Hello, hello, hello and welcome along to Parcival Plays. This site is a place for a Scottish guy in his 30's to share some of the games he is playing. This will be a variety of older games and more recent titles with most of these being by smaller or indie teams. Please feel free to comment on posts or follow me on Twitter and to drop me an email using the buttons on the right.

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Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Stardew Valley - Now on Android

Developed by ConcernedApe and published by Chucklefish, Stardew Valley was originally released for Windows in February 2016.  3 years later, the game is now available to play on every major platform with OSX, Linux, PS4, XBONE, Switch, iOS, and, most recently, Android ports of the game being available.  Following a change in the business relationship between the developer and publisher, with Chucklefish now only having rights to Switch, iOS and Android versions, the Android port was completed by The Secret Police and released on March 14th.  This is the version we're primarily looking at in this article.

Humble beginnings with a small crop and ongoing construction of a coop
If you've never played or heard of Stardew Valley, first where have you been, and second its an RPG game where you must make a profitable farm.  For people who have played the older Harvest Moon games or Animal Crossing, you will see familiar elements throughout the gameplay.  As is the trope for these sorts of games, having being gifted an old, derelict farm by your grandfather, you are new in the Valley and nearby Pelican Town.  As you arrive in town you are greeted by the mayor and shown to your new home.  You start out with a small, one room house and a plot of land littered with trees, rocks, weeds and general detritus.  Thankfully, these items will be of use to you by providing some of the raw resources you need to build up your farm.

As you clear your farm area actions, such as chopping, digging and breaking rocks, will cause you to expend energy.  The easiest way to regain this is by sleeping.  Provided you remember to return to your bed before you pass out, you will wake in the morning with fully regenerated energy.  Having a late night, between midnight and 2am, will result in a penalty to your energy the next day.  If you pass out at 2am outside your home, there is an additional financial penalty to pay for your return to your home by the person who found you.  Energy, and health, can also be regained through eating food.  Food can be either farmed or foraged and eaten raw, or cooked in your kitchen once you have upgraded your house.

Cave diving leading to a growing collection in the museum
To start your farming career you are given a small number number of parsnip seeds.  Planting crops is as simple as using your hoe to prepare the soil, planting the seed and watering it daily until it produces the chosen item.  There is a wide variety of crops which can be purchased from the local shop ranging from parsnips and potatoes, to beans and even fruit trees.  Each of these will only bear produce in certain seasons so you need to make sure you time any planting to allow you to harvest the crop before it spoils.  You may also find some seeds whilst clearing weeds which will allow you to grow a random crop for the season.  Farming also isn't restricted to crops.  After you have managed to purchase/construct some farm buildings such as a coop or a barn, you will be able to purchase animals such as chickens, pigs and cows.  If you care for them well they will produce items such as milk and eggs to increase your profits further.  On your farm you may want to refine some of your products to make them more profitable, such as pickling vegetables, making fruit into jams or even keeping a hive or two of bees to produce honey.

In addition to farming there are many other activities which you can use to fill your time.  You can gather wood and replant trees in your farm, go fishing in the river or sea, or, my personal favourite, head into the local mines to gather stone, ores and coal.  If venturing into the caves it's advisable to make sure you take something to protect yourself from the creatures who live there and a supply of food to regain health and stamina, or even explosives to help gathering items.  Whilst mining you may come across various items such as quartz and topaz, or even some rare geodes.  You can ask the local blacksmith to crack these geodes open to discover what is inside them, and along with the rarer gems found in the mine, donate many of these items to the town museum and learn more about them.

The Community Centre
During the course of the game you will come across a semi-destroyed community centre.  To save spoilers too much I'll glance over this and simply say that it will be worth your time to visit the community centre and follow through the "storyline" in there as this will allow you to increase your funds, provides you with various items and also helps to unlock new areas of the Valley.  Note that there is an action which you can do during the game which changes how the process of these unlocks, such as repairing the bus or broken bus, works.  There are also a number of citizens to befriend and build relationships with, even leading to marriage, and a number of events on the town calendar throughout the year to break up the daily activities.

Onto the Android version now, and how it plays.  Ever since I first played Stardew I've been waiting for a portable version to become available so that I could play on the go.  The Android version contains all of the same content as the PC version, including having 5 different farm maps to choose from, each playing better to different styles (for example fishing, mining or conventional farming), however it lacks the multiplayer functionality (which is coming soon to PS4 and XBONE versions).

