Archive for Industry Musings

My Artistic Freedom is Fine, Thank You

There is a movement afoot in the universe that insists that #gamergate is ALL FOR THE DEVELOPERS.  All for me and my ilk!  Protecting our freedom of speech!  Trying to save the games! Which is a pretty ballsy stance, considering the movement was born in the relentless and ongoing harassment and attempt to silence a game developer.  Still, here’s a sample of people telling me that this is all to SAVE MY ARTISTIC FREEDOM!

This is freakin’ ADORABLE.  Really.  I mean, it’s really precious. Now please stop it. Because it’s embarrassingly misguided about how the industry ACTUALLY works. We really don’t need your help here. And if it looks like this, we’d rather not have it.

So please stop using the artistic freedom of devs as the reason for your crusade. Why?

1. Many devs resent being associated with #gamergate because of it’s unquestionably foul roots.
And I’m one of them. Many devs, particularly female devs, find #GamerGate to be the fruit of a poisonous tree, that tree being the violent and often terrifying crusade against some developers, journalists and academics, the majority of whom happen to be women. You push away devs when you claim to speak for them all as long as the cause bears this name.

2. No one is trying to take away your games.
The most important thing for games is that it is recognized as speech and as an art form, so that it maintains legal protection in the form of freedom of speech. As long as we are not talking about censorship of game creators (and most academics reject censorship, they value speech), then I can make whatever kind of game I want, and people are allowed to have and voice whatever opinions they want about it.

3. It is an attempt to silence a different world view.
I keep hearing the word ‘corruption’ used to describe media outlets and reporters who have progressive (‘SJW’) views on games and game development. It’s not corruption. It’s a different point of view. Lord knows, we have shittons of web sites out there that just cut and paste whatever canned talking points a developer hands out at E3 with appropriate uses of the word ‘Awesome’ and ‘Extreme’ sprinkled in for good measure. None of this really makes the games industry better, or the artists creating it challenge themselves or their work more.

4. We can speak for ourselves – with our games.
I know, some developers like to pout that they can’t say whatever they want without earning the ire of the SJW police.  What a joke.  WE HAVE THE LOUDEST VOICES IN THE ROOM.  And that’s the game itself.  Anita Sarkeesian earned $150K from almost 7000 people.  This is an impressive amount of money, the highest I’ve seen for a project like this, and debunks the idea that only a tiny fringe is interested in her cause.  That being said, Destiny cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market, and has reached hundreds of thousands, if not millions of players.   Same for GTA 5.  We have the megaphone.

Now, it’s true that individual developers might not necessarily be well-advised to go off and spout off whatever opinion that comes to mind.  However, this is usually less about reasons of press than it is about employment.  During GamerGate, I’ve seen more than one ‘aspiring game dev’ make what can only be described as career-limiting comments about women, the industry, or other devs in their twitter feed.  It turns out, it’s no fun to work in the pressure cooker that is the games industry when you work with an asshole.

5. The media is a relatively unimportant voice in the modern creation process.
A developer has a million voices guiding him through video game creation.  His boss.  His bosses boss.  His teammates, who want to just make a WoW/LoL/Clash of Clans clone.  The producer and project manager trying to get it out the door.  The marketing guy who wants to sneak ‘farmville’ into the game.  The publisher who will withhold paychecks to the developer if ludicrous demands aren’t met.  The license holder, who very often doesn’t seem to know his own license.  The home office who ignores the game for months at a time only to turn the Eye of Sauron on you at the worst possible time.  The MTX department, who wants to pick up the customer and shake him for loose change.  The ESRB, whose attitudes on decapitations seem to change from game to game.  The Apple/Sony/Xbox certification process.  Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Sure, we listen to outside voices.  The fans!  In today’s Internet, companies can and do build forums where they can build very direct relationships with their fans, and get a very real sense of what is important to the actual community building their game.  The press might report a point of view ragging on our game, but if our playerbase doesn’t care, most of the time, we don’t either.  Sure, the press mentioned same-gender romances as missing on SWTOR, but they moved on pretty much immediately to other games and stories.  The reason we added them was because the community literally kept a thread alive on the topic for – geez, a year?

Oh, also, the fans were right.

That’s not to say that we don’t care about the press entirely!  We care hugely!  About the Metacritic score! This is the single most important page of media a game has after launch day, and which aggregates game scores from across the spectrum.  Purists will be pleased to know that having incredible violencepossible hooker beatings and gratuitious boobage doesn’t seem to keep great games from getting great scores.  What matters is making a great game.

