Zen Of Design

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

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I’m Still Skeptical about VR

The interesting thing about GDC was the fact that interest in VR is everywhere.  Monday and Tuesday had a VR summit, and lines were so long they have to use overflow rooms, and ultimately rearrange the conference to make room for it.  It reminded me a lot of GDC in 1996-1997, when the MMO talks and roundtables were being packed, despite the fact that no one knew anything about the field (the pre-EQ, pre-AC days where even I was considered an expert).

Back then, I had the benefit of being the subject matter in the thick of things – hell, the sheer lack of MMO designers at the time made me a world-class expert on the field.  Now, I’m just a cranky old man observer.  Still, I have a lot of hesitation – not so much about whether VR will conquer the world, but also about WHEN that might happen.  The issues are myriad, but only a couple do I see mentioned frequently:

  1. The vomiting issue.  The struggle is real and is well-known.  People have been telling me that it’s an urgent issue to solve for two years now, and I don’t know if anyone’s closer to it.  Most people that I’ve talked to say that this can be reduced by simply having games that have no movement in them.  Yay, Deer Hunter!
  2. The social virality issue.  The games with peripherals that do the best are highly social games that demo well at parties – think Rock Band or the Wii.  Both were compelling experiences that made observers immediately want to rush home and buy their own.  VR, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot to observers.
  3. The cost issue & market consolidation.  Right now, we have 3-4 major players, vying to be the major player.  And getting into the space is expensive – matching or exceeding the cost of a modern console, but with vastly less utility.  This choice will end up causing market paralysis -players are going to wait until one emerges as a clear leader.
  4. The Harassment issue.  I’ll probably write about this issue in a seperate post, but this will be a much worse problem for connected VR games than it ever was for MMOs and LoL.  This isn’t going to be a huge issue in single-player and shared-space VR issues for a while tough.
  5. The Setup Issue.  Millions of people have hardware peripherals they’ve played once, and then put on the shelf and never touched again.  That even extends to things like 3D television, which requires the incredible simple setup of… finding the glasses.  3D requires even more setup for a simple session – putting on a lunky piece of hardware, positioning yourself in a place you won’t trip over the coffee table, etc.

This is not to say that I think that all VR games are bad – I’m quite fond of several experiences, especially puzzly games like SuperHyperCube that don’t try to be realistic.  But I do think there’s going to be a lot more resistance to these experiences leaving the realm of early adopters to become truly mass market.  Trying to guess which one will win is a fun exercise – if I had to guess, I’d bet on Sony’s Playstation VR.

  1. They have gravity from all the PS4’s that already are out there in living rooms.
  2. The fact that they are in living rooms means they are more likely to make a good living room social experience that can go viral.
  3. They have experience making kid-proof hardware, and are priced competitively for the field.

Note that none of this has much to do with the games or the hardware itself.  That being said, the single most significant thing that the VR companies can do is find an experience that sells as much hardware as Soul Caliber did in the 90s.

But then again, I’m probably being a cranky old man.  But at any rate, I’m much more entranced with HoloLens and Magic Leap.  So maybe I’m just looking slightly further down the road to Augmented Reality, and putting my undue enthusiasm there.

Donald Trump Wins Endorsement from Bus Aficionado and Inethical Journalist

It’s so amusing when my two favorite train wrecks – GamerGate and the Republican Primary – manage to find a way to collide.  This week, Donald Trump earned a key endorsement.  Not, Sarah Palin –although that one is comedy gold.  This one:

That’s right, Mark Kern – a former game developer turned GamerGate zealot with a history of  noxious idiotic activity came out in support Donald Trump.  Because, you guessed it – Political Correctness!

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The Ongoing Star Citizen Silliness

Derek Smart vs. Chris Roberts.  Who will win?  I’m guessing popcorn salesmen.

I recently wrote about Derek Smart’s ongoing crusade against Star Citizen, You may remember, for example, this piece, where Derek Smart asks politely for Chris Roberts and his wife to resign the company.

Give backers the opportunity to hire an independent forensics accountant, and an executive producer, to audit the company records, and give an accurate picture of the financial health of the company, and it’s ability to complete, and deliver this project in a timely fashion. I hereby offer to foot the entire costs of this effort. And I will put up to $1m of my own money, in an escrow account of an attorney’s choosing, to be used as-needed for this exercise. [Emphasis ours.] I will pay this price to prove that I had every right to seek these answers. So this money can either go toward a good cause (righting this ship), or to attorneys who are most likely to burn it all down anyway.

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Reviewing the Review of the Reviews of Mad Max

Today, Total Biscuit released a video titled ‘I will now talk about negative Mad Max reviews for just over 40 minutes‘, and whatever the hell else you can say about it, it is an accurate assessment of what he has to say.  It is also quite silly (although to be fair, I agree with much of the last 15 minutes of him rant), but still there’s a lot in this that made me quite cranky.  Here are my thoughts: 

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Dungeon Boss

Last Tuesday, I launched a game.  It’s doing quite well.

Boss Fight Entertainment released Dungeon Boss in a worldwide release on Tuesday in partnership with our publisher, Big Fish Games.  This marks my first foray into mobile gaming, and indeed my first serious work on a published title that was not an MMO of some sort.  So it was quite a novel experience for me, and quite frankly one that I needed.

