Steam Spring Cleaning Event

I feel like paying attention to special promotions on Steam these days loses you some cred. Steam had something special going on back when they weren’t the incumbent, but Itch is what’s hip now. Plus, Steam’s special promotions just aren’t that interesting any more. Back in, say, 2011, they had grand metagames, things for which they’d get developers to put new Achievements and even new secret levels into their games. Today, it’s all predictable annual sales and things to do with trading cards.

Nonetheless, this past Memorial Day weekend, there was a Steam promotion that I think bears some scrutiny. Billed as a “Spring Cleaning” event, it offered a trophy (which is to say, a badge, worth 500 Steam XP if fully leveled) for completing certain tasks. The interesting thing is that the tasks weren’t designed to convince you to buy more games. On the contrary: they were all about playing the games you already have, with tasks like “play a game that you’ve played for less than an hour” and “play a game you’ve played for more than two hours, but haven’t played in a while”. Each task, when clicked on, yielded a list of suggestions — one task, which could be claimed afresh on each day of the promotion, was simply “Here’s a few randomly-chosen games that you own. Play one of them.”

There was a task to play the very first game you ever acquired on Steam — in my case, this was the Orange Box, so I had quite a few choices. Another daily task asked you to play a game that’s in your library but that you haven’t played at all. For me, this was not a problem — I have many games I haven’t played yet; that is the entire premise of this blog. But I was curious to note that the list of games it recommended for this task included several that I had in fact played, and even ones that I had Achievements for. A bug triggered, perhaps, by having too many games? It tried to pull up my play history and gave up after the first hundred thousand lines? Who knows?

At any rate, the reason I’m describing the event here is the big question it provokes: Why? Why is Valve, as a corporate entity that’s not primarily concerned with encouraging people to finish their backlogs for its own sake, bothering with this nonsense? I guess they’re in favor of anything that keeps the players engaged. I also have a sneaking suspicion that it also serves analytic data-gathering. In the Bundle Age, it must be difficult to discern a person’s actual tastes, so here’s a random assortment of games that you already own; which will you click on?

But also, this is a remarkably backwards-facing promotion. It showed me a bunch of games that I haven’t thought about in years, and that made me think about how great they were back in the day. And that serves Valve well. Recall what I said about Steam being past their peak hipness. Well, if they can’t have hip, at least they’ve got a near-monopoly on several years worth of PC gaming nostalgia.

Getting a Refund from Steam

Another threshold breached: For the first time, I have requested and received a refund on Steam, something that has become a lot easier lately.

It wasn’t a big refund. A mere 49 cents. This sale price is of course a big part of why I bought the game in question; that’s well within the “I don’t know much about this game, but I’m not risking much by buying it” range. I don’t want to identify it here, but it was sort of arcadey, and 49 cents is slightly less than the cost of two plays on a classic coin-op machine, so that was informing my sense of value here. And in fact I did get two substantial plays out of it, so under most circumstances, I’d call it even and leave it at that.

But I started having misgivings about the game when I first started it, and saw the logo was flanked by two images of Pedobear, like heraldic supporters. This is basically the creators proclaiming “Our tastes and sensibilities were formed on 4chan”, which is to say, identifying themselves as jerks. That’s a minor matter though; I’ve played plenty of other games by jerks. But apparently the flanking images are randomized, because the next time I went back to the main menu, I got Pepe the Frog. This is more or less equivalent to putting swastikas in your logo. This is the creators all but outright telling me they don’t want my money.

I mean, yes, Pepe has a history as both a character and a meme that predates its appropriation by white supremacists. I can easily imagine that including it here was meant as just another 4chan shout-out, and that the developers simply don’t mind being mistaken for neo-nazis. This would make it an act of stupidity rather than a declaration of fascism, but you know something? Even in that scenario, I’m comfortable with asking for my 49 cents back. If I’m wondering whether it’s a sincere expression of solidarity with the alt-right, there are definitely going to be alt-rightists who read it as definitely sincere, and take it as yet another sign that their ideology is acceptable now. I don’t want to support even that, not even with such a pittance.

At any rate, the refund request form was very straightforward, except for the bit where they ask the reason. There’s a list of options, and none of them are “it turns out to expresses support for political loathsomeness”, useful though that would be for a number of games. I can report that I received one Steam trading card drop before the refund period expired, something that I didn’t think was supposed to be possible. Also, I’ve experimented a bit with the consequences for the Steam UI in general, and can report that it doesn’t quite know how to deal with Achievements for games that you no longer have.

