Archive for month: May, 2014

Screenshot Saturday

31 May
May 31, 2014

(Screenshot Saturday is a twitter hashtag devs can use to post quick updates about their games. The posts are collected on the screenshotsaturday site. I’ll mirror my updates here.)

Working on mission scripting and trying to make the main path less linear.

MissionFlow

Not All Men

29 May
May 29, 2014

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll probably have heard about the horrifying acts of Elliot Rodger, who, feeling that women owed him love and sex, and that they hadn’t given him his due, went on a murderous rampage to extract “revenge” for these imagined misdeeds of the female gender.

Just monstrous. More details have emerged since then, painting a grim picture of his twisted mindset. He seemed to be deeply immersed in the poisonous rhetoric of the Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) and the Pick Up Artist (PUA) community. It’s not my place to speculate about whether any mental conditions may have contributed to his actions, but it’s far from surprising that such hateful soil nurtured vile acts.

It’s easy to dismiss the context, to believe that evil people will simply find any reason to do evil, but that is wrong-headed. Causes are complex, but context is not insignificant. The Nazis didn’t discover antisemitism, their attitudes and atrocities grew out of a thousand years of deep-seated European and Christian antisemitism, frequent purges of Jewish communities across Europe.

Horrifying acts grow where hatred is nurtured.

After Elliot’s suicidal rampage, of course, many took to blogs, news sites and social media to express their and anger and horror, to call out the attitudes that nurtured this killer. Society reeled, especially women. Many used twitter, under the hashtag #YesAllWomen, to give voice to their own experiences with men who treat sexual attention from women as a right to be demanded, by force if necessary. Story after story poured out, a torrent of grief and horror and anger and solidarity.

And, this being social media, it was very quickly derailed.

I hesitate to call it trolling. There HAS been trolling of the feminist response, no doubt. I’ve seen facebook pages put up calling Elliot a hero, but they bear the hallmarks of 4Chan. In terrible taste, but they don’t ring true as anything other than an attempt at “teh lulz” by horrible, bored children.

What I’m talking about specifically is the #NotAllMen hashtag that quickly rose in response. Less outright trolling and more a sort of obliviousness or defensiveness, nitpicking. Which, in the context, stops seeming harmless and comes across as almost malicious. An attempt to derail women’s expression of their daily, lived experience for the sake of ego. I’ll discuss that more in a bit, but let’s just carry on with recounting events, first.

So the #YesAllWomen hashtag involved women pouring out their souls and experessing their horror, the #NotAllMen responded by nitpicking how that expression was phrased, because it hurt men’s feelings, and basically online war erupted. I’ve read almost as much rage against the “Not All Men” men, as I have about Elliot Rodger and his murder spree. Of course, that may simply be my personal filter bubble, so don’t take that as proof of anything. Elliot Rodger, being dead, is probably not quite as actively argumentative as the Not All Men. I don’t intend it as a criticism, it’s just my personal view of how it’s unfolded.

Here’s a fine example, by the excellent writer Penny Red – “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what the were: misogynist extremism”.

You can see how the article is kind of broken up into two halves, the first focusing on Elliot, the second on the Not All Men thing. And that’s not a unique rant. Feminists have been expressing their frustration with this kind of response for a while now, long before Elliot Rodger. So much so that this satirical cartoon was created, quickly spreading across the net.

2014-04-10-pltm196

And here’s a deeper discussion of the thoughts and frustration behind it, why it’s so annoying for feminist bloggers – “Not All Men: A Brief History of Every Dude’s Favorite Argument.”

For the rest of this article, I’m going to talk about this “Not All Men” thing. If you’re wondering why I’m not going to talk about Elliot Rodger more, or the PUA community and how atrocious sites like Return of Kings (I refuse to link to that trash, but you can read about their comments in regard to Elliot here) is, it’s not because I think that those issues aren’t much more important, pressing subjects to focus on.

It’s because I think those topics have already been covered by so many women who deal with this reality, who have put it much better than I ever could. I don’t have anything new to add to that conversation. Please, read the links I’ve posted. These are horrible events, and it’s worth taking the time to examine them, and think about what we can do or how we, especially men, might be contributing to the environment that nurtured Elliot.

