The Steve Show

I think everyone knew that Steve Jobs wasn’t long for this earth in those last days. The poor guy looked awful, but when you saw him you’d immediately convince yourself that he maybe had five years left, maybe ten. At least that’s what I did. I did it, and I really don’t care that much about Apple products.

Then the other day the Missus walks into my office and tells me that he’s dead. What a drag that was.

I can’t lie about this. I didn’t, and still don’t get stuff like the iPhone. I have no idea why someone would need that much stuff in their pocket at the beck-and-call of their fingertips. The device strikes me as a particularly elaborate leash. The first time I saw the demonstration of the iPod I was sure it would be a flop. Didn’t exactly call that one. I’ve used, for a period of months, a device that was to put it lightly, heavily derived from the iPad. While it was nice to be able to surf the internet and play old SNES games while lying on the couch, I found that it had very few practical uses that weren’t better served by a pad of paper and a pen. Furthermore, I don’t have much appreciation for MacOS. Believe it or not, while I’m not teaching people how to make video games I’m a graphic designer. Most designers work on Macs, sure, but most production shops use Windows-based hardware. Most everybody outside of highly specialized cul-de-sacs (like graphic design) use Windows based hardware. You remove MacOS and you take a step towards consensus, which just makes everyone’s life easier.

So there. I’ve cemented my credentials as someone who’s life certainly doesn’t pivot on the fulcrum of anything that Apple made. Nevertheless, Steve Jobs had an effect, a positive effect, on things that I do everyday. Computers are easy to use today largely because of Steve Jobs. Anyone who rolls their eyes at that ought to spend a few minutes looking at a C-prompt and get back to me. The way humans operate computers is starting to change dramatically again, mainly because Steve Jobs saw the potential represented by touch screens. As a game developer looking at products like Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery or Infinity Blade, it’s very hard to argue with the man’s vision.

Possibly most notable was the way that Steve Jobs ran Apple. Who’s the CEO of Goldman Sachs? What about Monsanto, who runs that place? Dow Chemical? Any clue? Most huge corporations hide from people. Its in their interest that no one has any idea what they’re doing. You could point out the obvious and say that hiding is a bad option for Apple since they’re a consumer-based company, but so is McDonald’s and that’s never stopped them from engaging in less-than-ethical business practices. Who’s their CEO? Steve Jobs was the face of Apple. He got out there and put his own name on every single thing that Apple did every single day. Most CEOs won’t put their name on what their company does day-to-day. That ought to tell you something about them, and about Steve Jobs.

So adios, Steve. The whole world probably could have used another five years of your time, but I ain’t gonna argue if you had somewhere else to be.

Actions And Their Associated Consequences, or, Be Nice To The Girls.

So I was talking with Marc the other day, and that absolutely stupid blowout over Mass Effect that a bunch of reporters on (you guessed it) Fox News had a couple of years back came up. In all fairness, when the dust settled Fox realized they had spoken out of turn and apologized for the whole debacle, but still, what gives? Halle Berry wins an Oscar for Monster’s Ball which has one of the most explicit sex-scenes in it this side of 9 1/2 Weeks, yet a fairly tame depiction of sex in a game gets people all wound up. That they didn’t know it was pretty much PG-13 stuff really doesn’t matter. Assumptions were made, because it’s a video game. At that point I think we grumbled about it a little more, then I wandered into the kitchen and lost a game of Fire Team to J-Lu.

Still, I saw something a few days later while that was still in the back of my head that got the wheels turning. This video referenced and linked to in the following article is probably Not Entirely Safe For Work, so that means that you probably shouldn’t watch it in class, either. This means you. Nevertheless, the article is by a Kotaku forum poster who goes by the moniker LordFlash and he pretty much hits the nail on the head. Long story short, are you effing serious??

I see something like this and I think to myself, it’s no wonder everyone thinks that the entire game industry, from the developers all the way down to the fans, are a bunch of chemically imbalanced misogynistic sadists. I have no problem with a strong, attractive female protagonist. “Strong” and “Attractive” adjectives that could very easily be applied to most of the male protagonists in our industry as well. Still, the men, no matter how little clothing they’re wearing, never come off as animate sex dolls.

I don’t think there’s a checklist that you can tick off that will determine whether or not this or that particular game girl is or isn’t some screwed up jerkwad’s self-involved fantasy, but I think much of it comes down to how far you’re going out of your way to make her look sexy. Does a hot girl on a spec-ops team drop into a combat zone in a low cut t-shirt that happens to be wet? Why is Diablo 3’s female demon hunter running around in spike heels?

We’re in a pretty young industry. The problem with new things is that they’re easy to demonize because people don’t understand them. We’re going to need to be really careful with how we treat the women we put in our games, because like it or not, we get associated with every depiction of every female in every video game ever.

