Steam Trading Cards: Confessions

Having acknowledged the problems with the Steam Trading Card system, I do my best to avoid them. Shortly after taking notice of the things last year, I adopted a few rules:

  • No idling. Obviously. Sitting in a matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer-only game that no one plays any more is permitted, as long as I do it in good faith and play a match if one appears.
  • No trading cards for money, or money for cards. “Not even once”, as they say. The Marketplace is a slippery slope, and besides, it strikes me as “easy mode”. Trading cards for cards seems like a better game.
  • No buying games just for the cards. Although if a game I was thinking of buying anyway just happens to have cards, well…

Even with those limitations, I’ve managed to reach level 57 — not the big leagues, but higher than anyone on my Friends list. My journey to this point essentially has three stages.

First, I just did a little occasional trading with Friends, if we could come up with a trade that gave us both something we wanted. Indeed, at first, your Friends were the only people you could propose trades to; if you wanted to trade with anyone else, you had to Friend them first. And then, to execute the trade, you had to be online at the same time as them. Trading took place in an interface similar to the ones for player-to-player trades in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, both players dragging offers from their inventory and then hitting an “Okay” button, which would become automatically unpressed if the other player modified the trade on their end.

I suppose Valve was unsatisfied with the amount of trading and badge-making that such an inconvenient system produced, because they soon added ways to make yourself available for trade offers from non-Friends, as well as the ability to do trading asynchronously, sending offers that people could accept or reject on their own time, which made the new game-specific Trading Forums much more useful. Just how useful varies a lot from game to game, even today. The useful forum posts, from my point of view, are the ones with subject like “[H] Gravity Well [W] Force Shield 1:1″. (“[H]” and “[W]” quickly emerged as accepted notation for “have” and “want”, “1:1″ means one-for-one, and “Gravity Well” and “Force Shield” are the names of two cards for Defy Gravity.) But a lot of the game-specific forums became clogged with spam along the lines of “1000+ cards 1:2″, without even any mention of whether those 1000+ cards included any for the game whose forum it was posted in.

My second phase began with the 2013 Winter Sale, when the reappearance of sale event cards provided additional impetus to complete badges. I had accumulated over 300 cards by then, simply by playing a lot of games and not making a lot of badges. Boosters, by the way, have never been a great source of cards. During the entirety of the Winter 2013 sale, when badge-crafting and therefore booster-dropping was at a peak, I got a total of two boosters. In the recent Summer sale, during which I reached level 50 and thus doubled my booster drop rate, I got three. But I keep on getting more card-bearing games — often without meaning to, through bundles. Even when I don’t buy any games, games that I already own suddenly get cards. At the time of the 2013 winter sale, the number of card-bearing games I owned and hadn’t got all the drops from yet was sort of perpetually hovering around 20-ish, despite my best efforts at milking them dry. So not only did I have what then seemed like a lot of cards, I had a seemingly inexhaustible source of more. So I tried my hand at being a card baron and posting general offers.

I didn’t spam the game-specific forums, mind you. I only posted to the forum of the official Steam Trading Cards group, the largest group on Steam. My terms were simple and, relative to the other card barons, fairly generous. I’d accept any 1:1 trade within a set, and any 1:2 or 2:3 trade across sets, regardless of whether I wanted the cards I received or not. My goal was simply to get more cards. And it worked for that purpose, for what it’s worth. I did quite a lot of trading for as long as I kept bumping my post to keep it on the forum’s front page, and made enough profit to keep my card count in the neighborhood of 300 even as I kept spending them on badges. I even managed to make a badge for a game I didn’t even own (Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 Multiplayer), which, at the time, seemed amusingly novel.

But at the same time, it was clear that most of my trading partners were taking advantage of me, securing my most valuable cards with greater quantities of what they considered trash. I wasn’t much concerned about market values, but the least valuable cards tended to be the ones from 15-card or 13-card sets. Consider cards as fractions of badges — for example, a card from a ten-card set is 1/10 of a badge. If you give me two cards from a 15-card set for one of my cards from a 5-card set, I wind up with more cards, but less badge. So I let my ad leave the front page and more or less stopped trading for a while, unless a Friend wanted something.

