Thursday, May 22, 2014

Another facebook comment that got way too long

Accidentally ended up writing a mini-essay as my share text on a facebook link. Decided to put it here for posterity as I trust google to archive my thoughts very slightly more than Facebook. Also, the wayback machine works on blogs.
The original article (here) calls out some interesting trends in sales of small, independent, digital download games (a.k.a. indie games), citing it as the indie bubble bursting.

I wouldn't call it exactly an indie bubble but this article does a fair job of outlining how the market is changing. In my experience, markets -- especially consumer directed markets -- go in waves.

The metaphor that fits most in my mind is land. Whenever a new place is accessible, whether by new technology or changing circumstances or what have you, it's the wild west. Fill up your wagon, go out west, grab some land, do what you want. It might be hard to get there, or might require a specialized skill set, or the area might not be hospitable for everyone. Heck, maybe there were already some people there who had been living there basically forever but had less of a profit motive.*

Then somebody finds some gold, and maybe some folks back east take notice. Folks who have been camping once or twice and want to get rich quick saddle up. A lot of these greenhorn settlers die on the way out, but those who teach themselves how to survive have plenty of room to settle. Bigger enterprises who already own well mined ... well, mines ... see completely untapped resources. They train and hire their own people to go out and claim the abundant territory. If they have to push other people who have been there longer of the territory well, that's unfortunate but they were sitting on giant gold mines and just sifting a few flakes out of the river so, really, isn't it their own fault for not capitalizing on it? Also, how do you get blood off of suede shoes? 

And now the big mining concerns buy up everything that was sustaining an entire culture, and what they can't buy up they force others out of. At least, if the profit motive is there.

All of this means that, as time goes on, the skills needed to succeed shift from the ability to successfully work the land to the ability to bring resources to bear -- economics and politics.

The good part of all this is that the intellectual property world isn't a static, finite world like our own. A new business model is enough to open a new wave and, after that happens, it takes a while for the larger concerns and the greenhorns to even start caring. Kingdom of Loathing was out there doing it's thing long before Zynga and King camped out in Freemium. FTL kickstarted itself long before larger companies started seeing it as a way to offset project risk. Rolling Alpha is STILL a wild west marketplace with Minecraft, Day Z, and the great grandaddy of them all Dwarf Fortress continuing to work a crazy stretch of wild canyon river that none of the big fish have quite tackled how to work yet. As barriers to entry rise in one place, new frontiers are opening in another.
I guess what I'm really saying is that I need to finish watching Deadwood someday.

*Does this make board games indigenous peoples?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Unfortunate Sexism in Good Media, as Portrayed by GTA V

Nothing to see here

Mild Spoilers Ahead.

GTA does satirize american culture and the american dream. The quick buck, the easy fix, sex and violence. But, consciously or not, it is also satirizing women: not just our society's view of women, not just specific people who happen to be women. No, it satirized women as a class of people. I don't think it necessarily sets out to do this, and I don't think the people who made the game are evil for it turning out this way. But this is something that I find difficult to deal with, and something I wish there were a LOT less of both in the world and especially in the industry.

Let's look at how GTA uses satire. Take Jay Norris: the Zuckerberg/Jobs character who runs the game's version of Facebook, "Life Invader." He gives speeches that are essentially literal translations of a cynical interpretation of a Jobs keynote. The words, "peek, pry, populate," displayed behind him, the extolls the virtues of his company. He says, to a cheering crowd, "We have put a billion people's private information in the public domain, and we have milked every penny we could in the process."

Here we have an exaggeration of a real type of public figure, calling out the absurdity of the these cult-of-personality keynotes, and showing how companies like Facebook and Apple getting people to pay them for the privilege of eroding their private lives. He says they're average workforce age is 14, which calls out some of the questionable manufacturing conditions that have been reported at FoxConn.

This is pretty classic satire. There's an element of real culture dialed up to the proverbial 11 to make it easier to see and to show how absurd it is. And then, without spoiling too much, it gives us some lovely wish fulfillment.

Then there's the son of one of the main characters, Jimmy. He's a classic example of the second generation son of the hard working parents. Looking like a ginger Turtle circa Entourage season 1, he's a stand in for lazy millennials and entitled trust funders. He sits in his room all day yelling slurs at people over the internet and getting high. He sells his dad's boat because he doesn't have any spending money at the time, and has the audacity to at one point put a giant brick of marijuana in the family fridge.

