Tag Archives: Valve

Auto Chess and Dota Underlords

Somebody tell SynCaine I actually tried a new game.  And not just a “new to me” game, but something actually new on the market as well as being new-ish as a genre.

In one of those “plate of shrimp” passages of time, last week the Auto Chess mod for DOTA 2 and the games that have spun off from it started popping up repeatedly for me.  Various news stories, mentions on Twitter, an Honest Game Trailers video, and Valve pushing their game at me on Steam all combined so that when my daughter came over to ask if I had heard about this new game she and her friends had been playing, Dota Underlords, the Valve spin on the concept, I could tell her that I had just run through the tutorial.

I don’t understand what the hell is going on half the time in the game, but I’ve been trying to figure it out.

As I noted above, all of this seemed to have spawned from the DOTA 2 mod DOTA Auto Chess.  I didn’t even know you could make mods for DOTA 2, but I guess you can for most Valve games, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

The name “Auto Chess” breaks down, so far as I can tell, as:

  • Chess – because the game takes place on a 8×8 board, like a chess board
  • Auto – because you have no control over the actual battles

My live experience of the genre is made up of a few hours playing Dota Underlords, so your mileage may vary, but this is what I have seen so far.

The basics of the game seem fairly straightforward.  I came out of the tutorial knowing the basics, even if I did stumble a bit.  The game goes in rounds, at the end of each you gain some coins.  You use the coins to buy new units to use in battle or to increase the number of characters you can commit to a battle.

Going into round 1, use your coin to buy one

You start round 1 with a single coin with which to buy a unit.  You get a few warm-up rounds against NPCs during which you earn some coins to expand your group as well as collecting a few special items to improve their performance.

The units have levels, so to speak.  They start at level one.  If you can buy 3 of the same unit, they combine into level two, which makes the stronger.  You can also get to level three by combining three level two unit, but that takes some luck.

In fact, luck seems very much in play, akin to some card games like Gin Rummy.  You decided you’re going to concentrate on a particular unit, only to never see another one while multiples of another unit appear in the buy options with every round.  So you switch, only to have the next round go the way you were originally headed.

After the NPC rounds, the battle begins in earnest.  You are grouped up with seven other players and each round has you battling one of them.  You all start with 100 points, and with each loss you lose some points based on how badly you lost.  There are further NPC rounds at intervals, but the game itself is to be the last one left with points.

Sometimes victory, mostly not

This is where I begin to fall down.  In addition to luck there is also… well… more luck… and some knowledge that I do not yet posses.

Each of the units also has a type, and having more of the same type can improve how they play fare in battle.  Again, you have to invest in the right units.

And then there is unit abilities.  Some counter other types or work well when mixed with certain units.  However the tutorial is pretty vague on that and, while you can get some basic information about units, the rounds run on timers so you’re always pressed to pick and move on or wait for the next round.

My battles over the weekend indicate that I am not alone in lacking unit knowledge.  I am never the first one knocked out and, as time wore on I was able to get into the final three survivors.

On the flip side though, there are clearly people who have figured out which units work better together and what to concentrate on.  In several matches there was that one guy who went undefeated, winning with their 100 points still intact.  They clearly have played enough to have figured out the meta, while I am still struggling just to upgrade a few units and hope for some cross-unit bonuses.

The problem for me is figuring out what went wrong in a given match.  Sometimes if it easy to figure out, like if I just have unlocked more units on the field or if I have clear superiority in level two units or some such.  But sometimes the other person wipes the floor with me despite my having more units on the field or having parity or superiority in units that have been leveled up.

So this week I need to find a wiki or a unit guide of some sort to help me find tune which units I am buying and upgrading and which I am leaving behind.  Also, I am not certain how various formations lend themselves to units.  You can place them however on your half of the board, but whether being in columns, line abreast, spaced out, or bunched together makes much of a difference I cannot yet tell.

Overall the game seems interesting, though the randomness and hands off battle method makes it feel a bit like Hearthstone to me.

Meanwhile, if the genre appeals to you, there are other options.  In addition to the DOTA 2 mod, there are two other major contenders for the Auto Chess (or Auto Battler as the genre may be called) stand-alone rip-off throne.

