but unseen I’d have doubled back and fired a shotgun blast at him. So went the match, but John was on top form, and I was out of my depth. I was immensely satisfied with a final score of 20 to 2. I got him with the super shotgun and a BFG I believe, and the crowd did cheer to see Romero die, but in each case I was quickly hunted down and repaid with interest.

After a hearty handshake and a couple of photos (below) I was given some prizes. This was unexpected as I had lost, but apparently second place was considered the “non-John-Romero winner”. I’d like to thank Sub-City Comics and Logitech  very much for the prizes, in this case.

All proceeds from the event went to Cancer Care West. As I’ve been writing I was checking facts with (and getting some photos from) Paul Conway of Doomcube, who along with Chris Colston organised the event. Joe Neary from Galway Gaming Tribes was also instrumental along with volunteers Mike Gilmartin, Shane Marks, Niall O’Reilly and Eoin Butler Thornton. Many thanks to all of them for putting on a great event, and for allowing myself and other indie developers to show our own games off.

Lastly, many thanks to John Romero for his time at the event and for an education in what real Deathmatch is, was, and should always continue to be. Having now seen both the single and multiplayer sides of Doom, I can see why it became the instant phenomenon that it did back in 1993 and why that popularity has persisted to this day with a myriad pale imitations of Doom, the original and best!

 Good sport was had, though this picture sums up the nature of it.
Good sport was had, though this picture sums up the nature of it.