Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons

Mark Rosewater gave a great talk this year regarding design lessons he’s learned as a designer (currently lead designer) on Magic over 20 years.  This talk is so good that it should be used on day one of most Design 101 courses.

Incidentally, much of this talk comes from the best lessons from his column, “Making Magic”.  This blog is probably the best long-running game design blog in the industry, and if you like and understand Magic, you should be reading it.

Milo Vanilli

Speaking of Ethics in Games Journalism, it turns out that Milo Yiannopoulos (of the blue checkmark scandalessentially farms out most of his articles to unpaid ‘interns’ who appear to be largely made up of 8chan posters.

Yiannopoulos confirmed in an interview with BuzzFeed News that he has “about 44” interns — “a mix of paid and unpaid” — writing and conducting research for him. But he denied that other people write stories for him start to finish….

Yiannopoulos told BuzzFeed News that all uses of the n-word in PROJECT MILO were ironic. “A lot of these guys are young 4chan guys,” he said, referring to his interns. “They use it in the sense that message boards use it … It was the n-word with an -a, not with an -er — they were quoting hip-hop lyrics.”

As one can tell from the screenshot of his slack channel, it proudly contains channels like ‘Trump’, ‘Shitposting’ and ‘Blackcock’.

“I know they don’t mean it in a racist way,” he continued. “It wasn’t like I had to police racism out of my Slack.”

This is amusing because just this week, Milo posted what can only be described as a dog whistle to the white supremacy/MRA laden ‘alt-right’ movement.  Which to be honest, is way more fucking terrible than the first story. And also, tells you everything you know about the relationship between GamerGate and this cancer-ridden part of the Internet.


About that VR Talk

Last week, I talked about an interesting talk at GDC about Women, Harassment and VR.  Some commenters had some choice sentiments about the nature of this experiment.  Elizabeth Sampat had some choice words on the subject:

None of this is consensual: anyone who thinks that harassment isn’t affecting if you know it’s coming obviously has never been harassed before. Women don’t have some magical “sensitivity gene” that makes them more succeptible to harassment than anyone else, and the fact that you know you’re about to be harassed doesn’t make it any less powerful or any more okay. Harassing an unsuspecting woman and calling it an experiment is like holding up a bank, getting away with the money and then calling it performance art. The harm has been done, the boundaries have been violated, and no one has given consent.

None of this is news:  VR stands for VIRTUAL REALITY. There’s a game about tightrope-walking storeys above the ground, and video of people playing this game and of their abject fear already exists. It’s easy to extrapolate from all of these similar experiments in the medium that VR harassment would create the same autonomic responses as real-world harassment! A man is being applauded for discovering that women don’t like their personal space invaded, being shown phallic objects, or having their bodies touched without consent. How is that novel? How is that news?

None of this is brave: What a cowardly thing, to put yourself in the shoes of the abuser. How I would have loved a talk about how Harris designed a VR prototype in which you were a woman getting harassed on a San Francisco sidewalk or NYC subway. How brave and powerful it would have been to create an opt-in experience where people in positions of power could finally learn what it was like to feel small and afraid. What an innovative experiment that could have been! That’s a talk I would have liked to see. How boring and predictable it is to replicate centuries-old power structures, use an unwitting woman as your bait, and gather applause and acclaim. How sad it is to see from the company that made Papa y Yo.

I did not comment on this aspect of the test because, frankly, I don’t have enough information about his experiment – the Polygon article says that she was ‘unsuspecting’, but not having been to the talk, I’ve no idea HOW unsuspecting.  Did she sign a consent form?  Did she have a rough idea of what was going on?  I simply don’t know, and I haven’t found anyplace that discusses those possibilities.

Even if consent were given, history is full of social experiments that were incredibly useful to understanding human nature, and yet highly unethical and likely would earn utter condemnation if run today.  The Stanford Prison Experiment  and the Milgrim Obedience Experiments are both fundamentally important and useful studies, even if horrific in retrospect.  So while I do think this little experiment was probably prone to many of the complaints Elizabeth and other critics raised up, I do think the questions are vitally important to the science of Virtual Reality, and that researchers would be well-advised to find better ways to study this field, and figure out ways to educate the games industry about what I suspect would be their horrifying conclusions.

