Archive for General Musings

Our Growing Fuckwad Culture Problem

I am not a perfect ally of the progressive/feminist forces inside the game community.  I started to list out examples at the start of this post, and then realized I had a wall of text that would undoubtedly derail the conversation that needs to happen (on the bright side, I apparently have quite a backlog of good blog material).  However, there are some clear examples.

First, I think that Penny Arcade and PAX have generally gotten a raw deal.  Second, I think that costumes and armor in comic books and video games are not meant to protect the character or be functional or realistic, but to create a strong, unique, marketable character and aspirational fantasy, and I love Bayonetta equally as much as the new Batgirl.  Third, I think that describing our video game culture as a ‘rape culture’ is incendiary, inaccurate, and ultimately counterproductive.  There is scant evidence that our mass media and video games cause more real life sexual violence towards women – in fact, sexual assault rates have decreased steadily since 1993 (you know, the year Doom came out) and are currently at 20 year lows.

Now that we’ve established that I’m not your typical social justice warrior, I feel nevertheless compelled to point out that our Fuckwad Culture is currently off the rails.

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There is currently no issue that is as pressing to those of us who believe that online gaming and communities are the future we should aspire for, than the fact that a bunch of knuckledragging mouthbreathers can, usually cloaked in the warm blanket of anonymity, use the internet as a means to randomly slander, bully and terrorize those who don’t agree with them.

The Internet should be a safe place for everyone.  Games should be fun places for players to congregate. Right now, for many people, neither is true.

Now then, my Facebook feed this morning has a handful of well-meaning people who are posting things along the lines of “If you support MRA assholes or want to bash Zoe Quinn then unfriend me.”  Fuck that.  The last thing these idiots need is to fall further into the echo chamber that is their own asses.  These people need to be told, frequently and loudly, that they are not only wrong, that they are utter freaking assholes.  And other people need to see it happen.  Ironically, public shame is the only way that polite society will ever return.  So keep them on your friends list – because someone needs to tell them they’re wrong.

1) If you think this is an isolated problem, limited only to a handful of ‘celebrity women’, you’re wrong.  For a small sampling of the abuse that women can take, look no further than Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a website that consists nearly solely of screenshots that women take of men who have sent them disgusting or terrifying text messages in game, usually in the context of just having their asses kicked by them.  If you’ve ever sent a message that could conceivably show up on that web site, please take a moment and ask yourself why the fuck you are such a colossal waste of genetic material.

2) It doesn’t take many assholes to poison the well.  Here’s a secret – the ‘not all men’ camp is technically correct, and even moreso, they’d be accurate in saying ‘most men’, as in ‘most men are not colossal manchildren incapable of holding a coherent conversation with a woman’ and ‘most men are not, actually, potential rapists who spout out vile obscenities the moment a player with a female voice whips their ass’.  Here’s the other secret – that doesn’t matter.  At fucking all.

I worked at Origin, back in the early days when UO had a huge Player Killing problem.  We would have polls asking how many players they thought were die-hard player killers (had red names and passed a couple other criteria).  The response was usually in the realm of 10%.  In reality, the number was less than 1% – player perception was off by somewhere between 1 and 2 orders of magnitude.  It’s just that this tiny, tiny percentage of people has a massive, massive effect on the perceptions of civility and security of that online community.

The next time that you feel like saying ‘not all men…’, keep in mind – it takes ONE asshole to make a comment that is so foul and disgusting it makes a woman want to leave a community or a gay developer fear for his life.  So stop feeling defensive about it, understand that the person talking has probably encountered some very real shit and isn’t talking about you, and instead devote that righteous anger to putting up an aura of nontolerance for assholish behavior.  Apologize if you fuck up and go too far.  And have the courage to call out douchebag behavior when you see it for what it is.

3) Having thick skin should not be a requirement to be a game developer or academic – but right now it is.  Look, I disagree with Anita Sarkeesian on a lot of topics - it turns out that its possible to think someone has an important voice and not be in lockstep with everything they have to say.

