Diary of a year of not buying video games (or books): February 2016

February’s over already? Damn. I still haven’t finished what I’ve started last December. Maybe I’m not the right kind of gamer to even do this challenge.

One thing I’ve changed is that I don’t read the RSS feeds from GOG, Humble or GamingOnLinux anymore. Why read about new games if you’re not buying them anyway? I did hear that the Humble Indie Bundle 16 came out this month, but I just don’t care! So liberating. If you don’t know what RSS is, I wrote up a short description later in this very article.

But before I launch into that interlude, I have a confession to make.

A sordid confession

My friends, please be with me in this hour of pain. I must confess to you. I did not buy any new PC games, if that’s what you think. No, I remained stalwart in that regard. But my sin is worse, much worse than that. I started playing… mobile games.

I can’t say what drove me to this madness. One evening I was looking for some app, and there were colorful beautiful delicious exciting lickable glowing game icons in the app store, as they always are. I have been ignoring these icons for what feels like a decade. The only mobile game I’d ever played beforehand was Pixel Dungeon, something I really enjoyed, but I treated mobile gaming in general the same way that any member of the PC Master Race would: With derision and contempt.

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Strikers 1945-II: Yes, folks, this is a thing I play now. To be fair, it’s a classic.

The only way I can explain my lusting after a quick mobile fix is that my brain is struggling so much from playing huge 50+ hour heavyweights like Pillars of Eternity that it was lured right into the trap by those little free-to-play (with expensive in-app purchases) time killers. But there is more behind it, maybe a desire for new impulses in gaming in general. I’ve been playing with keyboard, mouse and controllers for about 32 years now. Maybe it’s time to find other avenues.

I am well aware that 99.96% of the mobile gaming market is utter shite and dumbed-down moneygrabbing. We PC gamers are not wrong when we have prejudices there. But on the other hand, the mobile gaming industry is a branch of what I already know, but that deals with different developer challenges than what I’m used to:

  • Controls that can be very imprecise. For example something that needs a D-pad and 4 buttons. You’d have to know by touch exactly which button(s) your finger rests on to make high-adrenaline play possible, to make games where every little mistake counts. You can’t really have that on mobile, and this led to some interesting single-finger controls or game designs that deal with imprecision.
  • Controls that can be very precise. In some cases dragging your finger over a greasy flat surface is actually more precise than using a joystick, I’ve found that by playing Strikers 1945-II, one of my arcade favorites. I put a good hundred hours into the arcade version and I own an X-Arcade stick, so I know exactly what it’s supposed to feel like. The precision of the touchscreen controls is nothing short of astounding, even though I think they cheated and made the hitboxes smaller as well.
  • Low-powered hardware with little RAM. You have three options:
    1. Squeeze it for everything it’s got, like in flashy games such as Xenowerk, Sky Force 2014, Asphalt.
    2. Turn to minimalist pixel graphics, like in Devious Dungeon or Downwell.
    3. Create vector graphics and animate them programmatically, saving system resources, like in Prune.
    4. A wild mix of all these, like in Reaper.
  • Battery-powered devices. Your users will love you if you save some battery.

The human mind sometimes works most creatively under restrictions, and I guess that’s also true in the mobile gaming world. There might be sixty thousand Candy Crush clones, but there are also truly innovative concepts like the mentioned Prune, FRAMED or Circa Infinity.

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Downwell: Just three colors, but so much awesome

I must confess to a lot of prejudice in this regard. I didn’t see the gems for all the turds, so I thought only turds exists. I used opinions from the AndroidGaming subreddit and AppSpy‘s reviews to guide me along, and in an obsessive afternoon turned up more than two dozen games I might really like.

Of course you still have to be careful where you step. If there’s a free-to-play game with a big in-app-purchase section and a tendency to be pay-to-win, you better leave. Normally these are shit games. But you’re a gamer, you will know a shit game when you smell it. The best ones seem to be complete and pay-to-play from the beginning (something the mobile gamer crowd calls “premium”, haha), but there are some games where the free-to-play version serves as a sort of demo and you pay to unlock further progress.

Or the ones where you just have to be a good player and you won’t need any of the items offered in-app, such as Strikers 1945-II. Look, Mom! I’m good at airplane-shooty game! Look! I’m so good! Mom! Mom! The highscore! I beat the highscore, Mom!

Where to go from here?

What this means for my challenge isn’t sure yet. I haven’t bought any premium games on mobile, but I have a list of about a dozen that I’m interested in. If I buy one before January 28, 2017, that would mean prolonging the challenge. Who knows, I might get off this mobile gaming binge and back to “real” games on the PC before anything bad happens.

The evilness of Google

I am aware that buying games through a privacy-invading company like Google is not a good move. The bad thing is that game developers don’t offer these games outside Google’s universe, and they often need the Google Games service for cloud saves, achievements and the like.