This is the game mocking the college age core demographic gamers, and the easy target millennials. And it's not the worst mocking. Here we have entitlement, moral bankruptcy, and general dudebroness all called out for ridicule. When he calls people "gay" over the internet, this is mocking dudebros -- not mocking homosexuality. Once again, we've taken something problematic and turned it up to 11 to point out the flaws and have a good laugh.

Then there's the women. It's easy to talk about Michael's wife and daughter. I know, because I just deleted two paragraphs I wrote about them. But the truth is, that's talked about better elsewhere; the nagging, cheating, entitled housewife and oversexed underbrained blonde stereotypes aren't new. And the game doesn't do much new with them here. It just uses the same old vaguely offensive sitcom tropes without really making fun of them.

Oddly enough, this doesn't bother me all that much
The more interesting female characterizations, and the more toxic, are the "strong women" that show up. First of all, there's Franklin's Aunt who he calls crazy and with whom he owns a small house. All we ever see her do is hanging out with her female friends and performing various empowerment exercises and asserting her right to the house she half owns. She has the audacity to not want to move when Franklin wants to sit down, watch TV, and smoke a bowl. Her assertion of ownership over what's hers and her feminism are what is exaggerated here and, thus, are what the game is subtly saying is a character flaw to be made fun of.

The other character is a minor quest giver - a female jogger Michael can race against. She's an attractive woman in her late 30s. When Michael first approaches her she says she's not interested in him. She then goes on to assert that she's working out for herself and not to fill a man-shape void in a very "the lady doth protest too much" sort of way. She constantly berates Michael, who keeps replying, "You should meet my wife." The exaggerated elements here are her independence, her athleticism, and her hatred of men. The game implies that she's compensating for being an "old maid" with man hating and exercise and all but saying that she may just need a good fucking and she's be fine.

Yes, this is a game of terrible people. There are no female role models because the game doesn't have any role models. Except maybe Trevor. Here's the distinction: when male characters are satirized, it's usually for qualities that have little or nothing to do with their gender. The shrink is satirized for being money grubbing and uninterested, the yoga instructor for being in touch with his body (and anus), and Trevor's friend Ron for being a conspiracy theorist. When women are satirized it's usually for things that are specific to women: dressing too provocatively, being obsessed with being 39 and single, or marching around like the mother at the beginning of Mary Poppins. People are made fun of everywhere, but women are made fun of for being women.

I say this not to convince. As I said at the top, if you don't think it's a problem that the game satirized women as a class that's on you. I'm not here to try to evangelize. I'm writing this to let people who feel the same way I do, or agree with some of what I said, to know that someone else out there thinks the same things are true. Because god knows there are enough people out there who say there's nothing wrong with the way our media portrays women.

Now THIS is cultural satire:

Saturday, July 6, 2013

In Defense of Same Sex Marriage

Just so it's out there on record - I don't do a lot of profile picture changing, but it doesn't mean I'm not massively in favor of same sex marriage, etc. I also don't wear flag pin but I love America.
We have a lot of issues in our society with how we tie gender identity and sexual preference to identity and to the relationships we form with other people, organizations, etc. I have so much respect for the people who choose to publicly be who they are and with who they love, meeting the rough and jagged edges of our culture head on, and bleeding on the cutting edges of our society and slowly wearing them smooth.

The "traditional marriage" that those who oppose same-sex marriage hold up as a sacred thing, not to be tampered with, is not the wholly unimpeachable tradition it's made out to be in such traditions. Like almost every other aspect of society, marriage has undergone continual change in the modern era as gender roles have been redefined to acknowledge the humanity and rights of women in the home, the workplace, and society at large. These changes have been hard, but they have been for the better, slowly peeling away the unconscious associations of sex/gender with personhood that are embedded deeply in our society.

I, and I suspect many other men of my generation and before, are brought up in this world and learn, are taught, a sortof “when-harry-met-sally” view of relationship to women: men and women can’t be friends, because no matter what, the relationship between a man and a woman is ALWAYS defined in terms of sexual coupling; even when a man and a woman are not together, it is viewed as them actively not having sex with one another at least on the male side. Thus, before you ever get to the person on the other side, there’s a ‘problem’ to be solved. An object in the way, a screen of rules and questions that makes it that much harder to see the depth of the person on the other side of it. Yes, of course there are biological bits to it, but biology is often a good goddamn excuse for what we don’t want to change because its hard. So we blame our dicks, or their dicks, or whatever, and we keep seeing these other people as complicated machines, problems to be solved, instead of as the reflections of selfhood that they are. And it’s fine. Because it’s our biological nature. Our original sin. Can’t be changed, only regretted.

