This and That

Although the days when PC Gamer dot com was a regular haunt of mine are long gone, earlier this week I found myself wading through the site’s welter of New World articles in search of something to read while dunking my afternoon Custard Creams. The article that eventually engendered a click was the 2021 PC Gamer Top 100. I went in expecting to be mildly aggrieved by the position of Personal Favourite ‘A’ and somewhat disappointed by the absence of Personal Favourite ‘B’ (That, after all, is the purpose of a Top 100). What I wasn’t anticipating was outright dismay.

Not only has my alma mater managed to compile a Top 100 completely free of historical wargames (Company of Heroes 2 at #65 is the nearest thing to a grog pleaser), if you discount the diversions lurking at #69 (Arma 3) and #64 (Forza Horizon 4), it has somehow managed to exclude flight and race sims too!

I took the lack of winged wonders in the upper half of the list as a sign that titles such as Flight Simulator 2020, DCS World, and IL-2: Sturmovik: Great Battles had staunch allies in the PCG office. Circa #30, brow furrows were beginning to form. By the time I hit Disco Elysium I was shaking my head like a toupee wearer trying a new brand of wig tape for the first time.

I know what you’re thinking. “Who cares if games critics writing for a particular site or magazine have zero interest in DCS World, X-Plane, War Thunder, Assetto Corsa, iRacing, Combat Mission, Unity of Command 2 etc. That’s their prerogative and there are numerous other sites, bloggers, and streamers out there banging the drum for realistic fare.” My concern is that a Top 100 free of sims* and wargames is a symptom of a wider trend in the mainstream games press – a trend that, if left unchecked, can’t fail to damage the genres concerned.

* American Truck Simulator and Snowrunner do appear.

When, at the turn of the century, I started writing for PC Gamer UK, every publication had its on-call aviator, motorist, and hexophile. These individuals didn’t just review and preview, often they promulgated their passion in features, news pieces, and tips articles. Once established, they acted as their editor’s eyes and ears in their chosen fields… “I’m playing an obscure German bus simulator at the moment and it’s wunderbar. Would you be interested in a review?” “There’s this SimHQ forumite who’s playing Panzer Elite: Monty vs Rommel in a mock Pz III interior he’s built inside his airing cupboard – I think we should interview him.”

Today, in-house specialists seem both rarer and less influential, and, as a consequence, we get Top 100s with Bismarck-sized blindspots. More significantly, fine games go months, sometimes years, without coverage on high-traffic sites. Some deserving of limelight are completely ignored.

Plying PC Gamer’s search box with sim and wargame monikers suggests, for example…

– The Coconut Monkey is unaware Derail Valley and Diesel Railcar Simulator exist.
– Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front and Gunner, HEAT, PC! are figments of my imagination.
– The makers of IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles once said something astonishingly rude about PCG’s mum.
– American Truck Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator 2 are 73 times more deserving of column inches than the OMSIs.
– Early Access Door Kickers 2 isn’t currently going down a storm with Steam customers.
– UBOAT isn’t the most interesting thing to happen to naval simulation in years.

And, to be fair, PC Gamer’s coverage of things simmy and groggy in 2021 is positively comprehensive when compared to that of its main rival during the same period.

I realise the above reads like thinly-veiled hustling, or the crabby griping of an embittered exile, but, believe me, it’s neither. This isn’t a job application or a vindictive dig*, it’s a plea on behalf of the forsaken – the people who, like me, mouse-wheel through those vast, colourful front pages from time to time in search of references to their current obsessions and find sweet Fanny Adams.

* After an unusually long stint in the Premiership and EFL, the idea of spending the remaining years of my career playing on the cosier, leafier grounds of the Vanarama National League doesn’t trouble me. 

Games media megabeasts, if you’re going to put passages like this on your ‘About Us’ pages…

“[We] aim to cover everything from the latest breaking stories about the biggest releases to esoterica from the format’s most obscure peninsulas. Our philosophy is that AAA and indie are just as likely to produce fascinating games worthy of our time and coverage, and give all extremes equal prominence.”

If you’re going to claim to be…

THE GLOBAL AUTHORITY ON PC GAMES

…then surely regular reportage from the lands where truthful tanks trundle, convincing cavalry canter and faithful flying machines flit isn’t too much to ask.

