Zen Of Design

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

SPJ Airplay

I’ve been trying to cool down on GamerGate writings.  I actually made a pact to myself to not use the word in a blog article through July, a promise made more manageable by work turning into super happy fun fun imminent shipping insanity at work.  My first recent mention of it was in the Sad Puppies article, largely because GG’s apoplexy over the events at WorldCon was simply too tasty to not Schadenfreudize.

That being said, AirPlay was earlier this month, and I did keep an eye on its happenings.  Oddly enough, I was asked to comment by GamePolitics.com on the coverage of the event, and I did.  My commentary – and that of other observers across the spectrum – is here.  Left unsaid were my thoughts about the event itself.

For the uninitiated, AirPlay was a symposium held by a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in Florida* . The brainchild of one Michael Koretzky, it was envisioned to be a debate about ethics in journalism between notable pro- and anti-gamergate voices.  Along the way, all of the anti- voices declined the invitation to come**.  Then Koretzky managed to, in his own unique way, alienate a whole bunch of the pro-gamergate voices, to the point that anyone who left were professional conservative culture warriors intent on milking gamergate as a war on feminism, diversity and other progressive causes in the arts debating– no one.  Yes, a completely unopposed stage.  And even then, GamerGate voices claimed they were getting unfavorable terms.  Somewhere along the way, Derek Smart (yes, that one) got involved.

Around this time, I predicted that AirPlay would be a trainwreck and it did not disappoint.

AirPlay was about as perfect an analogy of the meandering idiocy that is the last year of the GamerGate movement that I can possibly imagine.  Presented to a half-full auditorium, the morning was spent with the examination of pretty much the only ethical thing GG has managed to dig up in a year (the Hernandez case, a minor but definite transgression) and the firing of Jeff Gertzmann for Gamespot’s Kane & Lynch reviews- in 2007.***  For those with math capabilities, this was 8 years ago, which really underlined how little ethical problems have occurred in the gaming press in the last year, given this hate mob’s TOP MEN have been on the case and haven’t found much of anything new since this catastrophuck started last year.

In the afternoon session, Milo and Christina Sommers both derailed the whole thing into discussions about the evils of SJWs, blowing out their time, ignoring the agreed upon format, and trying repeatedly to stampede over Koretzky’s attempts to keep things on track.  Favorite moment:

(At one point Lynn Walsh said to Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos – whose early career included a stint at the very well-known British Daily Telegraph – “I hope you get to work with a good journalist”. This is either a tremendously sick burn on the Telegraph, Breitbart et al, or suggested she thought he was perhaps there having won a contest.)

Eventually, a bomb threat ended the event early.  KiA attempted to blame anti-gamergaters for it, but the aGGers I was observing were sad that it ended – the entire event was, frankly, hilarious in its demonstration that Gamergate is an emperor that has no clothes.  The real villains were likely third-party trolls, who love to spin up easily outraged folks – and lord knows GG hasa never ending supply of bullies looking for something to be outraged about.  ****

After this debacle was all over, Koretzky had the gall to be wounded that gaming journalists didn’t cover it more.

Another large gaming news site, Polygon, covered the bomb threat but not the debates.…so why didn’t Polygon cover AirPlay itself? I emailed Polygon’s editor Chris Grant, but I haven’t heard back from him, either. So much for professional courtesy.

Obviously, Kotaku and Polygon wrote nothing on purpose. This wasn’t an oversight – their editors knowingly ignored the biggest gaming story of the week.

Yes, the biggest gaming story of the week was a handful of red-blooded conservatives telling a half-empty and highly skeptical SPJ audience that covering feminism in games has something to do with ethics in games journalism.  I’ve been to IGDA meetings in Austin that were more well-populated and had more honest and legitimate content than this symposium.  Somehow, the press doesn’t cover those either.

For what it’s worth, Polygon DID cover the bomb threat, which was the only thing remotely newsworthy about the whole circus.

The truth of the matter is that the gaming press doesn’t cover GamerGate anymore for the same reason that political reporters don’t cover LaRouchians.  GamerGate is a fringe group that has proven, repeatedy, that their views and tactics don’t merit the microphone of someone interested in serious game coverage.  Perhaps someday they’ll centralize, choose spokespeople who aren’t terrible, find ethical transgressions with actual impact & relevance, and stop being sidetracked by silly digressions like defending child porn on 8chan or being on the losing side of the Sad Puppies idiocy.  However, I am not holding my breath

definitely not endorsed by the mothership SPJ organization!
** Some random anti-gamergaters volunteered on Twitter, but were rejected as being likely trolls.  Also, I was not invited to come, but would have relished the opportunity to reject the opportunity in peals of hysterical laughter and bold, all-caps text.  Sadly, my trainwreck post probably cost me any chance at that opportunity, because for some reason I was seen as not taking the event seriously.
***  (Incidentally, Gerstman does not seem to be a fan of GG’s cause or tactics)
**** If you’re the sort of person who does bomb threats, you’re an asshole.  Stop it.  I give no shits what side of anything you think you’re on.