Phase 3 started when I learned about the third-party Steam Card Exchange trading bot. This completely changed trading for me. In particular, it let me follow the letter of the “no Marketplace” rule without following its spirit. The Card Exchange bot is a Steam user that you offer trades to like any other, but instead of a human being accepting or rejecting them, there’s a computer program, which usually means you get a reply just a few second later (unless it’s overloaded, as happened daily during the Summer Sale trading-frenzy). The bot assigns each card a value in “credits”, the value being determined by its price in the Marketplace, except that it assigns the same value to every card in a set, and values are not allowed to exceed 100 credits, to help prevent abuse. The bot will accept any trade where it’s getting at least as many credits-worth of cards as it’s giving, and if there are credits left over, it keeps track of them and applies them to future trades with the same person. It does have some limitations that the Marketplace doesn’t. If you want the last of a card it has in stock, you pay 50% more — presumably this is a big part of how it increases its stock. It won’t stock more than 8 of a card, so if it already has 8 of a card you’re offering it, your offer will be rejected. It won’t let your stored credits exceed 100.

(I find these limitations interesting, because they introduce some extra symmetry. You don’t just have lower bounds of zero cards and zero credits, but upper bounds as well. This means you can think of a personal store of n credits as (100-n) anticredits, which you can use to buy the gaps in the bot’s inventory.)

What this all means is that I now had a trading partner who wouldn’t try to bilk me, but which I could maximally exploit in good conscience. I’ve gone so far as to write a script to report the price of a full badgeworth of cards for every game in Card Exchange credits. (The Card Exchange has a page listing badge prices in US dollars, but this is misleading if you’re only trading with the Exchange.) I give it cards for expensive badges (when it lets me), and buy as much as I can of the cheap ones. I mentioned before that my first badge for a game I don’t own was an amusing novelty; at this point, if I make a badge for a game I do own, it’s complete coincidence.

I suppose the next step is day-trading: monitoring small price fluctuations and making a profit by repeatedly buying and selling the same cards. I haven’t gone that far yet, but honestly, I’m pretty far gone. Trading is no longer connecting me to other players, and I’m no longer aiming for badges for the games I like. The Card Exchange is almost as “easy mode” as the Marketplace. But hey, at least I’m not idling, right?

I few days ago, I idled. The game was Actual Sunlight, a short and text-heavy character portrait about depression and suicide, written in RPG Maker. Not exactly the sort of work you’d expect to have cards, but there it is. I played through it, assiduously seeking out every item I could press a button at to trigger an essay about how worthless the player character feels, and when I reached the end, and I still had one card drop left. So I started to replay it from the beginning, but got discouraged and stopped. (My patience was not helped by the game’s irritating unskippable opening cutscene, which includes an alarm clock going off multiple times.) I’m pretty sure I saw everything the piece had to offer, so I idled for a half an hour or so. The honorable thing would have been to just stop playing, and maybe pick it up again some time later, when I could look at it again with fresh eyes. But that last card drop itched.

Anyway, if you’re read this far, I invite you to trade with me. I currently have about 600 cards, and am willing to do just about any 1:1 in-set trade, as well as consider cross-set trades that don’t leave me with less badge.

Steam Trading Cards: The Downside

The last post described some of the benefits of the Steam Trading Card system. Well, the players, in their pursuit of cards or their indifference towards same, have wasted no time in subverting or destroying the above benefits. The system itself enables this, and indeed encourages it, largely by linking cards to money.

If you don’t want to interact with your friends, the Steam Marketplace lets you sell your cards to anonymous strangers. You can use the proceeds to buy other cards, or you can save it up to buy games — I know people who have bought games entirely with the profits from selling cards. The one thing you can’t so with this money is withdraw it to spend on food or rent or anything else outside of Steam: the Steam Marketplace uses money from your “Steam wallet”, which you can fund from your credit card, but once money enters this captive economy, it doesn’t come out. Some people call it “Steambux” to differentiate it from “real” money (whatever that means). Also, valve takes a cut of every Marketplace transaction, although, since they’ve really already taken 100% of all money put into anyone’s “wallet”, what they’re really doing there is reducing the Steambux in circulation in order to convince people to convert more dollars into Steambux.

The Marketplace turns the card system into something like the free-to-play/pay-to-win games that have drawn so much deserved hate from the gaming community, and it deserves some derision just for that, but there’s an additional aspect that makes it even worse: the positive feedback of the booster drop rate. People who buy their way to Level 100 aren’t just cheating themselves out of the experience of doing it the hard way, they’re taking boosters away from the other players.