Having been through the process once, will I be more willing to exercise it in the future? I don’t know. It bucks decades of habit. Even when it turns out that a game won’t run on my system, my reaction is typically “I’ll probably get it running at some point, maybe after an upgrade”. We’ll find out.

Steam Summer Sale: Feasting on Candy

Steam has a Wishlist feature. It’s presumably meant to function as a wishlist — a way of marking things that you actually want. But that’s not how I use it. I use it as more of a vague interest list. My typical use case goes something like “Hm, that game looks like it might be worth taking a closer look at. But I don’t feel like doing that right now, so I’ll throw it on my wishlist so I’ll remember to look at it again when it’s on sale.”

Consequently, when the seasonal sales come around, I have a whole bunch of obscure little indie games on my wishlist, many of them discounted to less than three bucks, some even to less than one. I’ve been experimenting with a rule lately: when I want to buy something on Steam, I have to get everything cheaper than it off my wishlist first, either by buying it or by just removing it from the wishlist. The theory is that if I’m willing to pay $x for a game I want, then unwillingness to pay an amount less than $x for a different game signifies that I don’t really want it. But when the prices reach the sub-dollar range, I’m very inclined to just pay for them regardless, and make up my mind about them by playing them.

And so for the past few days, I’ve been spending my leisure time on a sort of smorgasbord, sampling many little delights and feeling no great obligation to stick with any that displease me. I’ll be describing some of the more interesting ones in subsequent posts.

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 said 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 do 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.


Shatter is a descendant of Breakout. A quick comparative description: it’s a little bit Arkanoid and a little bit Break Quest, with a dash of Gyruss and Clean Asia. Now to explain what I mean by that.

Arkanoid and Break Quest are both Breakout imitations as well. Arkanoid, an arcade machine from back in the day, is the more direct imitation, adding a few innovations like varying level layouts, bricks that had to be hit multiple times, and power-ups that drop from broken bricks, but keeping the basic notion of bricks in a fixed grid. Break Quest, an indie effort, showed what a big limitation that is by giving us a tremendous variety of level designs: levels with very large bricks or very small ones, bricks that are round or polygonal or shaped like heads, bricks made of overlapping outlines, bricks connected by springy ropes so that an impact on one sets the others jiggling, levels where the bricks dangled from pendulums or bounced around like billiard balls or whirled about in a set pattern. Shatter takes a middle ground here. Most of the bricks are rectangular (except for some special types), and most levels have them ordered in grid patterns. But there are bricks that fall when unsupported, and there are rows of bricks that hang from a pivot like a pendulum. (Sometimes they start off tacked on both ends and only start swinging when you break one of the tacks.) Falling bricks briefly stun the paddle if they collide with it, unless you activate your shields (about which more later). On some levels, you can wind up carpet-bombed with falling bricks, but that usually works out okay, because if the ball is above the bricks, it’ll just bounce off them instead of slipping past your stunned paddle.

One other thing Break Quest brought to the table: the ability to steer the ball a little by increasing gravity. Shatter takes this a step further, using the left mouse button to “suck” and the right mouse button to “blow”. (Certain bricks also constantly blow the ball away, making them harder to hit.) Sucking can make it easier to hit the ball by guiding it right to the paddle; blowing can make it unnecessary to hit the ball by sending it curving back upward. I personally find that this makes things just complicated enough to be confusing sometimes. Sucking when the ball is outbound or blowing when it’s inbound tends to make the ball’s trajectory more oblique, and it seems that obliqueness is how my brain wants to think of things: I’ll be aiming for the last brick on the screen (something the game facilitates by always showing a little glowy pip at the next point of impact), and rather than “It’s aiming too high” or “It’s aiming too low”, I’ll think “Its moving at too steep an angle”. But since there’s no unconditional “more oblique” button, half the time I’ll press the wrong one at first. It’s easier when I’m not aiming at anything specific, when it’s more a matter of “I need to get the ball to stay way up in back where all the bricks are”.

I say “up” and “down”, but some levels are oriented vertically and some horizontally. Some are even circular — this is the Gyruss influence I spoke of. Circular boards greatly interfere with expectations of how the ball is going to bounce and how it’s going to be influeced by sucking and blowing. It’s not always clear whether the ball is inbound or outbound on these levels. Also, power-ups and bonus items, which fall straight downward on a vertical level, or straight leftward on a horizontal one, unaffected by sucking and blowing, sometimes bounce off the walls on the circular levels, clearly as confused as I am by which direction is which.