6. Sex and Violence isn’t going anywhere.
Media criticism of Television and Film has existed for literally decades.  Has it disappeared?  No!  In fact, these genres push the boundaries farther than ever before!  Dirty not-so-secret secret: sex sells, and there will always be artists willing to reach for those audiences, many trying desperately outdo anyone whose come before (note: your hostile liberal SJW media gave Dragon’s Crown a respectable 82).  These people may alienate a potential audience, but especially if you’re a small indy, you may have to pick and narrowly focus on one audience anyway!  (Small budget teams can’t please everyone)

And controversy sells!  The Witcher is a great series, but it would have had trouble getting any attention from the press if not for the ‘collecting bedmates‘ minigame in the first installment.  Lesbian sex got Mass Effect onto Fox News - you think a few people didn’t pick up boxes when that happened?  GTA has always embraced controversy.  They’ve only turned that into being one of the biggest game franchises in the world.

7. It’s insulting to the artists.
Do you think Will Wright needs protecting?  Sid Meier?  David Jaffe?  Raph Koster?  No.  They need input.  And they should have the freedom to take input from wherever the hell they want.  If we don’t get input, we make the same derivative crap over and over again.  Do you think you’re qualified where to tell these people where they should seek this input?

And criticism is fine.  Criticism is CONSTANT in the games industry, from every friggin’ direction you can imagine.  In fact, if you want to break into the games industry, my primary advice to you is (a) make stuff and (b) get criticized.  Junior designers assume that they’re always right. The ones that become senior designers learn to absorb and synthesize many points of view.  Sometimes this means taking someone like Anita Sarkeesian to heart.  Sometimes it means saying “We’re making the interactive Porky’s experience here, everything she says is irrelevant here.”

I’m a free speech zealot.  I believe fiercely that writers, authors, film makers, politicians and journalists should be given a lot of rope to create their art and speak their minds.  But I must say, as long as the government isn’t involved censoring the creation and distribution of my games, my artistic freedom is just fine, thank you.  Don’t worry about me.  Instead, spend that energy worrying about people who would have the audacity to silence disparate world views with harassment and threats of violence, all in the name of free speech.  All in the name of saving MY free speech.

Nobody is trying to silence me. If they tried, they’d likely fail.  I have 20 years experience, confidence in my craft, a large multinational company at my back, and about 20 years experience writing and speaking about game design.  But there are a lot of people who are trying to silence critics, academics and journalists with more progressive (“SJW”) views on games, because they aren’t ‘real’ gamers, or because what they want would ‘ruin’ games.  Meanwhile, increases in raw hardware power means that awesome boob physics is more realistic and impressive than ever before.

More diverse voices will lead to better, more diverse and more interesting games.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that all any of us really cares about?

XX Chromosome Cannon Fodder

Most modern armed forces, including those in the US, now recruit women as well as men.  So do most terrorist organizations – 15% of all suicide bombers in groups that allow women in.  Female security guards are not particularly unique – heck, Bioware has several.  There are certainly women in prison – nowhere near the rate of men, of course but certainly enough to give Orange is the New Black plenty of story material.  In video games, all of these are non-existent, unless they also have a speaking role.

Yes, what I’m saying is that there is a feminist argument that we should be shooting more women in video games.

One of the things I’ve been paying attention to when watching movies  and playing games lately has been to the extras.  I’m not interested in the named characters.  What I want to know instead: if there is an armed or violent force of mostly voiceless extras in a film, are there any women in it?  Think of it as kind of a reverse Bechdel test.

As an example, watch this scene from the Avengers, where we are introduced to the SHIELD organization aboard the Helicarrier. Ignore Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Do you see any women? Yes. Certainly not a 50/50 split, but there’s at least 4-5 women on the bridge of the ship without speaking lines.

Why is this important? Because it changes Black Widow from being a freakish aberration to being the top of a career arc. And because if you live in a world where it takes being a member of an organization like SHIELD to get things done, showing women as participants at all levels is, I think, important to making them feel like they can be an integral part of that world.

Guardians of the Galaxy is interesting (and remember, for this I don’t care about characters with speaking lines for this, as much as I love Gamora and Nebula). There are several violent forces in the movie. Most of them are not particularly mixed gender: I remember seeing no female faces among the pilots of the Nova Corps, nor among Yondu’s crew. On the flip side, there were several women among the prison population when the team first arrives (and yet, none that I recall among the guards).

Still, the movies seem to be way ahead of video games.

