Monday, August 13, 2012

The Idea of Stealing a Game

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack

Zynga is in the news again, and this time it’s not because its major investors dumped a bunch of stock prior to the share price plummeting. No, this time it’s because EA is suing them over similarities between The Ville and The Sims Social.
Skin tones from both The Sims Social and The Ville
Comparison: The Sims Social and The Ville
This feels like an old debate, especially because we’ve had it before . It seems to be a well-known fact that you can’t copyright an idea, but if there are enough similarities in the execution, a case can be made. That’s exactly what EA is doing, and exactly what it’s entitled to do. It’s just a shame that it took so long, and that the company making the claim is EA.
I understand, really. NimbleBit is only a little guy, despite being beloved by its fans. It can’t take on a (now-failing) corporate giant and win. While moral outrage is still a minor currency, getting enough of it to reach critical mass is virtually impossible. And, the fact remains that, as with any subset of the online world, some people just don’t care. Now, if they’d managed to log the individual IPs of all the people playing Zynga’s Tiny Tower rip-off and flier-drop a statement into their home mailbox… Well, they’d probably be sued for stalking. But it would have gotten results. Creepy results.
Apart from that, what can you do? Unless you’re EA, of course. In some cases – and I’m about to be controversial here, yo – the clone can be better than the original. There was some discussion over whether Tiny Wings was a rip off of Wavespark. Probably. But I don’t enjoy Wavespark, and I do enjoy Tiny Wings. There have been bunches of copies of Tiny Tower – e.g. Pixel Story and Lil Kingdom – but I enjoyed both of those games for the improvements they made, and even the fantastical settings.
As to whether making a similar game on a handheld devices rather than a home console is really copying, I’m not sure. If you want to play Halo on your phone because, well, you love not being able to see who you’re shooting at, good for you. Someone has filled that niche, and if the game is suitably high-quality and differentiates itself by showing some level of ingenuity, then sure. Go right ahead. People will complain that any game is a copy of an older one anyway (“OMG did u c behtesda totes ripped off Daggerfall w/skyrim? Lol n00bs!”).
Comparison: Tiny Tower and Dream Heights
But what does this mean for games, as a whole? Let’s stop for a moment, and seriously consider the implications. EA is suing Zynga over similar animations, similar assets, similar ideas and a similar look. Understandably, their argument would be the same as other lawsuits in the past, including the recently successful suit against Mino, where if the two games could be confused when played side-by-side, the defendant can be considered to have copied the original. The reasoning behind this is pure business – a similar-looking product could draw users away from the original and cause a loss of income.
Let’s take this to its next logical conclusion, though – I can shoot in both Fallout 3 and RAGE. They’re both set in a post-apocalyptic universe that includes mutants. And perky female NPCs! No way! What a rip-off!
Uh, no. But that’s already being claimed by irate fans, of pretty much every game ever made. When it gets scary is when lawsuits, like the ones from The Tetris Company and EA, start appearing and the courts start limiting just what is and isn’t covered by copyright law.
The real reason it’s scary? Because small devs still won’t have a chance to fight back against large companies that copy their games – precedent is fine, but you have to have the money to get to court, first – but when the precedents are set, those large companies will have a set of rules that define what they can copy. If some aspect of a game is dismissed in these court proceedings as having minimal value to the overall recognition and therefore success of a game, guess which parts will be targeted from now on?
Sometimes, by attempting to discourage, you only provide the means to work around the law by giving a roadmap to what is and isn’t acceptable. The problem being that, while a precedent for copying the execution of games is intended to protect developers, a precedent establishing which parts ‘don’t count’ is going to be just as difficult to overturn.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reward Your Early Adopters: A Consumer’s Tale

This article has been cross-posted from where it was published on Player Attack

It’s in the nature of current social games to be adaptable. It’s easier than ever to update, and push that update to thousands of customers. Facebook games are always up to date; iOS games will let you know when an update is available. This allows for an unprecedented potential of bug-fixes and gameplay adjustments to be made based on user feedback, almost instantaneously. We’ve never been closer to our devs. And yet, this ability to constantly update is also encouraging studios to put out products that are less than ideal.