The game has been doing exceedingly well so far.  Google featured it on their store on Wednesday, and Apple returned the favor and added on an Editor’s Choice award (and a really nice review) on Thursday, which has just resulted in our numbers shooting into the stratosphere.  It’s currently sitting as the #1 most downloaded RPG and the #2 most downloaded Free-to-Play game on the Apple store behind Happy Wheels .  Our revenue position still has a ways to go, but this publically available list here claims that we’re number 30, and we’ve been rising steadily as our population gets deeper into and more invested in the game.

According to AppAnnie, we’ve reached the #1 RPG spot for 70 different countries.  However, we’ve only taken the #1 game spot in one country – Latvia, oddly enough – though we’ve hit top 5 in 24.  While this is all incredibly heady stuff and the chart-watching makes for a pleasant way to spend the holiday weekend, when we get back it will be entirely about how to make the game even better, as well as holding our breath to see if the metric patterns we see extrapolate moving forward like they did in beta.  If so, Dungeon Boss is well positioned to be a huge part of the App Store landscape for years to come, and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.

Hugo Voters Reject Sad, Rabid Puppies

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

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

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

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

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


A Retrospective on the SWG New Game Experience

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

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

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

Rescuing Princesses in Arkham Knight

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

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

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

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

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Kern Being Kern: Part Gazillion

You may remember Mark Kern from his little temper tantrum from earlier this year – a temper tantrum that may or may not have resulted in him being shown the door from the company he founded. Whether this was due to his spending all of his time shitposting rather than getting work done, or whether there were more egregious problems, who knows. All I know is that this time around, they didn’t involve a $3 Million dollar bus for what was probably the most awesome planned Speed update of all time.

Welp, he’s back and he’s declared that he’s…. no longer neutral!

Yes, previously, he was being neutral as he slammed the press, coddled idiotic conspiracy theories and then cheered on the trolls of GamerGate as they brigaded the #GDC hashtag with insults, ad hominem attacks on game developers and anime porn, among other filth. But now he’s committed to #GamerGate because some people saw that the new Deus Ex is using the term ‘mechanical apartheid’ to describe their story, and some tiny number of that thought that merited a conversation.

For what it’s worth, I think that ‘mechanical apartheid’ is an awesome starting point that’s completely appropriate for the Deus Ex I know and love, and ties directly into the time-honored tradition of using alleghory in sci-fi and geek culture to discuss tricky and controversial subjects in modern society. Where Deus Ex’ narrative was going in their previous release was reminiscent to me of how Marvel Comics used the X-Men as an alleghory for the struggle of the Gay Rights movement. In a note to KiA, the game devs discussed how that was actually their plans. But hey, it’s just the start of a conversation, and if some are offended, we could actually listen to them and see if they have something worthwhile to say, right?

Ha ha, just kidding. Instead people like Mark are just going to freak the fuck out. Once again, the outrage from the Perpetual Outrage Machine that is KiA and GG vastly outstrips the supposed outrage from the other side. Seriously, I have a fair number of supposed SJWs in my twitter feed, and saw nary a kerfuffle in casual observation. Certainly nothing that compared to KiA’s utter shitstorm, or Mark Kern’s continued meltdown into nonsensical blather.

Loving Things You Criticize

You know that guy I was talking about over the weekend, whose hobby is to be as ridiculously thin-skinned and hyperbolic as the imaginary social justice strawmen poisoning the gaming press and industry that he’s invented in his head?  Well, he’s back, and he wants to help out all you imaginary haters who want to write clickbait reviews !

A few things there, Adrian.

  1.  Saying that a game missed an opportunity to be more diverse or inclusive is not the same thing as saying the game is racist, and claiming otherwise is being needlessly hyberbolic and alarmist.
  2. Saying that the world is misogynist does not necessarily mean that the game is misogynist.  As one example, the recently released Mad Max is a world that has interesting and strong female characters who solve things in interesting and inspiring ways, despite the fact that the world is deeply, DEEPLY misogynist.  You know who loved that film?  Your old buddy, Arthur Geis.  That being said, even if you believe that sexual violence is important for a story or game, how that sexual violence is handled is deeply relevant to some audiences
  3. If you are the sort of person who thinks that women dressing like harem girls for battle is inappropriate, then the fact that the women who rule the world are dressed in dental floss is not going to impress you.  I’m going to stress, I’m not one of those people – what can I say, I came of age to my dad’s hidden stash of Vallejo books.  However, it is a sizable, SIZABLE number of the people – mostly but not entirely women – and considering that the audience for RPGs is now believed to be majority women, actually giving a shit about their opinion may be worth something a designer interested in expanding the audience of their AAA game might want to, you know, at least not mock.  It certainly merits a mention in a review, as it is the sort of thing that these women may choose not to buy a game over.

Oh, one more thing:  I do tend to frequent more than a couple of SJW hives of scum and villainy and you know what?  They’re all super-excited about the Witcher 3.  Even as they discuss, criticize and explore these issues deeper, the excitement for this title has been building for weeks.  Because progressive gamers are still gamers, too, they just place valuation on different things.  Many of them loved the previous two Witchers as well.

It turns out that it is possible to enjoy and even love a work of art that you criticize.  But Adrian knows this.  His twitter feed is currently filled with criticisms of the game collected from the first day of play – opening area may be too long, and bad quest design results in lost time.  Standard RPG issue of failed sense of impending objectives clashing with side objectives.   A lengthy discussion of the failure of art direction driven mostly by the foliage of the game.  A general sense that it’s not as polished as it should be.  These are all valid topics of criticism and discussion amongst adults.

So is that social justice stuff.


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