Zen Of Design

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

Month: March 2015 (page 1 of 2)

J’Accuse Heroes Charge

I’ve written about Heroes Charge before, and the accusations swirling around them.  This is a relatively big deal because Heroes Charge is flirting with becoming a runaway hit.  Well, today, Lilith studios released proof that Heroes Charge copied their codebase somehow, including a hidden copyright screen.

Those who want to see the original’s gameplay in action can see it here.

Followup on the Monetization Talk

As a followup to my GDC talk, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with me for an extended interview.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Remember when I mentioned there was a rumor that budding megahit Heroes’ Charge was getting some angry attention from a company that claimed that they stole the design from them, complete with art?  Stuff has happened since then.  In particular, Ucool has been sued by the makers of the original game, which goes by the name Soul Clash in the states .  

This has resulted in Blizzard suing the original game makers for stealing their art.  No word if Games Workshop will continue the daisy chain backwards.

Just a Couple More Tidbits on Blocklists

Welp, I was hoping that the last post would be my last word on blocklists.  However, there’ve been a couple relevant and interesting bits to share.  First off, notorious libertarian legal snarkmeister Popehat has given his opinion about Why Mean Blockbots Probably Aren’t Defamatory. He does close with a couple of caveats.

I speak here of the rule of law, not the rule of feels. I understand many people feel as though BlockBot designations are defamatory. So they have that going for them, which is nice.

Meanwhile, the team that did The Block Bot (this is the Athiesm+ blockbot, not Randi’s GG blockbot) announced that Blockbot will undergo a significant rewrite, to help it deal with it’s unexpected popularity.

In this developmental stage, the following features for this new platform are being discussed:

  • Facilitating the formation of more than one blocking team.
  • Allowing users to opt-in or opt-out of individual blocker’s blocks.
  • Creating clear policies for adding and removing blockers and admins.
  • Handling appeals more consistently.
  • Expanding users’ block-list choices.
  • Soliciting feedback from users more effectively.
  • Providing a more robust system for users to suggest blocks.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins (who is on the Atheism+ blocklist because, well, he’s been Richard Dawkins on twitter lately) is not impressed.

Crowfall’s Key Innovation and Why MMO PVP Fans Should Support Them

As of this writing, Crowfall has three days remaining on its Kickstarter, and has reached most of its financial objectives.  However, they are very close to some very cool stretch goals, including Oculus Rift support.  Click here to see the Kickstarter, and if you want to help out, act now before the Kickstarter ends!

It’s fashionable to point out disclaimers of prior relationships for articles like these.  In the case of Crowfall, I share this information proudly.  I’m old friends and colleagues of both of Artcraft Entertainment’s principals (as well as multiple other people at the studio).  Gordon Walton is one of the smartest, most influential leaders in the Massively Multiplayer space, and likely the best mentor and boss I’ve ever had.  Todd Coleman is fresh off of his stint working at Kings Isle (where he was the design id behind the very lucrative Wizard 101), and he’s as driven, insightful and laser-focused a Creative Director as you’re ever likely to find in the MMO space. He is exactly the sort of person you want corralling a crazy MMO startup into reality.  Put simply, the pedigree of the studio leadership alone should be enough to convince you to go back Crowfall if you love competitive Player vs. Player MMOs and truly next-gen thinking in the MMO space.

But I don’t want to talk about that.  I want to talk about what they’re actually going to build.

I worked with Coleman on Shadowbane as part of Wolfpack Studios.  I joined the company shortly before they shipped the game (to be honest, too late to impact much one way or the other), and I continued there working on Shadowbane and various other products until the game went Free to Play.  I joined up because it was a crazy ambitious vision for an MMO  – a game about building massive cities, and then going to war and burning them down.  It was a damned exciting vision.  I frequently joked that it was either going to be a ‘thing’, or it was going to be well worth having front-row seats to the results.