Anyway, like I said, I’m going to talk about the “Not All Men” thing for the rest of this blog post. There, I might have something new to offer to the conversation. Because, at one point, I was a Not All Man.

A long time ago, and thankfully not on the internet. I made that particular argument to my mother, in my teens, after I’d brought home some feminist literature I’d found at the library.

I was visiting the library nearly every week at that point, bringing home a satchel full of books at a time, and I’d found the section on gender studies while browsing around the extremely interesting (to a teenage boy) shelves devoted to books on sexual practices.

Ever curious, particularly about the exotic species known as “women”, I checked out these books in the hope of gleaning some insight into how women viewed the world. I was a shy young man attending an all-boys school. Much of my “insight” into the female of the species was second hand knowledge, garnered from books and TV and so forth.

So I went home, and read them. And fairly quickly started feeling angry and defensive. Many of the books seemed to burn with rage at men at the injustices perpetrated against women. All men, it seemed to me.

When my mother came home, I bombarded her first with the ideas that I’d read, then with my feelings of injustice and unfair generalization. It was one thing to say that some men are horrible, and do horrible things, on that point I more than agreed. But I felt I was being tarred and feathered with the monsters. Because I had a penis, I was guilty of the same crime. Not at all fair, I ranted!

My poor mother. She said that, for my own sake, I probably shouldn’t read that kind of book. And for a while, I didn’t, and I didn’t think much of the radical feminists. I had that frequently encountered view amongst both men and women, that feminism has done much good but the “bra-burning radical types” took it too far, into man-hatred, and that in the modern era feminism had become largely irrelevant.

And that was my opinion for a while. It’s not like I spent that much time thinking about it, honestly. It was, at the time, one of those views that, once settled on, didn’t come up very much. I treated women the same as I always had, as equals, but in my mind there was a box to which I’d dismissed “the radical, unreasonable feminists.” Who were not like normal, reasonable women, of course.

Fast forward to today, more than a decade later, and my views on these matters have matured, deepened, become significantly more nuanced. I am aware of more sides to arguments of all sorts, these days, and look back on the shallow opinions of teenage and early-twenties Gareth with much wry bemusement. Kids, man.

Which brings me to why I felt the urge to talk about this subject, even though it’s an emotionally-fraught one liable to blow up in my face. Because that “Not All Men” cartoon…well, it bugs me ever so slightly.

Even though I can see where it’s coming from and fully sympathize with the frustration, I remember teenage Gareth making that argument. And I remember that I wasn’t actually making it in bad faith. I wasn’t playing Devil’s Advocate, I wasn’t trying to derail important discussion about the mistreatment of women. I just didn’t want to be counted with the monsters. I felt targeted by that accusatory anger, and I didn’t feel like I’d done anything to deserve it. I was a nice guy, why take it out on me, protested the voice in my head.

That’s understandable, isn’t it? You can respond with “yes, but why bring it up then, when something more important is being discussed, if not to attempt to derail, to shift focus?” Maybe. But isn’t that also maybe being a bit ungenerous? When someone, never mind a teenager, feels defensive and says “hey, that’s not fair!” they’re not necessarily using that as a gambit, the moving of a chess piece, part of a larger, deceitful stratagem to diffuse and deflect your point. Humans and our emotional responses to things that threaten our sense of self are not necessarily all that rational or well-considered. Sometimes we do dumb things, without malevolent intent, that piss off other people.

And I know, teenage Gareth’s motives aren’t necessarily the same as the commonly-encountered Not All Man, and feminist bloggers will have more direct contact with that breed of animal. Perhaps my empathy is misplaced. But I still do worry about this kind of thing, a little bit. I worry it might be part of a trend in life that I find disagreeable, and see all too frequently. That I do myself, all too frequently. A tendency we all have to be ungenerous about the motives of people who we don’t agree with on some topic.

I’ll give an example I’ve seen, one made by “my” side, the liberal and progressive side. In a pro-life, pro-choice debate on abortion, I’ve seen comments like “the pro-life people don’t want to allow abortions because really, they just don’t want women to have any rights at all.”