Riot Games has added a mode called Teamfight Tactics to League of Legends, which is their own take on the Auto Battler idea.  Unlike Dota Underlords, this is not a stand alone game, so you have to log into the League of Legends client. (Expect LoL MAUs to go up I guess.)  My daughter’s boyfriend likes Teamfight Tactics because he used to play a lot of LoL and it uses the same units as LoL so game knowlegde transfers.

The unit thing may also apply to Dota Underlords, but nobody I know played DOTA 2, so really have no idea on that front.

Then there is the upcoming Autochess Origins, a stand alone game from the team that developed the mod for DOTA 2, which is rolled into a fresh IP, so there is most certainly no pre-knowledge of units giving people any advantage.  From what I understand, Autochess Origins will be available from the Epic Store.

Dota Underlords is still in Early Access on Steam, which means whatever it means these days.  It is also available as a mobile, which reinforces the Hearthstone comparison for me as well.  As of now there is no cash shop or monetization scheme in place for it, though there are plans for a battle pass of some sort and I am sure other things to spend your money on are in the works.

And speaking of Hearthstone, how soon before we see a Blizzard version of this, either as a battle mode for Heroes of the Storm or a spin off with a name like Heroes of the Board or OverChess or some such?  It feels like Blizz ought to have all the pieces in place so that they shouldn’t need two years to get something out the door.

Then again, this is Blizzard.  BlizzCon 2019 announcement or no?

Anyway, for those interested, Kotaku has a piece up about the emerging genre, and then there is the Honest Games Trailers take on it as well.

Are wee seeing a new genre emerge here, or just a passing flavor of the month?

Quote of the Day – No Porn

So we’re not going to see asset flips, and we’re going to explicitly say no to porn games or other intentionally controversial games

-Tim Sweeney, Gamasutra Interview

I have been waiting for somebody to play the quality card… or at least the “no porn” card… against Steam since the day Valve announced their policy of trying to be as hands off as possible when it came to which games made it onto their service.  A policy that they couldn’t stop from biting themselves in the ass with even after they gave themselves a loophole to avoid just that.

But now Epic Games is stepping up to the plate when it comes to their store.

Not that this is a surprise.  In the online video game storefront market Steam is the undisputed king, and the only way you make gains against an entrenched competitor like that is to play to your own strengths and against their weaknesses.

Epic has been using its generous revenue policy and its control over the Unreal engine to get developers to make the jump to the Epic Store, including some exclusives.  That gets stuff in the store, but the customer doesn’t really care what the revenue deal is unless there it makes the price lower, and Steam sales are tough to beat for those patient enough to wait.

So now Epic is assailing Valve, if somewhat cautiously, on another front.  Now they are playing the quality card, indicating that they won’t be hosting crap or porn or games that just want to be edgy or controversial.  And that is fine.  We get all angsty about freedom of expression in the US, but the constitution only applies to the government censoring you.  A retail outlet refusing to sell your horrible game… or even your excellent game… isn’t a problem at all.  If it were, I doubt WalMart would still be in business.

Interestingly, Tim Sweeney also made the distinction between the Unreal engine side of the company and the store front.  They won’t be policing what people do with the Unreal engine once they license it.  But they are also making it clear that just because you are using the Unreal engine doesn’t mean there will be a spot waiting for you in the Epic Store.

We’ll see how well this plays out.  Epic doesn’t have to become Steam, they just have to grab enough exclusives… and give away enough free titles I guess… to make their store front a must have for some critical mass of gamers.  They still don’t have anything that interests me enough to sign up, but the titles I play tend to come straight from the studios that make them in any case.

Steam Policy Plays Out as Expected

This took a bit longer than I thought.

Back in June of last year, when Valve announced that they would no longer do any sort of curation of games being submitted to Steam, I figured we would see some horrible game as a test case in the next three months that would prove they couldn’t pretend the games they were profiting from had nothing to do with them.

Actually, given that they almost immediately played the “trolling” card to block the game Active Shooter, I thought maybe they had quickly figured out that being as hands off as they were saying wasn’t a viable plan after all.  (That Valve then quickly announced that Steam was expanding into China, where all content would need to be heavily curated, was merely the delicious irony icing on this otherwise sad cake.)

But here we are nine months down the road and Valve has managed to thread the needle between not curating content and not damaging its own reputation by selling something truly offensive, to come out look bad on all fronts.

Seriously, as I said elsewhere, it is like somebody at Valve asked, “How can we do the right thing and yet still look bad to all parties?”