Embrace Change

Some of the very first game design classes I took were courses on 3d modeling. The software we used was 3ds Max. Version 2008, if memory serves. Those who are familiar with 3ds Max and it’s particular legacy know that it’s a program that was heavily derived from engineering software of the same vein as AutoCAD. The interface was obtuse, to say the least. The terminology the user was presented with on nearly ever level of the modeling process made very little sense unless you had a master’s degree in geometry. Max 2008 still had it’s roots firmly planted in a prototyping lab somewhere and didn’t make any apologies about it. Of course, if I had to pick one part of the program that was particularly impossible and frustrating, the one part of the whole baroque mess that made you want to pull your hair out more than anything else, it was the materials editor. By a mile.

Putting together a material in 3ds Max meant scaling walls of Windows-NT-grey interface gibberish three miles high with nothing but your bare hands and a prayer. Empty, unlabeled blanks accompanied by uselessly technical flyout menus and what seemed like hundreds of tiny, tiny little buttons emblazoned with icons that might as well have been words in a dead language for all they told you. As if that weren’t bad enough, you can add to that some truly ludicrous design decisions on the part of the developers. I vividly recall Nic asking me, after a particularly vitriolic meltdown, if I’d “hit the checkerboard button.” I of course had not hit the checkboard button, no one ever hits the checkerboard button. The reason for this is because the “checkerboard button” is this tiny little thing about 32 pixels by 32 pixels tagged onto the lower left-hand corner of the material editor. Please note that in the history of all user interfaces that have ever been made by anyone at all anywhere, nothing important has ever gone in the lower left-hand corner of a window. Ever. This may lead you to the entirely reasonable assumption that the “checkerboard button” isn’t all that important. However its purpose is to make the materials you’ve just spent the last seventeen hours of your life cobbling together and applying to your model actually show up. That this is off by default makes me want to kick somebody in the crotch.

So now that I’ve got you cued up to that image, let me change course here with the understanding that I’ll bring all of this around full-circle and it’ll all make some kind of sense.

If I were to say “X-COM,” what would that mean to you? If you’re my age (35 at the time of this writing) you might have memories of this game on old 386 PCs or possibly something like a Commodore Amiga. X-COM is held up as this paragon of PC gaming. It was almost a perfect balance of blowing things up, gun-porn, survival horror, and fetishistic strategy-game micromanagement. To really understand what kind of game it was you kinda have to see it. (Bear in mind that this a crazy OP drop team being run by a guy who’s found all the holes in the system, knows where all the boss aliens are standing, etc)

Of course if you’re a little younger, then X-COM might bring to mind something more like this.

That’s footage of the new X-COM that’s being developed by 2K Games, of Bioshock fame. You would not believe the kind of hate this game is getting from the old-schoolers. The initial complaints were based on the supposition that the whole game was just going to be an FPS that used the X-COM license (which would have admittedly sucked) but I had enough faith in  2K to believe that they aren’t going to just make some attempt to cash-in on an old license at the expense of the people who are most likely to buy the game. Sho’ nuff, I was right. Now fair warning, that’s a link to a 20 minute video that’s hung on several Kotaku articles that you might not have the patience to read after wading through this, so I’ll just go ahead and give you the sharp edges right now.

A) The new X-Com is not “just a shooter.”


I won’t spare any words reasoning why having an FPS as your central gameplay element is better than an isometric turn-based strategy game. That’s not the issue here.


So 3ds Max 2012 was released ealier this year, and one of the really neat things they did with it was a total re-design of the material editor. Now instead of blanks with little buttons that don’t tell you anything, they have this graphical interface that lets you wire texture files into a final product that goes on your models. I think they even got rid of the checkerboard button. It’s not a total walk in the park to use just because it’s a complicated process, but now at least it’s not absolutely impenetrable. They were able to make an interface like because these days the devlopers can count on having the processing horsepower to make something like this run. They bothered because they knew what they were using had some serious problems because of the technical limitations that it was build under in the first place.

So what’s the first thing I heard someone say about it? No lie: “This isn’t like the old editor. I don’t like it.”

Anyone remember the dot-com collapse?

Do you have any portion of your retirement fund invested in electronic entertainment? Read this, then call your broker. This week, preferably.

So I had to look a name up for this post, though in retrospect I’m not sure why I bothered. I’m reasonably certain that the name “Peter Vesterbacka” will permanently cease to be noteworthy in the next year, if not sooner. Mr. Vesterbacka is one of the head marketing executives for Rovio Mobile. Still no idea? Rovio makes a game you may have heard of called “Angry Birds.”

Ahhhh, okay.

Anyway, this guy recently claimed that his company was worth as much as Zynga (whom you might know from Farmville, et. al.) within earshot of someone who actually printed it in a magazine. For the record, Zynga is probably worth substantially more than a billion dollars (yes, that’s billion) so for this character to claim that his company and it’s inexplicably successful bird-catapult simulator somehow rates ten figures takes some serious pills, me droogies. They’re in high cotton now, but the fact that they’re flogging this license into Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds clothes, Angry Birds jewelry, even an Angry Birds cartoon show, indicates one of two things to me:

A) Management knows that they got lucky, knows that they have no more ideas of any substance, and that they’d better cash in right now before this thing collapses totally.

