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Steam Link

What a rollercoaster ride of emotion.

Way back in the day, I purchased a physical Steam Link. This was a little black rectangle that allowed you to stream Steam from your PC to your TV. The purchase was made after I attended a few game nights with friends, and the hilarity that ensued from the Jackbox games. The setup over there was a laptop plugged into the TV; having no laptop myself, this seemed like a good workaround. I promptly never actually used it and Valve stopped making them.

Cue last week when I discovered that there’s a Steam Link App on the Google Play store. It pretty much does exactly what it sounds like: stream any Steam game from your PC to your phone. You may be wondering who in the world that sort of thing is for. Me. It’s for me. Or anyone stuck watching their progeny running around in quarantine while pretending to be working from home. Can’t use the physical Steam Link because that means the little guy can see a screen, and apparently kids are ruined forever if they witness more than 30 minutes of pixels a day.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time though, you know that I never do things the easy way.

The app is fine but you need a controller. Your options for native support are a Steam controller (discontinued), PS4/Xbone controllers (don’t have either console), or some nVidia garbage that is literally $200. When I looked at PS4/Xbone controllers, they started at $65 and went up from there. That’s… normal? Jesus. Actual prices during this pandemic are much higher, especially on Amazon.

So I decided to purchase just a generic bluetooth Android controller. The $35 kind that expands outward and turns your phone into a Switch-like device. While the controller “worked,” it was not recognized by Steam Link. So you have to download their China app – it’s always fun scrolling through items on Amazon and see “competitors” all say you need use the same app – which basically throws an overlay over your screen to make touch controls work with the controller. That got the job done… aside from the fact that you have to look at your touch controls all the time. Yuck.

So here I am now, returning the junk, and looking to see if spending $65 + $10 (for phone mount) is worth being able to play Fell Seal in the living room on my phone. Do I have other options?

I did look into Moonlight, which is another app that interfaces with your nVidia graphics card for streaming purposes. After spending an hour of the precious, “I could actually be playing videogames on my computer” time, I abandoned the effort when it didn’t work even after a driver update.

Currently, I am in a holding pattern. I do already have a PS3 controller (for the PS3 I never play) and an Xbox 360 controller I bought specifically for PC games that necessitate it. I have heard some people have success with simply pairing the Xbox controller to their PC (instead of the phone), and then basically bringing the controller and phone to the living room, assuming a decent bluetooth signal. Or maybe I will try getting one of those 8bitendo controllers that might be recognized by Steam Link. Or maybe I’ll just break down and spend an extra $30+ for a legit controller that will have no other use than however long this situation persists.

Or maybe I will just get by like I have up to this point, subsisting mainly on Reddit and playing with my child.

It’s a rough life, I know.

Made for PC

Word on the streets is that PS4-exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn is coming to PC this year.

Will it release for $9.99 or less, as it was priced this recent holiday season? Probably not. Will it be just a slap-dash port locked at 30 fps or some nonsense? Possibly. But the big deal here is that Sony is taking its first steps towards releasing first-party games on another system. As someone who was prepared to buy a PS4 just to play 3-4 games, this is good news to me.

It does make you think about the future though. Nintendo is pretty much the last reasonable hold-out when it comes to the console wars, always coming up with some proprietary zaniness for their hardware and making everyone pay full MSRP because they can. The Apple of the console world, if you will.

Indeed, everyone originally thought that this console-to-PC shift was a natural result of consoles basically more and more becoming little PCs with custom cases. But in the final analysis, it is probably more due to the mobile market drinking everyone’s milkshake than anything else. Mobile gaming was 45% of the entire gaming market in 2019. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that less money was spent in the console world, it does mean that the opportunity cost for keeping your bestselling titles silo’d away is higher. I mean, it was always there, with the hope being that it pushed some hardware sales along the way.

Honestly though? These days I am thinking mighty long and hard on whether a $300+ console is going to be a better purchase than a $300 phone. The latter is something I use for hours every single day, even when I don’t find the time to boot up the PC, much less a third gaming device.

It Also Gets Harder

You know, I used to look down on “mobile gamers.” Or rather, they just never figured into my headcanon for what a real gamer was. Your mom playing Candy Crush is not the same as you playing a MMO for a decade on a $1200 PC. Nevermind how both developers are technically under the same corporate umbrella these days.

This past week, I went three days in a row without playing games.

Some of that was due to literally not having the time. My window these days is precisely between 8:30pm and 10:30pm, which is after the baby goes to sleep the first time, and when he wakes up for another bottle right before I should be going to sleep. Two hours seems like a decent chunk of time, but that is also the time I have to burn to get chores done around the house. By the time my ass hits the computer chair, it’s 9:50pm and… what then? What am I meaningfully playing for 40 minutes?

