Google’s new ‘Trial Run Ads’ let you briefly play a game right inside the advertisement

google games ads

The next game you start playing might be inside of an ad.

Google demoed a concept called “trial run ads” on its Inside AdWords blog Thursday, showing how one could try out a game without being prompted to download it from the Play Store.

Along with the gaming concept, Google showed off other mobile ads with content galleries and other interactive content that offer a preview of how the app might perform. Just as with the game, you could then directly download the app from the Play Store, after trying it out by streaming it over your high speed connection.

cookie jam trial
You may be more likely to download a game if you can try it out for a minute.

It’s a pretty promising concept, as this gives you an even better idea about how a game plays when compared to the videos or screenshots from the Play Store. This comes not long after Google showed how it will be able to stream apps through its search app, giving you another method for trying out an app before downloading it.

The story behind the story: These concepts meet two goals for Google: making ads more engaging and driving app installs. With the former, there’s been a lot of discussion lately over ad blockers and how oppressive ads are slowing down the web. If Google can make ads better, more people might be willing to check them out and spend more time on the web rather than inside of applications.

Rock Band is coming to the Oculus Rift in 2016

rock band

“But Rock Band could never come to PC.” It’s an argument as old as the plastic instruments sitting in your closet. And apparently not true anymore, though it took a detour through virtual reality to make it (sort of) happen.

Thursday night at The Game Awards in Los Angeles, Oculus and Harmonix announced the Oculus Rift-exclusive Rock Band VR. Here’s the trailer, which features Palmer Luckey wearing actual footwear. Also, DragonForce.

From the video description:

“This brand new made-for-VR game inspired by the original Rock Band, from developer Harmonix, places you on a virtual stage living out the ultimate rock and roll fantasy, only for the Oculus Rift.”

It looks strange and maybe uncomfortable, but I’m nevertheless intrigued. And curious how it’ll actually work—are we expected to hook PlayStation 4 Rock Band guitars to the PC through BlueTooth? How big will the set list be? Is it guitar-only?

And most important: Does this pave the way for Rock Band proper to come to the PC in the future?

This Old Tech: Remembering WorldsAway’s avatars and virtual experiences

this old tech worldsaway the author in his turf 2002

WorldsAway was born 20 years ago, when Fujitsu Cultural Technologies, a subsidiary of Japanese electronics giant Fujitsu, released this online experiment in multiplayer communities. It debuted as part of the CompuServe online service in September, 1995. Users needed a special client to connect; once online, they could chat with others while represented onscreen as a graphical avatar.

I was already a veteran of BBSes (I even started my own), Prodigy, CompuServe, and the Internet when I saw an advertisement for WorldsAway in CompuServe magazine (one of my favorite magazines at the time). It promised a technicolor online world where you could be anything you wanted, and share a virtual city with people all over the globe. I signed up to receive the client software CD. Right after its launch in September, I was up and running in the new world. It blew my young mind.

this old tech worldsaway ad compuserve magazine march 1996  p4
WorldsAway was advertised in tech magazines of the time, including Compuserve Magazine, shown here.

The Art Was The Draw

The first thing you noticed on WorldsAway was the gorgeous artwork. For a graphical world whose primary means of avatar customization consisted of interchangeable heads—there were hundreds of unique options—everything had to look good. Populated by comparatively low-resolution, 256-color dithered sprites (primitive by today’s standards), WorldsAway looked like an animated GIF come to life—albeit one with a unified theme.

Artistically, that theme combined a pseudo-classical motif with playful comic-book sensibilities. Columns and ornate fountains dominated the architecture of the Temple Square, and statuary renderings of classical subjects such as The Three Graces and Psyche adorned the green public spaces.

this old tech worldsaway psyche in the park 1996
WorldsAway plunked Greek statuary into public spaces, as if you were in an ancient Mediterranean city.