That is ungenerous. It’s a complex, difficult issue, abortion. I’m pro-choice, but I don’t believe the majority of pro-life folks have any other motive besides the reasonable viewpoint that recognizable human life starts at point X instead of at point Y, where the pro-choice people put it. And thus terminating even an early pregnancy is seen to be ending a human life without its consent, something most consider murder. But it’s like we can’t stop at simply disagreeing where recognizable human life starts and what exact rights a mother has under those circumstances, we have this urge to take it further, to emphasize the villainy of someone who holds a different viewpoint. It’s easier to hate and dismiss cartoon caricatures, I guess.

Which is not to say that there aren’t real villains out there, that there aren’t atrocious viewpoints floating around that need to be squashed. But I fear this tendency drives us to hate people who aren’t actually that different in viewpoint from us, or who are potentially future allies, with a bit of time and understanding. What might have happened if young Gareth had expressed his opinion on the internet, instead of to his mother. I like to think I’m smart enough to have come right anyway, but I don’t know.

I fear that in the angry momentum built up behind the memes and blog posts about the Not All Men, we may be falling into that trap. Taking someone whose stance merely aggravates and interpreting their motivations in the most villainous light. Saying that not only are they wrong, they’re motivated by a desire to discredit or deceive. Because what could someone who seemingly rushes to the defense of misogyny be, but a sort of arch-misogynist? The devil’s advocate, the guy who knowingly defends the bad guy, that guy’s almost worse than the bad guy himself.

Which brings up the thought – if they’re defending the misogynists, and I’m (as some may interpret it) defending them, am I then the arch-arch-misogynist? Heh.

I worry about the nuance-stripping nature of these kinds of memes. I worry about what it does to how we communicate with each other, and our potential for finding common ground. I worry bout overload, where one person speaks to ten thousand, they directly answer back, overwhelming an individual’s patience and restraint. There’s an xkcd cartoon where he talks about being patient with people asking “dumb” questions, because you have to remember that no matter how tired you may be of certain topics or questions, there is always someone engaging with it for the first time. Some newb for whom this is their first encounter with the subject.

I wonder if something similar may be at play here? If you imagine sub-cultures as large networks of interconnected ideas and people and so on, there are those who sit at the heart of the network, and those along the edge. The people in the center are switched on, deeply engaged, much more aware of nuance and context and history than the outliers.

I worry about when the person in the center has a conversation with the person on the edge, who may be young, inexperienced, or just someone who hasn’t thought through the issue at hand. I worry about the wearing down of patience, and the temptation to lash out.

It’s a hard problem to solve. Because it’s a lot to ask for, that kind of restraint of anger in the middle of a terrible situation.

It’s completely understandable that women who are incandescent with rage and grief and horror at some new atrocity in a long line of atrocity inflicted on their gender, who have found the bravery to stand up and speak out against it in public, knowing the horrible, potentially-dangerous people their words will attract, don’t have it in them to stop and take the time to patiently guide some newbie making a superficial, stupid objection that misses the forest for the trees, or a stupid comment they’ve heard a thousand times. It’s hard to be patient and generous and understanding at the best of times, never mind the worst, and it’d be beyond presumptuous to demand that victimized women must be politely considerate toward men whose attitudes may help deflect blame from the perpetrators, when expressing their thoughts at times like these.

It would be unreasonable to criticize someone for not having the patience of a saint, not unless we ourselves are saintly. And who is? But, at the same time, I know it’s probably also unrealistic to expect the ignorant and inexperienced to have a good grasp on how to navigate these conversations carefully and considerately. So I worry about our ability to have these discussions, in this format. I worry about actively alienating the merely inexperienced and thoughtless, turning them into enemies.