Clean Asia, now. Clean Asia is an experimental indie shooter by Cactus, author of many experimental indie shooters. One of its more experimental ship types doesn’t have a gun per se at all: it operates by sucking in floating debris and then releasing it all at once, hurling barrages of junk at the enemy. Shatter does something similar, and it’s probably its single biggest distinguishing feature within the Breakout-clone genre. Every brick you break shatters into shards, which you can collect by sucking. These fill up a progress meter. (The meter also seems to slowly fill up just as a result of hitting the ball successfully, but shards fill it faster.) This is the energy that powers your shield, but using it that way depletes it quickly and is usually best avoided, because you want the meter to become completely full. When it’s full, you can activate it to temporarily slow down time and release a shard barrage — a powerful rapid-fire machine gun capable of eliminating most of the bricks on a level if you use it right. I’ve even managed to come into a level fully-charged and wipe it out completely with a barrage before even releasing the ball, although this isn’t the best approach, because finishing off the level doesn’t give you any opportunity to collect the shards so released and replenish your charge.

Shard barrages are particularly useful in the game’s ten boss fights. That’s another concept from Arkanoid — or was it just in the sequel, Revenge of Doh? I don’t remember. I do remember that the boss fight there seemed kind of lame. The ones here are more interesting, in large part because the ability to suck and blow extends the palette that the designers have to work with. There’s one boss whose vulnerable spot has to be exposed by sucking its shielding away from it. Even without tricks like that, the control you have over the ball allows them to demand precision shots at sequences of targets.

Overall, it’s shiny, fast-paced, and has a Robotron-like generosity with extra lives. (In fact, it seems like the mere act of dying queues a 1UP pickup to be released shortly afterward.) I’ve managed to zoom through the campaign mode in a day. I very much doubt I’ll reach the target score in Bonus Mode for the Steam Treasure Hunt, though. (Bonus Mode consists entirely of the bonus game you get after each boss fight: there are no bricks, and your goal is to keep three balls in play for as long as possible, scoring 100000 points for each hit. The target score for the Treasure Hunt is 11200000, or 112 hits.) It’s the first challenge in the promotion I’ve seen that’s actually difficult. The forums are full of agonized frustration on this point, with the histrionic silliness that seems to be the Steam forumites’ usual mode of expression. If what I read there is accurate, the developer actually apologized for setting the bar so high, and encouraged people to pass the challenge through hackery — only to recant when it was pointed out that he was advocating violating the purity of the Steam leaderboards. Note that the leaderboards aren’t particularly pure to begin with: the top three scores on the leaderboard for Bonus Mode are in fact impossible, as they’re not multiples of 100000. The more I pay attention to leaderboards, the more I’m glad that I don’t usually pay attention to leaderboards.


As I said in the previous post, Steam’s “Treasure Hunt” promotion for yesterday featured two games that I already had. The second, which I got in one of the recent Thanksgiving sale bundles, is Droplitz, which, like Obulis, is a port of an iPhone game. There’s a lot to be said about the rise of phones as gaming platforms and the imminent death of dedicated handheld gaming consoles, but other people are saying it adequately, and I’ve already done one long post today. This will be a short one.

Funny, I never noticed the disco dancer in the lower right before. I wonder if she's always there?Droplitz is essentially a relative of the hacking mini-game in Bioshock, except the tiles are hexagonal, you rotate them instead of placing them, and tiles that form complete paths from inlet to outlet are, after a while (enough time for a purple-highlighted droplet to make its way all the way through the path), deleted from play and replaced with new random tiles from the top a la Bejeweled. Also, perhaps most importantly, you don’t lose just because the fluid has reached the end of a pipe. Droplets are constantly coming in, and each one that gets lost costs you (in effect) a hit point, while each one that winds up where it’s supposed to go restores one. It’s essentially a game of splitting your attention under time pressure, trying to make paths as quickly as you can.

It’s rather Tetris-like in feel, the way that you can sometimes come close to death and then get things to mesh in a way that brings you back, but still inevitably lose. At least, that’s the way it is in “Classic” mode, which is the only mode I’ve tried so far. There are several others, and several different boards, with different numbers of inflow and outflow pipes, which you unlock via play. Unlocking all the boards in all the modes gives you an Achievement called “Completionist”, which is so apropos that I suppose it has to be my goal for removing this game from the Stack.