Reading through the reviews on the Play Store there are a lot of people complaining about the controls, however I've found them to be very intuitive.  The game comes with a variety of control options, and controller support, but I've found the default control set to work very well.  For moving around the map it's a simple tap to the location you want to walk to.  What I had been concerned about was the hotbar and tools.  In the PC version you have a 10 item hotbar and switch tools using the number keys.  On a mobile game that could get very repetitive and boring having to select a new tool constantly by tapping on it.  Thankfully they have made it so that the game will know, in most cases, what tool you want to use and will automatically switch between the scythe, axe and pickaxe.  The have also replaced the 10 item hotbar with a scrolling bar on the left of the screen.  This includes every item in your backpack, and again as a QoL feature saves having to tap in and out, although I did 'lose' one of my tools for a while when I didn't realise it scrolled.

Fishing minigame - keep the fish within the green bar to catch it
I played the game on a Huawei MediaPad M5 10 inch tablet and have to say that I experienced no issues in terms of the performance of the game, or how the game played and it is refreshing to play a fully featured game on a mobile device rather than the usual freemium fodder and swap-3 clones.  They have also added a nice feature to the game which means the PC and Android save files are compatible.  This means that rather than having to have two separate farms on the go you can keep working on your 'main' save whilst out and about.  This does have a slight drawback however, in that you need to remember to plug in your device and drag the saves back and forth, or back them up to a cloud sharing service.  What would have been nice to see would have been integration with Google Play Games and cloud saving which would have allowed me to sync progress across my phone and tablet.

My overall verdict for the game is that at £7.99 it is an amazing game.  For being feature complete and not containing any in-app purchases or adverts I also think it's a very fair price (the PC version costs £10.99) considering that it is the mobile market place - why is it that we're not prepared to pay the same price for a fully featured mobile port of a PC game? - and it is a worthy addition the the library of any device.  It's a game where you can get totally lost in the world and what you are doing, suffering very much from a 'one more day' kind of experience, where you can sink a lot of time into it and not even realise.  Most definitely a buy it now game! 

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Thursday, 14 March 2019

Factory Town - Now In Early Access

Factory Town is a game which I've been watching for a while, and you'll have seen it given a spotlight in my article of games to watch for 2019.  Thanks go to one of my readers, Games PC Plays on Youtube, who kindly gifted me the game with beta on Itch.io a few months ago.  I've dipped into it a bit during the beta, but there have been a lot of changes over recent weeks and I thought with the game hitting Steam Early Access it was a good time to look at it again.

Factory Town is a combination of a colony builder and a supply chain game being developed by Erik Asmussen.  As mentioned above, the game has been going through a limited beta which means that the game already has a good amount of content and has had a lot of bug fixes even before hitting Early Access.  More content is planned and a general roadmap has been posted to Steam, but remember this is Early Access so anything can happen!

An early town ready for first level base upgrade
Before you can start, you need to customise your map.  There are 3 'scenarios' you can choose, Default, Advanced and Creative.  The first two options will generate different mixes of biomes and materials, with the creative giving you a blank flat canvas to work with.  You also get to customise a range of other options such as your starting biome, available biomes, and 'starting state' which determines what technologies are available at the start of the game.

As you would expect for a colony builder, you start with a map with a variety of resources available and must choose where to place your base, which comes with a small number of settlers, and then expand and optimise.  The game will guide you through a tutorial, but predictably, you need to firstly establish supplies of wood, stone and grain to allow you to expand.  By building houses and supplying these with food, you will make your settlers happy and earn coins.  Building houses also increases the population capacity of your town, allowing you to build new and better production buildings.

As you progress, you will unlock new buildings, technologies and ways to expand your town.  These will unlock in a few different ways including, completing objectives, constructing and upgrading buildings and research through a school.  Research requires bot resources and currency which is generated by houses.  Your workers will spend money at food markets and general stores on the items they require (dependant on the house levels) which will grant various amounts of the 4 different currencies, which can be seen in the economy panel.

Wood supply chain producing wooden wheels, planks and paper
for storage in a barn
A large part of the game is about optimising your supply routes, for example you can deliver grain from fields directly to each house, requiring one worker per house, or supply it to a food market which then automatically supplies the houses in a certain radius.  I set up a fairly simple supply chain for my wood with a forester generating logs into a chute which then fed into a few different branches.  This allowed me to have a lumber mill by some water producing paper and two producing planks.  One of these then fed to a workshop to produce wheels and these 3 end products transported along conveyor belts to a barn.  Note that this is a VERY basic example of the sort of systems you can build, but I did not need any workers gathering wood and transporting the goods as this was all done automatically.

In addition to your chutes and conveyor belts, you also have some other transportation options.  The most basic is your workers walking across the terrain but this is very slow.  You can speed them up by building a network of dirt footpaths and stone roads to speed them up.  You can also set up wooden wagons which move faster again, particularly on the stone roads, and can carry more materials than a worker.  As you play and unlock more techs you also have rails and minecarts which you can build.