There’s a passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (the first one) that’s often quoted in traditional marriages. You probably know the one -- it starts out, “Love is patient, love is kind...” It’s a wonderful passage about loving another person; it is most emphatically NOT about traditional marriage as a special relationship in this regard. The context is that of loving EVERYONE in this way regardless of their unqiue qualities. It’s about not resenting those that appear to be better than you, or thinking yourself better than others in a different position.

Does same-sex marriage force us to reexamine and change our definition of what a “traditional” marriage is? Of course it does. But we’ve been doing that for over a century and with largely successful results. Same-sex marriage forces us to separate our ideas of what loving another person is, what being married to another person is, from sexual identity. In so doing, it forces us as a culture (or at least me), to stop using the gendered shorthand we use when thinking about those we care about, and might, just might, help us see each other as people. For love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perserves.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

FATE Supp. Rules for Lost Civilizations

Here are some rules that I'm thinking about using in the fate campaign I'm currently running. Background info: the world is far-future super post apocalyptic with ruins of lost civilizations dotting the landscape. I wanted rules for collaboratively fleshing out these ruins and innumerable lost civilizations.

Ruins of Lost Civilizations

Exploring haunted ceremonial burial grounds. Spelunking in buried alien spacecraft. Stepping through strange portals to terrible worlds where nothing seems right. A fun part of many roleplaying games and settings is exploring ruins or worlds of those who came before, unearthing lost histories and finding buried secrets and treasures.

This system is build for the Prosperity Gulch campaign world, a steampunk far future setting where there are ruins of many failed civilizations dotting the frontier, but could be adapted to any setting where there are ruins from a variety of possible civilizations.

When to use this?

Characters in Prosperity Gulch can frequently come across ruins. They may be trekking across land and looking for shelter and supplies, they may be prospecting for artifacts of hidden eras, the campaign may even revolve around a town built on the mouth of such a ruin, people living in the hollowed out ruins of ancient buildings.

There is no ONE ancient civilization in the world of Prosperity Gulch; people have been around long enough that uncountable peoples have risen and died, civilizations lost under the earth. Every ruined city could be from a completely different ancient people, who lived life in a completely different way.

This system allows for the players and GM alike to participate in building the history of their version of this world, making the people and the world that shaped a particular ruin that they might be exploring. Whenever players are going to delve into an ancienty cave, city, find an ancient book or investigate a piece of ancient technology closely, it may be a good time to build a new Lost Civilization.

Step One: Determine Basic Technology Level

One of the first things to nail down about an ancient civilization is its level of technology. Did these people have writing? Plumbing? Energy weapons? Space travel? Does their technology appear to be more or less advanced than your PCs? Is it so advanced that it may as well be magic?

Talk amongst yourself, come up with a general idea of what the general technology level might be. Note that technology levels don’t have to be civilization-style tiers, nor do they have to conform to our history. Examples: Sailpunk, Space Opera, High Magic, Post-Scarcity. Once you have determined the technology level, make an aspect related to that. Examples, “Unstable Crystallize Matrices”, “Industrial Child Labor”, “Harnessed Rage of Demons”, “Trans-dimensional Trade Network”.

You may all choose to have the GM, in secret, roll 4 fate dice. For each + she determines one element of the technology that is uncharacteristically advanced, and for each - an oddly vestigial element that seems like a throwback. For example, a + might have computers in an ancient egyptian setting, while a - might have the elite space monks wielding swords rather than energy weapons.

Step Two: Determine Social Structure

This step can be skipped if you like a little more mystery in your game - or if it’s more of a one-off civilization.

All civilizations can be ordered in a variety of ways. They may be hive civilizations of insects or mole rats, differentiated with a hive mind. They might be rational anarchists, with a strict moral code upheld by each individual (and maybe programmed at birth). Monarchies, Oligarchies, Theocracies, Communes, Lottery-Presidencies, Tribal Rule of the Fittest -- different societies have different social structures.

As with the technology level, talk amongst yourselves about what it seems like the people who made this place might have been like. Note that this can be either just the social arrangement of the local ruin or the larger society that made it; for example if its a massive crashed ship of democratic rebels against an imperialist star-empire, you might choose “democratic republic”. Also note that you DO NOT NEED to flesh out the whole history of this people - just give a glimpse of society and let the rest fill itself in. Once you have decided on a general social unit, make up an aspect to describe it.  “Devotees of Fire in All its Forms”, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, “An Eye for an Eye”.

Step Three: Dark Secret Aspect

By now everyone probably has a good idea in their own head of what the people who made this ruin might have been like. This idea, however, may be different from person to person. This is where individuals have a chance to put a stamp on the civilization -- and to surprise the other players.