Anita Sarkeesian has gotten some heat for pointing out that you can shoot strippers in Hitman. I think that both Anita and her critics miss the real issue. I have no problem with putting strippers and prostitutes in games. Heck, I like a seedy underbelly to my games, and I have no problem with sex, even casual sex, being implied in my games. No, my problem is that, in this seedy underbelly, the ONLY representation of women tends to be of civilians and sex professionals. I haven’t played too deeply into the Hitman series, but it certainly is true from as far as I’ve gotten. Let’s look at some other recent games that I’m more familiar with from end to end.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  Several speaking roles for women, including your pilot, your love interest/rescuable princess, a couple key roles in the enemy conspiracy, and a handful of women who need you to do quest objectives for them.  Most of them are, you guessed it, employed at or associated with a brothel in China.  On the way to completing the main storyline, you’ll kill or work your way around countless security guards, paramilitary troops, underworld criminals and whatnot.  The number of these who are women, but not bosses?  Zero.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  Named female characters: your CO & your daughter, who you call on the phone.  On the way to completing the main storyline, you’ll kill or work your way around countless security guards, paramilitary troops, underworld criminals and whatnot.  The number of these who are women?  Zero.

Tomb Raider.  Lara is female of course, as is her sister (the rescue target), and one of her friends and fellow crash survivors who is quite the badass, I might add.  On the way to rescuing her sister, Lara has to navigate an endless sea of criminals and thugs.  The number who are women?  Zero.

Far Cry 3.  I really liked Far Cry 3 as a game, but I think it’s actually one of the worst offenders here.  This is an open world game, meant to represent a living island.  There are speaking roles: your girlfriend, her friend, and the mysterious island princess.  However, beyond that, the feminine presence on the island is worse than no women. As you stealth around, all of the cannon fodder you kill or sneak past talk endlessly about whores who gave them the clap.  Literally.

No friendly ones either, working to rescue the island they call home.  As you successfully take over the island, good guy troops come to help you reinforce the island.  These are also all male.  There are a couple of civilian women wandering around the citizens.  During the tutorial mission, your guide helpfully points out that he could bang any one of them he wanted to.

Far Cry 3 is about the war over the ideological soul of an island paradise, the desperate struggle to save a fundamental way of life.  And in this fight, the women of the island are nonparticipants whose offscreen role is to service the enemy for money.  They couldn’t add one Vasquez in the background somewhere?  Really?  On either side?  Nope.  As far as I remember, there’s not a woman who holds the gun on the whole island.

Now, adding a female character isn’t trivial.  In fact, the Assassin’s Creed kerfuffle was one I thought was misguided because animating an entirely new skeleton at AAA levels is hugely time consuming and expensive, with hundreds of animations that need conversion (think about climbing and the other movement the main character has to do).  Even more true if you want that character to have her own unique identity.  But cannon fodder doesn’t need that much animation, and in the case of Tomb Raider and Far Cry 3, most of the necessary animation definitely exists (Lara for TR, the playable female character in Multiplayer in FC3).  Most of the work here is concept and modelling – work you have to do anyway.

MMOs tend to have more inclusive rosters of enemies.  A lot of that comes from having a wealth of art assets you can use due to the player customization art, but World of Warcraft went the extra mile and got art assets for both male and female centaurs and ogres.  Most men that I’ve pointed this out to have never noticed.  Most women that I have did, and they’ve talked about how it instantly gives a sense that women can be active participants in the politics and struggles of these virtual worlds.  I suspect that this little detail adds to the sense of belonging that makes MMOs a popular genre for women.

Bioshock does a good job, both with their random splicers you find throughout as well as the Big Sister (introduced in 2, I believe).  And I’m also a big fan of both the Tanya unit from Command and Conquer as well as the Succubi in the Diablo series.  Sure, both characters lean into stereotypes and are played up for sex appeal, but I actually think a touch of sex appeal in a work of popular culture is appropriate and often good, and anyway, the important thing is that, in a world of conflict, women have some sort of place on the battlefield.

(Incidentally, the sex appeal also makes it clear that they are women! I’m not saying go full-on boob armor, but if you can’t tell that your opponent is a woman instead of a man from the distance and range that you’re fighting them, the distinction is lost!)

Having more females with guns in your game will lessen criticism of other areas.  Having the amorphous, faceless women of the world take roles like soldier, mercenary, guard, criminal, and cop – presenting a vision of the world where women can take positions of strength – will make it far less objectionable when you, as an artist, want to include that strip club or whorehouse.  A world where women CAN choose a role of strength and power but some choose not to is… well, not just less objectionable, but also far closer to, you know, reality.

So that’s my feminist argument for why you should be able to shoot at more women in games.  If you have a military force in your game, it’s good to establish that women could have a place in it, and therefore have a role in the power structure of the world that you’re creating.  The important thing is, there should be more women who can shoot back.

Reclaiming ‘Gamer’ and Defending Our Tribe

In the movie Office Space (a film that should be required viewing for anyone who work in games), the unfortunately-named Michael Bolton is asked why he doesn’t go by ‘Mike’ if he resents sharing the name with the famous grammy-award winning singer. His response was simple and eloquent. “Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.”

