Tuesday 31 December 2013

Goitees 2013

I guess this is annual now we're doing it again this year. Maybe 2014 will be the year activity on this blog kicks up another notch or maybe those conference papers and research will continue to steal most of my productive time while developing and playing games takes the rest of my non-reading/sleeping time.

There has been plenty of disagreement on which games are great or poor this year, which is a great space for an interactive medium to be in; people are walking away with very different experiences and not just collectively classifying games 'buggy or boring' or 'brilliant' into two piles. Not only can mechanics elicit very different reactions from people (Go is not a game for everyone) but also the narrative we play can be radically different and a few of the games below are noted for my experience of them, which it not necessarily the same thing someone else will experience when they pick up the game. In a couple of cases, exploring that is the theme of the game. A full exploration of any one game to feel out every limit of the systems and narrative and their interaction would be exhausting and you can only experience it for the first time once and are going to be influenced by that first taste. If you completely disagree with my selection then that's totally fine, but it is my selection of particularly noteworthy titles I've played this year.

If you're sensitive to spoilers then scan over the bold titles and avoid reading the text about each entry. I'm not aiming to ruin the games but if you want to play any of these games completely clean then (shockingly) I will be talking about what they contain.

The Swapper

Not enough people have been talking about The Swapper. That game looks unique (and cohesively competent); has great music; a decent story that doesn't try and make up an answer to the philosophical questions it asks to fit the future time period; and great puzzles that are rarely trivial but also not frustrating. The entire game was less than 5 hours long for me without looking up any of the solutions, showing respect for playtime with several fast-travel systems and some slack in the gating that allows you to progress and come back to incomplete puzzles if you don't want to sit and think about them. The bounds of the puzzles create the landscape of the puzzle rooms so by looking for things like raised steps you can read the language of potential solutions. This language is something you'll slowly get more adept at reading while the difficulty curve and new language is slowly added to as you progress, although you get all the tools you need to complete all the puzzles within the first few minutes of play.

My biggest criticism is that the achievements are for 10 hidden rooms that it never gives a hint about existing. There are no others, no completion ding to indicate how many people finished the thing or gave up after finding the final gate requires them to go back and complete the puzzles they missed. The biggest negative I can think of is in the metagame of surrounding features: you should definitely play this game.

Gone Home

That bit where the entire game turns out to be the character remembering her fears and discoveries when entering the house as she reads the diary of her sister, found at the end of the journey. That's such a perfect way to explain audio logs and let them trigger without putting them in the world as recordings or just arm-waving it as a narrated experience. Clean decisions like that are what makes up Gone Home.

Two hours of exploring a location and unlocking the several intertwined stories that took place there. That's the advertised content here and anyone who grew up in the '90s is probably going to enjoy just being immersed in that virtual space they half-remember from two decades ago. The stories hold together as you explore and you should absolutely play this game but I do hope this is a step towards something better. The leaning on horror game tropes to link the experience to and subvert the expectations of long time gamers works but I don't think this style of game needs to pander to those already very familiar with gaming conventions. I think there are interesting things to be done with evolving experiences that react, that change the story told and rebuild the world not yet seen based on play. As a first stab from a small, self-funded team, this is what it needed to be and maybe a signpost to much more to come later.


Speaking of immersing yourself in a virtual space and exploring the stories there, this is both as far as you can get from Gone Home and the same thing done with a completely different budget and scope, with added games of skill that often involve shooting. A dazzling indication of what can be dragged out of 2005 silicon if you've got the resources to dedicate to faking everything to get the light to feel just right out into the distance. I really hope the next gen allows people to create these spaces and let the silicon illuminate it via some configuration to their tastes rather than the hard work on display here.

This was a game where I spent 60 hours doing almost everything that world had to offer and with only a few guiding indicators pointing me towards places I did not want to go. Maybe it was deciding what not to do, as I'd done previously in GTA games (never one for a random rampage, or to use the respawn mechanics of a wasted or busted screen to appear in a hospital or police station), that allowed me to avoid the disappointment others felt. Some of the game does fall flat, some of the content is immature and problematic, many of the missions are just an excuse to point you into this world and let you do a quick activity. But almost all of those 60 hours were ones I really enjoyed. The ability to switch characters, the improved movement and shooting, the heists, the writing: because there is so much of everything it's easy to focus on the few things it screws up but there is so much great stuff in GTA V that I couldn't not include it on this list, even if a few choices were pretty undesirable in my eyes.

Unfortunately there is a renewed call for all immorality to be punished in our media (it now hides under the banner of "satire is dead"). "This content does not explicitly condemn the actions or show the ruination of the actors it depicts and so I will take it as glorifying said actions, for satire is dead."

Maybe it is just the exhaustion of those tired of playing the hero role while performing the actions of a villain in so many games. But satire is very much alive, and writing about the inability to see it by completely failing to listen to any of the dialogue around a scene is disingenuous. But also this is where what I did and what that author experienced diverges. I didn't get a graphic torture scene, Trevor played it straight to the actual horror of the very real situation it pokes at; he repeatedly waterboarded the poor cooperative innocent who then, in desperation to say anything, led to another potential innocent being executed. The visuals of the torture was very tame but the underlying events were the horrific part. Events as has probably happened several times in recent history, orchestrated by people who claim to protect our freedom.

GTA V is not about good people. Beyond Maude I really can't think of anyone trying particularly hard to be anything other than the background level of self-obsessed, terrible to each other in that world. When you bring in a new protagonist by showing him brutally killing the previous game's sympathetic protagonist then the tone is set. There are bad people and people trying to keep their head above the water as the world sinks around them. There are so few good people that I can only name that one off the top of my head, after 60 hours of meeting and getting to know them. Everyone you meet and play as is a warning to the player, not a shining light. And just like the real world, many of them do rather well. Perpetuating the just world fallacy in our media is not the way to a better real world and claiming satire is dead will not lead you to any worthwhile interpretations of a world of caricature.

The Stanley Parable (and demo)

A game for gamers about games with excellent voice work and writing; made of 100% spoilers to the point where the demo is a completely unrelated product about what it means to make a demo of a holistic, non-linear interactive experience.

If you're interested in diverging experiences, the hard bounds of what a completely authored game experience can be, and some of the best laughs you'll have in a game then this is for you. I've already done a bit of a review recently (which got broken by Steam community's automatic expiry of spoiler tags) but avoid unless you're prepared for spoilers. This is a game you should go into blind. Grab the demo and see if it elicits a chuckle at any point, if so then grab the full game and enjoy.

Papers Please

There's never enough money if you play it honest and time is your constant enemy. Are you even doing the right thing for the future of your family by following the rules? Why does this random event come now, I just can't afford this expense, we already can't have heat and food every day! "Your niece has disappeared". Oh, for just a few more dollars or a bit more time to do my job and earn it.

Mixing story with mechanics for a sublime interactive experience that lets the player get a hint of the stress and uncertainty that it wishes to convey. This is a great game along the same lines as Cart Life or a sweatshop tycoon game.

The Last of Us

What an example of interactive experiences making something personal. This is a linear progression with pre-rendered scenes showing much of the narrative and dialogue and yet it was completely my own. Some reviewers didn't find their play mixed in, didn't derive major character development via play. Yet others did, but developed completely different characters who just walked the same road and had some moments the same as the story I experienced. This is why games are something to be treasured. Potentially fragile but so precious and we must be allowed to develop the craft further to manage that fragility.