The mythology behind the game mirrored the artistic theme: As a new player, you arrived on a ship called the Argo. The building at heart of the city took the form of an ancient Greek temple. Christian themes seeped in as well: For example, in-game, WorldAway’s administrators (called Oracles, natch) wore long robes like Benedictine monks—complete with creepy peaked hoods that obscured their faces—and went by names such as Brother Echo.

Then there was the New-Age hippie vibe: The whole place, put together, was called The Dreamscape, as if it were a shared vision among its participants. The goofy names didn’t end with WorldsAway and Dreamscape: The actual city you visited was named Phantasus, and it was built on the island of Kymer. Because it was all really one place, people tended to use all of these terms interchangeably, and it was quite confusing.

The service had wonderful sound effects, too: A Star Trek transporter-like sound when transforming between a ghost and an avatar onscreen, and a computer-like bleep and satisfying thunk from the vending machines (called vendroids). The WorldsAway ATM made a nice antique-cash-register sound when you withdrew money. The entire experience felt satisfyingly cohesive.

The chat

this old tech worldsaway windows sept 1995
This typical Dreamscape scenario shows avatars interacting. Avatars waiting to join floated above the scene in a cloud with a mystical eyeball.

Within the lushly illustrated Dreamscape, players were presented with a 2D side view of a landscape scene, usually in front of a building. For performance reasons, usually only six avatars could be onscreen at the same time. The rest stayed up in the corner as silent “ghosts,” represented by a cloud with a single, mystical eyeball.

Your avatar could talk. The speech appeared over everyone’s avatars in a separate portion of the client window, scrolling past like an IRC chat room, but located over the current speaker’s head. Your avatar could make a few gestures like wave, bow, and jump, and you could change the mood of your character to happy, sad, angry, or neutral.

this old tech worldsaway mosaic of avatars
Your WorldsAway avatar always had a specific gender and body type, but you could change the heads easily (there were hundreds of options).

Avatar customization was limited in the early days. During character creation, you picked a certain body type—male or female, and thin, fit, or heavy-set (guess which one was the least popular?)—and you were stuck with it. Beyond that, you could change your head to any of the ones available in the vendroids, or you could buy cans of paint to spray your skin or clothes different colors.

I assumed the guise of a blue robot in the world, then stuck with it for seven years. With a name like RedWolf (my traditional online handle), my blue appearance confused people to no end. (I heard “Shouldn’t you be RED?!” ten times a connection.)


this old tech worldsaway the author in his turf 2002
WorldsAway avatars could purchase “turf” living spaces and collect possessions, using in-game money earned by time spent online.

In the game, players could rent their own virtual apartments, called “turfs,” for a monthly fee of in-world tokens. You gained 60 tokens for every hour you were connected. Over time, I saved up for one of the larger turfs, a four-room model, that I decorated to look like a jungle and a comfortable, masculine library. There were also two junk rooms full of all the stuff I’d collected over time.

As the point of the service for many people evolved into collecting and trading rare items (then later selling them in player-run turf stores), item management soon became a tricky issue. Certain vendroids sold chests or bags which held about 10 items a piece. Of course, soon your turf would be full of these containers, and you’d have to click on each one for a list of what they contained.

My experiences on WorldsAway varied wildly. I wasn’t extremely social, so I tended to sit around by myself a lot, earning tokens. Keep in mind that CompuServe cost something like $4.95 an hour at that time. Because I was connected through my dad’s CompuServe account, I was blithely ignorant of this economic reality.

this old tech worldsaway christmas v mart locale circa 2001
WorldsAway staff always decorated in-world stores for the holidays.

In-world events like scavenger hunts or new locale openings brought me back over time, and I did make a handful of long-term friends. Holidays were the best time to be on the service, though, and I checked in every year on Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years’—especially to get the new holiday-themed items, but also to enjoy the festive decorations.

When WorldsAway Became Many Worlds

In 1997, WorldsAway moved to the Internet and began charging a monthly subscription fee. Around 1998, Fujitsu sold the rights to WorldsAway to a new company (presumably founded for the purpose of taking over the technology) called VZones.