That being said, Sarkeesian is for the most part merely holding a mirror up to what she sees in modern games, and asking developers to put an iota of thought into things before they relegate all women roles in their games to being strippers, prostitutes and princesses to be rescued.  She is asking for absolutely zero censorship of games, and the odds that your favorite game franchise will stop including gratuitous sex and violence is roughly on par with the odds that all of your favorite characters will survive the last book of The Game of Thrones.  Apparently though, there are those who believe that her videos will somehow going to result in all boobies disappearing from the internet, because her most recent video has resulted in Anita and her family going into hiding after getting violent threats.  Because she has an opinion about what makes good games that is different than yours or mine.

This is not unique to Anita.  Numerous articles have reported the problems of gamer on game dev harassment that is now extremely concerning, and is chasing some good people out of the industry.  Close to the home front, I remember the abuse that BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler got when she mentioned she wished she could skip the combat in her games.  The abuse of Jade Raymonde is also legendary.  While I know of some women who have left the industry because of the treatment they’ve faced from their bosses and coworkers, it seems like I hear a lot more stories about people who quit because of what they see on the forums or what they encountered at a trade show.  Not from ‘all men’, mind you, just a couple.  It doesn’t take many to make you live in fear.

4) If your response to a failed relationship is to post your dirty laundry to a toxic and inflammatory web forum and egg them on to harassing your ex, you are a Grade-A Major League Asshole, and you’ve justified her decision to leave you and seek affection elsewhere.  Sorry, that needed to be said.  I don’t even need to hear her side of the story.  She figured you out, and tried to escape.  Good on her.

5) If you don’t think that being a white, straight male grants you undeniable and unassailable privilege in modern Western society, then you need to get your head out of your MRA ass.

6) Manufacturing a scandal to be able to keep calling a woman a slut is pretty much the definition of shitbag behavior.  You know how many people would care if a male developer slept with a female journalist?  Roughly zero.  It happens all the time.  Hell, sometimes we even marry them.  It’s not just game journalism – Washington DC is full of journalists who have had relationships with the people that they’ve covered.  And yet, somehow, the Washington Post manages to maintain their integrity and reputation.

Attempting to say that this merits discussion because somehow the integrity of games journalism is at stake is a ridiculously transparent attempt at finding a way to wrap a river of neverending slut shaming in the clothing of ‘legitimate debate’.  As if the developer in question is some kind of Beyonce-like media juggernaut.  I assure you, the corrosive impact of one indy developer having any sort of affections with a journalist pales in comparison to the fact that, for example, most of the revenues for gaming magazines comes from the ad revenue for the very same publishers that they are reviewing.  Stop it.

——

Look, I love making games.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  And I love interacting with fans – the good ones, anyway.  Doing the SWTOR cantina tour and meeting the players who loved what we’re doing here, and having constructive discussions about what we could do better – having that kind of live feedback loop is part of what I love about making online games.

But there is a contingent of gamers who seriously need to drink a cup of Shut the Fuck Up.  It’s not all gamers.  I suspect that, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of them.  It is, in fact, a minority of gamers, and probably a tiny minority at that.   But the amount of noise that they make, and the amount of damage that they do, is vastly out of scale with their small population.

So I’m issuing a call to arms – a call to arms not just to developers (who in the last two weeks have risen heroically in defense of our comrades under assault), but also to the large contingent of ‘good guy fans’ that I know are out there, and I put it on them to work with us to address this issue.  Call out the assholes as you see them doing assholish stuff.  Welcome and foster healthy, mature, respectful debate on the forums. Kick players from your groups and your private servers who can’t treat other players with a modicum of genuine respect.  Do what you can to create a welcoming environment for ALL new players, no matter their demographics.  And do what you can to end Fuckwad Culture.

It’s important.

 

Edited to add: this probably goes without saying, but comments are being fully moderated, and I’m keeping out a lot of stuff.  

