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From Pong to Civilization: How I made “one more turn” work on consoles

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Enlarge / Be still our hearts with this 8-bit cover art.
Today, legendary game developer Sid Meier’s first memoir arrives at bookstores and digital platforms, complete with the appropriately goofy name, Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games. It’s everything you might expect from the brain responsible for PC gaming series like Civilization, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Alpha Centauri: comprehensive, thoughtful, detailed, and with just enough humor and heart to pace out the dry, technical bits.



In good news, instead of us telling you what we think of the book (TL;DR: thumbs-up), we thought we’d let Meier himself regale you with an exclusive Ars Technica reprint of a chapter. Most of the book’s chapters combine Meier’s personal stories with a focus on a specific game, and this one, about 2008’s Civilization Revolution, is as much an explanation of its PC-to-console transition as it is a lesson on game-industry history and on game design.

My own first exposure to video games was, like most people my age, the venerable black-and-white tennis match known as Pong. There was a small restaurant down the street from General Instrument where some of us would hang out and have dinner after work, and at some point they installed this weird little table in the lounge with a television screen facing upward underneath the plexiglass surface. The idea was you could set your drinks and bar snacks on it while you played, but it seemed irreverent to eat on the surface of a TV, so most evenings we would just wander over to play a few rounds before returning to our normal, wooden tables. The most memorable thing about it was that one side of the cabinet had somehow ended up wired backwards, sending the little white line to the left side of the screen when the player turned the knob to the right. So we had always agreed that whoever was more skilled had to sit on the broken side to compensate—perhaps my earliest experience in balancing gameplay.

Rotating dial controls were sometimes called “spinners” in arcade hardware terminology, and truly inveterate nerds recognized them as either potentiometers or rheostats, depending on their function. But to the general public, they were incongruously known as “paddles,” due to their original table tennis associations. A year after Pong’s release, the first four-way gaming joystick—a word which, oddly enough, had its roots in early airplane controls—made its debut in the arcade game Astro Race. It caught on quickly, and by 1977, the Atari 2600 home console offered a standardized plug that could support a potentially limitless number of third-party controllers, in addition to the five different styles produced by Atari themselves.

The market responded. A 1983 issue of Creative Computing Magazine included a 15,000-word hardware review comparing 16 different joystick brands and eight unique paddle sets, plus eight converters for the less-common plugs those accessories might be required to fit. Some of the products were surprisingly forward-thinking, like Datasoft’s “Le Stick,” which detected motion through a set of liquid-mercury switches that triggered whenever the freestanding cylinder was tilted more than 20 degrees in any direction. It’s easy to see why it didn’t last, but toxic metals aside, Datasoft deserves credit for predating the motion sensor craze by a quarter of a century.

Soon, however, the third-party manufacturers fell away, and an evolutionary split emerged. On one side, the traditional knobs, buttons, and joysticks of arcade cabinets consolidated into a single proprietary controller for each console system. On the other, the personal computer industry began to drift toward more established business peripherals, namely the mouse and alphanumeric keyboard. Major gaming companies tried to straddle the gap for as long as they could, but in late 1983, the North American console market crashed, with previous annual revenues of $3.2 billion plunging to just $100 million by 1985. The drop was so devastating to Atari in particular that the whole event was simply known as “Atari shock” in Japan. For various reasons, the Japanese market remained stable, and with every console company in America either bankrupt or pivoting sharply to the PC, Japan emerged as the home console champion for the next 20 years.

MicroProse dips its toes into consoles

Of course there were still regular computers in Japan, too. MicroProse [Meier’s original games publisher] had released translations of nearly every game since F-15 Strike Eagle onto Japanese machines like the MSX, FM Towns, and PC-98. Likewise, there were console owners in America who played English translations of games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. But the culture of each format was firmly rooted in its respective country, and very few games successfully crossed over. It was like baseball versus cricket: you’d find fans of each worldwide, but rarely individual fans of both, and never professionals who played both, despite the relative similarity of their athleticism.

Mechanical differences did play a partial role in the divide, at least from our perspective. It was hard to replicate the subtle movement of a computer mouse with a console’s directional pad and floating cursor or to fit as much text on the screen when console players typically sat several feet away. Personally, I don’t feel like the problem was mutual—we had more keys than they had buttons—but that’s probably not surprising given which half of the industry I work in. Plenty of people have argued that certain console games could never feel intuitive on a PC, and given our processing and graphical differences at the time, maybe they were right. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve already acknowledged that I own at least as many consoles as computers.