Things felt different after that management shift. The world fractured into multiple services that used the same technology (including a kinky adult sex world later—no joke), and the former WorldsAway prime world became known separately as “Dreamscape.”

Around that time, Dreamscape’s distinctive art style became corrupted by the introduction of out-of-place Manga-style heads and bizarre, garish item palettes (known as “patch paint” from a bug in the game where they originated). Instead of an animated Roman fresco, the place began to look like a walking MySpace page—a mishmash of ill-conceived appearances designed for maximum individuality, but with a jarring impact.

I didn’t connect much in the final years. Not long after I closed my account, I believe ownership of the service changed hands again. The online record is a little fuzzy on this, but WorldsAway appears to have shut down about a year ago. I almost prefer not to know for sure, because I’d rather not taint my warm memories of those pristine early years in the Dreamscape—those years when it truly felt like I visiting another world.

Double Fine’s making the long-awaited Psychonauts 2—if fans help pay for it

Psychonauts 2

The Game Awards had one major surprise in store on Thursday night: Psychonauts 2. It’s (sort of) real. It’s (maybe) happening. It’s (kind of) all up to you now.

After years of fans asking for a sequel to the cult classic, Double Fine’s officially launched a crowdfunding campaign through Obsidian/Double Fine/InXile-backed funding platform Fig. A quick and dirty description, torn from the Fig page:

“In Psychonauts 2, Raz realizes his dream and visits Psychonauts Headquarters. However, when he gets there, he finds it’s not the perfect place he expected and quickly realizes that the Psychonauts need him more than he needs them.

Psychonauts 2 will feature a new hub world inside Psychonauts HQ. You’ll access new mental worlds as Raz peeks inside the minds of a host of new characters who need his help to combat their inner demons and unravel their deep-seated emotional issues. Raz will hone his secret agent PSI-abilities-and learn new ones too-using them to solve mysteries and uncover evil plots.”

“But wait,” you say, “that seems a little low for a game the size of Psychonauts.” Indeed it is. In fact, we know exactly how much Psychonauts 2 is estimated to cost becauseMinecraft-creator Markus “Notch” Persson famously backed out on funding the game in 2013.

Via Notch:

“I somewhat naively thought ‘a couple of million’ was two million. I had no doubt in my mind that a Psychonauts 2 would earn that money back easily. Turns out they wanted 18 million dollars, haha.”

There’s a pretty big gap between $3.3 million and $18 million. So where’s the rest of that money coming from? No specifics were revealed, though Double Fine’s press release says, “Double Fine will be putting up a significant portion of the development funds ourselves, and getting another piece of the budget from an external partner. This Fig campaign will make up the third piece of the budget.”

Double Fine’s Tim Schafer is further quoted saying, “None of these three parts on their own is enough but together they add up to a sequel worthy of Psychonauts!” I’m not quite sure how I feel about this process—it smacks a bit of Shenmue 3’s crowdfunding campaign, and Double Fine’s own crowdfunding record isn’t exactly unmarred. But I’m at least placated a bit by the fact Fig allows for funding through actual investments, not merely giving away money like Kickstarter. We’ll see how it goes.

I want to be excited, though. This project’s been a long time coming, and Double Fine seems to be in the “Give the people what they want” stage of its lifespan, what with Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle getting the HD remaster treatment. Hopefully the result is a Psychonauts 2 that’s worth the wait.

Free game alert: Shadow Complex Remastered is free on PC through month’s end

Shadow Complex Remastered

Aside from Rock Band heading to virtual reality and Double Fine surprise-announcingPsychonauts 2, Shadow Complex was probably the high-point of Thursday night’s Game Awards. It’s just a remaster of the 2009 game, but this remaster’s being offered for a pretty sweet price: Free.

From now until the end of December you can head to the Shadow Complex site and download a copy of the game, though it’s worth noting this version comes attached to Epic’s own launcher—it’s neither wholly standalone (a la GOG.com) nor packaged through Steam. It sounds like you’ll need to wait until next year if you want to get the game through your usual channels.