Nintendo Fires GamerGate Target for Bullshit Reasons

In the realm of corporate cowardice, very little compares to the utter cowardice that is firing a female employee because she is the target of an orchestrated hate campaign from reactionary assholes.  But that is exactly what Nintendo America has done.  The always excellent Jesse Singal gives the rundown.

For those seeking more background, check out this Kotaku article.

Multiplayer VR Experiences Need to Worry About Harassment Right Fucking Now

While I was at E3, Polygon published an article about a new, horrifying problem that to be honest, so far I haven’t even considered in my analysis of why VR has a bumpy road ahead, and that is that harassment in VR is likely to be way, way worse than in normal games.  A game dev at GDC demonstrated the problem on an unprepared participant, and made things clear that harassment is a lot more brutal when people are reaching towards your crotch directly.  Said the dev:

“It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” he warned, his tone becoming more grave.

This is crucially important, but the only people I’ve seen the article treat this as a serious, grave issue are MMO experts, including Second Life chronicler James Wagner Au and Scott Jennings.  Au is more skeptical, whereas Scott’s point of view mirrors mine – it’s definitely a solvable problem.  The question is whether or not developers will decide to solve this problem before launching their products.

This didn’t stop some incredibly naive and short-sighted commentary.

Nope, not kidding, and it’s not pearl clutching.  It’s time to get to work. This has the problem to be catastrophic for VR – at least for VR that involves connected experiences with strangers.  Here’s the thing – games earn reputations, and so do platforms.  And they earn that reputation right when they launch, usually, when stories of harassment break on the web.  If this isn’t solved before the ‘technology is out’, it could result stunting the growth of VR for years.

To put it in stark terms, if you’re a mom, are you buying yourself or your daughter a VR unit after Time runs a ‘Rape in Cyberspace’ type story and Fox starts villifying it?

I’ve written before about how important that it was that Ultima Online changed the culture of the game by aggressively moving to ban assholes.  This change directly is tied to the doubling of our subscription base.  However, we were never able to change the perception of the market that was formed on day one that the game was a cesspool.  If we didn’t have that baggage, we would have grown much, much faster.  On SWTOR, we built the infrastructure, tools and call centers at launch – it cost us millions of dollars – but as such, our online reputation was never nearly as negative as UO’s (WoW followed a similar path).

All this led to another exchange that was equally face-palming.

This is a lot of ignorance about League of Legend’s challenges with harassment from someone who purports to be a producer for one of the most significant LOL fan sites.  She seemed to think I was implying that League of Legends was not profitable before they started addressing harassment, and her other tweets imply that harassment has not had a significant impact on their bottom line.  The former point is misconstruing my point, and the latter is directly counteracted by evidence from the numerous discussion points from Riot Games themselves.


The simple fact is that Riot Games has invested millions of dollars combating toxicity and harassment in their space.  They have done multiple GDC speeches on their work (seriously, this talk is awesome, watch it), both describing the damage that harassment has done to the game, as well as how they’ve invented new technology, based on machine learning, in order to better police their work.  Jeffrey Lin’s conclusion is very similar to the theory of Broken Windows – i.e. that their inability to address harassment fast enough resulted in the perception that harassment was the norm.  Wired has covered these efforts multiple times.  The investment into fighting harassment is real, its expensive, and in the case of League of Legends, it’s actually working!   

But here’s what’s immediately relevant: despite the fact that League of Legends has clear data that shows that their world is far less toxic than it used to be based on their efforts, they cannot overcome the reputation they’ve already earned from their earliest days.  There’s much less toxicity than their used to be, but you now have an inherent bias as a player – you expect to see toxicity, so when you see it now — even though it’s much rarer than it used to be — it confirms that bias, and developers are given very little appreciation for the massive cost and work that’s gone into fighting the problem.  This leads to, for example, a community that  is 90% male.

THIS is why it’s important that VR starts thinking and worrying about this problem now.  If they wait until after people have a few rape-y encounters before they start taking this issue seriously, the damage will take far longer to undo.

