Zen Of Design

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

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.

Ellen Pao and Misogyny

I don’t really know if Ellen Pao was an effective leader or not within the walls of Reddit.  What I do know is that not much seemed to actually change during her tenure until the last month or so, and by that time, the angry outrage brigade had already made it clear they were determined to destroy her.

I also know that these same assholes are now trying to start a debate, challenging the ‘narrative’ that Ellen Pao was driven away under an avalanche of misogyny perpetuated by it’s worst members – as detailed by Gawker, the Daily Beast (also here) and the New York Times, among others.  Allow me to save the suspense: there’s nothing to debate.  Whatever else happened during her tenure, Pao endured ridiculous misogyny the entire time – before she’d done pretty much ANYTHING to earn her ire.

Ellen Pao started in November at Reddit, and almost immediately, Reddit soured on her, driven largely by the fact that she had an open gender discrimination case from her previous job – and danced in glee when she ultimately lost it.  From the outset, attempts were made to slander and minimize her as a gold digging slut, with plenty of wonderful language describing her intellect, her sexuality and her vagina.

Things didn’t really go off the rails, though, until she promised to crack down on harassment on the service, which ultimately resulted in  the shutdown of ‘FatPeopleHate’, a subreddit where members would routinely go to other reddits or even sites on the internet, and piledrive fat people with harassment and abuse, with some proudly goading terrified victims to kill themselves.  When she shut down this (but left up awful places such as ‘coontown‘ which at least have the decency to keep their abuse to themselves), things went into overdrive, adding in layers of anti-Asian racism as well as numerous attempts to paint her as a dictator, google bomb her with the nazi flag, etc, etc.  Again, despite the fact that Reddit will allow almost anything on their forums, provided it’s legal and doesn’t result in harassment of other internet locations.

I pretty much knew that she would be on her way out with the #RedditRevolt, where after an abrupt and unexpected firing of a popular moderator (which wasn’t her call, and WON’T be reversed with the new chairman), much of the rest of the moderation staff revolted, going on strike.  This strike was driven by the forces for good instead of evil – they were protesting the lack of decent procedures and tools to actually moderate against the mouthbreathing troll brigade that haunts Reddit’s underbelly.  These trolls captured this momentum and built upon it, ultimately leading to her demise.  But the sad truth is that she tried to give the trolls way more than her moderators wanted her to, but could not find a middle ground where anyone could be happy.

Some have tried to argue that Pao’s dismissal is proof of sexism in the tech world – that a man would not have been fired in the same situation.  I disagree – Pao had clearly lost control of the situation, which had resulted in a flurry of bad press about the company appearing in mainstream outlets, and its not unusual for executives, particularly CEOs with ‘interims’ attached to their title, to take the fall in these scenarios.

That being said, I do believe that the blatant misogyny that Peo was subjected to – the unrealistic expectations, the slanders, the gendered insults – would never have been levied against a male CEO with a similar resume, and so this scenario would not have appeared for a man who delivered the same results.  And I also do believe that Pao is probably delighted to finally have reprieve after 9 months of hell.

In A World Dominated By Channing Tatum….

Men.

Imagine a world where every movie is Magic Mike.  Or a clone thereof.  Imagine that if you went to the movies, you were likely to experience the Magic Mike experience.  How long until you’re turned off from going to the movies?

Hey, you’re open minded.  You’re comfortable with your sexuality.  Keep in mind that Magic Mike is a pretty good film: 80% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Imagine these movies were EVEN BETTER.  Imagine that they were, by film standards, all time great films that hit 95%+.  Every one of them is praised by critics as being masterworks – charming, funny, and solid examples of the craft.  And every film was full of washboard abs and oversized codpieces.   Every.  Single.   Film.

How long until going to the movies makes you feel a bit icky?  Do you even bother owning a television?  Are you enthused by sitting next to your girlfriend while she drools at the screen – EVERY trip to the movies?  When you watch movies in a mixed crowd, is it an audience split between enthusiastic women hooting and hollering next to awkwardly silent men quietly nursing their beer?

Imagine that other films exist, but the movie press just ignored them and continued to plaster every cover of every Entertainment Weekly with massive mounds of Channing Tatum quality manmeat attached to hollywood bodies unobtainable by normal men.    And most of the other movies happened to be movies aimed for the Nickelodeon crowd.

Imagine if, when you suggested that perhaps there should be a few movies that aren’t like Magic Mike, angry women flooded your mailbox with profanity, vile attacks and death threats so authentic and frightening you feel the need to notify the authorities.  Imagine you got this treatment even if you asked for one male character in the next Magic Mike to dress sensibly and keep his clothes on the whole movie.

Imagine that even when the Avengers, a movie with massive crossover success appears and even outsells Magic Mike, the Hollywood studios ignored that success and kept making Magic Mike clones to the degree that they kept cannibalizing each others sales, while this entire other market just remained unexploited.  Imagine that movie directors actually talked about how the movies DEPENDED on washboard abs and manmeat to be successful.   “Our extensive focus groups have shown that men will tolerate this, but women WILL NOT BUY A TICKET without a codpiece that looks like it’s got a Kielbasa Sausage inside”.  Because, the movie executives tell you with a straight face, women are incapable of enjoying film for any other reason.

I like sex. I like boobplate. I like Bayonetta. I like jiggle factor in my games. I have no problem with porn, as perhaps my prior writings have made clear.  I pooh-pooh people who think that armor (male or female) should be realistic,  because its far more important that characters be strongly identifiable and marketable.  And also, because I adore the female form personally.

But right now, that’s what it looks like coming in from the other side.  We have video game aisles that are still too narrow in their depictions across the board.  We have comic book stores where daughters cannot find a magazine they feel like is aimed for them.  The diversity and experimentation that we do have is buried away in Steam.  Which is a real problem – as games get more expensive to make, we need to sell our games to broader, wider audiences.  Joss Whedon gets to spend $200M making Avengers films because he puts female butts in seats for what are normally male-oriented flicks.  Now that our AAA budgets are crossing the 9-digit mark, it’s high time that the industry started to think the same way, or the AAA game will soon head the way of the dodo.

Even our thirteen year olds realize this is bullshit.

Why Mobile Is Where The Money Is

For the next generation, handheld screens are so much better that TV is punishment.

According to a research report from Miner & Co. Studio, televisions are no longer the screen of choice for kids who have ready access to tablets and smartphones. More than half (57%) of parents surveyed said their children now prefer to watch video on a handheld device rather than on TV.

Mobile devices are so popular with kids that nearly half of the 800 parents quizzed by Miner & Co. reported that they confiscate their kids’ tablets when they act up and make them watch TV instead, thereby fostering a sort of Pavlovian response that equates TV with punishment.

And yes, I’m putting my money where my mouth is.   Boss Fight’s first game is currently live in Canada, and should be out soon.

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