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20 Years of StarCraft

Kosta Andreadis, writing for IGN:

In the mid-to-late 1990s, the real-time strategy (RTS) genre was not only popular but ubiquitous. RTS games of various styles and settings were everywhere, and a company named Blizzard Entertainment was at the forefront. The studio had become a household name with gamers thanks – primarily – to three titles: 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, 1995’s Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and an action role-playing game released on the final day of 1996 (and developed by Blizzard North), Diablo. These games cemented Blizzard as a company that made high quality cinematic story-driven experiences that were fun, accessible, and infinitely repayable.

With StarCraft, its third real-time strategy game, Blizzard would leave behind the fantasy world of the breakout Warcraft franchise and set its sights on the distant future. It would take players to a science-fiction setting where humans and strange alien races engaged in isometric high-tech warfare. And the studio would go on a journey of its own; in the time between Warcraft II and StarCraft’s launch in 1998 the look and feel of the game would change drastically – alongside its story, characters, vehicles and other player-controlled units. This is the story of that evolution… and the success beyond.

I remember seeing the original StarCraft trailer for the first time. If memory serves, the trailer was included in the WarCraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal expansion set CD-ROM. At the time, the trailer felt like something out of a Ridley Scott film, only grander. Comedic space goons alarmed and destroyed by a large, brooding, mysterious craft. I was bewildered.

Andreadis has put together a tight, well-written retrospective of StarCraft. If you enjoyed the original in the late ‘90s, there are lots of great bits of development insight in here.

The following might be my favorite bit:

Compared to the advances made in digital recording technology available today, to create the sounds and music for StarCraft the team made use of a suite of external synthesizers and outboard hardware, utilising more traditional recording techniques. “Early versions of some of the sounds were pretty cringeworthy,” Glenn admits. “Certain units required more experimentation to get something really unique and special. The first version of the Hydralisk was just plain silly until we figured out how to make them ‘talk’ without words.” This experimentation led to some interesting sources for what many consider to be some of the best sound effects for an RTS of any era.

“Lots of units in the game started with voice as the origin; our voices,” Glenn reveals. “Though most are tweaked beyond recognition. We also used voice for sound effects, such as the Marines’ walkie talkie static. Voice and mouth sounds, like whispers, hisses, and breathing were a big contributor to creating source material to be processed into various strange effects, sweeteners, ambiences and even in the music. One of the chittering Zergling sounds is just me grabbing my cheeks and flapping them open and closed quickly. Processed with pitch and other effects afterwards.”

Unfortunately, no details on the Nintendo 64 port.

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UK video games market is now 80% digital

Christopher Dring, reporting for GamesIndustry.biz:

It seems a bit negative for the physical market, but these figures do not include hardware. And actually more consoles were sold in 2018 than in 2017. GamesIndustry.biz can reveal over 2.4 million games machines were sold in the UK last year. PS4 was the biggest selling console, with sales flat year-on-year, but Nintendo Switch was the biggest growth area, with Switch console sales up more than 20 percent.

Indeed, physical remains a strong part of the games retail business. According to ERA, the best-selling game of the year was FIFA 19 with 2.5 million units sold… 1.89 million of those sales came physically. That means when it comes to AAA releases, digital sales only account for around 25 per cent of the games sold. However, that percentage is getting bigger. Last year, 20% of FIFA 18’s sales were digital.

I don’t find it terribly surprising that an annual sports title garners the top spot for physical game sales. I can already see the GameStop shelves littered with used copies of FIFA ‘19 this fall.

The trend of the rise in digital also comes as unsurprising when physical games are all met with a barrage of software updates. Sure, one may be able to save a few bucks on a physical copy — and sell it back — but in the world of instant gratification, digital download — albeit a tens-of-gigabytes download — is quicker than a trip to the store plus a tens-of-gigabytes update.

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The year in gaming controversies

Colin Campbell, Polygon:

These events must lead most observers to the view that game companies have a long way to go before they can truly present themselves as caring about their employees, their customers, or the world that they inhabit. But they are at least now subject to vociferous disapproval when they make their most grotesque mistakes.

Perhaps meetings are taking place right now, in which execs are noting the previous damage of their own actions, and making necessary alterations. More realistically, as we enter the new year, the issue of unions is in the air. If and when employees organize themselves into unions, game companies will have more to worry about than bad publicity. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for the better. Maybe.

This article is a great retrospective of an industry on the cusp of being held accountable. I don’t say that lightly. These are incidents on record. There’s bound to be many, many more that have not been to light. It’s wonderful to see focus put on these issues by media outlets.

I’ll admit that I remain glued to the video game industry for the fun and surprise of it all. But to see the harsher reality elevated more than ever is refreshing.

In any case, the comments on this article are something else. No one should ever be harassed. No one should ever be expected to work 100 hours per week. No one should be subjected to cheap gambling tactics or unjustified lockout to earn a company an extra penny or two. In 2019, maybe we’ll see a change for empathy and maturity from companies and audiences alike. Maybe.

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Gruber: ‘There is a thing to being “Mac-like”’

John Gruber, with guest Jason Snell, on his podcast The Talk Show with John Gruber:

There is a thing to being “Mac-like”. And there was, and it was strong. It’s literally what kept Apple alive.

If Mac-likeness hadn’t been an important thing, there’s no reason everybody wouldn’t have switched to Windows at the time — that there was more to it than, ‘OK, you’ve got a rectangular window and the windows all have “close” buttons and “zoom” buttons, and then there’s a menu bar with an agreed upon set of typical things like “file”, “edit”, “font”. You double-click on an app. There’s a mouse that moves around. You can select text. There’s a scroll bar over on the side you can drag up-and-down to move up-and-down on a document. And there you go — there’s a GUI. If you can use one, you can use any one and that’s all there is to it.’