Mind you, I can’t say for sure that anyone’s actually bought their way to Level 100. All I can say is that there are definitely people paying Steambux for cards, because I know there are people selling cards, and there are definitely people who reached the higher ranks with suspicious rapidity, and who have thousands of cards in their inventory currently. You can find them in the various Steam trading forums, leveraging their massive stock by offering hard-to-find trades at terms that favor themselves, most often including a general “one of my cards for two of yours” as a default. And honestly, if people are biting, that could be enough to explain it. Simply being ahead of the curve on card-wealth would put them at enough of a trading advantage to be self-reinforcing. And that makes the card game somewhat less appealing.

To my mind, though, the single biggest perversity of incentive in the whole system is the one that manifests as “idling”: leaving a game running without playing it, just to get cards. Like I said, Steam has to be able to deal with games of all sorts, and doesn’t really have any way of knowing if you’re interacting with them or not. All it knows is when the game app is running. (And even if it tried to figure out more, I have no doubt that people would come up with ways to fake it, like they did for TF2 hat drops.) This is card-collecting for Bitcoin enthusiasts, rewarding you with virtual possessions for wasting CPU cycles. Now, you might wonder why anyone would do this, considering that the point of having games in the first place is to play them. But there are reasons: maybe you got the game in a bundle and don’t really want it; maybe you already finished it when it didn’t have cards yet; maybe you have a large backlog of card-bearing games and want to get their cards as soon as possible; maybe you have multiple Steam accounts just for card-farming; maybe you bought the game just for the cards and were never actually interested in playing it at all.

(Does this actually happen? Maybe, sometimes. If all you want is the cards, it’s generally cheaper to buy the cards on the Marketplace — I recall an article from last year in which a developer lamented how the cards for his game were selling for more than the game itself, and how lousy that made him feel, but that seems to have been a temporary thing, when the cards were new and therefore rare, limited in a way that a game on Steam will never be. Card prices are generally measured in cents rather than dollars, and only represent an upper bound regardless; just because a card is listed in the Marketplace as available for $20 doesn’t mean anyone is actually paying that much for it. But occasionally it can happen that buying a game and selling the cards can yield more than its price. During the recent Summer Sale, a 2D physics-puzzle platformer called Defy Gravity, which normally sells for $2.99, went on sale for 90% off. Its cards were priced at about 11 or 12 cents at the time, and idling would get you three cards, so you could actually make a few cents on that. SteamCents, of course.)

Regardless, all of these reasons strike me as bad ones, because they all come down to entitlement. The idler is saying “I do not wish to engage with this, but I want the spoils anyway”. This is a terrible way to play any game, metagames included.

But what is that to me? I’ll get into that in my next post, where I’ll describe my personal experiences with the cards, and how I reached level 50.

Steam Trading Cards: Gaming Gamified

OK, it’s been more than a month since my last post. The seasonal Steam Sale distracted me. It did this even before the sale proper began, by means of special promotional trading cards that kicked off a predictable trading frenzy which, for my part, hasn’t completely dissipated yet. Steam trading cards are essentially a metagame — a game that contains other games — and, as such, they easily take the place of the other chief metagame in my life, this blog. But since the card metagame is the chief game that’s occupying my attention lately, I guess I should blog about it a little.

Steam trading cards were introduced a little over a year ago. I, like many Steam users, didn’t pay them much attention until they were made the centerpiece of the promotion surrounding last year’s Summer Sale. Previous seasonal promotions had been more ad-hoc, involving special content in specific games — new themed levels, holiday-wrapped gift boxes dropped by monsters — and special tasks relating to this content that could earn you vanity items such as limited-edition hats for use in Team Fortress 2. I kind of miss that, but Valve seems to have regarded the cards as an improvement, because they’ve used the card system in every sale promotion since then.

Each participating game — and participation is completely optional — has its own set of virtual cards, with anywhere from 5 to 15 distinct cards in a set, featuring art provided by the game’s makers. The art varies considerably from game to game — some have concept art from the game’s development, some have screenshots, some have illustrations or cartoons inspired by the game, a few even have character stats on them like a baseball card. Obviously the art isn’t the appeal to the collectors here, though. If you just wanted to look at the pictures, they’re all easily found on the Web. No, if you’re collecting cards, it’s simply because collecting cards appeals to you. Because you’re an obsessive completist, or because you like the implicit trading game involved.

To summarize the rules of this game: Collected cards can be crafted into badges, which give you experience points, which help you get more cards, in a self-reinforcing cycle. I’ve heard people ridicule the whole system on that basis alone, asking “What’s the point?”, even as they happily play other games that are just as circular, just as pointless.