Hugo Voters Reject Sad, Rabid Puppies

It’s not every day that you wake up to find that the asshole brigade on the internet has been utterly humiliated beyond all expectations, but that appears to be what we have today.  Last night, the voters of the Hugo Awards utterly rejected the attempts by a conservative reactionary mob led by one of the single most influential racist, misogynistic assholes on the internet to game the nominating process of their awards, opting instead to give the awards to nobody rather than their handpicked slate.  In doing so, the Hugos maintained what integrity they could, and also proved what people like me have been saying about similar controversies like #GamerGate – they claim to speak for a silent majority, when in fact they speak for a loud minority – albeit a loud minority who leverages outrage to mobilize better than any other group.

Tons of good coverage of this, including at Wired, Yes! NPR and BoingBoing (and GRRM has been covering it closely since it all started).   Short summary is that earlier this year, two groups of people (the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies) figured out they could game the nominating process for the Hugo Awards, long considered one of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction, in order to fight against what they percieve as the scourge of ‘SJW’-themed novels that have continued to win of late.  They succeeded in the nomination process, but in the final ballot, voters blew their slates out of the water with an unprecedented five ‘no awards’ in these categories.  This is an institutional repudiation on par to the mocking that #Gamergate took at GDC’s awards dinner this year.

Over at KotakuInAction (which is really more about anti-SJW hysteria than games at this point), they’re trying weakly to spin it into a positive, or alternatlvely trying to find a way to be outraged about the utter collapse of the anti-SJW effort.  Million_dollar Bus Aficionado Mark Kern compared the results to book burning,  Ian Miles Cheong nonsensically claimed the results ‘prove’ that the awards were rigged and Milo Yiannopoulos tried to blame the ‘SJWs’ on tearing down the awards rather than, you know, the assholes who tore down the awards.  This is a weak sauce argument – the ‘No Award’ vote totals clearly included not just far lefties but moderates as well, which suggests that many people were offended and opposed to the naked attempt to manipulate via brigading one of the most storied awards in Sci-Fi.  It was appalling enough that even some of the authors who were nominated by the Puppies to back out rather than be associated with the effort and even the ones who didn’t rejected the tactics.

All of these #gamerGate diehards, by the way, seem utterly unconcerned that the founders of the Puppies movements were enthusiastically pushing their friends, or that Vox Day gamed the rules in order to push himself and his magazine’s contributors to the top of the nominations.  Apparently, ethics are only important when SJWs are involved.

All this being said, this is not as rosy as it appears, as legitimately good art was forced off the ballot by the Sad Puppies brigading, or felt compelled to reject their nominations to distance themselves from Vox Day.  The Hugos have a real problem to solve in figuring out how to keep this from happening next year.  Looking forward, here’s a proposal for improving the voting process, so it can’t be gamed again next year.


A Retrospective on the SWG New Game Experience

Raph Koster pointed me to an article of one of the most infamous moments history in MMOdom – the moment where Sony Online Entertainment decided to entirely redo the entire game, cutting entire character classes, and replacing the core combat mechanic with ‘clicky combat’.  This event was known as the New Game Experience, commonly referred to as the NGE.  I have in the past described it as one of the largest mass-scale fuckups ever perpetuated on a large-scale MMO – it was a truly catastrophic event, both in terms of what it did to the game experience players loved, as well as what it did to the game’s population.

Of particular interest was Gordon Walton claiming responsibility for the whole thing, and community manager Tiggs going on an epic rant about the revamp, which ultimately cost her her job.  From my part, I was working down the road on Shadowbane at the time, and I can remember two things.  First and foremost, I remember a steady stream of Sony people suddenly flooding me with mail, friend requests, phone calls, looking for a life boat out.  In the trenches, faith in the NGE was apocalyptically low.