It is true that that is the description of the modern graphical user interface of a windowing system. But there’s so much more to the Mac-way of doing things and of organizing things. And of feeling at home. It’s such an amazing thing when you feel at home in an app you’ve never used before because it uses all these familiar conventions. Those conventions went so much deeper than just draggable windows with a “close” button and a menu bar.

This is a great discussion of the level of detail and consideration for human interface guidelines. I encourage you to give it a list. It struck me as I closely followed Twitter’s branding guidelines for the redesigned footer of Zero Counts.

I became a Mac convert in 2004 with the iBook G4. Before that, I was put off by the consistency of Mac apps, which is a wild thing to consider. I mistook variety in user interfaces for freedom, and thus, the Mac as a restrictive system. This notion was reinforced by the Mac’s minimal amount of hardware customization. Together, the Mac was but a toy for casual users. I had completely missed the point of the Mac, and apparently had no consideration for elegant design.

The level of consistency displayed in a majority of the most popular Mac apps makes it all the more apparent when something doesn’t quite feel right. Not to mention when something is completely disorienting. The app that jumps out to me most is Pixelmator.

Pixelmator includes loads of floating windows and tools. If I’m not mistaken, this was inspired by the original Photoshop GUI. I’ve been a big fan of Pixelmator, but I’ve always felt lost in it’s GUI.

Now, with the single window design of the new Pixelmator Pro, I feel at home. It’s not to say I’m completely familiar with all of the ins and outs, but I was able to immediately jump in and find my way around.

As the successor to a heavily used app, reworking the entire GUI is incredibly risky. But the ease at which a longtime Pixelmator user can dive into Pixelmator Pro with little effort is a testament to the macOS HIG.

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Vox Video Lab

Vox.com:

You know that feeling you get when you learn something that blows your mind, something new, something that perhaps you didn’t even think to ask about? That’s our goal with every Vox video: We want to help you understand the world in a visually clear, creative, and hopefully beautiful way.

If that sounds like a mission you support, and you love our videos, then we ask that you consider joining the Vox Video Lab, our brand-new membership program on YouTube that will help us give you even more ambitious explainer videos and series.

Why are we doing this? The core reason is pretty simple: Our videos take a ton of work.

Well, how about that. The day after divulging my affinity for Vox Media’s creators, they establish their first membership program.

Thrilled to be a Video Lab Advisory Board member.

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One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear

Letter from a Region in My Mind by James Baldwin for The New Yorker, 1962:

It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as the possibility. One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.

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If God cannot do this…

Letter from a Region in My Mind by James Baldwin for The New Yorker, 1962:

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

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Washed Up Emo: ‘It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before’

Tom Mullen, host of the Washed Up Emo podcast, interviewing Justin Courtney Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack fame:

JCP: Now we’re all on Twitter and Instagram. We can see at least a version of ourselves that we want to put out to the world, which is still more than when you had to find that one article of the band where they had a few paragraphs. You had to read it. You didn’t get to see video of the person that’s speaking.

It’s just so much easier to connect to people now. There less mystery involved. I think back then, everyone just seemed way cooler than they probably were.

TM: This is brought up a bunch because of the time period of some of these bands and their age. You knew it before [the internet/connectivity], and now you have it. You have this context of being able to know when you didn’t have it and that feeling, versus someone today who’s younger doesn’t. They’ve only always had a phone. They’ve always had Wikipedia.

You talked about that feeling, but it’s also that sense of discovery. It felt like you were turning a page of a book that you’d never opened before. That feeling I try and replicate as much as I can today.

More and more I realize how detached I am from new music. As much as I looked forward to the new Cursive, Minus the Bear, Saves the Day, and Thrice records, they are new records from old bands. Plus, there was little for me to chew on aside from the music itself. Little in the way of liner-notes, thank yous, etc. Or maybe it’s just my lack of focus, time, and energy.

Even more is that my pendulum of consumption has swung far in the opposite direction of video games to books this year. I don’t think I’ve finished a single game I’ve purchased in 2018.

Together, I now get the sense of discovery I used to have with music intertwined with the insatiable appetite I had for video games rolled into reading. I’m on pace to read more than I ever have in a single year.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, books are my new albums.

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Hot Wheels don’t teach auto mechanics

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.

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The Xbox One X makes a lot more sense in 2018

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

The ability to play classic games in 4K is one of the most interesting, and sometimes under-discussed, features of the Xbox One X. The system currently provides the only way to play the first Red Dead Redemption in 4K, and doing so is absolutely worth your time. The list of Xbox One X-enhanced games that are backward-compatible isn’t huge — there are currently only 21 as of this writing — but there are some jewels in there, from the original Mirror’s Edge to Portal.

I bought a 4K HDR TV last weekend. My first thought after purchasing it was, “PS4 Pro or Xbox One X?”

Thankfully for my wallet, the original PS4 supports HDR, and that’s more meaningful than 4K in my book. But had I owned neither, I’d be all over the Xbox One X.

While the breadth of catalog isn’t there, there’s certainly enough for my casual needs. But most importantly, for cross-platform games, I’d know I’m getting the best console experience on the market. That’s tough to swallow for a snob like me.

Between (enhanced) backwards-compatibility, early adoption of cross-platform multiplayer, and unmatched performance, I agree with Kuchera. This will be a holiday to watch Microsoft.

Storytelling. Corner.

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