The cards initially come into the system as a result of people playing games they own on Steam. While you’re playing a game that has cards, you’ll just spontaneously receive a card once in a while. You only get a limited number of these drops, though, and the limit is equal to half the number of cards in the set, rounded up. Usually it takes a few hours to exhaust the drops (which, in some cases, may be enough to finish the game — I think of McPixel as an especially egregious example here), but once you’ve done that, you’re eligible for booster packs for that game. Boosters contain three cards, regardless of how many cards are in the set, and are just given out to random eligible users once in a while. Exactly how Valve decides when to give out boosters is unknown — all we know is that it’s linked to the rate at which players make badges, which may or may not mean that they try to keep a constant number of cards in circulation. When boosters are issued, your chance of being chosen to receive one is affected by your Steam account’s “level”, which is a concept that came in with the card system. There’s this whole system of XP, with levels taking arithmetically-increasing amounts of XP to attain. And that’s what badges are for: they’re the source of XP. A complete set of cards can be turned into a game-specific badge, or used to upgrade a badge you already have (normal badges can be upgraded four times), yielding 100 XP each time, which is enough to earn you an entire level at the lower tiers. Crafting a badge also gives you a couple of minor vanity items and a discount coupon for another game, but I consider these inconsequential — goodness knows there’s a glut of both out there. There exist badges that aren’t card-based — player profile attributes from older promotions got turned into badges so that they could also contribute XP — but cards are by far the dominant badge source. Cards can be traded between players, or bought and sold on the Steam marketplace, but badges are permanently linked to a single account.

There are a few other wrinkles, like “foil cards”, and how the system deals with free-to-play-games, but we’ll ignore those for now. I should probably say something about the promotional cards that kicked off this post. Each of the major seasonal sales (summer and winter) since Summer 2013 has had its own card set. There were several ways to earn these cards, but the most significant one for this discussion is this: starting about a week before the sale, crafting a badge for any game would give you a promotional card in the place of the coupon. (The coupons would have been pretty useless during the sale, due to not being combinable with other discounts.) The Summer 2013 cards worked pretty much like normal game cards, with a five-level badge and all, but subsequent promotions added two extra twists: there’s no limit to how many times you can upgrade the event badge, and any unbadged cards vanish when the sale is over. Thus, the sale produces a flurry of limited-opportunity card-trading and badge-making, and the limited availability of the promotional cards was enough to make a lot of users, including myself, hold off on pursuing badges while the Summer 2014 sale was approaching, so as to maximize our sale badge XP.

Now, before I start tearing this system apart, I’d like to acknowledge the ways in which it’s kind of brilliant. First of all, it links getting cards to actually playing games, which is good for the players, because it gives them an extra motivation to actually try out all the extra games they got in sales or bundles, and good for the developers, because having people play their games to get the cards stimulates interest in them. What’s more, it links cards to their games in a very content-agnostic way. If I had been asked to devise a trading-card system linked to playing games, I probably would have tried to link it to progress in the game — say, one card for every level you complete or something — but any such scheme would assume a lot about the sort of game it is. You can’t even really say “You get all your cards when you reach the ending”, because not all games have endings. The existing system only assumes that games are played in distinct sessions of nonzero duration — which may not be a safe assumption about games in general, but it’s fine for the sort of games Steam supports.

Secondly, it encourages player interaction, even in games that don’t encourage it otherwise. Booster packs come rarely enough that you’re unlikely to complete many badges without trading, and the interface for viewing your progress on a badge helpfully tells you which people on your Friends list own the cards you’re missing, to facilitate deal-making. Mind you, trading away cards effectively means giving up on one badge to complete another, which can be a tough decision: it’s natural to want badges for the games you like, so consequently giving up cards for a game feels like a statement that you don’t like that game so much, even though the very fact that you have those cards in the first place means you probably do. At any rate, trading means exposing your card inventory, which communicates something about your game preferences. Engines of commerce such as Steam are always trying to get customers to endorse products by rating them or reviewing them or “liking” them, but the card system gets something of the same effect without coming off as asking for an unpaid favor.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about some things I don’t like about the system.

Vice City: Done

I seem to have won. Tommy Vercetti is now undisputed master of Vice City, which is basically what he’s been acting like all along, taking any vehicle he wants and so forth. He’s the player avatar, and the city itself is literally your plaything. Few games acknowledge this, somehow.