The Last of Us is a series of stories about two characters as they develop a bond which perfectly plays to the episodic TV strength of narrative form to fit a 8-16 hour story that you play into the game rather than just taking a 3 hour movie plot, padding, and then dumping in enough disconnected gameplay to hit a 6 to 15 hour completion time.

I get the feeling that Joel is meant to be a gun person, at least somewhat. My Joel didn't enjoy guns unless absolutely required due to the noise issue and aim he had. So I played a stealth game in which a lot of necks were broken. A lot of waves of enemies all died without anyone getting alerted and this somewhat broke a few scripted things it would seem (spawning enemies need to be done better; seriously guys, I've had enough of your wave based combat arenas in my Tomb Raider games and spawning in the waves badly is not on when I've got magic see-through-walls so I can see you doing it!) The weirdness seemed to emerge from my slow methodical approach to the stealth game and then suddenly wave two has spawned sat on top of the corpses of wave one and their walking AI isn't switched on so they're lambs to the slaughter. But outside of a couple of arenas that seemed to break, my Joel was definitely alive in my head and muttering back to the enemies shouting out about hunting him that they were the hunted ones, they were trapped in this arena with him and he didn't need bullets for what he had planned. This peaked during the final section, where my play seemed to be least connected to the majority or reviewers, in which an unhinged and well stocked Joel walked through the hospital with effectively unlimited flamer ammo and the screaming of the soldiers made that descent into madness drive to the game close. That section where I took full control and exhausted that stockpiled ammo (I had previously not touched) as I hit the peak of the story played perfectly into the ending as Ellie as she decided that trust is forever dead but you take alliances where you can find them and they were both broken enough to survive.

Speaking of Ellie, she, on the other hand, was a gun person. I suppose this is required due to where she starts being played (with an infinite ammo machine NPC) and the rifle ammo that seems to be a lot more available to her from drops and placements. It was kinda shocking to play her when she takes over as she basically took aim at tiny dots and then later walked past scenes of popped heads. She knew a kill zone when she saw one and used them liberally. So she was already established as more than capable of dealing with a cult and the knife cutscene that ended it seemed a bit more 'unwinding joy of the sociopath' rather than 'driven to near insanity by fear' that I suspect the scene was intended to elicit. Joel was there to calm her down when it was over, not to comfort Ellie and bring her back to some shadow of childhood. As I said, my game was not the only way this plays out, but it was how it played out for me and fixed cut-scenes did not prevent divergence.

The links to Enslaved (AI-companion and stealth focus mutation to the sub-genre), with ancestor Tomb Raider, goes beyond an engine originally designed for Uncharted but with the traversal restricted to avoid the climbing walls that has been a staple of that sub-genre (fighting, traversal, & puzzles with plenty of cinematics for every moment to contextualise those levels). I was weeping for the great assets on display in the Last of Us and a renderer that couldn't do them justice. Other than the terrible snow light flicker and some low res assets that stood out against the high detail others, that game looked (just like Enslaved, taking a similar visual theme) like it would look real nice on something that wasn't a PS3. That they rendered out the cut-scenes is going to kill that kind of conversion to PS4 though. I have no idea why they didn't use a better offline renderer for the scenes for that (there is so much aliasing, but much less than the real-time rendered stuff so it does clearly mark the video from the real-time but not in a way as to make it so it'll look better than if the game was redone with a 1080p+AA real-time renderer - then the cutscenes will show more aliasing than the game would and it'd be messed up that way). It's like the video is trying to pretend it was real-time rendered. For a bit there I though they'd managed to get the game to actually render some of it (remove the overhead of doing the physics, gameplay etc and just render out scenes with a higher quality than the gameplay stuff) but then realised it was all video. I wonder how that works with the unlockable clothing for a new game plus. I assume they didn't render video for every combination so you get characters changing clothes.

I can't end on a negative for the Last of Us and the art design is incredible. That's why I'm disappointed, I wouldn't care about the rendering if it wasn't for what could be with current art and code unchained from 2005 silicon. As with all immersive experiences, you'll notice the rendering errors (eg aliasing) less and less as you progress and that's when the art will really feel amazing. But I couldn't end without mentioning the soundtrack, which does an impressive job of providing the backing and enhancing the emotions of the game without ever feeling like it crowds out the other audio.

But not everything can be a Game of the Year. Here are a couple of moments that I really didn't get along with:

Bioshock Infinite. Never the best of combat arena titles, despite trying to mix things up with magic + guns to get away from the prevailing design of FPSs, this is probably the least fun I've had with the shooting in a Bioshock game and they sure do like putting a lot of it in there for Infinite. The Luteces' story kept me going but I really didn't like the coming of age progression for Elizabeth (especially with how the blood was first let and so completed the gestation of a second enemy force to be generic antagonists) which felt heavy-handed, unrefined, and very much a surface level only arc. Maybe it stood out so much because Elizabeth felt like a plot device engine rather than a person, something for others to manipulate and derive power from rather than someone with agency or even desires. Come to think of it, the themes were many but felt almost all surface level. Care and time went into the stylistic rendering of this place but there wasn't much in there and throwing slavery (and everything else they could find to both ground the story and boost the theme) into a story about fatherhood seemed out of place and ultimately maladroit.

Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons. The 'woman as temptation of evil/destroyer of family' trope really ruined this game for me. As that is the inciting event for the entire of the emotional payload of the game's peak and diminuendo to the close, I was ripped away from the story just as the game wanted me to lean in to it. Great looking game, lovely use of mechanics and story uniting for the end chapter, really wish they'd used a different plot device there so I might have been invested in it rather than disappointed by the hand of the author.

Friday 1 November 2013

Counting PC Gamers

There has never been a better time to work out how many PC gamers are out there buying new hardware each year.

Coming up for a decade ago we knew that around 90% of motherboards shipped with integrated graphics, back before CPUs gave up an area of their die for an iGPU.  But they were also quite crappy a lot of the time and lacked the ports and performance, even for 2D sometimes, to be useful.  Just as motherboard audio was often looked down on as no good, even if you didn't play games then a discrete GPU wasn't the worst of ideas.

But something changed.  Just as with motherboard audio, combined in that case with the Vista driver changes that killed hardware audio acceleration, the floor kept rising and soon there was not a lot of reason to buy your own discrete AIB (add-in board).  We are now at a point where the integrated graphics, now on the CPU rather than the motherboard chipset, are everywhere and good enough.  Intel and AMD are even starting to push the claim that if you enjoy some 3D games then you'll still be able to just buy a single clip from them so before their claims hold too much water we are given an interesting opportunity to get some rough idea of how many new or refurbished gaming PCs are being purchased every year.

Luckily Intel and AMD have helped us out, because if you're not gaming then you don't need an AIB (discrete card GPU) or a laptop with an nVidia chip in (AMD also bundle their CPUs in the numbers so I'm ignoring them - nVidia numbers come with a percentage of discrete laptop GPU market indicator from which you can extract the real AMD numbers).  There isn't even really a super-low end, not for discrete GPUs, because the rising performance of iGPUs that come with every CPU you buy has killed the market.  There are not 115m AIB sales like there were in 1999 (seems to be the peak, also about the time more chipsets started integrating a graphics option on some motherboards) but almost all the ones that are left are for gaming systems.

We should have a rough idea of where the other major market is.  Consoles, both home and portable.  The market leading console can sometimes sell ~20m a years, which is how we get one or two consoles that break well over 100m global sales over their (previously somewhat limited for time in the Sun as the primary device) lifetime.  Everyone else (at least in recent times, where there has been no clear loser) is getting closer to 10m sales a year (but you give sales from 2005-2013 and you get your 75-80m units that press releases from Sony and MS point to).