Shadowbane shipped to fervent excitement by the fans.  The day we shipped, googling ‘Shadowbane’ got more results than ‘Star Wars Galaxies’, despite us having virtual no marketing beyond board warrioring.  The idea behind Shadowbane is a gloriously big one, and judging by the success of Crowfall’s kickstarter so far, is one that still has resonance today.

Shadowbane did not stick the landing on their launch.  Technical issues marred the release – mostly due to the inexperience of the team, a problem that Crowfall should avoid – and it took some time to get the game stable enough to actually see how that core vision bore out.  And what we found was that the vision for the game was fun and exciting, but had a very interesting fatal flaw.  And that is that it never ended.

Shadowbane PvP was completely freeform – no precreated ‘sides’.  Instead, each warring faction was a completely player-created guild – often merging into alliances.  And the problem is that typically, one of the alliances would get so big and dominant that they’d completely steamroll over any new guild that started up.  Because your city tied to your success, steamrolling another guild’s city increased the gap, making it easier for the leaders to maintain control overall. The dominant alliance would typically become so dominant that peace would reign uncontested.  Which, if you’re making an MMO based upon the vigors of war, is a disaster.

The most interesting fallout to this, academically, was that one time a server got so bored having nobody to kill that the Alliance leaders decided arbitrarily to ban a player class.  For a week, all Thieves were Kill On Sight.  Which is cool in an emergent gameplay sort of way, but also reveals how the game was fundamentally sick.

The players got it too.  We frequently would have better logins on days we launched a new server than on the days we put up major patches.  Shadowbane players LOVE to have a fresh Risk map to start dropping castles onto.  When I left, we talked frequently about whether or not it was feasible to make worlds with a shelf life the core to the game’s design.    After I left, Shadowbane wiped the servers to kickstart a clean map feel again.  Outsiders were aghast, but the cheering of the playerbase was vocal and emphatic.

Shadowbane was not the first game to deal with this problem.  The first to do it well was World War II online, which had a similar problem where the game servers would end up locked in a situation where one side (the germans – It was always the germans) would have the other pinned into a miserable no-win situation.  WW2OL solved the problem a simple and elegant way – declaring a winner, and resetting the map.  Some observers were concerned that this would result in ‘taking away’ some of the earnings of the victors, or ruin the game by destroying the sense of persistence, but this proved not to be the case.  The winners were happy enough to get the bragging rights of victory, and the losers were just happy to have hope again.

Crowfall is not Shadowbane 2, but it is clearly deeply influenced by Coleman’s first game.  As such, I found the fact that Crowfall’s Kickstarter video spent most of their time discussing their fresh map solution – (“eternal heroes, dying world”) a true indication of the fact that these guys are shooting for next generation thinking about MMO gameplay far and beyond simply cloning WoW.

The ambitions built around these disposable worlds are a lot of fun.  Worlds are fully destructable, which means that the difference between a pristine new land and one ravaged by warfare will be made clear.  Also, the physics of the worlds can completely deviate from one another – the idea that some worlds may offer better resources, or have stronger rules of magic, for example, become possible.

Will it work?  There are no guaruntees.  It is a bold, ambitious, and breathtakingly exciting vision for a fantasy MMO – and yet at the same time one built upon solid design thinking and the hard crucible of experience.

Go check it out.


As of this writing, Crowfall has three days remaining on its Kickstarter, and has reached most of its financial objectives.  However, they are very close to some very cool stretch goals, including Oculus Rift support.  Click here to see the Kickstarter, and if you want to help out, act now before the Kickstarter ends!

Fallout of the Block Bot Post

Update (10:53): Katherine Cross has also written excellently on the issue (as she is prone to do), and Scott Jennings points out that Mark’s insistence to right to reply does not extend to enabling the comments on his blog.


Mark Kern has, after some prodding by the internet at large in the wake of my article yesterday, finally gotten his own blog, and his very first post is a response to my blog post.

First off, thanks to @ZenofDesign for agreeing to post a link to my rebuttal to his article about me. This is only fair and I’m glad to see that he is sharing it with his readers.

Sure, Mark!