The launcher situation’s a bit annoying, but I think a small a price to pay given Shadow Complex is a stellar Metroidvania game. And it’s free. And this marks the first time the game’s been available on the PC—previously it was an Xbox 360 exclusive. Not a bad way for Epic to convince you to install yet another game launcher.

As for the long-awaited sequel? Developer ChAIR has an FAQ to deal with exactly that: “There is much more ChAIR would love to do in the Shadow Complex universe. Now that we hold the publishing rights, we’re hopeful that bringing the original game to multiple new platforms will increase the opportunity to do more Shadow Complex games in the future!”

I don’t think giving the game away free will help much on that front, but hey—I’m no economist.

How to permanently delete games from Steam

steamosprimary

Got a game in your Steam library that you no longer play and just want gone? Maybe you bought something that turned out to be awful and you just don’t want to see it ever again. No problem: You can now easily remove games from your Steam library for good.

The news comes via user Enter the Dragon Punch on the NeoGAF forums, who came across the new perma-delete feature while visiting Steam’s tech support section. The newfound ability to permanently delete a game is a vast improvement over the old state of affairs, as PCGamer notes, which required you to get in touch with Steam’s support team.

How to permanently remove games from your library

Here’s how to do the deed. Visit the Steam support site, then log in with your account information. Click Games, Software, etc., then select the game you want to delete (you may need to search for it). Next, select I want to permanently remove this game from my account. Follow the prompts, and the game will be removed from your Steam library for good.

Delete games from your steam account

 Click I want to permanently remove this game from my account and follow the onscreen instructions to permanently remove a game from your Steam account.

Alternately, you can open the Steam client on your PC then select a game from library while in Details view (if in Icon view, click Details). Select Support from Links column located along the right-hand side, then click I want to permanently remove this game from my account.

Steam advises that you uninstall the game you want to delete from within the Steam app before removing it from your account: If you don’t, you’ll have find the game on your hard drive and uninstall it manually. With that in mind, the first removal option is probably your best bet.

There are some catches, though: As PCGamer points out, you can’t delete bundle items you unlocked using a single product key using this method. Still, it’s a small price to pay for being able to manage your account more effectively.

Epic Games’ action-centric MOBA Paragon muscles in on League of Legends

Paragon

There (obviously) wasn’t much PC-centric news out of this past weekend’s PlayStation Experience convention in San Francisco, but Saturday’s keynote did hold one big announcement: Epic is making a revolutionary game in a genre nobody’s ever seen before.

Oh…oh wait, I mixed that up. They’re making a MOBA. It’s Paragon, which you might remember from its series of camera-spins-around-a-3D-model teasers this past month. Here’s the (decidedly more substantial and also extremely pretty) announcement trailer:

Graphics aside, Paragon’s apparently a third-person shooter/MOBA hybrid, though in my interview over the weekend Epic mostly stressed the MOBA aspect. Expect the usual five-versus-five hero combat on a three-lane map, populated with AI-controlled fodder. Also, verticality—the three lanes are apparently tiered, allowing for cross-lane sight lines, skill shots, and strategies. Or as the Paragon site puts it:

“Dive into the depths of the jungle to flank your enemy, or scale the heights to strike from above. Real elevation on an open map means you’ll have to rethink the way you approach the fight.”

I’m definitely more interested in this action-oriented strain of MOBAs than I am in something like League of Legends or Dota 2, but I can’t pretend Paragon is wholly unique even in that regard—Smite and Monday Night Combat both did the third-person action-MOBA thing already, and 2K’s Battleborn is doing the same in first-person.

Still, I’m not willing to write off Paragon without playing it, given Epic’s earned a reputation for quality shooters—and Smite could use the competition. Paragon is scheduled to hit paid early access in spring of 2016 through Epic’s launcher, with a free open beta to follow in the summer. You can sign up here. As for whether it’s coming to Steam, Epic gave me a noncommittal “I don’t think we’re ready to talk about that right now.”