Most of the missions in the later part of the game are, for once, part of a larger pattern. You buy a business, then you do one or more missions or other special activities relation to that business, and when you’re done, it becomes a source of cash, which accumulates up at a pick-up point in front, building up to a maximum that varies from business to business. Picking up this free money becomes a chore reminiscent of the daily resource pickups in Heroes of Might and Magic and its ilk, except that you can’t keep a separate hero stack devoted to the pickups, as your only hero is Tommy himself. (Expanding the scope of your operations does produce gang members on your side, wandering the streets near your holdings, wearing an imitation of Tommy’s trademark Hawaiian shirt. But you have absolutely no control over them.) You then use this money to buy more businesses. Occasionally you get increasingly agitated phone calls from Forelli, accusing Tommy of cutting him out, which is completely accurate. I should have seen this coming. Recovering the money, the original impetus for the whole enterprise, isn’t even a factor any more. It’s now about who’s in control, and Tommy, having tasted power, isn’t interested in going back to being someone else’s lackey.

The endgame becomes available before you’ve finished all the available business missions, giving you some leeway to refuse missions you find too difficult. It consists of two missions. First, Forelli sends his men on motorcycles to collect the “taxes” from your holdings, and you have to stop them, which is most easily accomplished by staking out one business and waiting for them. This done, there’s a showdown at Vercetti Manor (formerly Diaz Manor), involving waves of goons charging into your minigun. (By this point I had unlocked the next Hidden Package weapon, the rocket launcher1 , but the minigun is still the best weapon.) It’s an old story: an absentee lord tries to claim someone else’s spoils, and a rebellious hero refuses, goes to war with the old power, and wins. Americans will see the legend of their own nation’s origins here, but it’s an even better fit to certain older versions of the King Arthur myth, with Rome in the Forelli role, returning after years to demand tribute after Arthur’s knights subdued the invading Saxons without their help. Except I’ve never seen a version of the Arthur myth that was quite this crass.

Despite its mythic resonance, the final battle feels kind of spare and anticlimactic. It’s a pure shooting mission, and shooting is not a very deep or rich activity in this game, or at least not once you’ve finished experimenting and settled on a preferred gun. Also, the absence of music works against it. I’m not saying that climactic battles in games always need to have music, but you spend a great deal of your time in this game in various vehicles, and no matter what’s on the car radio, it somehow always seems to complement the action, whether you’re evading police cars to a mambo or aiming for a sweet motorcycle jump to Flock of Seagulls. This is the game’s soundtrack, and its absence in the final stretch is noticeable. They should really do a GTA where the end boss is a driving mission, if they haven’t already. Driving is more what the game’s about anyway.

  1. The rocket launcher was the final unlockable in GTA3, but there’s three more levels here that I haven’t even reached. Apparently one is called a “Rhino”, but it’s actually a kind of tank, rather than a rhinoceros you can ride around the streets, because this isn’t Saints Row. []

Vice City: To the Skies

Much of my last session was spent airborne. First, I found the solution to my problems with that seaplane: switching back to joystick controls. There’s pretty definitely something going wrong with the keyboard input there, because getting into the air was a cinch once I was using a device that the game recognized consistently.

After that, the same mission source (a movie studio, now making porn at Tommy’s behest) gave me a multi-stage mission that involved tailing a limousine without getting too close to it, and while the mission didn’t require that I use a helicopter, it provided one and suggested that I use it. Good thing, too, because the final stage of the mission got me in deep trouble with the cops, and, as before, the easiest way to deal with this is to dash to the helicopter you parked nearby. This has become my go-to technique for evading police in missions that give you a high Wanted rating, which, in this late part of the game, is most of them. The police have helicopters too, but it’s a lot easier to evade them than to dodge all the traffic you’d encounter on the ground.

The final porn mission’s goal was to mess with some searchlights on a rooftop. Considering that it’s already been established that the studio has access to both a plane and a helicopter, you might think this would simply be a matter of flying to the relevant rooftop, but no, you’re supposed to ride a motorcycle into a tall building, up the elevator, through a plate glass window into an adjacent building, and finally over a long sequence of ramps and rooftops, with checkpoints all along the path to guide you. I wound up using a helicopter anyway. I tried to do the motorcycle thing, but fell off and lost my bike after a few jumps, and found it simpler to go back to a nearby safehouse and pick up a helicopter than to find another bike. The thing is, you can’t just go directly to the searchlights. You have to go through all the motorcycle checkpoints, but the game doesn’t care if you’re actually on a motorcycle or not. Of all the borderline cheating I’ve done over the course of the game, flying through those checkpoints feels the cheatingest.