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Mark Kern Really Wants GamerGators To Be Able To Yell At Harassment Victims

Today, Mark Kern is fighting a heroic battle to force the people who have faced withering online harassment and abuse to sit there and take that abuse or quit Twitter, rather than having access to tools that allow them to protect themselves.

I realize it’s been a couple of weeks since we talked about Mark Kern, the former Team Lead of World of Warcraft who would later grow to distrust the press because they had the gall to investigate crazy rumors and write articles about his magical crazy expensive bus.  Mark Kern recently reappeared on the landscape 4 months after GamerGate started, and since then he’s been a real peach of a human being:

  1. Blaming the games media for Gamergate when in fact they’ve mostly been ignoring it,
  2. Arguing that getting the media to stop talking about harassment of developers is more important than getting that harassment to stop,
  3. Airing baseless propaganda as something worthy of discussion,
  4. Encouraging an internet flash mob to brigade the social media of the most important conference of his chosen profession,
  5. Wringing his hands because a room full of GDC attendees were an enthusiastic audience to Tim Schafer and his prepared sock.
  6. Complaining that he can’t blog or get press access, while simultaneously turning down offers allowing him to post blogs or do press interviews. 

As you can tell, Mark Kern is at this point a parody of delusion  -if he showed up on a Sitcom, you’d dismiss his unique brand of ignorant obstinance as too unrealistic to be believable. In today’s episode of ‘Mark Kern tilts at windmills then declares he’s oppressed’, he is desperately fighting for the right to be able to yell at people who have actively declared they don’t want to hear what he has to say.

GamerGate has a fun tradition whenever someone gets in their crosshairs, and that is to have everyone on the #gamergate hashtag know about it quickly and efficiently, and have all of those people fill the target’s Twitter feed with so much crap that Twitter ceases to be a useful tool, and where your first reaction is to go hide under the covers of your bed with the lights off.  In many cases, the crap filling your feed is innoculous questions, or feigned offense (‘well, I never!’). These people will insist that harassment ISN’T actually happening, and that they’re just being civil and exercising their free speech.  They ignore the fact that in many other cases from OTHER more enthusiastic and less civil gators, it takes the form of insults, beratement, veiled job threats, death and rape threats, roundabout questions about your family and friends, and even doxing and gorror porn.

There are many names that have been thrown around for the practice – brigading and Sea Lioning – but ‘dogpiling’ is probably the most accurate.  And GamerGate is by no means the only group that dogpiles – those opposing gamergate are far less organized and focused, but still have been known to unleash their targeted wrath at times as well. Still, GamerGate is more effective at dogpiling than most.  A few months ago, the collective community performed #OpSkyNet (GGers don’t take a dump without a snazzy Operation name), where all members of Gamergate made an active attempt to follow each other on Twitter.  I should probably point out to college kids looking for thesis ideas – there is good evidence that this had some extremely wacky social dynamics as a result.

For starters, it turned the hashtag into even more of an echo chamber than it already was, for example, by increasing the % of your feed that was now wholly supportive of GamerGate.  It made it impossible for casual observers to follow the feed at all, due to the massive number of retweets flooding out good content (I weeded out about 90% of the gators in my feed to get it back to readable again). The close-knitness of the community also resulted in vicious dogpiling attacks happening at astonishing  speed.

I got to be the target of a good ol’ dogpiling a couple of times during the last few months.  The most notable was when I proposed that GamerGate could do some good if they’d lay off the harassment and form a consumer organization.  And yet, I know that what I got was mild compared to many women, which I have documented here.   For those needing reminders, here’s Zoe talking about her harassment.  Here’s Anita showing some of the very worst of one week of harassment.  Here’s Sarah Butts describing the systematic attempts to make her online life hell.  Here’s Jenn Frank with video of her twitter feed being hit so hard that she decided to stop writing about games for a while.

GamerGaters defend their right to do this as defending their free speech.  This is an insult to people who actually understand what free speech is and why it’s important – it is more accurate to describe these actions as a calculated and deliberate attempt to sabotage the free speech of their targets.  What they are attempting to do is to yell so loudly and negatively at people who disagree with them that those people choose to shut down their opposition and leave.  It is an attempt to chill the free speech of people, especially in this case those who may have feminist or SJW points of view.  These are the people that Mark Kern and co. are fighting so earnestly for.