I worry that if we take the people who say things like

“I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist! If your goal is to treat people equally, why call it feminism? That implies bias toward women’s concerns only!”
“Why call it patriarchy if it’s not all men? How can it be a patriarchy if many men aren’t benefiting it? Isn’t that raging at the wrong target?”
“How can you say I’m part of the patriarchy? I’ve never treated women badly in my life!”
“Men are also assaulted, you know!”
“Why try to make me feel like it’s my responsibility, just because I have a penis? It wasn’t me who did it! Implying I’m guilty because of my genitals is sexism!”

and act like they’re practically MRAs, well, we’ll drive them to the MRA movement and their atrocious “Red Pill” nonsense. I worry about how quickly we divide the world into allies and enemies. I worry what someone who is now where young Gareth once was might become, in the crucible of the internet rage machine. And I worry that someone reading this blog is going to interpret it as me saying these are bigger worries than women being brutalized and murdered. πŸ˜‰

So, at the end of it all, what’s the answer? What do we do? Who do we assign fault to? I don’t know, and blaming anyone really isn’t the point of this piece, I hope that’s clear. The point was just to share my experience, and say that this is complex, and hard. All I have is a hope that somehow we can get better at understanding each other.

And somehow find a way to create a world that treats women better. Just days after Elliot Rodger went on his rampage, on the other side of the world, a pregnant woman was stoned to death by her family, for marrying for love. There isn’t a country on Earth where women are safe from these kinds of depredations. We’ve made improvements, but it’s not nearly enough.

Whatever our misunderstandings and disagreements, however different our life experiences, we must find a way to fix this. Men, women, all of us.

*And just in case it’s not clear, I really hope no one takes this piece as justification to start sneering at feminists in the comments. I’m a feminist, I believe in feminism. I think it’s important. The fact that there are difficulties with understanding and communicating with each other online, especially in emotionally-fraught situations or via forms of social media that constrain communication, proves nothing besides that this kind of thing is hard, and that we’re all flawed humans. I wrote this not as a critique of feminism, but because I felt the need to put my thoughts and experiences into words. I like almost everyone who comments on my blog, please don’t lead me to making a frowny face. πŸ˜‰

On Indie Bubbles

26 May
May 26, 2014

So Jeff Vogel’s latest, rather pessimistic post, in which he predicts the collapse of the so-called “indie bubble”, is doing the rounds at the moment. If you haven’t read it yet, you can read it here for context.

Now, it’s worth noting that what Jeff is talking about isn’t really a bubble, in the economic sense. An economic bubble is when the market valuation of goods is higher than it really should be, usually driven by speculators, people who buy up that good because they anticipate its market value increasing in the future and hope to sell for a profit. When the market realizes the good is over-valued, the speculators panic, they attempt to sell their stock of the good before the price they can get for it drops, which of course causes the price to plummet, losing most of them a good deal of money. The dot com and housing bubbles being prime examples.

Now, that’s not what’s happening here, clearly. But it’s not worth getting too pedantic about the exact terminology, as that would be failing to address the real spirit of Jeff’s argument.

For myself, I don’t know whether Jeff is entirely right, but he isn’t entirely wrong. I know from speaking to other devs that being on the front page of the New Releases category on Steam can mean many times the number of sales as being off it. And the flood of recent releases means that each new game is getting less and less time on that front page. Even worse, the default page that Steam loads has recently changed, it isn’t New Releases anymore, it’s “Top Sellers.”

Which really just results in a feedback loop, where being successful makes you more successful, and the boost to “discoverability” afforded by the front page for hopeful up-and-comers, weakens.

It’s certainly a real factor, but that, to me, doesn’t speak to a limited pool of gamer dollars being split amoungst an ever-growing pool of developers. To me that signals the fracturing of Steam’s ability to direct the attention of gamers, Eye of Sauron-like. Since it’s trying to direct your attention to more and more games, and the number of hours in a week hasn’t magically increased, it’s naturally able to give each new game a smaller slice of time. Less time = fewer sales.

eye-of-sauron_0

If Vogel were right, if it were about a limited pool of gamer money being divided up more and more, then you’d expect the top sellers to be feeling the pinch almost as much as anyone. After all, even for a Braid or a Transistor, if this were the core problem, the maths would be inescapable. Sharing the pie with 1000 other developers would be worse than sharing the pie with 10 other developers.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve seen nothing to say that the top sellers, even amoungst the so-called “AAA indies”, are having their profits eaten into by the growing flood of greenlit games. Now sure, I don’t actually have stats that they aren’t feeling a pinch, that data is guarded fairly closely, but I think I’d have heard some rumblings. If anything, there seem to be more of the “superstar” indies than there used to be, all doing fairly well. Which, if you think about it, is also a counter to the “limited gamer money being divided more” argument. Since each new AAA-indie released on the service would be gobbling up more of the supposedly-limited cash pie that the existing developers on Steam used to share than any 10 other minor-league indies.

