Self-Help Questions for Gamers

I’ve been reading Walker Percy’s 1983 ruminations on the human condition “Lost in the Cosmos; The Last Self-Help Book,” which is structured as a series of questions and thought experiments. Here are few topical ones for gamers.

Thought Experiment 1

In the wake of a huge financial success, a publisher increases competition by opening a digital storefront; they will not require a subscription, but yes, will require a password to a service and to run a service connected to the Internet on your PC when you are playing games you purchased through them (though it is likely for competitive reasons this latter requirement will at some point be dropped). To establish themselves, they have sought limited-time exclusive arrangements with several high profile upcoming games. Do you

(a) intend to support the new storefront, realizing that monopolies, even de facto ones, are bad for both consumers and developers? Healthy competition tends to drive prices down for consumers, and in this case, developers may be able to get a healthier percentage of sales revenue owing to competition for their audiences, and those better numbers for developers lead to more games from those developers. Further, do you reflect that competition may similarly improve services for consumers in the innovation of store features, such as better curation or even features not yet imagined?

(b) feel uncomfortable with the decision, since you prefer the digital storefront with whom you’ve done business for so long, and therefore intend to wait out the exclusivity periods in favor of keeping all your goods in one place? After all, a six month window will allow you to catch up on other games you’ve bought but not finished, and its availability on that storefront will come long after reviews and other critical works inform you about whether that purchase would be a good fit for you. A good game is a good game forever, and under this scenario might even be cheaper for you, thus allowing you to purchase more games.

(c) log into your preferred digital storefront and write scathing negative reviews of games made by any developer associating a single game with that new storefront in an effort to discredit the developer, show your extreme dissatisfaction that although the game will be available to you at launch, it will not be in the precise location of your choosing? Realize, in choice c, that doing so may hurt the developer’s ability to continue to fund the making of games in the future.

(d) shrug and continue with your day.

Thought Experiment 2

A difficult game has come out to critical acclaim. As happens in such cases, an op-ed has appeared defending the choice not to present easier modes for players who are unable for whatever reason to make significant progress in that game owing to its difficulty. Do you

(a) privately disagree with the editorial, feeling that difficulty modes exclude a wider audience over what is in effect a matter of taste? Some players will prefer to play easier modes first to train up to playing the more difficult mode; some players will prefer the difficult mode only; some players will only play the easiest mode. In the end, you would make the choice that is best for you, wouldn’t you? Or do you fear that you wouldn’t?

(b) privately agree with the editorial, on the grounds of the developer’s freedom of speech through their art? Even though their approach might make for a smaller audience, and therefore make it more difficult for them to make such games in the future as development costs continue to rise, it is after all their product.

(c) publicly take to the Internet to excoriate those who do not agree with the editorial in the hopes of preserving only the one style of game that is to your taste?

(d) shrug and continue with your day.

Experiment Variant: Retake the experiment, but this time, an op-ed has appearing criticizing the developer for the lack of easier modes of interacting with the game. Make appropriate adjustments to the choices given, typically by recasting as agreement rather than disagreement or vice versa.

Thought Experiment 3

A game comes out that offers customization options, whether through models or text changes (e.g. pronouns), that admit the existence of varieties of skin color, gender presentation, and human sexual preferences. Are you

(a) as a person looking forward to playing the game, glad that there more people who will be able to see themselves in the game and therefore feel pleased that there will be a wider audience for the game and that this will likely mean more games of types that you enjoy in the future?

(b) as a person not looking forward to the game, still glad that there are games for everyone, even if not every game is for you? After all, there are literally dozens of games released each day on a wide variety of platforms.

(c) as a person either looking forward or not looking forward to the game, angry that such options exist and are therefore ready to use whatever tools of anonymity you have via the Internet to make threats, review-bomb, or otherwise make life as living a hell as you can for the developer of this game or appreciators of these moves to grow both the breadth of the medium and the size of its audience?

(d) even now shrugging and continuing your day?

Thought Experiment 4

If you answered (c) to any of these questions, look to your personal history. At what point did you become so broken that these seemed like rational responses?

Fuck Activision Blizzard and Fuck Its (Mis-)Management

I heard about the Activision Blizzard layoffs last night via Jason Schreier’s reporting, and read Patrick Klepek’s opinion piece on Waypoint this morning.

Layoffs are horrible; I went through a painful one at LucasArts in 2004 as we were finishing Republic Commando. I’ve been lucky, in an industry that is full of them and with a career of more than 20 years now, that I’ve only experienced one — and that I got to finish that game and see it on the shelf to boot¹. It was all pretty terrible and is easily the most traumatic thing that has happened in my professional life. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard.

Usually this sort of thing happens for business reasons — “we didn’t hit our sales targets,” or “we didn’t get the contract we needed to survive,” or what-have-you. The company can’t continue as it once did. Even then, it’s a failure of management. Management didn’t anticipate the problem, wasn’t prepared for the business environment, or failed some other way.

Which makes this Activision Blizzard announcement from yesterday particularly galling. After a record year with $2.4 billion in revenue, they felt the need to excise 8% of their workforce. This is a failure of conscience. It is a failure of fairness. It’s a failure of morals. It’s also a failure of both leadership and creativity.

You see, I’ve also worked with a company that had a title come out and take longer to reach profitability than had been hoped — that was a company that might have felt the need under those circumstances to cut back. It had no other titles in development, it was carrying several developers who didn’t have a lot to do. That company found temporary contract work for several of its developers, so that the financial burden of those salaries could be partly borne by others. This gave breathing room to pursue other revenue sources and look for that next contract that would keep everyone together. It was a creative solution to a common problem.