Fortunately, #OpSkyNet also had the accidental result of also making Blockbots work much more effectively on #gamergate than they otherwise would have.

The GG Autoblocker is a relatively simple beast.  It simply is a script that scrawls through exposed Twitter data, until it finds accounts that follow any two people from a very short blacklist of people – accounts like @Nero,  @FartToContinue and @RoguestarGamez.  These are accounts who have a history of, whether accidentally or intentionally, unleashing dogpile attacks on people who catch their ire.  Put another way, they have VERY ENTHUSIASTIC followers.  Anyway, if you follow two of those people, you’ll end up on Randi’s block list.  Which for 99.999999% of all twitter users, means absolutely nothing.

Mark Kern is on the block list.  Until yesterday, so was I.  Getting off of the list is actually a relatively straightforward process if you’re not a douche – send a mail to the appeals board.  They’ll look at your posting history and if your posting history isn’t full of harassing or dogpiling behavior, probably let you off the hook.

But here’s the thing – the only way you will be blocked by the autoblocker is if someone has signed up for the block service.  This is a very small number of people – probably in the low thousands.  These people have all actively declared they want less speech.  They are all people who have opted out of gamergate discussions.  They don’t want to hear it.

Mark believes its an abridgement of his right to free speech that he can’t talk to these people.

Many of these people were convinced to install the blocker after getting a taste of the GamerGate dogpiling experience.  Elizabeth Sampat – a vocal opponent and favorite target of Gamergate – at GDC described the experience of turning on the blocker as a godsend.  Once they discovered she’d been laid off, her twitter turned instantly into a toilet of awfulness.  The blocker returned Twitter to a functional communications forum for her – useful, because she’s a writer, and communication is a core part of her job.

For this story, I asked Randi Harper if there were notable spikes in the use of the Autoblocker.  She said there was one huge spike – GDC, when Mark Kern and co. were urging GamerGators to brigade the GDC hash tag – and they did, with all sorts of appalling filth.  This maps well to my experience of being stopped in the halls of GDC by people wondering where they could find that thing I’d blogged about.  Put another way, pretty much everybody who has installed the blocker has, in the past, encountered what GamerGate has to say when it has free speech, and decided they never want to hear from it again.  Free speech had its chance for these people.

Mark Kern wants to sue to shut down tools like these, so that these people will be FORCED to hear the message of him and his allies.  It is the height of myopic arrogance, and it’s appalling.

No one would argue that you should be forced to read mail from the people who want to sell you penis enlargement pills.  No one would argue that you should be forced to read all traffic from all reddits if you read any reddit.  And no one seriously believes that the Do Not Call list – a filtering list run by the freakin’ government, for christs sake – seriously runs afoul of first amendment rights.  Penis enlargement companies and telemarketers have a right to the microphone, however, they do not have the right to enslave every possible listener into their audience to hear their insipid message.

The best way to think about these blockbots is that they are just spam filters, only instead of blocking out penis enlargement creams and offers from Nigerian princes, they block out name-calling, gaslighting, rape and death threats, creepy inquiries about your family, and the occasional spicy bit of gorror porn thrown in there for fun.   Yes, sometimes a good tweet gets lost in the mix.  Guess what – that happens with email spam bots too.

Dogpiling is spam.  People have a right to defend themselves from spam, ESPECIALLY when it seeks to attack or terrorize them.

The denizens of GamerGate – who simply insist that this well-documented dogpiling does not exist – beg to differ.  Grimachu ( author of several… boundary-stretching games) has sent Randi a laughable letter of intent to sue.  Mark Kern also started to talk about getting lawyers and/or the EFF involved.  Which led to this highly amusing conversation on Twitter.