So to me the issue is that we’re seeing the end of a time when, if you got in the door, you were almost guaranteed to be bathed in the attention of steam’s huge customer base for a week or so. Which is enough time to get you some really good sales figures, and potentially grow your customer base to the point where the word-of-mouth becomes self-sustaining. Being greenlit was kinda like winning a free, powerful advertising campaign, courtesy of Valve. Now it’s like winning a much smaller marketing campaign, courtesy of Valve.

So we’re getting back to the point where devs have to work much harder for marketing, perhaps harder than ever before. Which sucks a bit, I had my own dream of Steam fame and fortune, after all. But this is what many indies asked for. Many resented the fact that Steam could act as kingmakers, especially when steam access started to hurt their ability to sell directly to customers on their own sites (many have reported that some of their customers won’t buy games if they’re not on Steam).

Now, I’m not saying that competition isn’t a factor. It is. But competition doesn’t quite work out as simply as Jeff describes, when it comes to art. You see, art and entertainment products aren’t widgets. They’re not directly interchangeable.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, and you see the next Harry Potter book for sale for $20, you’re not likely to be strongly moved by the fact that there might be a sale for Tom Clancy novels, 3 for $10. Not unless you’re also a Clancy fan, in which case you may have a dilemma. If you’re a Metallica fan, I can’t move you with an offer of a Red Hot Chilli Peppers CD instead.

It’s not like saying this bar of soap is cheaper than that bar of soap, or this running shoe is cheaper than that running shoe. Games, and art/entertainment in general, are not very homogeneous.

A flood of casual match-3 games isn’t likely to be strong competition for the dollars of the hardcore RPG fan base, which is where Vogel operates. Vogel is much more likely to face competition from the recent wave of Kickstarted RPGs, or the Eschalon series, or possibly hard-core strategy sims.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t competition, or that it isn’t growing. There is, and it is. But it’s not as simple a story as “publisher dumps a hundred casual game ports on Steam, competition increases 10 fold” or some such. If anything, I think many good niches are still under served, for indies, game backlogs from bundles not-withstanding. I know that, for myself, I buy far fewer RPG or strategy or simulation games per month than I could afford to. And an intriguing new gameplay mechanic or game world is still a draw. Half the kickstarter projects I’ve backed have been in the hope of reseeding some of my favourite genres which have dryed up in recent years. I, for one, am still very much an under served customer. Despite my 50-deep unplayed game backlog on Steam (I’ll get to that in a moment).

So building games for an untapped niche or coming up with an original design can still leave you relatively free of competition, even in a heavily-crowded marketplace. That’s one of the wonderful things about creativity in design, it can leave you with a sort of pseudo-monopoly, at least for a while. Your unique mechanic, style, storytelling, world or thematic flavour can be something that no one else can easily or quickly copy. It’s a lesson Minecraft should have burned indelibly into our minds.

One last point, on bundles and backlogs. Sure, I’ve picked up many a bundle myself, usually in the hope of finding a hidden gem. And many of them languish unplayed. But, in my mind, that’s more like spending money on discoverability than anything else. I used to plonk down similar levels of cash for game magazines each month, mostly for the demo cds. Sales and bundles are mostly filling the role of demo cds these days, for me, acting as a way of paying a small amount to try something you’re not willing to buy blind at a higher price. If I like it, I’ll look for sequels or DLC or other games by that developer to buy full price.

cd

You could that the comparison is wrong because they’re full games, not demos, and won’t lead to full sales later. But they still seem to fit into that role and ecosystem, to me. As a gamer I spend a negligible amount of money to sample a wide range of titles that I otherwise wouldn’t, and it doesn’t bother me a whole lot if some of those go unplayed. And, for the developers, a small amount of cash from a large number of bundle buyers willing to try your game at that low price is comparable to 1 in 100 trying your game demo and deciding to buy it full price. Maybe even better.