* * *

You’ve heard of the RTS and the TBS – allow me to introduce you to a SFS.

As the name suggests Second Front Stopgaps are the hexy, tactical offerings digital wargamers play while waiting for Jo Bader to press Steam’s big green ‘PUBLISH’ button. Hopefully we won’t need too many SFSs. Then again, if they’re all as yeomanlike as The Troop appears to be, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the genre grew.

Judging from the five mission sample made available this week, when it releases later this year Giant Flame’s debut shouldn’t have any trouble winning friends amongst Battlefield Academicians, Close Combatants, and Steel Panthermenschen.

Set in Normandy in the days following the largest amphibious landing in history, and – refreshingly – played exclusively from a British and Canadian perspective (A German campaign is under consideration), The Troop eschews CM-style detail and, mechanics wise, offers nothing you won’t have seen before, yet manages to produce credible clashes with a character all of their own.

Picture Close Combat with hexagons, action points, and a polite IGOUGO rhythm. Fraught tank duels in fields, lanes, and orchards. AP and HE trading complicated by smoke, vegetation, armour thickness and crew anxiety. Or better still, play the free trial and experience the game’s accessible aggro first-hand. The first three scenarios are basically tutorials. You need to tackle missions four (‘Crossroads’) and five (‘Here They Come’) to get a glimpse of the game’s (hopefully) true colours.

All-in-all I like the way Giant Flame have approached armour. Shermans and their ilk can be slain by single shots. They can wind up immobilised, defenceless, and untenanted (Manual bail-outs are encouraged by optional casualty-sensitive victory conditions). They can taxi infantry about, reverse, and button and unbutton. Yes, it would be nice if turf-rufflers were capable of opportunity fire, if crews and passengers were visible, and the smoke shells carried by the Centaur appeared in the ready racks of other types, but these compromises aren’t calamitous.

What I’ve seen of the AI thus far, also meets my approval. Having watched spooked Panzer IVs sever LoS lines by reversing, plucky AT teams dash from cover to close-assault M4s, and StuGs vary their tactics from one playthrough to the next, I’m fairly confident the THC review, when it comes, won’t be dominated by behavioural belly-aching.

What will end up red biroed if it’s not rectified before launch, is the unnecessarily restrictive camera. The cinematic ‘action cam’ that automatically activates when AFVs use their main guns is great but no substitute for an obliging sky Leica.

36 Comments

  1. Having played games since the late 70’s and been a developer since the mid 90’s, i think what you are finding with games is general is that are much more mainstream. Therefore the larger websites are primarily fighting for the larger audiences and therefore only have a finite amount of time to spend on each game each day/week/month.

    Grognards aren’t mainstream and therefore any games aimed at them, although profitable, simply won’t attract the same audiences as something more popular. Less audiences means less clicks and ultimately less profit.

    As you also say though, as the industry has grown, so has the player base and therefore smaller, niche websites will get enough viewers to function when back in the 90’s they wouldn’t have.. So in short, swings and roundabouts…

    I’ve given up on all the mainstream websites nowadays. The big games i’ll see anyway and usually ignore, and then i come here and to youtube reviewers like Splattercat to see the interesting indie stuff.

    • My biggest trial is the battle between my desire to read what might be tripe, versus the discomfort of turning off my adblocker. Generally, my urge keep my eyeballs free of ads overpowers the gamble of potentially interesting content.

    • If the big sites covered nothing but the bestsellers, devs like 1CGS and Kunos Simulazioni would have less reason to feel aggrieved. Currently on the RPS front page there are pieces about Bonfire Peaks, Pawnbarian, and Okami – all interesting titles no doubt, but minnows in commercial terms. Games such as IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles, Assetto Corsa Competizione, UBOAT and Door Kickers 2 are far more popular, but never get mentioned.

      ‘Average number of players’ stats from steamcharts.com:

      Assetto Corsa – 4953
      Assetto Corsa Competizione – 1701
      Bonfire Peaks – 32
      Door Kickers 2 – 293
      IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles – 251
      Pawnbarian – 50
      Train Simulator – 937
      UBOAT – 656

      Even if you put the “variety is the spice of life” argument to one side and look at the sim blindspot issue from a purely business perspective, it makes little sense.

      • I’m going to word this carefully, to keep it free of spite and swears (and avoid legal action against you).