I’m Still Skeptical about VR

The interesting thing about GDC was the fact that interest in VR is everywhere.  Monday and Tuesday had a VR summit, and lines were so long they have to use overflow rooms, and ultimately rearrange the conference to make room for it.  It reminded me a lot of GDC in 1996-1997, when the MMO talks and roundtables were being packed, despite the fact that no one knew anything about the field (the pre-EQ, pre-AC days where even I was considered an expert).

Back then, I had the benefit of being the subject matter in the thick of things – hell, the sheer lack of MMO designers at the time made me a world-class expert on the field.  Now, I’m just a cranky old man observer.  Still, I have a lot of hesitation – not so much about whether VR will conquer the world, but also about WHEN that might happen.  The issues are myriad, but only a couple do I see mentioned frequently:

  1. The vomiting issue.  The struggle is real and is well-known.  People have been telling me that it’s an urgent issue to solve for two years now, and I don’t know if anyone’s closer to it.  Most people that I’ve talked to say that this can be reduced by simply having games that have no movement in them.  Yay, Deer Hunter!
  2. The social virality issue.  The games with peripherals that do the best are highly social games that demo well at parties – think Rock Band or the Wii.  Both were compelling experiences that made observers immediately want to rush home and buy their own.  VR, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot to observers.
  3. The cost issue & market consolidation.  Right now, we have 3-4 major players, vying to be the major player.  And getting into the space is expensive – matching or exceeding the cost of a modern console, but with vastly less utility.  This choice will end up causing market paralysis -players are going to wait until one emerges as a clear leader.
  4. The Harassment issue.  I’ll probably write about this issue in a seperate post, but this will be a much worse problem for connected VR games than it ever was for MMOs and LoL.  This isn’t going to be a huge issue in single-player and shared-space VR issues for a while tough.
  5. The Setup Issue.  Millions of people have hardware peripherals they’ve played once, and then put on the shelf and never touched again.  That even extends to things like 3D television, which requires the incredible simple setup of… finding the glasses.  3D requires even more setup for a simple session – putting on a lunky piece of hardware, positioning yourself in a place you won’t trip over the coffee table, etc.

This is not to say that I think that all VR games are bad – I’m quite fond of several experiences, especially puzzly games like SuperHyperCube that don’t try to be realistic.  But I do think there’s going to be a lot more resistance to these experiences leaving the realm of early adopters to become truly mass market.  Trying to guess which one will win is a fun exercise – if I had to guess, I’d bet on Sony’s Playstation VR.

  1. They have gravity from all the PS4’s that already are out there in living rooms.
  2. The fact that they are in living rooms means they are more likely to make a good living room social experience that can go viral.
  3. They have experience making kid-proof hardware, and are priced competitively for the field.

Note that none of this has much to do with the games or the hardware itself.  That being said, the single most significant thing that the VR companies can do is find an experience that sells as much hardware as Soul Caliber did in the 90s.

But then again, I’m probably being a cranky old man.  But at any rate, I’m much more entranced with HoloLens and Magic Leap.  So maybe I’m just looking slightly further down the road to Augmented Reality, and putting my undue enthusiasm there.

Milo’s Pathetic Two Month Tantrum Reaches the White House

Milo Yiannopoulous, the pitifully preening thin-skinned neurotic meerkat that has self-styled himself as the Liberace of the Alt Right Movement Dedicated to Preserving the Right for Pathetic Manchildren To Be Abusive Shitheads in between bouts of acting as the Pied Piper of the #GamerGate movement, managed to worm his way into the White House Briefing Room today, where he managed to ask a question.

We live in perilous times.  The economy is being buffeted by Asia, ISIS is still dangerous, and both political parties are in chaos due to unlikely primary challenges.  So what does Milo want to talk about?  Apparently, he is still butthurt about losing his blue checkmark due to his self-admitted, utterly despicable habit of being generally a terrible person to anyone who dares to recognize his awesome brilliance.

Anyway, he just happened to wander into the White House Briefing Room, where he asked a question about how him losing his checkmark showed how conservative free speech rights are UNDER ATTACK!  The clip is amusing partially because the White House Spokesperson clearly thinks its about the stupidest question that’s been asked of him in his tenure herding these cats.

There are, of course, a few observations to make here.