At this stage, everyone writes down another aspect describing a suprising, and challenging feature of the culture -- techological, societal, or just generally descriptive. Ideally, it’s something that won’t become apparent until later.

Players should each decide on a possible aspect in secret, write it down on an index card, and hand it to the GM, face down. The GM then picks one, IN SECRET, that will be an aspect of the ruin or the civilization that created it. The GM may, at her discretion, reword the aspect to make it more aspect-y.

Optional Step: The Fall

If you want to, you can now as a group determine how the civilization ended. This is optional as you may want to reserve this as an open plot point. You may choose to discuss it openly as a group as with the technology and social structure, or you may want to treat it like the dark secret to preserve some mystery for everyone.

Last Step: The Name

Finally, if you have not already, agree on a name for your civilization. Make it something easy to remember and ideally easy to pronounce. It may be what the people called themselves, it may be what archaeologists call them, it may be just what your players decide to call them based on what they had for lunch that day.

With the civilization christened, go forth and explore! Players and GM’s alike, use these aspects to flesh out the setting as you go through it. These civilizations may become long running parts of the game -- or they may only be relevant for a session. Have fun with them.

Example Lost Civilizations

The Tower Builders

Technology Level - Egyptian+ (robots)
Social Structure - Council of Elders
Tech Aspect: Solar Powered Machinery
Social Aspect: Age Before Beauty
Secret Aspect: (Dire Consequences for Ignorance)
The Fall: (Dust Clouds Blotted out the Sun)

The Goatpath River People

Technology Level: Cyberpunk- (no written language)
Social Structure: Corporate Rule
Tech Aspect: Remote Neural Control
Social Aspect: We Can See Your Desires
Secret Aspect: (Tailored-Viral Advertising)

The Fall: (A I Uprising)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Always On?

DISCLAIMER(ish): Hello internet! I've decided to necropost to my pre-Final Form blog as the facebook status update I was writing grew too large. This is, therefore, written as a status update - very little editing, fairly stream of consciousness.

Having had a little time to synthesize my thoughts and the rumors re: 'always on' 360x2, I have come to the following conclusions (note that this is all conjecture; I know just as little about the new console as the rest of the not-working-on-the-xbox-team public):

Whatever they do, Microsoft is faced with a big Xbox-live shaped problem in the next generation console. Xbox-live was introduced at an almost magical time when playing games on a console over the internet and with your friends was still a very magical thing. Remember that XBOX live started on the Xbox 1, and when they introduced the Xbox 360, it was the first console of its generation - most games assumed offline and online features were above and beyond; paying to use them was reasonable.

Cut to now, where many, if not most, of the big AAA titles have multiplayer built into them. Gone are the days when Halo was the only way to conveniently blow people up over the internet without a keyboard and mouse and a reasonable ($1000+) gaming rig. For many modern large-budget games, you are not getting access to the full product without an internet connection.

Microsoft has been both clever and lucky to squeeze Xbox Live in under the wire. They can charge for something that on every other gaming system is assumed to be free because they got grandfathered into it. This is now their business model - they expect to receive this money every month to continue to do what they do as a company. They have a lot of experience with the business model and how to work within it. They have infrastructure dedicated to this business model, and I'm sure they have business relationships built around this assumption. The problem is, when it comes time for consumers figure out what console to buy next, how can they convince people to continue to pay a subscription? Because if they don't, they would have to essentially start from scratch in terms of figuring out how to turn the production of a modern gaming console into enough money to make the enterprise worth it.

Enter the rumored discussions with cable companies and the always-on Xbox. Here's the thing about cable: it's always on, and that is an acceped reality. You pay a flat fee and you get to use the content. You stop paying, you stop getting that content. What if the Xbox was a cable box? What if the Xbox live subscription was part of your cable bill? When you think about it, it makes a little sense - cable companies are I'm sure by now starting to look at how, in this age of Netflixen, they can continue to charge a subscription for television. The DVRs were a nice stop gap, and things like HBO still provide content that simply cannot be had without a subscription to cable. But how long is that going to last?

So, what if instead of paying for cable tv, I paid for xbox live? All the sudden my xbox is streaming shows for me, storing them, and letting me play games online. Maybe if I pay a little extra I get to use my standard cable subscription too. Xbox gets subscription revenue, cable companies get a service they can charge for on top of your base internet connection. Initially, yes, you will be paying BOTH for the new xbox and for the games that you buy to play on it. But maybe MS is betting that we're approaching the end of the standalone, pay-up-front game and planning to be ahead of that curve. In the meantime they add some 2nd run games for free, ala playstation plus. Also, maybe some in game currency for whatever f2p game of the future is hot.