Yes, it turns out that the EFF believes that freedom of speech includes the ability for people to be able to use the internet without fear of being harassed or intimidated.  Which makes sense.  Once you understand the power that is earned from being able to communicate freely without fear on the internet, then fighting harassment and abuse on the Internet quickly becomes one of the defining civil rights movements of our time.  Far more so than ensuring that every troll has a right to bury your feed in a river of sea lioning and toxic hate.

Mark and others fighting to preserve the right to harass unwilling listeners believe they have discovered an end-around – by claiming that people maintaining these lists are effectively libeling those on it as harassers.

It’s not a very good end around.

Lost in all of this debate about what is legal and what isn’t is the fact that Twitter is, still, a private network, and as such, they get to dictate what is acceptable speech and what isn’t acceptable speech.  They have, in the past, been incredibly lax on addressing the issue of harassment — something that the CEO recently acknowledged and declared as a company mission to fix.   They have, on the other hand, welcomed and encouraged tools like BlockTogether that help fix these inefficiencies.

Sadly, we probably have to hope that more celebrities like Ashley Judd and Curt Schilling’s daughter receive more well-publicized abuse, and put pressure on Twitter to get their house in order.  Until Twitter cleans up their own house, we have user created tools like the block bots as the only thing that keeps Twitter from being utterly poisonous except to whichever faction of debaters can aggregate the loudest, angriest, and most shameless group of posters willing to go all out to destroy their opponents.  If nothing changes, the only way that this path can end is with Twitter being a nuclear wasteland of horribleness, as all reasonable people flee to places where they can debate the issues of the day without seeing necro porn (yes, the gorror porn did, in fact scar me for life).  If Twitter just lies back and waits for that to happen, then Twitter will die – and it will deserve to do so.

There are concerns with the block bots.  One key example is that block statistics probably factor into Twitter suspension and banishment decisions, and thus being included in someone’s block bot can put your account into a more frail space without you realizing it.  Also, the block bots aren’t integrated into the service, which means that they’re hard to find for the harassed and hard to understand and get off of for people who feel wrongfully placed on them.  Twitter should be putting in better tools for filtering and blocking in themselves.   Until then, though, people who have been put through the ringer on these blockers have only these simple tools.

Whether or not Mark Kern has more noble goals in mind, it is a lie that these tools somehow inhibit his right to free speech.  Whether or not Mark Kern has more noble goals in mind,  opposition to the block bot really is, at it’s core, demanding that harassment victims sit there and take what’s coming to them.

That may not be what Kern is consciously trying for, but it certainly is what the trolls want.  Combine that with their insistence that victims also not talk about or report their harassment, and the agenda becomes very clear.  The opposition to the block bots is this virulent for one simple reason: they are very effective at what the harassed want them to do: stopping incoming dogpiling and abuse.




DC Fixes a Diversity Snafu, Angry Nerds Attack the Creators

Just as a follow-up to my earlier missive about diversity in geekdom, particularly comics geekdom.  Today, DC Comics released a Batgirl cover they had planned.  The Batgirl cover was meant as an homage to the joker, and in particular his role in paralyzing Barbara Gordon – the original Batgirl, in The Killing Joke.  Unfortunately, the cover was largely tonally dissonant from the new more fun, less dark Batgirl.

DC Cancels Controversial Batgirl Variant, Cites Threats of Violence (And Forgets to Say They Were at People Who Criticized Cover)

Anyway, the internet did not respond well to this. 

The “Batgirl” #41 variant quickly received criticism for highlighting a dark period in the character’s history, especially when juxtaposed with the current youthful, more optimistic direction of the series under the creative team of co-writers Cameron Stewart & Brenden Fletcher and artist Babs Tarr. Multiple websites ran editorials critical of the image, and the hashtag #changethecover drew dozens of posts on Twitter and Tumblr asking DC to not release the variant.

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The Political Metagame of EVE Online.

EVE Online continues to be the most fascinating game that I have no desire to play.  This article discusses the high level council/political game (the ‘metagame’) in length, and is a worthy read.