The test case was a game called Rape Day, which started getting press the moment it popped up on the site as coming soon.  On Wednesday the Steam blog posted a statement saying that they would not be hosting Rape Day on the service.

Over the past week you may have heard about a game called ‘Rape Day’ coming soon to Steam. Today we’ve decided not to distribute this game on Steam. Given our previous communication around Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?, we think this decision warrants further explanation.

Much of our policy around what we distribute is, and must be, reactionary—we simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct. We then have to make a judgement call about any risk it puts to Valve, our developer partners, or our customers. After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam.

We respect developers’ desire to express themselves, and the purpose of Steam is to help developers find an audience, but this developer has chosen content matter and a way of representing it that makes it very difficult for us to help them do that.

This response, of course, satisfied almost nobody.

Defenders of the game, including the developer, pointed out that the game was hidden behind the “adult content” tag, so you had to opt-in to even see it and, of course, on a service rife with murder simulators how does rape stand out?   How does Grand Theft Auto V get a pass?  Per the developer:

You can’t reasonable [sic] consider banning rape in fiction without banning murder and torture

That the developer chose to emphasize a particular aspect of the game by choosing to title it Rape Day seems like they were looking for easy publicity.  The developer still plans to sell the title directly, and it will likely see much more success now that it has been in the headlines of various new sites, both gaming and mainstream.

Meanwhile others, myself included, looked at the game and wondered how that wasn’t straight up trolling given the past statements from Valve.  Did #MeToo pass its expiration date or something?  Did this occur during Women’s History Month by accident?  (Happy International Women’s Day by the way.)

Also, while I understand the whole “case by case basis” thing, since that is how real life works, I think they would have been better off reviewing the game before they let it appear on the store front, even behind the adult content tag.  Another random dev complaining about Valve rejecting their game would have been lost in the background noise.  This is only a story because Valve put it up on the store like they had approved it already.  And maybe they had.  I don’t know and Valve isn’t saying.

But whether or not they had approved it, their brief saying that the game would not be made available on Steam managed to squander any positive from the decision.  A strong statement, or even a lukewarm one, indicating that this game was not going to be on Steam because it crossed a line that Valve, as a company, could not endorse might have managed to wrest some good will.

Instead, we got:

After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam.

“Costs and risks” could have been maybe meant to indicate something to do with the Steam community, but in that dry statement is comes off a lot more like a worry about some impact to the bottom line.  Feeling that endorsing rape might not be financially advantageous doesn’t win you much sympathy.

And so it goes.  Valve ends up looking good to almost nobody.  Depending on your point of view, they’ve either managed to betray their statement about not passing judgement on games or they’ve nearly come close to affirming rape as an acceptable entertainment option in their online store, only having been waved off at the last minute by bad press.

All of which was an entirely predictable outcome when they announced this nine months back.  I think they made the correct decision.  I am mostly bemused by how Valve managed to make things much worse for itself than they had to.  I hope they have a serious after action meeting to keep this level of stupid from occurring again.

Some further reading, none of which makes Valve look very good:

How Various Studios Deal with Problems

I’m not sure where this post started, but it assembled itself at one point a few months back and then sat in my drafts folder.   I looked at it again earlier this week, added the entry for Activision, and scheduled it for release it into the wild today.

Electronic Arts

There is no problem, the customers like it just fine.  Look at how much money we made initially.

*way, way too long later*

Okay, now that you’ve set the building on fire, sales have tanked, our company is being lambasted in the general press, and the government is saying that they may investigate us, perhaps we can look into finding some sort of solution.  But we admit no wrong doing.

Blizzard

There is no problem, things are just fine the way they are.  No, you don’t want the changes you’re yelling about.  We designed this, we know it is good.  Really, we know better.

*endless forum threads and editorials later*

Fine, have it your way, we’ll give you your feature.  But we’re going to delay it and we’ll make you work for it.  Also, we’ll make sure it doesn’t work all the time.

Activision

Yes, our numbers totally depend on an annual Call of Duty release, but we can smooth out that cycle!

*Gets on phone to Irvine*

Blizzard, stop worrying about quality and start making mobile games!  Also, put Call of Duty on your launcher!

King

We can’t live on Candy Crush Saga forever…

*releases half a dozen mobile games that go nowhere*

Crap, get some more levels out for Candy Crush Saga!