This comes to mind after reading last week’s flood of people attempting to disavow themselves from the ‘gamer’ identity or declare it dead.  Screw that.  Most gamers don’t suck.  Most gamers are pretty awesome.  A tiny handful of gamers suck.  Why should we be the ones who change?

I am a gamer. I am a proud gamer. I have been for years of my life. So much so that I’ve dedicated my life to making games, writing about games, and speaking about making better games. And I love gamers. I love going to SWTOR Cantina events, to Magic Gamedays, to ArmadilloCon, BoardGameGeek.con, to E3, and to PAX, and seeing all sorts of gamers of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds come together because we love games. And good games are social. So you see people talking, teaching and sharing with each other, because it makes the games better, and it makes the communities that play them better.

99% of gamers are good people.

Why should I be ashamed to call myself a gamer? I’m proud of this identity. Why should I let it be hijacked by a bunch of mouthbreathing assholes? It’s time for all gamers who care about games, game developers and the community of the hobby we love to vote these fuckwads off the island. Let them come up with their own identity. “Gamer” is ours.

Now then, I’m not saying that everyone in this tribe of gamers has to agree on everything. Hell, I certainly don’t agree with every cause that falls under the Social Justice Warrior umbrella. I think that Anita Sarkeesian is completely spot-on in her latest video about the utter creepiness of having the only feminine presence in your video games be dismembered, naked, spread-eagled corpses, but I’ve certainly disagreed with her in the past.  Should someone like her be allowed to speak her mind?  Of course she should.  What are we, infants?

Part of the victory lap that comes from recognition of games as a legitimate art form is recognizing that art criticism comes with the territory.  This is not a sign of the industry’s doom.  It is, rather, a sign of its relevancy and its growing everpresence in modern society.  There’s also a real question as to how much criticism even matters: Pauline Kael had a loud and influential voice, and Women’s Media Criticism departments have existed on campuses for decades, and yet movies and television today have more nudity, profanity and gratuitious violence than ever in history.  Similarly, as I discussed in length last week, there’s pretty much no chance that the proven cash cows of the industry are going to up and disappear.  In fact, as a designer I can tell you the hard part is getting the money guys at large companies to try untested game designs, or to try reaching for unrealized markets.  Which is why our market is dominated by Madden iterations and Call of Duty clones, and why you have to go to Steam Greenlight to find truly interesting, innovative stuff that the independents dish out.

I’m also completely fine with gamers opening a debate about the integrity and impartiality of the gaming press.  It’s absolutely hilarious that any right thinking person thinks that pretty much any amount of press that any independent developer can get is going to amount to a hill of beans.  Here are some real things to get worked up:  preferential reviews for large publishers,  Youtube payola, Apple store rating manipulations,  and Steam Sales push prices down too low for some indie developers to stay viable.  All these things merit a hell of a lot of discussion than an indie dev who may have done anything to earn coverage that she didn’t get, for a game she doesn’t charge money for.  You want to debate any of these things under the charge of improving the ethics of game development and game journalism, be my guest.  But here’s the thing.

As long as women gamers and game developers are living under a cloud of virtual terrorism, I don’t give a shit about your cause.

As long as women in and around gaming, including I note some on my friends’ list, are getting doxed, getting slandered, getting their private lives and sexuality discussed at length, getting revenge porn and nudes (real or faked) published about them, having their suicide openly rooted for, and getting harassed in private mail and public tweets so vile that they feel the need to hide out at a friends house and call the authorities, your pet topic is so low in priority that I can’t be bothered to care.

As long as the IGDA feels the need to work with the FBI in order to give game developers resources so that they can feel safe from people who claim to love games, I really don’t give a shit about any of the cute little ‘scandals’ that have been manufactured solely to give cover to the continued harassment of a handful of outspoken voices in this industry.  There’s really not much else that merits talking about.

Now, this is not just about female developers.  I feel this way anytime a developer, be they the most ardent feminist or the bro-est of bros, somehow undergoes this level of tremendous harassment.  However, its certainly more often the case with women, despite the fact that women still are not represented at very high numbers throughout the industry.  The message from the fuckwads is clear: women who speak out of line on the topic of geek culture are uppity bitches who must be put in their place.

This is not acceptable to me.  It should not be acceptable to anyone in the Tribe.

Some of the brightest minds in the industry have mentioned in my Facebook feed that, while they have plenty of opinions on the current goings-on, they are terrified of actually saying these opinions in any sort of public forum, for fear of harassment of themselves, their friends and their family.  One of these people has been a community manager for fifteen years, and is therefore no stranger to wearing a bulls-eye and facing an angry crowd.  All of these people are women.  I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

At this point, you may be saying ‘not all gamers are assholes like this’.  And you’re exactly right.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m willing to bet that the problem gamers amount to  less than 1% of the gaming population.  