Change your passwords: ‘Old’ Nexus Mods breach may affect longtime gaming mod users

fallout4mod

Popular PC game mod site Nexus Mods appeared to suffer a security breach over the weekend, but it’s not as bad as it first seemed.

After examining the database dump, Nexus founder Robin Scott said it doesn’t contain any login details from later than July 22, 2013. Scott believes this is an “old” dump, and since that date, Nexus Mods has switched to a more secure database system. However, anyone who signed up for Nexus Mods prior to July 2013 and hasn’t changed their password since, or uses the same password elsewhere, should change those passwords now.

Scott first alerted users to the breach on Sunday, after a report emerged on Reddit, citing a firm that assists with security for several U.S. universities. Around this time, a fewFallout 4 mods were modified to include some suspicious .dll files, suggesting a compromise. (This file did not set off any virus scanners, and is still under investigation.)

It’s likely that those mod authors had accounts from prior to July 2013, making them susceptible to the old dump. And although the old dump used password encryption, extremely weak passwords (such as the ever-popular 123456) would still be easy to crack.

Scott said the whole ordeal “has given us a real kick up the backside,” and so the site is setting some feature work aside to focus on security. That includes better logging of user actions, an alert system for important security messages, a more secure account system, and support for two-factor authentication.

Why this matters: The mod community is in full swing with the recent launch of Fallout 4, and Nexus Mods is one of the most popular modding destinations outside of Valve’s Steam service. A database breach could have been devastating, but in this case it sounds like Nexus Mods dodged a bullet and learned some lessons along the way.

System Shock 3 confirmed by Otherside Entertainment

System Shock

The teasing sure didn’t last long. Just a month ago, Night Dive hinted that maybe—maybe—there might be a System Shock 3 one day, the implication being that we’d get it after Night Dive completed the System Shock remake that’s currently in the works.

Surprise! System Shock 3 is in the works right now.

But it’s not coming from Night Dive. On Monday, Otherside Entertainment—currently hard at work on Underworld Ascendant and helmed by Looking Glass co-founder Paul Neurath—posted this teaser page:

System Shock 3 teaser

The Internet decided waiting was for suckers, and a member of the RPG Codex forumtrawled the source code to find this page prepped for Sunday.

System Shock 3 teaser 

That’s pretty conclusive. System Shock 3 is real. It’s happening. Take a second to get excited, squeal a bit, maybe pump a fist, and then…

The question now becomes one of scale. Otherside turned to crowdfunding forUnderworld Ascendant, raising about $850,000 through Kickstarter. I did some back-of-envelope math and, well, I don’t think a similar campaign would raise enough money to fund the System Shock sequel everyone wants. You’d need a crowdfunding miracle likeStar Citizen to get a budget in line with most modern first-person shooters.

Ouch. Reality. We’ll see what Sunday has in store—perhaps System Shock 3 is happening with the backing of a major publisher, or Bill Gates has been waiting his whole life to fund this game. It’s hard to know for sure.

All Oculus Rift preorders will include exhilarating VR space combat game EVE: Valkyrie

EVE Valkyrie (December 2015)

The first game I ever played on the Oculus Rift might become the first game you ever play on the Oculus Rift, thanks to a new partnership between CCP and the virtual reality headset maker. This morning, the pair announced that all Rift preorders will come bundled with a copy of the thrilling space dogfighting game.

And I do mean game, not demo. Last week I got a chance to play about an hour of EVE Valkyrie in its latest incarnation, running on (I think) consumer Oculus hardware, or what I was told were “Engineering Samples” of the final headset.

Valkyrie’s come a long way since my hands-on during E3 2013—though some of the finer details, like menus, still show the struggle developers face while designing virtual reality games. Much more on that later.

EVE Valkyrie (December 2015)

First, let’s chart the game’s progression. Two years ago I saw the core experience—two teams of five battle it out in space. At the time, all ten pilots flew the same ship type. It was as bare-bones an experience as you could imagine, but it didn’t matter because the tech was impressive as hell.