  1. If you ask the leader of the federal government to Orwellianly stop a private company from policing their userbase to their likelihood, then your small government/libertarian credentials are about as authentic as a super secret circle that tells you to drink your Ovaltine.
  2. If you can still post on Twitter, you still have plenty of free speech.  The fact that Milo’s patented brand of abuse of the Twitter platform (and, frankly, of the concept of ethics in journalism entirely) has only cost him this vanity adornment and not gotten him removed from the platform so far is, frankly, a testament to both Twitter’s leniency – or stupidity, if you ask me.
  3. Complaining you lack free speech after having managed to sneak into one of the most exclusive media invites in America, and being able to ask the spokes of the opposition party – when you work for a media outlet who despises this president and virtually everything he stands for – is pretty much the height of being so self-absorbedly out of touch with how your so-called issues conflict with actual reality, it’s a wonder you haven’t taken over a Bird Sanctuary somewhere.

This sort of shit has been flowing fast and fierce from those who have tried to turn Online Abuse into a cause for cultural revolution.  A year after the CEO of Twitter noted that they suck at  dealing with abusive shitheads, Twitter has since gotten more aggressive about banning abusive trolls and obnoxious shithead Neonazis, with said trolls and shitheads insisting that this was about the silencing of the conservative worldview, despite the fact that millions of conservatives can and still post on Twitter.  It turns out the common thread is being a troll or shithead, particularly one that engages in doxing, dogpiling or direct threats.  In short, Twitter is following the most basic rule of community management: people who cost them more money or eyeballs than they grant them are, frankly, bad for business, and Twitter is under no obligation to support the fetid swamp feces that they claim is discourse.

But do go ahead and sue Twitter, Milo.  Because I could sorely use the material.

Operation #BarelyADribble

Last year, I wrote about Fire Emblem’s poorly conceived romance option which involved drugging your lesbian companion so she would have sex with you — but only if you were male.  This was perceived by many observers as (a) creepy as fuck and (b) reminiscent of a barbaric American practice known as Gay Conversion Therapy, presenting the idea that homosexuality as a character flaw that can be fixed.  Ian Miles Cheong tried to handwave it away as normal for Japan, describing one of the most sexually repressive countries on earth as ‘sex-positive’.

Anyway, there was enough of a stink about it that Nintendo decided to change this quest when they localized the game for America.  This is, of course, completely a common process when localizing games, as Nintendo pointed out.

“Making changes is not unusual when we localize games, and we have indeed made changes in these games. When we localize a game we do so in order to make it appropriate for that particular territory. All our choices were made from that point of view.”

Continue reading

Magic and Planned Obsolescence, Revisited

Last week, I wrote an article about how Hearthstone’s copying of Magic’s strategy of obsoleting old cards will probably result in very good things for Hearthstone.  One of the things that I forgot to mention is that Magic, themselves are changing the rules.  They are SPEEDING UP the obsolescence pattern.  And players are thrilled.

Magic used to ship a core set, a big base set and 2 smaller sets every year, and only cards shipped in the last two years were usable.  For a long list of reasons, they are switching to only two-set blocks (a large set and a small set), and every year they will ship two blocks.  And here’s the important thing: they are moving from a 2 year obsolescence pattern to one that is 18 months.

However, what’s notable is that people are thrilled not just because of the addition of new cards, but the removal of old cards that had caused the game to stagnate.

Development was trying to tackle the metagame problem of Standard getting stale too quickly. This new rotation would shake things up a little but it wouldn’t have enough impact to solve the problem. You see, a metagame is more shaped by what leaves the environment than what enters.

Put another way, currently everyone who doesn’t play with a card named Siege Rhino hates the card named Siege Rhino.  It’s so dominant a card that the entire format warps around it – either you play it, or you have to play cards specifically to deal with it.  Before the format change, players who were sick of this 18-month old card would have to endure it until this Autumn.  People at my gaming store are dancing a jig that it will rotate out this April instead when we return to Innistrad.  Magic routinely has had trouble selling their spring sets – most people instead choose to play less until the ‘big set’ comes in the fall if they don’t like the current metagame.  Clearly, they are hoping this changes.

Meanwhile, another format called ‘modern’ is completely fucked.  And the new set released a card that created a new deck so powerful that 44% of all magic games in that format now run that particular deck.  People are talking about this like it’s the armageddon.