The experience of flying through the Vice City skyline reinforces one of the game’s greatest strengths: its sense of spatial coherence. You’re interacting with the structures of the city at a different level and a different scale than normal, ignoring the streets that channel your path on the ground, instead paying attention to the spires and towers that are your only obstacles but which you seldom look at from the ground. And yet, everything about the city is recognizable from the hours you’ve spent driving and walking around it. It helps that the city is fairly small. From the air, you can really feel like the whole thing is spread out around you like a gaming table.

And for what it’s worth, I found that flying in the plane produced this sensation more strongly than the helicopter. In a helicopter, you essentially levitate: you take off vertically, you have buttons to ascend and descend and can rotate in place. Accelerating means tilting the rotor and therefore losing altitute, but since you can just gain more altitude at will, this isn’t very significant. In an airplane, you swoop around madly. You have to struggle to keep the thing level, you can’t stop, you have to swerve around obstacles because you can’t rise fast enough to go over them. In short, as with cars, your control is imperfect, and this forces you to engage the environment more. This reflection really makes me regret cheating on that motorcycle mission, because it seems like I’ve missed out on more of the same thing.

Vice City: Vehicle Choice and Lack Thereof

I made some progress last night, and as a result all of my remaining missions involve difficult driving. I suppose this was predictable, seeing how the minigun zips me past the more combat-oriented missions. One mission is a bit like the premise of the movie Speed: you have to drive through city streets in a limousine containing a bomb that goes off if you don’t go fast enough. One is a race-a-boat-through-a-series-of-checkpoints missions, and somewhat trickier than the earlier such. And one involves piloting a seaplane with controls like GTA3‘s Dodo through a bunch of checkpoints at varying altitude. I’m having so little luck getting that seaplane in the air that I suspect I’m having input problems similar to the ice cream jingle from a few posts back.

It strikes me that part of my problem with these missions in particular is that they don’t let me choose the vehicle. The vehicle is a fixed part of the mission parameters, and that makes success purely a matter of skill, rather than of choosing the thing that makes it easier. This was a big part of some of the earlier missions, and the right vehicle isn’t always the fastest one. For example, the mission that leads into ousting Diaz involves rescuing an injured comrade in a junkyard, and taking him to the hospital. On the way out, you’re attacked by four cars driven by Diaz’s goons, which basically just ram you and make you spin around and run into walls so you can’t get anywhere. After enough of this treatment, your car explodes. Now, getting to the junkyard in time to rescue your partner requires a fast car, but once there, the simplest approach is to ditch it and switch to a garbage truck that’s conveniently nearby. It can take a lot of damage, and it’s heavy enough that it’s hard to knock off course. (It took me multiple attempts at the mission realize this, though. I kept exploding the garbage truck with my minigun on the way in just to waste the goons around it.)

That example is at least one that the designer pretty clearly set up for you. Here’s one that wasn’t: There’s a mission to blow up a store whose owner went to the police instead of giving you protection money. The place is crawling with cops, so you’re told to disguise yourself as a cop and drive a police car to the store. Once there, the bomb goes off before you can get away, and your Wanted rating immediately goes up to near maximum. Suddenly there’s police all over the place chasing you, setting up roadblocks, heading you off, etc. As always, they’ll be off your back the moment you make it to a spray shop to repaint your vehicle and give it new plates, but it’s difficult to even make it that far. Far easier if, instead of driving a cop car to the store as instructed, you bring a helicopter and simply take off into the skies, out of reach of their guns. Helicopters are very conveniently available at several of my hideouts at this point of the game.

Solutions like these take advantage of the open-world genre’s greatest strength, its freedom of action. The missions that lock you into a specific vehicle take that freedom away from you, and with it, the satisfaction of exploiting your freedom in clever ways. It strikes me that there are probably also missions where solving problems through clever weapon choice could produce similar satisfaction, but I pretty much spoiled that for myself by unlocking the minigun so early. There’s not much point in ever choosing any other gun once you have that.