Sony Online Entertainment

We’re proposing to break the game and ruin all your fun and maybe sell your offspring to another company.  We talked about it in a conference room for a few days, so we’re pretty sure this is the right decision.  It was really, really convincing on the white board.  We didn’t run it by anybody, we just came straight from the meeting where it was decided and announced it.  So all good.

*one small riot later*

Wait, you don’t want any of that?  How strange.  Okay, we won’t do it then.

Daybreak

*sound of crickets*

Okay, we’re shutting this down and laying some people off, go away!

*sound of crickets*

CCP

We have listened to your feed back and determined that this upcoming new feature is not exploitable.

*update goes live*

Crap, you exploited it anyway… and in so many ways…  you are horrible, horrible people… let me get the band-aids.

Valve

Yes, we hear you.  We know we have a problem and we have a policy that will totally fix it.

*two beats too many*

Oh, and we might need to build something to support that policy.  But we’ll get to that later.  Also, the policy has a glaring loophole and we aren’t really following it.  Hey, is it time for another sale already?

Rockstar Games

Well, we released GTA V, what should we work on next?

*five years go by*

Cowboys again?

Riot

We are hardcore gamers, but we’re against toxicity and are masters at playing gay chicken.  Wait, no, scratch that last part.

*stands in front of “No Gurls” sign*

Equal opportunity.  Yeah.

*handed pink slip*

#@%&*!!!

Quote of the Day – Satire is Dead

Always predict the worst and you’ll be hailed as a prophet.

-Tom Lehrer, quoting a friend

I don’t have an agenda when it comes to Steam.  I tend to take it as it is in my own fatalistic way.  But sometimes this stuff writes itself.

The Timeline:

Thursday – Anything goes on Steam, even if we hate it.  The only exceptions are things that are illegal or straight up trolling.

Saturday – Well, yes, there may be some correlation between things we don’t like and what we’re going to call trolling.

Monday – Hey, we’re bringing Steam to the People’s Republic of China!

Yes, because of the laws there Valve won’t actually own Steam in China.  Their partner, Perfect World Entertainment will be the majority shareholder.

Still I just find it a strange and/or amusing bit of timing to have the company go from declaring openness one day to lending their name to a service in China, where the game lineup will be anything but open, just a few days later.

I’m hoping the next thing I write about Steam will be in regards to the summer sale.

Quote of the Day – The Trolling Loophole

We rejected Active Shooter because it was a troll, designed to do nothing but generate outrage and cause conflict through its existence…

-Doug Lombardi, Interview with Ars Technica

Earlier in the week we saw the blog post from Steam announcing its new “anything goes” policy towards what sort of games will be allowed on the service.  I wrote about that myself and linked out to just about everybody else who did as well.

For me the most outrageous aspect of the whole thing was probably Steam’s line on whether allowing a game on their service constituted an endorsement of that game and its content and, whether you can take seriously their personal rejection of a controversial or offensive game while they also take a cut of the sales price.  There is, at best, a conflict of interest there and, at worst, a transparent and hypocritical attempt to protect their reputation from the consequences of their choices.  Because, in the end, Steam makes those choices and profits from them.

The only thing things that would keep a game of Steam with this new policy would be actual illegality or “straight up trolling.”

Determining what is legal is a minefield in and of itself given the number of jurisdictions Steam serves.  And we have already seen discreet jurisdictions that believe their laws apply to the whole world.  So at the end of my last post on the topic I wondered if this alone might cause Steam’s policy to remain effectively unchanged.

What I tended to discount was the concept of “straight up trolling.”  After all, what is trolling?  It seems to mean different things to different people.  How far does somebody have to go to be a troll.  I see people get called trolls for seemingly innocuous things or for even just disagreeing with people.  So where would Valve stand on trolling?  What does the word mean to them?

Well, we got some insight into that in the article linked at the top.  The game Active Shooter won’t be making it onto Steam because it falls into the troll category.  Is this Steam’s out?  Will they be able to vote their conscience by declaring things they don’t like as trolls?  Will anything controversial end up tagged as such?

I suspect Valve is going to be pressed as to what constitutes a troll.  There are some hints in that article, but nothing like a firm line drawn to separate the trolls from the flock.  I mean, if you’re going to make “zero effort cash grab” a measure, I’m going to point at some titles already on the store and ask how they’re still allowed.