Being Too Greedy Too Early

One of the things I’m very proud of when we monetized SWTOR, is how generous we were to the new users.  Players don’t get asked for any money before level 10 in SWTOR (roughly 4-5 hours of gameplay) – a design stance I had to defend hotly a few times.  My rationale: we had done focus testing out the wazoo on our newbie experience, and gotten the test scores as high as the various meters would go.  Why mess with a good thing?  As such, I tried to make it that the only change a free player saw below levels 1-10 was the button that opened the store.  Hopefully, by the end of newbie planet, you’ve decided you want to live there – then it’s appropriate to suggest some upgrades.

It seems like more game companies should see the light in this regard.  Gamasutra did a recent article where they did metrics on people who quit after playing first.  One finding: 70% of the games that people quit early are noted as being overly aggressive in their monetization.  Asking for money before there is even a remote chance you have earned that devotion is a huge turn-off, but still one I see all the time.  A few weeks ago, I played a game where how to spend money in-game was the second tutorial!  This communicates to the player that the game ISN’T free.  When a game asks for a dollar in the first two minutes, the player extrapolates that outward – the game will ask for $30 bucks in an hour!  $150 bucks in 5 hours!  Christ, this game is expensive!

The most successful free-to-play games are uncommonly generous.  Consider League of Legends and Candy Crush.  They let you play, often without fear of timers or energy mechanics, for as long as you want.  They offer pathways to experience most of the important parts of the game without paying a cent.  And most importantly, they allow you to fall in love with the game before they ask you for money.  Most people love to spend money on hobbies that they love.

 

 

The Kobayashi Maru Is Not Usually Mass Market

On one hand, I am sympathetic to how fast, and how transparently, game developers rip each other off in the casual and mobile space. It’s particularly galling when the company doing the ripping off has the gall to file legal action against people who came before them. So on one hand, the saga of 2048/Threes is familiar and depressing, and not at all surprising, give that we’re talking about a game design so simple and elegant it likely will be a tutorial lesson in game development classes for years to come. Hearing the dev team of Threes speak out about feeling ripped off, as well as this spirited defense here – well, it certainly makes you want to take sides.

On the OTHER hand, I did note this one paragraph in the Three’s developer’s litany of sour grapes.

But why is Threes better? It’s better for us, for our goals. 2048 is a broken game. Something we noticed about this kind of system early on (that you’ll see hidden in the emails below). We wanted players to be able to play Threes over many months, if not years. We both beat 2048 on our first tries.

Get that? The Threes developers are irritated because they made an unwinnable game, and are mad that someone else made a winnable version of it. This is like the makers of Demon Souls getting mad that it turns out the mass market prefers playing Diablo.

Now, don’t get me wrong — making a more hardcore game is a tried and true tradition, and there is definitely room in the market for games that take a harder edge – Demon Souls, Ultima Online and Banished are all great examples of this. And there’s certainly a tendency for easy games to add harder modes later, such as Hardcore Diablo, which adds permadeath for those players who want to experience how brutally unfair network lag can actually be.

But game genres have historically ALWAYS backed down from what designers consider appropriate levels of difficulty to more mass market ideas of difficulty over time. We almost ALWAYS start too hard, and back it up. As an easy to reach for example, hardcore MUD players (Text MMOs before MMOs) were aghast at how noobish the death penalties were in Ultima Online. You only dropped all your stuff – you didn’t lose a full level equivalent of character growth! WoW simplified it even further – a minor durability penalty and a short ghost run. On SWTOR, we simplified it further to a respawn in place (which Diablo also does). It turns out that for many players, the shame and knowledge that you failed is more than appropriate enough.

2048 may be heavily inspired by Threes (or more accurately, by 1024, a go-between). But the difference in difficulty means, quite simply, that the two are decidedly different games. One simple, challenging but beatable game experience. The other is the Kobayashi Maru. Especially given the market that buys these casual games, it’s really not surprising why one caught fire over the other.