Although I had been interested in EVE and its stalwart community prior to reading about what has come to be known as “gaming’s most destructive battle ever,” it wasn’t until I saw game-maker CCP erect a physical monument in Reykjavik for those lost in battle that I got hooked. That was the first time I had seen any physical commemoration of an in-game event by any game company. This type of recognition of the EVE community is not rare for CCP, though, and emphasizing the devotion of their player base is important to the lifeblood of their product. The monument is not the only physical manifestation of the gaming universe that reflects the passion of the EVE community. 

As always, it’s important for me to link this chestnut when discussing Eve Online.

Why Diversity Will Win the Geek Culture Wars

As has been mentioned before, I’m no puritan when it comes to sex in my entertainment. I love me a good chain mail bikini, and I think it’s possible to love Bayonetta as much as one loves Batgirl’s new outfit.  I’m a sex-positive lefty that’s perfectly happy with my entertainment containing a little jiggle factor, and I’ll fearlessly add it to games I work on as well if I think it’s right for the audience.

And therein lies the rub.  It’s quite one thing to say that its okay for a game with a Porky’s attitude towards sexuality combined with a Vallejo sensibility towards what women should look like.  It’s quite another to visual realize that it seems to many women that that’s the only thing that’s available on the shelves.  It’s not just games – witness the sudden realization one father had when he took his daughter to the comic book store.

Geekdom is shifting, and it’s shifting fast.  Two years ago, DC Comics was mocking and stumbling over issues of diversity in their lineup at the time that the Hawkeye Initiative was picking up steam.  Marvel, on the other hand, has been crushing it, earning platitudes for its Muslim Ms. Marvel, its black alt-universe spiderman, its black Captain America, and most recently Thor’s recent gender-bending exercise.  Some not-very-observant observers called all this the ‘ruin of a cherished art form’.   Meanwhile, people who actually know the space observe that Marvel is absolutely crushing it on all fronts right now, including the popularity of the aforementioned experiments, and now DC feels compelled to follow suit.

Why?  It’s not because these companies suddenly became altruistic and decided to pursue world peace and an end to the patriarchy.  No, it’s because of money.  Larger markets means more books and more movie tickets sold.  Marvel is currently reaching for markets that have been ignored for years.  If DC doesn’t wake up, Marvel could own these spaces for a nerd generation to come.

The truth of the matter is that the champions of diversity are going to win for one simple reason – money.  As technology advances, the cost of creating the content for your average video game is simply going to keep going up, faster than the size of the audience that will buy that game.  It’s not just games – Joss Whedon doesn’t get $220 Million to make the Avengers unless he can figure out how to put women and children butts in those seats as well.

On the flip side, more women are playing games than ever before.  And yes, many of these women are playing facebook and mobile games, but what is capturing the eye of many game executives and designers is that that is shifting as well – MMO audiences used to be predominantly male, whereas now that split is narrowing, and at least one major single player hardcore geek genre – the RPG – reportedly at parity tipping towards the ladies.  Yes, console ownership still slants heavily male, and many genres still are dominated by men – League of Legends, for example, is 90% male.  However, progress in other genres has raised eyebrows and questions – could a MOBA with a less threatening environment and less revealing character art carve off its own niche?

So it’s not only about fear of rising budgets – although reducing risk has a lot to do with it.  Just from the greed side alone, potentially doubling your audience (or greater, once you factor in reaching for other marginalized groups!) starts to turn into big rewards.  And if you can reach that audience without making decisions that trample over your core artistic vision or alienating your existing baked in userbase, why wouldn’t you?

None of this is to say that the best old stuff is going away any time soon.  There is at the movies, always room for Porky’s, not to mention all the films by Tarantino– and thank God for that!  Similarly, the stockholders of Take Two, EA and Activision aren’t going to be happy if GTA, Madden and Call of Duty all suddenly turn into interactive versions of the Notebook.  But if we can get a wider breadth of variety out of the rest of the games, and also increase the visibility of those games in marketing and the media, then perhaps we can actually broaden gaming’s reach even more, invent some new game genres, and actually add some stability to what is a very turbulent place to work.

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