Then CCP added some more ship types. Heavy tanking ships, nimble recon/sniper ships, and the original fighters all battling alongside each other.

Next CCP ditched Unity, porting the game over to Unreal 4 and revealing that Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff would voice a character in the game. That was in May of 2014.

And since then it’s been incremental changes. New Oculus hardware, more than anything else—first DK2 and then Crescent Bay and now consumer hardware. But that’s not all CCP had in store this week. For the first time, we saw…menus!

EVE Valkyrie (December 2015)

Okay, so menus aren’t the sexiest bit of game development. When done correctly, you probably don’t even notice them.

They’re surprisingly important, though—especially in virtual reality where developers are still flying by the seat of their pants. And it was interesting to see CCP fall into some pretty standard VR traps, despite being one of the foremost developers in the field showing off one of the most fleshed-out games.

Simple things: Buttons that are too small. Buttons that are too inconspicuous or not immediately apparent as buttons. Controller behavior that doesn’t mesh with what your brain expects (like the A or B buttons not registering unless you’re looking in a specific place).

I don’t say this to rag on CCP. Quite the contrary. I say it to point out just how damn hard developing for virtual reality is at the moment, with few hard-and-fast rules and no real expertise for studios to draw on.

The industry’s been making normal games—shooters, RPGs, driving games, fighting games, et al played on normal, two-dimensional monitors—for a long time now. The people who create games have iterated on ideas, found convenient and consistent methods of solving problems, developed a wholly unique language (both actively and subconsciously) for “How These Things Are Done.”

EVE Valkyrie (December 2015)

Virtual reality doesn’t have that yet. We’re headed that direction, hammering out a few obvious rules, like “Games built for VR are better than games ported to VR.” But developers are just now starting to understand how to, for instance, do something as simple as build menus.

And some of CCP’s instincts are correct. For instance, each respawn puts you in a fake cloning tube (the central conceit of Valkyrie) where you can see your four ship options as tiny models arrayed around your lap. Choosing a new ship is as simple as staring at the one you want and selecting it.

It’s great! A natural, intuitive way to represent in-world what is otherwise-abstract information. You look, you understand, you make your choice, you get back into the game with a minimum of hassle. (Unfortunately we don’t have any screenshots of that environment, presumably because it’s a work-in-progress.)

What I find especially interesting though is that this skeuomorphic design tendency would be a terrible way to present the same choice on a monitor. There, it would feel like style over substance, a needlessly showy way of respawning that impedes the player. You’d need to move the camera to look down, then drag it around until you found the correct ship. Ugh. Just give me a list of ships.

But in virtual reality? It feels natural.

Again, we return to the simple truth: “Games built for VR are better than games ported to VR.” Menus are just one of myriad reasons this is true, and it’s interesting only because it’s an aspect we typically don’t think about. As I said, you probably don’t even notice menus when they’re done correctly.

Virtual reality is in flux though. The “correct” way of implementing something is changing monthly, weekly, even daily. There are few experts who can come in and tell studios what to do. So we get EVE Valkyrie, which feels like a weird blend of intuitive built-for-VR and old-style two-dimensional menus.

EVE Valkyrie (December 2015)

The good news is that the game itself is still amazing. There are some balance issues—heavy ships feel slow and vulnerable rather than slow and powerful, while fighters dominate every encounter due to their lock-on missiles. But the maps we played are ambitious, my favorite being a massive space station made up of hundreds of interlocking beams of metal, the perfect size for a brave pilot to dive between to shake off a determined foe.

And I’m happy to hear the game will ship with every Rift preorder—not so much because I expect it to be a system seller, but because I think the Rift will sell enough units to swell the Valkyrie community. As a (I assume) predominantly multiplayer-focused game, EVE: Valkyrie needs that install base out the gate if it’s going to survive.

Now, we wait. I’m honestly hopeful this is the last time we see EVE: Valkyrie before the Rift’s launch. It’s been almost three years since I first tried the game, and with the Rift mere months away it’s high time someone else got the chance. Maybe I’ll see you out among the stars in a few months.