Policing Your Own Pool: Netflix, Google and Reddit

Three articles that are not strictly game design related, but interesting nonetheless.  First off, here’s an article that discusses how Netflix has reverse-engineered Hollywood in order to categorize all of their films – an article that will surely interest anyone who works with massive amounts of data.

“What emerged from the work is this conclusion: Netflix has meticulously analyzed and tagged every movie and TV show imaginable. They possess a stockpile of data about Hollywood entertainment that is absolutely unprecedented. The genres that I scraped and that we caricature above are just the surface manifestation of this deeper database.”

Next up are a couple of articles about companies trying to protect the sanctity of their own data.  Here is an article about how Reddit banned Quickmeme links because the founders of Quickmeme were reportedly using dummy accounts and/or moderator privileges to push their content.  Quickmeme was, previous to this, one of the most dominant content sources on Reddit before this, being a quick way to provide Philosoraptors or Yo Dawgs that seem ubiquitous on the Net nowadays (Memegenerator is now, I believe, the meme creator of choice).

[Reddit's success] has resulted in the media organization like the Atlantic and BloombergBusinessweek paying off influential redditors to promote stories. These organizations have even had their own staffers embed themselves within Reddit to spam the site daily with links to their articles. Such activity has resulted in domains being temporarily banned on Reddit. It has also made redditors hypersensitive and paranoid about businesses taking advantage of their communities. This has particularly been the case on r/AdviceAnimals.

If Reddit Drama isn’t your thing, then there’s Google Drama.  Google has apparently banned Rap Genius, a lyrics site, for attempting to manipulate its way up the google search rankings.  Which is interesting, because figuring out how to move your link up the search rankings of google is now part of the core job description of about a gazillion marketing people.  Apparently, this can be taken too far.

Google took down Rap Genius after it was revealed that the lyrics website, which received $15 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz last year, was offering bloggers exposure through its social media accounts in exchange for links to its website on their music blogs

When dealing with player-created content, game creators often have to deal with similar scams and attempts to ‘manipulate the market’ by organized and charismatic players.

Hero Rotation in League of Legends

It’s nice to see a piece on Gamasutra about free-to-play business models that don’t demonize it.  Sheldon Laframboise’s piece is lengthy, exhaustive and well thought out.  It’s a very nice change from normal, when articles on Gamasutra about the topic tend to make my teeth grind.  Every time the concept of Free-to-Play or Microtransactions comes up on Gamasutra, I can feel my teeth start to grind.  Free-to-play has quickly positioned itself to be the predominant billing model in gaming for a variety of reasons good and bad, and yet it seems like it just never gets a fair shake on what is supposedly the home turf for game development in the United States.  Instead, we get blatant scare tactics, junk science ), caricaturish descriptions of free-to-play games as “coercive” and bad for kids as well as frequent contributors openly cheering for the layoffs happening at these companies.  The commenters on the site frequently are even more anti-free-to-play than the writers.

So this article is a nice breath of fresh air.  I did note one thing in the comments section that I thought merited mention from a design perspective:

(The way Riot rotates their heroes) is actually the worst part of their model, IMO. Heroes are the core content of your game and arbitrarily gating off a vast majority of them leaves a bad taste for me personally. Compare that approach to something like Heroes of Newerth where all the characters are available for everyone from the start and I know which one I’d pick every time. Given that their userbase is so much larger you wouldn’t think it’d be a problem for them to get by exclusively on vanity items and account level modifications like HoN does.

HoN is not alone — The recently released Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) also gives away all of their heroes for free.  To quote Valve:

“We believe restricting player access to heroes could be destructive to game design, so it’s something we plan to avoid.”

It may be that this new way of doing things may become the new normal.  Players tend to see ‘free-to-play’ games as naked attempts to nickel and dime them, but over time, the opposite tends to be true as competitive pressures reset player’s expectations of what is free vs. what is charged for in any given genre, pushing them downward as new entrants attempt to turn these sales pitches on price.