Secondly, I remember this event that shows the danger of pissing off an established community.  The NGE was not long after WoW was starting to show signs of real success, and made decision makers reevaluate what success looks like in the MMO genre.  Lagging slightly behind EverQuests numbers went from seeming pretty good to seeming anemic as fuck for a major licensed MMO almost overnight.  The logic behind the change was that getting rid of the Sim and replacing it with more conventional combat might alienate some of your existing customers, but their defections would be swamped by new people signing up.  What the logic failed to account for was that the existing community wouldn’t just quit.  They went to the press and poisoned the well.  It’s hard for your recruitment initiative to pick up steam when you’re battling perceptions like this Wired article, which seemed everywhere while this was ongoing.

Capitalism and Diversity

Daniel Vavra’s got some commentary on diversity from a slightly different slant from Adrian Chmielarz‘ bizarre critique of the social critics who dared to even start a dialog about race in WItcher 3, and games in general.  Note; questioning the artistic vision is just fine when you ask why the art direction seems like a massive step backwards, but if you say ‘hey, guys, this game sure is…. white’, then the perpetual outrage machine suddenly gets as thin-skinned and easily offended as the SJW armies they’ve blown out of proportion in ther imaginations.  Still, I like Vavra’s piece a lot more than Chmielarz’, though I still disagree with much of it.  Let’s take a looksee.

Only along come the crusaders for social justice, ranting that the game is racist, because it’s not ethnically diverse enough, due to the fact that there are only Polish-looking people in it and the Poles have the “misfortune” to be white.

Again, the critics in question gave it a solid 8.0 and called it “one of the greatest games I’ve ever played”, so apparently these critics didn’t feel they were TOO horrible, but hey, what do I know, I just actually read what they wrote.  Still, what can you say to someone who compares people who disagrees with him about video games to a Communist regime?

The communist regime also “meant well” and their rhetoric was almost identical to that we hear today from the likes of Jonathan McIntosh and other American progressives.

Right.  Meanwhile, from my point of view, I wonder why these people don’t like money.  Because at the end of the day, that’s what the push for greater diversity is all about CAPITALISM for those of us MAKING games.  Getting more people to get their hands on our games – more non-gamers to play, more gamers from other demographics to play, or more gamers from new, emerging markets to play the game.

Only along come the crusaders for social justice, ranting that the game is racist, because it’s not ethnically diverse enough, due to the fact that there are only Polish-looking people in it and the Poles have the “misfortune” to be white. That’s an issue for the activists, because an African American, for example, might not be happy about playing a white Polish hero.

Certainly there is good reason for activists to want more diversity from playable leads – the handcrafted badasses that we painstakingly character design, write dialogue for, and market the industry around.  But that wasn’t the point.  The point is that viewers and game players of all sorts tend to respond favorably to portrayals, particularly positive portrayals, that they have personal resonance with.  Which is to say, if you want to have a large-scale breakout hit which penetrates many multiple markets, you increase the odds significantly with greater in-game diversity.

Vavra veered into comparing the games industry to the music industry – suggesting that Britney Spears should play death metal, which was amusing.  Similar complaints on Twitter to my article about Rescuing Princesses in Arkham Knight suggested that I thought that all straight porn should have a gay scene.  While amusing, no.  Extreme diversification of content for small, indie games is fine (though we need more, despite Vavra’s statistics).  However, AAA games are far more similar to big budget movies in their financial statistics, and guess what? Hollywood is big believers in diversity once they start hitting 9 digits (a number we’re starting to hit as well).

Joss Whedon gets 100M+ to make Avengers movies because he puts female butts in seats (and yes, sometimes he trips up).  Movies at that scale are not perfect, but compared to games they’re fanatical about putting in strong female and black characters – and not just in token roles, but in meaty, significant roles.  Even more telling, it seems almost every summer blockbuster explosion porn extravaganza has at least one major scene in Asia (see: Battleship, Pacific Rim, Transformers 4, Avengers 2) – that’s not an accident.  It turns out that Asian audiences are the audiences that eat these sorts of movies up the most after American audiences, and they like to watch Hong Kong get destroyed just as much as we like to watch the Hollywood sign go down.

Vavra would no doubt argue that this is not a very ‘diverse’ thing – to see every action movie find a way to wander over to Hong Kong for a pivotal fight scene.  And this is true.  Meanwhile, Transformers 4 is the top grossing movie of all time in China, so hey, maybe this isn’t just pandering to American communists who ‘mean well’.  It’s also pandering to Chinese communists who spend very real money, which is pretty important if you’re spending ridiculous amounts of money creating your artistic vision.

What I like about The Witcher is its very “Polishness”, and I’m certainly not the only one. The very fact that the “diverse” Dragon Age Inquisition, set in an indefinite fantasy world, sold less copies in Japan in one year than The Witcher did in two weeks proves my point.