How does the PC platform stack up against that, in what we think is the last couple of years of some pretty good pickings for extracting only the 'gaming was a feature request' sales?  You see about 35-40m nVidia desktop GPUs sold each year.  AMD is more like 25m.  That's still getting on for as many dedicated gaming cards in a year as there have been 360s sold since sometime in 2006.  But if you consider the 50 million nVidia mobile GPUs and 20m AMD discrete units then we're not even playing in the same ballpark.  There are almost certainly more gaming PCs sold every year (consistent for at least a while, much harder to get an impression of sales when I can't be assured people didn't need to buy a GPU to make a complete PC and so it becomes real murky to estimate gaming PCs more than a few years ago) than there have been console devices of a single platform in play at any one time.  Only the lifetime PS2 and DS sales even poke their head above the ~100m ceiling to possibly eclipse PC dedicated GPU sales for a single year and with the hardware revisions, and expected lifetime, and known element failure rates (which don't really count for GPUs that are all within year 1 of the warranty) then how many of those were actually in any state to be used to play games by the end when the sales total reaches that high?

Lost, broken, sitting on the shelf at a used store, in the cupboard.  That doesn't sound like the fate of many GPUs purchased in that year but a 6+ year old console (one of many iterations and colours) may have a significant hit to how many are really in the wild.  I'd be pretty confident that annual gaming PC sales is significantly larger than the combined console market and that probably has been true for a long time.  And unlike mobile sales, where you don't really know how many people want a phone and how many want a gaming platform with benefits, the current market segmentation means you're throwing money away for an identical product for your needs if you don't buy that discrete GPU because you at least know you'll want the option of gaming.  Maybe you don't realise your 10 year old games will run just fine on the CPU's iGPU today but I'm still going to count that as a gamer worth counting.  They're buying the gaming hardware.  Just like a cinephile might have purchased a PS3 for the cheap access to a good HD movie player, or in today's market maybe a crazy person purchased a Netflix box rather than buying a $50 Android or similar device for the same purpose.

I hadn't seen it actually laid out, with a reasonably coherent argument for how the current market actually makes it pretty easy to count likely PC gamers.  The numbers are more analyst report averages (GPU makers don't seem to publish chip volumes, only financials) but do roughly tie into where I was expecting and a vague idea of revenues (and the comparative volumes sold at each price tier).  I don't think they're going to be off by enough for it to matter (even if you halve the GPU numbers you're still looking at quite a gap to the next nearest platform adding new units).  When we talk about how well PC gaming does (is it dead, is it reborn, can it never truly die, is it going mobile tomorrow?), the only real question is how many gamers we can convert to the insatiable console appetite for a high attach ratio (several games per year habit, and paying for them at retail for the tracking to work) to make the software side explode into being more important than consoles.  In terms of hardware then the consoles are the amusing iOS minnow to the Android shark, lots of noise and software sales but very few units out there globally when you look at the competition.  And when I started writing this post I had no idea I was going to end on that apt comparison to another closed platform that can make far more PR and software sales via the mandated single store but not nearly the hardware sales volume of the open platform it competes with.

Saturday 19 October 2013

An Objective Review of The Stanley Parable

I have decided to do my bit for the forwarding of the cause for the proliferation of objective reviews of interactive media content by providing a review of The Stanley Parable.

This will provide readers with a useful method of deciding if The Stanley Parable if worth investing their time and money in.  It will avoid all the wishy washy ideas of subjective analysis and simply provide you, the reader, with what you need.

You will, at the end of this process, be capable of making an informed choice based not on a demo that fails to show any game content but via my exploration of the game, as it exists.

As this game is a non-linear progression through a narrated experience I have decided to log how I saw the game through a series of progressive snapshots of the game.  Please respect the spoiler warnings I have had to use in some places and not hover to uncover them unless you have already purchased and completed the game.

The full gallery, including the spoiler tagged images, will provide people who wish to have a walk-through with the most direct way of experiencing the game, as it exists.  This includes a meticulously detailed path to the best ending.

Now please click through and explore my review of The Stanley Parable.

Click here to continue.

After taking in that gallery, you have concluded exploring my review.

I am sure you are now ready to make that important purchasing decision.

Edit, Dec. 2013: Steam currently automatically expires spoiler tags from screenshots after 4 weeks. This has kinda ruined the joke of this post when you follow the various links to the gallery.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Logitech Gaming Software, meet nVidia GeForce hardware

This may also affect AMD and even Intel users (if this affects integrated graphics which is sharing a power budget with your CPU then it'll be making your desktop less responsive rather than just wasting power making your PC louder and hotter than it needs to be) but I'm describing it as it happens on my system. My Google-fu didn't throw up someone complaining about it so hopefully this'll get search engine tagged for other to find (as the chances of bug reports sent to the companies involved ever getting acted upon is ~0%); if you use Logitech Gaming Software (currently version 8.46.27) with a modern nVidia GeForce GPU (current drivers are 320.49) then your computer may be running too hot when at the desktop and so wasting power and generating unwanted heat.

With modern GPUs the dynamic clock speed and power use of the card can vary quite dramatically. The GTX760 I have here clocks down to 135MHz core and 650MHz RAM when idle at the desktop. The base GPU clock (before it uses boost bins to get to 1.2GHz when extra power and thermals allow) is 1072MHz and the RAM clocks to 7GHz when called to offer fast 3D performance. As you can imagine, that extra power comes with extra energy use and that means the fans crank up to make the system louder, the electricity bills go up ever so slightly, and everything runs warmer than it maybe needs to be in desktop mode.
Enable Enhanced Graphics
The problem with using the Logitech mouse drivers (to set fast updates down the USB cable, sensor DPI, and assign extra buttons to what you want if a game can't see the buttons with their default assignment) is the default setting to the right (which starts out selected) to hardware accelerate the interface. At least with my more recent nVidia GPU and the current GeForce drivers then this option to use hardware acceleration seems to always bind and request resources to render the UI, even when the window is closed and only the notification icon remains. To render the picture of a mouse, the Logitech software seems to hook into the nVidia driver (possibly asking for an OpenGL accelerated surface, maybe it is Direct3D) and this fools the driver into thinking it is being asked to render something for a game. That nice low idle rate (more than enough grunt to render the Aero Windows interface with the limited GPU acceleration Windows asks of a card for this mainly 2D work) is disabled as the card clocks up to full RAM speed and full base clock on the GPU, North of 1GHz. Possibly the Logitech software is failing to put a framerate cap on the surface it calls so is actually thrashing the card to redraw the mouse over and over or maybe the nVidia setting for idling at low power only gets maintained when the only work it is being asked to do is things it knows Windows asks for. Either way, this is not software, drivers, and hardware working together as intended.

Disabling this option seems to fix everything. The Logitech driver falls back on drawing a few textures to the window with standard Windows UI API calls and the nVidia driver goes back to thinking it is just sitting at the desktop and no games are asking for an accelerated surface that means it need to clock up and render as many frames as possible. The GPU and RAM are clocked down at almost 10% frequency and the fan goes back to the lowest speed (an almost inaudible 30%).

If you're running a graphics card from the last few years (even a 4 year old card will clock down somewhat but in recent years AMD and nVidia have really pushed to get lower idling speeds which use very little power on the desktop) and have some Logitech peripherals that mean you run their Logitech Gaming Software then I strongly recommend you disable this hardware acceleration setting for peace of mind.