This is not much consolation to a woman who has just been told that she’s a fucking cunt who deserves to be raped and her child killed.

So you’re not one of the ones being a total fuckwad?  Fantastic.  I mean that.  In most cases, this will be the case.  But the GamerGate cause is literally being driven by fuckwads with an agenda, where that agenda is to continue trashing one female developer rather than talk about their own purported topic, and to trash any discussion of progressive issues (i.e. ‘SJW issues’) at all.

Right-wing morons over at Breitbart claim the agenda is not actually about journalism,  (perhaps accidentally), but instead say that it’s pretty much about an ‘army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners’ who have taken over the games industry (you know, the one they have barely any representation in today) and are now demanding the games industry embrace feminist principles.

Sorry, but the only ‘feminist principles that are being demanded are things like ‘a woman’s sex life is really none of your god damn business’ and ‘a woman should not have to call the fucking FBI and hide out at a neighbor’s house because of her opinion on video games’, with a side dose of ‘Hey, can you please stop using the word ‘cunt’ like a punctuation mark’?


There are few parts of what’s been happening that are more disquieting than the campaign of denial being waged against Zoe, Anita, and others in this maelstrom.  Put bluntly, it is entirely all too similar to what happens to victims of sexual and domestic violence in the real world – clearly, these womenfolk are hysterically overblowing things or lying on their way to being professional victims!   Because who doesn’t have anything better to do on a weekend than spend your evening chatting with the FBI?

Here’s the thing – if even half of what these people say is true, then its well into the realm of surreally despicable, and something that anyone who favors even a modicum of civility in our discourse about games should revile.   And I know that half of what they say is true.  Because these ‘bad gamers’ are posting that half on twitter, on 4chan, on Youtube and on Reddit.  They create video games where you can beat up Sarkeesian. The ex who swears he never meant for the wrath of the Internet to come down on Quinn still has his pathetic worm of a blog post up.  And it’s not just these two.  Do a google search for Leigh Alexander.  Or Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice, two talented writers who fled the industry.  Or go back in time to when BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler fled amidst death threats.

Devs are paying attention to this issue closely.  And we’re mad, because our friends and co-workers don’t feel safe.  Many of the people we love and respect are talking about leaving rather than continue to endure living under this microscope.  As such, most devs paying attention haven’t been voicing much — or any — opinions on the game journalism ethics issues that are supposedly threatening our industry.

Talented artisans quitting – THAT threatens our industry.

For any of the women I mentioned above, it takes only about five minutes to come up with invective so vile that, if you could imagine the woman in question was your sister, your wife, your girlfriend, or your daughter, you’d be considering homocide.

And if it was aimed at you, you’d probably be thinking about hiding under your bed.

Overzealous fans is something that I have dealt with way too much in my gaming career. It only takes a couple of ‘chance meetings’ with fans in the company parking lot who dropped in from a couple states away to passionately make their case about their nerfed class to scare the bejeezus out of you.  These were the exceptions, mind you.  And they are rare.  Most of the time, my thoughts center on the good people i meet at Cons and meetups.  The dedicated fans who love gaming and love what I do.  The kids with cancer who, through the magic of MMOs, were able to live a semblance of a normal social life during their last days.

But if you’re not part of the 1% of gamers that are part of the problem, don’t be fooled into thinking that they don’t exist.  Don’t be fooled into thinking all of this is just imagined.  It’s not.

And don’t think it’s really about game ethics and journalism.  The misogynistic assholes behind GamerGate are making precious little effort to hide the fact that this is all a smokescreen, so they can continue to harass and terrify those they deem as uppity bitches.

And as long as they’re doing so, sorry, I find talking about other things to be a distraction.


I am a gamer because I love games.  I love games – all manner of games.  Board games.  Tabletop games.  Console and computer games.  I spend hours at work coding them and then come home and either code some more on side projects, or spend pretty much all my free time exploring them.  I love the big budget games – your Assassin’s Creed, your World of Warcraft, your Tomb Raider – and I love the little ones, like Minimetro and Papers Please.

I’m part of a Tribe.  A tribe of people like me who see gaming as something inherently good and awesome.  I missed PAX this year, which I sorely regret, but by all accounts, there the Tribe was awesome.  Here is an account I lifted from my Facebook feed.

Actual gamers as seen at PAX were the most inclusive, tolerant, accepting bunch I can remember in two decades of nerdery. I don’t mean Carefully Not Staring Acceptance, I mean acceptance. Most demos set up so a wheelchair user could play, too. People using gender neutral bathrooms like it wasn’t a big deal. No staring at the transgender men and women that I noticed. More women than I ever remember seeing before. Dramatically more gamers of color than ever before. No assumptions that the women were unwilling attendees by the side of men. No assumptions that the men were basement-dwelling virgins. No assumptions that the female booth workers were marketing instead of developers.