A food chain with grain from a farm to a grain mill on a chute and a
conveyor belt transporting berries and flour to a food market.
There is also a simple bridge which was the cause of much frustration!
There is a lot to play with in the game and that can make your supply chains complicated and means you can lose track of things- if this workshop making wheels or is it making books?  Is that worker transporting logs to the lumber mill or planks away?  Why do I have 8 people gathering grain?  This is probably less a reflection on the game and more so on my unorganised brain where I see an objective to build x, y and z and just start throwing things down without much thought or planning for the future.  There are also some features which I have had some frustrations with, again probably more that I need to spend more time with it, but I did find it pretty difficult to get conveyor belts working on multiple levels or paths crossing over them and often found myself completely cutting some resources off from my town.

The production line game is something that seems to be going through a bit of a surge at the moment with Factorio and Prouction Line steaming towards their full releases and the early access of Satisfactory on the Epic Games Store starting in the coming days.  So where does this stack up?  Having been fortunate to get access to the alpha weekend of Satisfactory, I can say that these two games scratch very different itches.  This game feels a lot like an evolution of the colony builder/settler game, although your region can become over run with houses due to the population limit, and has a nice touch of being able to purchase new areas of land to build on, giving access to different biomes and resources.
The town starting to take shape with some resources being transported
across the river on a simple bridge

Having gone through a development cycle of about 3 years to reach this Early Access state, and having gone through the closed beta, the game is very accomplished.  Despite my frustrations noted above the game is very stable and feels well optimised.  The art style very much appeals to me with the low poly assets and the grid system makes construction and designing your town simple.  As I've noted there are a lot of things to get involved with, so as usual don't get turned off by the 'simple' graphics as the game is very involved and features some deep systems with some players having made some crazy systems.

The game is now available on Steam in Early Access following the beta keys selling out a while ago.  The game is extremely fairly priced at £15.49, although if you are quick off the blocks you can pick it up with a 10% discount making it £13.94 until March 19th.  You can also join the official Discord in which the developer has been extremely active.

If you enjoy my content, please consider becoming a Patron giving you access to exclusive roles and channels in the Discord server.  Also please follow me on Twitter for updates about articles and games I am following.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Great Launcher Debate

Over recent months there has been a great debate raging amongst the PC gaming community - is the Epic Store a good thing or not?  This week rather than a review I thought I would share an opinion piece and my thoughts on this issue.

For a number of years now, Steam has had a bit of a stranglehold on the digital distribution market.  Almost everywhere that you purchase games will actually be for a Steam key - see Humble Store, Games Planet, Green Man Gaming, Instant Gaming etc.  Even your local bricks and mortar gaming store (if you still have one) will no longer have racks of DVD cases, but will rather have a couple of shelves of accessories such as mice, headsets and gaming surfaces, with a rack of digital keys and gift cards, predominantly for Steam.

Alternative stores and launchers are not a new thing with EA releasing Origin in June of 2011, Ubisoft following with UPlay in July of 2012 and GOG with GOG Galaxy having been in beta since October 2014, so why has the Epic store caused such a stir?  Whilst the first two of these other stores have been primarily for the publishers own content, they haven't been without issues and are generally negatively received (UPlay being feature light but resource heavy and EA having many questionable marketing tactics), they have not received the vitriol of the Epic store, and in the case of Origin has the advantage of the Origin Access programme acting as a sort of Netflix for games.  Of course, with the DRM free philosophy of GOG, and their favourable regional pricing, whilst still being feature light (only featuring cloud saving for 29 games in the catalogue) players have generally been more positive about that platform.

Whilst these are the most popular stores, there are a number of others which also have their own launchers.  Following the acquisition by Amazon, Twitch began to offer games for free each month to Amazon Prime subscribers, Discord recently launched a store and, although opened in 2013, indie distribution platform Itch.io is becoming more popular, and actually saw over 100,000 new games listed in 2017 vs just over 7500 on Steam.

For consumers, each of these stores offers a different experience ranging from regional pricing strategy, to community features, reviews and access to user generated content such as mods.  Steam has always been ahead of the curve on many of these, partly from being first to the market.  Unfortunately there has been an increase in games which are non-functioning, asset flips and pure money grabs.  The removal of the Steam Greenlight programme is something which has fuelled this, you only need to look at the new releases page of the store to see the effect this removal of a curation system has brought, with numerous sex games and low quality projects released every week.

