DOTA night at Meltdown Esports Bar

Dota night at Meltdown

Yesterday I attended the weekly Dota2 night at Meltdown esports bar for the first time. I’m looking for people who I can play with regularly because going out into solo queue is becoming a bit tedious and unpredictable. There is a small crowd of people there who play 5v5’s in a private lobby against the Meltdown London cafe. It’s a lot of shouting and mostly fun.

What strikes me when I go to these get togethers is that however different the people are, there is a shared culture because everybody reads /r/dota2 and watches the same streams and tournaments. It is fairly homogenized everywhere with the exception of China which is insular with its own client, servers and a slew of native language media.

I was also happy to see that the gender balance wasn’t as one-sided as I had feared. There’s still a long way to go but what I saw at the bar makes me optimistic.

The second victorious team

Esports spectating in the U-Bahn

DAC Grand Final in the U-Bahn

So it turns out that 3G over Blau in Berlin is good enough to watch a Twitch stream of the DAC finals between Evil Geniuses and Vici Gaming and allowed me to watch the amazing Storm Spirit performance by SumaiL in the last match.

The finals started at around 8AM (China Standard Time) and unfortunately were a clean sweep for EG so they were over pretty quickly. Most impressive was the fact that SumaiL, a fifteen year old kid from Pakistan, stole the show. Watch a summary below.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive

GeForce GTX AllStar Tournament

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a NVIDIA sponsored Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament in association with 99 damage at the Berlin Game Science Center.

CS:GO is an amazing team based sport where five terrorists try to set and explode a bomb on a bomb site (you can see sites A and B marked on the maps) while counter-terrorists try to prevent the bomb placement or defuse it. Players need to have a combination of mechanical aim/shoot skills combined with tactical insight at an incredibly high tempo. The difference between life or death in any of these games rests in a fraction of a second combined with an awareness of what is happening around the entire map. Esports are sports that are just as demanding mentally and physically as any other.

You don’t have to watch the entire video of the Dreamhack finale below but it can’t hurt to watch a couple of matches with the commentary (The walls are transparent for spectators. They aren’t for players.):

The culture around this particular game is its own and somewhat different from people who for instance play SC2 or MOBAs. Attending this tournament was a lot of fun and I got to see some high level play as well as a demonstration of case modding by a company with its own branded energy drink.

Panamax

Panamax time

This week I got to play the board game Panamax at a game night here in Berlin. Though it is slightly complicated I was struck by how good an adaptation of container shipping this game is.

The game is about getting contracts to move your cargo from one side of the canal to the other using either your own ships or the ships of other companies. The core mechanic of the game is the fact that canal locks can only contain 4 units of ships and if there is a ship behind you that won’t fit, it will push you out when it moves. This will cost the pushing ship a movement action but it will not cost the ship that is being pushed.

An interesting element in the game is that you as a player have private money and you are managing a shipping company with money of its own. The shipping company uses its money as working capital to perform actions. As a player you start out with one share in your own company and you can use your private money to buy shares in companies including your own.

The cost of a share is paid to the company in effect raising capital and the price of the stock is increased by one. At the end of each turn a company pays out dividends to all players who own a share in it if it can pay out to all of them. If the company does not have enough money to pay out dividends, nobody gets anything and the company share price drops by two. Shares are liquidated at the end of the game at their current vue to add to the capital of players (which are victory points).

This way of interweaving player interests with each other is incredibly interesting and has been executed really elegantly compared to the complexity it adds to the gameplay. Besides combining destinies using the shares, you can also load your cargo on somebody else’s ship. This way figuring out which actions benefit whom exactly quickly becomes intractable.

What’s also funny is that cargo that is stuck in the canal incurs costs at the end of each turn. If a company cannot pay all of these costs from its own capital, it will get it from the player managing it. This means that companies are not limited liability or that managing directors are fined for mismanagement both of which are interesting.

All in all Panamax is a very successful eurogame that actually fits fairly nicely with its theme. At each step it feels like you are taking important decisions for the company you manage.

Console gaming after the fact: Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an extremely questionable game catering to the war fantasies of American hawks. I played the fully German version and having to make sense of a war scene where people are shouting stuff at you in German only adds to the weirdness.

Every time you die also you get quotes about war and peace by such notables as Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gandhi. I have no idea what the people who made this game were even thinking.

In the German (and Japanese) version also the “No Russian” mission is weird. You’re in a terrorist group that is massacring a Russian airport but any time you hurt a civilian the mission restarts. It turns out that this is something region specific.

For the rest it’s just a bunch of shooting around the world with a questionable (and increasingly incoherent) neo-terrorist plot straight from a Steven Seagal movie.

Console gaming after the fact: Mirror’s Edge

Not so much a game as it is a parkour simulator with some combat thrown in. It is absurdly difficult which isn’t even the problem. The real problem is that every time you restart it takes too long and puts you in a place where you have to replay large segments of the game. This may be fun for some but not for me.

I’m also not convinced that it is useful to have a parkour simulator where you don’t see where your feet are and as such cannot time your jump really. There are better parkour games out there (Assassin’s Creed II comes to mind).