That being said, I disagree with the Valve quote pretty violently.  At least in the case of LoL, Hero Rotation does very good things for their billing model and their game as a whole.  To wit:

1) Choice Paralysis is a real thing.  Studies have been done that show that, if you present too many choices to a consumer, they are actually more likely to NOT MAKE A CHOICE AT ALL.  There is a very real and valid concern that you will make the ‘wrong’ choice, even in cases where the costs of making a wrong choice are very low.  By limiting free hero options to just 10, Riot effectively removes the pressure of having to choose from 141 options, of which the new player knows nothing about.

2) Hero rotation encourages players to play new heroes on a regular basis, rather than choose one and stick with it forever and ever.  Giving each one a spotlight also helps ensure all of the content gets focus, and helps guide community discussion towards the currently featured heroes.

3) Riot clearly uses the free heroes to both encourage a wide mix of roles (ranged vs. melee, support vs tank, etc) as well as to ensure there are always some easier heroes for you to easily reach for.  As an example, it seems like Ashe is always freakin’ free - she is widely perceived as being a good noob-friendly character, and also popular enough she’s one of the faces of the game.  Far better than hoping that players find something playable and resonant by serendipity.

This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to accomplish these goals.  That being said, sometimes Microtransaction designers make these decisions for reasons other than making money.

 

The Damsel in Distress Trope

You may remember the kerfuffel around Anita Sarkeesian being slammed by every gamer asshole on the Internet for her attempts to kickstart a video series of feminist criticism of games.  Fortunately, the harassment crusade against her kickstarter failed (and failed hilariously, I might add), because her videos have been coming out and they are seriously, seriously awesome.  Deep, well-researched, and thought-provoking.  Watch them all.  Do it.

This is not to say I completely agree with her.  Like most media critics on the topic of gender equality in media, she takes her position too far and is somewhat naive about what the ramifications of her viewpoints.  At one point, she pretty much claims that rescuing men isn’t really a problem, but rescuing a woman almost always is, because it reinforces the idea that women are trophies that need to be rescued.

My problems are as follows: first off, the idea that more protagonists in games should be females is completely accurate.  Should they ever be the majority of protagonists?  Not while our target market is mostly male.  Players prefer characters that they can identify and bond with.  Most players prefer a character like them.  (Some may float the idea that both the protagonist and the rescued target should be  gender swappable – this is not a casual change and has dramatic, not-very-good effects on both a games’ budget and the quality of whatever storytelling, writing and character development goes on in it)

The second issue is that the general prevailing school of thought amongst modern pop culture writers is that making stakes personal is a much more mature and emotionally resonant motivation for a hero than generic ‘save the world’ or ‘steal the macguffin’ type stories.  For example, Mission: Impossible 3 was considered a much more serious movie than the first two in the series because the stakes were about the protagonist rescuing the woman he loved, rather than fighting over vaguely indistinguishable shadow agencies with interchangeable, disposable evil plans.  Taken, as well, is a movie that resonates because it is about a CIA operative who is forced to use his skills meant to topple countries and assassinate dictators, in order to kill thugs in order to rescue his daughter.  These are both damsel-in-distress stories, but they are both considered to have much stronger storytelling than, say, your average run-of-the-mill James Bond flick.

The reason why is simple: the damsel in distress trope is not uniformly negative.  One could argue that it creates the idea that women are simple objects without emotions, goals, or capabilities on their own.  And that’s fair.  However, it also teaches our kids that ‘above all, love is worth fighting for.’  And that, I would argue, is not a negative message.

That being said, the fact that Nintendo actually greenlit Super Princess Peach (1:25 in the video above) is staggering.