I am a gamer, and this is my Tribe.  It’s experienced remarkable social progress in recent years. And what’s fantastic about the games industry is that different artisans continue to create new, novel and interesting games that stretch my brain and make me think in ways that I didn’t before.  I love games for this, and I love my tribe, because the REAL gaming scene gets that.  It’s all about the games.  It’s all about the community that loves games.  It’s a community that is coming to the (sometimes painfully) slow realization that anyone, no matter their gender, race, sexual predilections and political leanings,  are welcome in the tribe so long as they love games and respect those that do.

Believe it or not, we’re winning the culture war.

Some are apparently threatened by this – by the idea that some people (mostly, those who simultaneously have vaginas and opinions) may come into their club and RUIN EVERYTHING with the worldrending message that maybe, just maybe, people should be able to play games, sometimes old games and sometimes new and wondrous games, with a modicum of civility.  They are throwing a tantrum rather than have to share their toys.

Because of these assholes, my tribe should stop calling themselves gamers?  Fuck that.  Those other guys are the ones that suck.


Among the various other ludicrous claims I’ve seen come from the gamergate truthers and Sarkeesian bashers is a fear, a deep, unsettling fear: if the Social Justice Warriors win, the games industry will stop making gamer games for gamers!  There will be no more boobs and blood!  We’ll all be playing Diner Dash!

Let’s do a little reality check.

One of the more tedious parts of the industry is that it is one where copycats are routinely pushed into development.  Every time someone comes up with a ‘gamer game’ formula that kind of works, every major publisher falls over itself attempting to copy it as quickly as possible.  Think about the E3s and other trade shows you’ve been to.  How many MOBAs were there this year? How many open world games three years ago?  How many MMOs were there five years ago?  God of War clones 6 years ago?  How many World War II shooters 8 years ago?

Now let’s look at the Sims.  Yesterday marked the release of The Sims 4, the latest iteration of EA’s very popular virtual dollhouse.  The Sims franchise is a relatively unique snowflake because of a combination of three elements:

  • It’s got a AAA budget for production values suitable on a non-mobile device.
  • It’s designed for a female, or at least co-ed, audience (65F/35M according to this link, up from 50/50 in its earliest days).
  • It touches upon ‘adult’ themes.  You’re not just crushing candy or doing other ‘girly’ stuff. My wife, most notably, tried setting her kitchen on fire in the Sims 3 with the express purpose of trying to seduce the arriving firefighter in her hot tub.

It’s also notable for one other reason.  Mainly that, despite the fact that it is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, selling 175 million boxes so far, there has been no credible attempt by a major publisher to copycat the game in its entire 14 year history. 

Seriously, the most notable attempt to do so was Playboy: the Mansion.  Because lord knows nothing makes women pick up the box at Best Buy like a Playboy Bunny on the cover  (Disclosure: it was actually kinda fun).

The truth of the matter is that the people making decisions about what gets greenlit at major companies only greenlight AAA games that they understand.  And most of the people making these decisions are traditional gamers.  So when they see a brand new genre they like to play, they want to rush into that product space.  No matter that, for example, the MOBA field has one utterly dominant force in LoL, with two beloved heavyweights in Valve and Blizzard taking all remaining oxygen in the space.  If you’re a game industry executive, it’s clear that MOBAs are the future of gaming!  That’s where we gotta be!  But copy the Sims, or Kim Kardashian game’s massive success?  Those games are just weird.

Which makes the games industry unique.  Say what you will about the Bechdel Test, there is clearly no shortage of movies aimed at women.  Television has also adapted, and now has entire channels devoted to women, and most of prime time network programming is built with the realization that they have female-majority audiences now (because, *ahem*, apparently the men started gaming instead).  Note that, in neither case has testosterone-fueled guy-content disappeared from our televisions and theaters.

So if you’re a traditional gamer, don’t you worry your pretty little head.  There will be AAA games for guys long into the foreseeable future.  And I guarantee that they’ll continue to try to compete on general badassery – and I’m fine with that, since being a standard male gamer, I also, in fact, like those games.

The question I ask is, isn’t this industry capable of making a female-oriented, AAA game with adult themes more often than once every four years?

How UO Changed The Culture of MMOs

There are those who think that perhaps Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are lying about the campaigns of terror, hacking, and bullying that they are currently encountering (and thanks to Tadhg Kelly for inventing the term Gamergate Truthers to describe them – it’s easier to say in polite company than fuckwads).  I daresay that anybody who has ever set foot in the Customer Service department of a major MMO for more than five minutes has pretty much no doubts whatsoever.  Because those guys see it all.  Every day.