It’s equally absurd to demand that a European stick elements of foreign cultures he doesn’t understand into his games. As a Czech, most foreign games and movies set in my own country seem to me at best ridiculous, because foreigners can’t even manage to capture properly the look of this country (Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid 4, Forza 5 etc.), never mind our mentality and culture.

Comparing game sales solely based on the diversity of their casts is — well, not very useful, to say the least.  A LOT goes into whether one game does better than another.  Still, he has a good point buried in here – games that try to mimic a culture they’re not familiar with frequently fail to resonate with their intended audiences, producing results that feel alien or sometimes even insulting to the cultures they’re attempting to reflect.  One of the things you learn early in this industry is to always contract your Asian architecture in particular out to Asian art houses, because Americans can’t get it to feel right.

That being said, I do think that it’s bizarre to think that the defining feature about Polish culture is, somehow, it’s whiteness.   And I wonder if Witcher 3 might have sold even more copies if it had been more inclusive in its character designs.  It would have been as simple as including a Zerrikanian, (such as Azar Javed from an earlier Witcher product), in the game, preferably as a meaningful character.  Having badasses reflect you, the player, in a game helps create the sense that you belong.  And that increases appeal to people who might not otherwise.  People who are white and male don’t actually appreciate how rare that is for others.

To go back to the movies, Norse mythology is ALSO lily white.  However, the makers of Thor saw fit to include Idris Elba in the key role of Heimdall.  Did this somehow hurt the ‘Norseness’ of the movie?  Not particularly – that’s not what’s important about Norse mythology, and the only people who were upset about it were the sort of despicable white supremacists who call Stormfront home.  Meanwhile, the movie probably sold more tickets than it otherwise would have (the Thor movies both did over $180M gross, despite the fact that it’s based on a relatively second- or third-tier Marvel book).  Which means that a larger, more diverse audience were introduced to Norse mythology.  Which, if you care about preserving and promoting Norse culture, is way more important than ‘everyone’s white’.  Marvel Comics is being far more forward and bold in this regard, of course, and clearly something’s working for them as they’re continuing to trounce DC in their books as well as their movies.

After this, Vavra posted a lot of numbers.  I’m seeing different numbers where I’m sitting – I’m looking ahead to where things are growing.  I’m seeing more devices in more countries and more games going international.  I’m seeing more money from more sales to audiences outside our safety zone.  I’m seeing, for example, and RPG audience that has shifted radically towards women.  Which is good, because the truth is that AAA budgets are growing at paces that outpace the audiences that buy them today.  There aren’t a lot of outs to solving that problem, so many companies are hoping that capitalism will save us.  Through diversity.

Derek Smart Joins Circus d’AirPlay

I began this month with a promise that I was not going to post the name of a certain hashtag on my frontpage for the duration of July.  The Airplay catastrofuck has made that promise very difficult.  Fortunately, Scott managed to say what I wanted to say, only funnier, anyway.

Derek Smart vs Star Citizen: Round Two

Derek Smart is still continuing his ongoing crusade against Star Citizen, most notably “the bullshit that is the ‘vaporware’ […] that RSI/CIG have foisted on […] legacy backers”.

“These bastards, most of whom were probably running around in diapers, rubbing poo-dipped hands on their faces, when I was earning my chops as a hardcore Internet Warlord, simply don’t know who they’re dealing with,”

Well, okay then.  Smart is responding to the fact that CIG responded to his initial calm, reasoned complaints by refunding his kickstarter.  This didn’t sit well.

“All you’ve done, is strengthened my resolve, and unwittingly broadcast to the world that you have something to hide by kicking me out as a backer,” he says. “I’m going to take out a full page article in the NY times, just to prove it.”

Feel free to click through to see (I am not making this up) Derek Smart’s list of demands.


Drama in Troll Country

It turns out that there’s been some problems in getting a handful of industrial grade neoconservative rape denialists and kool aid drinkers together to pretend to discuss ethics while slamming feminists and diversity initiatives in gaming and geek culture to a group of actual professional journalists.

Enjoy the schadenfreude sundae.

Here I have some exclusive footage, brought back in time, of the Airplay event.

Train Wreck

Update: Koretzky responds to criticism from his move.  And Campbell has now declared that he will not be attending entirely, which is a shame.  Despite his penchant for melodrama, Campbell was by far heads and shoulders above the other panelists in terms of knowledge and passion for games, game journalisms, and the games industry as a whole. The rest are simply culture warriors who have found a sympathetic audience.

Update #2: Buzzfeed weighs in.