Every Facebook game I know has ‘beta’ somewhere on the title screen. The problem is, these games never move out of beta, because they’re constantly being updated. But I’ve also played a lot of social games that have basic functionality and nothing else. It’s only six or even twelve months later that they begin to resemble games, and by then I’ve long forgotten it.
The problem for me is that I enjoy giving feedback. I will find an email address and write to devs with suggestions for improving their games. I don’t expect or receive any replies, but when I see the word ‘beta’ my brain replies with ‘playtest!’ so it’s difficult for me not to see the potential of what’s in front of me, even if currently all I can do is pat a duck.
I get the feeling that many other early adopters must be the same, because many Facebook games (Country Story and Pet Society are examples of this) improve by leaps and bounds months after their release. Troublesome UI gets culled, interactions take fewer clicks, and tasks are more rewarding. These are the changes made by listening to user feedback. Yet there’s nothing more disappointing in my mind than logging into a social game you’ve been playing for six months, only to see your friend who just signed up is ahead of you in every conceivable way.
Country Story

I use Country Story and Pet Societyas examples of this, not because they’re bad games, but because I did enjoy them, once. Country Story was incredibly difficult to understand if you hadn’t already played Harvest Moon, but I stuck with it and eventually grew my farm to an amazing 12 plots of land. Twelve! I was so giddy with joy that I spent all my worldly currency to acquire a duckling, which cheeped and hopped around and made me ever so more giddy. I noticed one of my friends had finally accepted my invitation, and, with the new social system in place, I could visit him. I clicked, and was destroyed.
In Pet Society, originally you could earn 30 coins by washing your pet – if you did a really good job and were consistent with your stroking motion for around 20 seconds – and buy new furniture for your pet’s home. But at 300 coins for a shelf (the most basic item of furniture) it was back to hoping your pet would get dirty so you could wash them, or running races in the stadium, which were limited to 10 a day. Yet again, I stuck with it, and eventually had a whole two furnished rooms and 3 different outfits for my pet. I clicked on my 6-year-old cousin’s house to visit her pet, and immediately closed my browser.
Why such an adverse reaction in both circumstances? The answer should be clear: my friends had surpassed all of my accomplishments by simply making a new account.Country Story now gave the user 8 plots of land, a duck, a chicken, and three trees, just for signing up. Pet Society gave new players a completely furnished room filled with items that weren’t available for purchase, and the new rewards included clothes and more furniture. These were all suggestions I and other players had made to the devs at one point or another, but we weren’t allowed to have the improvements we’d championed. The soul-crushing disappointment of this discovery may seem moot, but let’s just say I didn’t return to those games afterward.
So what can devs do? Improvements must be made to draw in new players, since, as I said, what’s usually released first is basic functionality and the fun comes later. Players now expect updates, and any game that remains stagnant for too long will find its user base dropping sharply. The answer is not to stop improving your games, but to reward the players who stick with you and make those improvements possible.
Unfortunately, examples of this kind of thinking are hard to come by. The only game I know of that’s already following this plan is Trivia Adventure. After a recent update made a bunch of changes that provided greater rewards to new players, in line with comments from current players, they provided their early adopters with a bunch of free random loot, some of which was pay-for currency. Needless to say, it’s one of the few Facebook games that I still visit.
The answer, to me, seems clear: keep your players updated, and give them the same rewards as everyone else. If performing a particular action daily suddenly rewards twice as much XP, ask a seasoned player next time they log in if they’d like the appropriate amount of extra XP for having performed that action X number of times. If combat suddenly becomes easier based on user feedback, give long-standing accounts a special weapon or armour, or even a non-combat pet, to show that you appreciate them sticking with you. It’s about loyalty, not from your customer to you, but the other way around.
After all, we’re choosing to play your game above everything else we could be doing. The data gathered from the first run of players is invaluable in determining your future feature list, so reward your early adopters for their patience. Without their support, you wouldn’t have a game to improve.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Science of Evil and Dragon Ball Z

 Count Rugen: "Have you been chasing me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that's the worst thing I've ever heard. How marvelous."