It used to be worse.  Much worse.  My first MUD, CarnageMUD, had to ban several players for attempting to hack, bully or keylog other players.  Meridian 59 was worse, but it wasn’t until Ultima Online that we really saw how dark things could be.

Early days UO was chaotic for a lot of reasons.  The game was much more successful than they anticipated, and they had to scale up very quickly.  It was also very, very buggy, which created all manners of headaches for players and developers, and some incredibly novel ways to exploit and abuse your fellow players.  It also was, bluntly, a social cesspool.

MMOs always vary wildly in tone from game to game and server to server, but early UO was a place where it seemed that everywhere I went, you’d encounter the most awful crude sexist, racist, homophobic, juvenile crap that you can imagine, both on the boards and in the game.  And early UO was birthed on what was somewhat of a libertarian vibe — Origin let way too much of that crap slide, with the idea that you could always just kill the jerks.  The problem was that no one was as good at PVP as the jerks were, and even more problematic, the jerks didn’t really feel all that traumatized when they died.  It was the cost of doing business, where business was being a jerk.

At the time, there was serious concerns in the budding MMO industry.  UO was not a very nice place.  There were not a lot of women players – hell, there were not a lot of players who had thin skin.  But our visions in those days wasn’t just for a couple hundred thousand players – we wanted the genre to see millions, or even tens of millions of players.  But you were never going to get there if you were being called a ‘faggot’ every ten seconds.  I remember in those days actually feeling despondent.  Maybe the vision of an MMO just couldn’t scale above a certain size.  Maybe the dream was dead.

You should not need thick skin to play a video game.

With all due respect to Raph, in my mind there is no person who has been more important to the development of MMOs as a viable consumer product, historically, than Gordon Walton.  He came to Origin from Kesmai, one of the few companies that dabbled with large-scale multiplayer gaming before Ultima Online and Meridian 59.  And he had the scars to prove it.  His contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible.  He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you.

Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.

Ultimately, his message was that the culture of the game had to change.  Community services were beefed up.  The team developed tools that allowed players to report abusive behavior and allowed CS to review the chat logs of trouble incidents (fun fact: in a not-insignificant number of cases, CS would ban the person who filed the complaint, as it was clear the player was attempting to goad his target).  Origin also built what may have been the industry’s first community relations department, in order to rescue the tone on the boards.  And the team did the Felucca/Trammel split, creating a safer adventuring space in order to attract a less cutthroat brand of audience.  And then they began working on a Zero Tolerance policy for general assholish behavior.

Which was tough, because in those early days, the CS tools were still roughly akin to rocks and twigs.

But it worked.  UO was, most assuredly, saved by changing its culture more than any other change it ever made.

EverQuest managed to learn from UO’s mistakes and corrections, and had a zero tolerance policy from the start.  They had some rough patches — early MMO developers were continually astounded at the ingenuity of griefers determined to ruin each other’s good times.  By the time WoW came around, the formula was pretty pat.  Sure some MMOs have struggled with fuckwads, but these struggles have tended to be brief, because now MMO developers know that it’s just not worth keeping their $10 bucks a month.

The modern MMO has a full-time staff, usually of dozens of people, hopefully working 24 hours in order to identify problem behavior — including not just harassment like this, but also issues like gold spamming, botting, cheating, etc — and escort those people out the door as quickly as humanly possible.  It’s kind of like being a bouncer at a strip club.  You may get your hands on a dancer’s ass, but you’ll likely be out in the parking lot within 2 minutes.

We spend MILLIONS of dollars doing this.  Millions that as a designer, I’d sure like to spend on more game content or features.  But it is the cost of doing business.  And its working – there is probably no online, synchronous, co-ed gaming place that feels as protected and as safe for women and other minorities.  Everquest 2 reportedly has a 60%/40% gender split.  Same for WoW.  Compare that to the 85/15 split playing GTA IV.  Or the 90/10% split playing League of Legends.  Or the 92%/8% that call themselves Call of Duty fans on Facebook.

The walled garden MMO is a uniquely safe place for female gamers to play with male gamers.  Which is something to be concerned about, given publishers seem to be losing appetites for making MMOs in the wake of no one being able to replicate World of Warcraft’s lightning in a bottle.

Make no mistake – MMOs have strong advantages in controlling their cultures.  We house the servers and pay for the bandwidth.  We frequently have subscription plans to help pay the costs of a CS crew.  Most communications in these games between strangers is done in text chat, which is cheap to store and easy to search.  And the generally long lifespans of the character arc in these games means that getting kicked out of the game will lose a ton of character progress and rare items – sure, that level grind sucks, but perversely, it also creates an investment of time in that character that most people are loathe to lose.   MMOs changed the culture from the top down.  And that was easier.  Doing this for the larger gaming culture will be inestimably harder.

But the most important step was realizing that the culture had to change.

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.