Silent Service makes some noise

But the embargo between the two formats couldn’t all be chalked up to controllers, as even games with simple interfaces often failed in their opposing market. It wasn’t until 1989 that MicroProse first attempted to convert Silent Service—which was by that point thriving in 13 different computer formats—to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Western console owners were considered such a long shot that we didn’t even bother with a Japanese version, despite having translations readily available from the PC-98. If any Japanese fans were broad-minded enough to accept our game on the console, we would just have to hope they spoke English as well.

I don’t remember whether the NES version made any money, but my guess is that it didn’t, because we went back to ignoring the platform for the next several games. Even Gunship, which was successfully ported to five different computers in Japan alone, didn’t get a console release in any language. We eventually dipped our toe in the water a few more times—Pirates! saw a pretty successful conversion to the NES, and F-15 Strike Eagle II made a respectable appearance on the Sega Genesis. But meanwhile, the Super NES version of Railroad Tycoon was cancelled mid-development, and Covert Action went in the opposite direction and became our first port to Linux on the PC instead.

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Blizzard offers refund for nerfed $25 Hearthstone card

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Enlarge / Shine bright like a diamond.

Last month, Hearthstone broke a long-standing precedent by selling a single cosmetic card upgrade for a whopping $25 (or a similar amount of in-game currency). Now that the expensive card’s power level is being scaled back, Blizzard is offering a generous refund to players who made that purchase—and it’s letting them keep the ultra-rare card, to boot.

Drek’Thar has been an extremely popular Hearthstone card since its release in December alongside the Fractured in Alterac Valley set. Thanks to the card’s ability to draw and summon two minions from your deck whenever cast (if your deck is constructed correctly), Drek’Thar was showing up in upward of 20 percent of all competitive decks this month, according to HSReplay.net statistics, and decks with the card were winning more than 60 percent of the time.

A diamond is forever

For months, Hearthstone players could find a Legendary Drek’Thar in regular packs, craft a copy by using in-game dust gained from excess cards, or earn a “free” Golden copy by completing various in-game quests. Starting April 5, though, Blizzard added a way to obtain a new version of Drek’Thar: pay $25 (or 3,000 in-game gold) to purchase an ultra-rare “Diamond” upgrade.

Diamond cards were first introduced in a late-March Hearthstone update as a purely cosmetic modification to existing cards. The ultra-rare Diamond versions, which come complete with custom animations, are targeted at hardcore collectors who want to show off the rarest and prettiest versions of their cards.

For the most part, players could obtain Diamond cards by completing quests on the game’s Tavern Pass Reward Track or by collecting full sets of other Legendary rarity cards. Drek’Thar was the exception, though; the only way to get the Diamond version of that card was to buy it with in-game gold or cold, hard cash during his April sales window.

Many players weren’t happy about that sales tactic, as exemplified by a popular Reddit thread full of complaints about perceived greed on Blizzard’s part. “It’d be one thing if you’d get multiple diamond cards, but for a single card, it is not even close enough to be worth 25 USD,” user prplehuskie13 wrote in a representative comment.

Sorry for the nerf—have some gold

Fast forward to Thursday, when Blizzard’s Hearthstone update 23.2.2 scaled back Drek’Thar’s in-game power level. Now, instead of summoning two additional minions, the card only summons one when cast. The change has led to an immediate reduction in Drek’Thar’s usage and win rates, according to HSReplay.

These kinds of nerfs are pretty common when a card becomes too dominant in the Hearthstone metagame. And when they happen, Blizzard offers affected players refunds in the form of in-game dust that can be used to craft other cards (while also letting players keep the newly nerfed cards in their collection).

For players who spent money on Diamond Drek’Thar, though, Blizzard is going the extra mile with its refund. “Any players who own Diamond Drek’Thar at the time that the patch goes live will automatically receive 3,000 Gold when they log in as a refund,” the company wrote.

That’s enough gold to buy 30 packs of cards, which would usually cost $35 to $40 if purchased in various bundles. And that refund is on top of the nerfed Diamond Drek’Thar itself, which players will get to keep as evidence of their conspicuous digital consumption.

While Blizzard stopped short of giving actual money back to players who spent $25 for a Diamond Drek’Thar, the in-game gold is a pretty generous bonus for those who made the investment. And who knows—maybe it will make those Hearthstone whales even more willing to throw money down on a single cosmetic card upgrade in the future.

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A time paradox births a “freaking Kugelblitz” in Umbrella Academy S3 trailer

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The third season of The Umbrella Academy will debut in June on Netflix.