All those unplayed bundle games, just like the games I hadn’t played on demo cds, don’t seem to stop me eagerly buying titles I’m truly sold on, when they come out, at full price. They don’t seem to be directly competing. There seem to be two categories of games in my head.

Category A – games I’m really excited about, which I want to play as soon as I can. That category feels like it’s empty most of the time, I go months between satisfying that drive. When a game does enter that queue, I consume it as soon as possible, making time in my evenings for it, playing it until I’ve finished it, savouring the experience. Then, sadly, I go back to reading the news and watching trailers of upcoming titles , waiting the months and years for the next anticipated game to finally release. Months of waiting, a few weeks playing. Far more demand than there is supply.

Then there’s Category B. This is the category for casual browsing. This part seems to exist to find new games to add to Category A. It picks up games when they’re cheap to try and doesn’t feel much urgency to consume the games already in the queue. They’re there for “whenever”. Since so little has been invested, there’s no remorse if I play a title for only half an hour before deciding I don’t care to keep playing. In fact, many titles I forget I own, I’ve bought some Category B games repeatedly, forgetting that I’d picked this or that title up in a previous sale. Games in Category B will always be bumped aside for Category A releases. They don’t seem to strongly compete for my attention. Unless a game graduates from Category A to B.

That’s me. What about you guys? Do you find something similar? Or do you think my comparison way off?

On Ambition

26 May
May 26, 2014

You know, 65 singleplayer missions for the System Crash single player campaign sounds great, until you have to script each and every one. 😐

Some Art

21 May
May 21, 2014

I painted these recently, thought I’d share.

DeclanCard

DuvalleCard

Spiffy Space Shennanigans

21 May
May 21, 2014

I have no idea whether it will actually be enjoyable to play a space RTS from the bridge, in first person, rather than as a free-floating omniscient camera. It may end up being a gimmick that frustrates, rather than enriches, the experience.

But man, some of those shots really capture the drama of your favourite sci-fi TV shows, don’t they? Personally, even if I’m cautious about whether the control model will end up being frustrating or not, I’m still keen for someone to try make it work.

A Sign Of The Times

08 May
May 8, 2014

So. Wow.

This is a pretty huge deal.

To summarize – Epic are going to broadcast development of Unreal Tournament 4 from day 1, they plan to work in close collaboration with fans to build the game, which will itself be completely free, and Epic plan to make money by opening a mod marketplace and taking a cut of mod sales.

Hell’s bells. This is surely a sign of the brave new world we’re living in, of early access and the trend toward open development. Kudos to Epic for taking this brave step. Sure, when you’re earning licensing income from probably the most popular engine in the market, there is a nice financial cushion to fall back on, you’re not risking the farm. But still, it’s bold, it’s innovative, it’s experimental. I like it. Kudos to you, Epic.

The open community development is interesting, but so is the monetization model. We’re all well-aware that the various types of Free To Play models are big in the mobile space. But to have one of the AAA studios embrace that model in the development of a flagship product is quite the statement. Clearly, the industry is moving, and this is probably just the beginning.

And before someone says anything, this is F2P. I know, there aren’t any microtransactions. But F2P just means using the base game as a platform to sell other products to players of the game, in some manner. The game isn’t the thing you’re selling, it’s a platform that creates the desire for the things you’re actually selling.

All that said, this is, in my mind, probably the least exploitative type of F2P imaginable. In fact, like Unity’s Asset Store, it’s a great example of a mutually beneficial relationship. The ability to sell their product encourages modders, they benefit financially for their creative work. And the developers benefit, not just from the cut of sales they earn, but from the fact that these mods increase the value of the game platform for other players. Modders benefit from making mods, the developers benefit from giving modders a platform to make their mods. Win-win.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be an incredibly successful experiment for them. And if we didn’t see many other developers follow suite in the coming years. The Elder Scrolls, for example, is ripe for this. Forget the MMO, build this, Bethesda!

Anyway, I’ll be watching this play out with interest. It certainly is a brave, exciting new world out there! Gaming is such an exciting space to be in!