I probably won’t do much with it at the moment, though. I’m a bit annoyed at it, and a bit fearful of playing it, due to my problems installing and running it for the first time. My first attempt at installing it crashed shortly after the DirectX update, and my first attempt at running it produced no more than a black screen until I power-cycled the machine. Forums suggested running it in windowed mode (via a command-line incantation in the Steam settings), but then it just crashed to the desktop immediately, and, furthermore, left things in such a messed-up state that Duels of the Planeswalkers started crashing too until I rebooted. Ultimately, I had to wipe it and reinstall before it started behaving. I’d still prefer to run it full-screen, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. I assume that the iPhone version doesn’t have these problems. I wonder how many people bought it for the Steam promotion and then gave up before they got it working?

Duels of the Planeswalkers

So, I’m continuing to let that “Treasure Hunt” promotion on Steam dictate what I do with my spare time. The latest round featured two games that I already had. First up is Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers, the newest and slickest adaptation of the card game. I purchased this a while back when it was on sale for about the price of a booster pack. And now that I’ve spent a little quality time with it, I’ve already completed its single-player campaign, as well as all of its “challenges”. I rather like the challenges. They’re essentially Magic: The Gathering problems, in the same sense as chess problems. You’re shown a situation from late in a game, and have one turn to win, which you can only do by exploiting some unintuitive combo. In other words, it’s the best part of the original game, isolated.

Yeah I'm not winning this one.DotPW is a pretty straightforward adaptation: it’s presented as a card game, and makes no pretense at being anything else, apart from some sound and graphical effects on casting spells or resolving combat. But it’s a card game played on an attractive table, with a nicely responsive UI. There are some interesting things going on with tooltips that expand to give more information if you hover over a card longer. Your hand is displayed as a row of overlapping cards, with mouse rollover bringing specific cards to the front and enlarging them slightly; move the mouse away, and the card reduces to its original size, but stays in front. Spells you can currently cast are highlighted with a sort of glowing aura around their edges. You can zoom into and out of a full-screen-height view of a card with a flick of the mouse scrollwheel, which feels a lot better than it sounds. Still, I have complaints. There are a couple of buttons at the bottom of the screen that overlap with your hand, and when you roll over them, you get the card rollover effect as well, which falsely implies that clicking there will activate the card. The menu at the top of the screen, which you use for things like changing options or quitting the game, always confuses me. The button labeled “menu” toggles it between showing the menu and showing a display of the current phase, with the phase display appearing as a beveled layer on top of the menu, which is painted directly on the surface of the window border. In other games and apps where you have to explicitly summon a menu bar, it appears as an overlay on top of the window, not as the thing remaining when an overlay goes away. So every time I summon the main menu, I’m briefly confused into thinking I’ve accidentally banished it instead, and sometimes click the button again to bring it back, which sends it away for real.

As someone who used to play M:tG but doesn’t follow it any more, it’s always interesting to see how the cards have developed since the last time I paid attention (which is to say, the last time a M:tG computer game game out). I’m noticing that some things that used to be special properties of specific cards are now attributes covered in the general rules, and represented by icons in the UI here. For example, giant spiders have always had the ability to block flying creatures despite not being flying creatures themselves, but nowadays, it seems, it’s because they have the “Reach” attribute, which I assume is shared by some other cards. At the same time, of course, a new set of exceptions move in to take their place. I noticed that there are multiple Flying creatures here that, unlike most fliers (but like all flying creatures in Magic: The Gathering – Battlegrounds), can’t block non-flying creatures. I suppose this means that this could become an Attribute in future editions — call it “terraphobic” or something. Or perhaps not: the main advantage of Attributes over Exceptions seems to be that they can be granted as effects from enchantments and the like, and binding an effect like that to any arbitrary creature might not make good gameplay.

The one really curious choice here is that the game doesn’t let you make your own deck. Instead, you unlock various pre-made decks, then unlock additional cards for use in those decks. This cuts out about three-quarters of the M:tG experience. Furthermore, I’m told by someone who’s a lot more into M:tG than I’ve ever been that the decks available here are substandard. Which, I suppose, is why they don’t let you mix them up: there’s a good chance you’d come up with something better. Me, I’m far enough out of the loop to be satisfied with what I’ve been given, to take the more Etherlords-like constraints as part of this game, as opposed to real M:tG. But that raises the interesting question of just who this game is for.