The Hargreeves siblings return to 2019 only to find themselves caught in an alternate timeline where they were never adopted by their wealthy father in the official trailer for The Umbrella Academy S3. Instead, they must confront their alt-timeline counterparts, the Sparrow Academy, and ward off yet another apocalypse as they try, once again, to return home.

(Spoilers for first two seasons below.)

For those unfamiliar with the premise, in S1, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven children out of 43 mysteriously born in 1989 to random women who had not been pregnant the day before. The children were raised at Hargreeves’ Umbrella Academy, with the help of a robot “mother” named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) and became a family of superheroes with special powers. But it was a dysfunctional arrangement, marred by the tragic death of one of the children, and the family members ultimately disbanded, only reuniting as adults when Hargreeves died. They soon learned that they had to team up to prevent a global apocalypse.

As I’ve written previously, S1 ended on a cliffhanger, after Vanya (Elliot Page) rediscovered his powers and destroyed the Moon with the acoustic energy he accumulated playing the violin in a concert at the Icarus Theater. As the Moon’s fragments rained down on Earth, marking the start of the apocalypse, Five (Aidan Gallagher) offered to bring his siblings back with him in time so they could once again try to avert the destruction of the world. The S1 finale ended with the group’s time jump.

Enlarge / (l-r) Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Viktor (Elliott Page), Luther (Tom Hopper), Five (Aidan Gallagher), Diego (David Castaneda), and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) returned to an altered timeline in 2019.

YouTube/Netflix

But that jump didn’t go smoothly. The siblings landed in the early 1960s, but they all arrived at different times between 1960 and October 1963 in Dallas. Five landed on November 25, 1963, just in time to witness nuclear annihilation linked to the fact that history had been altered when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy did not occur. Five managed to travel back to 10 days before the nuclear apocalypse and track down the separated siblings, all of whom had built new lives for themselves.

The Umbrella Academy had to figure out how to avert the apocalypse while negotiating a deal with the Handler (Kate Walsh), head of the Commission, so they could return to their original timeline. They were also being pursued by a trio of Swedish assassins determined to wipe them out. And we learned that their adoptive father, Reginald Hargreeves, was actually an interdimensional being with some pretty devastating super powers of his own.

The siblings ultimately managed to travel back to 2019, only to find that the timeline had been altered. Hargreeves was still alive in this timeline and had adopted five different “gifted” children who made up the Sparrow Academy—one of whom was their deceased sibling Ben (Justin H. Min), who appeared in the first two seasons as a ghost who could only communicate through Klaus (Robert Sheehan). In the new timeline, Ben is very much alive and remembers nothing about the Umbrella Academy or his original siblings.

Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.
Enlarge / Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.

YouTube/Netflix

That’s quite a setup for S3. Per the official premise:

After putting a stop to 1963’s doomsday, the Umbrella Academy return home to the present, convinced they prevented the initial apocalypse and fixed this godforsaken timeline once and for all. But after a brief moment of celebration, they realize things aren’t exactly (okay, not at all) how they left them. Enter the Sparrow Academy. Smart, stylish, and about as warm as a sea of icebergs, the Sparrows immediately clash with the Umbrellas in a violent face-off that turns out to be the least of everyone’s concerns. Navigating challenges, losses, and surprises of their own—and dealing with an unidentified destructive entity wreaking havoc in the Universe (something they may have caused)—now all they need to do is convince Dad’s new and possibly better family to help them put right what their arrival made wrong. Will they find a way back to their pre-apocalyptic lives? Or is this new world about to reveal more than just a hiccup in the timeline?

We know that Vanya will come out as a transgender man, Viktor, in S3, mirroring Elliott Page’s own real-life transition. And it looks like Ritu Arya will be reprising her role as Lila, the late Handler’s adopted daughter (and Diego’s love interest) from 1963, who can mirror the powers of other gifted people. Ben’s fellow Sparrows in the new timeline are Marcus (Justin Cornwell), Fei (Britne Oldford), Alphonso (Jake Epstein), Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez), and Jayme (Cazzie David).

It's Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve's closest assistant.
Enlarge / It’s Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve’s closest assistant.

YouTube/Netflix

The trailer picks up where S2 left off, as the Umbrellas confront Reginald, who insists they don’t belong there, leading to the reveal of the Sparrows and Ben. “When we jumped here we created a time paradox,” Five explains. “Our little paradox brought forth the freaking Kugelblitz.” In physics, a kugelblitz is a black hole formed from radiation rather than matter. In the series, the Kugelblitz is a glowing cube that seems to be some kind of powerful weapon. It might just be turning into a black hole (if it isn’t one already), since it seems the paradox is swallowing everything up. That’s right, we’ve got another looming apocalypse on our hands, and only four or five days to save the world.