There are some alternative sources for premium mobile games. The Humble Store has an Android section, and so does GamersGate. I know that Humble’s Android games can be downloaded using the Humble Bundle Android app and don’t need Google Play, but I’m not sure how GamersGate works in this regard. Does anyone know? Some of the biggest hits are missing from those catalogs, probably because they are intimately linked to Google’s systems. And ad revenue machine. And privacy invasion.

It seems to resist mobile gaming when it uses Google’s systems would be the right thing to do, but oh, those shiny Google Play game icons!

What is RSS

Now here’s a historico-technological (I just made up that word) interlude for younger readers who might not know RSS. Everyone else just skip to the next section.

RSS is fucking fantastic. It’s technology from before the time when Facebook and Google wanted to build psychological profiles about you by spying on you while you read the news.

RSS is a free and open standard for publishing and subscribing to things on websites, for example news items or blog posts. You can use dedicated RSS clients, mail clients or web-based software like NewsBlur, FeedReader or Feedly to subscribe, so you don’t have to manually visit every single web page that you want to read news from. Very efficient! I read about 150 web sites in 20 minutes every morning like that.

If you get your news primarily from a single, closed source like Facebook, Google News, Yahoo News or the like, it might be a good idea to check out RSS instead. Many web sites still have RSS feeds, even though the big players don’t like that. Go for RSS if you want to take your privacy back a little bit. You can even host your own web-based news reader if you have your own web server, but if you run your own web server I’m probably not telling you anything new when I talk about RSS.

Struggles

I put XCOM 2 on my wishlist, but removed it again after seeing The Linux Gamer’s review. The points he highlights are all things that I particularly dislike about games as well, so it’s probably safer to skip this one.

The first real struggle came on February 21, when V4nKw15h announced on Reddit that NeonXSZ is nearing completion. The discussion right there on Reddit is heartwarming and I was always a big fan of 6DoF games and Quake, so having both systems combined in what looks like a very slick game is intriguing. Plus, a GNU/Linux version from day one. I’d love to give this person my money.

The other thing is of course Superhot. In February 2016, the one game everyone was talking about, that was Superhot. Wow. I’m looking forward to January 2017 when I can buy this. I do hope I’m still alive then!

Discarded games

I guess this was the month of mobile game binging. I’m only half-proud that I didn’t actually buy any games, I just played some free-to-play ones with in-app purchases. That only makes me feel dirtier. Here’s what I tried:

  • Dark Slash: Hero. Feels random. I can’t see through my finger. Erk.
  • Smash Hit. Looks beautiful, feels atmospheric, but when the levels start rotating I get seasick.
  • Alto’s Adventure. The random level design makes it hard to practice a level to get good scores, and the one-finger-tap-only controls don’t give a lot of depth.
  • Skiing Yeti Mountain. Very pretty pixels, but way too hard for me. I’m an old man. I don’t have sub-50ms reaction times.
  • Strikers 1945-2 and Strikers 1945-3. It was lovely to revisit these games on mobile and they’re really well done. I don’t find anything to nag about except the (to me) opaque IAPs with rubies and wings and whatnot. But I’ve played these games for years already in the arcade, so I’m discarding them here.
  • Retro Shot. Camera problems. I can’t see anything unless I zoom out, and even then my finger blocks a lot of what I’d like to see. Also, the flipper mechanics might make an interesting game but add too much randomness for my taste. Plus, Facebook? Why?
  • Eternity Warriors IV. Played for 5 minutes, saw exactly where this would be leading, uninstalled. Borefest.
  • Xenowerk. It’s not a bad game, it looks pretty, but I’ve done twin-stick shooters before, and better. Would be nice if the levels didn’t feel so bland and repetitive.
  • Reaper. Played up to the free maximum of level 10. It was reasonably enjoyable and the controls make it seem like skill really matters. The quest text is well-written, the sprites look beautiful. But ultimately it’s too reptitive for me.
  • Only One. Mechanics didn’t feel right, especially the shoving. Uninstalled.
  • Heroes of Loot. From an old Humble Bundle. Sluggish, bad controls.
  • Quest of Dungeons. Seen it better in Pixel Dungeon.
  • Pocket RPG. Like Torchlight, only not good.

Now playing

Games: Pillars of Eternity. 16 hours in. It’s nice, the fantasy world is pleasant, the characters are sometimes deep and the interactions are well thought-out. But it doesn’t click as much with me as did the original Infinity Engine games. Then again, that was in 1998, so I was perhaps more easily impressed. Maybe it’s because PoE takes itself so very seriously?

I’ve heard good things about Divinity: Original Sin in that regard. That’s on my list too and already bought, so I get to play it this year, if I can slog through PoE.

Mobile: Knights of Pen and Paper +1. I know this is a premium game, but I didn’t cheat! I didn’t buy it now! I had it left over from some old purchases many months back. I’m quite digging this; while the battles are super-repetitive, the graphics, pop culture references and settings save it for me. Very nice to play on a commute so you suffer the illusion that you actually got something done in the game.

Now reading

  1. The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah.
  2. Black Man by Richard Morgan.

Enjoyed this? Read the other posts in this series.

 

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