B) Management has no idea that they got lucky, and furthermore are so utterly clueless that they lack any grasp of the fact that flooding the whole world with Angry Birds merchandise is the fastest and surest way to engineer a backlash against your brand from which it will never, ever recover.

In any event, this will be bad for anyone who’s got any financial stake in Rovio. I understand that they aren’t a publicly traded company at the time of this writing, but you never know who might catch wind of this.

Moving on. In every other respect beyond the sheer volume of cash involved, I find it pretty appropriate that the guy I was talking about above decided to compare his company to Zynga. I will state right now that I believe Zynga is about to become the gold-standard example for what happens when an entertainment company underestimates the speed with which your audience’s sophistication can grow. I have a theory about hardcore gamers (such as myself) and Zynga games. You see, if a Zynga title snares a ‘core gamer, the fascination doesn’t seem to last too long. I think this is because Zynga titles seem to consist mainly of all the horrible, tedious, repetitive, soul-crushing parts of games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy without delivering any of the good stuff.

At all.

Now please note that this is tantamount to saying that Zynga games are very much like the first installments of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which are now both venerable franchises. The games us ‘core gamers played in our childhood have evolved into products with less grinding for levels/gold/whatever that deliver a more rewarding, more articulated experience. What I’m getting at is that we’ve been innoculated against Zynga treadmill games because we already did all that twenty years ago. If a company were to release a game that bore a fundamental mechanical similarity to the first Dragon Quest or the original Final Fantasy, they’d be laughed out of the industry by the vast majority of their target audience. We’ve played that game. We want something better.

Mark my words. If it can happen to socially awkward, angry young men, it can happen to bored housewives, too.

Now this is all speculation on my part, but I think it’s pretty solid. I understand games. I know a good one when I see it, and neither of these companies have products that really justify their success. We’re at this moment living in a world strangely similar to the one we lived in at the turn of the millennium. Whether or not this money will vanish when exposed to direct sunlight remains to be seen, but if I were you I’d keep my savings in Gold or Blue Chips for another few months at least.

(Oh, and by the way, I’m not a financial advisor. I’m a teacher. I can find my my own *** with both hands and a map.)

More Diablo 3 Ranting; DRM vs. “Freedom.”

Anyone who’s spent more than fifteen minutes in the same room with me over the course of the past eighteen months has probably heard me mention something about Diablo 3. This is why I’ve titled this post “More Diablo 3 Ranting” despite the fact that it’s my first post on this blog.

Any title with the absolute face-crushing magnitude of Diablo 3 is going to generate controversy. Refreshingly, the controversy surrounding Diablo 3 is actually legitimate, well above the level of a cadre of odius shut-ins who’ve banded together to protest the color of the main character’s hair. The two primary issues surrounding the release of D3 right now are it’s “always-online” DRM scheme and Blizzard’s total moratorium on mods.

To go ahead and make this point, I think an outright ban on mods is  a slap in the face to anyone who’s ever loved Blizzard’s games. There’s got to be a better way, so pay someone to sit down and come up with it. God knows you’ve got the money. This viewpoint has also been discussed to death, so I’m just going to leave that there.

As for the always-online DRM…

You know, I’ve thought about it, and I think I’m okay with it. Okay, okay, settle down. Just stay with me and I’ll articulate this. “DRM” is very understandably one of the most hated acronyms in the gaming community. Conventional DRM does nothing for the end-user. It’s an inconvenience, a speed-bump, something that soils the game experience even for people who’ve actually paid for the games that it’s attached to. The only thing DRM has historically done is benefit a company’s bottom line at the expense of the consumer while giving back nothing. Anyone would hate that, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s even more of an insult that the software usually comes wrapped up in a name that was obviously dreamt up by some permagrinned marketing-schmuck. “Genuine Advantage” immediately comes to mind.

However, if Diablo 3’s DRM works as advertised (something which admittedly remains to be seen) it’ll give the Blizzard mothership much closer control over the moment-to-moment functioning of the game, which sounds Orwellian in knee-jerk terms, but let’s be realistic about this. You’re about to get into a car with someone who complains that he can’t drive past a school at 80 miles an hour. Still wanna get in the car with him? There are stupid laws out there, I’m with you on that one, but most of them are pretty sensible.

Want a sample of a virtual space totally unencumbered by laws? Go play a game of Diablo 2 online. I don’t mean a game with someone you know personally, I mean just go out and play a pick-up game of Diablo 2. If you manage to last ten minutes without hacks, I’ll buy you  a new house.

If it works like it’s supposed to, Blizzard’s new concept might represent the new model of DRM. I’ll let someone micro-manage my game as long as I get some tangible benefit in return. That’s the key difference. If giving up a little control over this product means that I can go into a public area any time I like and play a fair game, I’ll give it a chance.