Of course, I am not counting the time spent playing Clash Royale. Or sometimes Hearthstone (Adventures). Those ~12 minute increments add up throughout the day in ways they could not via any other games. But these are not real, substantial narrative experiences.

After a while though, I have to start asking myself if that is what I even want. Maybe not in 40-minute increments, but surely I could make time elsewhere, if it were that important to me? I certainly seem to default back to Reddit browsing and low-effort time-killing readily enough. Almost as though I’m enjoying myself.

Luckily enough, I got through the ennui by the end of that week. But it did get me to thinking about what kind of gaming experience I was looking for.

Vote with Your (Whale) Wallet

There was an interesting, albeit depressing, exchange on Reddit concerning the release of Dr. Mario World, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile nihilism. Basically, it’s Dr. Mario meets Candy Crush (e.g. stamina meters) with a dash of gacha game lootboxes. Which is a little weird, considering Nintendo seems to make a point about not being too greedy with their monetization strategies. What changed?

$$$$$$

Five years ago, I made the point that “voting with your wallet” was a losing strategy, in comparison to complaining about things and thereby possibly voting with other peoples’ wallets. That sentiment seems almost quaint these days. The current reality we inhabit is one in which the mere existence of people willing to drop $100 (or $1000) in a sitting dictates how mobile games are developed.

I would like to believe there is some kind of silver lining in all this. And maybe there is. If you are just looking for something to do on your phone, there are tens of thousands of options available for free. Not all of them are even horrible. Hell, go play Dr. Mario World if you want!

As someone who loves the purity of elegant game design though… I’m fucked. I could vow to never play these games again, convince thousands more to join the boycott, and it wouldn’t matter. When 90% of the playerbase is already not paying for anything, and the average lifetime value of paying customers is single digits, one $99 purchase justifies a lot of nonsense. Not just in one game, but every game. There will be exceptions, but they exist as deliberate acts, fighting the ocean current.

When money is speech, the richest speak the loudest.

…er, when did we decide that was a good idea, again?

Mobile Attributes

As I have begun my homebound tour of baby duty, I have a new appreciation for mobile gaming. Because it is the only gaming I can conceivably complete. While there are only three games in particular that I’m playing at the moment, I’m becoming well acquainted with the specific attributes of each one.

Time-to-Play

How long it takes from the moment you press the icon until you can start making selections. This probably shouldn’t matter as much because if you’re counting seconds you likely weren’t going to be having a lot of fun to begin with. That said, it became important to me once I realized that it takes Hearthstone 38 seconds to boot up.

Thirty. Eight. Seconds.

That’s just to get to the quest screen, by the way, not actually playing. In contrast, Clash Royale takes 17 seconds and Gems of War takes… huh, 32 seconds. For some reason, Hearthstone seemed more egregious.

Minimization

How the game reacts to being minimized or otherwise losing focus. This attribute is a bit tough to precisely quantify because apparently it matters for how long the interruption lasts. Sometimes you can minimize to shoot off a text and be fine, and other times the app requires you to log back in.

Hearthstone used to be the worst at this, not only requiring a re-login, but also counting a Dungeon Run as a loss if you minimized in the middle of a boss instead of on the reward screen. As of some patch ago, you can safely minimize without losing progress.

Clash Royale is finicky, but even when there’s the equivalent of a re-log, it’s very brief. Things are significantly different if you are in the middle of a battle though. In some cases you can get back in, but you are generally penalized as “leaving the match.”

Gems of War, in my experience, doesn’t care and will be right back up instantly.

One-Handed Play

Can the game be played with one hand… if you know what I mean. Because you have a baby in the other hand.

Both Hearthstone and Gems of War are perfectly playable with one hand. Both games are basically turn-based, and even if you’re playing a human opponent in Hearthstone, you have a minute and a half to complete your turn.

Clash Royale on the other (one) hand is technically playable, but sometimes entire matches can be decided on pixel-perfect placement of troops at precisely the right moment. So in this respect, I’d say this isn’t a one-handed game.

Fun

Pretty standard.

Depth

Same.

Microtransactions

They all have them.

Overall, I will say that Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run modes have been the MVP for me this far. When I said I had no desire to play Dalaran Heist anymore, that was before I got stuck watching a baby for 12+ hours a day. I’m already halfway through beating Chapter 1 heroic mode with every class, and being grateful I have something to do.

Disposable Progression

As I am playing a lot of mobile games lately, my nose is being rubbed in perhaps the most annoying design “feature” I have encountered in years: disposable progression.

The game in question is Gems of War, but it’s not specific to this title. Basically, you create a four-member team of monsters and use their abilities to fight your foes. There are hundreds of different monsters available, across a number of rarities, with all sorts of possibly interesting combinations. Each monster can be upgraded with a certain currency, special traits unlocked with a separate currency, and a third currency (extra copies) can upgrade the rarity of the card itself.