Rescuing Princesses in Arkham Knight

I generally like Anita’s work.  However, one place where I’ve felt it to be weak is in regards to Damseling.  It’s not that I don’t agree that it’s an overused trope.  The issue is that a number of issues converge to make damseling difficult to fix. These same issues make the Bechdel Test worthless for games.  To wit:

1) Story-based games tend to center on one character.  Unlike an ensemble movie, like say the Avengers, pretty much all interactions must center on the main character and his conflicts. All core characters are defined by their relation to that main character.  If that main character’s gender is preset as male (as it is frequently, especially in licensed games such as an Arkham game), then all other relationships, male or female, will effectively be defined by that character.

2) While Anita & other cultural critics find it tiring to talk about women continually being rescue targets and motivations, the truth of the matter is that virtually any experienced screenwriter will tell you that saving an ally or loved one is a far more compelling narrative than saving the world by finding/disabling/destroying some interchangeable quest foozle.  Most game stories have TWENTY or so of these quest foozles to pad out a 20 hour playtime, and need to have rescues and similar ‘personal’ missions in order to relieve the banality and add more personal stake Which means that if you want to include female allies in your game, it’s hard NOT to trip over one of these tropes unless you put your female characters in a closet where they aren’t actually interacting with the plot much at all – obviously not desirable either.

So yeah, I tend to think that handwringing over damseling tends to be overwrought.  As such, I was fully prepared to pooh pooh this writeup on the game.  But once I sat down and made time to play, I found Arkham Knight to be pretty disquieting in this regard.  Which is an odd step backwards for a game that’s a sequel to a game that gave us a significantly playable and awesome Catwoman.

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Trusting and Not Trusting Research

A few days ago, in my Magic Mike thought exercise, I concluded with a link to a study suggesting that young boys and girls want more female heroes and fewer as sex objects.  While this link didn’t fundamentally affect my article or my opinions on this topic, the authors of this particular study have since reported that the methodology of the study is not a ‘rigorous academic study‘, but rather an exploratory one meant to spur other research.

“From my understanding, she found some pretty interesting findings,” Patchin said. “So now, of course, the next step is to replicate that and do another test in another school. Maybe 100 researchers can take questions and administer them in other populations and see if they hold up. That’s the scientific process.”

Which is all good and well, but we generally don’t write Time magazine articles about research that’s in that stage of development.  I’m sure more research will be done in this arena, but this one shouldn’t be considered definitive by anyone for any reason.

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Smedley vs. Lizard Squad

Speaking of unspeakable and horrific harassment, this week the member of Lizard Squad that authorities managed to get their hands on got sentenced for his part of their activities, which included that Christmas where none of us could play on XBox Live.

For whatever reason, this group has decided in particular to target John Smedley, former president of SOE (now Daybreak studios), which is responsible for Everquest, Planetside and H1Z1.  The shitstorm he’s endured is probably the most significant gaming shitstorm this side of Zoe Quinn.

“[The arrested kid] was the guy that brought down my flight with a bomb threat,” wrote Smedley, who was onboard an American Airlines flight last August that was forced to make an emergency landing due to a security threat. “I’ve heard the entire recording where he convinced an airline customer service agent there was a bomb on the plane. He also in conjunction with others has sent me pictures of my father’s grave with nasty stuff on it. I’ve had my entire credit history put out on the internet including my SSN and my families [sic] info. We’ve had multiple social networks and other things hacked and had my family members called.”

Smedley also said he has been ‘swatted’ multiple times—when police are fooled into thinking there’s an emergency at a victim’s house, and often activate their swat teams—and has been the victim of serious financial fraud from hackers, presumably Lizard Squad.

“I’ve … had over 50 false credit applications submitted in my name and had to deal with the ramifications of what happens to your credit when this kind of thing happens. It’s not good,” he said. “And to top it all off they decided to submit false tax returns.”

The kid caught participating in all of this was charged with 50,000 counts of cybercrime in his home in Finland.  For this, the kid recieved 2 years of a suspended sentence.  That’s right, no jail time, at least not yet. 51000th time is the charm?

For John’s part, he’s looking at potentially seeking other remedies, mostly suing the little scamp’s parents into bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, these instances of targetting devs are just getting more common, as evidenced by  the Bungie exec that got swatted last year.  The anonymity, and lack of seriousness that people take these crimes, is at this time truly disheartening, and that won’t change until both laws and technology catch up.  Still, I have a feeling that 10-15 years from now, we’ll look back at the Wild West of today’s internet in total awe of it’s barbaric nature.

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