Monday 29 July 2013

How to Make & Sell Software Without Going to Hell

There can be a lot of legal and ethical issues with the production, sale, and protection of digital goods (which have near zero duplication cost so the payment for a copy is a return on the development investment and not really about paying for the cost of making the copy).  Here is an outline that has evolved as an intranet document for the last few years providing some guidance to making a fair deal with users, developers, and investors.

This is very much a work in progress document that has gone under several major revisions, is not written in a consistent style, and could easily have flaws in the logic that it argues as a unified approach to software sales in this era of global and digital distribution.  Expect future revisions from time to time, which will be flagged as such.  Now seems as good a time as any to expose it to the critical light of day.

Respect for the users

Software is being executed on the user's hardware.  Our code is a guest on their system.  Through this lens the obligations of the developer are clear and unacceptable behaviour stands out far more starkly against a background where major developers have lost sight of this fact.

Customers are being sold content, that is the personal license to all the copyrighted works involved and without limitation on their freedoms within the overall restrictions that copyright involves (to limit further duplication).  Users cannot duplicate content for others, especially for sale, but spending time and effort restricting their right to play with the copy they now own is wrong-headed.

Enabling users to express this freedom to tinker with the copy they own without impairment includes distribution of our source code with every sale (not to be redistributed to non-owners, same as all other content sold in the package).  No DRM or online activation should prevent the user from accessing their copy of the software.  No End User License Agreement (EULA) needs to be signed for use of our software.

Added 1/11/13: A personal license (if one is required by the local laws) to duplicate the content sold for personal, private use is required to enable the previous two clauses to work.  The access to source code is no use without, at minimum, the ability to create a translated duplicate via compilation.  This freedom does not provide license to duplicate work for others who do not hold their own license to the material (via purchase of our software).

Copyright was not designed to operate how it currently does.  We will release titles with a clear expiry date of copyright at which point it will transfer to the public domain for easier reuse and remixing into the wider culture without the need to show fair use.  We will also attach an upper bound price to the effort that created the work, if this return is realised (after taxes) then the work will be released to the public domain before the expiry date.

We will always try to balance the rights of our customers when it comes to creation of derivative works (and the line between this and uncopyrightable ideas that may be freely reused) and protecting fair use vs the defence of our copyrights to avoid improper monetisation and distribution of our work.  In cases such as online streaming and screenshot photography we believe in most cases this is a clear fair use (generating a transformative derivative work which justifies a fair use defence) and even if not the slight monetisation of ad supported streaming is not something any developer should ever try to limit.

Edited 5/8/16: We certainly allow any customers to stream out their experience of our software, including on monetised streams such as competitive gaming and ad-supported "let's play"s as a derivative work for which the creators should also claim their own copyright to protect their work.  We would request creators contact us before fully commercialising (via, for example, digital or disc sales of footage) a derivative work so we can agree that the bar for fair use is being crossed and can provide legal clarity & security to their IP via any free license.

Users should be invited into the community spirit of submitting patches to progress the main software for all owners and offering up modifications (mods) for use by other owners of the base software.  A system for sharing should be created to allow this to avoid the issue with distributing copyright material to people who potentially do not own the game and so should not have legal access to the base code / assets (underlying work).  The creation of mods usually involves the creation of derivative and independent works and the additional copyrights this generates should be protected while offering an easy way for those who desire to share this work (providing permission for their copyrighted work to be shared and even remixed).

Due to the desire to play on a level playing field, the use of multiplayer should attempt to enable a restricted mode where each player knows that the other is playing by the same rules.  This does not mean no mods or that this is the only way people can play together.

Games are a set of agreed restrictions on play.  House rules are the ability of players to agree on the rules outside of a dictated set from the game designer.  We should enable players to implement house rules as far as is possible.  Viewed at a certain angle then Counter-Strike is just a particularly complex set of house rules for multiplayer Half-Life.

LAN play is an expression of the freedoms granted to users to play outside of a managed online experience.  The addition of LAN spawn installs provides possibilities for players to evangelise multiplayer modes and should be considered as a mulitplayer demo mode where possible.  DRM free software does not technically restrict players from simply duplicating the software for this purpose but our copyright assertion is that this is not acceptable so a LAN spawn option must be developed to enable this promotional duplication use.

Solo cheats are an expression of the freedom to modify the copyrighted works sold, they should not be offered as DLC for sale and if they are offered for sale as part of an online component then that is an implicit permission for users to modify their client to make it seem like they have already purchased these cheats.  Basically don't do it because it's bad design and ethically questionable.

Customers are buying.  This means they gain something after handing over money.  Systems must never be built that allow players to give money without gain unless they are clearly marked as pure donations.  (egregious example:) If a virtual currency exists then it must not be simply deleted as it is unspent money (that this needs to be committed to such a document is remarkable).  Customers must be made aware of exactly what they are buying (for example if you've already sold a game including music files then the soundtrack may be no more than a more easily accessible and mp3 formatted version of something they already own).

The case can and has been made that pre-orders do not serve the industry as a whole in best matching users who wish to spend money with the most enjoyment they can derive from this purchasing power.  We currently err on the side of not taking money for the promise of future, as yet unscrutinised, content.  Companies leveraging their future value is not at all unusual and many smaller developers can only afford to develop the projects they are passionate about by leveraging the risk of their fan base.  This is a dangerous path and we are not certain of our ability to repay that risk transferral with adequate value.  Companies with several billion dollars in revenue certainly do not need you to take on risk by pre-ordering games and should rather look at revenue via the long tail of the extensive catalogues they already control and have full access to.

Current game sales management, discounting, and pricing are designed around a model that does not accept the first-sale doctrine or similar legislation that provides balance to copyright by forcing the author to compete on price with the existing copies of a work they have duplicated using their exclusive right.  We would like to move the industry towards recognition of this consumer right but expect to find some technical and competitive hurdles to implementing it unilaterally in the current marketplace.  We are open to suggestions for how to allow this but hope the marketplace can be transformed by establishment of precedent in cases such as those currently going through the European court.

We hope retail partners will be open to facilitating such consumer rights to trade and gift 'used' games on their stores.  Due to the DRM-free (and shared source) nature of our product, transferring the product under protection of first-sale doctrine (by moving the copy, not duplicating it) will not be prevented by any technological means and we would not try to oppose it; our sales partners may not share this view and so would prevent transferral of the download access (which complicates the ability to unilaterally offer transferral of an online account to a new owner without incurring the cost of providing this download link ourselves or expecting the user to manage their own backup solution, such a burning to a disc or saving to a backup hard drive).

Exclusionary design and narratives that restrict the reach of our games via bigoted, outdated, or simply wrong choices do not help sales and do not show a respect for our customers.  This is not the same as targeting a niche of enthusiastic gamers with a narrow focus title even if the distinction between the two may be more of a scale than two distinct categories.  Accessibility is a right and we will work to make our software as accessible as we can.  We always aim to try and respect all people and minimise the effect of our prejudices on our design and the stories we tell.

This extends to not discriminating against who should be able to buy our games, while fitting into whatever local legal system exists at the point of sale. We will be out here on the internet selling to everyone for the same price (baring local taxes that we are required to collect and with some lag from constantly moving exchange rates) on the same day and with the same content.  Obviously there are global legal issues that may impede our ability to execute this but we will never choose to impose limits.

Respect for the developers

Full chain of content creation and use.  Was it included in some way in the bundle sold to users?  Then they deserve to be credited.  Creation is a chain and so that doesn't mean the final assets need to have been directly created by someone, was their work reworked to generate a derivative work?  Authorisation is required (usually through employment contract) and deserves crediting.

Everyone has to right to be an Alan Smithee.  This is the balance to the previous mandate.  Working on something gives you the right to be credited but you can obviously always opt out, especially as it might not have been you who last touched something.

While we try and release some of the copyright restrictions on our own creations to better serve the users and wider culture, we also understand the importance of these copyrights to other developers and comply with them.  We will always respect the copyrights of others and their work.  We will work with external parties contributing to our projects to make sure we can secure licensing for work that allows us to bundle it under the same restrictions we distribute under or with a clearly separated line between the works (which may come up with items like licensed music).

Crunch is counter-productive beyond a few days.  We can all push ourselves to get stuff done but to do things well (and coders know this all too well as they debug the code they wrote on hour 20 of a binge) rest and time off are key.  Not only can crunch not be considered mandatory working conditions, it must be prevented to ensure the quality of work is maintained and the health of workers.  We want to make great software, but we're not going to ruin people's lives to do it.  We believe in sustainable development.

We believe in the independent review process and the scoring of games based on the viewpoint of the author as much as the technical merits of the software or even an 'objective' evaluation of the merits of the work.  We will not base bonuses on averages of review scores or work with investors who make such demands.  As sales drive our available cash then we may create bonus structures around sales figures so the bonuses can be calculated to pay for themselves.

Unions are a valid form of collective bargaining for workers.  We will work with unions and help to enable our staff to join or create them while preserving the freedoms of the individual staff.  In practical terms that means we will not agree to terms that require or compel union membership (distinct from that of a professional body) as a condition of a job opportunity.  While it may be considered in the interests of the individual employee to reinforce the power of a union, we do not agree with the removal of their freedom in this way to facilitate it.

No developer should be unaware of our commitments to the customer and how this restricts our actions.

Respect for the investors

The best way to increase the value of the company is to serve our customers, which will provide long term revenue streams on which to generate profits.  Short term revenue maximisation methods are fundamentally flawed.

No investors should be unaware of our values before investing.

All of the above are practical and ethical positions.  We do not believe in the religious zealotry of declaring such ideas dogmatic or that we must only work with others who exactly share these ideals.  This is not a commitment to forever hold or apply the above notions to our work; our position may evolve, it is simply a snapshot of our current thinking.

Friday 28 June 2013

First-Sale Doctrine Drives Bad Game Design?

As the Xbox One policies have flipped around, the backlash to the backlash has emerged that says the path to the future has been set back by retaining a classic model of physical goods.  Here's the argument.

So because games have to compete with their used stock (as the designers of copyright intended, fair use and first-sale doctrine being the safety valves built into the exclusive right to duplication given to creators at a time when reasonable copyright terms were a decade or thereabouts) this is what has forced everyone to use DLC, filler content, micro-transactions, etc etc.

It isn't that DLC/micro-transactions were only made possible by internet connectivity and that started during the 6th generation of consoles (DC/PS2/xbox/GC) but was only there on the ground floor (with significant population coverage) for the 7th gen (PS3/360/Wii) so that is where it came to power?  Filler content is a result of a move to combat used?  If so then why is it something that has existed since the beginning of time (where it was first linked to the quarter slot and need to get more money to see the ending, an alternative design choice to hard and arbitrary death mechanics) with 'grinding' (especially in RPGs) being far more extreme well before used was a 'debilitating' thing (ie before there were significant retail presence for games at all, let alone used)?

Case study analogy: The automotive industry is 'losing sales' to used cars.  They can combat this with the application of repairs at authorised dealers and sale of spare parts for those repairs.  There is therefore tremendous pressure on car manufacturers to get their engineers to build less and less reliable cars to reinforce the value of buying new and extract the maximum value from those used cars for which they don't directly get a cut of the sale.  If we look at vehicles over the previous few decades we can see that this pressure has done nothing to reliability.  A competitive marketplace where the ability to increase reliability within a cost envelope increases your perceived value and so ability to stand out against peers has driven up the reliability of all types of vehicles at all price points.

Does the video game industry have something to hide?  Should they be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to work out if this is some anti-competitive cabal where all the players have agreed not to compete on value with each other in order to stifle the marketplace competition that should be driving up quality or driving down price?  My thoughts are no, the entire argument doesn't hold water that links used and these practices.  The industry looked for additional revenue streams as soon as they were technologically viable and this was independent of used games and that perceived issue.  Expansion packs have been a traditional form of expansion content and those actually moved the other way, to enabling more sales by selling as standalone (so not requiring the original game disc/installed content) before DLC and piecemeal expansion content was considered to be cheaper to produce/generating better revenue for manpower expended at a time when traditional expansion content build on the same engine and gameplay mechanics was now being used as annualised sequel fodder at $60 per disc.

Here is the end-game of the digital revolution: subscription services.  The global music industry can entirely replace their annual income from wholesale music sales with 90m premium Spotify subscribers*, assuming the cost of streaming is below that of physical disc production they currently pay on those revenues.  Done.  That's how you monetise a zero duplication cost/IP item.  You form an evil cabal, call it an artists collective, and collect such a wealth of content (and new content production) that anyone would be culturally excluded if they didn't sign up.  Use the volume of people to make the per-person price very affordable.  Be aggressive in picking up new talent that is potentially initially incubated outside of the collective (where they live on direct sales or free distribution of their content and donations).

Here's what goes wrong with trying to walk down that road by first removing first-sale doctrine (while retaining your demand that copyright be enforced using harsher and harsher legal penalties for non-compliance and cooperation with data connectivity services and providers to remove potentially fair use and non-infringing content at the mere accusation of copyright infringement) to tighten up the traditional sales mechanic to bleed as much money as possible from each individual: You're going the wrong way stupid!  We're aiming to bring down the per user cost and bring up the numbers and make sure our collective products are culturally essential at a great value.  Stop driving people away by trying to increase how much you extract from each individual by any means necessary.  Here's how you sell a premium product: delight the consumer.  Get them to eulogise the value anyone should obtain from making the transaction they did.  Apple can make an almost 50% profit on their products (ie they are priced about twice as high as they could be and still be viable) and they don't do it by making people feel ripped off when they've purchased something.  This is a perception war, stop fighting to make people feel like their $60 doesn't buy the entire product and demonise people who increase the value of your new product (by offering people who do purchase it cash to sell it at a later date).

In the current climate then digital marketplaces should look at how they can better serve the consumers (and creators) by enabling their traditional rights (and in doing so protect creators from potential issues with challenges to their copyright under grounds of failure to comply with the conditions of fair use and first-sale) and any move to justify the import of current digital license rules into the physical product world should be noted as highly suspect and probably unable to hold water.  This is a companion piece to my article last month about how the technical limitation of DRM on a closed platform stands opposed to the viewpoint that the medium has and will continue to increase in cultural significance and provide a good value purchase for more and more consumers.

* Twelve monthly payments of $15 x 90m = source for total revenue figure.  There are over 7 billion potential pairs of ears out there, the music industry only needs the current subscription value from less than 1.3% of them.

Thursday 30 May 2013

How Call of Duty ends

This week I realised I don't care about Call of Duty.  What I caught of Modern Warfare 3 looked terrible and by the end of MW2 I did not want to know more about that story so I'd skipped it.  MW2 managed to hit peak crazy by the time it ended and there was nowhere the series could go that I wanted to join it.  But Black Ops was rather enjoyable, Mason and I had found out what the numbers mean, and eventually BlOps2 arrived on my doorstep to partake in.

It was during a section filled with unskippable cutscenes (at least they seemed to be unskippable, they had a pause menu rather than a skip option and I couldn't work out how to make them go away and get to the bit where you can actually play the game) which would eventually end with a grenade and a civilian getting married in a cutscene.  There was an area that is bugged (as in I could Google and find people describing the exact details of what was wrong and advice to restart the level to fix it rather than anything useful you can do because the checkpoint seems to encode the corruptions so going back will never unstuck you) and after a long time looking for an enemy to kill to trigger the next section and an NPC unlocking a door to a cellar, I decided the enemy probably fell out of the level or was outside of the invisible walls preventing my free movement so I would never be able to progress.

I tried getting back to the checkpoint a few times but every time played out the same way, whether I triggered the optional extra wave of enemies by climbing up to the sniper's nest or not.  So I restarted the entire level and watched the many cutscenes and 'played' a section where I found out I could just run around and not actually play the game, just sprint between the checkpoints with a 'rage' buff making this very quick (also making it even more obvious that the scripting was changing my selected weapon rather than the level contents having anything to do with what weapon I had equipped).  Then I got to the actual game bit with shooting.  I made my way to the assault the mansion section and the bug was there again.

"Walk forward you useless NPCs, you need to unlock something so I can continue playing!"

I restarted again and walked away to make a cup of tea while the game played a cutscene to itself.

This time I managed to not encounter the bug and so got into the cellar to kill some more bad guys before triggering the final cutscene where we saw the grenade go flying from a different perspective than the flashback cutscene that had come just before the level started.  But I didn't care.  I didn't care for the story.  I didn't hear the numbers.  I didn't even want to hear the numbers, to find out what they wanted to tell me.

There is a difference between doing something you want to do and doing something so it is done.  I wasn't playing BlOps2 because I wanted to do it.  I was playing because I wanted to have played it.  And at that point I realised I didn't even care to have played it.  Who knows how many more hours I would have thrown away if I hadn't repeatedly walked into that bug and taken a step back to work think about what I was actually doing.

I'm done.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Rental & Game Purchases and Why it Matters

I am not going to touch the approach Microsoft (MS) used for this reveal. I believe others have quickly gotten to the core of the issues that this presentation had compared to the focus Sony decided to take a few months ago. This is just about the details, as they have been confirmed via interview, of how DRM is handed on this new device for physical software purchases.

I don't buy used (unless I need to get my hands on Shadow Hearts: Covenant because at some point I lost a box of PS2 titles during a move - this does not appear to be for sale new anywhere from old stock, digitally or not, and so I cannot give either the developers or whoever owns the rights to the stuff they created any money; also see System Shock 2 until a month ago) and this goes as far as looking for new stock for PS2 titles (as in I just paid for a new copy of Persona 3 FES a few weeks ago). That said, there are no more demos and the TV/movie/music world has moved to a subscription model so I do rent games and consider this a normal part of consuming mainstream media. I often buy them once I've played them but only the ones I want to own so one day I will play them again without the need to worry about the previously discussed used game hunting where you pay some 'collector' rather than anyone related to actually creating the thing (seriously, if you have a mass produced PS2 title on ebay for £100 go jump into a fire and if you own the rights to it then PSN is a solution to my desire to give you money, even if I'm going to also need you to not track illicit downloads as I grab the ISO to actually play on a better device called my PC).

That said, my major issue here is not that rental services won't stock Xbox One games (for all we know MS have got a plan for rentals just like they have a plan for used that no one is allowed to know because it is anti-consumer and so not telling us is better than confirming our worst fears). My issue here is that it is a step beyond signed code and signed code was already the limit of my acceptance of 'purchasing' this product rather than getting it as part of a £10/month or less, all you can eat subscription which is clearly labelled as a rental agreement where I own nothing and when it ends I have nothing but my memories.

Right now I buy a console game for my closed platform console (which cost me less than it cost them to build it and ship it to me + pay staff along that chain to help move it) and the signed code on the disc and any anti-piracy techniques they use to press it allow the box to recognise the disc and play the game. This will work as long as I can get a box to run and the discs haven't degraded - at which point, where the 30 year old silicon / foil coated plastic is probably no good, we hope that a preservation effort has been in place to collect archives of the data, that I retain my right to hold private copies of, and an emulation device that reads and executes it in a close approximation of the original device. This is what a console game purchase means and is how they can maintain the same unit price despite dropping replication costs (memory chips on a cart anyone? manuals?) and a widening customer base that more than makes up for their extravagant R&D and (more critically) advertising budget. Inflation makes me feel like the deal I am getting is pretty good still.

Whatever policies MS put in place for used and rental services for the Xbox One in the future, the games are not auth'd by having signed code and security features on the disc you buy. The console sounds like it will still require signed code (and maybe the discs have some security features to stop them reading in other bluray drives and stop BD-Rs reading as normal discs in the Xbox One) but the auth is a cd key that uses an online check to refresh the auth status and so far sounds like it expires after 24 hours.

If you cannot get online in 24 hours then it doesn't matter if you have a disc with the game on, your games will not launch. If MS cannot get their servers online for the window when you need then then you cannot play any of your games. If MS retire their servers or allow EA to run their own auth boxes and EA retire those servers then you will no longer be able to launch your games. They will simply not work. This is a rental service without the corresponding price change. With their throw away comments about b/c MS have said they do not care for the cultural artefacts being generated on their platform. There is no retro gaming to MS. There is no generation of objects with ongoing value to society. "Games do not matter" is the message.

There is merely product to be consumed before it goes bad, rotten. I do not feel the need to consume from the trough being offered to survive, there are alternative channels where I can avoid contributing to people who have this disregard for the value of the product, who only focus on the cost/price and pumping swill. I play to relax, to express action in a safe virtual space, to communicate or spend time alone, to look at a space and rule system developed by someone whose perspective may be foreign to me. But this is not the only place I can pay people for their games, DRM free is a thing and so are open platforms and there are a lot of good games out there vying for my time and money.

How is this different to Valve/Steam? Other than the many games that don't use Steam DRM and so are just using it as a pipe through which I can access the data, even Steam DRM is built on top of an open platform (as in Windows is open, not FOSS 'open'). Owning the CPU means I can subvert this system, it means that there can not be a perfect offline DRM system as I can get between the hardware and the game/ecosystem and lie to it. If you give me an auth ticket that lasts for 12 hours then I can make sure the auth system never thinks it is more than 12 hours later by lying when it asks the time. Even if you try to tie the in-game systems into the clock (so I can't lie while playing), this only means I can't play for more than 12 hours at a time (then I quit and reset the clock to the start of the 12 hours) and even this is a hack away from defeating. Steam currently gives out auth tokens that last for 2 weeks (and simultaneously unlock all games that use Steam DRM) and is so popular I probably won't even need to use my expertise to defeat it if the servers ever go down.

Open systems mean we have a much better chance of exerting the rights we are paying for. The console system only works because they had physical tokens so they lasted effectively forever (until it was so historical that Moore's law and accumulated knowledge could be used to break down anything that was locked) and a razor/razorblade model to give out subsidised hardware to make cash back on a cut of every sale (so us hardcore gamers who paid for a lot of titles were ideal customers for software and hardware groups).

You can't just try to import the anti-consumer side of the Steam digital store DRM system onto your closed platform and expect it to be fine without changing your pricing strategy. Especially when you're also telling consumers their existing digital purchases will not play on the new xbox without so much as a mea culpa. Especially as a mandatory DRM system rather than an optional service for the developers on your system to utilise if they want to.

This proposed system, from the outlines they have currently explained, is too defective by design for me to sign up. I want to give someone money for new Forza, Halo, any Remedy titles, and more. But not at those buy prices for a rental. I want to own these potentially classic games to play when I want, just like I can with the decades of accumulated history of gaming I have on my shelves and (open platform) digital stores.

Saturday 18 May 2013

The Coffee or Beer Price Comparison

There is a rallying cry behind the call for cheap games to be purchased blindly by other consumers. The sales pitch from fans of a game or shills who are paid to astroturf online discussions (isn't that an awesome thing that actually exists as a potential spend for advertising money) is that the consumer isn't losing much if the decision is a bad one. The golden example is via comparison: "it only costs as much as a pint/coffee!". The problem is this analogy breaks because you repeatedly buy identical drinks. If you waste money on a game you wasted a one-shot buy and almost certainly didn't gain any useful information compared to the value of the spend.

When you spend £2/3 on a drink to find you don't like it then it cost you that much to find out that (at only one a week - those who have the daily coffee retailer ritual on the way to work or who drink freely down the pub from only a select pool of tastes should try multiplying the numbers accordingly) you shouldn't spend £150/year on buying more of these. The potential benefit was that this could be your new favourite drink or drink you must buy when you're in that mood. The cost of a few quid is against a future potential spend of thousands on buying the same, dependable option over and over again, replacing a former choice with either a lower cost or better quality making the decision. No need to get a free taste when you've got that upside, give it a go when you're next grabbing a drink and expand your knowledge of the field.

When you spend a few quid on a game that is not to your tastes (and possibly not to anyone's by being plain bad) then you have spent that money that would otherwise buy you what could be 10+ hours of fun for nothing and you have not learnt anything beyond possibly steering clear of games from that dev (who release a product every year? in a pool of thousands of choices?) Even if you had otherwise continued to obsessively buy every game from that dev then it would only save you a few quid a year. Ye, not exactly a valuable bit of info to exploit in future sensible purchasing decisions.

The demo is a long established model to allow players to decide if they want to purchase your full product and if we really want to go by the numbers for beer/coffee then for a £5 games you should possibly offer a 5p demo to give the equivalent value to the total buy in vs the initial taste test. But at 5p then that is all going to middlemen (card processing etc) so you might as well give it away for free and see how many people want to own the full game. So rather than telling anyone that they should buy a game sign unseen because it is only as expensive as X, tell them to grab the free demo or check out this great LP/QuickLook and try before they buy. The only people who gain from consumers being uninformed is people peddling substandard wares. The way to long term health for the games development ecosystem is by trying our best to match up people with money with the games that give them the best value for that money. We don't want to scam a quick buck, we want to establish games as a major art form in the 21st Century that provide relevant entertainment and culture to the masses with each sale a best fit for that consumer.

Friday 26 April 2013

"Give up; don't even try to understand this"

Trying something different here on the blog: shorter, unresearched posts that are too long to do justice to on Twitter.  This will hopefully inspire me to start turning the many draft posts into completed output and post far more frequently despite paper deadlines trying to persuade me not to waste any time researching a blog post.

Here is a deeply troubling meme/joke used by a lot of writers in the gaming enthusiast press from time to time, this time as written by Adam Smith (emphasis mine):
The post about how the AI for individual settlers function is a great insight as well, even if it does contain actual lines of code and therefore frightens my simple mind.
"Oh no, computer code! Too much for my brain to read!"  I've bumped into exactly the same sentiment when people are linking to very basic proofs that use the standard mathematical terminology (sometimes nothing more than a few ∀ and ∃).  I've even had some lectures where maths was being spoken to people outside of the discipline but still subject adjacent (Computer Science for example) to the depth that full proofs were being provided but were being written out in plain English rather than with symbols, presumably to provide a wider base; but this was a class being taught advanced concepts that would require outside reading which is full of the standard symbols.  It is always better to explain on the first use if you feel you need to ease people into something potentially new rather than try to step around standard form to try and broaden a highly technical talk.

The code in the article Smith links to requires the understanding of objects with dot methods and parameters, methods outside of this calling convention, and if/else clauses.  I would hope a rigorous secondary school syllabus that prepares students for the world would contain a lot more programming knowledge than this but even if people came through before CompSci was taught then this is not rocket science.  In fact this is really good stuff to be able to parse as a technical writing style.  I start one of my talks by saying that to get to higher tiers of education you have to have been able to deal with English, so you already know how to work within the constraints of a grammar far more complicated than any programming language I'm going to show you, and you have to have made it through mathematics, so you had to work out manually applying algorithms to generate results with things like long division and I'm not expecting anyone to manually iterate over any of my code in exact detail to keep up.  So I am not expecting anyone to reach beyond skills they would expect someone who is in their early teens to command.  If you don't tune out then we can look at some cool code together and if you get confused then just ask me and we'll make sure you're following.  It's not a perfect open, but at least it tries to cut through this 'turn off at the first sign of technical' dismissal of things the audience hasn't already seen.  The entire point of spreading ideas is that not everyone in the audience has seen everything already, if you have the you probably don't need to be there.

Going back to the post about AI linked to, the surrounding text even does a fine job of making the code less daunting to someone who has no idea of anything outside prose English.  The main hurdles to understanding the piece are in fact the technical terms used in that very text, not the code blocks.  State machines, FIFO... you don't need to know the terms to read it but calling out the use of some very simple (pseudo)code is missing the actual challenge of passing on that message to someone unfamiliar with computing.  A bit of Google/Wikipedia will hopefully catch people up or send them on a deep dive into learning about some potentially fascinating topics but the same can be said of occasionally reaching for the dictionary when reading anything and this nicely wraps into a (less than usually) rickety analogy (my favourite tool when grumpy about something):

Imagine if writers linked to an article but warned you away in such a jokey, 'this is above you and you shouldn't even try to understand it' way because it is full of long words you might possibly need to look up due to an overenthusiastic use of an English degree or dictionary reading obsession.  I'm sure we all have favourite authors and journalists who may have a bit too much love of the flowery language or straight up arcane word use in places.  Maybe they just like to mix it up or maybe they do want the precise meaning their unusual choice describes but you don't often see people prefacing links with a warning that a quick online dictionary check may be required and that said author doing the linking was to simple to possible manage with comprehending the text.

You may have noticed that even when I try to avoid writing for more than a few minutes, my keyboard loves the abuse.  This post has not been edited to the same standards as before so I apologise for any lost meaning from a dyslexic slip here and there into an incorrect word use.

Sunday 10 February 2013

User Intent & Skill

I am not a great player of games.  My loop from eye to brain to body (specifically fingers for gaming) is particularly slow and susceptible to stalls (rabbit in headlights).  When I play a shooter online then chances are I will be in the 50% of the population who don't quite hit a 1:1 KD ratio, rather than the 50% who are somewhere above that magic line (which 90% of people claim to be above - don't you love statistics).  My ability to accurately point a crosshair at your upper torso and click, then react to the potential movements of bits of the system to maintain that position and throttle my clicking rate to best provide an accurate stream of virtual bullets to pierce your virtual head is not good and is only partially compensated for by my ability to pick sensible places to engage.  But give me a support class or an objective and I'll make a good addition to your team.  Hell, even in something like Counter-Strike standard maps I'll work out non-traditional disruptive play to prevent the other team from playing in their comfort zone, at least in a casual skill environment (no doubt high skill players can shut down my shenanigans).  This is something I am completely happy with, by definition half of the group have to be below the median and if we're looking at a skewed distribution (assume a normal population distribution of reaction times, most very low players give up, everyone else sticks around) then most of us are below the mean.  I have no proof to support the idea that most game populations are skewed that way so feel free to reject the second idea, that most of you play at a sub-average reaction level.

So what has brought about this claim that not only am I not very good at the see, analyse, react chain but most of you are (comparatively) down in the mud with me?  Does it matter?  Should game designers care?

When I first saw Super Hexagon I thought it was a game about analysing the scene, deciding on a rotation needed for the pointer, and hoping that you'd made a decision about that rotation with enough time for the rotation to complete and get through the gap.  The skill coming from that reaction speed and correctly choosing left or right rotation and chaining those decisions together into the sequence that matches the ever contracting and moving world around your pointer.  The rejection of the music game memorisation by adding randomisation and constant speed of the pointer's movement (baring stationary) seemed to clinch my reading of the game.

And then I purchased a copy and played it.  Or I should say I repeatedly played the first second to 9 seconds of the game.  I was not expecting to have to express my intent for rotation as a press on the left or right side of the screen for a certain number of ticks (with error margin for the width of the hole narrowed by future positional needs / rotation change lag in your input reactions), I was expecting the touch to provide rotational intent despite the lack of an analogue stick.  This leads to my reading of the game as both a call against and demonstration of players' willingness to work around needlessly bad reading of user intent.  I do not think this interpretation was the author's goal but I don't think that should be a relevant factor.

When someone complains about the pointless tank controls in earlier Resident Evil games when played on a device with analogue sticks, that it is harder than it should be to express their intent via their avatar, then this is exactly what Super Hexagon is demonstrating.  A game where the avatar cannot react in zero time to rotate perfectly to a new angle should express that limitation in the animation system, not in the controls.  When people express the difference between their failure and a failure of the game it is usually described as "I made the wrong decision" vs "the game didn't do what I wanted" or unfairly/arbitrarily killed them as they had no way of knowing what the right decision was.  Dark Souls is lauded for the canned animation system (you cannot break from an animation once you initiate it so decisions cannot be aborted) and interactions that are challenging but feel fair and push players to be very methodical and make the right choices.  Hard does not mean lightning reflexes, it means making the right choices and fair means the game gave you the information you needed to make the right choice.

At 5:40 seconds into the game the cursor snagged the end of a wall, the wall I had time to get past but had mistakenly released the right side of the screen early to avoid overshooting the hole.  The hole I had the intent to get through and the reaction times to initiate movement to complete in the right direction.  But I didn't hold down my finger for exactly the right length of time and so the pointer hit the wall.  Stupid game, let me move my avatar to where I want it to go!

While discussing that game with Paul from Mode 7 Games, I was being my usual contrarian self and making no headway expressing how I see the game as tank control analogous, narrative against bad controls by using bad controls and this eventually pushed him to posit, "I don't know how you categorise a disconnect in user-intent vs. making something skill based - don't you need a disconnect for micro".  Now there is an interesting question, is skill (specifically as expressed in micro) just the player having to overcome problematic controls to express their intent efficiently?

It's certainly a sane viewpoint, my counter would be that perfect reading of user intent is hard to impossible depending on the range of things the user is able to express in the game but being as good as possible at reading them is a requirement for an honest game.  For something like Starcraft then there is clearly an issue with users expressing the exact movements and actions of every unit in the game as soon as they think of what they should be doing.  We simply can't work out how to use our current input methods to achieve that and so we build the tools as best we can and consequently the ability to better express intent using fast reactions is part of micro.  But knowing what you want your units to do is also massively important.  The APM to pull back units and prevent them being destroyed is key to being most effective in an engagement, knowing that you want to fight with an army of half-health units by pulling some out of range of attack rather than half an army at full health and half corpses is the skill.  Starcraft even uses that time being locked up at the controls for micro as a balance mechanism, with players who are weaker at micro knowing this and so devoting their APM budget to other things.  Micro is much more than reactions and good play is informed by understanding of your own reactions and application of it to the limitations of the controls; giving the players the best chance to express their intent is critical, while accepting the limitations of input will provide some with ability to do more, faster, up to the constraints of the input system.

I'm sure most people who have played Super Hexagon and read my interpretation of the game didn't agree, I've expressed the view to responses of o_O enough times to expect it.  But what if my Super Hexagon and your game aren't the same game?  Maybe on my Nexus the lag on the digitiser or on the renderer's output / screen means I have a couple less frames to make my reaction, that the feedback loop of when to lift off my finger has to be done by precise mental calculation rather than via screen feedback.  My laggy brain may make for some disadvantage in twitchy multiplayer shooters but what about laggy hardware, especially in the wide ecosystems of PC gaming, Android/iOS (when grouped collectively), or consoles (mainly what TV you hooked them up to).  Is this skill or just a randomised impediment that the game design should accept and try to minimise?

Consider a shooter with a handicap system for health.  When you buy the game you get a health value between 50 and 150 and every time you spawn that's your health, your given handicap was randomly chosen.  Only you play on a nice large IPS TV as your screen, when you spawn your health is now half of what it was.  You own that brand of GPU and those drivers with default settings?  Take 30 health off.  Didn't configure your $60 mouse correctly for 1ms updates?  Drop off another 10.  This is what lag to the input and output are doing, on top of the random lag of the user's own processing abilities we have massive, uncertain lag from the variable hardware and settings.  By not trying to optimise reading of user intent we exacerbate the ability for luck rather than skill to rule the systems because we can't know from user to user if what they can actually see and react to on their hardware is 100ms behind a different user.

This line of thought can be taken to extremes, the simplest straw-man is to declare that I am saying no timing checks are allowed and so all games much become turn-based.  Reactions are part of micro and that's a key element of gaming, especially competitive gaming, and even our experience of reality in general; time moves forward and we go along with it.  But we can't equate skill with enforced disconnects in reading user intent.  Obviously the user doesn't intend to generate a game over screen or lose so our game, to have challenge or provide player rankings, must offer paths to failure that the user should not take but has the option to.  I think games are most worthwhile when that is offering a choice that the user takes and then leads to failure, even if they only took that option due to being rushed and needing to make some reaction (one of which can be no input at all).  We need to be aware of the variable reaction times of the devices making a mockery of any intent to be aggressive with dividing players by speed of reaction as a skill or a skill check for expressing precise intent that can be recorded by other means.

An input system that is harder to interact with than is necessary, making correctly expressing intent the skill, is missing the mark; a throw back to before we had the processing power, input bandwidth, and know-how to do better.  We will always have a problem with correctly reading user intent until people have brain interfaces but minimising those disconnects does not prevent games of reaction, even if the fair balancing of such a game seems impossible due to the range of hardware people use to play games.

That is the hole I see when I look at using hardening expression of user intent as a skill mechanism, with real-time games already at the mercy of input and output lag those games that walk that path are just doubling down on giving luck as skill, luck of the hardware and luck of the nervous system.  Games are about offering choices but in Super Hexagon my best choice it to stop playing.