I'm currently reading The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, on how empathy affects our everyday lives. He seeks to bring a scientific view to human cruelty, and so far, is succeeding in convincing me.

I've long wondered at how to write evil characters. As someone with a surplus of empathy, I find it difficult to create a character who can do the kind of things I want them to do, while providing them with adequate motivation. "He's not evil, just misunderstood!" is a tale for Sesame Street, as far as I'm concerned. And yet one of the reasons I've also been really enjoying Dragon Ball Z Kai recently is because the characters in it are so breathtakingly immoral. But how, and why? Spoilers to follow.

First, we have Vegeta. As a prince of the Saiyan race (and one of, say, 4 Saiyans left in the universe), he's a pretty powerful guy. In season one, he kills everyone, including the hero, who has to run back from heaven (Chinese mythology is awesome) to fight him again. Vegeta kills his own minion for getting beaten, unceremoniously wipes out four other fighters, breaks every bone in the hero's body - hence why he dies - and then starts beating up a child. Wow. As villains go, he's pretty scary.

For an example - and ignoring the irrelevant title the poster has given it - this clip on Youtube serves as a relatively good example of Vegeta's disposition.

Then you get to season 2, and you meet Frieza. Holy crap. This guy makes Vegeta look like a fluffy kitten. He interrogates an entire race of people, and kills them whether they tell him what he wants to know or not. Then he summons the universe's elite band of warriors to come and kill a child and a midget (sorry, Krillin). Vegeta is there too, being a little evil, but he also saves the kid at one point, essentially because he knows he's got no hope of beating Frieza alone and the kid might be able to provide a distraction, but sure. The end result is still a positive.

Then things get nasty.

Frieza is powerful. This much is obvious. In a series where the hero has achieved a power level of 180,000 after months of rigorous training in x100 gravity, Frieza's power level in his first form is 1,000,000. Well, damn it. There's a child who can heal his enemies. Frieza kills him. A warrior is defending the secrets of his people. With one arm behind his back, Frieza breaks the warrior's back and leaves him to die in the dirt. He shoots Krillian through the heart with a bolt of energy for interfering in his fight with another character, then mocks Gohan (the child) by blocking his way and refusing to let him save his dying friend. Frieza then beats the crap out of Vegeta, who he has raised as a surrogate son, just to prove he can. When Vegeta talks 'too much', Frieza kills him.

He doesn't even use his hands, or his superpowers, to kill Krillin. He's that much of a jerk.

But, most of all, when Goku, the hero, has finally arrived and decided to sacrifice himself so his son and friend can escape, and they're already on their way to safety, Frieza grabs the newly-healed Krillin, hoists him into the air and forces him to explode because he can.

Here is a being with no morals. Krillin is a main character - he was killed by Vegeta, then resurrected, so given the lore of the universe, the next time he dies, he stays dead. Frieza doesn't care. Likewise, Vegeta has been serving Frieza loyally for years, and only recently found out it was Frieza who destroyed his homeworld and made the Saiyans an endangered species. Vegeta then resolves to fight him... and fails. One of the episodes is subtitled: "Tears of a Proud Saiyan Prince." This character, who raised Vegeta from the age of 6 and has been lying to him all this time about the fate of his planet, kills him because he 'talks too much'. After beating the crap out of him. After telling him his entire life has been futile. And after Vegeta has purposely come close to death several times to increase his power level, all in a bid to take revenge.

Man, Frieza is a jerk.

But the surprising thing is not how evil he can look, which is like this:

But rather than he inspires fanart and merchandise like this:

Um, what?

This is not entirely at odds with the show, either. Frieza's most innocent expressions come when he's surprised, like this:

He seems genuinely confused that anyone would ever want to hurt him. His entire life, he's always been the strongest, so he assumes the people who can't beat him just aren't trying hard enough.

On Baron-Cohen's empathy scale, he definitely falls at the 0 level. In my opinion the reason the fan art and merchandise portray him as cute is because the alternative is too horrible for us to comprehend. I have that plushie, and it makes me feel a whole lot better about him as a character, to think he can be reduced to something cute. He's not evil, he's just a little childish.