        RPS lost its way long before it lost its finest writer, and has retained no reasons to return.

        I am glad THC exists instead.

        • Absolutely. I used to visit RPS daily (or several times daily). Eventually, it was just habit, and I really only looked forward to visiting on Fridays, for some strange reason. Then, they purposefully removed my reason for visiting on Fridays in the most cowardly way possible. Now, I have followed their example, and erased any sign of RPS from my computer, and say, “RPS? What is RPS?” It has ceased to exist in my world.

          • Exactly the same here. And I’d been visiting RPS daily since it was only Kieron, John, Alec and Jim. Long live THC!

  2. I once had it suggested to me (as part of an article submission being rejected), that simulations are “almost a separate software genre to gaming” (paraphrasing) and that by extension the primary “gaming” audience were just not interested in fascinating tales of sim-vehicle driving.

    It made me sad.

  3. This is exactly why I’m here. There’s simply no place else in the industry where you can still get this kind of coverage. It is sad and in many ways a microcosm of how society has evolved that as the internet and access to information has exploded, the variety, quality and diversity of that information has plummeted. I pulled out some of my old PCG issues from the late 90s recently – they would not have felt unwelcome here. Multiple articles and strategies every month on hexes and flight sims. What’s happened to wargamer.com is especially cringe-inducing. I don’t know they think their audience is, but I don’t think they’ve actually published an article on anything that I would consider to be a wargame in 2021.

    • I keep calling up wargamer dot com every month or so, hoping to read something interesting about wargames. But it just . . . doesn’t seem to happen.

    • The disconnect between wargamer’com’s mission statement…

      “Here at Wargamer we write about all things wargaming and tabletop games, including news, features, guides, reviews, and more. We cover everything that we think is interesting to wargamers – big or small, old or new. With a passionate and dedicated editorial staff, we’re always looking to make the site and our coverage better for our audience.”

      …pitch guidelines…

      “At the moment, we’re most interested in commissioning coverage for Warhammer 40k, Warhammer 40k: Kill Team, Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Dungeons & Dragons 5E, and Magic: The Gathering. Pitches directly concerning one or more of these games are strongly preferred.”

      …and output, is truly something to behold. I suspect the site’s team of writers have no creative freedom whatsoever. Come back, Slitherine – all is forgiven!

      • I never minded that Slitherine owned it at the time. They never seemed to me to have editorial bias, and as one of the last true wargame publishers standing they’re one of the few keeping the genre alive in any case.

      • When Wargamer dot com decided to remove comments on front page stories, I posted on their forum that this was a bad decision. A niche interest like wargaming is kept alive by community, and removing any opportunity for that community to interact will cause it to wither and die. It has withered beyond repair, and all that remains is someone to care enough to issue last rights.

  4. Do not check the ’50 best strategy games’ list from rps.
    That one made me very sad.

    I have to get myself to researching some good youtube reviewers (or similar), because I’m getting progressively more apathetic to what my usual go to ‘curators’ provide (a notable exception being THC).

    • Blimey. Surely they could have squeezed a Close Combat, Combat Mission, or a Panzer General-like in there. It’s nice to know the thirteen years of hard work I put in at RPS left an indelible mark!

  5. I think that, if there is a move to fund sites more through subscriptions, rather than advertising, then a decision to include more THC-friendly games on websites would be productive as I think there is a greater cross-over between fans of those genres and ‘those willing to put their hands in their pockets to subscribe’ than there is with those who play free-to-play shooters and RPGs.

    Interestingly, today on RPS (albeit in the Supporters only section) there is a review of Svoboda 1945: Liberation – there has been a bit more of these kind of games featured recently after a hiatus after they parted ways with their previous expert (whoever he was).

    • > after a hiatus after they parted ways with their previous expert (whoever he was).

      Yeah, right, who was that fella’s name? I wonder what is he doing these days.

    • If every site on the internet moved to a subscription service tomorrow, RPS would be at the bottom of the list I would even think of supporting.

  6. I’m actually surprised that MSFS 2020 wasn’t being covered. I hadn’t really noticed I guess, but it always got plenty of coverage before and this iteration is such an astounding display of technology, particularly given its most recent updates that lack of coverage seems shocking. That said, PC Gamer stopped being a place I consulted about games back around 2000.