 

Planning for Obsolescence

It would seem like common sense that if you tell one of your game players that you’re going to devalue all of his shiny toys, he’d get upset.  But in practice, game designers do this all the time, and players, eager to continue their devotion to their hobby, happily jump on board.  This is most commonly visible in MMOs, of course.  Every time we add a new raid, or add 10 levels to the game, we devalue all of the ph4t purples you earned before.  In SWTOR, we do allow you to salvage that gear by putting in higher level components, if you want to keep the appearance.  But the intent is clear: we want to deliver new content, and we want that new content to have powerful carrots to pull the player through the experience.

FIFA also devalues their customer’s shiny toys.  FIFA makes millions of dollars selling packs of ‘cards’ with soccer players every year, and every new FIFA season brings a new edition of the game, and resets the card chasing game as well.  Rather than be upset about this, FIFA players hungrily jump at the chance to collect again – which isn’t too wierd, when you consider the close parallels to real life sports trading cards’ seasonal releases.

However, no one has mastered this design concept quite like Magic: the Gathering.  Magic releases releases a new base set (currently Magic 2014) and a new 3-part expansion (called a ‘block’) every year.  Late in September of this year, the first part of the new block (the greek themed ‘Theros‘) will come out.  More significantly, though, is that with the release of that block comes the annual ‘rotation’ when old cards become invalid – cards from Magic 2013 will become invalid, as will cards from the Innistrad vampire-themed block.  Casual players will still be able to play these cards against friends, and these cards will still be legal in older formats like Legacy and Modern, but they will by-and-large disappear from Standard, which is by far the most common constructed format for Magic.

Put another way, on August 27th, Wizards of the Coast will decree that roughly half of the cards that players are playing with right now are no longer legal and must be retired from your decks.  And make no mistake: players are ecstatic.  Why does this work so well?

  • New cards.  It probably goes without saying that this rotation will happen at the same time as a new set will be added to the mix, which means that players’ attention is already devoted to hunting down new strategies and tactics amongst their new shinies.  The need to fill holes left by disappearing cards undoubtedly sells packs, but it also forces players to rethink decks and entire strategies.
  • The hunt for hidden treasure.  There are plenty of cards that aren’t played right now because there are better alternatives (Deadbridge Goliath, for example, will probably enjoy more play once Thragtusk leaves) , or are affected poorly by the overall meta (decks involving any amount of use of the graveyard generally suffered because everyone was building hate for Unburial Rites, a powerful standard deck linchpin now).  Certain players (myself included) love searching for undervalued gems.
  • A controllable metagame.  Rotating out cards means that in Standard format, there is a controllable number of interactions to track.  Gatherer currently lists 1734 standard legal cards, which seems like a hell of a lot of game components to balance against each other until you realize that more than 15000 unique cards have been printed in Magic’s 20-year life.  The generally smaller pool of cards has managed to allow the Wizards’ team to do a good job at least preventing utterly abusive card combinations, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve only had to ban 2 cards from standard in the last decade.
  • Shifts in the metagame.  The rotating environment allows Wizards to experiment with major changes in the overall flow of the game, adding major new mechanics or shifting key balance points.  As an example, for the last two years, the addition of a card called Cavern of Souls has pretty much resulted in the disappearance of pure counter control decks, where the opponent never gets to cast a spell.  I don’t know what Wizards thinks about that experiment, but I think that it’s probably not entirely coincidental that interest in Magic has blossomed in that time.
  • The death of hated cards.  Perhaps most importantly, now is the time when the dominant cards that you’re sick of playing against (including whatever mistakes Wizards made from chances they took) get corrected.  As an example, Thragtusk is currently appearing in 35% of top end decks, and is the only non-land card to appear in the top 9.  It appears almost as frequently as the aforementioned Cavern of Souls, which is staggering.  Which means that if you don’t play green, you will likely dance a jig once Thragtusk disappears forever.

 Magic is a master of reinventing itself every year.  Strategies that work today won’t work tomorrow.  This means that there are always new cards to try, new strategies to consider, and new combos to experiment with.  This idea of planned obsolescence is what makes this design strategy work.