But, if we start to think that way, we get into the question of whether children can be evil,and that's a whole 'nother topic entirely. So suffice to say, my understanding of evil is this:

Hurting people with no remorse and undervaluing life.

Ultimately, as Mike Laidlaw once said, being evil is the same as being selfish. And, man, does our society have some problems if that's what we believe.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Option D: Skip Everything

Hi there. I’m a games writer, but I’m just gonna come out and say it: I hate dialogue in games. If I can’t skip it, I’ll ragequit. However, chances are if I do have the option to skip, I won’t. Why? Because I don’t like being told what to do with my time. You don’t control me, game.

I sat at this screen for hours.

But you know, I can’t think of a single mechanic I haven’t hated at some point – combat, jumping puzzles, hidden object scenes… Man, I must really hate every single game out there. Unfortunately for my bank account, that’s not true. In fact, I’ve dedicated my career, and most of my life thus far, to games and making them better for future generations. Why? Because I love them. I just don’t love all of them, all the time.

Sometimes I want to jump on a TF2 server and W + LeftMouse Pyro, while continuously screaming for a medic. Sometimes I want to talk to an imaginary person in Dragon Age because, at the end of a long day, as least they’re predictable. And sometimes I want to be that cool detective who solves all the paranormal cases, so I load up Mystery Trackers and click through hidden object scenes like a Diablo player on crack.

Stop hacking my account, Leoric!

And yet, I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t know the story of Halo, or Gears of War. I only know Dead Space and BioShock and their sequels because I have very patient friends. And, oddly enough, despite the crippling anxiety I feel while my friend Steve is calmly shearing limbs off nearby necromorphs, Dead Space 2 is one of my favourite games. I just wish I could play it.

The problem is, I suck at combat. It’s not for lack of trying, either. Playing Ocarina of Time with enemies that respawn every damn time I enter or leave a room drives me to throw my 3DS at the wall with alarming frequency. I’m just lucky my husband is a good catch (hur hur puns). If I could explore the Water Temple without worrying about random underwater bat-fish attacking my groin every time I try to navigate around this one set of spikes, I would be so much happier.

Pictured: What they should have replaced the Water Temple with.

There’s another problem. You know I love you, Fallout 3, but sometimes I just want to fast travel without having to discover the destination first. The same goes for you, Skyrim. I’m even an Explorer type (according to my idol, Bartle) but there are days when you just want to get to the dragon’s lair so you can shout at it until it dies.

Children, this is what we call ‘conflict resolution’.

But none of those are the real problems. As the Escapist series Unskippable (which highlights custscences that force us to watch them) points out, sometimes you just have to let the player skip your hard work. My problem is that, so far, this only applies to storytelling.

Playing God of War 2, I died the most often because I misjudged a jumping or swinging section, at which point the game would mock me by offering to decrease the combat difficulty. Thanks. On the other hand, I’m in love with Super Mario 3D Land because it gives me the stupid invincible tanuki suit when I die too much. I usually die for the same reasons as I did in God of War – bad spatial perception – but at least I have a chance of recovering from a misjudged leap. And I sparkle, and that makes everything better.

Have fun trying to get that image out of your head.

Hidden object games, in my opinion, have got the big games beat. Playing on casual mode, you can skip every puzzle, and if you can’t find most of the hidden objects by randomly clicking (if you really don’t want to look for them) you can just wait for the recharging hint, which will tell you, without judgement, where every single item is. You can even skip the story segments. What’s left, you may ask? Not a lot, but that’s what you get for playing the game like a jerk.

So why can’t I do this in other games? I would love the option to have a Fallout 3: Pacifist edition. If I could toggle a button for “short version, please” in Mass Effect, I might have gotten past the Citadel. An option to simply play a sequence containing the remaining story moments (i.e. all of them) in The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom would be nice.

It’s sad when you have to Google still images from a game based on a silent movie to get the plot.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand. Dead Space 2 without the combat would be a very short – and somewhat weird – game. Alan Wake would be half the experience without the risk-reward motivation of finding those missing manuscript pages on Nightmare mode. But you know what these games would be? My choice.