The aesthetics of the game are special and that is more or less the only reason I was told to play this game.

Console gaming after the fact

I have found myself in the custody of a Playstation 3 console and have borrowed a couple dozen games to play over the holidays. This came to be after I mentioned to my local game design support group that I hadn’t played anything on a console for over ten years and that I was quite happy with that state of being. They thought that this was unacceptable.

Their reasoning was:
1. That consoles get the best games these days. (I’m not so sure about that.)
2. That I should have played some of these games to have an idea what I’m talking about or against. (Fair enough.)

Gaming rig for Christmas

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The big screen is back home because we have emptied our office in Berlin and are awaiting the new one. The biggest impediment to me getting a console in fact was the fact that we didn’t have any screens at home and buying a console would mean having to get a tv/projector as well.

And Markus Kaikkonen agreed to hook me up with his old Playstation 3 since he had just gotten a PS4 and was going to play some stuff on that over the holidays anyway. Many thanks to Markus for that and I do agree that it can’t hurt to play a bunch of these games but now that I have nearly two dozen of them (thanks also Peter Bihr and Simon Cubasch) to go through it does feel a bit like work. I will post my findings here.

Somme preliminary stuff that isn’t very game specific:

Console games are a huge deal. This may seem obvious but I hadn’t fully realized it before. I think it is fair to say that most males below the age of 40 own a console, owned one or have wanted to own one in the past decade. Being a contender in the console wars and releasing AAA games have huge entry costs but they also carry with them the potential for gigantic upsides.

I had noted the fact that there weren’t any good action franchises anymore. The only stuff we get are Bond movies and a Bourne episode every five years or so. I am now wagering that most of the audience and the budgets for these things have gone into AAA shooters. A FPS game is more fun, about as poorly written and more cost effective (for the consumer) than going to the cinema for a similar ‘shoot stuff and blow stuff up’ experience. For the same price as a current AAA game you can go to the movies 3-4 times.

I am surprised at the amount of grinding in AAA games. Playing parts of a game over and over again because of poor design or balancing. Especially egregious are situations where every death means a lengthy reload and resumes you somewhere back before. Also I’m spending a lot of time in geometric first or third person games walking around looking for the clue to the next stage. They may have higher production values than mobile games but the amount of grinding seems to be about the same.

Console gaming after the fact: Killzone 2

Extremely crude but a decent shooter nonetheless. Can be a bit of a slough at times but now that I’ve played more from the genre that seems to be par for the course.

Killzone 2

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The writing is so bad that you seriously wonder where they get it. The target audience for these kind of games does not seem to want much more. Thankfully the science fiction setting where you fight a pure evil removes some of the moral issues that other games in the genre carry.

Console gaming after the fact: The Last of Us

Massive spoilers for The Last of Us follow. Normally I’d encourage you to read on but with this game I recommend renting, borrowing, procuring, house-sitting, whatever is necessary to play it. I played most of the game in a single twelve hour sitting until nine in the morning. That may well be the best way to experience this: one weekend, little sleep and feverishly playing.

I was sceptical at first (I was promised that this game has the best writing that exists) but this was a singular experience despite its shortcomings. It takes a bit to get going and break out of the survival horror shooting game trope even though the beginning is executed very well. Another game where I’m not sure there is anything else to play after you’ve finished it. A sequel has been tentatively announced and there’s a DLC “Left Behind” that I can buy for €15.

The plot isn’t the best thing about the writing in this game and honestly in many examples of good writing the plot isn’t the best part. The atmospheric environments in The Last of Us have a coherence and detail that gives them much more depth than in any of the other games I’ve played since then. These provide a convincing backdrop on which Joel and Ellie play out their relationship and that is the real strength of the writing in this game. Out of a shared experience consisting of horror and idleness they forge a bond that carries over through the screen.

In broad strokes it The Last of Us is a retelling of The Road made stomachable for a mainstream audience. All the other characters are mostly forgettable and their losses however close they had gotten do not really count for much.

The biggest issue in the game is the moral one and not so much the one in the game as it is players’ reactions to it. The game forces you to save Ellie who is going to be cut up to potentially create a cure against the plague. What scares me is the vast number of players who take issues with this choice. I shot the entire OR staff without blinking (also partially because I knew it was coming) because I don’t think there is a real moral issue here. Sacrificing a person to save humanity is unacceptable. It turns out that (too) many gamers are in favour of moral consequentialism and medical experiments on human beings.

Another shortcoming in the game for me was that you don’t play as Ellie enough. I enjoyed her physical disadvantages and her true grit when running through a snowstorm and jumping up on huge dudes to slaughter them with a switch blade.

The bit where Ellie is hunting the buck is meditative and by that time it was seven in the morning, I had been playing for ten hours and it took me a good half hour of chasing the buck through the snowfields. That was a near transcendental experience and in fact those were the most enjoyable parts of the game. Not those where you are on edge because you could be attacked at any moment. The best parts of the game were those where Joel and Ellie are hiking through a forest or on an abandoned highway and shooting the shit with each other. I would have happily played a game consisting of nothing but that.

The upside down fight is amazing.

A photo posted by Alper Cugun (@alper) on