    • MSFS 2020 got some coverage on PCG and RPS on release, but it rapidly became apparent that the writers had no real knowledge of the subject matter, or much interest beyond the “fly over my house” level. I am not sure I wouldn’t rather have no articles at all than articles that are clearly only there to generate a few clicks.

  7. In a world where newspaper columnists and commentators can pronounce on epidemiology or atmospheric science while being ignorant of both, this is small beer as far as complaints go.

    I guess it’s symptomatic / emblematic of the trend for current happenings reportage to aim to be entertaining rather than journalistic; presumably the benefit-cost ratio is higher.

    O tempora! O mores!

    (On the other hand, a ‘sidebar of shame’ would improve THC)

  8. Thanks for the heads up on The Troop Tim. Nice to see a fellow “Comrade in Arms” 🙂 Will try to give it (and your description) cover on our Twitter in upcoming week. Looks nicely executed at first blush. And personally I would love a Steel Panthers style fix 😎

    Luke (lead, Burden of Command)

  9. It took me long to find my way here. That I kept looking is actually the subject matter of the article. There is simply no adequate coverage of wargmes and sims to be found.

    I would like to try some crude guesswork on why they hardly appear on high traffic sites. I think we can presume that editors like those genres no more and no less than a decade ago. And counter-untuitively, some are doing extremely well on steam etc. So, if news coverage hardly reflects what people buy and play, the conclusion is that games journalism is not aimed primarily at people who do these things on a regular basis.

    We are beyond any old-fashioned hardcore vs casual gamer grief here. I think only a tiny fraction of those visiting Top 100 lists even touch a game once a month that is not candy-crush.

    A friend of mine, who works in online ad-placement, keeps reminding me how mind-numbingly many clicks you need to actually make a money by ads. With gamers alone as an audience you probably struggle to keep the lights on. Anything that requires even a couple of seconds of explanation falls by the wayside.

    In the end wargames or rather wargame journalism might have fallen victim to the same cruel master as anything else. The google algorithm.

    • *counter-intuitively, even*

      Thinking about it, it might not be all bad. I would not go as far as calling the obscurity a blessing in disguise and am very wary of niche elitism and hostile tendencies I observed in the last years, but being in the industries´ focus brings its own curse.

      I shudder of the thought of wargames-as-a-service. Buy yourself another turn of Panzer Corps with premius pseudo-currencies and the Keanu Reaves co-pilot skin paid mod for DCS are not something we absolutely need.

  10. Tried out TROOP. Enjoyed what I saw there. Two gameplay issues that will probably keep me from buying it when it comes out. First, a lack of overwatch/opportunity fire. The inability to cover approaches and set ambushes feels totally gamey. Second, the way suppression has no effect on movement in the following turn. A unit that gets 50 percent suppressed in a turn should not be able to do the same full movement distance as an unsuppressed unit. Once again, too gamey for me.

    • These bothered me also but I do wonder if these aren’t concessions to make sure that the AI remains competitive? I recall Tim’s comment regarding Cauldrons of War a while ago about designing a game that the AI can play and how so few games seem to worry about that.

      The Troop AI (in the two core scenarios I played) seemed both reactive and reasonably intelligent which is more than a lot of games can say. I’ll take the addition of some “gamey” elements so that the game is a challenge to play.

  11. Random thoughts on all this:

    Sometimes I think it’s the learning curve or the time investment involved that keeps the mainstream writers away from sim/war games, but they have those MOBA games which are supposed to be pretty challenging to get right (I’ve never played one). MMORPGs these days also have so many underlying systems. And there are these “Souls” games that pride themselves on being difficult, so maybe it’s not the difficulty.

    I don’t see it happen as much lately, but 15-ish years ago many simmers on forums would bristle if their beloved programs were referred to as “games.” Maybe we did it to ourselves by insisting we weren’t “playing” something. I say it’s still entertainment, especially compared to using a computer for work. Maybe if you consider a game something with rules and an objective to win then I guess a sim doesn’t qualify. There are plenty of PC “sandbox” games that don’t check those boxes though. . . so I dunno.

    None of this explains the absence of military strategy games. Military games (mostly shooters) and strategy games get coverage, but not often a combination of the two. Odd.

    PCG I think coined the term “immersive sim” but then used it to describe games like GTA and Dishonored. I believe to qualify the game just had to have a lot of world building to it or something. Have you ever played Gunship 2000? THAT was an immersive sim. Even all the menus were made to resemble HQs, briefing rooms, and helicopter control panels. World building at its finest.