It’s good to see that the wry humor that raised S2 above its rather more dour freshman outing is intact. There’s the inevitable battle between Umbrellas and Sparrows, but perhaps they’ll decide to combine their gifts and work together, because apocalypse. There’s a great scene where Viktor tells Marcus that he’s not better than him. “I ended the world twice,” Viktor says. “And you? You’re just meat and spandex.” Burn!

Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics' Hotel Oblivion?
Enlarge / Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics’ Hotel Oblivion?

YouTube/Netflix

We might meet the alternate versions of the Umbrellas in this new timeline, since even though they weren’t adopted by Hargreeves, they should still exist. And what should our originals do when they meet those other selves? Diego wants to kill that self, and Klaus wants to sleep with his counterpart. (“Oh, come on, as if you wouldn’t climb Luther Mountain,” he says when Luther objects.) Avoidance is the wisest course of action, which probably means nobody will take it.

And is that the Hotel Oblivion making an unexpected appearance, renamed the Hotel Obsidian? In the comics, the hotel is a tower on another planet, built by Hargreeves, that serves as a prison for all the criminals captured by the Umbrella Academy. It’s briefly mentioned in The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite and plays a major role in 2019’s The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, in which a supervillain named Perseus X breaks out all the prisoners in 1980. We’ll have to see how much, if any, of this storyline will find its way into the series—it doesn’t look like the hotel is on another planet, and the name has been changed—but its presence here in an alternate timeline is intriguing.

The third season of The Umbrella Academy drops on Netflix on June 22, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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Multiversus hands-on: Finally, a compelling Smash Bros. clone

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Enlarge / Yes, we’re as surprised by this game being good (at least in its closed alpha state) as you are.

Warner Bros. Games

Starting today, Warner Bros. Games is taking the formal veil off its worst-kept video game secret in years: Multiversus. When we saw the leaks about this upcoming free-to-play PC and console game, which stars various WB and Time Warner intellectual property in a cartoony, Smash Bros.-style arena fighter, we had our reservations. Was WB seriously trying to compete with Nintendo’s biggest fighting game by pitting Arya Stark against… Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? Whose dream cartoon face-off is that?

A few days ago, WB invited us to go hands-on to see for ourselves what the game is like ahead of today’s launch of a closed alpha test to address those kinds of questions and more. So far, we’ve come away impressed and surprised. In a world that didn’t necessarily need another Smash Bros. clone, the devs at Player First Games have seemingly cracked the code—and made something that could neatly coexist with Nintendo’s massive hit, if not surpass it. (Even better, at first blush, the F2P stuff seems tolerable!)

Less blocking, more cooperating

Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.
Enlarge / Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.

WB Games

Most of the “arena fighter” genre basics, as established by Smash Bros., are accounted for in WB’s latest fighting game. Instead of wearing down an energy bar à la Street Fighter, Multiversus players try to “ring out” their foes by racking up damage and setting up knockout blows. Movement is pretty Super Mario-like in terms of dashing and jumping between floating platforms, and players have a range of basic and special attacks that don’t require complex joystick and button combos.

Reindog, the "brand-new" character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in <em>Multiversus</em>, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where <em>Multiversus</em>' co-op appeal begins to shine.
Enlarge / Reindog, the “brand-new” character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in Multiversus, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where Multiversus‘ co-op appeal begins to shine.

WB Games

The biggest differences in Multiversus come from the game’s focus on two-on-two fighting, as opposed to the one-on-one and free-for-all combat traditionally seen in Smash clones. Most of Multiversus‘ current cast members have at least one maneuver in their arsenal that will benefit a teammate, though these moves also function as fine solo-combat options if you don’t team up with someone. Wonder Woman can generate a shield for allies; Garnet from Steven Universe can throw a bolt that both harms foes and boosts allies; while a new game-specific creature dubbed Reindog can fake like the Medic from Team Fortress 2 and connect a power-boosting line to a teammate.

The rest of the game’s mechanics have been shifted from the Smash Bros. archetype to nudge players into using their special co-op powers. For one, shields don’t exist; you can’t stand back and hold a shield button down to block incoming projectiles, and you can’t tap a “perfect block” at the right time to counter a melee attack. Any team that has a defensive or shielding ability available will want to lean on that to some extent. A default “grab” button doesn’t exist in this game, either; certain characters have grabs as special abilities instead.

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