Vice City: Loading Screens

Vice City consists of two parallel islands that span the map from north to south like an enormous pause button, plus a few smaller islands between them, all joined by bridges (although you can also travel between them by boat or helicopter). This layout seems to be at least partly intended to aid in memory management by dividing the city into two zones. My chief evidence for this is that, when you drive across the zone boundary, a loading screen that pops up briefly. Very briefly. I assume that it tended to stay up longer on the game’s original target hardware, but on a modern gaming machine, the loading screen stays up for a mere fraction of a second, registering as just a flicker, but a highly distracting flicker. The first few times this happened to me, it was startling enough that I lost control of my car. Now, the game is good about maintaining continuity across the zone boundary: the same cars will be around you after the flicker as before. So the chief thing indicating and discontinuity is the loading screen itself. If they left that out, and simply froze the contents of the screen for the moment that it takes to load the other zone, I might not even notice.

While this might be the ideal approach for Vice City in particular, I can’t in general advocate the removal of loading screens from games where their primary purpose is unnecessary. I have played many older games where the loading screens flit by, and very often my reaction is that I wish they’d linger. A well-designed loading screen isn’t just a waiting room you have to tolerate on the way to the actual game content, it’s part of the the game content itself, whether it’s by providing extra background information or gameplay tips in text, or by adding to the atmosphere with additional art and animation. I’m not saying it’s always good, but when it is, it’s unsatisfying to lose it. If only more developers thought to throw in a “Click to Continue”! It might not be ideal when zoning as in Vice City, but letting the player decide when the level starts is a valuable corrective not just for loading screens that are too short, but also for ones that are too long and temporarily lose the player’s attention.

Vice City: “Ice Cream”

I once joked about a nonexistent special activity for ice cream trucks in GTA3. Well, guess what? Vice City has a special activity for ice cream trucks! Sort of. When you buy the ice cream factory, it turns out that it’s not really an ice cream factory, and that they’re using the trucks to distribute something else that slowly gets you in trouble with the police as you hand it out. The game is oddly coy about exactly what it is — one assumes drugs, but it’s only ever identified as “product”. In most games, I’d assume that they’re trying to skirt around drug stuff in order to maintain a content rating and avoid being banned in the more persnicketty nations, but that doesn’t really make sense here, because there’s been so many references to drug use and drug dealing already, starting with the premise of the whole game. I suppose it’s possible that the various ratings bodies and other moral watchdogs would be harsher on an interactive drug-dealing mission than they would be on a cutscene.

At any rate, most of the businesses available for purchase have a similar story: once you buy them, you discover that they’re already involved in crimes, even before you can exert your corrupting influence. The used car dealership deals in stolen cars, the print works does a little counterfeiting on the side, etc. This serves as a way to introduce business-specific missions where you expand these operations, but that doesn’t really require the crimes to already be in place. But I suppose that having Tommy Vercetti be the source of all crime, rather than its mere discoverer, would make the whole thing darker and less comic. As it is, no one in Vice City is innocent, and that absolves the player of a certain amount of responsibility. Tommy isn’t a monster if everyone else is just as bad as him, if the only thing that separates him from them is that he’s better at it.

I’ll note one strange technical problem I had with the ice cream distribution in particular. The game tells you to use the shift key to turn on your ice cream truck’s jingle and attract customers. This is in fact an essential part of distributing “product”; no one will come to your truck if it isn’t jingling. But somehow, I found I was usually unable to turn the jingle on, and had to try over and over again before it took. The jingle toggle uses the same key as the horn on most cars, and that works fine, so it’s not like the game was failing to register the keypress. My best guess is that the difference lies in it being a toggle, which you press to start and press again to stop, whereas the horn toots for as long as you hold the key down. This is the sort of thing that I can see being affected by framerate or CPU speed, in which case it’s probably broken forever now, and will only get worse.

Vice City: Radio

I’ve mentioned the in-game radio stations a little, but not enough to really get across what an important part of the game they are. Outside of the intro cutscene and presumably the ending credits, all the music in this game is diegetic. Car radios provide the bulk of game’s soundtrack.

Every civilian vehicle1 has a radio that automatically turns on when you climb inside, tuned by default to a station that’s appropriate to the stereotypical owner of that style of vehicle, although you can change the station at will. There’s a rock station, a hip-hop station, a synth-pop station, a Latin music station with Spanish-language announcements, a talk radio station, an NPR affiliate, and so forth. Eleven in all, each playing a loop more than an hour long, synchronized to real time: if you leave the car or switch to another station for a while, the radio playback keeps advancing.