    One thing I do know is this. The PMDG DC-6 for FS2020 models the fact that you can change the brightness of the warning indicator lights by twisting them (using the mouse wheel while hovering over) just like in real life. That really excites me, and because of this I know I’M the odd one in PCG’s audience.

    • I’ll never forget how excited with “sim-glee” I was one day. It was an icy morning in New Chitose airport and I had clambered into my Zibo 737-800 within XPlane 11. With the power on and the IRS running through its 7 minute alignment I had my nose buried deep into the FMC to plan my run to Narita.

      After several minutes of checking waypoints and calculating VSpeeds, I (mouse)looked up to find that all of the windows in the cockpit had steamed up. Better get the A/C on and heat into the cabin, Captain!

      Explaining this to my colleagues who were solely simmers in the “racing sim” area, some of them struggled to understand why I was so engaged by this environmental effect that was such an immersive feature of a pure vehicle simulation… “But it just makes it so that you can’t see”… Alas, the feature was lost on them.

      Amusingly, had I followed the pre-start procedure more closely, as I had in the past, I may not have ever seen it myself. 🙂

  12. Thanks for this piece, I’ve begun playing the “The Troop” beta and found the initial set of scenario’s enjoyable. Like others, I’ve found things that I’d like added/changed. All games have “warts”, especially during beta, and for me it’s telling that hours have slipped by while I’ve played (cursing as my M10 fell to a PzKFWIV). Another encouraging sign is that I find myself hopeful for a predictable set of map editors, scenario editors, terrain rules, etc.

  13. The thing that bugs me the most is the balkanisation of all our media. It’s sad. It leads to a tendency to scoff at ‘that lot’ over there for whatever reason, as people congregate into their in-groups. And while there are no doubt valid reasons for people to be frustrated at major gaming websites, that trend of tribal sorting is already a little evident here in some of the comments.

    I read some pretty hateful things a small number of people said about ‘wargamers’ when Tim left RPS, but I don’t believe in returning the favour.

  14. I am late to this party, but this article struck a chord with me (and I can see I’m not alone!)

    This was so well said, Tim. As many have already said, this is exactly why I am here (and a monthly supporter).

    I simply don’t know where else I could find high quality coverage of these genres anywhere else. It’s mind boggling because, while sims and wargames are niche genres these days, surely they are not so niche to warrant being all but completely ignored by the PC Gamers of the world, no?

    Yet, here we are.

    Even more puzzling, as Tim points out, is these outlets aren’t averse to covering very odd and (statistically) unpopular titles. It’s as though there is something about the sim and wargame genres specifically that they are allergic to. I don’t expect those genres to be daily front page features, but to see them all but ignored? Perplexing.

    I find the PC Gamers and RPSs of the world particularly disappointing. I understand that the days of the Venn diagram for PC and console titles being basically two separate circles are long gone, but I think even today there is a fascinating diversity of PC titles that does not exist in the console world. Yet, these “PC only” outlets spend the bulk of their time prattling on about a bunch of titles you don’t even need a PC to play! What a bore.

    Race sims, flight sims, wargames – that’s where it’s at for me (and probably in that order). I feel like there’s a lot of us out there, but we’re apparently not seen as a desirable audience (I guess?)

  15. I’ve been away from THC and in fact pretty much the whole internet for two months as i lazily cycle my way across North America (still got plenty more to go), but i just popped back briefly and this article strikes a chord for me. One of the things i enjoyed about the computer magazines of old was that there was always an interesting cross-section of reporting. Even when i wasn’t especially interested in a thing, i’d still read about it, and sometimes i’d learn something or develop a new interest. I miss that experience.

    I suspect that its decline is a result of the internet making content so readily available that audiences no longer have the patience to read about all the different topics simply because that’s the only magazine on the shelf for the next month. Instead they choose to get a constant funnel of exactly the things that they like, every single day. So the best way for a publication to make money is to pick a target market and then try to dominate as much of that market’s funnel as they can. I suppose people can still curate their own mix of stuff by deliberately checking in on sites that cater to different audiences, but it takes a lot more effort and doesn’t have quite the same community spirit. It’s sad, but that might just be the way things are in the internet age.

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