I also strongly suspect that Valve will never want to, or perhaps even be able to, make a definitive set of rules as to what makes the cut and what does not.  In part, that is due to how humans behave.  The moment you draw a line somebody will step right up to it just to test you.  This is why EULAs and Terms of Service documents for online games always give the game companies an out, a free hand to punish or ban people for circumstances unforeseen, and why the rules of conduct are almost always annoyingly vague.

Which brings me back to their blog post earlier in the week.  Why bother sapping their credibility with claims that they’ll let games on their service that they’ll hate as much as some of their players if, in the end, they’re as like as not still going to refuse the same games after the policy change as they did before?

Quote of the Day – We Just Work Here

The Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate and don’t think should exist…

-Erik Johnson, Who Gets to be on the Steam Store

It has come to this.  In the face of some questions and minor controversies Valve has decided that they won’t judge what goes on their Steam service.  Aside from items that are “…are illegal, or straight up trolling…” anything goes on Steam now.

I have to admit that my initial gut reaction was one of surprise at the idea that the barrier to entry for getting a game on Steam could be any lower or, in a situation where something like 35 new titles show up on the service every day (up from 25 a day in 2017), that more titles would in any way be better for anybody.  The Steam store is already full of titles I don’t think should exists, not because they offend me, but because they are just poorly conceived and badly executed.  Adding the loathsome and offensive is not going make things better.

I suppose I can appreciate Valve’s issue.  The whole Steam thing seems to have gotten away from them.  It has gone from a service to host their games to DRM for some quality titles like Civilization V to a way for some select outsiders to get onto a popular online service to a desire to be the biggest source of unfiltered video garbage games on the internet pretty fast as the platform seems to be an unending source of success (and revenue) for Valve, to the point that they just don’t make games anymore so far as I can tell.

They’re a victim, in a way, of their own success and now the idea that they can police every bit of software is daunting as subjective decisions can’t be made by Gabe, or people who report directly to Gabe, or people who report to people who report to Gabe any more.  Now there are a bunch of people, distant from the core of the company, charged with making value judgements that no doubt vary wildly with the personal context and experience of each individual.

You probably have to either reign things in drastically or just let go at this point.

Still, I don’t buy into everything they’re saying.  This for example:

It also means that the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve’s values

That is going to prove to be some prime, grade A bullshit in the long run.  If you sell porn, cigarettes, or alcohol in a store that you own, if you make money off of those items, while claiming that they don’t reflect your values, that is a straight up self-deluded evasion.  The owner of the store doesn’t get to distance themself from the items they sell like it was all happening to somebody else.  At best, it says that money is all you value.  Cashing the checks while saying you don’t support something is just hypocrisy.

And since Valve has pretty much declared open season for things that will offend, things that do not reflect their values, I am going to bet that somebody is even now planning to see just how far that sentiment goes.  I hesitate to speculate as to what somebody might try to pass off as a game, but somebody will come up with something so horrible that it will make the press and cast Valve in a bad light.  Some people just want to see the world burn.

And then the policy will change again.  Something will come along that will force them to change.  Something will be bad enough to cause internet level outrage and then the change will be forced upon them.  I give it until September 1, 2018 before something like that happens.

[I’m going to put that in my calendar so I can come back to it if I am wrong.]

[Addendum (June 25, 2018): Since Steam showed just days after this post that they were set to use “trolling” as their loophole to reject games they do not like, I will just admit that this isn’t going to happen right now.  More the fool I for believing them I suppose.]

[Addendum (March 8, 2019): Well, the horrible title I predicted showed up and Valve didn’t play their “trolling” out card, so bad press and outrage came to pass.]

In the mean time, if I were running Origin, and I could get my mind off of how to screw over the customers for just a bit, I might think about running some easy ads about how “family friendly” the service is relative to the cesspool that is Steam.

I might even think about really pushing a 3rd party program for the service with an eye to maybe poaching some studios from Steam with the promise of both not being lost in the forest of endless titles and being on a wholesome service that doesn’t include whatever edge cases people are going to try to push onto Steam now.

It has come to this, a viable plan to push Origin as a good alternative to Steam.

I will say, if nothing else, that Valve has shown itself to be adaptable in the past and generally doesn’t double down on decisions that go bad.  They might change course before the inevitable bad press, like when they really get down to having to decide what is illegal in every jurisdiction they serve, a problem they cop to in that blog post as well.  It might end up being better to just make some value judgements, protect the brand, and not try to be the sales point for all possible video games.

Also posting about this news from Steam: