Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Pile of Shame - Killzone: Shadow Fall

The current generation of console has now completed the transition from being referred to as the "next gen". While PC games have been showing off "FullHD" 1080p and beyond for a while, consoles have now caught up, at least sometimes. Hardware prices have dropped from £430 and £350 at launch (which in the UK meant the Xbox One, due to exchange rate differences since 2006, released at a higher sticker price than the PlayStation 3) to sales around £300 with one or two free retail games a year after the PS4 released. 12 months of PlayStation Plus for those who own a PS3 and/or Vita have pumped up the number of titles you can play for free on the PS4 and is now extending to retail games as part of the Instant Game Collection. At the same time, used and sale prices on games mean you can pick up retail titles that cost no more than the previous generation (this is a UK thing, our SRPs for games are sky high but after the first year of a console's lifespan the retailers fights for volume and no one charges the SRP; older stock is shifted at heavy discounts). Even as a primarily PC user (playing games on that platform since the '80s), it's an ok time to follow the early adopters and check out some of the console exclusives. The first title I've found something to say about is Killzone: Shadow Fall.

You open up with the weakness of the (otherwise great) tech on display. The game has a slight issue with pacing of dialogue so sometimes actors will stall between sentences and you get a beat too much silence. The opening level is full of it, although later there are some longer pauses, much worse than the open. David Harewood is doing an outstanding job (and the facial capture isn't the best you've ever seen but is about where you expect for near-photorealism - desperately trying to get out of that uncanny valley) so it's a bit of a shame the game adds a rather extended *beat* between sentences here and there for no good reason.

For that first level it's a kid walking simulator and the game does an ok job of giving you a guided tour of how the game controls and introducing the pivotal event for the player and the world. Years before the main story, you see the rain-soaked world about to be split in two, with the blue palette you'll later associate with the faction you fight for. Tutorials that double as world-setting are pretty standard but it certainly beats a movie telling you what happened.

The story gets more heavy-handed as it goes on (and it doesn't start off the most subtle as it kills your father in front of you) but it's a story of military espionage between civilizations on the brink of war two decades after a massive conflict. You know what to expect with "maybe we are the monster" and "war is bad for everyone". The voice work is consistently good, even when the lines aren't always. But it's better than most military shooter game plots and limits the "Hooah!" chanting to bad guys & their pawns following blind nationalism to it's genocidal conclusions. By the end everyone is fucked and everything is broken but you've been to lots of places to get there.

Cut to years after the first level, the child is now a soldier. You walk out into an open, broad, forested area filled with a massive dam and crawling with outposts, patrols, and lots of chances to use stealth and your dynamic zip-line traversal to get to lower locations. It almost feels like they should have added in a prone mode to crawl around, making sure not to get caught out by patrols or roaming snipers. The objectives are mostly linear but your path certainly doesn't have to be and the entire map can have enemies arriving into it with dropships when an enemy manages to reach an alarm station. Take on a group of three foes and two hold you down while the 3rd runs. Now you've got to find a terminal to babysit as your drone hacks the alarm off to stop reinforcements coming in.

It's a developed system of alarms that have to be switched off to avoid being totally overrun if you're found, stealth movement, and an "ear to the ground" scanner to track patrols (and see if someone's waiting the other side of that door when you're inside). In the same way that Gears of War put a minigame into reloads, Killzone offers the pulse scanner as an ever expanding sphere that will overload if you hold it down too long. Every scan is a judgement of how far away you want to be given second sight vs holding it down too long and alerting everyone in the vicinity to your exact location.

Some of this game is a corridor F.P.S. but mainly when you end up fighting in more enclosed spaces, I get memories of F.E.A.R. from the way fights develop around blocking lines and small loops in combat arenas given the veneer of believable structures. The whiteboxes for several arenas in most levels have clearly been tuned to give a challenge at the Hard difficulty level before being converted into an interesting setting to look at once you're done shooting.

The actual moment to moment combat is good. The weapon selection is varied with weapons having alt modes to give you a bit more range in what you're carrying than just the two slots, because that lightning sniper rifle is also an assault rifle in the other mode. Push the sensitivity up to 70% and you can actually turn round decently while those DS4 sticks show off how good they are, you move so precisely when you push them slightly - they're certainly more than the equal of 360 sticks for shooters. When you need to fight it feels good. The FoV is too narrow for my preference but you get used to it after a while. That's probably a rather PC-centric thing to complain about as it's no worse than other console shooters, but I'd love a slider to give it a bit of a nudge out.

The third mission finds you launched into space, so you're now in quiet Dead Space environments. This is where I got the F.E.A.R. starting to creep into the feel of the gunplay and encounter design. Lots of down-time between combat where you're alone interspersed with combat arenas. Early on you get taught that moving through the ship is facilitated by putting your gun down and carrying power rods to turn on or off stuff as the place it coming apart. They could have done more with that, especially as it gets introduced by a rather boring jump-puzzle around a reactor you're spinning up (causing bits of it to literally spin and so force you to time your jumps), but this creates some alternative paths through the space station for emergent storytelling and existential dread between the combat encounters.

The forth mission starts with the big explosion they showed in the pre-release trailers. After the plot progression you get some combat where you learn that walls can be things to put bullets through and then follow with your body (taught with glass walls). The level goes on, via some less than great train dodging and shooting, to a hostage rescue situation where you're making an assault (where you pick the entry point) on a well-fortified civilian penthouse using a shotgun that goes through the drywall. That Rainbow Six game looks more impressive, but this is good stuff. The pulse scanner that allows you to see enemies through walls makes this level a joy, showing how the core tools get reused throughout different encounters as the game keeps on offering fresh ideas rather than an endless chain of mans to shoot.

Each mission is a fresh look, from blue Vekta rising up to the white and oranges of the rooftop penthouses to the green forests to the red of New Helghan. The gameplay variety is what you'd expect from a team who have learnt the lessons of Half-Life 2, so they mix up the look and what you're doing with enough tools to keep that from being just static set-piece content. Sometimes the variety is a bit "CoD gimmick gameplay" in places but it generally falls on the right side of that divide. The least exciting activity was an Aaaaaa! section, but it did teach me that my preference for inverted sticks doesn't extend to that activity. The wingsuits and the shooting both kept my console standard for inverted (thinking about the stick as the neck of the protagonist to manipulate) but give me a drop and I go back to my uninverted mouse preference of a virtual cursor (stick as eyes to lead). At least the game made it painless to switch controls on the fly for the few drop sections over the hours of varied mission.

I'm no console shooter expert but the variety in the chapters and engagement of the combat arenas held my attention and encouraged me to play through on Hard. This does mean the game desperately lacks a Legendary because Hard is as much as I can possibly handle but people better than me need to be challenged with less health & enemies being more of a sponge. Each mission is divided into sections; each section counts death as falling to the ground with no health (with adrenaline packs in your inventory you can recover from this and get back up so you don't necessarily have to go back to the nearest, well-spaced, checkpoint) and this is tallied in the chapter select screen. This opens up a difficulty option to play the game on a "no deaths" Hard run, which enforces mastery of each combat arena. To succeed in this mode, adrenaline packs should be popped before you fall to the ground to trigger a slo-mo last stand (more memories of F.E.A.R. emerge) that doesn't count as a death but if you take more damage you will go back to a checkpoint (with a death on your counter) rather than being recovered. You can only carry limited packs but the levels are reasonably happy to hand them out every few arena blocks.

I played through each mission on Hard to get a feel for the level and master each encounter using the plentiful checkpoints and possibly falling to the ground but taking an instant recovery when I had adrenaline packs to spare. Then I went back to any sections I hadn't completed with no death to do them again, chasing that no death Hard run. Lots of learning a section using my drone to distract the enemies, refining how to go through it and where I actually should start combat, and finally getting the plan right to execute perfectly. Anyone who tried the CoD achievement Mile High Club knows how this can feel to know the exact plan and then pull it off. Killzone never got that hard, but I refer to my previous statement on my lack of top tier skills and how this game really needs a higher difficulty for those better than me, but that's not an issue for my enjoyment as Hard was just the challenge I wanted. Good level design and reactive AI & enemy waves/events make you want to repeatedly refine your play in those arenas so it's not repetitive - it's the game if you decide to opt into this difficulty.

The combination of developed stealth mechanics and rewarding combat ensure each arena is rather more varied as you decide where to first be seen compared to typical F.E.A.R. encounters where your choice of initiating was somewhat more limited. When you're learning there are so many tools to let you avoid redoing content you've already perfected (revival consumables, good checkpointing) and then you move onto doing the no deaths run and even the reload chapter load time is really short if you mess up a run. The chapter select made this all very painless to know what you've got to do and what you've already completed. Fans of Hardcore modes might try a second playthrough of the game doing it as one "continuous no death" run but I've not got the skills to pull that off.

As the missions continue, the palettes keep on shifting both visually and in gameplay terms. Some of these opening mission styles are revisited over the ten levels but you'll also find yourself skulking around inhabited areas; crossing the great divide between the city; and taking on the role of spotter, sniper, massive bot killer, and interloper. I find it hard to reconcile the launch reviews with what I played. The one exception to my enjoyment would be a boss on the ninth level that was tricky to work out how to beat without reaching for a revival item on Hard. I'd figured out a style that almost consistently worked except for when it killed me by what seemed like bad luck. It's under a 5 minute fight if my method actually worked but it took a while to figure out how to pull it off and then 20 minutes before I got a run that actually worked. With revives then it's easy enough on Hard once you've figure out what to do and what specials you've got to nullify but, when trying to do it without revives for a no death run, all that falls away. It was the one point I considered giving up on this extra difficulty constraint but at least the chapter markers meant it could be done in isolation.

Killzone: Shadow Fall burns a bit of variety towards the end but is perfectly even in the serviceable story to bring you to the close (no big twist, you can easily speculate on how it ends by about a third through the game but it does dodge some potentially really clichéd endings in favour of something that crystallises the message of the writers). That's not to say it lacks variety in the later stages, this is a child of Half-Life 2 (in quite a few ways really) and that includes mixing things up on both scales (section to section and level to level both keep you engaged by never leaving you doing one task over and over). It's not a corridor shooter as it does stealth mechanics with alerts (guard a point for some seconds to turn the alarm off otherwise infinite reinforcements will plague your day for letting an AI run to an alarm button - the thing you also use to turn it off) and there's more F.E.A.R. arena blocks than corridors but some of it does narrow down a bit for stretches of combat on some levels.

If PS4 owners (who like a bit of stealth shooting) are still on the fence about this, I'd say go track down one of those cheap copies now out there. It doesn't hurt that this is a very decent looker, especially in places as you jump around a world of endless reflections and bright lighting reflected off painted walls to shade each area. It's certainly pushing hard to match what you'd expect from a good PC and with some nice direction behind the technical achievement and the realisation of a variety in visuals goes will with varied gameplay. It's probably 7-10 hours of good HL2-derived shooting; or you can opt for 9-12 hours of FEAR-quality encounters by going to Hard; or 12-30 hours of iteration, refinement, and achievement if you try no death Hard (you can probably work out if you're into the gameplay enough to try this by starting out just playing on Hard).

I pinged the trophies for Hard Completed, (hidden) Last Level Completed, No Deaths, & (hidden) Final Level Total Stealth as I completed it for the first time. I note there is also a (hidden) trophy for killing 20 guards in the final level that is really rare, 1.5%, vs 8% who get Total Stealth and 23% who complete the game (3% on Hard, 0.5% No Deaths). So the quarter of people who get to the end of the game seem to be significantly more likely to be stealth rather than bloody for this final (stealth) mission. They have understood what this game is offering, and it's not a mindless shooter that some reviewers may have gone into the game expecting.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pile of Shame - Beyond: Two Souls

Busy times lead to a lack of posts (finally missing that monthly schedule that had built up recently). I've got some longer form stuff drafted but not the time to spin it all into a cohesive whole and publish. But I just finished Beyond: Two Souls and spat out a few quick thoughts so why not post them here. I played the front half last month but got busy and ended up not having the time to do the back half until now.

This game benefits from being able to play large chunks of it at once due to a narrative that jumps through time for seemingly very little point beyond a desire to somewhat poke at what the player knows - it certainly doesn't help it being a game about consequences, and I suspect it means that a lot of the time the scenes don't actually have any beyond tweaking some dialogue in chronologically later episodes that you also play later on: ie this presentation prevents even such minor consequences for those events played out of sequence. Each scene isn't enough for a chapter and often they combine into an arc but not necessarily for sequential play and that involves a bit of memory use. You'll miss out on the (Cage quality so not stellar) story beats if you're not able to recall what happened in previous sequences when you arrive at subsequent once.

I know you can push against what might have been a fixed narrative (so the game is only better in this respect than 98% of other games where the narrative arc is a movie you have absolutely no choice in*), because for one of the story beats I had no interest in pursuing it and the story was quite insistent that it wanted it to happen (came up in 4 scenes), which was somewhat jarring but still kinda worked. The player character should feel like this jerk needs to get lost, but the dialogue wasn't quite on target so it felt like it was trying to lead to a path that I was hutting down and the scenes were slightly off due to it.

Talking of the dialogue, they still need to get a writer at Quantic Dream but with good acting (Dafoe ham is always good ham in my book; Page didn't phone it in even if maybe a few more takes would have been nice - but that could be the curse of Cage more than anything else) and a cast that doesn't sound like French Canada invaded the USA it feels a lot less bad than in Heavy Rain. It's a shame as I cared more and was more interested in the entire path of Heavy Rain than Beyond but going back will be harder now I've played a game where they spent some money on the VO to actually sell the dodgy script. About half of Beyond was stuff I didn't feel grabbed me (could be related to lack of consequences), lacked enough skill in the writing to actually pull off the intent, or was just barely enough of a scene to justify not being a cutscene. Heavy Rain felt like a game about consequences (even when it kinda wasn't if you played a second time to get a better feel for the actual limits of what could change), Beyond is a game about choices (what do you want to happen in this scene, who should get their way from the conflicting desires) and it doesn't even have all that many choices as some paths seem far more the 'right' way that the scene was intended to run (in so much as to not do it means the scene ends early without any development). If they keep this level of V.O. work up, move to PS4 to get out of the aliased 720p render quality issues, and HIRE A DAMN WRITER then the next game could be really special.

One of the few points of consequence is the ending, and I think the game got lucky in winning me over when I picked the sensible options for my Jodie and so got the cool ending (Zoey). While I knew what I wanted for the character and so was picking the ending I wanted, I didn't realise (at the time I was choosing) that I was going to get the Terminator (mixed with inFamous and Dollhouse) final sting after the conclusion. So that was a note of unexpected awesome to run credits on and possibly saved me from saying the Quantic Dream games are a series of titles whose stories get worse and worse while their acting and production get better and better. Possibly saved me, maybe I'll revert to thinking that with time when I've forgotten squeeing about Jodie & Zoey saving the world after the fall.

Definitely only a game for fans of the genre (big budget interactive drama with the Cage taint) but not bad going - anyone who enjoyed Heavy Rain probably needs to find a cheap copy of this. And Quantic Dream doesn't even need to pretend to be a small indie to get the press to go easy on their games and forgive the technical shitshow and unengaging mechanics that often come with the genre (QD as a studio is the same size as Telltale Games - try and find one writer who treats their output in any way similarly).

Oh, and Boyhood may have won hearts for being filmed over 12 years but a PS3 has shown what a crappy parlour trick that is when CGI allows people to act as someone else. Ok it's creepy, still climbing out of uncanny valley people who can't really touch anything because soft-body physics doesn't really work in games (especially as most don't even try) but there's still a full cast who age 15 years throughout this game (including a kid) and it's no biggie.

That said, when is Dafoe (the actual person) not ever so slightly in the uncanny valley?

* ie games where a lot of the narrative that is developed as unique (because the interactive nature of games means we can do some things, the controller is more than a custom crank for a film projector) is technically headcannon; see my views on the Last of Us with Joel not using guns while Ellie was an expert sniper - that's how I played the games but during any cutscenes that was pure headcannon, it's just headcannon that coloured how I interpreted the fixed narrative of that story and could be expressed during gameplay. We become mixed into the characters we play as because any character where this is not true is a NPC, by definition.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Infinite Shelves with Consumer Protection

For the duration of this post I am going to be riffing on this discussion with the assumption you have at least read the direct link, if not the wider context of the hundreds of videos, blogs, and news articles around it, not to mention the thousands of tweets.

I believe that the current concerns around lack of curation of digital stores (specifically meaning the demand for removal from sale of any item that fails to hit a subjective quality bar and the reinforcement of blocks on adding products to digital shelves like Greenlight) is stupid. Luckily quite a few people agree, including the previously linked to Chris. It's always good to not be in a minority of one. So I'm not going to repeat what he said, in which I'm broadly in agreement, but I want to talk more about why consumers should already be very protected and not concerned about being 'tricked' into paying for something they don't want.

Specifically, I'm going to talk about what Americans (and specifically Chris) call the Truth in Advertising laws, what constituted broken, and EULA restrictions creating as-is sales. I'm going to talk about this as a European and with links to UK law, which is mainly implementing the pan-European directives which give us a standardised market in which to sell goods. I'm also going to preface this with the IanaL disclaimer and go even further: I am talking about what is right and what the law should protect. There are edge cases and special considerations added here and there that limit consumer rights due to heavy lobbying from special interests. We are only going to ask what we think would be a reasonable global foundation for the right way to operate a digital games store (explicitly considering games as goods which are sold rather than services which are provided - digital sales come with but are not services, an example of a service they come with is a login to provide you with downloads of the data you now own a right to duplicate for personal use/to allow you to use the thing you own), using UK law as a grounding point.

The first thing to recognise is that you cannot sign away your statutory rights. The EULA is a red herring. It simply doesn't matter if someone wants to sell something as-is and 3 days later it destroys the buyer's house or ceases to function. A contract of sale was made; the purchaser cannot waive their rights and the seller cannot void them.

Originally sales were usually made in person, an item that could be fully inspected was present with both the buyer & seller and the sale could be made. Then mail order arrived and after that internet shopping came along and made sure regulations were required to deal with a sales experience where the item was not present. The standard way this is handled is for the item to be described, there to be a right to cancel that lasts beyond the delivery of the item to the buyer, and a failure to describe or inaccurate description modifies that period where the contract can be cancelled (which is distinct from a return - it is as if there never was a sale and there are no limitation on reasons for desire for a cancellation). Basically, once you buy something on a digital store you then have 7 working days (when an accurate description exists) to change your mind and get a full refund. Without an accurate description then you've got three months. "No quibbles".

So you've got some time to kick the tyres and work out what it is you've purchased. You've not been tricked because you're legally protected to cancel the purchase of this new product for any reason you like once it arrives. But what happens if the product looked good on the surface and the cancel period expired but it turns out to not be as described, fit for purpose, or degrades over time? Those are the three broad categories you'll be considering for claiming the product was defective.

Was the description given accurate? Even if provided with a sample (which we would call a demo for digital games - although not all sales made after a sample is available are a sale by sample, only ones made explicit as a sale based on previous sample. There may be cases where a 'buy now' link in a demo could be considered a sale by sample) then it is not sufficient that the product be similar to the sample (there is no "buyer beware" because a bug not described on the sales page was also in the free demo), it must also be as described. This is probably why you see clear descriptions for games that don't work well with Windows 7 or only work with XP on Steam: this is the description of the item so after that initial cancellation period you can't claim the item is defective by being not as described. The requirements section would be where a seller defends that the product wasn't defective if you can't run it. If your machine does not meet the requirements or your console fails to have the optional hard drive is says is required on the box then the description was quite clear that your expectation should not have reasonably been for functional software.

What about this fit for purpose thing? This is far less blindly pro-consumer. The regulations start out by saying that you can't assume that whatever you purchased is defective just because it isn't perfect for whatever you want. If you buy a pen and it can't keep your milk refrigerated then it may well not be fit for your desired purpose but that's not a reasonable expectation of a pen so the seller should not be required to deal with you requesting a refund (although you would have still had the right to cancel due to distance selling regulations if you purchased it online). Goods are meant to be satisfactory quality with that defined as what a reasonable person would expect; it is "fit for all the purposes for which goods of the kind in question are commonly supplied" and "free from minor defects, safe, and durable". If a seller specifically draws your attention to a defect, it's not unsatisfactory when you observe that defect in the product. In the case of a sale by sample it's not unsatisfactory when you observe a defect which was apparent on a reasonable examination of the sample. So there is plenty of space here for arguing that a product is defective and so you should get a refund. Certainly for anything that is being shouted about as being thrown off Steam, the reasonable person would be arguing for the defective nature of the product. So there should be no impairment from the legal refund request.

Finally we should talk about time and how quickly all this has to happen. We've covered the first 7 working days and the right of cancellation. What if the product defect was hidden and you're using the right to a refund/repair/replacement we outlined above? Within the first six months of purchase, a product deemed to be defective by the buyer on the grounds given above is assumed to have been shipped defective so there is no issue of claiming it has outlived the expected lifespan of the product. The burden of proof is on the seller to explain why the product is not defective. It's rather explicit: "goods which do not conform to the contract of sale at any time within the period of six months starting with the date on which the goods were delivered to the buyer must be taken not to have so conformed at that date." After this date it is not assumed by default that a defect found today was always there (luckily for software we can create quite an easy argument to 'prove' our case based on software patch history and reports of a defect on gaming forums) but you do have a full six years to conclude your dispute about the purchase. Software should function as described (if you exceed minimum requirements then you can run it and not be unreasonably hit with minor defects or so on detailed above) for quite some time due to the lack of much bit rot and the perfect digital duplication of the actual information. So you've probably got a good case for arguing the product as defective most of the way up to this six year barrier.

All of this is why we need to ensure our irrevocable statutory rights are not trampled by digital stores who wish to break the law or question the edge cases and language of how our protections were designed to work to create consumer confidence in distance selling. These protections are just as much about protecting them from the consumer fear (we see in claims that curation needs to be about policing the quality of items on the shelf) as protecting the consumer from buying products of unacceptable quality and rewarding the creator of goods of unsatisfactory quality. With digital stores then shelves are infinitely large and we can stock everything (just like Amazon does) and that makes curation about how we surface the goods we think each consumer is most likely to be delighted by purchasing.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Taking a Cut of Digital & Megacorps Saying NO

This is Re: Comixology (now an Amazon company and now only letting people read their comics on iOS, the in-app purchase (IAP) is missing so you have to buy stuff on the web to add it to your library).

To start, let me be clear: digital purchases should be DRM-free to preserve the rights of the user/consumer. Comixology is not a good platform because it does not respect this right of purchase. When I think about both buying and selling content, this platform does not sound like it gets it; it seems like a rental service and I can't see the Netflix style subscription button (which can exist, see Marvel Unlimited - now with an app that isn't totally useless on Android). But companies like Image are really making a hash out of their pledge to do DRM-free (why can I buy Phonogram on Kindle or Comixology but it gets not a mention in the DRM-free Image store?) so comic fans often don't have a choice if they want to support content creators' work digitally and commercially.

You should probably not buy anything from Comixology because DRM is defective by design. Make use of their free selection to enhance the medium's discoverability/sample content (ie read the issue #1s, which should really always be a free digital sample for growing the user base/customers for all comics that have more than six issues already out) and then get bummed out when you find out there is no legal way to purchase the rest of that story digitally and DRM-free. There are signs of change, not only is discoverability coming from handing out the $2 first issues to let people know what it is they might want to buy hundreds of weekly $2 issues of for a story, but we're starting to see DRM-free sales that almost give away the first volume of a story to hook you onto buying volumes #2 onwards (to a conclusion in vol#5 or maybe it keeps going past vol#20?) at $10 each; that's good discoverability and good business. At some point they'll need to realise you have to offer occasional sales and decreasing prices over time on the older volumes and discounts on collections of volumes to generate a long tail and more of the area under the demand curve from a broad audience but it's a start. Outside of the US, 2000AD have been selling this stuff DRM-free for years.

Back to Amazon and Apple: what if we suppress our uneasiness over the Comixology platform or they announced their entire catalogue was to be sold DRM-free and their apps would just be an easy place to browse, buy, and download content you owned on any device?

The why of the change is very simple: if you have a store in your app and sell something then Apple enforces that you give them 30% of the sale. This is Apple ransoming the users based on the fact that they have yet to sell a single iOS device. You lease an iOS device and they restrict who can and cannot sell code that runs on 'your' device, including code that accesses content you already own (like digital comics). This is even for sales that have nothing to do with Apple, aren't done through their payment processing, aren't browsed on their store; if it was done in an app running on iOS then it is IAP so gets the Apple tax. Because the user does not own the device then it is not the user who has control of who they can commission to give them more stuff for it, everything goes through Apple.

Image sourced from this rather relevant article about a different kind of ransom.

Amazon have a payments processing company (called Amazon Payments, you can use them too if you want) and are building their own store inside the apps so it is crazy for them to pay Apple a 30% cut of sales when they can do the processing in-house and the store is something they built into their app, not something that uses the Apple App Store. The Apple App Store is just the conduit for their slim reader and store app, adding value to the people with iOS devices by letting them access and buy more content for them. They also do various self-publishing deals (on things like Kindle) where they take a 30% cut and the creator gets the rest. You obviously can't do such a deal if you run a store which gives Apple a 30% cut, you'd end up getting nothing for providing the store, payment processing, bandwidth for downloads (and user tracking to enable them to redownload in the future), and so on. So you either need to price everything on the iOS version of the platform at 30% above the price elsewhere (or let the content creators eat the loss by giving them per-platform pricing controls) or strip the store from your app and make it a reader app which tells people to use a browser or a different device to buy stuff to expand their collection.

Yes, it sucks for users and UX goes down by removing an easy to use button to buy stuff in the app but this was forced by Apple ransoming their user base, which is enabled by making iOS a closed platform that is defective by design. Painting Amazon as the bad guy is insane. They're an evil company but they also work quite hard to reduce the margins (often at the cost of their employees - definitely evil), to make the experience closer to a direct customer-creator relationship where they take their cut as the enabler and make it the best experience for the consumer with the smallest cut (that's how they get their market dominance).

If MS started to charge Valve 30% for every Steam game sale that came through Steam running on Windows then what do you think would happen? The mere threat of this (with the Windows 8 Store) is why Valve are making SteamOS/pushing Linux. It's insane to praise or excuse Apple and tell store creators to just live with the 70% cut when they have no need for Apple as a middleman, except that Apple are screwing over consumers who they pretend to sell devices to. Just as it will be insane to complain when the creators go totally direct and give you a better deal by cutting out the store entirely and managing their own distribution system if they want and can do it for cheaper than the ~30% cut most digital stores implement.

The final step in Amazon's plan may be to build the best self-service store creator and web platform (on AWS) to run it on. To put themselves out of business as the (fat) middleman and act as the (thin) middleman to enable creators to meet their consumers as directly as possible. That is already the plan at Valve for revolutionising Steam. That is the natural conclusion to middlemen getting more and more lean. That future does not include Apple pretending to sell devices and then slyly taking a 30% cut of everything because the people who pay them aren't really buying anything and can be ransomed to the people building their own stores to sell to the consumers direct.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Expectation of Free & Paying For Digital Goods

This seems like a strange outlier as I'm totally down with buying mp3s, digital games, digital movies, or ebooks. All of those were something I moved to without feeling a period of weirdness. It's not a data density thing, ebooks are clearly selling less bits. I am also very concious of my failure to read those physical comic books that I do buy (I've kinda moved to supporting webcomics by donation or buying other merch because the physical books are so unlikely to be rapidly consumed when they arrive). My preferred format for archival and reading is something that sits on my PC and can be displayed on my tablet (1920x1200 is a great pixel count for looking at typical comic book detail level art) and my shelves contain more physical books of comics I have never started reading than ones I have completed.

But every time I'm buying a CBZ/PDF or somesuch (as long as it is DRM-free, the PDFs will make it slightly harder to extract/convert to future formats to exert my continued ownership but sometime a good bundle deal will force DRM-free PDF as the only format) then it feels a bit weird to be buying a block of images. A unique weirdness to the format that isn't buyer's remorse (I'm quite happy with the thing I get for my money when consuming it) but seems attached to the digitised version of the medium (I don't get it ordering physical copies, even though I know I'll probably put it on a shelf and never read it).

It hasn't stopped me collecting somewhat of a digital archive of paid content (which I consume eagerly shortly after purchase) but it does mean I don't think of it as a standard, weekly purchase (unlike dropping a few quid on a random Steam title or bundle deal for games). It's been about three years now since I first purchased a digital comic, it hasn't become less weird but I probably do it more now than I've ever done before and have started looking at the subscription comic services are a possibility (which I've kinda done before with some monthly donation things for webcomics but never as an explicit cost of accessing the main content).

My RSS feeds indicate I regularly read about 80 webcomics (refined by: which have updated this year so not dead projects) and that's not including the stuff I'm reading (also for free) on the new digital platforms (eg. MangaBox, Comic-Walker) directly on my tablet. I would be interested to know if it's the volume of free (as in given, not piracy) content I consume that creates this weirdness (maybe someone who plays every free game/newgrounds release/F2P title without paying would feel weird buying a $10 indie title on Steam or $2-5 ad-free game on mobile because they're used to this sort of content being more than they can play and for free)?

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why Make Games When We Can Make Installations?

The participant signs the disclaimer and announces their safe word. They dress in the boiler suit required.

They're led into a dark room with a single metallic reclining chair in the centre under spot illumination.

As they sit down, the light above them starts to dim and their limbs are strapped down.

[Pressure sensors in the chair detect their resting weight distribution and tension monitors on each strap activate to record the strain. Mics pick up any noise from the strap buckles.]

As the light approaches nothing, a VR headset is positioned over the participant's eyes and ears.

The *vinc* of the light being switched back on is heard by the participant with the resumption of illumination, making them look up to the sound and then turn away from the bright light.

The participant looks down at their new body, not quite perfect but it seems to be responding correctly. They quickly accept it.

[Leap Motions hidden below the end of the arm rests record the precise hand movements. This will be the key point of freedom the participant can use to bond with their virtual self at the start of this simulation. A fast-track camera records the body motions and merges that skeletal track with the pressure sensor data.]

Slowly things start emerging from the darkness and into the light, floating above and around the participant. A semi-transparent fish floats through the air and brushes the participant's arm. They violently react to the light touch they feel.

[A performer has walked up to the participant with a soft foam stick and used their mobile device to indicate to the simulation where to interact, viewing the scene from a virtual camera above the chair and using the timer they set in motion by selection an interaction point to match the virtual scene.]

From here, it's up to the simulation designers and performers to define the entertainment. We can shape your vision to anything our imagination can conceive. For the next hour, we will control all that you see and hear.

VR is going to be interesting for gaming. I don't think any of the existing stereoscopic (main brand: nVidia 3D Vision) & head-tracking (main brand: NaturalPoint TrackIR) communities are in any doubt about the experiential and ludic possibilities this extra input (the tracking of the VR unit is a major new source of input, discounting any ludic changes from this new input is crazy) and immersion (finally reaching a presence effect that isn't fleeting is very cool, maybe not AR presence cool but that's a problem for a future decade once we nail down VR and where we can go with it).

VR is going to be interesting for people with game development skills who want to do other things. We've already seen this sort of thing emerging in the last decade and finding a spare in the indie scene. Games that use non-traditional output devices to manage the players and track the rules. Games that require specialist equipment to experience and are found in art installations.

Computer and video games are interactive experiences watched over by machines. The question in the title answers itself. We've already accepted video games that are installations; VR is, by the interactive requirements, primarily a game technology. The next decade of VR is going to let a lot more designers play with the boundaries of the previous four decades of games designed for fixed screens.

We're finally at the point where all this might actually work. I'll see you all in 11ms when we've got to finish the render for the pre-warping and scan-out.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Big Numbers

In response to an email on the Giant Bombcast, I wrote a quick reply with some calculator spam concerning how big numbers can get very big, very quickly. Too big to really think about. By the end of it we had covered the death of the universe, why an 8 by 6 pixel display is actually a really big space, and why a tiny Mariachi band playing inside someone's mouth isn't all that strange. You can read it here (scroll down for part 2 responding to some comments).

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Copyright & Limited Run Works

Further to the discussion last year and the year before, here are two (potentially complementary) ideas for changing how copyright and trademarks work. This should, at least, provide direction in which there are solutions to orphaned works, hostaged works, and providing access to lore/'IP' without forcing very short terms on all works.

The Right to Refuse to Sell More

I think there's a pretty big line between: abandonware as sort of unofficial copyleft system of distribution for items that have no commercial availability or value and are hard to access for the millions of people who do have ownership rights to one copy due to advancing technology; and people who sell ROMs and so on for profit without correctly paying the fees to the copyright holders and those who are due royalties.

When I did a big "complying with copyright" thing in ~2010 (partially to explore things like Spotify as the potential future of managing to process consumption of media and distribution of fees to creators without a barrier to discoverability issue - other systems like try before you buy / free streaming of music / etc seemed to have the issue that when you move to this online, rental model they you can kinda subvert discoverability access to be free consumption so I wanted to do a deep dive into the all you can eat model of rental), I wiped all my ROMs (along with all my mp3s, etc). So since then I've been trying to keep it 100% legit. Stuff like GOG make that a lot easier than it would have been a decade ago but my nostalgia burns brightest for PC games/ports so the lack of available non-DOS stuff is less of an issue for me.

For copyright black hole content then I do think laws need to be tweaked (like defined limits on profitability before work enters the public domain, considered paid for in full by society, and changes to the copyright limits; here's what I plan to limit my work with as a personal experiment and not what I would consider guidance for legal limits) and thanks to Mickey Corp we have the legal standard that copyright changes are applied retroactively (despite this making no sense to the arguments given for creating a better incentive for current works by making them more profitable, previous works have already been created so that argument would not demand retroactive extensions to limits) so we can free a lot of content with changes that put the public interest before profits from long delivered commercial works.

There is a case for adding new elements to the balance of copyright (because, ultimately, a government can simply refuse to grant any copyrights to creators, the hard-ball deal is "we currently give you all this and you've been asking for more at every turn, we could give you no protection; there is no inherent right, only a government granted license of exclusive duplication to the creator to inspire the creation of works") like a restriction on the creation of limited works as a pre-defined special work. So before something went on sale, you could register it as a limited work with up to, say, 5000 copies (all numbered) and that would be the total run for this work and any sold derivatives. Those units could be sold and restricted with normal copyright. This would be how bespoke art would be managed, one off paintings with some reprints but a market that requires limits on the right of duplication of the original creator/copyright owner to ensure value. Rather than a contract from the creator it would be a legal structure that created a limited run work.

What this would allow was for mass duplicated works to not have to worry about this specific ecosystem of limited copies creating a vibrant second-hand value market with speculation and appreciation. You could then say anything not registered as such before it went on sale would be a mass market work. Mass market works could not be withdrawn from the market. If someone wanted to buy then they would be allowed to (at reasonable cost, based on the sale price of the previous copies and judgement on the increasing costs of materials to generate another duplicate) unless a work was forced from sale by legal issues (say it turns out the creator was only a "creator" as the work was copyright infringement itself). This would prevent the creation of limited time contracts that strip works from sale currently and also make it impossible for someone to sit on a copyrighted work, it they refused to make a duplicate then someone else would be paid the material costs of duplication and the difference handed to the owner by the state. The fair value of sale would be taken from their hands and put into that of a judge so it would be in the interest of the copyright holder to declare a value at the upper end of reasonable and contract the duplication themselves to maximise their profits from the sale.

As long as there was one duplicate in existence that had been analysed and the skills to make another duplicate then a mass produced item would remain on sale to any potential buyer. This would provide a strong protection to a cultural heritage without mandating very short copyright terms that could limit the scope of commercial works which required long tails or reward creators who are some years ahead of their time or slow to find widescale commercial exploitation of their work (although we generally don't see such a thing outside of a few exceptional cases which a sane copyright term would already prevent - the Lord of the Rings should be public domain about now and my earlier suggestions to a profitability and term cap would make sure that was true).

A Work vs the 'IP'/Lore & are Games Special?

There has been recent discussion of copyright in games being special and the evolution of the medium requiring radically shorter terms than other types of works. I don't see why games are a special case so an argument like that seems very weird. Are we to propose a way of determining the maturity of a medium and build copyright terms based on a curve that slowly grants more longevity based on the progress the medium is making? "Games had three revolutionary new techniques discovered according to the judges so keeps the 20 year copyright terms but cinema hasn't had one in 5 years so that 50 year copyright is extended to 55 years now." I just can't see it working and I also don't see the need from a place of providing access to the shared culture to the next generation to remix without concern of transformativeness. I don't see games entering into the public awareness and integrated into culture at a different rate, so why would it need different terms?

Lord of the Rings is in just as much need of handing over to the Public Domain as anything games have to offer (LotR being ~60 years old seems like it should be public domain by now, it has captured any due remuneration associated with the period of creativity during WWII and become part of broad culture - in fact it lives there often by people sidestepping and making derivative works that are transformative; by now it seems like others should get access to the core, the copyrightable block in the middle to mess with as more expression of culture that does not need to avoid treading around transformativeness) - even our icons like Mario are barely 30 years old. There may be some more time where the creator's right to sell Donkey Kong comes before the needs of the people to be unconstrained in riffing on their shared culture created when Jumpman debuted.

Each game in the Mario series would clearly create new copyright for that as a work but the character is born with the first game, which may follow on to a need to de-link the right to the IP of character created from the copyright of the actual work. Maybe our demand for Aragorn to be a PD character in a PD Mordor puts pressure on limited copyright terms that should not also drag the work, the LotR books, into the public domain with it. The words as written keep their copyright but if you want to use characters, locations, events then as long as you're not stripping vast chunks of original text (clear copyright infringement), you're golden. But how much quotation from the common lore of Aragorn's history is fair use and how much is simple infringement on the copyright of the book as written? That discussion would be critical to splitting culture's absorption of lore from the first work in which that lore was crafted.

More complicated would be how that lore developed. Say we put a 50-60 year copyright term on our mass duplicated media but the lore (definition required but roughly anything that isn't the work, any trademarks or copyright that relates to the trademark protection rather than the actual work; lowering of the bar for derivative works to be transformative) enters the public domain in 30 years, your children will be able to use your characters for their own work but you will still probably be able to sell the copyrighted works you create without competition for your entire life. Jumpman is not Mario, but he is. But you couldn't use to release of Jumpman lore into the public domain to get at Bowser Jr. or Birdo but in that lore they exist. Would this lead to the universe that characters inhabit slowly entering into public use as it was expanded in later titles? Mario starts out and then two years later the PD Mario gains a brother and two more years later Bowser turns up. After 7 years PD Mario can talk to Birdo but not a day sooner? There seems to be a conflicting demand to have access to the lore, all of it, and the way this will discourage connected universes if it collapses the (what we're mainly talking about is) trademark (and some copyright) protection of a new work by setting it in a universe that is about to expire from protected term. Maybe we can live with franchises that are 30+ years old having an incentive to be left behind by their original creator. That does not sound like the worst of worlds. But there's a discussion to be had about what we consider fair to the creators and fair to the future creators who want to riff on the shared culture they were raised with, without worrying about transformative tests or protected names.

Edit 04/02/14: Inspired by the same discussion points about the public domain and games, m'very'good'friends at Mode 7 were also narrowing down on some similar sticking points in that debate. While I don't agree with everything Paul has to say, it is a compelling argument with a lot of good points.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Difficulty Isn't the Point & Often is a Problem

Here's something about what games are. Only weeks ago I was also riffing on the idea of how we all experience games differently, but I believe this piece is taking us down a path we should not travel. It's a very narrow definition of difficulty that tries to strip it from other mediums; the traditional narrowing of the definition of computer game to exclude things like Dear Esther, Proteus, Sim City, Gone Home. To try and point to competitive games as the origin and then rob the computer of player status if it does not participate enough and reject the notion that solitaire games have always existed, where there is no other player with agency in the system.

Computers are interactive, computer games can thusly be made to react to the player, to reform the words and images in such a way as to allow the continued consumption and understanding of the message despite the issues of the consumer. This, not their offering of roadblocks, elevates them beyond a book or a film, which must be repetitively consumed in the hope of being able to understand it for anything which wishes to have a message beyond the surface or being fully read by audiences of a range of abilities. Difficulty is not the enemy, but saying one size fits all and difficulty should not be complained about (as a wall that should not move to meet the height the player needs) is holding the medium back. Also, just immersing the playing in a virtual space has no traditional difficulty, it's still a game. There is nothing special about being blocked from continuing, which is the very specific form of difficulty being expressed in that piece, and nothing core about games that ties them to that design choice.

Here is Jeff Vogel talking about the repeated consumption of something to grok it, to endlessly mine it for more meaning, as being a sign of great art. You may not like his assertion that games have not reached that point but he does point at both the opening fallacy of the first piece (that a book is read by merely looking at every page or a movie is completely consumed by sitting in the room as it plays) and that games have the potential to really be incredible as adaptive systems that can work on many levels and tune what comes out for which level you want to read at, one size does not need to fit all. And it's got nothing to do with difficulty as blocking progress, of giving a path to some mastery or repetitive task.

That difficulty is certainly not THE POINT of games. Failing to understand the variable skills of the many players that will engage with the system, hiding anything beyond mechanical mastery of a system as the proposed pinnacle of gaming, is part of the problem. We can do so much more, we can make reactive systems that guide the player to different readings and provide alternatives to repeat consumption to see a piece on a different level, we can adapt. We must adapt. That's what makes games able to do things books and movies cannot, but we're still maturing and we've got plenty of work to do to get to a place of strength, to our truly great works. If we (not to say we will) start to get there in virtual spaces, using the power of VR to put the player somewhere as a jump from immersion to presence then I'm not going to be there complaining that there are no roadblocks in this interactive virtual space and it isn't a game and misses the point of games to be difficult. Computer games can be so many things, difficulty is a tool in many dimensions and the single dimension talked about in the original piece is something that must be tuned to the player as we move forward.

Edit: the repost of this on GiantBomb got some conversation flowing in the comments. I also ended up responding with a second piece on difficulty which half-stole a post I've been writing for here 'More on Skill & Flow' so maybe I'll actually finish that soon and post the complete, developed point. Think of my comment on the GB blog as a sneak peek of what my next blog post will be about.