Mechanically, this all proceeds from the basics set down in the original GTA, just with different content. There’s considerably more content now, for one thing; back then, some of the radio stations just looped one song repeatedly. But also, by the time of Vice City, the success of the GTA phenomenon meant that Rockstar had the wherewithal to license well-known music, turning the whole thing into a sort of 80s retro hit parade: Billy Jean, Video Killed the Radio Star, Broken Wings, 99 Luftballons. In the earlier games, most of the music was original, written for the game, and much of it was satirical. There’s still a certain amount of that going on, mind. There’s a fictional band called “Love Fist” that gets interviewed on one of the talk stations and apparently has some songs mixed in with the real 80s music. But I couldn’t tell you which songs are theirs, even though I’m sure I’ve heard them multiple times over the course of playing the game. I suppose it’s because popular music in the 80s was so frequently close to self-satire to begin with. I mean, I don’t know what I would have made of the song Poison Arrow if I had heard it for the first time in this context. (“Stupid! Stupid!”)

Now, Love Fist isn’t just a thing on the radio. Their interview mentions that they’re doing a concert in Vice City, and sure enough, you can find the arena where they’ll be performing, all festooned with concert posters. Later in the game you even meet them and do missions for them (fetching them drugs and such). So the radio isn’t just a simultaneous and parallel amusement: it’s world-building. There’s actually quite a lot of this, even on the music channels, which have ads for fictitious products endorsed by local celebrities who might or might not enter Tommy’s story at some point. And owing to the way radio works, it’s a particular sort of ambient world-building, where you get the background in small pieces and at random times while you’re paying more attention to something else. Occasionally I’m tempted to just sit in the car and listen to the radio for a while so as not to miss any information, but I remind myself that I’ll have plenty more opportunities to hear it all over the course of the remaining missions.

  1. Police cars and fire engines and the like are excepted. Strangely, motorcycles are not. []

Vice City: Rise to Power

I’ve reached a major plot turn. There’s this crime boss named Diaz, who the player character Tommy Vercetti has good reason to believe was involved in stealing the drug money that kicked off the whole story. You do some missions for him in order to gain his trust, but, for reasons I won’t go into here, that trust is suddenly shattered, and Diaz’s men are suddenly out to kill you. So Tommy replies in kind, storming Diaz’s opulent mansion in the rich part of town and killing him first. This leaves a power vacuum in the Vice City crime scene, which Tommy immediately fills. He moves into Diaz’s mansion and sets about taking over the town.

This is a dramatic change from the way the game has gone so far, and from the way that the rest of the GTA series had gone previously. The hero had always hitherto been a lackey. With very few exceptions, the missions had always about satisfying someone else’s needs, or even someone else’s whims, accepting whatever limitations they put on you to determine success, even if they don’t make practical sense. But now, for the first time, Tommy’s actions are mainly self-directed. He still has missions, but they’re things that he decides to do himself.

This isn’t really reflected in mechanics, mind. I mean, okay, there’s a pretty big structural change: suddenly you’re allowed to purchase all the various businesses you’ve noticed around town with “for sale” icons on them, and that means a surge of new options and new mission sources. So your rise to power is accompanied by some ability to make consequential decisions, about which properties to spend your hard-won money on. But the missions, for all practical purposes, are still just missions. You, the player, don’t have any more control over them just because the objectives are now being articulated by the player character. It’s a bit like the moment in Bioshock where you overcome the mind control, only to find that you’ve just exchanged one master for another, except that the in-fiction aspect makes it feel a great deal less cheap here.

Early in the game, Tommy is given a (big, clunky-looking, 1980s) portable phone, and from then on occasionally receives calls from various characters, mostly directing him to new mission sources. After you replace Diaz, you suddenly get calls from pretty much every surviving named NPC in rapid succession, some of them basically just checking in with you to reinforce the idea that everyone is waking up to the notion that Tommy is important. But to my mind, the strongest indicator of your change in status is a subtler one. Any place where you can pick up missions is marked on the minimap with an icon. Some of these icons are pictoral, like the voodoo doll icon that marks Auntie Poulet’s place, but others show letters, like the “D” that marked Diaz’s mansion. After you kill Diaz, his mansion’s icon changes into one that I had difficulty parsing at first: it looked to me like a pixelated and stylized rabbit head. I didn’t know what to make of that until I realized it was just a somewhat lumpy letter V, for Vercetti. All the major mob bosses had their marks on the map, and this was a very direct and automatic acknowledgment that Tommy had joined their ranks. It’s just a little thing, but all the more powerful for the lack of fanfare.

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