And that’s why I call this failure by Activision Blizzard a failure of leadership and creativity. I can understand that, after a breakup with Bungie, they may not need all the production services people that they have, going forward. I understand that. But you’ve invested in these people and they’ve invested their trust and faith in you, as well. With the amount of revenue from last year, and the investment that those people represent to your company, why not spin off a production services division as an independent entity that continues to serve Activision Blizzard’s needs in the near future and go out and drum up additional business? There aren’t tons of companies like that for games and there’s every chance there’s work out there for them, and potentially other work, too, in other entertainment industries. They had an opportunity to create something new.

Patrick ends his essay by pointing out a bump in Activision Blizzard stock following the announcement. The financial sector loves its cost-cutting, it just loves that, and as I had a guest say on our podcast this past year, “nobody ever got fired for saying no.”² Financial markets don’t care about the human cost. Apparently they don’t care very much about the lost investment in these people, either, money the company spent to make these people good at their jobs; hopefully other companies will benefit from that investment going forward.

Even better than cutting, though, is creating something new. Every single company that gets traded in the financial markets today was a new company once, founded to compete in a niche often — but even better to create a new one it could own.

With the amount of money Activision Blizzard brings in, they could have helped a new services company along as it slowly cut the cord, on a reasonable schedule. They could have created something, perhaps even a new niche. Given it time to sink or swim. Put the jobs of these people into their own hands. If it had made it out of the cradle, they might even have been able to sell it for a tidy profit down the line. Who knows?

But no, instead it’s clear that the “C” in Activision Blizzard’s “C-suite” stands neither for chief, nor for creativity, nor for courage. That “C” stands for cowardice. That “C” stands for cravenness. Fuck Coward-in-Chief Bobby Kotick and his whole suite of cowards.

Game workers, unite.

¹In that case, the studio contracted and then spent the next couple of years trying to expand again enough to support even one AAA-scale project on the XBOX 360 / PS2 level of hardware. The company’s reputation was tarnished, and it really never fully recovered that before it shut down permanently after the Disney acquisition. (back)

²It was this episode. (back)

A couple of great things from the end of EarthBound

Recently I played through EarthBound for the first time — it’s the most unconventional JRPG I’ve ever played, with bizarre choices in monsters, a setting that seems to be more or less on our own planet, and a progressive strangeness with which I’m still struggling¹. But there were a couple of things I really loved about the ending section of the game.

In case it was not abundantly clear from either the title or the preceding paragraph, this discussion must necessarily spoil plot points from the end of EarthBound.

Powering up the player… and maybe it’s not enough. Once you finish the quest to free the eight stones and unify their song, or whatever that’s about, there’s a mechanical boost that occurs to the player. The player gets dramatically stronger, gaining maybe 30% more hit points and for me I think about doubling his magic casting resources as well. What’s wonderful about this is that when you then make your final approach to take down Giygas, you are still… kind of underpowered? I died a few times on the way just to get to him from the randomly placed enemies, and then it took me four tries to defeat Giygas himself². So despite the fact that they’ve made you comparatively really powerful, it’s still balanced in such a way as you feel like you’re the underdog. You’re not, of course, because you’re functionally immortal and can basically level indefinitely… though if you don’t figure out the trick to beating Giygas, you might spend a lot of time looping there. Still, it’s a neat feeling to see your character get dramatically stronger only to still feel like you’re barely hanging on.

Aftercare. When we talked with Jill Murray on Dev Game Club, she brought up the idea of “after care” with respect to players. Tim had observed that we’re really good at stirring up emotions like fear and aggression in our players, and maybe not so good at warmer feelings, and Jill specifically lamented that we don’t take the time to care for players after we’ve brought them to that point. It was a good point and it’s notable that EarthBound does this pretty well, as do some others of my favorite JRPGs³. It’s different from simply allowing the player to go around and do lots of clean-up tasks, as most open-world games have tended to do these days. Here, we literally have a little celebratory moment with various characters, say goodbye to a couple of our party, and escort Paula back to her home before returning home ourselves. It’s lovely; we retrace our steps, characters thank us, there are no threats. The game also lets you know that it’s about to end, should you care to save and maybe go visit other characters now that you’ve saved the world. It’s really, really pleasant, and while modern game design often doesn’t allow for it, that’s to the detriment of modern games.

Anyway, very worthwhile to return to this 20+-year-old title, which I did via the SNES Classic. Lovely bit of hardware, that, and the presentation of the games is really great. I’m looking forward to playing a few other titles on there that I’ve never had the chance to. You can play EarthBound there, or I gather it’s also available on the 3DS.

Until next time…

¹Some of this made my jaw drop (suddenly changing the size of the player sprites when you descended to the Land That Time Forgot or whatever was a highlight) and some of this I’m not sure was used to good effect (particularly numerous abstract enemies that were surreal in some way but had no real unifying theme that spoke to me). One tends to want to forgive something like that because it’s unusual, but one still must ask — sure, this is all pretty surreal and unusual, but what are you trying to make me feel? (back)

²The first time I failed was because I didn’t know what the mechanic to defeat him was (though I looked it up and was also then informed by my stream friends), the second was because he overwhelmed me with attacks, and the third due to some bad luck using a combat mechanic. The signaling of the mechanic to defeat him was so subtle that I missed it entirely — it was the only time in the game whatsoever that I was really lost as for what to do. So I won’t dwell on it, but that wasn’t my favorite — mostly because there was a lot of retreading of combat to get to try your hand against Giygas again. (back)

³Final Fantasy IX, aka the Best Final Fantasy, immediately springs to mind. There’s a bit of post-final combat falling action, then a rising action to a different sort of emotional payoff. Most of it takes place in cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-engine. (back)