I’m tired of missing out on all the good stories because I have the reflexes of a wet dishcloth. A very dear friend of mine worked on Halo: Reach, so I bought it and tried to play it. Guess how far I got. That’s right, I died in the tutorial. Repeatedly. Really.

Sure, I’m not going to get better without practice, but you know what? I don’t want to practice that. I’m just not good at some things, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is being forced to get better (or get better friends?) if I want to indulge my Nolan North obsession and play through the Uncharted series. Let me turn off combat. It won’t be the experience you wanted me to have, but we live in a post-modern society anyway. The death of the author has already been established. Let me play the version of your game that I want, even if it may as well be a movie. That’s my choice, not yours. Stop taking it away from me.

I am in for this, by the way.

The Futurama game on PS2 already did it. They included the game disk and a DVD containing all of the cutscenes and salient sections of gameplay to link them all together into one mini-movie. I ended up buying the game just to watch the movie. I never played the game, but they got my money, and I reckon they’d call that a win.

The point is, we can already skip most of the cutscenes and dialogue available in games. We’re still at the stage where we have to do the puzzles ourselves, but at least there are walkthroughs. There are no walkthroughs for sucking at combat or having poor depth perception. Even if causing all the Darkspawn to flee from my presence when I turn off the option for combat causes a Benny-Hill-style montage of foreshortened tactical retreats, I’m okay with it. Or what about allowing the game’s AI to take control of my character during combat in BioShock 2, even if it means I don’t always come out with the most ammo or the most health, but I come out alive? Both of these are still better options than what I could accomplish alone. Sad it may be, but that’s the way things have been for 20 years. I don’t seem ‘em changing any time soon.

So I vote that every game should include an Option D: skip everything. Make each standalone element fun or successful in its own way, then let me choose which ones I want to engage with. Who knows? If your combat’s as much fun as your exploring, I might even give it a try.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Deus Ex and Memories of Love


It's a side-quest back in Detroit that leads you to Ms. Walthers. Alone in her well-furnished, but surprisingly bare apartment she waits, sitting on her couch, for the delivery of her dinner. The kitchen shows no signs of use, the trash no wrappers or other signs of habitation. You wonder how long it's been since she last ate, when she confuses a six-foot cyborg with her local friendly 'Rolling Meals' representative.

She speaks slowly, but gently, full of fondness for a child she once knew and the memories of him that must seem closer now she's in the ever-deepening mists of dementia. Photos spark more memories, of a child so beloved that, instead of killing him to stop his DNA from being used to inoculate another generation of children into super-soldiers-to-be, his parents set their own research, and all records of him, on fire. Ultimately, they died there, leaving their child in the arms of his nurse.

Here she pauses - there were other children, other infants who didn't survive. Other cribs that were already empty. Only Adam remained. Only Adam was able to be saved, in turn saving further rows of cribs from becoming empty. He was adopted, by a lovely couple who raised him as their own. Ms. Walthers has been saving money for him, for all the birthdays and Christmases she missed. He must be 12 or 13 by now. Buy him something nice, won't you?

Her story reminds me of another old woman I visited, in my guise as an investigative journalist. She couldn't remember what happened to her children, but she was worried they thought she had abandoned them. She would have liked a television in her room, but they told her she didn't have enough money. It's a shame. She likes television. She used to make origami dogs for her sons, and they would always be called Max. She loves orchids. Her sons used to bring them to her from the garden.

Why is it that these figures are so tragic? Surely they're happier in the worlds where their sons are alive and the boy they rescued is still whole. How can it be that we mourn them while they live, alone and alive in the memories that sustain them? Perhaps it's because they're not present, because they don't know what has happened, but I think, as is always the case, we mourn them for ourselves. These people loved us once, but they can't love us now. They don't know who we are. There's a power in that, in the duality of being remembered and being forgotten, all at once. It's a gap we can never cross, of time and neuroscience and an infinite field of yesterdays.