There are games that you play once and they’re over: adventure games and puzzle games are the firmest examples. Like books and movies, they can enter the cultural vocabularies of the people who have played them, but they’re things that their fans have played, not things that they play. When they’re not freeware, the business model behind games like this is to keep selling you new games. Then there are lifestyle games: things like World of Warcraft and Team Fortress 2, things where the fan community consists of people who play them routinely. One of the hallmarks of this sort of game is focus on multiplayer play, which keeps people invested with minimal effort on the developers’ part. The business model here varies — WoW has monthly fees, TF2 seems to have been basically a loss leader for Steam until they discovered the lucrative hat market, and then there are ad-supported and DLC-supported games. DotP clearly wants to be a lifestyle game supported by DLC. It pushes players toward multiplayer play with its very short single-player campaign, and it has multiple expansions containing new decks (not to mention frippery like the “foil unlocks”, which let you pay a dollar just to make your cards shinier.) But you’d think that the people who’d want to keep paying for extra content would be the die-hard M:tG enthusiasts, whereas this game is set up, at a foundational level, to cater to the newbies. The fixed decks put a limit on the extent to which knowledge and experience of the game can affect the outcome: no one can build a deck significantly better than yours, and luck of the draw plays an even larger role than in normal M:tG. It solves the basic problem with face-to-face M:tG, the problem of how the newcomer can hope to compete with the guy who spends hundreds of dollars getting just the cards he wants in his deck. On the other hand, it seems like this wouldn’t be considered a problem by the guy who spent the hundreds of dollars, or by the vendor he paid them to.

But who am I to talk? Apparently DotP has sold really well. Maybe Wizards of the Coast has the right idea here: the number of dedicated M:tG fans has surely dwindled over time, whereas people like me, who have a slight interest in the game but not enough to actually buy cards or find other players, are surely legion. DotP is a game designed for us, the tourists in the Magic world. It takes us by the hand and shows us the sights, and lets us indulge in a fantasy of playing a game, with all the complicated and unpleasant parts removed. We may not be all that dedicated to the game, but judging by the Steam Global Achievement list, a little over a third of us went as far as to buy the first expansion.

I probably won’t go that far myself. I think I’ve learned what I wanted to learn from this game. But I can imagine it happening after a while, particularly if I can get the online component working. M:tG is moreish: you always want to keep playing until that one ultra-powerful card or combo comes up, and once it does, the match is over before you can really savor it. So I might keep bringing this game out, and if I do, I can imagine getting bored with the decks it provides and wanting a fresh batch. If it happens, I’ll report it here.


Hot on the heels of their last bunch of sales, Steam is doing a singularly evil promotion: essentially, an achievement-based sweepstakes. Every two days until the 20th of the month, they post a set of criteria for filling in checkboxes that count towards a random drawing for free games. (Also, certain threshold numbers of filled-in checkboxes give special hats in Team Fortress 2, which is one of the strongest motivators known to modern ludology.)Most of the criteria involve playing games that they happen to have on sale for those two days, and apparently they’re all simple enough that you can be reasonably expected to achieve them within an hour or so of playing the game for the first time. So there’s a clear temptation here. Now, in the US, it’s illegal for a privately-run sweepstakes to actually require a purchase. Promotional sweepstakes that you enter by buying things are common, but there’s always an alternate way to enter, usually involving postcards, buried somewhere in the fine print. And so it is here; I could enter this contest without buying any games. But that’s missing the point. I don’t need the prize. I don’t even really want it. I just have a compulsion to do things that fill in checkboxes. (I’m one of the few people I know who played Achievement Unlocked and its sequel to 100% completion.)

But my will is iron. I have sworn not to buy any games solely for the sake of this promotion. Games that are already on my must-play list, though? That’s another matter. And so I’ve bought Dejobaan’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, which has a sufficiently quirky basis to be on my radar as worth trying out, if only for the lessons we can learn from its experiments.

That basis: it’s about base jumping. There are some levels with mountains, but mostly it’s base jumping past large floating artificial structures in the sky. You score points by getting dangerously close to them. Points give you money (or “teeth”, as the game calls it — the designers’ attitude contains a big hunk of non-sequitur humor) which you use to unlock more levels. There are more complications that I’ll probably get into in future posts, but that’s the essence of the game right there, in the same way that “enemy spaceships come from the right of the screen and you shoot at them” is the essence of myriad scrolling shmups.

And I mention scrolling shmups because, in a strange way, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAA!!! feels like one. It has a similar sense of inexorable movement, and of twitchy reactions within a continuous framework of tactical decisions about which route to take. And when you come down to it, it wouldn’t take a lot to re-theme this game around spaceships. The main difference is just one of perspective, of whether you think of the direction you’re moving in as forward or down. (Ender Wiggin would approve.)

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