In our humble opinion, the best video game TV series around.


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Lord British telling Ars about Ultima Online in 2017

This week, we had a first in the 20-years-and-counting history of Ars Technica: a Webby nomination. We know, we know (and forgive us): this may be a mid-level awards show based on popularity contests that requires nominees to pay for entry. But! In 2019, this award show has recognized a big editorial initiative at Ars over the last year: our War Stories docuseries.

War Stories highlights touch-and-go behind-the-scenes moments from the development of our favorite video games. We started the series in December 2017 because we've long been obsessed with the world of game development... well, and because we recognized a good opportunity when we saw it. Our first episode focused on Ultima Online and featured none other than gaming royalty Lord British. "For Lord British, telling war stories involves talking about Ultima, and talking about Ultima is a lot easier if you actually have all the Ultima games at hand. On their original platforms. In Richard Garriott’s freaking house." How could we say no?

Spoiler: we didn't, and we haven't another dozen or so times since with games ranging from Dead Space to Command & Conquer. This week, in fact, we debuted our first episode centered on a game still in development (MechWarrior 5, set to arrive in September 2019). So for this week's Orbital Transmission, we're sharing a few of our favorite War Stories episodes thus far... just in case you do feel compelled to vote for us in a potentially meaningless online awards poll this week.

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Orbital Transmission 04.03.2019

Making the best-selling adventure game required lots of world-building

With Blade Runner, War Stories focused on a genre particularly near and dear to many staffers' dead, black Gen-X hearts: the adventure game. Adventure games were one of the two ur-genres of true computer games (with the other being the arcade-style shooter), and for many children of the '80s, adventure games were what got people into gaming. The genre reached its peak in the early to mid 1990s, with some of the best-remembered LucasArts and Sierra titles making their appearance thereabouts. But by the end of the decade the wheels had come off the cart, and it was clear that the genre was being eclipsed by the rise of the first-person shooter. That was the landscape facing Westwood's Blade Runner before the dev team discovered they'd have to seamlessly mesh their pre-rendered world with animated voxel characters (spoiler: not easy).

Total War: Rome II

Total War: Rome II devs built all of Europe—and the AI ignored most of it

Creative Assembly's Total War franchise has been around for so long that it's old enough to drive, vote, and even drink in most countries. By the time 2013 rolled around and Creative Assembly was working its magic on Total War: Rome II, the design goals were ambitious indeed. Designers wanted to give players total freedom to move around all of classical-era Europe, from Caledonia to Arachosia and all points in between. Building a canvas this broad to play on meant the small team of designers had to rely on some clever procedural tools, and although you might expect those tools to be the point of this particular War Story, that's not actually what the problem turned out to be. What if you build a world, but the AI masses don't come?

War Stories: Alien v. Predator

An 11th-hour decision made Aliens versus Predator a classic

Did you know: the "Aliens versus Predator" concept first appeared in graphic novel form, though obviously it was catapulted into mainstream consciousness by a series of films in the 2000s. And in contrast to disappointing, stupid movies that prioritize cacophony over coherence, the small-screen adaptations of the AvP brand have generally been good. Rebellion's 1999 Aliens versus Predator, the first AvP game to have gameplay where you can be any of the three main entities: Alien, Predator, or humans. As it turns out—perhaps unsurprisingly—crafting a coherent single-player campaign in such a way that it can be played with three vastly different characters with vastly different abilities is really hard.

Cover art for Thief: The Dark Project

Thief’s intuitive stealth system wasn’t intuitive to design

Older PC gamers who were playing games in the late '90s and early 2000s likely have a soft spot in their hearts for Looking Glass Studios. The company's two best-known properties are Thief and System Shock, though Looking Glass was also responsible for the visually stunning Flight Unlimited and, of course, Ultima Underworld. The Thief series in particular—or at least the first two games—resonated with audiences. The phrase "innovative gameplay" is a laughable cliché in 2018, but Thief really did have innovative gameplay when it was released—other FPS titles had explored stealth-focused gameplay before, but none had managed to so completely capture the experience of sneaking. It turns out the process of building such a system is in no way a quiet process.

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