In short, always-on is a risky stance and a rightfully controversial one, but it may still be MS's best bet to stay in the game. If I had the option to pay for an XBOX live subscription that gave me access to HBO etc. instead of paying for cable, I'd start listening.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Now at

Final Form Games, my game development company, has a new website. We will be making most of our posts over there and all of the game review/design content that I would have put up here will now be posted on Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Battleship, not Axis and Allies: Nintendo and the expanding market

News came down today that Sega's latest attempt to make a mature, hardcore-aimed game for the Wii, MadWorld, sold 66k copies in the US it's opening month. This is lackluster even when compared to relative flops for the 360; in it's first month Too Human, just such a game, sold over twice that number of copies. A similar piece of news dropped regarding GTA: Chinatown Wars, a mature title for the DS, which sold only 89,000 units in March.

Many have discussed the Wii and DS audiences' apparent resistance to hardcore games. Discussing the sales of Nintendo games in February, TWG News' said, "t will be very interesting to see how well MadWorld and GTA: ChinaTown Wars do on the Wii and DS in March. If these hardcore games can’t sell well on each of these systems, then people should just give up trying." I wouldn't go that far, but it's clear that, despite the fact that there are more Wiis out there than any single other console and the DS crushes everything else, the people that own these Nintendo platforms are not using their consoles in the same way that 360 and Playstation owners use theirs. To get a better sense of that difference, I find it helpful to think about board games:

You've probably played Battleship. It's a simple game where two players, unable to see each others' boards, fire shots at coordinates, discovering and trying to sink his opponent's ships based only on knowing whether each shot hit or missed. It's a classic for a reason; the game mechanics themselves are time-tested, having been invented in the early 1900s, and so simple you could play the game with a pencil and paper if you wanted to.

It's easy to learn, takes a minute or two to start up and to take down, and games last maybe ten or twenty minutes apiece. It has this in common with most of the other board games that you might find in the board game aisle at your local Target.

Contrast this with another game of naval warface:

Where Battleship's rules take a minute or Two to explain, the first time you play Axis & Allies you will likely spend ten to twenty minutes -- the time of a full game of battleship -- listening to someone explain the rules or reading the directions of Axis and Allies. After this, you will still need to refer to the rulebook or a knowledgable other player frequently to clarify details. Axis & Allies comes with charts, graphs, and cards that can change how a piece works in the middle of a game. It also takes 4-5 hours to play, which are often spread across several days as the board is left on a table somewhere.

Axis & Allies is by no means the most complex board game out there. There are a lot of great complex board games: pretty much any board game put out by Fantasy Flight Games, Avalon Hill, or any game company from mainland Europe is going to fit that description. All of these games require a lot of time buy in just to learn how to play the game, and usually take a lot of time to play through each game. Backbreaking amounts of time.

People love these games. Some people love to play them all the time. Other people, like myself, enjoy playing them every once in a while. Most people, however, look at an Axis and Allies board, or see the hour it takes just to break all the cardboard markers out of their cutouts when first playing Arkham Horror, and they run for the hills.

Many of these people who run away would happily play a game of Battleship, or Connect Four, or Pictionary, or Sorry, or, well, you get the idea. It is these people that form most of the audience for the Wii games out there.

When I use Wii games, I also use them more like board games. When I have a friend from out of town come to visit, and we're looking for something to do, I'll break out Steven Spielberg Presents Boom Blox. When my fiancée's parents come down for the weekend, I might put in Wii Sports. I played MadWorld, but I rented it. When I buy games for the Wii, it is to play those games with other people and, these days, the other people I play games with aren't usually "hardcore." I am not alone in this.

When you look at the top selling Wii games, you don't see a lot of single player or traditional game titles. What you do see are, for the most part, games that you can pick up and play with other people who happen to be around. Even Wii Fit, which I use mostly for personal exercise, has a serious set of minigames that can be enjoyed by a group of people.

In short, as consoles become more accessible and penetrate the market deeper, the difference between video games and regular games is shrinking in peoples eyes. The Wii is being used the same way that cards and board games have been used for millenia. Looked at in this way, the Wii isn't the odd man out, it's a "market correction," showing the hardcore gaming market to be the niche that it really is.

All of this is not to say that hardcore and mature games do not have a place on the Wii. Sega was, reportedly, happy with the apparently meager sales of MadWorld. Considering what they must have saved on asset generation in that game, between the lower res and polygon requirements of the Wii and a pallete made up of four colors (one of which is reserved for UI), I'm sure they are happy. The trick is to manage your expectations.