Moving back to the debate of Epic vs Steam, this has really garnered traction due to a few games deciding to completely pull their Steam releases, including Satisfactory, Metro Exodus (which had offered pre-sales on Steam which were honoured) and The Division 2 (and all subsequent Ubisoft titles).  This, along with gaming now accounting for over 50% of the entertainment spend in the UK with over £3,500M being spent on gaming in the UK alone in 2018, compared with £3,300M being spend on music and video combined, giving the gaming industry a larger voice in the mainstream media.

Epic has come under fire for a variety of reasons, partly due to the decisions of publishers and developers to move away from Steam having used that platform to gain exposure, but also for lacking many basic features.  As yet, the Epic store has no community features to speak of, and is a rudimentary launcher.  There is no way to contact developers for support, with many people turning to the Steam forums for assistance, and no review system, with a refund policy which was not in favour of consumers, although this has now been brought in line with the Steam refund policy of a request within 14 days, provided the game has been played for less than 2 hours.  

There is also the question of convenience,  I currently have almost 10 different pieces of software on my computer which allow me to purchase, download or launch games.  This leads to extra hard drive usage, and also losing track of purchases with the potential to purchase game multiple times in multiple stores.  It also causes issues for people who have their computers set up to act as consoles in a sense, with them connected to a TV and set to launch by default into the Steam Big Picture mode.  There are of course ways around this, by adding non-Steam games to the launcher, but why go to that extra effort if you can just buy the game on Steam?

As you can tell from the majority of my content, I spend most of my time playing indie titles.  This is somewhere that these emerging stores really come in to play.  When you have been working on a game for perhaps a number of years without any pay, every penny really does count.  Each sale can be the difference between you being able to continue the project, having to work another job alongside or being able to hire additional team members to help with tasks like translations and QA.  

If we take an arbitrary value of £10 for an indie game and look at a few different scenarios across a few of these platforms.  
  • A game developed in Unreal Engine and released on Steam or GOG will see £3 of that taken in commission by the store and a further 50p will go to Epic, giving the developers £6.50 of your £10 (before any taxes and operating costs are deducted).  
  • When released on the Discord store the developers will get £1 taken in commission by the store and the same 50p royalties to Epic, giving the developer £8.50.
  • When released on the Epic store, that game will see a marginally higher £8.80 due to a 12% commission and a waiving of the Unreal Engine license fee*.
  • When released on Itch.io the developer chooses how much to give to the store in commission with a maximum 90/10 revenue split in favour of the developer, meaning there is potential to receive £9.50**.
  • Unity games would receive £7, £9, £8.80 and potentially £10 in the same scenarios***.
* On paper this is actually a change in the revenue split with UE games paying 7% in commission with 5% in royalites and games developed in other engines paying 12% commission
** Itch.io also permits overpayment by the players meaning that if I felt the game was actually worth more than £10 I could decide to pay £15.
***It should be noted that Unity carries a license fee based on the number of seats in the organisation while Unreal Engine is free to use, however carries the royalties.  Unity fees are currently: <$100k annual income - Free; $100k - $200k annual income - $35/seat; >$200k annual income - $125/seat although these higher plans come with various benefits.

With the potential to make more money, it's easy to see why these alternative stores are popular with developers, and are making me think about where I am wanting to spend my money and the ways I can best support these smaller teams.  Itch.io in particular is a store which I have a great opinion of, whilst it is full of a lot of game concepts and tests, there are also a number of game jams held throughout the year which have resulted in games such as Machiavillain, Evoland, Superhot and Surgeon Simulator.  In my experience, a lot of developers use this platform to test out their projects and ideas, and to gather a following before moving to Steam or Kickstarter, such as Meeple Station, Snowtopia and Creo God Simulator (due to hit Steam Early Access soon) and, whilst sometimes feature light or buggy, gives players a chance to really be involved in the development journey in a different way than the Steam Early Access programme due to the smaller communities.

Am I going to be getting rid of Steam any time soon?  Of course not, but I am going to be doing more in the way of shopping round to get better prices, experience platform exclusive games, such as Satisfactory and The Settlers which are both due out later this year, and watching to see how these platforms grow and develop over the coming months and years.  I hope that I've covered some of the main points and some of the pros and cons of having a variety of stores.  I think that we are in a pretty amazing time for gamers, where not only is gaming no longer seen as a niche activity you do on your own, but is becoming more and more about building connections and communities and also where there are these possibilities and opportunities for anyone who has the time and inclination, can develop and publish a computer game.

I would be really interested to see what you all think of this issue, please leave some comments or come and join the Discord.

If you enjoy my content, please consider becoming a Patron giving you access to exclusive roles and channels in the Discord server.  Also please follow me on Twitter for updates about articles and games I am following.