They're stuck in the past, and with every day we're leaving them further behind. We can't bring them with us. And always, as parallels real life, there comes a moment when you have to admit that sometimes there are people you just can't save.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In slight defence of Hitman: Absolution

I wanted to reiterate, for those who don't know me, that I have no problem with the Hitman team, or even the cinematic team that created the videos that have caused so much discussion. To that end, I would like you to consider the following:

Here is a still from the much-beleaguered S&M nuns trailer:
Yeah, that's not cool.

Here, however, is a still from the less-beleaguered (though more disturbing in its own way) Diana-in-the-shower trailer:
Shot and garotted? Overkill much?

However, if you take out the BEWBS and compare only the faces, you'll see something that I was quite surprised to notice:

They have the same facial expression.

For those of you who missed the comments on the S&M nuns video saying 'lol you wanted equality you got it, women', I'm actually looking at the man in the above picture. This is the first time I've seen a male character with such a vulnerable, sad look on his face. For a game that's about killing people, it seems like an odd choice. But the animators have decided, quite consciously I would say, to show that, in death, we are no different. Each experience of that final breath is the same - slightly baffling, ridiculously upsetting and unfathomably sad. I applaud them for viewing the death of a person, rather than the death of a gendered person. In this, they have done exceptionally.

So my issue is not with the Hitman team - and I hope you will agree with me after the following - it is with society. And society prefers that this:
This is a woman who is designed to SLAY DRAGONS.

Should be re-rendered as this: 
She's not slaying anything except her own reproductive capabilities.

Or even this:
What's she meant to do? Boob them to death?

So, Hitman, we don't blame you. You exist in a culture where sexism is the norm. We just wish you'd been a little more discreet. Maybe next time you can champion women with realistic body types who wear normal clothes, like Uncharted tends to. Then we won't have to feel as though we ought to hide your game box at the back of the cupboard.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hitman: Absolution & Anita Sarkeesian

Simply put: others have already said it far better than me.

Read this, then this. You can find the Hitman: Absolution E3 trailer on your own. To reinforce Meadows' claims, I refer you to this and this.

If you need an explanation of why I have a problem with that last clip and not this one, let me remind you that there is sexy, and there is sexual. Sexy women make other women feel attractive themselves. Sexualised women make other women deeply uncomfortable in a place no one should be able to reach.

Try explaining to a man the deep-seated terror of the 2-minute walk from a dark bus stop to your front door, and you will be met with a skeptical stare. The worst part, for me, is that this fear is so completely ingrained that I don't even notice it most of the time. This apprehension of the world at large is exhausting. When you have to plan every aspect of your life around weighing up safety against either convenience or a desire to explore - as in foreign cities when travelling alone - you will quickly come to rely on the safest route, even if it is mightily inconvenient/far more expensive.

To put this in perspective: near where I used to work until 2am, on my own, at an arcade frequented by drunks, a woman was raped. Not late at night, not in a back alley - 20 metres from a main concourse, at 10am on a workday, she was raped, in plain sight, and no one helped her. There was a police station 50 metres away. She should have been safe. She was not.

Of course, this says nothing about games, or about gamers. This says a lot about our society. But what does it say about games that even they aren't safe spaces - places where people go to escape reality - for women to hide from the reality of their existence? That entering a world that is supposed to be a relief confronts women with the very thing they fear most, all the time?

Some will call me paranoid, and, indeed, I have wondered if a constant fear for my safety is paranoid. But no one can dictate how I feel, or tell me it's wrong - if I am uncomfortable, that is how I feel, and no amount of 'you're stupid and you shouldn't feel that way!' is going to change it. Telling me to stop getting upset about rape being used as a gender-specific bludgeon to keep women in a place of fear is like telling a burn victim that setting people on fire is a valid form of self-expression.

So I guess I did have more to say. But it falls far short from a drop in the ocean of the helpless rage years of online gaming have built into my resigned acceptance of such ridiculous and constant misogyny. So if you disagree with me, keep your comments to yourself. I've had a lifetime of them already.

And, if by some miracle, you'd like to do something to help create a safe online gaming space for the other half of the planet, please feel free to donate here (or here after the Kickstarter is closed). Your daughters and nieces will thank you.