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, including literally pages of private correspondence, to a private blog, as well as one of the largest websites in the world, resulting in your ex getting all manners of terror and abuse aimed in her direction, you are a Grade-A Major League Asshole.  If you actually try to claim that you never meant for this to happen but fail to actually, you know, apologize or take down the web site, your assholishness is off the charts.  Sorry, that needed to be said.  I don’t even need to hear her side of the story.

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.

What’s Wrong with Game Journalism?

Here’s a good example:  SimCity launched with technical problems, to be sure, but what offended many people was that the game was designed to be online-only, not just technically but also for some game features to work. It was a clear case where the game design didn’t match player expectations, which is always unfortunate, and in this case, that design was instrumental to the overall architecture of the game. Last March, the SimCity team announced that fixing this would be difficult to do.  They now have announced that they are finally wrapping up this change to allow for single-player mode.

Which prompted this headline: “EA continues race to the bottom with unexplained SimCity offline reversal.”  Yes, that’s the headline for Maxis COURSE CORRECTING THEMSELVES AND GIVING THE PLAYERS WHAT THEY WANT.

The official statement from Maxis’ Patrick Buechner didn’t address how the addition of offline mode was possible, and that may be the most infuriating aspect of this sudden reversal. All the seemingly insurmountable technical details that were supposed to make this close to impossible have been hand-waved away

Gee, I don’t suppose the fact that a YEAR WILL HAVE PASSED since originally asked about this is a factor?  It turns out you can do difficult technical things if you have time.

There never seemed to be communication that offered realistic explanations or apologies, even when a modder released evidence that many of the company’s statements were falsehoods.

Having something released that kinda sorta works probably isn’t hard. Having something released that is fully functional, including dealing with aspects of the game design that are no longer there (other cities and their economies) as well as dealing with opening up the client-server relationship without threatening the security of existing servers, as well as being sure all of this doesn’t somehow break existing cities and savegames… it turns out this ISN’T trivial, which anyone who has ever worked on a live game before could have told you.  Possibly with intermittent sobbing.

I’m not saying that mistakes weren’t made, or that SimCity is a perfect game now — hell, I don’t know much about SimCity or its plans from EITHER the player’s or the developer’s perspective.  But again, this article was written about what is unqualified the Developers giving the Players exactly what they asked for.

I’m disappointed.  Polygon is usually better than most of the noise machines.

Free 2 Play is Not a Cancer (Unless It Is)

Sometime ago, someone sent me this article, in which a Free-to-Play designer described how he is not a ‘cancer’ on the games industry.  I read it, but I didn’t fully agree with it, but it took me a little while to figure out what’s wrong with it.

This is it:

You see, game development is a business and businesses in a capitalist society are ruled by market forces….But games like those published by Electronic Arts are paid for by the people who own stock in the company. At the end of the day, these investors do not care about artistic integrity, Metacritic score or DRM solutions, they only care about stock price and return on investment

Okay, a little preachy.  But preachy isn’t what bugs me.

When a developer loses her job—when she’s got rent to make and bills to pay—she needs to find new work. More and more, jobs are coming in the form of games that do not cater to the core Gamer who reads Kotaku. Gaming as an industry has been expanding outward for a long time and increasingly, the “Gamer” is becoming a less relevant part of the overall gaming pie as more dollars are spent on free-to-play games for mobile/tablet, PC and now consoles too.

See it yet?

Most of the article talks about desperate developers who have to get a job to survive.  Your average Kotaku reader does not care about the plights of poor developers.  They care about their games changing in a way they can’t control.

Most other articles about Free 2 Play make a similar, unforced error.  They are on game development sites like Gamasutra, and are eager to explain why Free 2 Play is wonderful – for DEVELOPERS AND PUBLISHERS.  They throw around discussions of increased concurrency, ARPU, savings on inventory, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.

There is shockingly little on the Internet, it turns out, that talks about how Free to Play is good for the PLAYERS.  How millions of players do get thousands of hours of gameplay for free, and the vast majority pay less than they would if they bought a $60 box.  How MMOs that go free end up filling up their worlds and becoming interesting and lively social spaces.  How game developers no longer can try to fool you into buying a $60 dollar box, or do unholy things to try to pressure you into never leaving and maximizing subscription revenue.

Free 2 Play can be very good for gamers, and we should be coaching it in these terms more.  Right now, the hardcore gamers who dislike Free 2 Play dominate the conversation, and get nothing but echoes in return – despite the fact that they are rapidly becoming the minority. Skeptics are just too eager to ascribe the worst motives to game companies, and to assume that the worst practices of the worst games are how all games must monetize.  More should be done to explain that Free is good, and not just because its free.

And if your Free 2 Play model isn’t good for gamers?

Well, then you’re not going to be around for very long anyway.