Now is the part of the show where we have to understand that, logically speaking, the decks that are coming out of the woodwork to beat Eldrazi will not always beat it, and the decks that Eldrazi already has a very healthy matchup against (like Burn for instance) will still lose to it. This places Eldrazi in very terrifying company, because it means that it’s one of the most powerful decks in Modern that can still beat the decks dedicated to stopping it.

Modern will likely only get fixed by banning something – a path they are generally loathe to do, but likely will have to do in order to stop the collapse of what is normally a very popular format.

As for Standard’s move to 18 months – one interesting part of this shift in business strategy is that Magic announced this… in 2014.  I.e. they announced it before the cards they were about to ship would shorten to have only an 18 month lifespan in standard, in case that affected anyone’s purchasing decision.  I only call this out because it underscores how the Wizards of the Coast team is, and has been for some time, one of the class acts of the game development industry.

(And while we’re at it, Mark Rosewater’s weekly column is perhaps the best game design column there is).

The Myth of Political Correctness

Political Correctness is the bugaboo of many an idiot.  It’s a term that’s been thrown around by idiots for a long time in order to raise the creeping concern that somewhere, crafty sneaky liberals were going to make you listen to their opinions!  After which, of course, you would be helpless to begin taking bonghits out of a VW van in between patchouli baths and tie-dye parties.

The people who raise the specter of political correctness are comedians.  Most recently, it includes comedians Jerry Seinfeld and John Cleese, both of whom I consider to be comedy legends, but both of whom have in these exchanges betrayed themselves as either morons of the highest order, or craven cowards.  Dearie me!  I told a joke that I knew was offensive to people, and some people were offended!  Can someone loan me some pearls?  For I must clutch them!

Meanwhile, Deadpool opened to a $132M opening weekend.  It was vulgar.  It was offensive.  It was a superhero movie with a pegging scene. It was also a wonderful, wonderful movie.  And I’m glad it was made.  And I’m also glad they made it with the R rating and ignored idiots like this schmuck.  The results were so good that they’re now talking about giving us a Wolverine that actually uses his claws. Which is awesome.

We’re just a few years away from no one being able to say ‘shit’ on television.  It was considered a big fucking deal when Newhart showed a married couple in bed.  Lenny Bruce was arrested for doing comedy 50 years ago – and now Seinfeld won’t play campuses because he might hear a couple boos.  Psycho was almost censored because it showed a flushing toilet.  Now we have the Saw franchise. NWA was arrested when they played ‘Fuck the Police’ in Detroit.   Today, law enforcement wouldn’t bat an eye at that concert.  Back in the day, Elvis Presley got in trouble for pelvic thrusting.  MTV is pretty much filled with the thrusting of pelvises – and so much more – well, in those rare instances they still show music videos.

Today, countless comedians dare to tackle ‘politically correct’ topics, such as Louis CK discussing why some words are considered bad.  Or Sarah Silverman, who makes rape jokes a core part of her act.  I’m sure that some people are offended by their acts.  Or Amy Schumer’s whole slut schtick.  Or, um, a lot of the Chapelle Show or Chris Rock’s standup act.    The trick is to not care.

I grew up listening to and loving Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks and Denis Leary. My friends also listened to Andrew Dice Clay – I didn’t care for him, but man did he sell a lot of CDs in my dorm. At no point did these guys think ‘no one should be offended by my humor’. Hell, they REVELLED in pushing those boundaries. If no one was offended, they would have thought they were doing it wrong.

Cut to the real world, modern day.  GTA V is the top video game ever made, not just in sales but in critical approval.  South Park and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia still command solid audiences for saying ‘fuck you’ to anyone offended by what they have to say.  The Game of Thrones gives no shits that a segment of their population wishes it was a little less of a rape-a-thon.  And Deadpool.  Fucking glorious Deadpool. Clearly, content creators who don’t want to toe the line of political correctness are doing whatever the fuck they want to do as artists, and are reaping huge benefits from it if they do it well.

But people are going to get the vapors because they posted something they knew was offensive to some on a message board, and some people were offended?  The truth is not that political correctness is problem – it’s not.  The truth is that these people are just as thin-skinned as the SJW demons they have imagined in their heads.

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