The problem is that you aren’t likely to use the first four monsters you pick up. So any currency you use to level them up and otherwise bridge the gap between completing missions and unboxing better monsters is effectively wasted. Maybe it can be considered “the cost of doing business,” but it nevertheless creates perverse incentives when I play. “Do I really need to level this guy up?” The answer is generally no, or at least never feels like a solid yes, so I don’t. And thus not only do I make the game more boring and harder for myself, I also rob myself of whatever pleasure can be derived from improving one’s characters.

I mean, it’s possible things were designed this way with the goal of actually getting players to waste currency in a bid to pad out game time. After all, if you sufficiently hoard currency, it’s technically possible to max out a new monster the minute you unbox it. That is not a particularly good outcome for anyone. And perhaps there isn’t really a way around things anyway – this may be a systemic issue the moment you design a game to have dozens and dozens of party members.

Regardless, it still feels bad. I have used the same monster team for the past two weeks, so I possibly should just bite the bullet and spend all my currency leveling them up. But the moment some cool legendary monster or whatever pops out of a box, I’m going to be quite miffed. And miffed to me is not opening the wallet to spend real currency buying fake currency, but uninstalling the game.

Time-Broke

Know what’s downright quaint? This Time-Poor post from back in March.

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Two or three weeks sans gaming isn’t too bad in the scheme of things. Or wouldn’t be, if there was some kind of known endpoint. I’m a planner, a schemer, an optimizer. Meanwhile, my baby is an agent of chaos. Sometimes he’ll go three hours between feedings, and other times I’m feeding him every 30 minutes for an hour and a half. And since you can’t really do much else, the TV is on in the background, and when he finally calms down, you might be interested in the rest of the show.

This whole experience thus far has given me some first-person views of the gaming edifice though.

On Sunday, I actually had a solid 1-2 hour chunk of time to do non-baby, non-household chore things at like 11pm. The whole world felt like my oyster! Unfortunately, I hate oysters, and I found myself browsing Reddit – which I do on my phone anyway – and then playing a few games of Slay the Spire. The thought of diving back into Divinity: Original Sin 2 was, well, unthinkable. What would I do? Walk around, get in one combat, then turn the game off?

It got me thinking about uninterrupted time, and how often some games require it. The traditional expectation of it being required is when a game functions on Waypoint Saving. But if you have a narrative experience that you care about at all, then uninterrupted time is required. But even if a game doesn’t have a narrative, you might still need uninterrupted time in order to progress in the “what was I doing?” fashion. Or perhaps even the mundane “what buttons do what again?” sense.

Games with grinding are also right out. It used to be “ain’t nobody got time for that” was because life is full of so many other, better games you could be playing instead. Nowadays, for me, it’s literal.

Having said all that, I find time for mobile games. Clash Royale is still an hourly diversion. I bought You Must Build A Boat and also downloaded Gems of War, both of which can be played in small chunks. I was looking at Terraria, but was scared away by a review stating the last update was in August 2016. Instead, I (re)bought Stardew Valley. While I haven’t tried it out yet, I’m hopeful that it can also scratch the progression itch in a more nutritive way that gacha games cannot.

We’ll see how it goes.

Mobile Games Worth Buying

…are there any?

I have around $15 in Google Play money from taking surveys and such, and I was recently notified that some of those dollars will be expiring soon. Looking at the Play store though, I am a bit of at a loss of what might actually be worth buying. What I want to avoid, if possible, is throwing money into the hole of gacha games and/or Clash Royale.

The current top contender right now is the mobile version of Stardew Valley. I have spent a few dozen hours in that game on PC, but stopped a few months ago, as it was not particularly conducive to my play style at the time. Namely, the fact that the game only saves at the end of each day, thus requiring you to play a whole day each time. After researching a bit, it does seem like there are backup saving mechanisms for the mobile version, e.g. if you get a phone call or the screen locks, but I’m still a bit concerned. Clash Royale needing basically 4-7 uninterrupted minutes can already get dicey unless I’m specifically playing during lunch (shhh), whereas Hearthstone might consume longer amounts of time but the turn timers allow short breaks inbetween.

Anyway, are there any paid mobile games that you have been enjoying? Genre isn’t particularly a limiting factor. I have enjoyed Plants vs Zombies, Where’s My Water?, 10000000, and other such games in the past. Not sure that I want anything like FF6 or games that I could basically play on an emulator. Again, the goal is to not throw money at games like Puzzle & Dragons or Clash Royale.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Surplus Deficit

Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:

In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)

Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:

The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)

This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.

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We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.

Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.

Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.